Backup for Photographers

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon5 Comments

Lightroom Classic 8.3 Update

Lightroom Classic 8.3 has been out for a bit and as usual there are a lot of listeners contacting me to see if I can give it the Photo Taco seal of approval.  The release hasn’t been out long enough for me to be able to do that. I am watching the Adobe forums closely and have been putting the release through the paces myself.  The biggest issue has been a problem many have seen with exporting where they get a permissions issue. Adobe has acknowledged the bug and has just released version 8.3.1 that resolves this issue.

The other issue I have seen is something that is not new with 8.3. It is still there in 8.3.1 and I have validated it looks pretty much the same in version 8.2.1.  It is a problem where the Fill or Fit view of a Milky Way image with some pretty heavy editing looks significantly different between the Develop module and the Loupe view in the Library module.  The image is quite a bit brighter and softer in Develop compared with how it looks in Loupe view. You can see an example of the difference in a little movie I created here.

Victoria Bampton, good friend of the show who is well known as the Lightroom Queen, let me know if the Facebook group that Library and Develop have used different methods for rendering the image for quite a while and it has been pretty normal to see a difference.  That may be all that I am noticing here. The problem is that an exported of the image matches what I see in Loupe view over what I see in Develop. So I get the Milky Way image to look just how I want it with regard to sharpness and noise in the Develop module and then when I export it the image looks far sharper with more noise like what I see in Loupe view.

The issue is not so extreme this would stop me from giving my Photo Taco seal of approval.  For this one image the export was so far off from Develop it was a big problem, but in general the difference between the two is not so drastic.  I just want to give the update another week or so to see if there are any other wrinkles before I tell everyone it is safe to proceed.

I am working on a Photo Taco episode to talk about the new Texture slider that has come with version 8.3, but it isn’t ready just yet.  Stay tuned.

3-2-1 Backup for Photographers

I have a couple of Photo Taco episodes that go into far more detail on this topic that you should make sure to check out if you don’t feel like you have a really good backup strategy.  One is called Ultimate Guide to Backup For Photographers where I go through a few options for setting up a good backup workflow.  The other is an episode called Online Backup where I interviewed Jim Goldstein from cloud backup service provider Backblaze.  With that said, I wanted to go over it briefly again in this episode because I have seen a lot of questions on it lately in our Facebook group.

I want to talk about the two workflows I think most photographers have to choose between.  The first is fairly simple and inexpensive but will only really buy you some time. Kind of like kicking the can down the road a bit until you have to finally go to the more complicated and far more expensive solution.  Before we get to those two workflows, let’s briefly talk 3-2-1 backup.

What Is 3-2-1 Backup?

Not a new idea in the slightest. 3-2-1 backup is a very old concept where you shouldn’t consider your images backed up until there are 3 copies of the file on 2 different mediums with one being held “offsite”, which today probably means in some kind of cloud storage.

The way to think about this is to not consider your photo safe until there are least 3 copies of it, on 2 different drives, and one in the cloud. We are going to go through some suggestions on how to do this in this episode, but really it can be anything that works for you as long as it meats all of the criteria of 3-2-1.

Simple, Inexpensive, Short-Term Backup Solution

Brent, what’s the first thing photographers do when they fill up their hard drive?  They get an external drive. In fact, many of our listeners get on the Facebook group and say they just ran out of space and ask which external drive they should get.  What drive would you recommend Brent?

Brent: It certainly depends on your needs and how many photos you have to store. I store all my edits (those that I’ve chosen to keep around) on a separate drive from my catalog and yet-to-be-edited photos. USB 3 or Thunderbolt 3 is the way to go today, generally speaking desktop drives will be considered faster than portable drives but you really have to look at the details. If you’re getting a spinning drive, an SSD, a RAID or a single drive. There’s just so many options to consider.

Jeff: External drives are the way for most photographers to go. If you use a PC then you can do internal drives if you know how to open them up and get them installed (not too difficult), but for most photographers external drives are a really good solution.

What Kind of External Drives Should Photographers Use?

As far as external drives, I don’t think brand matters much today.  Seagate, Western Digital, and Toshiba are all great.  In spite of what your tech friend may have told you about some brand because they had an awful experience.  Occasionally there are issues with a specific model that has higher than normal failure rates, but for the most part I just don’t think the brand matters.  The specs are what matter. Minimum is a USB 3.0 external drive that is 1TB that will run you about $50 here in June 2019. Twice the storage runs about $70 and 4 times the storage at 4TB is about $100.  

USB 3.0 is going to be fast enough for you to have a pretty good editing experience.  However, if you can afford it, it will be noticeably better if you can get an external SSD drive.  Most of them have a USB 3.1 connection, because they are so fast a USB 3.0 connection would slow them down. Of course they are also far more expensive. Toshiba makes a really good one but my favorite is the SanDisk Extreme Portable where the 1TB version runs $170 and the 2TB version is a whopping $340.

How Can Photographers Get The Most Life From Their External Drives?

Photographers should think of these external drives as ticking time bombs.  It is not a question of if the drive will fail, it is a question of when. That includes the SSD drives, though for a totally different reason.  To get the most life out of these drives you want to keep them as cool as possible, especially when you are using them, and keep them a still as possible. Heat and jarring movements are the enemy to magnetic drives.

I also recommend that you replace a drive after 3 years of use.  There is a reason most drive warranties will not go beyond 3 years.  It is smart then to replace a drive before it is in service for 3 years just to avoid the whole failure problem and the emergency situation that becomes.  Doesn’t guarantee you won’t face that, but lowers your chances for sure.

I Have Two External Drive, Now What?

Since these drives are going to fail and we know we need 3-2-1 backup how does a photographer do that? I recommend automation. If the backup isn’t going to happen automatically, at least for me, I know it isn’t going to happen. This is too important for me to forget to do it and then have a hard drive fail so that I lose all of my photos. That CAN’T happen!

Automated Cloning

Brent: Making a backup plan as simple as possible is important for sure. I use a Mac and so with that I use Time Machine. Windows certainly has good backup solutions as well though I can’t really speak to those. But some type of software to manage the backup is important. Then getting on some type of schedule to swap the main backup drives so that you can have that additional media, preferably off-site is a good option.

The downside of using a solution like Time Machine is that it does take FOREVER to restore an entire drive. But it is incredibly convenient and easy to use. You also have to do some finagling since it works more on a file by file basis, not an entire volume or drive basis. What I mean by that is that every single drive you are backing up gets put in the same backup repository and restoring an external drive is a little bit tricky. I’m likely to change to a drive cloner when I upgrade my computer.

Jeff: My recommendation is to buy 2 of these external drives and then use an online backup service – I recommend BackBlaze.  I also recommend that you have both drives plugged into your computer as often as possible and use an automated solution like Carbon Copy Cloner for Mac or Bvkup for Windows to copy the files from one drive to the other at least nightly if not every hour.

Designate one of the drive as your “primary” drive. Always work from it. Then setup the software to clone your photos from that primary drive to the other drive that you need to think of only as your backup drive. You use that backup drive for nothing else. Ignore it is even there.

Include Online Backup

With this setup you have the “2” part of that 3-2-1, but there is still that pesky “1” where you need a copy of your images offsite.  I have heard from many photographers who tell me they are actually disciplined enough to have a 3rd external drive and manually copy everything over to it once a month and then store it at the house of friends or family.  That kind of a solution would never work for me because I know I wouldn’t do it often enough.

To me the only realistic solution to get the “1” of a 3-2-1 backup is online backup. Again, it has to be automatic or it may as well not be done as far as I am concerned. You need to find a solution that will automatically copy your photos up to the cloud and there are lots of choices. Dropbox, OneDrive, Box, Google Drive, Amazon Drive, etc. are all good solutions though they will also be more expensive than the solution I like best – Backblaze.

Besides cost, the other thing to remember with really any of these cloud backup providers is how much Internet bandwidth you have and if you have data caps. Early on, when your storage usage is fairly small, it probably isn’t going to take very long to get things synced up from your computer to the cloud.

It really doesn’t matter which service provider you choose, your ISP is going to throttle your connection to them and slow down the copy of your files to the cloud. It may not happen immediately, but to protect the network your ISP is providing to all of their customers they make your connection to the cloud backup provider slower than other traffic. For me it took 9 months to completely backup my 4TB of photos. It started off looking like it would be about 3 weeks but then the throttling kicked in. Also be aware of data caps, many ISPs now limit how much data you can send/receive a month, commonly the limit is 1TB in total.

External Drives Solution Is Short-Term

The problem is this solution is not going to scale or last forever.  For some who may not be shooting a ton this could get you buy for a while, maybe several years. You could buy yourself more time (kick that can down the road) by upgrading your primary and backup drives to bigger drives, going from 1TB to 4TB to 8TB to 12TB. The thing I strongly advise not doing is having more than one primary drive.

I have heard from many photographers that this is their strategy. As was mentioned at the beginning of this post the most important thing is making sure you have a 3-2-1 backup solution, whatever it is. If that means you have 2, 3, or more primary drives and that is working for you then great. But if you are just creating your plan now please don’t have more than one primary drive in your backup plan. It affects your ability to find photos in your catalog and it increases the complexity of backing up your photos.

Instead, ride the two external drive solution as long as you can or until you have the funds to go with the long-term solution.

More Complicated, Expensive, Long-Term Backup Solution

When you finally outgrow the two external drive solution, photographers need to look at RAID system. There is a lot to RAID and if you want more detail check out my Photographer’s Guide to RAID article.

RAID Basics

RAID systems come in two flavors.  There is direct attached storage (DAS), which is where you connect a device that can hold numerous drives directly to your computer through a USB or Thunderbolt connection. Most photographers will recognize Drobo here but there are other products in this space as well.  The other option is network attached storage (NAS) which is where you connect a very similar looking device that contains multiple hard drives to your computer through a network connection (Ethernet cable – don’t do this through WiFi!)

You can get significant amounts of storage this way, but be ready to spend some of that hard earned money! Probably more than you paid for your computer. You can also configure things so that there is internal redundancy within the RAID device (either DAS or NAS).  Meaning inside the device your data will be copied to two or more drives so that even if one fails you don’t lose your photos.  However, I highly recommend that you DO NOT consider this internal replication as being the “2” in your 3-2-1 backup system. Not if you want real protection.  If you really want 3-2-1 and you are using a RAID device, you need 2 RAID devices – just like you needed with the external hard drive solution. Yep, that is gonna’ leave a mark.

RAID And Online Backup

Most of these RAID devices will work with online backup providers to send your data up to the cloud as you put it on them, Backblaze again being my favorite option, but if you are creating massive quantities of content frequently it is unlikely that you will have enough Internet bandwidth (and increasingly data cap) to have that work well.  Unfortunately for us photographers, I just don’t know of a great way to get that “1” in the 3-2-1 plan with this. In general, getting a backup offsite when you have a massive amount of data is a problem that doesn’t currently have a great solution. Here’s hoping that changes.


Brent: Apple MacBook Pro with 8 cores.

Jeff: DisplayCal open source screen calibration software (free).  Works with both DataColor and Xrite colorimeters.  Does a more thorough job with more consistent results over the software that came with my Xrite ColorMunki Display.



  1. Great episode guys!

    For cloud storage, I couldn’t recommend OneDrive more. Even at the base plan for one person, you get 1TB of storage as well as Microsoft office.

    The family plan is even better where 5 people get office and 1tb each and is only $30 more.

    Also in regards to hard drives, I would never recommend Seagate drives to anyone. Even if they sold a 4tb for $5 I wouldn’t buy it. They have the highest failure rates whereas WD and Hitashi are the most reliable.

  2. Thanks for this episode. It will save me a lot of time when I’m trying to convince others to do this.

    I highly recommend GoodSync. It does all the things you discussed and also can backup to another machine on the same Network or not, and cloud services like OneDrive, Google Drive, and many more. I also like the fact that I can exclude certain files or folders and see exactly what it has done. You can even say “don’t copy anything if more than 25% of the files have changed – a good defense against ransomware.

  3. I’m on this! Thanks for lighting the fire. Question – I have an iMac 27″, late 2015. It has –
    Two Thunderbolt 2 ports: Mini DisplayPort output and Support for HDMI, DVI, VGA, and dual-link DVI, and USB 3 ports.

    I”m looking into the SanDisk Extreme Portable 2TB. It comes with:
    USB 3.1 Type-C connector and also includes a USB Type-C to Type-C cable and a Type-C to Type-A adapter,

    You recommended using a Thunderbolt connection, which it seems this does not support.
    And my USB ports are 3 not 3.1.

    What do you recommend given these specs? I’m afraid I’m not techy enough to get this.


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