If you don't have a photo backup plan in place, I can promise that you will eventually lose your photos. That's because all data repositories die. Some faster than others. With a good photo backup plan, you can ensure your photos live even if your repository dies.
All Things Must Pass
This is a simple truth of life. All things must pass. Every sunrise gives way to a sunset. Seasons change. Icecaps melt. Data storage devices stop working.
It's happened to me before and will happen again. The first time one of my RAID systems died, it wasn't due to a drive failure. The RAID enclosure used a chip to store the software that controlled the array and that chip failed.
I was lucky. The vendor was able to send me another enclosure, but also warned me that those chips were no longer manufactured. Basically, my data used a proprietary format that was no longer being produced. It was just a matter of time until I could no longer recover my primary data repository.
Sometimes I think mankind is moving backward in this field. We have cave paintings that have lasted for roughly 40,000 years. Yet the DVDs that I burned failed after 3-5 years.
My Photo Backup Plan
Fortunately, I had a workflow to protect my photos. It saved me from losing everything.
Other people who use this kind of plan have given it the silly name of a 3-2-1 Backup. Why does everything need a childish name?
The concept behind this plan is rather simple. You need three copies of every file you want to save. Two of those copies are local copies, which means they are stored on your location, but are stored on different devices. One is for your working files. The other is a backup on another disk system.
If something gets damaged or deleted on your primary working space, you have a convenient backup to restore the files.
One copy gets stored offsite. If you suffer a fire, flood or other catastrophe at your primary site, you can still recover the files from the offsite backup. That's presuming you didn't die in the catastrophe.
The concepts of this approach are simple. How you implement the concepts can vary quite a bit.
Setting Up Your Working Space
There are two important considerations for your working space. You want to have sufficient performance and capacity. In fact, some of your performance depends upon your capacity. Full drives perform slower than half-full drives. Buy more capacity than you need for storage.
There is a misconception that states internal drives are always faster or better than external drives, so it's better to put your working space on an internal drive. That's nonsense.
First, there is no guarantee your internal drive will be faster. Second, your drive head can only read one sector at a time. Separating your working space from your operating system can yield superior performance.
In my case, I have a small SSD (Flash) drive inside my iMac. It's enough to hold the operating system and application files. I don't want any data on that drive. All it does is read programs.
My primary working space is on an OWC Thunderbay 4 RAID array. I run SoftRAID on my Mac to control this system. It can hold up to 40 TB of storage. There is a newer version that is slightly faster, but it uses a built-in chip for RAID control. I prefer avoiding proprietary chips these days.
It's fast and has plenty of space. I'm using about half of it's capacity right now. I'm extremely pleased with my choice.
Your Onsite Backup Can Serve More Than One Purpose
I chose a Synology DS416Play for my backup server. It has some pros and cons. One of the reasons I purchased it is because I can do more than one thing with it. For example, it can provide service for security cameras, provide access to files when I'm away from home, and more.
On the other hand, it is much slower than my Thunderbay system. In this case, I was willing to sacrifice some performance for other features and benefits.
I use the Mac's Time Machine backup on the Synology drive to perform my onsite backups. It's a convenient tool that creates hourly backups. It keeps generations of backups, so I can recover from different points in time. Time Machine is also very easy to use for recovery.
This isn't my only onsite photo backup, though. I have another drive that I use to keep copies of my RAW files. When I import photos to Lightroom, a copy also goes to another Thunderbolt drive. Nothing else goes there. Just photos.
At this point, I have three copies of my photos. That's good, but there's still the offsite backup issue to consider.
Offsite Backup by Rotation or Network Storage
Not everyone has capacity for Internet Storage of every photo. My current photo library has just under 4 terabytes of data. That's quite a bit of data to upload.
While Internet speeds are getting fast, most of those improvements are for downloads. Uploading is much slower on asynchronous services like cable modems.
My current service offers 150 MBps download, but only 20 MBps of upload capacity. Even then, those speeds are for optimal conditions. Remember that cable modems are shared networks. If your neighbor is also using a lot of capacity, it impacts your performance.
So how long would it take my to upload just my photos under optimal conditions?
About three weeks of uninterrupted transfer. That means I'm not using my Internet service for much of anything else, and my neighbors would kick me in the shins if they knew I was the reason their Internet performance sucked.
I would even bet that my cable provider would see this kind of behavior as a threat to their business and throttle my connection so it doesn't impact their network, so my time to upload could increase exponentially.
While online plans sound good and may be useful if you don't keep many photos, it isn't practical for my needs.
That's why I opted for rotation. It isn't as timely as other backups. In fact, it's only as timely as you make it. If you don't make a backup and take it somewhere in a month or two, then those new photos are at risk should you have a catastrophe.
That's a risk assessment you have to make, compared to the inconvenience of manually rotating drives of your precious photos.
Lightroom Doesn't Backup Your Photos
I'm amazed that Adobe has done nothing to assist photographers with a tool to backup their photos. It's something that I truly miss about Aperture. In fact, I still have LaCie drives with backups of my Aperture Libraries.
When you see Lightroom prompting you for a backup, that only makes a copy of your Lightroom Catalog.
Yes, you want to backup the catalog. It should be in your onsite and offsite backups. That catalog contains your adjustments, metadata and file locations. It's important. However, it doesn't contain a single photo.
You can recreate a Lightroom catalog. The effort to recreate a photo is far more substantial. Do not trust Lightroom to backup your photos. That is not one of the features or benefits that Adobe affords to its customers.
Files to Backup
You want to backup your RAW files, but that's not all. Make sure you backup your Lightroom catalog. Include any PSD files you created in Photoshop. Don't forget any JPEGS you exported for use in documents or web sites.
Consider your entire workflow and backup the data files that you use.
I would not recommend backing up program files. You may want to be sure you have copies of the installation files, or that you can easily download them. It's usually better to reinstall a program with the current version than to restore a backup of it.
Most programs have files and integrations with the OS that you may not see. Restoring a program can lead to more wasted time than just reinstalling it.
Don't Trust Free Online Storage
There are sites that tell you that you can upload all your photos for free. Maybe, but I wouldn't trust them. Google will let you upload photos, but at limited resolution. The file you upload may not be the file you get back.
If you want to use online storage, I recommend you choose a Data Storage service, not a photo sharing service designed for consumers.
Something like Dropbox is great when you're traveling. You can upload a small set of photos and know they will be safe until you get home and put them on your main system.
If you want to look at online backup solutions, I would recommend something like Crashplan instead of Google or Flickr. You can get a Free Trial for CrashPlan for Small Business to try the service. That's an affiliate link, which means there is no extra cost to you, but I get a small commission if you decide to buy based upon my recommendation.
[UPDATE: On August 22, 2017, Crashplan sent out a letter to customers announcing it was exiting the Consumer market with unlimited backups. Existing users have time to find an alternate solution. Migration to Crashplan for Small Business worked for me and they transitioned my old files to the Small Business Plan.]
Remember, it isn't enough to be able to upload your photos. You have to be able to get them back.
Sometimes photo sharing services will compress and distort your photos. They may not accept RAW files. Their servers aren't optimized for data backup and retrieval services. Worst case – they may change the rules or just decide they don't want to provide a service anymore (as Google often does).
Your Photo Backup Plan Can Save Your Ass or Chew It Up
I know the feeling of dread when you walk into your office ready to do some work and discover that the data storage system isn't working. That's why your photo backup plan is so important. It's much better to deal with a lost day of work than to lose years of your work.
Maybe the tools I outlined here are not within your budget. That's OK. Something is better than nothing. You can change, adapt and grow along the way. Just don't do without a backup.
That's when the gremlins bite the hardest.