How To Backup Computer Files – Photographers Primer

Ya, I know computer backup isn’t sexy – but if you don’t read any further – read this:

Sooner or later, the hard drive in the computer you are using right now will fail. When it fails, all the pictures, videos, documents and other data you have stored on it will be gone forever.

Hard Drive Failure - How to backup computer files for photographers

Damn it Jim – I’m a Photographer not an IT Technician!

I pretty much hate computers – except for the fact that I absolutely rely on my computer every day to run my business and process my photography.

I can also be extremely lazy and short sighted when it comes to things like computer maintenance – so spending time messing around with a computer backing up computer files and photos is pretty much the last thing I will ever choose to do voluntarily.

That is, until I have a hard drive fail (which seems to happen with alarming regularity) – then I kind of freak out about making sure that my collection of photos and video are backed up (which they are – but its still a wake up call).

Which is to say that my personal computer backup solution is very simple and easy to use, but gets the job done.

My PC Backup Solution

There are as many different strategies for protecting computer data as there are styles of condoms at a drugstore – but they’re all pretty much the same. (Magnum….pfffft).

For the record – IT people have a very specific definition of data backup, versus data sync, versus multiple location data storage bla bla bla – for my purpose, when I say backup, I am simply referring to storing pictures, video and other data in more than one location.

I also use a PC – so sorry Mac people, you’ll have to figure something out for yourselves (no doubt your Mac already has some sort of magical backup solution built in that is way better anyway).

Primary Storage

All of my photos and video are stored on a primary network attached storage device – commonly referred to as a NAS.

A NAS is different than an external hard drive because it is connected directly to your network via a network cable to your router – and not to an individual computer as you would with an external hard drive.

I store all of my commercial photography work, my business files, my Lightroom catalog, Photoshop actions, presets….everything of value is stored on the NAS.

I also use the NAS to store my personal photos and videos (which I consider my most important data), and media such as music, movies and video.

My NAS has four one terabyte (1TB) hard drives and is configured so that any one hard drive can fail without any loss of data (this is called a RAID 5 disk array).

I set this up years ago when 100 and 250 gigabyte hard drives were the norm. At the time, having 3 terabytes of storage space available seemed like a black hole that I would never fill – but right now I am just over 2 terabytes.

If I was setting up a similar NAS today – I would use the biggest hard drives available – four x 4 terabyte drives.

I would also set up a four drive NAS to mirror the data (this is called a RAID 1 disk array) so that any 2 out of 4 hard drives could fail – instead of 1 out of 4.

I have never had more than one hard drive fail at a time – but it freaks me out every time one goes down, knowing that there is no redundancy until it is replaced and the data is reconstructed.

There are many different options for NAS storage (here is a review of a few options from CNET) – but this is something you might want to talk to a computer specialty store about. The usual big box electronic stores don’t really carry this kind of thing.

On Site Computer Backup Storage

I use a 3 terabyte Western Digital My Book Live to backup my primary NAS storage.

The My Book Live is also a network storage device (NAS).

However, unlike my primary storage NAS, the My Book Live only has one hard drive (no RAID redundancy), so I only use it as backup storage.

I am not terribly concerned with continuous or daily backups. I run a complete backup of all my data once a week, or after I upload a big job.

I figure if I loose a few days of work, or if I accidentally delete a file, its not the end of the world.

I am also not too worried about creating a backup of my computer’s system drive so that all of my software installation and personalized settings can be restored. I kind of accept that my computer’s system drive will fail every once in a while, which is sort of like cleaning out the attic – it needs to be done once in a while but isn’t something you’d ever choose to do voluntarily.

Besides, its not 1996 where I only have one computer. If my main production computer goes down and needs maintenance, I simply switch over to a laptop which is running most of the same software anyway.

Off Site Computer Backup Storage

On site backup data storage protects you from everyday computer hardware failures. But, off site backup storage is necessary to protect your data from a catastrophic event – like theft, fire or a flood.

Once a month, I backup all of my data onto a series of external hard drives that are stored at another location.

Right now, I use a 2 terabyte drive for my business files, a 1 terabyte drive for my personal photos and video and another 1 terabyte drive for my personal music and videos.

It is a bit of a pain using three separate hard drives (I should probably just buy a new 3 terabyte drive that will fit everything), but it works.

Cloud Backup - how to backup computer files for photographers

Cloud Storage for Off Site Backup of Computer Files

Just a quick note on cloud backup.

Cloud, meaning internet, meaning your data is stored online (well, really its stored in a secret warehouse of old computers in the former USSR, but what do you care as long as its guaranteed to be online 99.999% of the time).

Right now, I am not totally sold on using cloud storage for off site backup of computer files.

There are a lot of low cost cloud storage options that could be useful to backup your photos and video (if I had to pick one – I’d go with Carbonite). Even Flickr will give you up to a terabyte of free space.

But, in my opinion, there are just too many unknowns involved with trusting a cloud storage company to host a bombproof (literally) backup of my photography and video collection.

For one thing, it takes a really long time to transfer large sets of information over the internet. The last gig I did, I shot over 90 gigs of photos and video. That would have taken forever to upload over the internet!

Plus, what happens if your cloud storage company suddenly goes out of business?

How much do you really trust the cloud storage company’s security?

And then there are the unknown legal issues.

Does the cloud storage company user agreement have a hidden rights grab somewhere?

If I live outside of the USA, but the cloud storage company’s servers are located in the USA – is my data subject to US law – or maybe even scrutiny by the NSA?

For now – I’ll stick with an old fashioned physical solution.

Backup Software

In order to backup your computer files, you need backup software to actually run and manage the backup process.

There are tons of backup software options available – and I have used or tried a whole bunch of them at one time or another.

However, I have found that most backup software options are either too simple – ie they don’t backup network drives – or are way too complicated – ie they are designed for IT people who know and actually care about how computers work.

Most backup software options also store backup data in a propitiatory file format – which has to be restored using the software that created it. It might save some disk space, but to me, that is just another unnecessary level of complexity.

I just want backup software that creates an exact copy of my computer files in a separate location.

To that end – I just use Microsoft SyncToy – which can be downloaded directly from Microsoft for free here.

SyncToy 2.1 can backup network drives, its easy to use and it keeps your data in its original format.

Essentially, Microsoft SyncToy is very similar to simply copying and pasting data in Windows Explorer, except SyncToy is designed to handle much bigger data sets and it analyzes and confirms that every single file it processes is stored correctly.

SyncToy also only updates files that are new or have changed (incremental copy) – which saves a huge amount of time versus running a complete copy.

As an example – the first SyncToy backup I ran from my NAS to the My Book Live took over 6 days to copy just over 2 terabytes of data. But, running subsequent backups usually takes a day or so.

Setting Up SyncToy to Backup Computer Files

To set up SyncToy (after you’ve got it installed and running on your PC), first, click “Create New Folder Pair”

Step 1

Browse to the source file folder that you want to copy on the left, and the backup file folder – where your data will be copied to – on the right.

BE VERY CAREFUL HERE – I can’t confirm what would happen if you got it backwards and tried to copy a blank disk on the left to your full disk on the right, because I’ve never done it – but you could potentially end up with two blank disks!

microsoft synctoy how to create folder pairs

Step 2

Next, select the SyncToy action. I use Echo – which copies new and updated files from the source (the left) to the backup location (the right). Files that have been updated or removed from the source are also updated or removed on the backup.

However, with Echo – if you delete or change a file on the backup (the right) it will not be changed on the source (the left). So it is important that you always work from your primary source.

microsoft synctoy how to set up action echo

Step 3

Finally, set the copy options.

Besides the default settings, I make sure that the “Check file contents” check box is selected because I want SyncToy to be as accurate as possible while copying data.

microsoft synctoy how to setup copy options

How To Schedule SyncToy to Run Automatically

Like I said – I am incredibly lazy, especially when it comes to computer stuff – so I want SyncToy to run automatically.

To schedule SyncToy to run automatically, you can use Windows Task Scheduler to tell your computer to automatically run your backup folder sets at regular intervals.

Here are the instructions from Microsoft:

Windows Vista/ Win7

To schedule a task using the operating system:

  1. From the Start menu, select All Programs – Accessories – System Tools – Task Scheduler.
  2. Select Create Basic Task in the Actions pane on the right.
  3. Add a Name and Description and select Next.
  4. Choose when you want the task to start and select Next.
  5. Choose date/times (if applicable) to run task and select Next.
  6. Choose Start a Program option and select Next.
  7. Select Browse and locate the SyncToyCmd.exe (its probably located under Program Files on your C drive).
  8. Type “-R” in the Add Arguments textbox. –R all by itself will run all folder pairs that are active for run all. If you want to run just a single folder pair, add –R “My Pair” to the end of the command line. If the folder pair name contains a space, surround it with quotation marks, as the example above shows. For another example, assume that SyncToy is in the folder named C:\Program Files\SyncToy 2.1\ and that you want to run a folder pair named “My folder pair.” Enter the command line as follows, including the quotation marks: “C:\Program Files\SyncToy 2.1\SyncToyCmd.exe” -R “My folder pair.” Note that there are two sets of quotation marks in this case: one is around the path to the SyncToy program file and the other surrounds the folder pair name.

Note: I don’t schedule my off site backup sets to run automatically, because unlike the NAS and the My Book Live, the off site backup hard drives are not always connected to the computer.

How Do You Backup Your Computer Files?

Let us know how you backup your critical computer files – photos and video? Or, if you have any questions, leave a comment below!

About The Author

JP Danko of blurMEDIA is commercial photographer based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. You can follow his work on Twitter @blurMEDIAStudio, Facebook and Google Plus or check out their portfolio on 500px. This was originally posted here.

  • Paul

    I use CrashPlan for local and “cloud” backup. It works well for both and can even provide free “cloud” storage solution if you are backing up to a friend’s/relative’s computer.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bogorad bogorad

    I use google drive. It’s the cheapest solution (among the honest ones).

    • Mary Pablate

      You can use Long Path Tool as well, it works good for such problems.

  • http://rocketstudio.com/ Madara

    I use CrashPlan too. It takes a loong time for the initial upload, but works well once you get caught up. I never tried it for my local backup. I really liked an older program called SmartSync, but haven’t found something that works quite as well.

  • Daniel

    Another CrashPlan+ user. All the data is encrypted. Nobody is able to access it without the passkey. Also it allows for local backup using external HD or another computer, on the same LAN or over the internet. for $40 a year with unlimited storage… it’s a very good deal.

  • pmurph5

    Your essential business records take up much less space than photos. These should be automatically backed up to cloud-based storage. Carbonite, DropBox and others will do the “automatic” part. You could also manually upload to services that provide free storage like Microsoft SkyDrive or Google Drive. Just because photos take up a lot of space does not mean you shouldn’t use cloud backup for non-photo records & documents.

    • http://www.blurmediaphotography.com/ JP Danko

      Good point – I actually do use DropBox for my day to day business files. But that is more of a convenience thing – to always have model releases etc on hand. However, I don’t really consider DropBox a backup – and I still copy those files to my primary storage every once in a while.

  • mpot

    Backups of your data are important, and there are far too many people who lose data due to a hdd failure / corruption because they haven’t taken the time to setup a backup strategy. It’s not that complex or expensive, and definitely worth doing!

    BTW, in a RAID 1 array, you can’t lose any 2 of 4 disks. Maybe you mean a RAID 10 array?

    • http://www.blurmediaphotography.com/ JP Danko

      You are correct – RAID 1 is for mirroring a two disk array. You would use RAID 10 to mirror a multidisk array.

      • phrend

        RAID 0 splits data evenly across two (or more) disks. So, in the case of a 2 disk RAID 0, your storage capacity is the equivalent of the sum of your 2 disks – so, you basically turn your 2 disks in to what looks like 1 big disk, but you don’t get any redundancy – if one disk goes bad, you loose all of your data.

        RAID 1 is 2 disks in a mirrored configuration (both disks contain exactly the same data), so your storage capacity is the equivalent of 1 disk, but you can loose 1 disk and still have all of your data.

        RAID 10 is when you have 2 RAID 1′s – so, you have mirrored pair A, and mirrored pair B – and on top of that, you have a RAID 0, that splits the data across both of the mirrored pairs – so, you could loose 1 disk from mirrored pair A, or 1 disk from mirrored pair B, and still have all of your data, but if you loose both disks from either mirrored pair, you loose everything.

  • http://www.svenbluege.de/ Sven Bluege

    While talking about backup software you may want to have a look at http://www.lupinho.net/hardlinkbackup/.

    You can have multiple versions of your backup without filling your backup drive with multiple copies of the same files over and over again.

  • rselph

    The most important thing for me is that my backups have to run *automatically*. Having to remember to run the process is a no go. For this reason, things like crashplan and time machine are the only reasonable solution for me. Raid arrays are also a good thing, but that doesn’t fit into my work flow well.
    I can’t recommend crashplan highly enough.

  • Brian McCarthy

    ASMP wrote a really great primer on backup strategies: http://dpbestflow.org/backup/backup-overview I also second Crashplan as an additional backup solution. I live in Southern California where earthquakes and fires are a real concern. Having a second set of data in the house or office is good if a drive fails but not if the building burns. For me having a cloud-based storage solution, in addition to my on-site RAID 10 drive, is well worth the expense

  • http://www.auhopu.com/ auhopu

    These were my main considerations when I made the move from plain manual backups on plain external drives:

    (1) disk redundancy

    (2) site redundancy (in case of fire, theft, etc)

    (3) incremental and automated remote backup

    (4) data corruption (if a file corrupts and you propagate it locally and remotely, it is permanently lost)

    (5) accidental deletion

    (6) futureproof-ness (if your drobo/qnap/synology brakes in 10 years, and your hardware raid controller is not replaceable, your data are not accessible)

    The only NAS solution that I could find to cover all of the above was FreeNAS. RAIDZ for (1), scheduled rsync for (2),(3), ZFS checksumming for (4), ZFS snapshotting for (5), software-based RAID for (6).

    Advantages: Open, free. All you need is a low-spec, low-consumption PC (e.g. microserver).

    Disadvantage: Some learning-curve/reading required for the non tech savvy.

    • http://dslrvideostudio.com/ DSLR Video Studio

      Great observation.

  • Yassushi

    Hi there. Very useful this tips. I had my laptop stolen and my external 1TB hard disk failed… I learned the hard way that I need an alternate backup. Besides the local backups I have been using the Adrive as online backup. Is an online storage that gives you 50GB in the Personal Basic plan and starting at $69.50/year you can get up to 10TB, in the Personal Premium plan. You can register an account per e-mail, I have 3 accounts registered on the basic plan and never had a problem. Worth a try. http://www.adrive.com

  • arighetto

    If you use Linux (Ubuntu etc.) you should try Grsync (graphical interface for rsync). Simple, fast and reliable backup software!

  • LaurentD

    I currently use Carbonite in addition to an external drive copy of my inner (master) drive containing my pictures. This gives me a quick restore possibility with the external HD and an offsite backup in case of burglars, fire, etc…

    But Carbonite has a BIG drawback: once you have uploaded 200Go (I have already and I do not consider myself as a big producer, except I shoot raw), your next files will be uploaded at 100Ko/s :(

    Once my contract is over, I’ll switch to Crashplan which claims it doesn’t have such a limit…

    • http://www.blurmediaphotography.com/ JP Danko

      Thanks for the input re Carbonite – I’ve heard lots of good things about Crashplan too – in addition to all the positive comments here.

  • chi

    I just use an external Western digital to back up locally and copy.com to backup to a cloud. Copy.com is like box.net or dropbox except you start off with 20GB on day one. Most importantly, I print all my personal pictures and put them in shoe boxes. That’s pretty future proof and thats how my dad use to do it.

    shameless referral code here.
    https://copy.com?r=ybBbZo

  • Cisco Kid

    CrashPlan for automatic cloud backup, every machine in the household, unlimited storage. Also local backup copies of all photos to external LaCie hard drive.

  • Bill McKenzie

    I had corruption issues with Synctoy after using it for several years. Just google synctoy corrupt files and see the results. I use Macrium Reflect and it will do a bit compare.

    • LaurentD

      Just had a look at Macrium Reflect and it seems to make a whole partition copy, not an incremental directories copy, right ?

      • Bill McKenzie

        I believe so but take a look at PureSync from Jumping Bytes. It will do an incremental change on all folders and subfolders. I have used it for 2-3 years.

  • http://www.blurmediaphotography.com/ JP Danko

    Lots of positive comments about CrashPlan – I’ve heard great things about it too. However be warned – CrashPlan does not natively support NAS storage with Windows https://helpdesk.crashplan.com/entries/23176591-Backing-up-networked-storage-or-NAS-devices

  • mr.gncd

    I have desktop computer.
    Dekstop has SSD drive for Win8
    It also has 2x2Tb disks in RAID 0, so they are mirrored. The same material in both of them and so system will continue working if one fails.
    Also Backed up to external USB disk. Backup is handled with http://www.cobiansoft.com/cobianbackup.htm

  • http://dslrvideostudio.com/ DSLR Video Studio

    Back up strategy in the age of digital is a must, unlike analogue or film which was more permanent and longer lasting. No data loss or corruption.

  • bentsnake

    I don’t think you can do better than Karen’s Replicator. Replicator can back up any file(s) or folder(s) to any storage device, anywhere, anytime. It’s no-strings freeware too, what else can you ask for. Here’s my Utube how-to video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8gmk_jKeGo