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A Photographer's Nightmare: Hard Drive Failure Is Not a Joke, Back Up Your Photos

The day I’ve been preparing for arrived unexpectedly this past Saturday as I went to my Mac to export photos for a client, just like it was any other day. But I quickly found out it wasn’t going to be like other days when I found my photo and video files had disappeared from my Lightroom catalog.

I calmly checked my drive to see why my catalog claimed that there were missing images, and Lightroom was not lying. Five terabytes of my hard work had disappeared. I’d like to believe that I take great caution and care when dealing with my drives and files. I still don’t know why — it may have been a terrible glitch — but that’s not the point of this article.

PSA: Back Up Your Work

This article is simply a four-word PSA reminder: back up your work. It is not a joke and it can happen to anyone at any time. The reasons are endless on how you can lose your work: formatting errors, improper connectivity, read/write crash, file corruption, physical damage, bad sectors, glitches, and even unknown causes.

The Good News

Fortunately enough, I prepared for this very day to come. I visited my off-site drive location that I backup to periodically. I successfully avoided losing all of my hard work by taking the necessary measures. Even with a successful backup and avoiding potential disaster, I found out there is room for improvement.

A Reminder to You

But with that all being said, I will go out with this: hard drive corruption is not a joke, and I know of many photographers (novices and even professionals) that use simply one “pocket” hard drive and that is it. If that is you, I’d highly advise you to take the steps to protect yourself. I don’t care if it’s the most sophisticated backup system in the world or the simplest, just take the proper steps. Spending $500–$1,000-plus now is worth much more than losing your life’s work later. Make multiple copies of work by any means necessary. Think about it, be smart, and continue to create beautiful work with peace of mind.

Backup Education Resources

I know there has been a slew of backup articles published lately. I’m glad because it’s a topic that isn’t discussed enough. Here are some helpful articles to help set up or better your backup workflow:

Also, feel free to leave a comment below regarding how your backup workflow is set up. Keep in mind to make it as simple as possible as if you're explaining it to someone new who'd like the proper steps.

Photo by Azz Bad via Pexels.

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Reginald Walton's picture

Well, not to be cynical, but it's common sense that you have redundant backups as a photographer (or for any important files). There is no excuse for not having a backup of your work/data.

Robert Nurse's picture

You would think, especially now a days, that backing up would be a normalcy. Sadly, it's not. I backup my HD to a portable. Then the portable is backed up to the cloud.

Paul Seiler's picture

Great points guys! Similar to what I outlined here in last week's article:

I'm glad Nick had an offsite backup, as I personally find this exact method invaluable.

Fritz Asuro's picture

I know most photographers will back up files, including raw files, or even sometimes PSD of each and every retouch they made. A colleague of mine kinda enlightened me about keeping files.

Currently, I am working in a publication where I met our senior photographer who is working for more than 25 years.
I've always wondered if such people would keep all files of their work, so I asked him if he does

And He did at one point, and that was for the first few years of his career (albums, analog days) and a few from the digital age. Nowadays, he just keep his favorites, about 10-20 every year, and only the final image.
He said that, if you've been working long enough, he doesn't see a reason to keep all raw files and all images. Because even storage solutions are getting cheaper, file sizes are getting bigger anyway.
What photographers need are iconic images that will define your work. Agencies don't look through your portfolio, they usually look for consistency and quality.

Do not take his statement as absolute, I know it doesn't apply to everyone. But he has a point.

Fritz Asuro's picture

Like I said, his way might not impress everyone. And I won't call him a fool as his work is really impressive.

Bernd Stoeckl's picture

If someone follows an advise without being able to contemplate then you are a fool.
I am photographing since more than 30 years and I keep most of my photos.
BUT then there are shots that looking on them hindsight do not anymore satisfy my quality standards.
So why keeping it.
If you are a good photographer you grow and develop.
So except for nostalgic reason - there are none to me.
Uh, yeah I do backup on 3 different media one that is off-site.

Tony Northrup's picture

Everyone should use a cloud backup service. It's off-site and automatic. If you have to remember to manually move a hard drive off-site, you'll eventually forget.

chrisrdi's picture

Crash plan pro is really good and affordable. My job uses it to back up our servers every night.

Anonymous's picture

I would never tell "everyone" what they should do, even if they should do it.

Douglas Turney's picture

This can be true but a simple reminder in one's calendar is an easy way to remind one to backup. A backup of my business files and photos are sitting in a credit union a few miles from both of us in Waterford. Cloud backups are good too but they have their draw backs. One of my concerns is bankruptcy of the backup service or change in their business models.

My approach is to rotated two portable hard drives. One backup drive is in the office and backs up my main hard drive. Then once a month I drive that to the credit union. Place it in the safe deposit box and remove the second back up hard drive. Take that to the office and clone it with the main hard drive in the office. For cloud storage I use it for photos that are identified as key photos. These are the photos that are either processed and/or photos that I deem important. I don't feel there is a need to have multiple backups of every photo I've shot.

Same approach is used for my business documents. I also use an external drive running time machine for the business documents. More for being able to go back to earlier versions of documents.

Paul Seiler's picture

Exactly Tony! Here is an article from last week covering the topic, and there's more on this seemingly popular topic coming soon :)

Douglas Turney's picture

The previous article is a good article. Like I mentioned earlier I use cloud storage only for my "more" important photos. This helps to keep it manageable for me instead of trying to backup many TBs of data. Dropbox has worked well for me. Plus it makes it really easy to share photo content with clients.

Richard Keeling's picture

I used to think that way, and did so for a couple of years, but eventually switched back to multiple cross-computer copies and off-site storage of external drives. That was enough for my peace of mind.

C E's picture

I've said for a long time there's a HUGE market for someone to make a reasonable back up service for photographers and videographers. Something that takes the need for lots of technical skill out of it. I've got a 48TB raid backing up to two 20TB raids and one off site. I'd love to go to the cloud but there's no reasonable way to do that with a 30TB seed needed and up to 1TB per video shoot having to then subsequently get uploaded. There's tons of great DAM software that could help from a server/interface side, but they're all priced out of the small studio market.

Reginald Walton's picture

There are some out there. I use and all I do is copy the files to my harddrive on my computer and then I have idrive set up to automatically backup my files in real time. So I just put the first copy on my local drive and then idrive does its thing and I have a copy in the cloud - easy peezy. AND the great thing about idrive is that if you have a large amount of files to backup, they will send you an external drive to copy your files to and they will do the initial load from that and from that point forward, you can begin the auto backup yourself.

Paul Seiler's picture

A few options are talked about here in an article from last week. Maybe we should do a whole series on the topic?

robertc's picture

I had a big problem where I would start backing things up to a hard drive, but then would slowly start working off of that drive. I finally bought 2 drives and set up Carbon Copy Cloner and haven't had an issue since.

Paul Seiler's picture

Yes! My only additional advice is to get at least one of those drives off-site. If you can get something as minimal as perhaps your working drive synced between two locations, that peace of mind is really a game changer. Are you using anything to cloud backup one of those local Carbon Copy'd drives?

robertc's picture

I'm not, but I really should be.

chrisrdi's picture

It sure is not a joke at all. I lost all my shoots from 2016 back because I'm an idiot. I bought an MSI laptop to replace my desktop (don't ever buy MSI products). Turns out this laptop is cheaper than poop. It died on me twice in 4 months. Bad motherboard, bad keyboard, first and second hard drives died and I lost eeeeeverything (again I'm an idiot for not backing up). I only used this laptop for about a month out of the first 4 months of ownership. It was in for repairs the other 3 months. Now that I have it back it seems to be working fine EXCEPT my screen now sucks. It has a brown glob at the bottom that moves around if you tilt it and leave it in one position for long enough. It also developed 6 white spots in the middle of the screen. Now I have to buy a new screen and front bezel to replace it. It is still under warranty but I can't go another month and a half without a computer. I bought a 1tb external I put all my shoots on now as well as back up to dropbox pro. Back yuh stuff up folks!!!

chrisrdi's picture

Word. My next laptop is probably going to be an HP. I have had several laptops from them in recent past and never had trouble with'em. I also plan on building a desktop soons :)

Christopher Smoot's picture

And on the flip side, every HP I've ever had, or known anyone to have, has been the absolute biggest piece of junk you could possibly imagine. The last HP I had was the shortest lived laptop I've ever owned (think it lasted about a year with numerous problems along the way). I upgraded to an MSI, which also had a hard drive failure, but after replacing it with a solid state, it's been as bulletproof as a computer can be - even survived a nasty fall that dented the crap out of one corner. I've had it for two years now - should be able to keep it going for a few more.

That hard drive failure, sadly enough, is the one that resonates the most with this article. Lost about 9 months worth of photos as that crash was the worst I'd ever experienced and I wasn't as diligent in backing up as I usually am.

chrisrdi's picture

Damn, that sucks man. I had a Compaq that was a workhorse. It lasted me 8 years then the power port went all funky and stopped taking charge. Have you had any luck with recent Dell laptops?

When I can get the smack together I'm going to buy a 1tb Samsung SSD for this MSI laptop. The stock hard drives sooo sloooooow. I called them and asked them what hard drives they typically use and they told me they don't know. They buy hard drives in bulk from the cheapest supplier. The hard drives vary from one to another, unfortunately. Sad to say with MSI a hard drive will be a necessary upgrade as soon as you get your computer it seems.

Christopher Smoot's picture

Can't speak to Dell's recent laptops, but I had one that was a workhorse for about 6 years before the power jack came loose and couldn't be charged. Company I work for now uses them, but I can't speak to their reliability.

Been there done that though, so I feel your pain. No matter where you look, people will have horror stories about every brand. Good luck - hopefully you end up with a good one.

chrisrdi's picture

No worries on the conversion thing haha. I have owned multiple apple and windows machines over my short time on this planet. I recognize the that both systems are great for many different things. Macs are very reliable when it comes to hardware. The only parts I have ever heard of going bad on macs are the ones you described. power supplies and hard drives. Over the years they have become harder to work on indeed. Currently, I prefer windows machines because I still have the time and interest in tinkering with them. I also started learning and tinkering with Linux recently. My dad used to code for the military when he was in the Airforce and also built many machines. These days though he's pretty tired of messing with computers as well lol. I am pretty sure I will get to that point as I get older too. It's already messing with my vision. I gotta get me some glasses soon!

Paul Seiler's picture

Hey Chris. MSI unfortunately has pretty poor quality control. And while HP is certainly better, it's sadly not by much margin. After many years purchasing mass amount of laptops for corporate clients, I've seen that what really ends up happening is that certain tiers of models are manufactured in different plants, and just like how two different fast food stores or grocery stores with the same name can be run drastically different, sadly the same applies to these computer manufacturers. The short version is that the higher end laptops seem to have a far better quality control. Aside from this, their is always support to think about. Support is a huge reason that I A: switched from Canon to Nikon, and B: won't be switching from Nikon to Sony (or anything else) anytime soon. With NPS they will overnight me gear so that if a camera goes down on Monday, I can shoot my Friday wedding with their replacement. Having seen many levels of support, I have to say that most all computer manufacturer's are at the very least annoying (Dell is my favorite, go through their chat support for best results, don't call), and down right maddening at their worst (I will never purchase Lenovo again for this reason). With no regard for price tags and only quality of product and support to measure, my personal experience has ranked these companies best to worst:
1. Apple
2. Dell
3. Asus (not sure on support honestly, but quality control and longevity of product have proven worth it).
4. HP
74. Gigabyte (this was trying to deal with a series desktop motherboards)
99. Lenovo (seriously, never again, I'm getting angry just thinking about it).

Douglas Turney's picture

I'll second the Apple and Dell. Have used both and both have held up very well with no complaints. As for Apples, I've had in the family 2 desktops and 4 laptops. Only issue was on the first desktop the hard drive started acting up but this was after 8 years of daily use. Never failed but did replace it. That desktop has moved to my youngest daughter and is still working fine after 10 years. Not an Apple fan boy, just a happy customer. No problems with the limited Dell's I've used.

Daris Fox's picture

Don't conflate HP with HP Enterprise, they are distinctly different as HP's workstations and Server/storage solutions are the best in the business.

Dell produce some of the best laptops especially for business but for workstations it's the HP Zbooks, or I'd go with a Surface Pro.

chrisrdi's picture

Ahhhh good to know. I will take your advice into consideration when I purchase a new laptop next time. Apple computers are indeed reliable. I just don't like the specs on those suckers. The only problem I have had with Dell was with a monitor I had purchased but their laptops seem to last. I agree on Lenovo. They are trash. I have mixed feelings about Asus. My buddy bought a desktop from them and it had NO case fans. We found out because the thing kept overheating so we opened it up and bam. He returned and we just built a pc instead. I have had 3 MOBOs from them that all did really well and lasted. I dunno man lol.

I have indeed heard horror stories about canon and Sony customer service. I have heard sony is the worst with horrendous turnaround times. I am a Nikon shooter myself. I stick with Nikon for their glass, the F mount, the durability of their bodies from entry-level bodies to high-end bodies. I also really dig the ergonomics of their cameras, image quality, low light and dynamic range capabilities. I have a Canon body too but I reach for my Nikon 90% of the time.

Lee Christiansen's picture

AND... Back up your main system. My main system drive has needed rescuing more than once and reinstalling every piece of software and plugin can a huge task.

I only backup when everything is very stable and working, and I keep at least the last version of my system whislt backing up to a new version.

I use Carbon Copy Cloner and wouldn't be without it for creating bootable OS drives.

And yes, keep copies of your images. I have my RAWs on one RAID drive and final versions (PSDs usually), on a second RAID drive - along with two separate copies of each on two other drives, stored at different locations.

But it's funny. In the days of film, I wonder how much consideration was given to backups of negatives. (How would you do that economically anyway?) A fire could take out a lifetime's work of negs in a heartbeat.

Douglas Turney's picture

Yep. Everyone keeps talking about backing up photos but having a bootable backup of your system is just as important. I know a guy who got hit with a ransom ware virus. While he lost a couple days of work he was able to simply move over to the bootable back up and said screw you. Of course he made a back up of the backup before booting it up.

Paul Seiler's picture

Yes! Carbon Copy is awesome. I also suggest really digging in to your motherboard's available options and, when available / supported: install a same-capacity 2nd internal drive and RAID1 your working drive. RAID article coming soon ;)

Mike Dixon's picture

Hard drives have a typical life span of 3 to 5 years. Do the math people. Also, check your backup drives, don't let them get old either.

LA M's picture

Everyone is an evangelist AFTER a failure happens to them lol...good article tho

Paul Seiler's picture

Right?! I feel like I would have eventually come around, but being younger and naive helped kick me in the right direction:

Ben D's picture

If you're an Amazon Prime member, you have unlimited online storage to back up photo files. That includes RAW. That's my go-to for backups. I've got a few TB there already. Far better than Backblaze.

Paul Seiler's picture

Woah really!? I did not know about this, seriously. I'm a prime member. I imagine most photographers are nowadays. Is there a specific app or something you need to get this rolling? Do they only do photos? Do they confirm by file type or something? So for example if I have word documents in the same parent folder as some photos, would it back that up too or skip the word documents?

Reginald Walton's picture

It's not an "auto backup," you have to back the file up there yourself. I don't believe there is a specific type of file that you can backup.

Bruce Hennings's picture

Hard drives are not the only thing a photographer needs to worry about backing up. With the digital age upon us, most cameras have SD cards: regular and micro. These cards can go bad at anytime, obviously causing many problems. Here is an example story:

Making copies of these cards as soon as possible will also help alleviate the issues of lost photos.

Andre Goulet's picture

Good point! I use SDCard Formatter from the SD Card association (free app) periodically on each card and do a full format. That will find errors if there are any and either mark the sectors as bad, or flag you that the card is bad. My workflow is to take the card from the camera to a portable hard drive that has a card reader built in, which never sees a computer, back it up there automatically, then transfer the photos to my computer (still from the SD Card) and do backups of all that. This way, I have always got the original RAW source files, if worst comes to worst. From the computer I have a Time Machine backup for disaster recovery, then use an external hard drive bay and bare drives, one for each genre of photography that I shoot. Final PSD files from all shoots get put on one more drive that's taken off-site and on the local NAS. So, long-term, I have the original RAW files and the final PSD's in 3 places minimum, one off-site. As the photos age, I may be more willing to let them go if something goes south if it's of a genre that allows for this, such as my theatre work. Nobody cares for a 3-year old shoot of a live play, so those only remain on the bare drive until it dies after they age-out.

Daris Fox's picture

If you are using Windows 10 and have a NAS then enabling File History can be a major life saver:

Alex Armitage's picture

PSA For all photographers out there. Amazon offers unlimited photo storage to their cloud drive for just having Prime.

I have a RAID 6 NAS setup that automatically backsup my photography folder to Amazon. This includes PSD files, Raw files, and TIFF files.