Being a Professional Photographer: The Never Ending back up Story

Niko Caignie
Dec 17, 2019 · 9 min read

Everybody who runs a business as a part- or full time professional photographer knows this: back ups are live savers.
PC and hard drive crashes, SD card failures, stolen material, … We all have experienced or know someone who has been in that situation. Most people think that the back up game starts at the end of you process, when everything is loaded to your computer and for some even after they finished editing. You can’t be more wrong about that. Backing up your photos starts at the beginning of you shoot. In worst case at the end of your shoot but still on site.

I’ve met a photographer once who told me that he got his gear stolen, …
Oh man!” I said and that I felt sorry and asked if they took a lot of his possessions at home. They answer just baffled me. “Oh it wasn’t at home, they stole it from my car”. Apparently the guy had done a photoshoot and was eager to go to a friends party afterwards, directly after the shoot. And the gear was lying on his rear seat, at night, in Brussels… So he left it in his car with all the gear ánd, this I cannot understand, his SD cards with all the material of the day on it. In my opinion there are so many wrongs in this story that I don’t know where to begin! Being a professional means not only that you posses a craft, it also means that you handle your business as a professional…

As mentioned in the beginning backups starts during your shoot and depending on the type of shoot you have different ways of doing so.
Say you are an event, wedding photographer, are on an editorial job or doing a massive lifestyle shoot. You end up after a few hours with already 500 or even maybe 1000+ images… depending on what size SD cards you use and how many slots you have this is spread over one or multiple SD cards. No selection has been made and will not be done until you get home and make the selection. First of all if you have the opportunity to use a second SD cards slot as backup, do that. You can’t have an earlier backup than a camera writing one raw file to two locations, just don’t drop your camera in the water in the meanwhile. If you, like me, use one slot for photo and the other for video then backup a card when it’s (almost) full to a PC and preferably on an external hard drive. I never erase an SD card after I copied it to reuse it. I just store it in a sealed case with its label faced down. This reminds me that the card is used and contains photos. This case I carry with me the rest of the shoot. The laptop with external drive is located at a save place. That can be stolen, damaged (client spilling an entire café latté over it) , … I carry a lot of SD cards obviously. and I only format (never delete) SD cards on the next shoot when I know the previous shoot is delivered.

Update: on site I now use also the GNARBOX, read more about it here:
The Cherry on the pie for my back up game

Water & dust sealed SD card case

When I do advertising shoots, you often don’t make more than 4 final images a day. That means maybe 500 test shots and fine tuning shots but in the end you have 4 final scenes with a couple supporting images for retouching use. When i’m on those assignment in addition to SD card and external SD back up I also upload the already selected raw files the cloud. No safer place then in the cloud. At the end of the day I often make a copy of the external drive and give it to my assistant or to my producer. The last one actually also keeps a back up of all files I shoot.

The most critical time to loose files is the moment between you finish the shoot and the time you get home or your office to import them in your computer. That is something most photographers forget. If you loose your files in between that timeframe, there is no turning back. In case of a portrait session or some other low effort organisational shoot it will cost you a a good pair of red cheeks, a humiliating phone call, time from your subject and some planning to redo the shoot. But in case of a marriage you loose far more. You loose unique moments that can’t be replaced. You loose a once in a lifetime event…. You don’t want to be the guy or girl who makes that phone call. And in case of an advertising shoot, you loose the team effort of 10 to15 people who all made a team effort to create a unique image. Shoots like that can set you back between €5000 to €50000 to reorganise and rehire all the crew models, location, props, … you don’t want to be that bankrupt guy or girl.

That’s a lot of people to rehire if you loose the files.

So when I’m done and head home I’ve got at least two copies of all the files. One on an external drive and one on the SD card in a case that I carry on me.
In the best case i’ve got the most important files in the cloud, a copy on me, one on the hard drive and one external drive with another person. Or combination of those. I know, it’s maybe overkill, but i’ve made this a reflex and I never had an issue with loosing files, corrupt SD cards or stolen gear.
After an assignment I always head home, to import and back up the files. I never leave my car out of sight with all my gear in it. That’s my income, if that gets stolen, i’ve got a big problem doing all planned near future jobs. Yeah, the wise guys says it’s insured. But the gap between being robbed and get the money from the insurance is not something that I want to bridge. Hiring gear is an option, it also is very time consuming. Head home make your back up and then enjoy your free time in whatever way….,

Now when I get home, I first go find my wife and children and give them a big hug, grab a cup of coffee and start importing my images on my external hard drive from the hard drive that I used as back up on the shoot. When the import is running I take time to give my gear a quick cleanup and organise them to be ready for the next shoot. The case with SD cards stays in my photo case (that is backup nr°1) When that initial import is done the hard drive is also stored in my laptop case. Both the SD card and the hard drive are temporary backups, from the moment that they are full I format them and start over with a clean plate.

my back up flow

At home is my structural backup flow in full effect. With the files stored on an external drive on my mac I immediately start running a script that copies the files to my Synology NAS. I use ChronoSync to synchronise or back up files. From my perspective it’s very dangerous to completely automate that process. The process between my NAS and my external drive is always triggered manually and once that has run I always check whether both target and source are as they should be.

The different scripts I use for back up and syncing my photos to their designated location. As you can see there are different scripts for each part of my work. Professional, Personal, Analog and Video.

I hear you thinking, isn’t a NAS back up enough? Yes and no! Yes, but since I had catastrophic experience with Drobo (twice) I ‘ve sworn to never completely trust any kind of raid system. And No, read on for that.

From there on everything is automated. My NAS uses Cloud Sync to duplicate everything to Dropbox, which is my main cloud service. It stores a Photo Archive of around 16 terra bytes and is also the home for my paperless office, in fact it’s the general storage of my digital life. More on that here: A decade of paperless office , How I roll in the cloud and Where do all the photos go.

Synology NAS

Using dropbox as a central storage point was really a big change in my workflow when I first implemented this. As a photographer you do a job, process and deliver the photos! Case closed you think. No it’s not! Every day we might get a phone call from a client with the question to sent the files again or deliver another version!
That always results in either stress for the client or me.
Dropbox fixed that in a blink of an eye (and after some weeks of uploading all my files 😁).
Now I can send a link to a single file or a folder with a 1000 photos from anywhere in the world. Even from my smartphone.
That is such a time and stress saver!
Another great thing about dropbox is switching hardware. For example after a hard drive failure, stolen or broken computer: since the files are both local and in the cloud it’s just a matter of adding a dropbox account to the new device and after an hour or two everything is back up and running.

I can sent the files from a shoot 3 years a go via dropbox back to my client, even from my smartphone.

The file structure I use is everywhere the same: Capture One, Lightroom, Hard drives, NAS & Dropbox. Everything is stored by year, month and then yyyymmdd-clientname-shootname

File structure

I hear you thinking 14 terra bytes? Do you order your hard drives from the future. No I don’t, those files aren’t all on my local drive. My dropbox is a combination of my local drive, a Synology NAS and the great “Selective Sync” feature of Dropbox. This allows you to select which folders/files need to be on both your hard drive and in the cloud or just cloud only. So the files from my NAS, the 14 terra bytes of photos aren’t synced to my hard drive but only between the NAS and Dropbox.

I only wish they had an option to link your domain name to your Dropbox.

The cloud sync goes fast, with a powerful internet connection it can happen over night. I check that every morning after a shoot. And from the moment I’ve got those files in the cloud, i’m at peace!

Files older that 3 years are stored on separate Hard Drives and put into a safe place. Images that are 3 years old in our business become unusable. Except for my personal work that is always stored in the cloud.

I’m not going to say the I will never loose a file or even a whole shoot, Murphy is always looking from around the corner. But by keeping this workflow as a routine way I can prevent it as much as possible.

This article is part of a series I wrote about how I handle my digital life:
My Perfect Travel kit
A decade of paperless office
How I roll in the cloud
Where do all the photos go
Being a Professional Photographer: The Never Ending back up Story

Niko Caignie

Written by

♥ Liene — Ellis — Liv ✤ Photographer & Director ✩ Outdoor & Nature enthousiast.☞ 🇧🇪

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