Home office photo with iPhone 6s, edited with Priime. CAT6 cable going through the floor on the right to my Synology NAS, which is in the living room media cabinet

Backing Up Photos

by Arthur Chang, Commercial Photographer & CEO of Priime


While working on Priime’s latest products, a large part of my life has been spent closely studying every aspect of photography. The problem of backing up photos came up, and I thought it would be worth writing about my experiences with it.

I have been a photographer most of my life, shooting, consulting and producing for companies ranging from fashion startups to Land Rover, charity events to destination weddings, and more. That being said, the most important photos to me are the personal projects and select highlights from client shoots. The thought of losing even one photo in an original form is devastating.

Through the years, I have researched and tried just about every service in varying degrees. Some just don’t fit the requirements out of the box, others are promising but fall short, and then most are just too complicated or unstructured to put together. But the technology just keeps evolving, and new solutions continuously become available. I most recently reinforced my existing setup, inspired by an updated post by my friend, Paul Stamatiou, who recently put together his own updated post on Storage for Photographers.

To give a bit of a disclaimer, this is not preaching an absolute best approach. This is the setup that has been working for me, and I included links to some resources that can help you further if you want to learn more about each of the pieces that make this solution whole. I put a quick step-by-step together with options and customizations at the end, where I discuss other possibilities including their pros and cons.



The Prerequisites

Putting together a list of prerequisites helped me pinpoint what it was I needed. This list evolved over many years. I understood the technology out there, and came up with my wish list. It’s not perfect, but it’s reliable.

  1. No single point of failure
  2. Instant access to photos, as if they were on my hard drive
  3. RAW photo storage at ~75mb each, affordably
  4. Archiving and not mirroring

No Single Point of Failure

Cloud storage is the perfect solution of not having a single point of failure. Cloud solves this by storing your files in a network of different locations at all times.

Instant Access to photos

I often want access to all my photos with an Adobe Lightroom Catalog on my laptop / iMac. Because of this, storing everything in the cloud can’t be the only place I save my photos. If they’re in the cloud, Lightroom doesn’t see those files as if they are stored on the computer’s drive, and also since they are not downloaded, there is no way to manipulate them until they’re stored locally and then loaded into memory. Thus, I will need a local storage solution that can hold a lot of data securely.

RAW File Storage

Cameras now save gigantic RAW files. My Nikon D800e stores 36 megapixel images that can be over 75mb, and my Sony RX1rm2 does 42 megapixels at who knows what obscene sized uncompressed 14-bit RAW file. The solution to solving this has to be able to affordably store RAW photo files, and not just finished jpeg or iPhone photos.

Archiving and Not Mirroring

There are a lot of cloud services that just mirror your current data. Dropbox does this in a way where it just stores whatever is stored in your Dropbox folders on your hard drive, but if you delete your files, they are removed on Dropbox as well. Mirroring is not what I need on a cloud service. What I need is something that acts like a hard drive that I can fill up and have data kept forever.

The Solution

Putting all the prerequisites together, here is my current and ideal solution

  1. Samsung 2TB SSD
  2. Synology NAS DS415+ with Western Digital 4TB red drives
  3. Amazon Cloud Drive (Prime) $99/year
  4. Carbon Copy Cloner Software $39.99
  5. Safe (any waterproof / fireproof safe)
  6. Dropbox

How I use this solution

  1. My Lightroom Catalog and my recently imported photos all live on my Samsung 2TB SSD. This is small enough to take with me wherever I go, and since everything Lightroom needs is stored on it, I can plug it into different computers (my iMac at home, Macbook Pro on the road) and access it immediately. The SSD fast, both in reading from and writing to, which means there’s almost no additional lag accessing files and importing from the SSD when I’m in Lightroom. This is faster than my previous setup where I was accessing everything directly from my Synology NAS.
  2. Carbon Copy Cloner runs on my iMac, so that whenever my Samsung SSD is connected, it will back that up new photos and Lightroom catalog updates to my Synology NAS.
  3. The Synology NAS is where I backup all of my photos that are imported to my Samsung SSD. The NAS mirrors the Samsung SSD, but also holds archived photos that I no longer need on the SSD. The NAS is just a computer that holds hard drives, runs some very basic apps, and constantly makes sure your drives are replicated so if one fails, the data is saved on the others. You can read about how RAID works here.
  4. The Synology is connected to my iMac via a CAT6 cable, and I have the “Photos” folder mounted as a drive for instant access, as if the Synology was a local drive. Previously, I would load Lightroom right from my Synology, but now the Synology is a backup to my SSD.
  5. Cloud Sync is an app that runs on the Synology (comes with it) and can be programmed to automatically sync to Amazon Cloud Drive. Cloud Sync detects changes or new photos, and uploads the new photos to Amazon Cloud Drive. Even if my iMac is off, the Synology will keep the Cloud Sync app running and syncing. This is very much like Dropbox, where you set it and forget it. If you already pay for Amazon Prime ($99/year) you get unlimited photo storage on Cloud Drive for photos. Photo storage is defined by their file formats, which include most every photo file you will encounter (dng, arw, cr2, nef, jpg, tiff, etc). Yes, even RAW images are supported in their unlimited photo plan.
  6. Fireproof / Waterproof safe — I have this safe because when my camera equipment is at home, I like to make sure anyone breaking in can’t get to them easily. I also store five 2TB backup hard drives full of my old photos that I probably won’t need to access anytime soon. These are already all backed up to Crashplan, but it’s good to have them just in case I need access to some old photos and don’t want to sift through Crashplan.
  7. Dropbox is used to store all my latest processed photos. My processed photos are maximum resolution, but as jpg files so they’re all small enough to fit in Dropbox no problem. I do archive them into my Synology NAS after 2 years.

Running out of space

What happens when you run out of space on the Synology NAS? Amazon Cloud Drive is unlimited for photos, so cloud-wise I am all set. The Synology NAS drives will eventually run out, so when it does, I will archive a lot of the old RAW photos onto a relatively cheap 2TB drive and put it in my safe. I have stockpiled a few of these when they were on sale, so they are ready when I need them. Then I remove the archived photos from the Synology NAS and I’ll have plenty of space again to store more. The good thing is Amazon Cloud Drive will hold onto those old files, and I have a local copy somewhere in my safe. Amazon Cloud Drive does not act like a mirror to an existing drive, so your photos will not be deleted there automatically.

Emergency

Here are a few scenarios:

  1. A drive in my Synology NAS breaks. It will be fine, because the system is designed to constantly backup on the other drives. I’ll just replace the drive and it will continue on.
  2. The Synology NAS bricks itself and the data on the drives are ok. In this case, I can probably turn in the NAS to Synology for repair (warranty or not) and be back up and running.
  3. The Synology NAS and drives totally dead. I get the NAS and drives fixed or replaced, then I restore the whole structure from Amazon Cloud Drive.
  4. The cloud breaks. Well, this is probably not going to happen. The cloud stores your data across different drives, in different data centers, all over the world. So unless the earth blows up, we’re ok and don’t have to do anything.
  5. Amazon Prime goes under and stops the service. There will be more solutions out there that I should have time to move to. Amazon most likely will give some kind of grace period. To be honest, it’s hard to believe Amazon would completely go away anytime soon.

Alternatives and Comparisons

I want to quickly touch on a few of the alternatives that I had considered. Each have their pros and cons, and ultimately didn’t work out.

Cloud Services

  • Backblaze / Carbonite — these two services have been around for awhile, but they mirror your current storage. They were turn offs for me because they didn’t archive your old data. Once you remove an old drive for archiving, Backblaze and Carbonite would eventually remove those as well. Crashplan and Amazon do not.
  • CrashPlan — I originally had CrashPlan included in my workflow. But they recently stopped their personal plans. They only allow for business plans, which are restrictively expensive and not a viable solution for individuals. The good is that it’s unlimited storage, no matter what kind of data. The speed to write to their storage is incredibly slow, no matter how fast your home internet is. And recovering data is equally slow. Their hardware is not built for fast access, but that is also why it was at a nice low price point.
  • Dropbox — it’s pretty expensive and also mirrors. However, you can archive things away, or maintain history. For storing large RAW files, it just doesn’t seem like the right solution for the price. The pros are that Dropbox has very fast access, even restoring from the cloud. But this comes at a high price, and is not often needed. If you have a local copy on your SSD or local hard drive, then instant access for RAWs is probably not needed.
  • iCloud — if you use a lot of Apple products, iCloud is great for storing your iPhone or processed JPG photos. It syncs across your iPhone, laptop, desktop, iPad, and so on. It is perfect to use for photos I am taking on my iPhone and editing on Priime, or saving out JPGs on my desktop and editing them on Priime from the iPhone. But again, it falls short for the use of storing and archiving RAW photos with a 1TB limit at an expensive price when compared to other solutions. Another drawback is that you can only get to your iCloud files on desktop via sister apps (like Photos.app) or by digging into cryptic file structures. Unless Lightroom integrates CloudKit to access iCloud photos, you won’t have access to them straight from a Lightroom Catalog. I don’t think that will ever happen, as Adobe is pushing hard for their Creative Cloud service
  • Google Photos — This is free and does a lot of cool things (makes slideshows, organizes well, etc), but on the free plan it resizes your photos if they are over 16 megapixels. Deal breaker. They do have an option to save the original file size, but then it’s no longer unlimited and you have to pay for Google Drive space. If Amazon Prime ever went away, this could be a viable paid service, but you still miss the unlimited RAW storage.
  • Adobe Creative Cloud — It’s not beautifully built in like iCloud Drive, and only seems to work well with Adobe products. At Priime, we considered integrating Creative Cloud into our app, but we have not had any requests for it as most of our users are happy with iCloud. It seems really hard to rely on Creative Cloud until there is a lot more compatibility across more than Adobe products. Users will have already logged into their iTunes account for iCloud to work on their iPhones, and nobody will remember their Adobe ID and password. Adoption of Creative Cloud is difficult because of the need to login.

NAS Solutions

  • Drobo — It looks nice and seems simple, but I have heard too many people that have failed Drobo units that then required the drives to be read only with another working Drobo. And just by memory, I don’t remember hearing of any bad disasters with a Synology NAS. Also, Drobo doesn’t support as many apps and services as the Synology systems do. They have Crashplan, but nothing new like Cloud Drive and such. Also, these Drobo systems used to physically look really nice compared to Synology, but lately the Synology NAS designs have caught up. Overall, I think it should be safe to use a Drobo and that they are a stand up company. But the few advantages of the Synology NAS over the Drobo was enough for me to go that route.
  • Custom — You can get a bunch of drives, or even build a RAID yourself in a tower, but it’s still lacking all the fancy features of a Synology system, and I can’t think of anybody who wants to build a RAID and make sure it works. Even being an engineer myself, I can’t imagine trying to put this together myself over just purchasing a pre-built solution.

One Can Dream

So I have written about what solution I have today, but what would my ideal dream setup be? Cloud as the main storage and access. Here is an example: A Dropbox or iCloud like solution that holds unlimited RAW photos affordably and doesn’t mirror onto a hard drive, Priime or Adobe Lightroom can load the photos immediately and be edited and saved back to the cloud. There is never local disk space issue, and you can access the photos anywhere.

  • Cloud storage only
  • Affordable, unlimited RAW photos
  • Priime and Lightroom can immediately access the photos from anywhere

I think we are the closest to the above with iCloud Drive. It holds data seamlessly between devices (as long they are Apple), and you can access your photos with Priime and other apps immediately on desktop and device. Another great feature is that it manages the space on your devices by storing the full images on iCloud when they have been idle and not used, and downloaded as soon as they are needed in full. I just don’t see it being affordable with huge amounts of RAW files, and it’s not as easy as accessing files from OS X apps like a Dropbox solution would yield.

Conclusion

I can confidently say that all my data is securely backed up, and I am not worried about losing anything. Recovery of failures will not be fun, but they will not be devastating.

Technology around backing up is constantly evolving. Bandwidth is improving, storage is become more affordable, and new services are popping up that make it easier and easier. My solution is not evergreen, but it does the best job affordably with what is available today.

If you are looking for your perfect solution, I suggest writing down your prerequisites, how you would like everything to work, and then see what services are available. There could be things that just are not possible yet, but you can get close.

Let me know in the comments or by email your own setup, or if you think there are holes or improvements I can make. I am always open to something new and better I have not discovered yet.

TL;DR

I can access all my RAW photos on any computer with Adobe Lightroom through my portable Samsung SSD. My RAW files are backed up automatically by Carbon Copy Cloner to my Synology NAS that has a robust RAID backup system, so it’s highly unlikely that hardware failure will lose any files. My RAW files are automatically backed up to Amazon Cloud Drive, such that if my NAS is somehow completely destroyed or stolen, I can still get a new NAS and fill it back up. Amazon Cloud Drive allows for full sized and unlimited RAW photo storage with their Amazon Prime membership. And I have a physical safe that holds my archived hard drives that are no longer connected to my Synology NAS.

  1. Adobe Lightroom used to organize my photos
  2. Samsung SSD for fast access to latest imported photos and Lightroom Catalog
  3. Synology NAS as a backup to my Samsung SSD, and uploads to the cloud automatically for me
  4. Amazon Cloud Drive for historical archiving and rebuilding a failed NAS

Step by Step

Due to popular request, here is an overview step by step buy and install guide. You can learn more about why each thing is done from the information above, and this is intended as a quick guide as you put together your setup. I intentionally say “follow the setup guide” in some places, since those guides do a better job than I could even in doing things, like setting up the Synology NAS.

Buy Guide

  1. Buy Samsung 2TB SSD
  2. Buy Synology NAS DS415+
  3. Buy 4x 4TB Western Digital Drives
  4. Buy two CAT 6 cables (long enough to connect NAS to router, and NAS to mac)
  5. Install/Purchase Carbon Copy Cloner for macOS

Install Guide

  1. Install drives into Synology NAS and run the setup guide
  2. Connect the CAT 6 from Synology to your home router / internet
  3. Connect the other CAT 6 cable to your mac (hardwired is needed and highly recommended for mounting drives)
  4. Create a folder called Photos, and Catalogs on the NAS
  5. Mount the Photos folder on your mac as a drive. Do the same for the Catalogs folder.
  6. Install Cloud Sync with the Synology package manager
  7. Add your Amazon Cloud Drive account, and select Photos folder to sync
  8. In Cloud Sync settings, make sure you only upload “Photo” file formats
  9. Put all your existing photos into the Photos folder. Use a smart hierarchy (like the default one in Adobe Lightroom that goes by date). Cloud Sync will immediately begin uploading to Amazon Cloud Drive. Just let it run.
  10. Plug-in the Samsung SSD into your mac
  11. Create a new folder where you will store everything, I also call this “Photography”
  12. Create a new folders within the Photography folder called “Catalogs” and “Photos”
  13. Open Lightroom and create a new empty catalog in the new “Catalogs” folder
  14. Import a few photos from somewhere, either an existing catalog or a memory card, and import to the new “Photos” folder
  15. Now open Carbon Copy Cloner for mac app and setup two different backups, one for your Catalogs and one for Imported photos. Back them up to the Synology NAS’s mounted drives named accordingly. I have set mine to schedule backups every early morning at 4am. If you just imported a huge shoot to your SSD and want it to backup, you can trigger the backup immediately.

Customizations

No Portable Drive
You can set up your backup without the SSD and work directly off the mounted Photos drive from the NAS. Read/write access will be slower, and your NAS is not portable. If you’re looking for a cheaper solution, check the next section.

Non-SSD Portable Drive
You can also use a non-SSD external hard drive. It will be less expensive. The SSD is very very small, does not get damaged from being knocked around (doesn’t have any moving parts that normal hard drives have), and has faster read/write times than regular hard drives. You can basically use it in the same way as the SSD solution.

No NAS
The NAS is a great way to backup photos that you want to use when you’re at home, but not necessarily on the road. Photos here go back about 5 years for me, older than that I archive on hard drives that I store in my physical safe. Because of the RAID system, even two hard-drive failures will not lose your data. Hypothetically, you could go without a NAS if you already have a copy of everything on Amazon Cloud Drive, but fetching those photos will be slow and very difficult (you wouldn’t be able to open up a Lightroom catalog and browse/search for things).

Backup Catalogs
In addition to backing up photos to Amazon Cloud Drive, you can also backup your catalogs. My instructions avoided cloud backups for them. Catalogs are not photos, so they will count against your Amazon Cloud Drive space. I just have these backed up on my Synology. Catalogs for me get as big as possible before I start a new one. When they get too big, it gets sluggish opening and using them in Lightroom. It’s not such a big deal if you can cram at least 32GB of RAM into your computer.


Arthur Chang is the CEO of Priime and a lifelong photographer. You can find more of his work on his portfolio, collection, instagram, and blog.

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