Photo Library / Lightroom Library Backup Guide

Hopefully I’m preaching to the converted when it comes to having a good backup strategy for your photo archive. Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of digital horror stories including one about a wedding photographer that lost a weddings worth of photos and subsequently had to refund what I assume to be a very unhappy couple. To me this is insane, if your digital data has commercial value why would you not own a £100 backup drive?

Backing up a photo library

Entrusting your precious photo library with Family memories and commercial work to one fragile hard drive is insanity, better to hedge your bets a bit with multiple backups.

Backup is like insurance for the most part you don’t need it but when you do you’ll be thankful. There’s only been one occasion that I’ve had to rely on a backup, 5 years ago I upgraded my storage and with in 2 months one of my new drives died. It is not uncommon for new drives to fail, Google research shows that hard drives will either fail when they are very new as they were defective from the beginning or they will go on for years. Just because a drive is new does not mean you can slack off backing it up. If I had not backed up this little hard drive failure would still be a disaster story I would be telling now, fortunately it was just a mild inconvenience.

Megabytes, Gigabytes & Terabytes?

For those of you who are not sure of the difference in Megabytes, Gigabytes and Terabytes they are all different amounts of data. Throughout this article I will refer to Megabytes as MB, Gigabytes as GB and Terabytes as TB. A text file will tend to be smaller than 1MB and it’s size will be measured in Kilobytes (KB), there is 1,000KB in 1 Megabyte.  A photo taken on an iPhone 6 is 1.8MB while a raw file from my 5D mark iii is 28MB. 1GB is equal to a 1,000MB and 1TB is equal to a 1,000GB or a 1,000,000MB. 555 iPhone 6 pictures is equal to 1GB and it would take a mere 35 raw photos from my 5D mark iii to fill 1GB of space. At the beginning of 2016 an average laptop comes with 256GB to 1TB of storage.

Different filesizes

Your backup needs will vary depending what kind of files you produce. Video files are biggest followed by images and smallest of all are text files.

For small amounts of data (around 5mb or under per file)

I keep my small files like text files and spreadsheets on Dropbox, that way as long as you’re connected to the internet they are backed up every time you save. The free account from DropBox comes with 2GB of space that will do for most people’s school work. Just recently I was teaching some 6th formers (17 year olds) one of them told me about a friend that lost their university dissertation when they misplaced a USB stick. A 10,000 word document is around half a MB so there is really no need to suffer that kind of loss. DropBox will also allow you to see revisions of your files, in the case where you accidentally over save a file you can go back to a previous version.


Any files synced to DropBox will be accessible via a web browser so they can be downloaded from anywhere.

My more mighty backup needs

The amount of data I produce has been steadily climbing over the years. In 2012 and 2013 I shot about 110GB images a year, in 2014 370 GB and in 2015 that has jumped up to almost 900 GB. The large increase is mostly down to the amount of time-lapse I’ve been shooting. At the moment I have 2.6 TB of data that I need backed up which grows by roughly 100 GB a month. For the most part I am dealing with photos and a small amount of Video. If you’re a videographer my setup might not suit you as videographers produce a lot more data than the average photographer. I was recently shooting a one day job with a videographer, while I shot 16GB of photos he shot 64GB of video in the same time.

lomokevs photo library

My Photo Library grows year on year at ever faster rates

Backup software

You can manually backup files to an external drive but this means you’ll end up copying files that have been copied before which takes more time. Backup works much better when you use automated software to do it, that way you are not relying on a human to do anything. Humans are usually the most fallible part of any system, it’s best not rely on them to much.

Time Machine for the Mac

For the Mac I use Time Machine which is Apple’s own super easy to setup backup software. To use Time Machine just plug an external hard drive into your Mac, if it’s formatted for the Mac you should be prompted if you want to use it as a Time Machine drive, just click OK and you’re good to go.

mac disk utility and format OS X extended

You might need to reformat a disk to OS X extended for it to work with Time Machine using Disk Utilities.

Most hard drives are sold pre-formatted for the PC so you might need to reformat the disc with ‘Disk Utility’ which can be found in the Applications/Utilities/. In Disk utility click on the disc you what to use for Time Machine backup, in the Format option make sure that “OS X extended (journaled)” is selected and then click Erase (this will delete all data currently on the disk). Once formatting is complete, the disc will remount and you’ll be prompted if you want to use the disc as a Time Machine disk. If you are not prompted open your “System Preferences” click on “Time Machine” and click “Add or Remove Backup Disk…” then select your new drive. Once set up the first backup will run which can take hours, after this subsequent backups will only take minutes as Time Machine only copies new data.

Another option is to use an Apple Time Capsule with your Mac, although 3x the private of a hard drive of the same size it’s wireless so if your Mac will be backed up as soon as it’s near the device and you won’t have to remember to plug anything in. You can backup multiple Macs to one Time Capsule the only limiting factor is that all Macs will have to share the 2-3TB backup space between them. The 2TB version of Time Capsule is available from Amazon UK for £215.98 (cheaper than from Apple) and $299 from Amazon US.

File History for Windows 8

Windows 8 also has it’s own backup software: File History which works in a similar way to Apple’s Time Machine. I have not personally used it but from what I can gather it has a few limiting factors: You can only use one backup disk and it will only backup files saved in specific locations, so if photo library is on a disk other than your system disc File History will not back it up.

Crashplan for Windows and Mac

Crashplan is extremely versatile backup software which allows you to have multiple destinations and backup sets. Different backup sets can be specified which means different sets of data are sent to separate locations. This means you could backup your photos to an external drive and all your personal files to the cloud. Crashplan is free and it enables you to backup to local drives, other computers on your local network and the cloud. Backing up to the cloud requires you pay a monthly subscription. I use Crashplan in conjunction with Time Machine but more about that below.


CrashPlan automated backup

My Backup setup

The Guardian Technology correspondent Jack Schfild’s 2nd law of computing is: “Data doesn’t really exist unless you have two copies of it. Preferably more.” It means that if you only have your computer files in one place they could at any point just disappear as drives can become corrupted, breakdown or get lost or stolen. The more places you have your computer files the more likely they are to survive into the future. For this reason I’ve 3 backups, 4 if include the original copy on the disk drive I work off.

Backup Number one: Internal or permanently connected external drive

I have a Mac Pro which is a chunky big machine that sits under my desk, one of the advantages of this is that I can install up to 4 hard drives in my computer. If you have an older Mac Pro or a PC with more than one spare drive bay I’d always opt for an internal backup drive, internal backup is preferred option as it’s faster than an external drive. I’ve a 6TB internal backup drive, it’s got more than enough capacity to backup other drives containing my 2.6TB of photos and my system disk. If you have an iMac or laptop you can use an external drive but you have to make sure it’s plugged in so things are constantly backed up. A 6TB internal hard drive currently costs £174.99 from Amazon UK and $222.99 from Amazon US. As a side note you don’t have to get the fastest most expensive drives, you need high performance drives for tasks like video editing but not for backup. It will make no difference to you if backups run slightly slower.

Permanently connected so backups are taken every hour
If it’s an internal drive backups are super quick
If something happens to your computer like theft, drive goes with it.

Backup number two: external hard drive stored off site

In the worst case scenario of your computer and regular backup being lost or damaged in some kind of disaster you’re going to need a backup for your backup. For this I have a 4TB external hard drive that I keep at my home (my work computer is at my office). Every Friday I bring my external drive to work plug it in and let it backup the new week’s worth of images, at the end of the day I take it home.

If anything happens to your computer’s location you’re covered.
Because it’s an external drive and backups are taken irregularly it can take a few hours depending how much data you have accumulated since the last backup.
Physical off site backups have to rely on a human to remember to initiate the backup and take it away once it’s done.

Backup Number 3: Cloud backup via CrashPlan

This is the ultimate data insurance policy for the unlikely event that I loose my computer plus my two physical backups. For $12 a month I can backup unlimited data from 5 computers to CrashPlan’s servers. Currently I have around 3TB of data backed up on Crashplan. The major drawback with online backup is it’s slow, I am really lucky that I have an insanely fast connection at my office which is 27x faster than the UK average. If you shot a few GB of images they might take a few nights to upload on an average connection and your first backup may take months depending on how much data you have.

CrashPlan Offsite Backup

CrashPlan offers unlimited backup for multiple computers for a low price.

As long as you have a fast internet connection you are always backed up.
Backups are off site so if there is a disaster like theft fire or flood you’re covered.
Depending on your internet connection backups can take a long time.

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2 Responses to Photo Library / Lightroom Library Backup Guide

  1. drmsys says:

    My 2nd rule of data: If you have the same data in more than one place it is different!

    • lomokev says:

      I can see where you are coming from in the terms of text files and frequently edited files. When it comes to Photos and Lightroom the RAW photos are untouched and never changed, it’s just the Lightroom catalog that changes.

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