I often find myself explaining my computer setup and backup routine to people for one reason or another.  It’s astounding to me how many people don’t have their photos backed up, but often it’s not because they don’t know about the dangers, and more because they are confused by the options out there.

My own office setup and protection routines are regularly changing as technology evolves, and to some extent as my business evolves.  The core concepts always remain the same, but the specific equipment might change from time to time. I thought it would be a good idea to document those changes, and write a new one of these posts every 6-12 months so that it builds up a useful resource that can help people figure out the best solution for their photography.

One of these core concepts that I’ll refer to from time to time is the notion that a photo doesn’t really exist until you have it stored in three different places.  The fact is that hard drives will fail, as sure as the moon will rise tomorrow.  The only difference is that unlike the moon, we won’t know when it’s going to happen.  Hard drives (or solid state drives for that matter) are mechanical, and after a while all mechanical things fail.  If you don’t have your photos backed up then you’re playing chicken with your hard earned images every single day.  You might get lucky and your drive might last ten years, or last long enough that you upgrade to a newer model and start a new game of chicken with that one.  But equally, you might find a drive fails just a few days after you’ve purchased it.  It only takes a small piece of dirt to be trapped inside your drive during the manufacturing process and all of a sudden the head (the part that reads the data off the spinning disk) gets jammed and it’s dead.

So we need to back up everything that’s on one disk, onto another disk to provide some redundancy against drive failures.  That’s the second copy, but what about the third copy that I spoke of?  If both copies of your photos are stored in the same location, then your photos aren’t secure.  You also need to have an off-site backup of the same images in order to reach what I would consider to be the absolute minimum backup requirements. Fire, flood and theft are just some of the things that could wipe out all your images if your only copies are all stored in the same location.

As I walk you through my current setup, please keep this core concept in mind.  You’ll see that I actually go several steps beyond this “minimum requirement”, but I’ll explain my thought process on that as we go through each step.

My early 2015 computer computer setup

Before I talk about the backup routines, it’s also important to understand the computer setup I’m using.  If I just had a single machine, then the routine would be different to one that also involves secondary machines or laptops.  This can be an important distinction because I’ve come across several people who have their backup systems sorted out very well on their main office computer, but essentially leave things to chance when they work from a laptop on the road.  This is why I’m very specifically explaining my setup in this regard.

As of early 2015, my computer system consisted of a Late 2014 27″ Apple iMac and a 2013 11″ Macbook Air.  The majority of my editing work was done on the iMac in the office, whereas the Macbook Air was used simply for downloading memory cards while I’m on the road, and keeping up with emails and blog posts.  The small 11″ screen was fine for that kind of work, and even occasional photo editing in Photoshop if absolutely necessary.

My early 2015 drive setup – mobile system

When you have two computers, you need two backup systems, so I’ll tackle them individually.  Since I use Macs, I make use of the Time Machine backup system that creates incremental backups automatically to an external drive.  This system is ideal for backup up your documents and system files that are on the internal drive of your computer.  For my laptop, I designated a 500GB LaCie Rugged drive to be my Laptop Time Machine.  The general feeling is that you should have a Time Machine drive that’s at least twice the size of the disk that you’re backing up.  500GB was fine, since my Macbook Air has a 256GB drive that’s never full.  I don’t plug the Time Machine into the laptop all that often because I don’t tend to change a lot of files on the laptop and since no photos are every backed up by it, it’s not critical to do on a daily basis with that machine.

For storing photos on the road I have a 2TB LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt drive and a 1TB G-Tech EV ATC.  Depending on the situation, I might download cards in the filed using Lightroom or Photo Mechanic, but both programs allow for duplicates to be created during the import process so memory card contents are backed up right away in two places simultaneously.  With the copy of the image that’s still on the memory card, there we have our three copies.


G-Drive EV ATC

I try not to format memory cards until I’m home, but obviously at some point that becomes impractical on very long photo expeditions.  In those situations I can create a third copy of my 4* and 5* images to the internal drive on my laptop, or upload those to Google Drive if I have the internet availability.  Keeping three copies of your work, and keeping one of those in a different location can be tough when you’re on the road, but it’s important to do as best you can.

One of the most important things to do is split your hard drives up when you are traveling.  If you have two drives, put one in your suitcase and one in your carryon luggage.  For this very reason, I DO NOT recommend only using portable RAID drives for your backup duplications on the road.  There are some great RAID devices like the LaCie Rugged RAID which provide redundant backups automatically by cloning your data to two drives at the same time.  These two drives live in the same little box, though!  You can’t split them up when you travel.  If it’s in your suitcase then it could “go missing” at the hands of a baggage handler, and if it’s in your laptop carryon bag then it could be pick pocketed, you could accidentally leave your laptop bag somewhere or you could be mugged.  The first two things are the most likely.  We’ve all been in the situation where you’re rushing through an airport with a cart load of bags and you need to reach Terminal 97 from Terminal 1a, in 15 minutes.  A monorail ride and a bus ride later, do you still have everything you started with?  It happens…

In most situations when I’m on the road, I try and keep one copy of my images on me at all times. If I have the ability to keep one of the three copies on my memory cards, then I have my trusty MindShift memory card holder clipped to my belt loop at all times.  If I need to use drives, then I’ll have a drive in my pocket, or my backpack at all times.  Photography trips are expensive, it’s not worth taking any chances.

So, to sum up the current mobile system, I have three drives:

One of those three copies remains on me at all times, and where internet is available, my best images are uploaded to the cloud as well in small numbers on Google Drive.  I use Google Drive for Business and it costs me $10/month for unlimited storage.

My early 2015 drive setup – office system

My main backup drives in my office are Drobo 5Ds, for now (more on that at the end of the post).  The Drobo system has a lot going for it if you want to store a large volume of data in a cost effective fashion.  The box will take any combination of drives and create a redundant volume that can withstand a drive failure without any data loss.  Technically speaking it’s not a RAID drive, because Drobo’s system is proprietary.  I’ve had many drive failures in Drobos and I’ve never lost any data whatsoever.  The problem I quickly became aware of a few years ago, though, is that if the actual Drobo fails, then you might have some problems.  Due to the proprietary nature of their system, the drives MUST be in a Drobo to work. If your Drobo unit fails in some way, you will be without your precious data until you can get a new Drobo.  If you’re working on time sensitive projects then this could be a really big issue.


Drobo 5D

After some issues with my early Drobo units, I decided to run two Drobo 5Ds which are mirror images of each other.  That way I have redundancy within each machine, and also a complete backup unit should one of the actual Drobo units fail.  I treat one Drobo as the “Main” and one as the “Backup”.  All photos get imported into Drobo Main, and then every night at 11pm, a program called Carbon Copy Cloner mirrors Drobo Main onto Drobo Backup.  This software is incredible, and it’s so easy to use.  I love it!  It scans the files first and then only copies new ones onto Drobo Backup.

Next up is a 4TB G-Tech G-Drive that acts as my Time Machine for the iMac.  It’s much bigger than my laptop Time Machine because the iMac has a 3TB internal drive and whilst I’ve never filled that up, there’s a couple of TBs worth of data.

The 4th drive on my desk is an interesting one that was born out of experience, and recently paid off again.  This drive is called “Boot Clone” and is a clone of my iMac’s boot drive.  Carbon Copy Cloner creates this and updates it every two days. This clone is important because it is a bootable clone of a drive which means that it actually contains the computer operating system and in the event of a drive failure in the computer, you can actually boot your computer off the clone.  You see, Time Machine is great for an automated incremental backup, but if the main drive in your computer dies, you can’t get to your Time Machine files.  You have to replace the drive in your computer first.  In the old days that might not be a problem that would take too long to fix, but since Apple has created hermetically sealed computers these days, you can’t just pop them open and replace a drive on your own. An internal drive failure might mean returning the whole computer to a repair centre.  A big inconvenience if you’re working on a project.  A bootable clone is a perfect clone of your whole system.  If your drive fails, you simple boot the computer from the clone instead and everything will appear to be exactly how it was before.  All your files are there, all your programs are there.  It’s indistinguishable from your normal drive.  This means that if your internal drive fails, you can be back up and running in less than a minute.  Now, at some point you’ll have to fix/replace the broken internal drive, but you can do it on your own timeframe once you’re done working on your project.

I put this clone system into place when I faced this situation once before, and it recently saved my ass again.  Upon returning from a month-long trip to the Canadian Rockies, I needed to get to work on some important projects as soon as I got home.  Sure enough, when I went to turn on the iMac, the drive failed immediately. Luckily I had a boot clone and was able to start the computer with that and run it from that external drive for several days until I was caught up on work and had enough time to fix the busted drive.

The next part of my system is very easy.  As I already mentioned, I use Google Drive cloud storage,  This is where I back up all my documents and files like my website backups.  I don’t use the default document folders in my Mac, instead I have everything other than my applications, stored inside the Google Drive folder. This means they are all continuously synced to the cloud without me having to do a thing.

The final part of the puzzle is the need for a third copy of my photos at another physical location.  In my geographical location, I simply can’t get the internet upload speeds that would be necessary to use cloud backup services like Back Blaze or Crash Plan.  It’s jus not an option.  Not only is upload speed severely limited, but when you do upload large files, download speed is throttled at the same time.  Instead, I use a 12TB Western Digital MyBook which I’ve previously reviewed on the site.  One of the other tricks that Caron Copy Cloner has is that you can trigger backup task when a specific drive is connected.  When it detects that this WD drive has been connected, it copies all new files from Drobo Backup, onto the 16TB off-site drive.  This drive is then packaged up in  Pelican Storm case and moved to a friends house.  I try to do this immediately after every major shoot.

I’ll be the first to admit that this last part is the weakest bit of my routine. Backup routines should all be automated, but I’ve not been able to solve that one with my internet connection. As camera’s produce ever increasing file sizes, and 4K video starts to take hold, a 32GB card can be filled in a flash.

So to sum up my office backup system:

  • Main Drobo 5D for photos (internally redundant)
  • Backup Drobo 5D for photos, cloned nightly from Main using Carbon Copy Cloner for double redundancy
  • 4TB G-Tech G-Drive for Time Machine to keep backups of all documents and internal computer files
  • Second G-Tech drive is a bootable clone of my iMac boot drive, created every other night by Carbon Copy Cloner
  • All documents are synced to the cloud using Google Drive
  • Third copy of photos stored off-site using a 12TB Western Digital drive that’s kept in a Pelican case.


A special note on Drobos and why I’ll be getting rid of them

I’ve had an up ad down relationship with a variety of Drobos over the last 7 or 8 years.  Prior to the Drobo 5D, it was mostly down, but the 5D model seemed to represent a new level of stability in the system and I’m glad they haven’t updated it in a long time because this means it’s a known quantity.  However… I recently had a rather loud noise begin to come from within one of my 5D units.  It seems a fan bearing has gone after several years of usage.  No problem I thought, I’ll just send it in for a repair.  Fan’s cost just a few dollars and it’s simple wear and tear that is to be expected.

Problem:  After explaining the issue to the Drobo support agent he informed me that there was nothing to be done about it since my Drobo was out of warranty.  I knew that, and I wasn’t asking for it to be fixed under warranty.  I thought he must have misunderstood me but after another couple of exchanges I discovered that Drobo offers absolutely no servicing for out of warranty products at all, even if you want to pay them for it.

Their suggestion was to buy a new Drobo ($700), when a $5 part had failed.  In my book this is not acceptable.  It’s like buying a whole new car when you get a cracked windshield.  Please also remember that the Drobo 5D is FAR from their most expensive unit.  What would happen if you had the $16,000 B1200I ?!!

All of the good will towards Drobo that had finally been clawed back with the up-to-this-point reliable 5D, has been wiped out.  I can no longer recommend that you guys buy Drobos if they can’t offer any kind of paid servicing on simple parts that are prone to wear out, like fans.  Since they’ll happily sell you an extended Drobo Care service policy, it seems they have some ability to perform repairs, but they’d much rather try and get you to buy a whole new unit.  I understand that not all things could be repaired, motherboards, RAM failures etc etc.  If those things go after a few years, the unit is toast. But we’re talking minor parts that are worth mere dollars and held in with just a few screws.  It should be possible to have these kinds of things fixed. Period.

As it stands, I still have my two Drobos, but I will not be buying more Drobos in the future, nor can I honestly recommend that you do either.  Yes, they’ve been reliable (the 5D anyway), and yes they are cost effective, but completely unserviceable? Not cool.  In fact, I’ll be looking for replacements for these two units in the coming months.  One of which still has the annoying rattling noise that lead me to discover this disappointing “service” policy in the first place.  I’ll almost certainly move to Synology units.

What is your routine?  Where do you need to make improvements? Leave a comment below!

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