A (Lightroom) photo backup and storage workflow might not be the most exciting thing for a photographer, but it is one of the most important ones. Learning how to backup your photo library to an external hard drive or the cloud makes sure your work (and that of your clients!) is safe should something bad happen. Whether that’s your hard drive crashing, theft or fire.
For some reason though many photographers have no system in place, or a clue about how to go about it.
Of course there are already quite a lot of articles online covering how to backup your images as a photographer (see here and here for example), but I found them to be either to vague or to narrow (“just buy this $$$ NAS”).
So this post details a framework that every photographer can use, whether pro or amateur. For the framework, it doesn’t matter if you’re a wedding photographer with millions of images from all those weddings, or an amateur portrait photographer that just shoots a couple hundred images per session.
For each step and use case I’ll give you cheap and expensive options, the essentials and the ultimate version.
Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
You don’t need much to make sure your images are safe and secure whatever happens. And for each element in the system you have a couple of options depending on how fancy you want to get, your budget, and the amount of images you need to backup and store.
Each setup needs a mix of software, hardware and (optionally) cloud storage tools. I’ll go over all the options below so you can make some informed decisions for your own situation later on when setting up your own image backup and storage workflow with the help of this guide.
As we’ll see below, the best backups happen automatic. To do this, you need the right software that acts as the glue between all your backups, keeping everything in sync whenever you add or change any images or documents.
- Bvckup (Windows): The workhorse of my backup and storage workflow, and I couldn’t live without it. As they say on their website: “Light, versatile and very capable software for professional data replication. Select a pair of folders and it will make sure that one stays an exact copy of the other.”
- Time Machine (Mac):
While cloud storage solutions are becoming more affordable and feasible (see below), storing and backing up your images on hard drives is still the most common option.
There are a couple of options, each with it’s own advantages and disadvantages.
External Hard Drives
Regular external hard drives are the most used storage devices for images. Especially with laptops being used more and more instead of a dedicated workstation.
Their portability and affordability are what make them so popular. This enables you to take them anywhere, even to shoots and vacations abroad.
The primary consideration when buying an external hard drive is the amount of storage space.
Everything depends on how many images you create on a yearly basis, but I find 4TB to be the sweet spot. Drives of 2TB will often fill up to fast and you’ll end up with a lot of drives. 6TB and more is great, but when something goes wrong with the drive or it gets stolen you’ll lose a large amount of date in one go.
- Can be used with multiple computer setups.
- Easy to get damaged, lost or stolen.
- Slower read and write speeds, working with RAW files straight from the drive will slow down your work.
Internal Hard Drives
Internal hard drives are almost the same as their external versions, but are mostly made to live in the case of a dedicated computer.
As such they are a bit cheaper and safer. Since they don’t get tossed in bags all the time or lying around on shoots ready to get stolen less things can happen to them.
- Difficult to get damaged, lost or stolen.
- Not portable.
- Limited to 1 computer.
- Faster read and write speeds.
Solid State Drives
Both external and internal hard drives are also available as Solid State Drives. These are becoming more and more affordable, and offer multiple benefits over their external and internal hard drive counterparts.
Since there are no moving parts, they are less prone to getting damaged and much smaller. This makes them ideal drives to take with you during your shoots or travels. They are also much faster in reading and writing your images to an from the drive.
This comes at a price though, as SSD’s are still pretty expensive compared to regular hard drives.
That said, the Samsung T5 external SSD is an integral part of my photo backup and storage workflow, and I’ll show you why below. Especially if you’re working with a multi computer setup.
- Difficult to get damaged.
- Ideal for multi computer setups.
DAS and NAS Systems
DAS (Direct-Attached Storage) and NAS (Network-Attached Storage) are basically a bunch of internal hard drives working together in an enclosure. The main difference between the two is, as the name says, that you access a DAS by attaching it directly to your computer with a cable, while you access a NAS over a network.
This means a NAS system has some advantages over a DAS, but it’s also more expensive because a NAS is not directly connected to a computer, so it requires its own CPU and memory in order to manage its storage.
Other advantages of accessing your files over a network on a NAS is that they are available anywhere (also when you’re not at home/the office) and from multiple computers at the same time.
The main disadvantage of a NAS versus a DAS (except price) is speed. Unless you have a very fast network, accessing images through a connected cable is much faster than over a network.
So why would you want to use a DAS or NAS to store your RAW files?
First of all, this let’s you have all your images in one place, even if you have a massive amount. This way they are all accessible in your Lightroom catalog from a single drive. No need to swap hard drives for different projects, or keep a whole collection of external hard drives in a drawer somewhere.
The second reason is that it enables you to use a RAID system. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive (or Independent) Disks. You can read more about the different type of RAID setups here, but this basically means that you can protect yourself from drive failures.
RAID mirrors your data across multiple drives. So when a hard drive inside the unit fails you can simply replace that single drive and you don’t lose your work, as the system will make sure to recover everything on the broken drive. That said, a RAID setup is NOT (I repeat, NOT) a backup strategy, as we’ll talk about below.
A third advantage of using a DAS or NAS is that it can grow with you. You can start out with your basic needs and just add or upgrade to larger hard drives as your photo collection grows.
- All your images accessible and in one location (easy for Lightroom catalogs).
- RAID system setups
- Can grow with your photo collection.
- Accessible from everywhere and multiple computers over a network (when using a NAS).
- Most expensive
- Slower (when accessing over a network with a NAS)
NAS/DAS Hard Drive Recommendations
More and more photographers are opting for cloud storage of their photos. With these these services you can upload your images to their cloud servers. This allows for convenient access to your files from any Internet-connected computer/device, or getting them back after a drive gets stolen or breaks down.
The main problem is the sheer amount of data RAW files contain these days. 1TB of storage space holds about 25,000 RAW images depending on your camera, and many photographers will have collections much larger than that.
Another thing to watch out for is your home internet speed and any data caps. This could mean that it could take you a couple of days to upload all of your images from a single wedding shoot for example.
That said, backing up and storing your images in the cloud is still a great option if you do it right, and I’ll show you how below.
- Accessible from anywhere.
- Nothing to break or get stolen.
- Slow, better for backing up than storing working images.
What is a backup?
Before we get into exactly how to backup and store your images, let’s first look at what a back up is and, more important, what it isn’t.
As our trusted Wikipedia tells us, a backup is a copy of computer data taken and stored elsewhere so that it may be used to restore the original after a data loss event.
This data loss may be caused by a hard drive failing, a virus, theft, flood, fire, losing your laptop or hard drive, accidentally deleting images,… And rest assured, at some point this WILL happen to you.
The 3-2-1 Backup System
If you ever looked something up about backups, you probably came across the 3-2-1 backup system. It’s an easy-to-remember acronym for a common approach to keeping your images safe in almost any failure scenario.
The system goes like this:
- 3: Have at least 3 total copies of your images (The 2 and 1 of the rest of the “3-2-1” acronym).
- 2: Have 2 local copies of your images on 2 different physical drives. One is your working drive for your working images, the other your local backup. Keep these in sync automatically with software on a regular basis. By using 2 different drives, you are protected when one of them fails.
- 1: Have 1 offsite backup of your images. Keep this one in sync with your local backup with software on a regular basis.
The local backup is a simple way of having quick access to your data should anything happen to your working drive. These can be kept in sync on a short schedule (for example hourly), making sure you can lose at most the work of the last cycle.
While having a local backup is a great start, they don’t protect you from fires, flood, and theft. That’s why having an offsite backup is a key component in having a complete backup strategy.
This offsite backup can be a physical drive that you keep somewhere safe on a different location (not in the same building at least), or an online cloud service.
That said, I prefer a mix of both physical and online offsite backups which makes it more of a 3-2-2 system or, if you want to go all out with rotating offsite physical disks, a 3-2-3 system!
This 3-2-1 (or 3-2-2 / 3-2-3) backup system is also at the heart of the backup framework I’ll show you below.
RAID Is NOT A Backup
As we saw above, DAS or NAS setups provide you with the option to use a RAID system.
These RAID systems are great, and I do recommend you use them if you have the money, but they are NOT a backup.
(More about the difference between RAID and backups)
While they do protect you from hard drive failures, there are 2 problems:
- Something can always go wrong with the RAID system. Either the RAID enclosure itself fails and will stop working, or errors can happen when trying to rebuild the data after a drive failure.
- A RAID system doesn’t protect you from fire, flood or theft.
As such, never rely on a RAID system only to keep your images safe.
The Best (Lightroom) Photo Backup And Storage Workflow EVER [The Framework]
Here’s the total framework:
So let’s go through it step by step!
Step 1: Safe Shooting
Backing up your photos starts as soon as you’re making them.
While this may seem like overkill sometimes, I’ll bet you’ll be happy you took the time to read and implement this part the moment you have an SD-card from an important shoot (like a wedding) malfunction. Nobody wants to go tell a bride they just lost some valuable images that can never be created again.
Of course this is less of a thing if you can redo things (like product shoots), but even then it’ll be a massive waste of time.
Luckily there are a couple of simple things you can do to make sure nothing goes wrong at this point.
- Use quality memory cards. Even those from good brands like Sandisk are very affordable. I use the 32GB, 64GB and 128GB versions of the Sandisk Extreme cards.
- Use multiple smaller SD cards instead of 1 large one. This way, if one fails you lose only a part of a shoot instead of everything. I keep mine in a 2 special cases that I keep on me at all times. One for empty ones, one for full ones.
- Use a large SD/CF card as an in camera backup. Most pro cameras support dual memory card slots that can write your images to both at the same time. For example, when shooting a wedding I’ll use one large SD card (128GB) and 4 small ones (32GB). I’ll swap the small ones as soon as they are about full, and the larger one stays in the camera as a backup for the smaller ones.
- Only format your SD cards as soon as you’ve put the images on your working drive and they are backup-ed locally. This way you’ll always have at least 2 copies, even if your camera doesn’t have a second memory card slot. SD cards are cheap enough to have a couple of them. Especially while traveling or on larger shoots, I’ll have a whole case of them with me.
As you can see, there is almost no excuse for losing your images before they make it to your working drive and are safely on your local backup.
So go buy a couple of those SD cards, now!
Let’s move on to the next step.
Step 2: Storing The Raw Files And Lightroom Catalog On Your Working Drive(s)
As soon as I arrive home or in my hotel room I’ll plug in my SD cards and copy (not transfer) my RAW images onto my working drive.
You can do this by just dragging them over in your explorer/finder window, with Hedge, Photo Mechanic or while importing them into your Lightroom Catalog.
While this is probably what most of you do already, there are 2 important things to cover at this point. First, the “location” of your Lightroom Catalog and the use of Smart Previews, and secondly your choice of hardware for your main storage drive.
Where To Put Your Lightroom Catalog And Why Smart Previews Are Awesome (Especially In A Multi Computer Setup)
The answer to where you should put your Lightroom Catalog is actually quite simple: On your fastest drive, preferably an SSD.
This way, starting up and working with Lightroom will go as fast as possible, speeding up your workflow considerably.
In some cases this could also be the same drive as where you store your RAW files, but I generally would stay away from this. Especially since most large capacity drives are quite slow (see below).
The last couple of years computers and laptops come with an internal SSD as their main drive, so this is the perfect location to put your catalog if your working with a single computer setup.
However if you’re working with multiple computers, I highly recommend you get an external SSD and put your Lightroom Catalog on there.
I’ve been using my trusted Samsung T5 for a couple of years now and it’s been perfect every step of the way.
It seamlessly let’s me switch between my laptop on location and while traveling, and my dedicated high end editing computer at home without any loss of speed. Just plug it in and start working.
While I’m away for a couple of days on shoots it even acts as a temporary backup drive until I get home to sync everything with my main local backup.
And even better, when coupled together with the power of Smart Previews, you get speed and freedom you never knew existed before while working with your images.
For those of you that don’t know what Smart Previews are, they are much smaller versions of your RAW files (with a maximum size of 2540 pixels on their longest edge).
They get created from the original raw files and they are stored in a folder in the same location as your Lightroom catalog.
There are many benefits of working with Smart Previews, but this is the most important one: “Continue to work with your Smart Preview files even when the device containing your original photographs is disconnected. You can perform all edits that you would perform on the original file.”
That is awesome.
It means I can edit my images anywhere without having to carry my main storage drives with me all the time. Even better, because they are much smaller and are stored on my SSD, it speeds up the editing massively since Lightroom doesn’t has to load the RAW file every time.
Because they are so small compared to the original RAW files, they also easily fit on your drive without taking up to much storage space.
And as soon as you connect your storage drive with the original RAW files again, all the edits get synced.
So what do you need to do to enable this?
Just enable “create Smart Previews” while importing your images, or select all your existing images and go to Library -> Previews -> Create Smart Previews and you’re good to go.
Choosing The Right Hardware For Your Main Storage Drive
While it’s best to store your Lightroom catalog and Smart Previews on a fast SSD, this is less important for your RAW files.
Since with this system there is almost no need to access the RAW files directly, you can store them on slower but cheaper mechanical hard drives.
Your choice of where to store you RAW files depends on 3 things:
- How much money you are willing to spend.
- How many RAW files you need to store.
- Whether you want the added convenience of a DAS or NAS system.
I’ve covered most options in the “hardware” section in the beginning of this article, but in general this leaves you with these options:
- Store your images on an external hard drive (I recommend going with a 4TB drive). This is the cheapest option and lets you grow with your collection easily. Just buy another drive when you need it. (Pro tip: keep an excel file that lets you know which shoot is on which drive when your collection grows, trust me).
- Store your images on your internal hard drive if you have a workstation and not that many images or if you can expand your storage easily by adding another internal drive.
- Get a DAS or NAS to store your images. This gives you extra security if you configure them in a RAID setup, makes your images accessible through your network (with a NAS) and it shows up as a single drive in your Lightroom catalog, eliminating the need to swap hard drives for different projects. It’s also easy to add extra storage capacity by adding new or larger hard drives. Of course, this also the most expensive option.
Step 3: The Local Backup
Now comes the most important part: backing up your photos and Lightroom catalog!
First of all and as I said before, I only try to format my memory cards when this step is done.
Secondly, you have two options at this point: Either back up everything, or selectively backup your images. Of course this depends on your personal preference and is also a matter of how much money you are willing to spend.
How to backup your entire Lightroom catalog and photo library to an external hard drive.
To create your backups, you’ll need 2 things:
- The same amount of storage space for you backups as your main storage drives.
- Software to keep everything in sync automatically.
So either you buy all your drives in pairs, adding a internal/external backup drive as soon as you buy a new internal/external hard drive for your RAW files, or you can use larger drives or a DAS for your backups.
There is no reason to get a NAS for your local backups, as this system should be purely backup oriented. If you want to access your files over a network, get a NAS as your main storage system.
- You have three 4TB internal/external storage drives and three 4TB internal/external backup drives.
- You have two 4TB internal/external storage drives and one 8TB internal/external back drive.
- You have three 6TB internal/external storage drives and one 18TB DAS backup system.
- You have one 14TB DAS/NAS storage system and one 14TB DAS backup system.
Then, you’ll have to make sure to plugin the backup drive and the storage drive at the same time as much as possible (this always the case with internal hard drives of course), and have a great software tool in place to create the backups automatically.
If you’re on Windows, I highly recommend Bvckup2.
- Backups can be pinned to specific removable devices so that they will run only when these devices are present. They can also be set to run on device arrival.
- It uses “delta copying”, a method of updating existing files that skips over any unmodified parts and copies over only blocks that actually change. It helps dramatically in cutting down processing time of very large, but slowly-changing files like raw photos (see the gif below to see how fast it is)
- Backups can also be set to run periodically, at fixed intervals. It’s also possible to set them to not run during certain times.
- Items that are deleted at source can be moved to a special folder and deleted from there after a grace period.
It’s the glue between everything and the main component of my whole backup strategy.
It has also never ever failed me.
Here’s how to set it up:
First create a backup rule for your Lightroom catalog.
For this, just select File –> Add new backup.
Then in the “Backup from” field choose the folder where your Lightroom catalog is located, and in the “Backup to” field point it to a folder on your local backup drive where you want to back up your catalog.
In the description field you can detail which backup rule this is (you’ll be adding a few more later on), but leave the most of the other settings as the default.
There is only one important other setting you should change, so click “Change” in the “When to backup” field.
Then click Edit details… next to the “Every x hours” option and change the backup interval to something you’re comfortable with.
I like to run it every 2 hours.
Also, make sure to tick the “Run as soon as it becomes possible” radio button for missed backups. This makes sure your backup runs as soon as you plug in a drive that has a backup rule associated with it.
Then just click “Set” and “Create”, watch the initial backup run, and you’re done.
From now on, your backups are created automatically at scheduled intervals!
Then repeat the exact same process for each of your RAW storage drives, associating a drive and it’s RAW files on it with your local backup drive(s) or DAS system.
Just make sure to plug in all your drives and their associated backups regularly and Bvckup2 will take care of everything automatically.
Pro Tip: Even though we’ve created a backup of our Lightroom catalog already, I like to use the “Automatically write changes to XMP” option in the Lightroom settings. This saves changes you make to your images in a file that gets saved (and thus backup-ed) in the same location as your RAW files.
Of course if you’re on Mac, you can use the exact same process by using Time Machine or SuperDuper!.
Selectively Backup Images With Lightroom
The problem with backing up all of your RAW images, even all those you haven’t edited or selected, is that you’ll need a lot of storage space for your backups as well which costs a lot of money.
There are 2 solutions to this problem:
- Either delete all your unused images from time to time. This also means less storage space needed for your main storage drives. The drawback is that you’ll never be able to go back to those deleted images ever again.
- Only back up a selection of your images while keeping all your images on your main drives intact, accepting that you’ll lose all those you haven’t backed up if a storage drive fails.
If you don’t mind throwing away your “bad” RAW files, I suggest you use the first option. You can still use the above method and back up all your remaining images.
In case you want to keep all (or most) of your images while only backing up a selection, you’ll need a small work around.
The problem is that there is no way for your automatic backup program (like Bvckup) to know which RAW files you want to back up, as this selection only exists in Lightroom.
This means you’ll have to export your selection of RAW images manually to your backup drive from within Lightroom.
This is the main drawback of this method, as you’ll be responsible yourself for creating the backups without a schedule program on a regular basis.
Luckily it’s easy and fast so you can do it after each shoot.
Especially with the help of Jeffrey Friedl’s free Folder Publisher Lightroom plugin.
This Lightroom “Publish” plugin allows you to export copies of your Lightroom photos to your backup drive in a folder hierarchy that mimics the folder hierarchy in your Lightroom catalog.
Unlike a normal export, this Publish service allows you to create an ongoing relationship between the images in Lightroom and the copies on your backup. The folders in your backup are refreshed for any changes (new images, removed images, and image changes) each time you “Publish”.
So, go ahead and install the plugin first.
Then go into the Lightroom Publishing Manager and select the jf Folder Publisher plugin and name your Publish Service.
Most other settings are self-explanatory, but make sure to get these right:
“Publish Tree” should point to a folder on your local backup drive (mine is H:).
“File Settings” should be set to Original, this way when you run the publish job the original RAW files will be copied to your backup drive, together with their sidecar XMP files if you’ve chosen to create these as well.
Then hit Save.
After this you’ll need to define a “Smart Collection” by clicking the + symbol.
This collection is a group of images based on rules and combinations of rules. This can be anything you like, for example all the images that are “flagged”, or all images with 3 stars that have edits.
All the images in this smart collection will then be backup-ed and monitored for changes each time you use the plugin to publish the images.
New images will be added, removed images deleted and changed images will be updated on your local backup drive.
Hit Save and you’re done.
Now make sure to click “publish” often, and the plugin will make sure everything gets backed up on your local backup drive.
Of course, backing up your Lightroom catalog and smart previews remains the same as above by using an automatic backup program like Bvckup.
Why Local Backups Shouldn’t Be Online Backups
First off all, because of the nature of online backups they can’t be local per definition.
But still, a lot of people often skip the local backup and just use an online cloud service to back up everything.
There are couple of reasons why you shouldn’t do that:
- While creating a local backup of a whole shoot can be done in a couple of minutes (or even seconds), it can take a while for your RAW files to be uploaded to the cloud. If somethings goes wrong before everything is uploaded, you’ll lose your images.
- If you ever need to recover your images, it’s also much faster to get them from a local drive instead of downloading a couple terabytes of data.
- Price and speed of your internet connection are still a massive concern.
With that, it’s time for the last step in this backup workflow!
Step 4: The Off-Site Backup
As we save above, having an off-site backup is vital if you want to be absolutely sure nothing can happen with your images in case of theft, flood,… so make sure to do this regularly and keep you backup drive(s) somewhere else if you want to use physical drives.
This completes the 3-2-1 backup system we talked about, and can even be upgraded to a 3-2-2 system.
There are a couple of options.
Online Cloud Backups (3-2-1)
If you have a stable internet connection with enough data I recommend you always back up your images and Lightroom catalogs online.
The price of unlimited storage space for an online cloud service like Backblaze is almost negligible at around $6/month or less, and is definitely worth the peace of mind it brings you.
Even better is that it’s totally automatic, so once you’ve set it up your images will be safe without you needing to do anything.
So go subscribe to a Backblaze account (they have a free 15 day trial).
Then once you’ve installed the program, open up the Backblaze control panel and choose “Settings…”.
Here you can select which hard drives to back up, so choose your local backup drive and hit OK.
For some reason you can’t uncheck your main computer drive however. You can leave this like it is to have Backblaze backup your computer as well, or go into “exclusions” and add the folders on your main drive that you don’t want to back up.
Backblaze will now run in the background, uploading all your RAW files to their servers whenever your backup drive is plugged in.
In the beginning this may take a while, as all your current images have to be uploaded first. After that it’ll be much faster as only new images and changes will get uploaded.
Off-Site Drive (3-2-1)
If you don’t want or can upload all your images to the cloud, you can always use another external hard drive.
The main advantage is that syncing drives is much faster than uploading images to the cloud.
The process here is much the same as we’ve discussed in “How to backup your entire Lightroom catalog and photo library to an external hard drive.”
Only this time you’re creating a backup of your local backup drive to another external hard drive that you keep somewhere save in another location.
Just set up the backup rules in your backup program (like Bvckup) and make sure to go get the off site drive a couple times a month (or in the interval you’re willing to lose your images) and connect it to your computer to be synced.
Of course, depending on your amount of data you might need more than one drive or even an off-site DAS system.
Rotating off-site drives (3-2-2)
If you want to be extra safe and also save a bit of time, you can opt for off site backup system with rotating off-site drives.
This means you have 2 off-site backup drives, one that is always in the off-site location, and the other connected to your computer (and thus, fully in updated with your latest images).
Then when you go to where you keep your off-site drives, you swap them and take the other one with you the next time.
The main advantage is that you always have a fully up to date backup.
Off-Site Drive and cloud backups (3-2-2)
Of course, there is no reason you can’t combine the above methods.
So if you want the convenience of fast syncs and restores that you get with a physical backup drive while still having all your images safely stored in the cloud, I suggest you do both.