How to keep your photos safe with this simple technique

How to keep your photos safe with this simple technique

First published:
September 30, 2022
February 6, 2024

Miniature figure people looking at hard drive by Andrew Gardner

Never lose an image again or fear hard drive failure by taking advantage of the 3-2-1 backup strategy

Data security doesn’t begin and end when you press the camera shutter button. Making sure that your images, indeed valuable images, are safe over the long term is one of the most important parts of the image-making process. Images are assets as well as being your portfolio and a source of memories, so taking out what you might call an insurance policy by backing up your images effectively is all it takes to minimise the risk of loss.

Miniature figure people looking at hard drive. Photo by Andrew Gardner - f/14 | ISO 100 | 1/200s

Fire, flood, theft and hard drive failure are all working against you and your images; any one of these events could easily destroy years of work in the blink of an eye. These events are uncommon to individuals, so it’s easy to become complacent, but when you look at the wider world you’ll quickly discover that many photographers have lost some or all of their images due to one of these events.

If you’ve ever experienced a hard drive failure, the most common reason for data loss, you’ll be all too aware of how devasting it can be. Not to mention, the cost of recovery by specialist companies can be extremely expensive. Of course, it may well be worth the cost to recover your images, but reducing this risk to practically zero is incredibly easy, less expensive and prevention is always the best policy. All it takes is a simple approach to backing up your images, and this is using the 3-2-1 backup strategy.

The 3-2-1 backup strategy

The 3-2-1 backup strategy is an extremely simple principle that requires that you have two copies of your images on-site, and one copy off-site copy. You can, of course, have additional copies both on and off-site, but for most people three copies provide enough redundancy to avoid catastrophe. 

The way this works is that two copies are kept on hard drives, one of which could be an internal drive or by using two individual external hard drives if you use a computer with a low-capacity solid state drive. These can be backed up manually, or Windows users can purchase or use free backup software that automates backups for you. Mac owners can do this using Time Machine, which is built into the operating system.

So, with two local copies of your images on-site, the third copy needs to be kept off-site to account for the risk of fire, flood or theft. Traditionally, this would be a physical hard drive kept at another address. But the downside of this is that it requires weekly or at the minimum, monthly backups to keep it up-to-date. It’s much easier to use an online/cloud backup service that either backs up specified folders or your entire computer.

The 3-2-1 strategy means that if disaster strikes and your computer hard drive or one external drive fails, you have a second local hard drive with all of your images alongside a cloud backup. In a worst-case scenario, where you lose everything locally, you will still have your cloud backup to fall back on. 

Hard drive with magnetic disk and writing head. Photo by wsfpc

Use a RAID drive

One way to simplify the 3-2-1 backup process further, and provide additional data security, is to use a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) hard drive. These use two or more HDDs or SSDs that can provide greater performance when accessing data or redundancy if one of the drives fails, depending on the configuration used. Plus, disk drives are usually swappable so they can be replaced in the case of a failure, making it easy to maintain a RAID configuration.

There are several RAID configurations, but the one that is most useful to photographers is RAID 0. This option writes data to one drive, which is then copied or mirrored to the other hard drive(s) within the enclosure. RAID drives are typically much more expensive than individual external hard drives, so they may not be justifiable for everyone. And the level of security they offer may be more than some people need. But in terms of convenience and saving desk space alongside their aforementioned advantages, they are worth considering if your budget and needs stretch that far.

Back up your entire computer to the cloud

Cloud storage is becoming less expensive and they provide an easy and cost-effective way of backing up your images. Basic services like Google Drive are often limited to around 2TB for the largest storage option available, so many users will require a specialist service. Backblaze is a great option because you can install the software and essentially forget about it while it keeps your data safe. This costs $95 per year, including UK VAT, and provides unlimited storage so you can back up your entire computer and connected drives.

The Backblaze software then runs in the background, backing up files as they’re added so you can be confident that everything is safely stored in a data centre off-site. The only downside is that large initial backups can take up to two or three months to complete, but once this has finished incremental automated backups occur daily. You can get a free 15-day trial of the service, which is worth taking advantage of because you can use this to begin the initial backup before paying for a subscription to the service.

If and when you ever need to recover a file or all files from Backblaze or a similar service, you can recover the relevant data via download or in some cases, a hard drive containing your data can be sent out to you. While cloud services offer a fantastic way of backing up data, don’t be tempted to rely solely on them. If the provider suffers an outage or any other problem, which despite being uncommon is possible, so it’s always important to maintain on-site backups.

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