Protect your digital images

In my last blog post, I talked about how Apple is shaking up the world of digital photography. Newer iPhones (7 and up) with iOS11 are no longer taking pictures in JPEG. Read about it here. The long story short: My recommendation is that you should not make digital storage your single source for keeping your most precious pictures. Your most precious memories should be in print.

However, I know that we're not going to print every single image that we have. The vast majority of our images will be stored digitally. I don't know all the horrible things that can happen to digital files, but I've heard stories. Hard drives crash, digital files go corrupt, and who knows what else. I'm not very good at learning vicariously when it comes to a lot of things, but if there's one thing that I'm completely mortified about, it's losing images.

I've created a system for storing my digital images and backing them up to several locations so that I feel confident that my images will be safe. If one system fails, I have other backups. The most important thing is to keep a consistent routine.

Now let's make sure that you don't give yourself a hard time if you haven't been good about backing up your images consistently. And don't go creating extra steps for yourself that you won't be able to maintain. It doesn't matter so much that you do your backup system on a regular schedule. My schedule changes every single week. I have regular recurring events every week, such as taking the girls to dance three days a week, but my teaching job also calls for me to have monthly meetings with my booster club board, and then I'll have odd meetings in the evenings here and there and on the weekends. Add in my meetings and events with my photography business and some attempts at quality time with my family, I really just don't have time to dedicate regularly to backing up my photos. Fortunately, my system accommodates the busy lifestyle quite well.

Step 1: Keep LOTS of SD cards

This step is only valuable if you have dual card slots in your camera. I set the second card slot as a backup to the first card slot so that all my pictures are recorded to both SD cards. As I finish up one round of shooting, or if the SD cards start to get full, I'll use the first card to import my photos. I'll put the second SD card into a little, plastic ziplock bag like these and I label the bag. I don't always have the chance to go through my photos when I import them, so the second SD card stays out of commission until I've had a chance to go through my imported photos, delete the ones I won't use and do whatever editing I want to do. After I import the images off of the first card, I can format it and put it back into rotation. At this point, I'm going to be short one SD card because the second SD card is not being used until I've gone through the entire backup process of my imported images. If anything after the import process fails, at least I know that I still have the images on the second SD card.

My one and only (minor) panic moment with losing images. I did have an SD card fail on me during a paid photo shoot. I don't know how or why it happened. During the middle of the shoot, the SD card just went dead. Again, this is an indication of the fragility of digital formats. Fortunately, I had the second card slot in my camera. I was able to continue the shoot without the client ever knowing.

The only SD cards that I use are SanDisk. With every SanDisk SD card purchase, you get a license to their File Recovery Utility called RescuePro. The insert with the license will be in the packaging. Don't throw them away! Keep them tucked away until you need them. Hopefully you won't ever need them, but if you happen to accidentally format an SD card before importing the images, RescuePro will be able to recover the images. It won't, however, be able to save anything if your card is corrupt. If your card is corrupt, there's nothing you can do about it. One thing that I need to start doing is writing the date directly on the SD card every time I buy a new one. This will help me know which cards are starting to get old, and are therefore more likely to crash.

So how many SD cards should you have? I have 12. That's probably more than the casual user will need. I'm running a photography business and (attempting) to take pictures of my kids. Last November, as we started getting into the holiday season, I almost ran out of cards. Remember that with each shoot that I import, one of my cards is going out of commission until I get them fully backed up. In the case of my photography business images, I'll keep the second SD card out of commission until the final delivery of images to my client. That can take up to a month after the shoot. So having 12 cards, for me, can get down to only 6 available cards quickly. For amateur and hobbyist photographers, I would suggest that you keep 6 - 8 cards.

Step 2: Import your images to at least 2 hard drives

I won't go into detailed steps on how to import to your specific operating system or software. There are plenty of resources out there to help you figure out which software will best suit your needs. My recommendation is Adobe Lightroom.

When I import my photos, the files go into my external RAID hard drive. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks. The great thing about RAIDs is that they write your information to completely independent hard drives within one unit. If one hard drive fails, your information is also stored onto other hard drives. The bad thing about RAIDs is that they can be very expensive. But my images are priceless, so it's completely worth it to me.

The RAID that I use is the G-Technology G-Raid 8TB. It's the least expensive one I could find with the amount of storage that I needed for my business and personal photos for right now. I will grow out of this storage capacity soon. But when I do, I can simply upgrade my storage by replacing the internal drives instead of buying a whole new system.

Be sure to read carefully. 8TB of storage for this device means that I have two hard drives with 4TB of storage each. And make sure to read the instructions carefully so that you set up your device correctly. One setup will write information to only one drive and then use the second drive once the first drive is full. The other setup will write information to both drives. Mine is set to write information to both drives.

You choose either Direct Attached Storage or Network Attached Storage. The benefit to Direct Attached Storage is that the information transfer is much faster than Network Attached Storage. The downside is that you can only backup one device at a time because you have to be hardwired to the device. The benefit to Network Attached Storage is that you can store multiple devices information on the drives. The downside is that the information takes longer to transfer over the network.

My RAID is direct attached, and it's a bit of a pain because my computer is a laptop. I rely on the portability of my laptop, yet my RAID isn't portable. My workaround is that I first import to my RAID so that I have two copies of the images, and then I make a third copy onto a portable external hard drive like this one. This portable external hard drive is where I'll do all the heavy lifting for editing. I simply copy the files from the RAID into a folder on the external hard drive called "Edit then transfer."

I now have three copies on three different hard drives. Two copies are on my RAID, which I touch only once or twice a month. The third is on my portable external hard drive for editing and for daily use. Once I finish the editing, after I deliver the files to my client, and/or after I do my final printing or social media sharing, I move the final edited files over to my RAID where they'll stay forever.

Don't forget that I still have my SD card with all of the original images. After the final delivery of images, I can now format my SD card and put it back into rotation.

Step 3: Backup to the cloud

After the final delivery of images, and after my final transfer of files from the small external hard drive to my RAID, my absolute last step is to copy all of my files to the cloud. I use Amazon Prime Photos for my personal image storage. Amazon Prime Photos allows unlimited photo storage. This is very important to me because I shoot in RAW format, in which the files are much larger than JPEG. For my photography business, I store the RAW files and the .xmp sidecar files in a Google Drive folder called "Delete after [one month after delivery] - Jack and Diane Wedding."  The files will stay on my Google Drive until one month after I deliver the final images to the client. Don't forget that I still have two copies on my RAID and one copy on the original SD card. When the digital files are made available for delivery to the client, I'm now comfortable formatting the original SD card and putting it back into rotation.


My exact system is probably a little overkill, but remember that I'm taking pictures of weddings. These are once in a lifetime events. It's critical that I keep the digital files safe.

For your own personal use, keep a second copy of the SD card, import images to two separate hard drives, backup to the cloud, and you'll be fine.