my hard drive has died – what should I do?

my hard drive has died – what should I do?

“What do I do right now!? I don’t know what to do!”

These were the sounds the angry woman next to me at the Apple Store counter made, while crying about her hard disc that had died.

“But it was fine this morning!” *sob sob sniff*

My sympathy was with the blue-shirted geniuses who had to take her anger with a calmness that I would’ve have been able to muster. My sympathy for her? Well, I just thought to myself, “now there is someone who doesn’t understand the concept of single point of failure.”

Back your data up, all the time. Constantly. Back it up to different devices and the cloud. A hard drive crashing should be no more than a minor annoyance. So if you’re running this risk of not having your data backed up, DO IT NOW. And get a system into place. Now. I mean, NOW!

If you don’t know how, ask someone. The tools and software aren’t expensive or difficult to implement. But if you need help, ask. In other words, if you lose data on your hard drive, you have no excuse.


my hard drive has died – what should I do?

So what do you do if your hard drive died? Well, I suppose you try Google and then suffer the $$$ spendy consequences of not listening to everyone who has ever told you to back up your data, because your hard drive will die.

Then, when you’re sorted out again, make sure you’re never vulnerable again. Here are some starting points, but there are numerous ways to go about it.

The only wrong way to go about your system of backing up, is if you have a single point of failure somewhere.


what is your back-up system?

I’d like to hear how everyone has their back-up system set up. What are you doing?

15 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Patrick Callow says

    Great advice Neil. And don’t forget all those precious images and video of the baby, family, visiting relatives that live on your iPhone, you know, the ones you took 6,12 months ago. Get them off and back them up as well. Been following you for years Neil. Thank you so much for all the wonderful brain food.

  2. 2Casey Noble says

    My MacBook Pro was experiencing issues recently, and the guy at the Genius Bar told me that they would have to wipe the hard drive. It was a great feeling when I was able to say “Sure, no problem” because I knew I had everything backed up. Your hard drive will fail at some point. Backing up is so important, and it’s good to have that peace of mind.

  3. 3 says

    I got a call the other day from a company I used to work for several years ago. They needed to make a change to some software I wrote for them but had lost the source code and had no developer to do it for them. Did I have a backup copy by any chance?

    Backups are great. This particular one got me a new 6D + 24-105.

  4. 4 says

    I constantly back up all my images to two external hard drives both of which also maintain imaged copies of my hard drives. I deem it unlikely that both external hard drives would fail at the same time so I’m confident of having one workable, restorable setup at any one time. No problems thus far!

  5. 5Nick C says

    I have thousands of digital images (family, vacations, work, etc) on our computer (Mac) in addition to the usual business items found on today’s home computers. I’m a firm believer in resorting to the appropriate level of mitigation based on exposure. I’m not a working photographer (relying on photography for any type of income stream). But loss of some or all photos would be disastrous. Basically a two pronged approach. Time Machine for daily backups. I also have 2 portable hard-drives for periodic backups. One is always off site. I use Carbon Copy Cloner to clone the entire Mac hard drive onto one of the portable hard drives. The “home” portable HDD is cloned, taken to the office and the “office” portable HDD comes home. That happens weekly unless away on business travel. I never have all 3 objects in the same place at the same time. The office is on the 12th floor of a sprinkler protected building. Hard drive is kept in a locked drawer. Not perfect, but I believe robust enough for the perceived threat. I considered various forms of RAID systems, but the added complexity and cost wasn’t justified in my view (for my needs). I’m a firm believer in keeping it simple.

    Years ago, I went through a hard drive crash on a work laptop – happened on a weekend while traveling internationally. I had backed up a series of powerpoint presentations onto a multiple thumb drives. Without that, I would have been SOL Monday morning. If you don’t have some type of backup protocol, this afternoon is too late to start…..

  6. 6Pierre pery says

    Double NAS in different locations, each with RAID1 on. pretty much like you have
    I can’t figure out any safer or easier to use systems than that, as it backup from one to the other in a few clicks…

  7. 7 says

    I just had a hard drive fail. Thankfully it housed data that was in fact /mostly/ backed up on other drives. However, it was the drive that I used to unload newer stuff from my computer, and it had been weeks since I properly backed it up. So I did lose some stuff.

    The lesson here is to not only make backups but to do it consistently–never allow even a day to pass where stuff you care about isn’t at least in 2 different areas.

    I should also add that there are several good troubleshooting steps that everyone should take when a hard drive seems to die–in many cases the data is actually still safe on the hard drive and, e.g., it is only the controller board that has failed. Another tip for those whose hard drive just ceases to be readable by your OS: there is at least one free program out there (which I will neglect to mention for fear it will be seen as advertising) that will often be able to access your drive even in RAW mode. I was able to use it to rescue gigabytes of data even after it was ostensibly dead.

  8. 8Charles says

    All my stuff is backed up to a dropbox folder that is shared with a good friend in GA so my stuff is always at hand when something will fail and he in turn backs them up to an external drive so there are always 3 copies of anything I have.

  9. 9Shawn says

    I’m on a tight budget and I’m not a pro either, so my backup strategy is simple and inexpensive:

    -Low cost NAS with two drives in a “raid” config (auto duplication across both disks). If one drive dies, and drives fail all the time, I can continue to access my pictures and continue working until a replacement arrives. I use Synology brand NAS for this.
    -I have two small USB drives to serve as off-site backup, one is connected to the NAS which is set up to backup all content to the external drive nightly. Every month, or when I remember, I swap the external drive with the off-site one. This protects against theft and fire.
    -All my images go to the NAS upon import into Lightroom, and I backup my catalogues to the NAS. I don’t use OS specific backups (like time machine) because I want to be able to access my files from any OS in the case of a disaster. If my computer or NAS fails I can plug in the USB drive to any computer running Lightroom and never miss a beat.

    I don’t use cloud storage. It might not be a bad idea, but I would never consider it as a safe permanent storage for two reasons. First, as we have seen, it only requires one injunction to shut down a cloud storage site and lose all data. Second, with the loss of net neutrality, I expect prices for broadband and large data transfers to go up. There was already a pro photographer who went over his broadband monthly data cap and they shut down his connection for the rest of the month; no reprieve.

    For folks who don’t understand any of this, find a tech savvy friend to help you. It costs a little bit of money, but which is more important, keeping your pictures or money towards a new lens/strobe?

    • 9.1 says

      Hi Shawn,

      The way you care about your data and backups looks just right for me. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars just to know your data in save haven. I’m running a Synology NAS, too. All my devices (workstation, laptop, tablets, smart phones) are linked to it. Everything is kept in a single, central place – that’s very important. And since RAID is NOT understood as a backup substitute at all, an external hard drive does THIS job and is swapped with another off-site one once a month. So hard-drive failure, fire, or even natural disasters are all covered.

      Keep it simple, straight but effective! I don’t like things complicated. Happy me I haven’t had any drive failure nor data loss in recent years.

  10. 10Richard says

    I do auto backup only once a month or longer, not much by most people’s standard. But every time when I get a new computer, the first thing I do is to separate partitions on the hard drive; one for the system and one for data (files like picture or video). I know hard drives die but it does not happen as often as you think or fear. Majority of the time, the problem is on the system partition side. When the system is crushed, the computer won’t work. Therefore you won’t be able to read the data if they are on the same partition. If the data is on a separate partition, you can just pull the hard driver out and plug into a good or new computer and access the data partition as a regular storage external hard drive.

  11. 11 says

    As a non-professional, all I have is a G-Technology G-Safe, which is two drives in a RAID1 (mirrored) configuration. I now see that ioSafe offers a product called ioSafe214 that offers a similar configuration, so I’m going to look into that more closely.

    I can’t use cloud solutions currently, since I have lousy internet access, and I’m concerned as Shawn is about cloud services being shut down and the future of net neutrality.

  12. 12Daris Fox says

    I use a custom build workstation so some of these won’t apply to Apple systems:

    Main hard drive (not OS) is where all the images go straight from the shoot and every file change in watched folders.
    Version Control drive is where a interim back up of each version of every file in the edited and RAW file directory for three to nine generations in selected watch folders (depends on file type/size). Saves your bacon when you overwrite that resized PSD and don’t realise it before closing Ps or make major changes to your documents.

    NAS is the network back up with 9Tb of storage (4 drive unit). This is the copy that is kept separate from the PC and is the final back up point before transfer to a eSATA dock which I use to transfer to my offline archive. I currently use 1Tb drives instead of tape and these are spun up every six months and to ensure they are mechanically sound and to lubricate the spindle. These are encrypted and stored offsite.

    As for the Windows disk I use Windows Easy Transfer to create a migration point every fortnight. That way all data and profiles is backed up and can be migrated onto a fresh install of Windows. No critical data is kept on the primary drive.

    I have 4 data drives in my main workstation, with a working total of ~10 Tb storage. I don’t keep all client images live on the system instead I archive all client sets older than 24 months. Personal sets I don’t keep live except for the final files.

    The most expensive part of the system was buying the NAS but the rest of set up is fairly cheap with HDDs. Over the next few years I’ll be reviewing SSDs to replace the offline archives to minimise the risk of drive failure from disuse. For me the cost of cloud storage and the speed data transfer is a non-starter and instead I prefer a sneaker net.

    Recently I got a Surface Pro 2 to use tethered and that backs up to the internal SSD and then SD card(s), the SD card(s) is copied to the workstation at the end of the session using USB 3 and then apply the above workflow. Once all data is backed all images on the Surface Pro is wiped. I also use Bitlocker on the tablet for data protection.

  13. 13Hal says

    I love my Mac Pro for its ability to have multiple internal drives installed!
    One internal drive does an hourly Time Machine backup. That same drive is used for copies of all my imported photos when importing from memory cards (Adobe Photo downloader (part of Adobe Bridge) or Adobe Lightroom) as these apps allow me to import to two places at once.
    Another internal drive clones my OSX operating system, applications and all user files. That drive is bootable meaning if my main drive dies I can replace it with this drive. I use “ChronoSync” to perform automated backups twice a day (early morning and late night) for that.

    Then I have an external hard drive enclosure with 4 removable drive bays connected to the Mac Pro via Firewire 800. This is where I keep most of my photos and other large files as they take up a lot of room inside the computer. For each file-storage drive I also have a “backup” drive and a “backup archive” drive. In other words, each files is found on 3 separate drives. The “backup” drive is used to take a backup as soon as possible while the “backup archive” drive is stored in a physically separate location from the other drives/computer. This would be a lifesaver in case of theft, fire floods or whatever. Again I use “Chronosync” for this as it will automatically do backups whenever I insert the applicable drives.

    Finally, I also back up (and archive back up) everything on the internal drives to one of the external drives (everything excluding Adobe Bridge cache files, Photoshop scratch files and whatever else can easily be rebuilt but takes a lot of room).

    A multiple internal drive setup simplifies things, but for I made a simpler backup solution for an iMac with an external 2.5″ Firewire drive permanently connected to the computer which does hourly Time Machine backups, and once a week attach another 2.5″ external Firewire drive to make a bootable backup which I physically store in a different location (again in case of theft, floods, fire etc.). “Chronosync” starts to back up automatically (creating a bootable backup, effectively making a clone of the iMac internal hard drive) whenever it senses that this drive is attached.

  14. 14Mike K. says

    In my desktop, I have four internal hard drives: one, for my programs including Adobe. One for file storage. One for my permanent location for all the photos I work on, present and past. And one for the temporary storage of the photos I have taken.

    When I upload photos from a shoot to the computer, I put the photos in my permanent drive, I separate the JPEG’s and RAW into separate folders withing the folder of the day of the shoot, name it, then make a copy on the temporary storage drive.

    Once a week/two weeks, I backup the temporary drive to two separate external portable drives. Both of them are mini drives, which are powered by the USB connection, not external power, are more portable, AND they are a little better designed to take more punishment than regular desktop external drives. Each drive goes into a separate ziplock bag with moisture control packets, and both drives go into a small fireproof, waterproof safe – I know, each drive should be kept in separate location, but not feasible for me.

    Once a week I backup the desktop internal permanent drive to an external mini portable drive. This way it saves not only the photos I worked on, but all the settings and changes I made to the photos. Perhaps I should do it on to two drives instead of one, but it takes a lot of time, so perhaps I should invest into a RAID system just for that.

    From experience, I found out the most important thing is to have the backup storage disconnected from the electrical system that the computer itself is connected to. And even though proof against fire and water damage is very important, above all, proof against stupid/neglectful erasing of photos by anyone, including the photographer is the most important element we never talk about. I have lost a LOT more photos from my own stupidity than from technical failure.

    A last point, do not trust automatic backup programs. Even if you have tried them before, there are changes in setting that WILL mess you up in the future. The ancient Greek definition of “backup” is, if something can go wrong it WILL.

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