photography workflow and back-up plans for disaster

photographers – back-up plans for disaster

A photographer’s studio in New York state, showing the damage that was caused by unexpected flooding during Hurricane Sandy. For all the damage to photo equipment and computers, no data was ultimately lost!  (Photo used with permission.)

My own family was very fortunate in that we weren’t hurt or sustained damage to our property. The worst we had to endure were the four days without power. There are so many heart-rending stories of lives lost and lives disrupted with the storm, that it just highlights how lucky most of us in the North-Eastern USA were during all this.

With the news so vividly fresh in everyone’s mind, I would like to use this moment to speak urgently to photographers … and anyone who has data that is important, whether personally or for your small business.

you have to think in terms of worst-case scenarios

You have to run through scenarios where you make sure that you have your data, even if your house burns down. Or a tornado shreds your house. Or a flood. Or there is theft of your computer equipment. Or any of dozens of unfortunate scenarios affect you.

You have to consider whether your business would survive sudden calamity.

For a photographer, severe immediate data loss would mean the end of your business. Not only would you have lost most / all of your equipment, you would also have lost your data – photographs and client files and documents. It’s tough enough to get up and running after your photo gear gets lost or stolen … but add the loss of all your computers and hard drives to this, it is near impossible to get on your feet again if you have lost all your images and files.

Therefore, for your own future and the future of your business, you have to think in terms of worst-case scenarios.

As an aside – if anyone is still not even slightly convinced that Global Climate Change is a reality, and is a reality that is impacting us now already – and will continue to get worse – they are willfully stupid. (And no, I’m not going to debate this, nor do I want right-wing “counter-proof”.)

The topic – photography workflow and back-up plans for disaster – is one I have written about before:
photography workflow – back-up plans
photography workflow – back-up plans (update)

While the advice there isn’t prescriptive in the sense that everyone *has* to do exactly what I do — after all, there are many ways of ensuring your data is retrievable in any situation — I do feel so strongly about this, that if you veer away from the spirit of the advice to any extent, you will encounter problems. How badly the problems will affect you, is largely up to chance. But with a little bit of fore-sight and planning, the loss of your computer will be but a mere hiccup in comparison. So it is willful negligence to just leave it all to chance. You can prepare yourself for the worst. You have to.

So to bring this back to personal experience – during this storm, we had four days without power, which brought my work to a halt. During this time, the hard disc of  my main computer (my MacBook Pro), also became corrupted. A day after the hard drive’s data got scrambled, I am up and running again. Here is what saved me … and here is what I am going to do differently in future.

to summarize, here is my current back-up system

A.)  for my photographs (JPGs & RAW):

  • a Drobo Pro (configured as a 6 + 2 RAID array, giving me 2 hard drives for redundancy) for current work, 2009 and upwards.
  • another Drobo with older images (pre-2008 photo shoots and weddings)
  • Backblaze as on-line back-up of everything. There are numerous online back-up systems available to us. You have NO excuse!
  • a Zenfolio gallery which contains the full-resolution JPGs of all the weddings and photo shoots.


B.)  for my two computers and data files and client files, etc)

  • Dropbox, which I use to sync all my documents (not images) between my two computers and iPad and iPhone, and also to give me an online back-up of all my data, like client files, word docs, excel spreadsheets, PDF, etc. If you are using Dropbox only to share files with others, you are severely under-utilizing Dropbox !!
  • 1Password to keep track of my log-in info for all the sites I use, as well as all the software I have. It makes life so much easier to have all the serial numbers and activations codes in one spot.
  • a bootable clone hard drive of each of my computers. If a hard drive dies, I can just boot up from the other hard drive and continue to work .. or I can just copy any files over that I may need on my new hard drive. I have options now!


getting my laptop up and running again

When the data on my laptop’s hard drive became corrupted, it wasn’t a big deal. I have been prepared for this. The techie at the  Apple Store did a clean instal of Mountain Lion on my MacBook Pro … and also replaced the faulty battery. (I believe the faulty battery was the root of the problem.)

I still didn’t have power at my house. So I took my DroboPro and my iMac (the office computer) to a friend’s place.

While I could just sync Dropbox on my new hard drive, it would take too long to do this wirelessly. (I am currently using more than 100Gb on my Dropbox account.) So I used a portable hard drive to copy the entire Dropbox folder over to my laptop’s new hard drive. Much faster. Then I allowed Dropbox to sync, and make sure everything is the same on both computers.

I keep the .dmg files (ie, the zip files) of all my software in a folder in the Dropbox folder on my computers. This means I can install the programs directly from my computer, without necessarily needing internet connection.

This is important! While I had high-speed internet at my friend’s place, I didn’t have high-speed internet connection at my house (due to the power outage). All I had for internet at home during this time, was a 4G hot-spot, which only gives me a 3G connection since I live just outside of the 4G range. So I could install my software without really needing to rely on the over-priced data of the hot-spot. $50 for 50Gb on the internet hot-spot isn’t too bad when you’re just surfing the web.  But it quickly erodes if you download large files to install software.

Having the serial numbers for the software on hand with 1Password, also made it much faster than trawling through emails to find them.

So with the combination of Dropbox and 1Password, I have all my work files ready again. All I lost was a (long) day in getting everything back in place. No drama. No tears.


what I’m going to do differently in future – portability!

I didn’t count on being without power for so long. Other areas in my town have been told they could wait for another week still!

The one thing that delayed me in continuing the editing of the weddings I had photographed in the previous weeks, is that the images were all on the Drobo. The photos are still on the memory cards, since I don’t format a card until the wedding or photo shoot is edited, and the large JPGs are online.

So while my data and photographs were safe, I didn’t have quick access to all my work I was currently editing, because the Drobo isn’t easily portable.The Drobo is large and heavy, and isn’t easy to carry around and find a quiet corner somewhere to continue.

So what I am going to do in future, is keep a small portable hard drive where all work that I am currently editing, is copied to as well. Then I can always continue editing on my laptop. Anywhere where I can find a power outlet.

Finally …

If the anecdote about dealing with a failed hard drive seems trivial, then that is my intention. It should have that little impact if you lose one hard drive. Or two.

In a similar way, you need to be ready for loss of any part of your data. Or all of it.  If you have been tardy in getting this aspect of your workflow solid, then the time is now. There is no excuse.


related articles

  1. photography workflow – back-up plans for your computer
  2. back-up plans (update)
  3. workflow and back-up plans for disaster

9 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1Libby says

    Back years ago (1992?)a photog friend of mine lost all of his negatives to a fire. He had a job in progress at the time, so he lucked out there a little – a lot of the negatives were at the lab. But all of his sample albums etc were all gone. It took a few years to build that stuff back up shooting MF film.

    We have really good digital options now and still some don’t take advantage of them. I keep a full complement of backups at my brother’s house – I swap out a giant hard drive with him at least every 2 weeks and I use an online solution for the critical stuff.

    Glad things are all ok with you. My friends n Lower Manhattan got their power back last nite.

  2. 2 says

    Hey Neil, thanks for your personal account of your failure recovery. I am curious though, if you had a clone of your boot drive, why didn’t you simply clone that drive back onto your boot drive once it was replaced instead of all the time involved with reinstalling and configuring your software?

  3. 3 says

    Michael ,, you’re right in that that would be the most obvious way (and fastest way) of getting up and running.

    I didn’t replace the hard drive though. Since it was an SSD, there are no heads that are about to crash, etc. The data on the disc had become corrupted. Not physical damage to the disc. Even though I suspected this corruption of data was linked to the battery being faulty, I wasn’t sure this problem wasn’t dive to something wrong with the OS … which might have been copied to the bootable clone back-up the previous night.

    So I thought a clean install might be the safest way of going about it, even if more laborious.

  4. 4Jochen says

    I am glad you remind everyone to use a tool keeping track of online passwords. I am not familiar with the one you use, but I can recommend PasswordSafe ( It is peer reviewed and free. Both might be an advantage in the eyes of some.

    Thanks for your terrific articles.

  5. 6 says


    Your point about preparedness is well taken. Professional photographers need functional disaster recovery / business resumption / continuity of business plans because these kinds of Act of God disasters happen anyway. No location on earth seems to be immune from something: tsunami, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, blizzards, etc. Where I live, it’s tornadoes that pose the most obvious threat. Portability is important. I’m also looking into a lightning protection system for the house (we get a lot of that too – some neighbors have been hit in recent years), a robust UPS (Uninterruptible power supply) solution for short-term power outages and a generator should hours without power turns into days.

  6. 7Nathan Targett says

    Thanks Neil, I am currently backing up to Back-Blaze thanks to you. Great so far! Only another 280GB to go!!! :) Wish my ISP allowed for faster uploading!

  7. 8Matthias says

    Hi Neil,

    Thanks for your experience and advices. I still have a question about the drobo disks.
    How are they connected to your computer (USB, Ethernet)??
    How BackBlaze manage it?

    Thanks for your return.

  8. 9 says

    The on Drobo is connected via USB, the other via Firewire.
    I let Backblaze back everything up. It took a few months for it to complete the initial back-up.

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