Once upon a time, I was a wide-eyed, overly-confident photographer, just starting out. I was in my first year of photography school, and I was sure I knew my way around a DSLR. I was just starting to find my niche, and I liked where things were going. Nothing could take that away from me.
And then one fateful day, my external hard drive hit the floor. Hard. I stared at it for a few beats. It still looked the same. I gathered my strength, took a deep breath, and reconnected it.
"Click...click...click...whiiiirrr" it said.
My heart sank to my feet. No one had to tell me what that noise meant. In two seconds, all of my beautiful images were gone.
$1800 later, I at least had the majority of my jpegs back, although the RAW images and .psd files were gone forever. My external hard drive wasn't just dead- it was FRIED. The plates inside had clapped against each other making it impossible to retrieve my files without the help of a data recovery business. And that's an awfully expensive lesson to learn. If I had known anything about file back-up systems, life would have been a whole lot easier for a few months while I lived on Ramen trying to pay off that credit card bill.
There are a lot of choices out there for file back-up, so I'm just going to hit on a few methods commonly used by professional photographers. Then you can make the right choice for your own back-up plan. There isn't a firm rule on what to do. The only rule is that to be a professional photographer, you must, must, must have a file back-up system in place!
#1 - Back-up while shooting
If you're not able to back-up your data straight through a computer in the field, there are wi-fi memory cards that will instantly send your files from your camera to a back-up. This works if your camera uses an sd card, and I've heard talk of a cf to sd converter.
Another option along these same lines is a stand-alone data storage unit. Like a mini computer, you can download your files directly to the unit for an instant back-up. Type 'memory card back-up' into the search on B&H, and you'll find choices that run from $134 all the way to $1000+ for video storage on the go.
#2 - Portable External Hard Drives
The first thing I want to say about external hard drives is this:
FACT: ALL EXTERNALS FAIL.
This could be due to falling off a desk as in my own little tragedy, it could be due to human error when you accidentally format your hard drive, or it could simply be that your external has decided it's time to fly to that great techno heaven in the sky. But it's not a matter of IF, but WHEN. So keep that in mind when you're using these. Useful little things, I know, with all their adorable portability. But don't depend on them with your precious files.
They're not totally useless, however. One option that might work for you to develop into your file backup workflow is the external buddy system. One photographer I know literally rubberbands together two externals and uses them simultaneously from the time she's downloading her files. This isn't her ONLY file back-up system (what if she dropped them both while they were stuck together?), but it works for keeping those externals useful while still having some measure of protection.
#3 - NONPortable External Hard Drives
There are a lot of choices here, some not too different from the portables (only they're, well, not portable. They're usually a bit less sturdy and a bit less expensive than their portable counterparts.) to full systems like the Apple Airport Time Capsule and the Drobo which allows you to back up to multiple hard drives at once. How does that work? Well, I could tell you, but Drobo has a helpful video that does a much better job of explaining.
These systems can be a bit pricey, but compared to a data retrieval attempt (which might not even work if your hard drive is sufficiently fried), they're well worth the price!
#4 Offsite Backup Systems
These are online back up systems. That means that your information is uploaded via the internet and kept on giant redundant hard drives somewhere far, far away. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is 'The Cloud.'
There are TONS of choices and pros and cons to each, so researching this can get pretty overwhelming. Some things to consider are whether or not a system can back up your external hard drives, speed of automatic upload (some systems, like Carbonite for example, throttle upload speeds down to as low as 1 GB per day after a while. That would have been great in, say 1992.), ease of file retrieval, and of course, price. Here are a few that are commonly used by photographers- affordable options that offer unlimited storage and that back up external hard drives- and maybe that will help narrow down your research to find the right system for you.
True 'set it and forget it' unlimited back-up from $3.96/month
More options for choosing which data to back up, handy mobile app from $5.00/month
Syncs across multiple computers and devices and even allows you to share files from $6.95/month
Keeps the old copies of files that have changed for up to 180 days (that save-over edit? Still retrievable!) from $8.25/month
That's a lot of options. And the very best option? A combination of multiple sources, both on- and off-site. There is no single backup system that can keep your files safe. One photographer I know kept her files backed up on multiple hard drives only to lose all of her beautiful work in a devastating house fire. And we can't say that things like that won't happen. But as professional photographers, it's so, SO important to protect our most important business asset- our photographs.
So what do you do to keep your files safe? Let us know in the comments!