Backup Guide for Photographers: Part 1 (Basics)

Backup guide dubai photographer michael r. cruz

Before I start, this will be a 2 part article.  In this first one, I will discuss some backup concepts that might be useful for photographers or videographers out there.  On part 2, I will discuss my own backup system.

Just to share my background; I’ve been in the IT industry for more than 15 years, I was into building and modding computers when I was in college and became a network engineer after finishing my degree in Computer Science and Computer Engineering.  I work for a networking company as an MIS/ IT Manager for 12 years.  Truth be told, I am no storage or backup system specialist.  Neither I am responsible for any critical data management, but I have my shares for experience when it comes to data management.  My background in IT played a big role in my Photography career since everything is digital, I can apply the similar workflow.  For now, I’ll be discussing my humble opinion of a good backup system for Photographers, videographers or anyone who wants to keep their digital contents safe.

*NOTE:  Let’s start by defining who are this article is for:

  • Starting photographers/videographers or passionate hobbyist
  • Professional photographers who makes a living from photography
  • For anyone trying to understand how to improve their backup system
  • For those who have NO backup at all and knows nothing about backing up
  • If you are a videographer or video editor, this is a must
  • For those who wants to start their own photography or videography business


1.  Storage

Trying to wrap your head around different storage solutions for your personal use or business can be overwhelming.  Let’s simplify them by splitting them into 3 types: SAN, NAS and DAS.   SAN or Storage Area Network is mostly used by enterprise solutions so  I wont be discussing this storage on this article.  We’ll focus on NAS and DAS which is widely used for home, small office home office (SOHO) environment up to small to medium business.


By definition, NAS is Network Attached Storage.  To put this simply, it is a computer data storage system that is connected to a computer network that provides access to users of that network.  NAS is similar to your USB hard disk (just bigger and with more disk slots) and instead of plugging them directly to your computer, you plug it in your router or network switch, so you can share them with different computers on the network.

You can find NAS boxes on most of the retail shops in the malls here in UAE, (i.e. Emax, Virgin Megastoers, Sharaf DG, etc.).  There are popular NAS boxes from D-Link and WD that are affordable, depending on the capacity.  Entry level NAS boxes usually comes with 1 bay , 2 bays and 4  bays.  Those “bays” are for Hard disk drives (HDD) or SSD (if you are rich), the more the bays, the more HDD you can add thus more storage capacity.

Here is an example of a 2-bay NAS from D-Link, model: DNS-327L (photos are from D-Link website)


I own a couple of this NAS and they are quite good for their price. I recommend getting this if you want a basic NAS.


It is a 2 bay NAS which can be used up to 2 x 4TB HDD, making it 8TB in total (it could support bigger drives with a firmware update).  They are available with no HDD or with 3TB or 6TB from the mall retails shops.   There is also a “Cloud” feature on DNS-327L wherein you can download their app and access your data from your iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.

DAS as per wikipedia,  Direct-attached storage  is digital storage directly attached to the computer accessing it, as opposed to storage accessed over a computer network. Examples of DAS include hard drives, optical disc drives, and storage on external drives.  Basically, anything that you attached directly to your computer with a storage capacity, like thumbdrives, portable hard disks, SD cards and so on.

Backup guide dubai photographer michael r. cruz

These belong to my collection of dead HDDs and USB drives

So which one is for you?  If you are a simple user, maybe a casual shooter DAS like portable HDDs from WD or Seagate is more than good enough.   If you want to share your data to other computer or user, you just simply unplug and re-plug to the other machine.  No technical knowledge required.  There are also advanced options for DAS like, G Drive, Drobo and OWC that offers more disk bays for higher capacity, some of them can be configured to run RAID.  For Mac users, there are Thunderbolt options which offers super fast speeds and for PC Windows users, they are available in USB 3.0 and probably soon USB 3.1 which offers much faster speed than any traditional USB ports.

However, if you want a more centralized approach; you want a central storage that can be used by your desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets and smartTVs, getting a NAS will make more sense to you.  For those who needs a more advanced features that D-Link or WD doesn’t have, you can check QNAP and Synology NAS systems.  For Synology, I suggest checking DS1515+ and DS1815+.


2.  RAID


Photo from Synology website DS1815+ 8-Bay NAS

This is where you need a shot of coffee or Red bull to stay awake.  It can get a little technical but I’ll try to explain is as easy as I can.  Just keep in mind that RAID is a group of disk, it means, it involves more than 1 disk.  One of the functions of RAID is to make a bunch of drives to act as a single drive while adding performance and/or redundancy.  So instead of having 5 disk drives, you can configure it as 1 drive using RAID, but that’s not all RAID offers.

Let’s check wikipedia’s definition: RAID (originally redundant array of inexpensive disks, now commonly redundant array of independent disks) is a data storage virtualization technology that combines multiple physical disk drive components into a single logical unit for the purposes of data redundancy, performance improvement, or both.   

Do you really need RAID?  This is something hard to answer because its always a case by case scenario.  One of the reason why IT administrator implement RAID is for redundancy.  It can be configure in a way that even one or two of your drives crashes or dies, you will not have any data loss.  It can also be configured to mirror one drive to the other, so in an event one of the drive dies, you have an exact copy of it.

However don’t be confuse, RAID is not a backup.  RAID will not protect your data from virus/malware, data corruption, theft (or hack) or natural disasters.  What it offers you is a fail-safe against Hard disk failure.  Thus, RAID is useful as a part of a backup system.  But again, RAID on its own, IS NOT A BACKUP.  This is a common misconception.

Still awake?  Good! I thought I lost you back there.  Now, drink up your coffee or Red bull because this is the snooze-fest of information, RAID types.  I’ll try my best to simplify it and I will only include the most common RAID configuration.

The main feature of this RAID type is Performance.  You use 100% your storage capacity.

It is commonly known as mirroring. It creates a mirror copy of drive A to drive B.  You can only use 50% of your storage capacity.  For example, 2 x 4TB HDD, instead of 8TB, you can only use 4TB and the other 4TB will be used as a copy of the other drive.

This type offers performance and redundancy.  In an event of one of your drives fails, it can rebuild your data from your existing good drives.   If you have 3 x 2TB disk, you can use the 4TB as your storage and the other 2TB is used for data recovery.  To make it short, this RAID will protect your data in case of a single HDD failure.  However if there’s 2 or more drive failure, you won’t be able to recover your data.

Is very similar to RAID 5, although a little slower but it offers you more redundancy.  Instead of 1 HDD failure, RAID 6 offers protection up to 2 HDD failures.  It also requires at least 4 disks to work.

Definition from searchstorage.techtarget.com: A RAID 10 configuration requires a minimum of four disks, and stripes data across mirrored pairs. As long as one disk in each mirrored pair is functional, data can be retrieved. If two disks in the same mirrored pair fail, all data will be lost because there is no parity in the striped sets.  In other words, this is a combination of RAID 1 and RAID 0.  In this configuration, since mirroring is being implemented, you will lose 50% of your total storage capacity.

Ok, you made it! Let’s assume you understand all those RAID mambo-jumbos, you now have some basic idea of what RAID can offer you.  Weather it will be beneficial to you, will depend on your choice.  If you want to go further with your RAID knowledge, Google is your friend.

My personal advise on RAID;  if you have large capacity drives like 3TB and above, I would stay away from RAID 5, since rebuilding a 3TB or a 6TB drive can take a long time and will take a toll on your existing good drives making them fail at some point which can lead you not recovering your files.  RAID 6 can be a good alternative but it is slower than RAID 5.  I think, if your main goal is redundancy, I’ll go with RAID 10 and since it comes with RAID 0 you will gain performance as well.  You lose 50% of your total storage capacity, but in any event you lose one or two of your drives, you will not have to spend a long time waiting and praying that you will recover back all your data.

All that being said, the enemy of RAID (besides drive failures) is power outage.  A power outage or accidental power off to your NAS box running RAID can damage your data and will require lengthy time to rebuild your drives.  Investing on a simple UPS is a smart idea.


3. The 3-2-1 Backup rule

Now that you are familiar with different storage types, configurations and RAID; you also learned that RAID is not a backup (right?!),  let’s discuss a good practice to properly backup your data.  So even your pictures several years ago when you are starting out will be safe; most probably all your photos of spoon, forks, coins, keyboard, flowers, cats, dogs, other pets,  your friends and family member’s pictures will not be going anywhere 😉

Enter the 3-2-1 Backup rule.  It simply states:

  • (3) You should have at least three copies
  • (2) in two different (or separate) storage types
  • (1) with one of the copies off-site

The first rule states, you need to have at least 3 copies of the files you want to backup.  Now using the second rule, you need save your data in 2 different media types; one in your computer and another one in your USB disk for example.  Having multiple copies in different folders in the same disk is not safe.  If that drive or HDD crashes, even if you have 300 copies of the same file, its not going to help you.  What? did you I hear you say partition? No! if your HDD dies, all the partitions together with your data will go to digital heaven.  The second rule means, you have to copy your data in two different storage device.  It could be in 2 or 3 portable USB drives as long as they are not the same drives.

Now on the final rule, which states one of the 3 copies should be off-site.  That means, if someone stole your data, or God forbid, your house or office gets destroyed by any natural disasters or fire; having your data in multiple backup storage will not help.  That makes the 3rd rule critical for those people who wants their data to be safe at all times.  I’d say 5 years ago, your best option is to store your data storage in another location.  You can keep one of your data storage in your office or ask your friend to keep it at their house and swap it every now and then to keep it updated.  But right now, Cloud computing makes it really convenient.  You have Google Drive, Dropbox, Copy, Amazon and other similar service that you can store your data with.  There are also specialized service available for a more elaborate backup solution like Carbonite, Backblaze and Crash Plan, for as low as 5 USD per month, they can store your data on their servers and most of them offers unlimited storage; some of them also provides features like encryption and easy recovery solutions.

And that’s it for this first part of the Backup System for Photographers or videographers.  I hope I have given you some insights on how you can manage your files and create an effective backup system that works and include it in your workflow.

On the second part, I will show you how I manage my own Backup.  I am currently building a new backup system and I’ll share with you how I configured it.

Till next time!


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