Workflow, Start To Finish Part 3

Backup is the stuff of nightmares, or dreams, depending on how you back up. As with all workflow, backup will vary from photographer to photographer based on shooting habits, computer systems, work environment and your own conscience. But with all things considered, backup has one end goal: If your hard drive crashes, all your files, programs and images are safely stored on other drives and can be quickly restored.

I break my backup workflow into two areas: "in the field" and "back at home." I’ll start simple with field backup and then look at home backup. No matter if you’re a beginning photographer or a seasoned pro, these guidelines will ensure you never suffer from "the backup nightmare."


Backup first starts in the field. After a few days of shooting on vacation or working on assignment, flash cards start filling up. Wouldn’t it be a disaster if you lost your European family vacation pictures? Or, my worst-case scenario, losing images shot on assignment for a client, some of which might be very hard and expensive to reproduce. It’s time to back up in the field!

One guideline I use in my backup strategy is the Rule of 2. I always have my images backed up in at least two different locations. Sometimes I even back up to three locations for peace of mind. You have to decide what works for you.

When I’m on assignment, I carry 200 gigabytes of flash cards, my MacBook Air and external 500 GB hard drives. After a day of shooting, I return to my hotel and download my images onto my laptop and my external hard drive. Remember, downloading can take a lot of time, so choose fast flash cards, card readers and external hard drives that use your computer’s fastest connection, like USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt. At this point, I now have my images on my computer and on an external hard drive.

PRO TIP: With high-grade cards more affordable than ever, they’re an option for both short- and long-term backups.

Why do I carry 200 gigabytes of flash cards? First, I may actually shoot that amount of images on a long commercial assignment. But another benefit is that I don’t have to reformat my flash cards in the field—I have enough card space to keep shooting on new cards. The flash cards I’ve already shot become another source of image backup since I don’t reformat them in the field. And flash card prices keep dropping, making them more affordable. I now have three backups of my images: my laptop, an external hard drive and flash cards.

What happens if your computer dies or gets stolen? Well, the good news is that you have your images on flash cards and portable hard drives, so you haven’t lost your images. First, you can continue to keep images on flash cards as one source of backup. You could also carry a multimedia image viewer like the Sanho HyperDrive, which allows you to download your flash card directly without the need of a computer, or use a friend’s computer to download images to your external hard drives.

When I’m on commercial shoots, we bring two laptops. I’m not recommending everyone go out and buy a second laptop! But when I’m on big-budget shoots, it’s expected that I have redundancy in everything to ensure a flawless shoot, including cameras, lenses, lighting, etc. If one computer goes down, we have a working clone already on-site and ready to go. On normal photo excursions, I carry one laptop, two external 500 GB hard drives and lots of flash cards for field backup.

Smart traveling habits also ensure solid field backup. I always put my laptop out of sight when I leave my hotel room and put my external hard drives in my room safe. My flash cards stay with me in my photo pack. By putting your backup devices in different areas, you’re helping to ensure one will survive any catastrophe. I’ve been known to carry my external hard drive with me at all times. There’s just something warm and fuzzy knowing my entire shoot is with me.


Once I get back from a shoot, it’s time to download the images onto my primary computer. This is the location where your images "live" and where you access them regularly to make prints, send out submissions or share online. It might be your home or an office outside your home—but the Rule of 2 still applies. You need to have your images backed up in at least two different locations, and maybe a third location to be really safe. And just as important as how many places your images are backed up is how they’re backed up. On-site and off-site backup are both important.

When I first converted to digital many years ago, my image backup consisted of burning archival DVDs and storing images on a hard drive. Technology advancements prompted me to improve my office backup. First, hard drive connection speeds rapidly increased, making backup speed very fast, much faster than burning DVDs. Second, digital camera file size kept increasing. My main camera today is a Nikon D800, which shoots 36-megapixel files. I can easily shoot many gigabytes of images on a one-day shoot. Backing up to DVDs would be too slow and take numerous DVDs for all the files. And newer Mac computers don’t even have DVD drives. It was time to change our backup system.

Today, our on-site office image backup consists of all hard drives. We use G-Technology G-SPEED Q RAID (redundant array of individual disks) 8-terabyte drives. These four-bay drives are configured for RAID 5, which means data is distributed across four hard drives. If one hard drive crashes, I simply pull it out from my G-SPEED Q and replace it with another. The G-SPEED Q will restore the data using the three functioning drives and nothing will be lost. RAID systems can also be configured other ways, but generally don’t offer as much redundancy and data protection as RAID 5 systems (unless they’re higher than RAID 5). My G-SPEED Q is connected to our main computer in the office, allowing instant access to over 250,000 images. When we fill up the 8-terabyte drive, we move everything over to larger 12-terabyte G-SPEED Q drives.

Since this drive is RAID 5 and offers protection if one drive fails, I should be backed up, right? Yes…and no. The images on this drive are, in essence, on multiple drives, but what happens if my office burns down? Hasta luego to my images! To ensure I can sleep at night, we have a second G-SPEED Q 8-terabyte with all our images stored in another location off-site. We regularly download new images to this drive, as well as our office drive, to make sure we’re safely backed up. If one RAID system is completely destroyed, we have a second RAID system stored safely off-site. Some photographers even use three separate RAID systems stored in different areas. You have to decide what you’re comfortable with in your system.

So far we’ve talked about image backup, but what happens to all our documents and applications if our computer hard drive crashes? This brings up another aspect of our backup system: protecting our computer drives. For this task, we use two items, Apple’s Time Capsule and OS X Time Machine software.
AirPort Time Capsule is a wireless hard drive that backs up our
computers via Wi-Fi. Used with OS X Time Machine, Time Capsule automatically backs up our files on a regular interval so we won’t lose any data if a computer hard drive fails. Once a bad hard drive is replaced, Time Machine will allow you to restore the data you lost.

Windows users also have an option similar to Time Machine. In Windows 8, choose the File History option. This allows you to automatically back up your files to an external hard drive. You then can restore your files using the external hard drive if you have problems.

Apple AirPort Time Capsule

G-Technology G-SPEED Q RAID


So far we’ve looked at how I back up my computer and image files, but there are other options to consider in conjunction with the methods mentioned earlier for even more secure backup.

One popular way photographers back up is by using online services like CrashPlan or Carbonite. These services charge you a fee for storing images and backing up data on their industrial-grade servers, offering secure backup and encryption of your files. What’s really nice is that these services can automatically back up your data on your computer, similar to Time Machine. Another benefit of these services is that you can access your files anywhere in the world as long as you have an Internet connection, and you can back up in the field, as well. If you combine using your own RAID system with online services, you’re a role model of backup!

Another off-site data-storage option is Dropbox. Dropbox offers secure data storage for all your files and documents. Once your files are downloaded to Dropbox, they’re automatically backed up at regular intervals. Dropbox doesn’t automatically restore your hard drive if it crashes, but it’s simple to use and you can access your files anywhere you have an Internet connection. It’s also popular for file sharing with clients and friends.


Backup is a critical part of your workflow. All the work you’ve done in the early stages of workflow is saved in backup. What exact system you use is up to you, but make sure you remember the Rule of 2 and use both on-site and off-site backup methods. Once you have reliable and secure backup in place, you’ll be able to sleep better at night.

Check out the previous articles in this series on our website, For an in-depth look at Tom Bol’s workflow, pick up a copy of his book, Adventure Sports Photography: Creating Dramatic Images in Wild Places. Visit Tom’s website at

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