Photographers suck

at backups!

Episode 1

Photography backup strategy

Episode 1 - Don't lose your head

If you're a photographer and you have a well thought out and tested backup strategy then stop reading now ... however, if you're in the other 99% of photographers this might be useful.

Photography backup strategy is a big subject so I’m going to break this down into a series of articles starting where it all begins, setting up your camera, and the factors that you might want consider to preserve you shoot data.

Future articles will cover what happens to your images once they are imported onto your device, long term storage and disaster recovery.

Time is precious

I’ve trained and worked with 100’s of photographers in my career and one of the traits that I’ve seen time and time again is a terrible disregard for the value of their data. This is usually down to a combination of of the following statements:

"I'm a Creative - backups are boring"
"I know it’s important but I've just never gotten around to it"
"It’s fine, I use Sandisk cards"
"My images aren't that valuable"
"I’ve never lost any data because I’m careful"

Of course the cost of producing images varies wildly, from taking pictures of your kids in the back garden (ostensibly free - it’s not), to full scale location shoots with a team of professionals.

I regularly undertake both of these scenarios and many more, but I consider my time valuable enough that I absolutely, definitely want to limit the chance of losing images.

What makes a good backup strategy?

A good starting point is to figuring out the level of loss that you can afford to sustain - both financially and emotionally. Then working out a backup strategy that meets those requirements whilst fitting into your budget and workflow.

My own backup strategy (keep reading) is designed around my needs as a commercial photographer, your needs will probably be different, but there’s some overlap in that no one wants to lose their images or data! It’s just a matter of how valuable that information is to you, and to what extent you want to protect it in terms of cost and effort.

Two > One

The most obvious problem at the camera end of photography is memory card failure - SD card, CF card etc.

If you shoot commercial photography then choosing a camera system that duplicates your RAW images onto two cards is essential, your reputation, and by extension the success of your business is going to be largely based on your ability to reliably deliver images and “My memory card died” is never going to be an acceptable excuse. You can be fairly sure of losing the client along with having to pay for someone else to re-shoot the work, so not having a photography backup strategy is career suicide.

However, I would argue that dual card slots are also essential for amateur photographers too. I’ve watched non-commercial photographers pour their heart and soul into planning and executing shoots, often hiring studios, models and HMUA’s to create stellar images for their portfolios. Risking all of that time, money and effort on the reliability of a single memory card is crazy!

The best memory card brands

It seems that every photographer that I meet has a strong allegiance to a particular brand, it could be Sandisk, Lexar, Sony or whatever, most also have a villain in their past, “I’m never using brand X again - I’ve had two card failures in Y years!”.

So I looked for studies similar to those conducted on hard drives that show card failure rates amongst major brands over time, but I came up empty. There are lots of opinions, but no scientific data using a large enough dataset to draw any useful conclusions.

Anecdotally I've heard suggestions that buying cards with longer warranties or free data recovery services will mean that they are going to be more reliable (seems reasonable), also mixing cards from different brands might be a good idea as it avoids concurrent wear failure (also seems reasonable). But the reality is there is no empirical scientific data to back any of this up.

So what cards should I buy?

Given the lack of data I'm going to assume that all major brands are equal. My personal preference is to set a card specification that works with my camera and buy whichever branded memory cards are cheapest on Black-Friday or Cyber-Monday. I personally have a stack of different cards from several manufacturers and they have all been incredibly reliable.

How many cards do I need?

Again this all depends on your personal situation. For many photographers having 2 memory cards set up in their camera to duplicate images will be enough.

For my needs as a commercial photographer I think that keeping my last 3 shoots stored safely away in my hard shell card safe is good level of protection. So for each of my cameras (Cam-A and Cam-B) I have 4 primary memory cards, for example Cam-A has cards labelled A1 / A2 / A3 / A4 and two high capacity secondary cards labelled A-BAK1 and A-BAK2.

After every shoot I remove the primary card e.g A1, flip the little read-only toggle and place it in my storage safe for later download to my Mac (PC’s are great too). I then insert a fresh card, A2 in this example, and format it ready for my next shoot. This means that I have my current shoot along with the previous 3 stored in my card safe ready for recovery should something awful happen.

My stats

My personal  primary cards are 128GB which is large enough to store 2719 RAW images on my pair of Sony a7Riii cameras. 

This is large enough to cover 99% of my shoot scenarios, meaning it’s extremely rare for me to fill a card up during a shoot (which I hate).

My backup cards are sized at 512GB, which is enough to store 10,876 RAW images.

In practical terms I have to change and format my backup cards every 18 shoots, that’s an average of 600 images per shoot and a backup card change around every 5-6 weeks.

What could possibly go wrong?

So to round this article off I want to discuss what happens when things go wrong. My choices work well for me but like any complex system I did have to make some trade-offs. Here’s a quick rundown of scenarios that I can recover from, and those I can't.

Single card failure

No problem, I immediately mark the card as failed (red pen!), store it safely and copy the images from the backup card onto the next primary card before continuing my shoot. This has happened twice in 10 years of shooting or once every 206,000 images shot.

Dual card failure

Well that would be a bad day! In the event that my primary and secondary cards fail simultaneously I would weigh up the situation carefully. How far into the shoot am I? Did I shoot enough images on my second camera body to mitigate the loss? Can I re-shoot the work? Would sending the cards off to a data recovery agency be a viable option?

Dual card failure is sufficiently unlikely that it’s a risk I’m willing to take, but I could mitigate it by using a series of smaller primary cards - see below.

Equipment theft!

This is every photographer's worst nightmare, but more so for commercial and wedding photographers as the shoot data is irreplaceable. In this scenario my backup option would be useless, everything is lost and I would lose a full day of commercial photography.

There’s a good argument that suggests shooting images to smaller primary cards, say 32GB each, and then storing them separately from your main kit to limit the losses. I think that is a good idea, and if it works for you then it’s worth pursuing.

I’ve actually tried this approach and it wasn’t a good fit for me. I filled up the smaller primary cards relatively quickly, which forced an awkward break mid shoot for a card change, this was doubly painful on location in the middle of Paris. In addition I found it much harder to keep track of the physical cards (I required several over a day) and the post-shoot import process was a pain.

The Future

I briefly tried using a WIFI solution that would make a backup of each image wirelessly as I shoot - sounds amazing right? In reality it was completely unreliable, the camera tech and wifi standards just aren't ready to cope with hi-res RAW image files being pumped out at even low frame rates. Wifi interference, working distance and battery life were all major contributing factors to my abandoning this approach. 

But I can see that at some point in the future camera’s might come pre-installed with 5G transmitters and the option to stream images directly to a secure cloud.

Extra backups in the field

If you have money burning a hole in your pocket the GNARBOX 2.0 looks like a great product. It allows you to backup your cards on location to an internal SSD, it then links to wifi or your phone to upload images to a secure location of your choice, all optionally controlled by a phone app. I’ve not tried this product but I’d love to hear from people that have, the battery life would be my major concern on location.

Coming up...

In episode 2 of this series I’m going to look at how and where you store your valuable images after the shoot, the options, the pitfall and my own choices.
Copyright © 2021 Dan Tidswell