External Storage Devices: A Photographer's Options And Workflow

A dandelion, backlit by a warm sunset, by the banks of Barkers Creek Reservoir in Harcourt, Australia.

Backing up your computer files and digital photos is a hassle to set up. But failing to do so is courting disaster. Here’s what I’ve done to better manage my files and bring me peace of mind.

I have a draw full of old 1TB and smaller external and portable drives. But with lots of digital photos it became a real hassle knowing which drive held the photo I was looking for on any particular day.

The immediate solution was to purchase an external drive with significantly more storage capacity and then develop a sound and straightforward backup strategy to protect those images.

I have an old Drobo external hard drive and I hate it.

Opinions on these devices vary. Folks who have had little or no problems with their units seem happy. And then there's folks like me who just hate them.

I don't use my Drobo anymore. I should look at selling it and may end up with a more sophisticated alternative, like Synology, down the road aways.

Right now a simpler approach seems right.

And we shouldn’t be too quick dismissing simplicity, the advantage of which is that more folks will likely act if they understand what to do and if it’s affordable.

My iMac Computer And Time Machine Backups

I have 2 identical inexpensive Western Digital 4TB My Book external drives, which I’ve labelled as Time Machine A and Time Machine B.

These drives are dedicated to backing up my Time Machine which copies any files that are stored on my 27” iMac computer.

My digital image files currently live on a Western Digital 8TB DUO external drive.

I’ve labelled that drive as Photos.

I set up the drive so that half of it is dedicated to image storage and the other half is a copy of those same files.

However, in doing so, the capacity of that drive has been reduced to 4TB and it’s now almost full. I wonder now if I should have kept it at its original 8TB capacity.

The fact is that if the drive is damaged or stolen I lose all my images as well as the backups stored on that same drive. Yikes!

Primary Photo Storage and Onsite Backup

However, I do have a backup for all my digital photos stored on my Photos external drive.

I have a dedicated WD 8TB My Book drive as a primary back up for my Photos external drive.

I’ve labelled that drive as Photos BackupA.

I also backup my Lightroom Catalog onto that drive.

Heidi, Heading Down, Antarctic Peninsula

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Essential Off site Backup For Your Photos

Of course, having my images relatively secure on two separate external hard drives just isn’t enough. Fire, flood and burglary could result in the loss of all of my precious digital photos.

That’s why I’II soon be purchasing another 8TB external drive to resolve that issue. That drive will function has the second backup drive for my digital photos and Lightroom catalog.

I’II label that drive Photos BackupB.

One of these Photos Backup drives will sit on my desktop and will be used to backup the data from my primary storage device, the Western Digital 8TB DUO (Photos) external drive.

That looks after my onsite backups. The other drive will be kept offsite, close to my home/office.

On a regular basis I’II take whichever Photos Backup drive I have in my studio and swap it over with the offsite backup, which is then used for the next backup of my primary 8TB Photos external drive.

If that’s confusing let me say it in a slightly different way.

The other Photos Backup drive, that had been temporarily stored off site, will then be placed on my desk and immediately used to update any files that have been created or updated on my primary Photos external drive since that specific Photos Backup drive was last plugged in.

This drive now becomes my primary, onsite backup until the next time I swap the 2 Photos Backup drives over.

An abstract image of an out of focus plant backlit by warm sunset light near Harcourt in Central Victoria, Australia.

Cloud-Based Storage

I'm all for online cloud storage. But it's slow and expensive when tens of thousands of large resolution images are involved.

My thinking is that I should start to move my best images, in relatively small batches, online. That’s a project I’ve set aside for January 2020.

My practice, up until very recent times, was to always keep Master versions of my finished photoshop files. That meant keeping them in Tiff (i.e., .tif) or PSD (.psd) format with all layers intact.

File sizes were usually in the 800-1600Mb range, which is a problem when it comes to uploading such large files to online storage.

The solution was to flatten those Master files, which I’ve done and that’s now a part of my normal image processing workflow.

When the time’s right I’II put a copy of these flattened Master files on the cloud.

I can also see the benefit of spreading the risk by having accounts with several online cloud storage providers.

That way if one of them goes out of business, or radically changes their terms of service, I’II still have images backed up in other locations via the cloud.

Backing up our files and digital photos is very much like insurance. Most of us don't want to know about it, but it is our responsibility to do something about it - NOW!

I ask you to use this post as a motivation to ensure you have a decent backup system in place. If not, now’s the time to act.

And remember if, like me, you’re not a super geek you can set up a pretty straightforward system that works well enough and that you understand and can manage without too much trouble.

A decent backup system does cost a fair chunk of change and, initially, takes time to set it. But something is better than nothing.

Start with what you can manage and afford and build it up over time.

If you have a lot of precious memories associated with your photos then the memory insurance you’ll gain through a decent, multi-level (i.e., onsite, offsite and cloud) backup system is well worth it.

Once your photos are all safely backed up, in several locations, you can rest easy knowing that you’ve secured those precious memories for years and, possibly, for generations to come.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru