The 3-2-1 Photo Backup Plan

Seagate External Hard Drives

Seagate External Hard Drives

I read about a professional photographer who lost a bunch of photos because they were all on just one external hard drive with no backups. The cost of recovering the photos, if they can be recovered, will run between $500 and $5000 depending on the number of photos and the complications involved in the recovery process.

This article was originally posted April 30, 2016. Revised, expanded, and reposted July 8, 2017

There is a simple solution of course. Several photo magazine articles have been written recently about the “3-2-1 backup plan”. Despite that, the word still isn’t out there. I get emails all the time from people who have lost precious photos. Some of the photos can be recovered and some of the photos are lost forever. So it is time once again to talk about a good backup plan.

Not that long ago, the common advice was to have two copies of all your digital photos on two separate hard drives. The problem with that advice, as many people discovered, was if one hard drive failed, the other hard drive was often the same age and also failed as the photos were being copied, with many of the photos being lost.

3-2-1 Backup Plan

So the best, current advice is to have at least THREE copies of all of your your photos on at least TWO different kinds of media, with at least ONE complete set of your photos living off site (hence the 3-2-1 designation). If you have two sets of your photos on two different external hard drives, the third set should be on something different, like optical discs (DVD or Blu-Ray), or magnetic tape.

In addition to two copies of all your photos at home or primary photo location, the third copy of all your photos should be somewhere else (like your office away from home, photo studio, a safe deposit box, a storage facility, or at a friend’s house). If there is a disaster (tornado, fire, hurricane, or flood) at your primary photo location, you don’t want to lose all your photos because they are all in one place. Which means your off site photos should be far enough from your home (or primary photo location) so everything doesn’t get lost in the same natural disaster.

Do not use an outdoor storage facility. The temperature fluctuations are hard on discs and hard drives. Use an indoor storage facility with a constant temperature.

I keep my off site set of photos at a friend’s house across town. It is not unusual for a pair of photographers who are good friends to keep a set of their backup drives at each other’s homes. That saves the cost of a commercial storage facility or safe deposit box.

Sure it is a bother to make three copies of everything, but if you have heard all the stories I have heard about people who have lost treasured photos, you would understand why this is so important.

Backup Process

When I get home from a photo trip, I download the memory cards and copy all the photos to four different external hard drives, plus a copy on Blu-Ray discs. I use the program Folder Match to make sure everything gets copied exactly, and my Blu-Ray software verifies that the Blu-Ray disc is an exact match to the folders on my hard drives. Usually everything copies over just fine, but every once in a while several files don’t copy correctly or at all. Folder Match saves me a lot of time making sure everything was copied correctly.

Backup On the Road

I carry enough memory cards that I don’t usually need to download and backup photos while I am on the road, but sometimes it happens.

I carry two small external hard drives when I am traveling. They are about the size of a deck of cards. Everything that gets downloaded to my MacBook Air when I am traveling gets backed up to folders in these two portable drives. One lives in my laptop briefcase and the other lives in my photo backpack. These are just temporary hard drives and the folders get deleted from these hard drives once they have been backed up to my primary external hard drives at home. Then I backup the memory cards that didn’t get downloaded while I was traveling.

Keeping Track of Everything

To make sure I don’t miss anything in the backup process, I keep a check list (see the photo above) of every folder to make sure each folder is copied (a check mark) and then verified with Folder Match (a slash across each check mark). When everything is copied and verified to four hard drives plus Blu-Ray discs, I delete the folders from my laptop.

I also keep a list when I download memory cards at home to make sure every folder gets backed up and verified with Folder Match.

Hard Drive Recovery

If you do lose a bunch of photos in a hard drive crash and you have no backups, I highly recommend DriveSavers. They are one of the top rated drive recovery services in the U.S. They are not cheap. They are very good.

Good Memory Card Practices

A lot of people lose photos before they are even downloaded from their memory cards, or even during the downloading process. There are things you can do (and things you should not do) to minimize the chances of that happening.  And there are ways to recover lost memory card photos. Check out the two memory card article links below.

Pro With No Backup?

You might be wondering why a professional photographer (top of this article) would not have a backup. This is what happens when there is an unhappy breakup and the former significant other takes the backup photos. There is a lesson in here somewhere.


Memory Cards Part 1: The Best Way To Use Memory Cards To Avoid Lost Images

Memory Cards Part 2: Lost Photos

DriveSavers – If you need someone to recover the data from your hard drive, this is the company to go to.

Folder Match – Excellent file and folder comparison software to keep everything in sync.