A Photographer's Nightmare: Hard Drive Failure Is Not a Joke, Back Up Your Photos

A Photographer's Nightmare: Hard Drive Failure Is Not a Joke, Back Up Your Photos

The day I’ve been preparing for arrived unexpectedly this past Saturday as I went to my Mac to export photos for a client, just like it was any other day. But I quickly found out it wasn’t going to be like other days when I found my photo and video files had disappeared from my Lightroom catalog.

I calmly checked my drive to see why my catalog claimed that there were missing images, and Lightroom was not lying. Five terabytes of my hard work had disappeared. I’d like to believe that I take great caution and care when dealing with my drives and files. I still don’t know why — it may have been a terrible glitch — but that’s not the point of this article.

PSA: Back Up Your Work

This article is simply a four-word PSA reminder: back up your work. It is not a joke and it can happen to anyone at any time. The reasons are endless on how you can lose your work: formatting errors, improper connectivity, read/write crash, file corruption, physical damage, bad sectors, glitches, and even unknown causes.

The Good News

Fortunately enough, I prepared for this very day to come. I visited my off-site drive location that I backup to periodically. I successfully avoided losing all of my hard work by taking the necessary measures. Even with a successful backup and avoiding potential disaster, I found out there is room for improvement.

A Reminder to You

But with that all being said, I will go out with this: hard drive corruption is not a joke, and I know of many photographers (novices and even professionals) that use simply one “pocket” hard drive and that is it. If that is you, I’d highly advise you to take the steps to protect yourself. I don’t care if it’s the most sophisticated backup system in the world or the simplest, just take the proper steps. Spending $500–$1,000-plus now is worth much more than losing your life’s work later. Make multiple copies of work by any means necessary. Think about it, be smart, and continue to create beautiful work with peace of mind.

Backup Education Resources

I know there has been a slew of backup articles published lately. I’m glad because it’s a topic that isn’t discussed enough. Here are some helpful articles to help set up or better your backup workflow:

Also, feel free to leave a comment below regarding how your backup workflow is set up. Keep in mind to make it as simple as possible as if you're explaining it to someone new who'd like the proper steps.

Photo by Azz Bad via Pexels.

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Reginald Walton's picture

Well, not to be cynical, but it's common sense that you have redundant backups as a photographer (or for any important files). There is no excuse for not having a backup of your work/data.

Robert Nurse's picture

You would think, especially now a days, that backing up would be a normalcy. Sadly, it's not. I backup my HD to a portable. Then the portable is backed up to the cloud.

Paul Seiler's picture

Great points guys! Similar to what I outlined here in last week's article: https://fstoppers.com/business/lets-talk-about-storage-and-backups-198514

I'm glad Nick had an offsite backup, as I personally find this exact method invaluable.

Fritz John Asuro's picture

I know most photographers will back up files, including raw files, or even sometimes PSD of each and every retouch they made. A colleague of mine kinda enlightened me about keeping files.

Currently, I am working in a publication where I met our senior photographer who is working for more than 25 years.
I've always wondered if such people would keep all files of their work, so I asked him if he does

And He did at one point, and that was for the first few years of his career (albums, analog days) and a few from the digital age. Nowadays, he just keep his favorites, about 10-20 every year, and only the final image.
He said that, if you've been working long enough, he doesn't see a reason to keep all raw files and all images. Because even storage solutions are getting cheaper, file sizes are getting bigger anyway.
What photographers need are iconic images that will define your work. Agencies don't look through your portfolio, they usually look for consistency and quality.

Do not take his statement as absolute, I know it doesn't apply to everyone. But he has a point.

Fritz John Asuro's picture

Like I said, his way might not impress everyone. And I won't call him a fool as his work is really impressive.

What you described sounds like he simply keeps much less than what he used to, but that he still does back up the little he keeps. Correct? Is so then that's really two different things.

Bernd Stoeckl's picture

If someone follows an advise without being able to contemplate then you are a fool.
I am photographing since more than 30 years and I keep most of my photos.
BUT then there are shots that looking on them hindsight do not anymore satisfy my quality standards.
So why keeping it.
If you are a good photographer you grow and develop.
So except for nostalgic reason - there are none to me.
Uh, yeah I do backup on 3 different media one that is off-site.

Tony Northrup's picture

Everyone should use a cloud backup service. It's off-site and automatic. If you have to remember to manually move a hard drive off-site, you'll eventually forget.

Chris Rogers's picture

Crash plan pro is really good and affordable. My job uses it to back up our servers every night.

Anonymous's picture

I would never tell "everyone" what they should do, even if they should do it.

Douglas Turney's picture

This can be true but a simple reminder in one's calendar is an easy way to remind one to backup. A backup of my business files and photos are sitting in a credit union a few miles from both of us in Waterford. Cloud backups are good too but they have their draw backs. One of my concerns is bankruptcy of the backup service or change in their business models.

My approach is to rotated two portable hard drives. One backup drive is in the office and backs up my main hard drive. Then once a month I drive that to the credit union. Place it in the safe deposit box and remove the second back up hard drive. Take that to the office and clone it with the main hard drive in the office. For cloud storage I use it for photos that are identified as key photos. These are the photos that are either processed and/or photos that I deem important. I don't feel there is a need to have multiple backups of every photo I've shot.

Same approach is used for my business documents. I also use an external drive running time machine for the business documents. More for being able to go back to earlier versions of documents.

Paul Seiler's picture

Exactly Tony! Here is an article from last week covering the topic, and there's more on this seemingly popular topic coming soon :)

Douglas Turney's picture

The previous article is a good article. Like I mentioned earlier I use cloud storage only for my "more" important photos. This helps to keep it manageable for me instead of trying to backup many TBs of data. Dropbox has worked well for me. Plus it makes it really easy to share photo content with clients.

I used to think that way, and did so for a couple of years, but eventually switched back to multiple cross-computer copies and off-site storage of external drives. That was enough for my peace of mind.

I've said for a long time there's a HUGE market for someone to make a reasonable back up service for photographers and videographers. Something that takes the need for lots of technical skill out of it. I've got a 48TB raid backing up to two 20TB raids and one off site. I'd love to go to the cloud but there's no reasonable way to do that with a 30TB seed needed and up to 1TB per video shoot having to then subsequently get uploaded. There's tons of great DAM software that could help from a server/interface side, but they're all priced out of the small studio market.

Reginald Walton's picture

There are some out there. I use idrive.com and all I do is copy the files to my harddrive on my computer and then I have idrive set up to automatically backup my files in real time. So I just put the first copy on my local drive and then idrive does its thing and I have a copy in the cloud - easy peezy. AND the great thing about idrive is that if you have a large amount of files to backup, they will send you an external drive to copy your files to and they will do the initial load from that and from that point forward, you can begin the auto backup yourself.

Paul Seiler's picture

A few options are talked about here in an article from last week. Maybe we should do a whole series on the topic?

Robert Callahan's picture

I had a big problem where I would start backing things up to a hard drive, but then would slowly start working off of that drive. I finally bought 2 drives and set up Carbon Copy Cloner and haven't had an issue since.

Paul Seiler's picture

Yes! My only additional advice is to get at least one of those drives off-site. If you can get something as minimal as perhaps your working drive synced between two locations, that peace of mind is really a game changer. Are you using anything to cloud backup one of those local Carbon Copy'd drives?

Robert Callahan's picture

I'm not, but I really should be.

Chris Rogers's picture

It sure is not a joke at all. I lost all my shoots from 2016 back because I'm an idiot. I bought an MSI laptop to replace my desktop (don't ever buy MSI products). Turns out this laptop is cheaper than poop. It died on me twice in 4 months. Bad motherboard, bad keyboard, first and second hard drives died and I lost eeeeeverything (again I'm an idiot for not backing up). I only used this laptop for about a month out of the first 4 months of ownership. It was in for repairs the other 3 months. Now that I have it back it seems to be working fine EXCEPT my screen now sucks. It has a brown glob at the bottom that moves around if you tilt it and leave it in one position for long enough. It also developed 6 white spots in the middle of the screen. Now I have to buy a new screen and front bezel to replace it. It is still under warranty but I can't go another month and a half without a computer. I bought a 1tb external I put all my shoots on now as well as back up to dropbox pro. Back yuh stuff up folks!!!

I remember MSI as simply a motherboard manufacturer. That was the case with Asus too, except they seem to have done a better job in getting into the whole computer market. For important work I would stick with the known bigger brands. I also wouldn't buy any computing device from a Chinese owned company. Too much of a security risk.

Chris Rogers's picture

Word. My next laptop is probably going to be an HP. I have had several laptops from them in recent past and never had trouble with'em. I also plan on building a desktop soons :)

And on the flip side, every HP I've ever had, or known anyone to have, has been the absolute biggest piece of junk you could possibly imagine. The last HP I had was the shortest lived laptop I've ever owned (think it lasted about a year with numerous problems along the way). I upgraded to an MSI, which also had a hard drive failure, but after replacing it with a solid state, it's been as bulletproof as a computer can be - even survived a nasty fall that dented the crap out of one corner. I've had it for two years now - should be able to keep it going for a few more.

That hard drive failure, sadly enough, is the one that resonates the most with this article. Lost about 9 months worth of photos as that crash was the worst I'd ever experienced and I wasn't as diligent in backing up as I usually am.

Chris Rogers's picture

Damn, that sucks man. I had a Compaq that was a workhorse. It lasted me 8 years then the power port went all funky and stopped taking charge. Have you had any luck with recent Dell laptops?

When I can get the smack together I'm going to buy a 1tb Samsung SSD for this MSI laptop. The stock hard drives sooo sloooooow. I called them and asked them what hard drives they typically use and they told me they don't know. They buy hard drives in bulk from the cheapest supplier. The hard drives vary from one to another, unfortunately. Sad to say with MSI a hard drive will be a necessary upgrade as soon as you get your computer it seems.

Can't speak to Dell's recent laptops, but I had one that was a workhorse for about 6 years before the power jack came loose and couldn't be charged. Company I work for now uses them, but I can't speak to their reliability.

Been there done that though, so I feel your pain. No matter where you look, people will have horror stories about every brand. Good luck - hopefully you end up with a good one.

The last time I built a computer was 15 or so years ago. Then I grew tired of having to troubleshoot bugs and other issues that would always crop up, and I reached an age where I just didn't want to spend the time building and maintaining them anymore. I then decided to try my first Mac. Don't worry, I'm not gonna try and convince you to buy a Mac. Anyway, since then I never had a hardware failure, until recently when it appears my iMac's power supply or the hard drive is going bad. Well, at least it gives me an excuse to open the iMac to install an SSD. That should prove interesting. My previous iMac was much easier to get into. Now I have to use a pizza cutter like tool to cut into the adhesive tape holding the display in place and then retape it up.

As for HP, I still have a compact HP Slimline model running Windows XP that I use just for scanning film with my dedicated film scanner. Dell also looks like a good option these days. Good luck with the desktop build.

Chris Rogers's picture

No worries on the conversion thing haha. I have owned multiple apple and windows machines over my short time on this planet. I recognize the that both systems are great for many different things. Macs are very reliable when it comes to hardware. The only parts I have ever heard of going bad on macs are the ones you described. power supplies and hard drives. Over the years they have become harder to work on indeed. Currently, I prefer windows machines because I still have the time and interest in tinkering with them. I also started learning and tinkering with Linux recently. My dad used to code for the military when he was in the Airforce and also built many machines. These days though he's pretty tired of messing with computers as well lol. I am pretty sure I will get to that point as I get older too. It's already messing with my vision. I gotta get me some glasses soon!

Most of the Macs are still great, but post Steve Jobs things are not as nice as they used to be. There are too many bugs and neglected apps and functionality and neglected hardware.

For example, Safari on the Mac is a joke when it comes to spelling and grammar checking, and other typing aids, compared to the iPad mini I'm typing in right now. It's embarrassingly bad. On the hardware side you have the Mac mini and Pro being neglected for years now.

I don't get that kind of disconnect, contrast, neglect and incompetence within what is probably the richest company that exists.

The drive in my iMac is over four years old, so it failing is not a surprise. 3-5 years is about the life of most well used drives. Unfortunately most people don't know that and they do not back up their data, hence these kinds of articles.

Using a couple of third party hard drive testers is showing impending failure. Disk Utlity didn't show any problems, at least not yet. So it looks like my power supply may be OK. Good news if that's the case. It will save me around a hundred bucks. Just waiting on a new drive and hardware needed to open and reseal the iMac.

As for getting tired of working on the computers as you age; I think it's more about being more selective and stingy with how you want to spend your time. I still enjoy fixing and tinkering with things, including electronics, but only infrequently. When you're young you don't think much about the value of time but eventually you reach a certain age where you start being really careful how you spend the relatively little amount of time you have left. You want to spend it doing other things that you'll likely find more important.

I started needing reading glasses at about 45. That's pretty normal. I also have different powered reading glasses for when I read, and much more powerful ones for when I work on small and finely detailed things. You look pretty young so you should get your eyes checked, not just for glasses but for overall health.

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