Michael Caswell Photography

Backup Strategies for Wedding Photographers

If there is one service that wedding photographers should virtually never have to use, it's data recovery. These are the companies that specialize in recovering files from a malfunctioning storage device, sometimes utilizing specialized software and techniques, or in extreme cases also going so far as to disassemble the hardware and replace the controller board or other defective parts (which can get quite expensive). In addition to the cost, success rates vary wildly, with often only a partial recovery is possible, or no recovery at all.

I cringe whenever I see a wedding photographer post on social media groups asking for recommendations for data recovery services. It's usually because they simply hadn't gotten around to making backups, thought they had backed up but hadn't, or that they mistakenly reformatted and reused a memory card a few days after the event but forgot to copy the images to their computer first, all very easily avoidable mistakes.

Dual Card Slots

I strongly recommend shooting with cameras that have dual card slots. This is a non-negotiable feature for any camera I use for documenting weddings or any other similarly crucial event.

With Canon and Nikon recently introducing full-frame mirrorless camera bodies that, to the shock of many, only have one card slot, a lot of heated debate has flared up over this issue, with the wedding photography community sharply divided into two camps. One side believes that dual card slots are completely unnecessary, because they've personally never had an instance of lost images. The other side considers the lack of dual card slots in a camera to be an absolute deal-killer. I fall firmly into the latter category. Just because I've personally never been in a serious car crash, I still always wear my seatbelt and I appreciate that all modern vehicles have multiple airbags as well as other important safety features.

I did once (many years ago) have an instance where one of my CompactFlash memory cards malfunctioned, corrupting the directory structure, and I was easily able to pull the files from the secondary card. It's possible that recovery software or a recovery service could have salvaged most or all of the images from the malfunctioning card, but I'm glad I didn't need to rely on that option.

But in addition to memory card malfunction, another possibly even more common culprit of image loss is simple human error or other human-caused circumstances. Probably the most frequent scenarios are when the cards are misplaced at the end of the wedding, with the most heartbreaking (and cringeworthy) story I've heard being when a photographer set their card wallet on top of the car as they were packing up in the venue's parking lot at the end of the night, and drove away without realizing it. The card wallet fell off the top of the car onto the ground, and by the time they, in a desperate attempt to locate the missing cards by retracing their steps, returned the next morning, the cards had been run over multiple times by other vehicles and were physically destroyed beyond any hope of recovery. Another common occurrence is when the cards are left in a vehicle (along with the camera gear) and stolen overnight. Though memory cards should be handled with the utmost care, and not be left in the car or given the opportunity to be misplaced, we are all human and are capable of making mistakes. Shooting to dual cards offers significant protection with these scenarios as well.

Consider the prospect of what to do with your used memory cards at the end of the night. Surely you use some sort of case or wallet for safely and securely storing and carrying your cards, but it's widely acknowledged that any handling of the cards on-location increases the chances that they'll be misplaced. After all, it's much harder to lose a card when you don't touch it at all, and when it has a big camera wrapped around it! But there's also a distinct possibility that you and your camera gear could be separated (through misplacing your bag, or having it stolen), which would mean the cards would be gone too, which swings the decision back in favor of removing the cards from the cameras and keeping them on your person.

The perfect solution is to do BOTH, which is easy and painless thanks to dual card slots. When I'm finished photographing a wedding, the cards are immediately separated, with one set coming out and being placed in a card wallet (which stays in my front pocket and is tethered to a belt loop), while the other set remains in the cameras.

Memory Card Handling Procedures

Make it an unbreakable habit that once you are back home you ALWAYS download the images from the cards right away. Yes, you are exhausted from a long day of shooting, and you just want to go to bed, but I have heard numerous stories of photographers inadvertently erasing and reusing cards a few days later while forgetting copying off the previous job's images. Putting this process off for even just a couple of days drastically increases the chances of a mishap occurring (and though you should not rely on it, dual card slots offer an additional level of protection against this kind of mishandling). Lastly, the longer you delay the downloading of your cards, the longer you go with insufficient backups.

This doesn't have to be painful. Just make the computer your first stop as soon as you get home, and with multiple card readers, you can simultaneously set up all of your cards to be downloading while you go take a shower. Come back to the computer, run your backups, THEN go to bed!

One other procedure I employ is to retain one set of cards until after the wedding is fully edited. Memory cards are not particularly expensive these days, and it's cheap insurance to have enough cards on hand to enable you to stash away the second set of cards until you are certain they are no longer needed. I shoot RAW to both cards, and I specifically retain the second set of cards (not the ones that were originally copied to the computer), just in case there are instances of corrupt images on the first set that went unnoticed initially. Retaining that same set of cards would offer limited benefit in that scenario.

To be fair, the protection from data loss that having dual card slots gives you is by no means absolute, as it's still possible for an upstream glitch within the camera to corrupt an image before it's written to both cards. There have been several reports of Canon bodies exhibiting this problem. I suppose it's also hypothetically possible for a severe camera malfunction to damage the data that had previously been written to both cards, and there's an extremely remote possibility that both cards could be defective or otherwise suffer data loss simultaneously.

But I have a firm and absolute belief that the benefits that dual card slot camera bodies give to photographers who capture priceless and unrepeatable events like weddings are far too valuable to disregard.

Backing Up Your Images

Admittedly, I perhaps go a little overboard with my backups, but hard drives are not prohibitively expensive, and I want to do everything possible to avoid ever having to tell a couple that their wedding photographs have been lost. I'm Mac-based, and use ChronoSync to execute my backups.

I have various drives that I perform automatic and manual general backups to, with separate drives specifically for my wedding and portrait RAW files:

  • External 3TB hard drive – this drive remains always connected to my computer, which enables me to quickly run a backup whenever I feel the need, and is backed up to automatically each night as well. But you should not rely exclusively on backup drives that remain constantly connected, as the same lightning strike or other catastrophic power surge (or malware) that could wipe out your main storage drive would also likely take out this drive at the same time.
  • Portable 1TB hard drives (2) – these two drives are kept physically separated, and I alternate them every few days. They remain disconnected from the computer unless I'm running a backup, and only one is ever connected to the computer at any given time. One of these stays inside, the other remains in my car.
  • CrashPlan – this is a cloud backup service that enables me to ensure I have a secure, off-site backup of my images and other important files.
  • 128GB USB Flash Drive – because a cloud backup of a full wedding can take a day or so to complete, I also keep a copy of my most recent wedding images on this flash drive, which I carry around with me if I have to leave the house before the cloud backup has finished.

Everyone has their own comfort level. But while one local backup in addition to a cloud backup is probably sufficient, it's prudent to be extra cautious, since these images are so absolutely priceless to our clients.

Cloud Backup

I frequently get asked by other wedding photographers what online backup service I recommend. The above-mentioned CrashPlan is, to me, the best solution. There are others, such as BackBlaze and Carbonite, but CrashPlan offers several distinct advantages.

The first, and biggest, is unlimited file retention. Why is this important? Consider the possibility that you inadvertently delete a file or a folder of files from your hard drive, but you don't realize the mistake right away. After 30 days (BackBlaze) or 60 days (Carbonite), deleted files are permanently removed from the backup server. So if you don't happen to notice the missing file(s) until a few months later, you are out of luck, they are gone and cannot be recovered. CrashPlan, on the other hand, can retain deleted files indefinitely. It can also be configured to retain multiple versions of files that are modified over time.

It's a similar story with how external hard drives are treated. BackBlaze and Carbonite both require that unmounted external hard drives periodically be reconnected. If this is not done every 30 days, the backup of those files will be deleted from the server. CrashPlan has no such limitation.

If you use a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, CrashPlan will back up the data stored on it. Other online backup services either will not allow an NAS to be backed up, or require a more expensive monthly plan to do so.

Another benefit of CrashPlan is its robust data deduplication feature, which means when files change, only the portions that have been modified have to be uploaded to the server, not the entire files again. Similarly, if a file is renamed, just that reference is changed, and the whole file does not need to be re-uploaded. This is beneficial if your workflow results in you renaming your RAW files at some point after they have been backed up. Rather than these many gigabytes worth of files having to be uploaded again over the course of the next day or so, the backup completes in just a few minutes.

Verify Your Backups

You should also periodically verify that your backups are indeed taking place as expected.

Several years ago there was an incident here in New Orleans where a courthouse server crashed, resulting in the loss of decades worth of real estate transactions and documents. When IT staff attempted to recover the data from their backup system, they discovered it had ceased functioning properly about a year prior, and contained very little data. They were eventually able to recover most of the data, but it's a frightening example of what can happen when you simply assume that everything is working.

Similarly, during production of the Pixar movie Toy Story 2, an animator, while performing routine housekeeping tasks on the company's server, mistakenly deleted about 90% of the film's 3D modeling asset files, and the backup system was found to have failed at some point in the past, leaving the project in peril. Fortunately, an employee who had been working from home had copies of most of the lost files on her own computer.

The lesson of these stories is, in addition to verifying that your backups are working, to maintain multiple backup methods and devices as an extra measure of safety.