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 having introduced full-frame mirrorless camera bodies in 2018 that, to the shock of many professional photographers, only had 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, and also citing the fact that before digital, film cameras had no such backup ability. The other side considers the lack of dual card slots in a camera to be an absolute deal-killer for professional event photography. 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 in a Nikon D3s 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 pavement, 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 example of easily avoidable image loss that we hear about on the news every now and then is when a photographer leaves their bag in their car, and this gear (along with the memory cards) is stolen, resulting in the couple's irreplaceable photographs being lost forever.

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 in these scenarios.

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 misplace 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 (for instance, if you are robbed while walking back to your car) 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.

A perfect illustration of how dual card slots, along with proper handling, could have provided a substantial measure of insulation against human error came in mid-2019, when a Texas photographer shooting a destination wedding in Colorado somehow misplaced her card wallet containing all the photographs from the event she had captured that weekend. She didn't realize it was missing until she was at the airport, ready to board the plane to head home, and because that day's sightseeing and travel prep had included several stops across a wide area, the search area was huge. Apparently she was using single card slot cameras (or had a dual card slot camera but was only shooting to single cards, as some photographers inexplicably do). Although the story went viral, with multiple people volunteering to scour the areas she had visited in the hopes of finding the misplaced card wallet, it remained lost.

Again, mistakes or misfortune happen to anyone, no matter how much care is taken. And although this photographer may have been careless, it's not particularly shocking that a small card wallet could be misplaced. However, it's a harsh and unavoidable truth that had this event been captured to dual memory cards, with one set of cards remaining in the cameras afterward, and the other set remaining secured on her person, it's extremely unlikely that both sets would have been lost simultaneously.

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 plopping their cards on the desk intending to download the images later in the week, but then inadvertently erasing and reusing cards a few days later while forgetting copying off the previous job's images (and as a side note, memory cards are not that expensive... buy enough of them so that you don't ever feel pressured to reuse them immediately).

Putting off the process of downloading your images for even just a day or two drastically increases the chances of a mishap like this occurring (dual card slots offer an additional layer of protection against this kind of mishandling, though you should not rely on this). It should also be noted that, the longer you delay the downloading of your cards, the longer you go with insufficient backups (especially the essential off-site backup... what happens if your home or studio burns down or is burglarized?).

This doesn't have to be painful or inconvenient. Just make the computer one of your first stops as soon as you get home. If you have multiple card readers, it takes just a minute to set up all of your cards to be downloading simultaneously while you go take a shower and get ready for bed. Come back to the computer afterward and it will be done... run your backups, then go to sleep!

One other practice I employ is to retain one set of cards until after the wedding is fully edited. Years ago, memory cards were quite expensive, but these days they are very reasonably priced, 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 affect an image before it's written, leading to a corrupt file on 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 somehow suffer data loss simultaneously.

But I have a firm and absolute belief that the benefits 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. This app does a great job performing incremental backups, which means only new or modified files have to be copied.

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 indefinite deleted 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 files until a few months later, you are out of luck, they are gone and cannot be recovered. CrashPlan, on the other hand, will retain deleted files indefinitely. It can also be configured to retain multiple versions of files that have ben 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 and left mounted for a period of time so that the backup client app can see that these drives and the files they contain are still present. If this is not done every 30 days, the backup of those files will be permanently deleted from the server.

While I'm not positive about the precise details of Carbonite's handling of external drives (beyond their stated requirement that they be connected once every 30 days), based on what I've learned from other photographers, BackBlaze has what I consider an outright hideous policy. It's not enough just to mount these drives periodically so that the BackBlaze app can see that they do indeed still exist, they ALL must be mounted simultaneously, and left mounted for at least four hours. If just one of those external drives is not mounted (or experiences a failure), none of the other drives will be backed up until the issue with that drive is resolved, and if it's not resolved within 30 days, your backups on ALL the drives will be purged from their server. Because they do not send an alert until 14 days into such an issue, that effectively only gives you two weeks to remedy the situation.

If your procedure is to store wedding and portrait images on external drives until they are full (or perhaps have a different system like one drive for each year), you're typically going to have at least several drives that, just by the nature of how they are used, will have content that does not change. But in order for the backup of these drives to be retained, again, they must ALL be connected simultaneously and be left connected for at least four hours. Otherwise, these drives will be purged from your backup, leaving you unprotected, and forcing you to start from scratch with the uploading of all this data (assuming you even realize this has occurred, which apparently is not made very clear in the notification emails). Similarly, I would imagine that if you find yourself in the unenviable position of discovering one of these drives has gone bad as you're performing this monthly connection ritual, it would be a mad race to purchase a replacement drive and somehow get the backup of the drive restored from the BackBlaze server within that day or two before you hit the 30 day mark.

Thankfully, CrashPlan has no such restrictions or requirements. This is important for photographers who like to move older jobs to external drives that are typically not kept mounted. To summarize, with other services, you'd have to, once a month, pull these drives off the shelf and plug them in, and, again, follow other specific procedures that BackBlaze requires. This, to me, is an arbitrary, hostile, and customer-unfriendly policy, and makes CrashPlan the clear choice for online backup for wedding and portrait photographers.

UPDATE October 2019: BackBlaze recently announced extended file retention and versioning. For an additional $2/month, deleted and modified files are retained for a year, and if you would like to retain files indefinitely, the cost is $2/month plus $0.005 per gigabyte of retained files (in other words, files that have been deleted or changed on your hard drive over a year ago, but retained in the backup). Though BackBlaze's indefinite retention could potentially be significantly more expensive than CrashPlan, these options make BackBlaze a viable cloud backup option now, and though I still intend to stay with CrashPlan, it's nice to know there's another alternative available.

Now, if you use a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, CrashPlan will (surprisingly) 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. This limitation is somewhat understandable though, as the ability to backup network volumes opens the door for abuse, where a user could be backing up an entire household or office of computers, all funneled through one machine with a cloud backup account.

Another benefit of CrashPlan is its 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 or moved, 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 or moving your RAW files at some point after they have been initially backed up, and/or if you embed XMP metadata in your DNG files after your editing work is complete. Rather than these many gigabytes worth of files having to be uploaded again over the course of the next day or so just because the names changed, the backup completes in just a few minutes, because the app only has to upload the information that has changed.

BackBlaze also has data deduplication, but from my conversations with representatives, I don't believe it is as robust and thorough as CrashPlan, and would be beneficial to RAW/DNG files only if they were simply moved and/or renamed, not when a small portion of each file has changed (like embedding metadata).

The main downside to CrashPlan that I've observed is a relatively slow upload speed. This is due primarily to the above mentioned data deduplication, as the app has to examine chunks of every file and communicate with the server to determine whether or not that particular chunk already exists in cloud storage, before actually uploading it. While this is great for backing up files that have just had small changes made to them or have moved, when you're backing up many gigabytes of brand new files (as is the case for photographers after a shoot), this analysis makes the backup take much longer than it should.

Temporarily disabling deduplication yields better upload speeds, fully utilizing my 10mbit/s connection.

The CrashPlan app used to have the ability to easily disable data deduplication, but this setting was removed. You can still disable data deduplication, but you must manually edit an XML file to do so (and then you'd have to remember to change it back, to get the benefit of faster backups of modified files). I'm hopeful that CrashPlan will come up with a better way to address this issue, so that faster upload of new files can be accomplished without affecting the efficient use of bandwidth that data deduplication provides.

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 that, unbeknownst to them, it had ceased functioning properly about a year prior, and contained very little data. They were eventually able to recover most of the data through other means, 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 studio's server, mistakenly deleted about 90% of the film's 3D modeling asset files, and the backup system was subsequently found to have failed at some point in the past, leaving the project in peril. Fortunately, an employee who had been working from home happened to have 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.