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What is a Safe Data Practice?

A safe data practice is a methodology to protect yourself against catastrophic data loss by backing up image files through every stage from capture to delivery. A safe data practice is one of the most important cornerstones of a photographer's business. Still, it's often overlooked or its importance underestimated by photographers just starting in their business. It can feel too overwhelming, tedious, or expensive for many people. However, the benefits of having a good practice far outweigh any negative aspects of implementing one. 

Why Do You Need To Back Up Your Photos?

Have you ever been working on a project on your computer only for the system to crash and you've lost all your work? Yeah, now imagine that happening to the images you are working on for a client. A safe data practice to back up the image files you're managing for clients is there both for the client's protection and yours. If you lose all of a client's images files in a data loss situation due to negligence (such as not having a safe data practice), then you're on the hook to redo all that work via a reshoot or refund them.

 Backing up your photos with a comprehensive safe data practice can do a lot to mitigate any potential losses along the way from capture to delivery. In addition, safe data practices make it less likely that you would ever find yourself in a situation that makes it financially or logistically difficult to uphold your end of the contract.  

Hard drive and memory cards on a wood desk.

What Do You Need to Back Up Your Photos?

There are many tools available to photographers to assist in developing a safe data strategy that works. These tools range from physical devices to cloud-based services, all with their costs, benefits, and drawbacks. 

The following list includes possible tools that you can use to create your safe data practice. 

  1. Camera + Cards: Yep, all safe data starts with where you capture it - your camera and cards. It's considered a professional standard to have a camera that can write to two cards simultaneously, either RAW + JPEG or RAW + RAW. Similarly, you want to make sure that you're using cards that are reliable, meaning you bought them from an authorized dealer so you know they aren't sub-standard quality… and that you're actually using both slots to write the data as you shoot. Using both card slots and having a backup camera is vital for any shoot that you cannot reshoot.
  1. External Hard Drive (EHD): External hard drives are a critical component of any safe data practice. By using an EHD, you are separating your data from your workstation, protecting it from a system crash, and enabling the data to be mobile since you can plug an EHD into more than one workstation if it's needed. 
  1. Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID): This is a more robust method for EHD storage that helps protect against data loss by creating multiple copies of the files across different disks within the drive array. The simplest way to think about it is like a supersized EHD with multiple drives that copy each other, so if one drive in the array fails, the others have got its back. 
  1. Mobile Card Back-Up Drive: Mobile card backup drives are not as commonly used, but they can be an essential tool for photographers who cannot get their files backed up via their traditional methods in a timely manner, like when the photographer is traveling. 
  1. Cloud Storage: Photographers can take advantage of several types of cloud storage. 
  • Operating system-based cloud storage, such as Apple iCloud or Microsoft OneDrive. These two cloud systems enable you to store your files in the cloud and access them from any device you can sign into their service. 
  • Services like Crashplan, Backblaze, and Carbonite. These services scan your selected drives regularly and back up the files to their cloud system. They're unsuitable for regular use and retrieval of files and are strictly intended as backup protection against catastrophic data failure.
  1. Fireproof Box: This accessory is excellent for protecting cards and EHDs from damage in a catastrophic event.

Computer screen with the words Data Backup.

How To Implement A Safe Data Practice

Now that you know why it's crucial to have a safe data practice and the tools you can use to create one, how do you create a system that will work for you? There isn't a one-size-fits-all strategy for safe data that will work for every photographer. Instead, it helps to consider what is practical for you and fit into your workflow. 

There are three critical points that all safe data practices have are: 

  • Minimum two copies of files at all times. Ideally, you want three copies during most steps of the file journey from capture to delivery. 
  • More than one physical storage location. This will protect your files from having a catastrophic data loss in the event of a fire, flood, or theft. 
  • Short time between shooting and file backup creation. This means that if you shoot a session on Friday, you aren't waiting until Wednesday to back it up. 
  • Consistency: a successful safe data practice relies on consistency, meaning you do it the same way every time. If you never go to bed without backing up your photos to the EHD, then don't let the one time you're tired be the reason you have a data loss (true story).

So, as you're designing your safe data practice, think about the steps you have already have in your workflow. Is there a place that you know has holes? What tools listed above could you use to help fill those holes? 

Cloud storage icon floating over a computer.

Here are two examples, step by step, of sound safe data practices.

Practice One:

  1. In-camera writing to two memory cards in RAW + RAW format
  2. Immediate back up of card to EHD (ensure no corruption), store card in a secure location until gallery delivery
  3. EHD is backed up to third party cloud storage with daily checks for changes
  4. Import photos for editing to Lightroom, making Smart Previews upon import (this enables you to export a small printable JPEG in the event of RAW data loss) 
  5. Back up Lightroom catalog to third party cloud storage
  6. Save final JPEGs to EHD with backup to third-party cloud storage

Practice Two:

  1. In-camera writing to two memory cards in RAW + JPEG format
  2. Immediate backup of card to RAID (ensure no corruption), store card in a secure location until gallery delivery
  3. Import photos for editing to Lightroom, making Smart Previews upon import (this enables you to export a small printable JPEG in the event of RAW data loss) 
  4. Back up Lightroom catalog to third party cloud storage
  5. Save final JPEGs to RAID with back up to third party cloud storage

What If You Still Have a Catastrophic Data Loss?

Even with all these steps, it's still possible to have a catastrophic data loss. Nothing is surefire. In the event of a total data loss, having a data recovery plan & budget, a lawyer-drafted contract, and good insurance comes in handy. 

The contract should specify what happens in the event of a total or partial data loss—making it right could be a reshoot, a refund, or something in between. You can also acquire Errors & Omissions insurance that specifically protects you in the event of a data loss that triggers a refund or reshoot that could become a significant business loss.  

Lastly, please don't spend the money from a session until you've earned it. This can be very hard, but it's important to note that you haven't legally completed the contract (earned the entire fee from your session) until you deliver the images files and the client downloads them. For that reason, you should make sure that you can afford data recovery services (which can be a hundred or thousands of dollars).

Final Thoughts 

These steps and tools might seem daunting at first but once you get your system set up, backing up for photos is simply another part of your workflow. Your future self (and clients) will thank you for it! 

About the Author

Emma Thurgood is a full-time intimate wedding and elopement photographer in New England. When she's not photographing clients, she can be found exploring natural areas in the region, binging fantasy/sci-fi shows on Netflix, and helping new photographers grow their businesses. 

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