Ultimate Guide to Wedding Photography Backup Systems

November 22, 2018 | Education

Why You Need Wedding Photography Backup Systems

Every single week, I see posts in various Facebook groups about wedding photography backup systems. Usually, it’s a question of what hard drives to buy, which memory cards are the best, or if they should get cloud storage for all their raw files. But the posts that always hurt to read are the ones where a photographer lost some or all of the photos from a client’s wedding.

Sometimes there truly are freak accidents to blame, but more often than not, the photographer could have kept the files safe by having proper wedding photography backup systems in place. I’ve seen people forget to import files from a memory card, then format and shoot over the card again. I’ve seen people only store the files on their laptop, then have it crash, or even have it stolen. I’ve seen people depend on cheap, old external hard drives to hold thousands of dollars worth of files.

And none of that is okay.

If there’s ONE thing a couple should be able to trust us with, it’s having professional wedding photography backup systems and keeping their photos safe!

I’m personally not an expert on backups or IT security … but my husband Justin is! As a systems administrator with 10+ years of IT experience, who’s responsible for keeping the data of a large solar company safe, Justin has been a huge resource for me when it comes to implementing the best possible backup solutions in my own business.

Now I’m finally sharing his tips and recommendations with you all as well, so that hopefully no one ever has to lose a client photo again!

There are hundreds of different methods that you can choose for your wedding photography backup systems, so we’ve broken this down into two levels. The Beginner level is the absolute bare minimum of what you should be doing to keep your files safe. The Intermediate level is what I personally use for my own files. And once Justin has helped me implement my new Advanced level system in the new year (using Network Attached Storage), I’ll be updating this post with recommendations for that too!

Beginner Wedding Photography Backup Systems

This is the bare minimum beginner wedding photography backup systems that you should be using. This is what I used when I was first starting out, and it’s much better than what I see many people using. Consider it a cost of doing business, and get started!

Recommended products: 

SSD Option 1: https://amzn.to/2S9hPfz 
SSD Option 2: https://amzn.to/2DSXc4k 
Hard Disk Drive Option 1: https://amzn.to/2DTpfAv  
Hard Disk Drive Option 2: https://amzn.to/2DT49Ca 

You need: 

Ideally you will have one SSD (Solid State Drive), and two hard disk drives of different brands. Trust Justin on this one – he’ll never use two of the exact same drives as a safety precaution. If one drive happens to come from a bad batch, you’ll want the other one to be different! The SSD can be smaller in storage than the hard disk drives, but the hard disk drives should be the same size. I recommend a 500GB-1TB SSD, and 4-10TB hard disk drives, depending on how much you shoot, and what you can afford. 

Workflow:

Immediately after a wedding or session, copy the files off your memory cards and onto the SSD. I do this as soon as I get home, if I’m driving home the same day, or when I get to my hotel if I’m staying overnight. I personally create a folder for each couple (i.e. 02.04 Nina & Justin) that I dump all the raw files into, using the Ingest option in Photo Mechanic. You can also copy/paste the files manually from your card to your SSD. I don’t recommend using Lightroom to import files, as it takes wayyyyy longer, but my exact import and culling system is a topic for another blog post!

Once you have the files copied to your SSD, you’ll want to copy them to your two hard disk drives as soon as possible afterwards. I do this the next morning, if I got home the night before, or as soon as I get home if I was traveling. Whether you use PhotoMechanic or another system for your imports, I recommend double checking the number of files on your card vs the number of files imported, to make 100% sure that you copied every single file from the card to your drives. 

You now have all your RAW files stored in three different places. If you want to be extra safe, you can keep one of these drives in a fire safe or something else that’s more secure than your desk drawer. Use the SSD as your “working drive” that you bring to coffee shops or wherever you edit, and keep in your bag when traveling overnight. The main argument for using an SSD here is that it’s much more stable and less likely to be damaged from putting down your purse too hard on the floor or anything like that. 

I personally keep all the RAWs on my SSD until after I have delivered the finished photographs to my clients (and exported the photos I’m using for that blog post). Next, I copy the edited files folder onto the two hard disk drives, then delete that client folder off my SSD. At this point my edited photos are saved on ShootProof in the client gallery, and on the two hard disk drives, and I also have two copies of the RAW files. I don’t recommend ever deleting RAW files off your hard disk drives, because storage is cheap compared to unhappy clients 🙂

Intermediate Wedding Photography Backup Systems

This is the wedding photography backup systems that I personally use in my own business. It’s a bit more expensive and complicated to set up than the Beginner system, but it’s actually faster and easier to run this system in day to day operations!

Recommended products: 

SSD 1: https://amzn.to/2S9hPfz 
SSD 2: https://amzn.to/2DSXc4k 
Array Enclosure: https://amzn.to/2qWooGO 
Array Drive 1: https://amzn.to/2S8zt30 
Array Drive 2: https://amzn.to/2r1WmJQ  

You need: 

Ideally you will have all of the recommended products (or their equivalents). The SSDs can be smaller (500GB to 1TB), while the array drives should be 6TB or larger if you’re shooting a “full time” amount of photos in a year. Don’t buy two of the same SSD or two of the same array drives – you want different brands to minimize the chance of losing files due to a bad batch. 

Workflow:

Immediately after a wedding or session, copy the files off your memory cards and onto both SSDs. I do this as soon as I get home, if I’m driving home the same day, or when I get to my hotel if I’m staying overnight. I personally create a folder for each couple (i.e. 02.04 Nina & Justin) that I dump all the raw files into, using the Ingest option in Photo Mechanic. You can also copy/paste the files manually from your card to your SSD. I don’t recommend using Lightroom to import files, as it takes wayyyyy longer, but my exact import and culling system is a topic for another blog post!

Once you have the files copied to your SSDs, you’ll want to copy them to your array drives as soon as possible afterwards. I do this the next morning, if I got home the night before, or as soon as I get home if I was traveling. Whether you use PhotoMechanic or another system for your imports, I recommend double checking the number of files on your card vs the number of files imported, to make 100% sure that you copied every single file from the card to your drives. 

The reason I use the array drives in the Intermediate wedding photography backup system, instead of the two hard disk drives in the Beginner system, is that when you copy your files to one drive, it automatically mirrors (copies) onto the second drive. Any changes you make on the drive are always mirrored without you doing a thing! Setting up the array is a bit more complicated than using a normal external hard drive, but it’s still pretty straight forward when you follow the instructions that come with your array enclosure. 

You now have all your RAW files stored in four different places. If you want to be extra safe, you can keep one of these drives in a fire safe or something else that’s more secure than your desk drawer. Use one of the SSDs as your “working drive” that you bring to coffee shops or wherever you edit, and keep both SSDs in your bag when traveling overnight. The main argument for using an SSD here is that it’s much more stable and less likely to be damaged from putting down your purse too hard on the floor or anything like that. When I travel, I always keep one SSD in my personal item/purse, and another in my camera bag (the Think Tank Airport Essentials backpack). I also store one set of memory cards that I’ve shot on in my checked bag, so that I have all client files in three places while traveling. 

I personally keep all the RAWs on my SSDs until after I have delivered the finished photographs to my clients (and exported the photos I’m using for that blog post). Next, I copy the edited files folder onto the array, then delete that client folder off my SSDs. At this point my edited photos are saved on ShootProof in the client gallery, and on the two array drives, and I also have two copies of the RAW files. I don’t recommend ever deleting RAW files off your array, because storage is cheap compared to unhappy clients 🙂

Once your two array drives are getting close to full, buy two more. Move the two full ones over into the other storage slots in the array enclosure, and set up the two new ones to mirror each other. I am currently using 6TB drives for my mirrored drives, but will most likely buy 10TB ones next time since storage just keeps getting cheaper. 

How I Shoot to Keep Files Safe

Having solid wedding photography backup systems is easier when you start thinking about the backups before you ever take a single photo. I shoot on Fuji X-series cameras (two X-T2s and an X-T3), which all have dual SD card slots. I always shoot in RAW, with card 2 writing an exact backup of card 1. I only use 128GB SD cards for weddings, and 64GB SD cards for shorter sessions. I know there are different opinions on this, but here’s why I believe in shooting on the biggest memory cards you can!

Based on what I’ve seen in photography groups and heard from friends in the industry, it seems like more photographers lose files because they lost or broke a memory card, than because the card was corrupt. Every time you switch a memory card during a wedding day, you have to properly store/organize the cards you just finished shooting on. If you don’t have good systems in place, you risk losing the card, putting it in a pocket where it will get damaged, or later thinking it’s a fresh card and formatting it.

If you shoot on multiple smaller cards, you have to keep remembering to check how much space you have left before big moments. You never want to find yourself out of space just as the bride starts walking down the aisle!

By shooting on the biggest card possible, I never have to worry about running out of space during a wedding. I don’t overshoot, so for me I have never needed more than 128GB in each camera. If you shoot more, get the 256GB cards. But having one set of cards in each camera is SO much easier to keep safe than when you go through multiple sets of smaller cards in a day. And as a bonus, it’s faster and easier to import the files after when you don’t have to keep switching cards!

Best Practices to Keep Your Memory Cards Safe

  • When you buy a new memory card, mark the month/year on the label on the front, so you always know how old the card is.
  • Always format a memory card before the first time you use it, and before every time you shoot a new session or wedding on it.
  • Try to use a new card at least once or twice for personal work, before you start using it for client work. If a card is going to have problems straight out of the box, it’s better to find out on photos of your dog than at a wedding!
  • If you ever have a card read error in camera, or have problems copying files off a card to your drives, retire the card from use. It might be fine again next time, but it might not, and do you really want to risk that?
  • Always format a memory card before you use it in a different camera. For example, if I hand one of my memory cards, that is normally used in my Fuji, to a second shooter who uses Nikon, they always need to format the card before taking photos. 
  • Never shoot until your card is 100% full. Your camera might tell you that you have room for 3 more photos, but if it really only has room for 2.5 photos and you take 3, you risk corrupting the card and all the files on it.
  • Always “eject” cards before removing them from your computer / card reader. This should be a given, but it goes a long way towards keeping your cards safe.
  • Never delete files on the back of your camera. I know this can be tempting, whether you want to delete a horribly exposed test photo, or just delete “throw away” photos to make more room for new photos, but it puts extra stress on the card. And you don’t want to risk accidentally deleting a photo that you wanted to keep!
  • Always store your cards in a case. Cards are fragile, and it doesn’t take much to break them.
  • Always turn off your camera before taking out the memory card. If you don’t turn it off, the camera could be reading/writing on the card when you take it out, which could corrupt the files.
  • Don’t let your batteries run out while shooting. If your battery runs out while your camera is writing a file onto the card, you risk corrupting the card.
  • Check all your memory cards at least twice a year, to look for weak plastic, broken parts, or anything else that looks “off.” 
  • Retire your cards from client work after two years of use. Most card failures happen after the two year mark, so it’s worth taking them out of rotation and using them for personal work (or just throwing them out and getting new ones).
  • This last one is a “duh” one, but has to be said: only use high quality memory cards. SanDisk and Lexar are the most trusted brands for a reason. You don’t necessarily need the newest and fastest cards, but don’t use off-brand cards.

I personally use these SanDisk SD cards (128GB), and these card wallets for storing my cards. I use one wallet for my newer cards that I use for client work, and another color wallet for my older cards that I use for personal work (aka hiking photos), so that I can easily tell them apart.

The wedding photography backup systems recommended in this blog post is what works well for me and my business. Justin has done much research on the different products recommended, including looking at statistics on drive failure rates, and of course using his experience from his job. I still recommend doing your own research, reading the instruction manuals on any products you buy, and reading up on storage and backup solutions so that you can make informed decisions. 

If you purchase any products from Amazon directly from the links in this blog post, I receive a small commission from your purchase, at no extra cost to you. I am only recommending products that I’ve either personally used, or would use, in my own business. Which hard drives you use does not matter to me – only that you take your wedding photography backup systems seriously!

DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS PODCASTS THAT WEREN’T MENTIONED IN THIS LIST? SHARE A COMMENT, I’D LOVE TO CHECK THEM OUT!

Nina Larsen Reed grew a six figure wedding photography business in less than eighteen months from shooting her first wedding, while hiking and exploring her way around the Colorado mountains with her ideal clients. She is now using her half teaching degree from Norway (it’s a long story, ask her about it some time!) to help other wedding photographers generate more leads, build sustainable and profitable businesses, and work with couples they love!

More education for photographers | Mentoring with Nina