A Simple and Cheap Backup Strategy

Your photos are likely quite precious to you. When you ask most people what thing they would save if their house was on fire, the answer, more often than not, is: “my pictures, since they cannot be replaced.” And yet, the drives on which these photos are saved are destined to failure. If and when they fail, you might lose all your photos. Even when the photos can be retrieved from a failed drive, it is quite expensive to do so. You are better off taking precautions now.

You probably already know all that, but have still put off taking adequate steps to protect your photos. If you are like me, every time you read about an “inexpensive” way to protect your photos, it ends up costing several hundred dollars, or sometimes even thousands of dollars. And every supposedly “simple” strategy always ends up being overly time consuming or sometimes even unmanagable.

I want to spend my time and money on photography – not backing up pictures – so I ignored all talk of drobos and raid drives and just implemented a very simple and cheap backup system. At the same time, I initially had a bad feeling that I wasn’t doing enough to protect my photos. I had a someday-intention that I would upgrade to a system recommended by the experts. Ultimately, however, I decided that my system works just fine and it gives my pictures a high degree of protection.  Plus it is simple and cheap. Therefore, I want to pass it along to you as an option for you to back up your photos, if you don’t already have your own backup plan in place.

What’s Important in a Backup Plan?

The first part of deciding how to backup your photos is determining what you need. How many copies do you need? In what format do the copies need to be? Where should the copies be located? In other words, what are the criteria for determining if a backup strategy is adequate?

I rely on the experts to tell me what is necessary. Conventional wisdom in photography circles says that for a file to be adequately protected, three criteria must be met (it is called the 3-2-1 rule):

  • Three: the photos must exist in three places,
  • Two: they must be stored in two different formats, and
  • One: one of those places must be off-site.

I recommend adopting those criteria. Times have changed since the rule was put in place, however, so nobody seems to care that the data is stored in different formats anymore.

In addition to these traditional criteria, I have added a few other criteria of my own to the equation, which are that the backup plan:

  • must make all pictures available to me at all times (I don’t want to have to pull a drive out of a drawer or closet to access a picture)
  • must be dead simple to use
  • must be very cheap

The Backup Strategy

With the criteria identified, here is the backup strategy I use.

Copy 1 of Your Photos – Your Computer

Step one of this process is to simply download all photos onto your computer. Ok, I know you are already doing this. This step could not be simpler. The total cost is $0.

The key is to make sure that all your photos are in one place on your computer and are readily accessible. That way you can find them instantly, and you also do not have to worry about Lightroom or another program searching for pictures that are on a separate drive somewhere.

If you find that you have more pictures than will fit on your hard drive, you can add a hard drive to your computer. It is not difficult to add one, and requires no special skills or tools. I have a separate hard drive on my computer with nothing but pictures on it.

Copy 2 of Your Photos – External Hard Drive

The next step is to purchase an external hard drive and save all your photos on it. Keep the external drive in a closet or somewhere safe. A 1 terrabyte external hard drive, which I think covers most people, currently costs $60. Make sure you are buying one with room for additional pictures.

By taking this step, you have an extra copy of all your photos available if something happens to your computer. By keeping the external hard drive in a closet, it keeps that copy away from your computer in the event of things like power surges, lightning strikes, etc. An added benefit is that all your photos are now portable.

Copy 3 of Your Photos – The Cloud

The final step is to backup your photos via an online backup provider. This cost ranges from free to about $60 a year. Here are few good options, depending on the number of pictures you have and the file type you use:

  • If your pictures are not Raw files, there are some free options. Flickr offers 1 terrabyte of storage as part of its basic (free) plan. Other online services such as Smugmug and Squarespace offer unlimited storage as part of their paid plans, so if you are already using them, you can upload all your photos to those sites and use them for backup.
  • Another free or cheap option is Amazon’s Cloud Drive, which accepts Raw files and offers unlimited storage. It is free if you are a Prime member, and only $12 a year if you are not.
  • Online backup services such as Carbonite (the one I use) cost $60 a year. The service works in the background and automatically backs up new files you add to the computer.

The bad news is that, if you have a substantial photo library, your only real option is a paid backup service that works in the background. Manually uploading pictures to Amazon would be incredibly tedious and time-consuming. Further, it takes time to upload a lot of photos to the cloud. It actually took months for all my photos to upload to Carbonite (but I was uploading almost 4 TB of data). The good news is that the uploading process works in the background and does not slow down your computer. You should not even notice it.

If you have a lot of photos, or you can swing the $60 a year, definitely get the online backup service. It is really the cornerstone of a good backup strategy, and it is really simple to use (it is mostly automated). Otherwise, go ahead and use the Amazon Cloud Drive.


This backup system covers the criteria established above for adequately backing up your photos. Specifically:

  • There are three copies of your photos: one on your computer, one on an external hard drive, and one on the cloud.
  • The cloud version is off-site.

Further, it is cheap. You will just need to buy an external hard drive ($60) and sign up for a service ($0 – $60, depending on the service).

Finally, the system is simple. The only additional step you will need to take is to occasionally back up your photos onto the external hard drive. If you have a back-up service such as Carbonite, the service automatically detects new files and backs them up to the cloud.

Other Backup Plans

While I believe the backup strategy above is just fine for protecting your photos, there are some disadvantages to the strategy as compared to the more expensive backup plans. Here are a couple:

  1. there is no sync software that is matching your versions of your pictures. For example, if you create a new file with Photoshop it will not automatically transfer to your other storage locations (although your online backup service will pick it up).
  2. this process does require a manual step with respect to backing up your photos to a external hard drive. That means if you don’t take the time to go backup your photos to that external hard drive, it won’t happen. Still, your photo would exist in 2 places pending this backup.

If you are interested in looking at examples of backup strategies that are more thorough than what is set forth in this article, here is one such example. There is certainly nothing wrong with taking additional steps and spending additional money to protect your photos. I personally do not find it to be necessary and am not interested in spending the time or money on it, but you might be.

Some Perspective

Remember that in the film days it was not even possible to backup your negatives. You had one negative and that was it. If the negative was lost or destroyed, you were out of luck. Granted, negatives are not prone to failure like hard drives, but you only had one. In the digital era you can make multiple copies of your photos. So it is not so much that you have to make copies of your photos for protection, but rather that you get to make copies of your photos for your protection.

In addition, remember that the amount of time and money that you can devote to photography is limited. It is limited for everybody, but most of us have jobs, families, and other things to attend to, which really limits things. You don’t want to spend that precious time and money backing up your photos. It is better to spend your money on lenses or trips, or spend the time learning new techniques.

You should definitely take advantage of the opportunity to backup your photos to avoid possible disaster, but don’t make it a full-time job.


  1. great advice Jim. One item I am not sure I saw was the back-up of ones lightroom (or other programs) catalog and preview files. They can get very large They are not raw files so the space on the amazon cloud (free with Prime as you mentioned) has only a limited storage amount for non-picture files.

    1. You’re right I didn’t address it, so thanks for adding that. I personally keep mine backed up via the external hard drive and Carbonite. I will probably continue to do so, but I am rethinking my whole Lightroom organizational method, so I’m going to rethink that as well. Stay tuned.

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