Building a Comprehensive Photo Storage and Backup System


Storage and backup. It’s a mundane reality of photography. I’d much rather spend time with my camera or be teaching others about photography. But, in the digital age, you have to have a storage and backup strategy for your photos. Storage and backup may be mundane, but they are unquestionably critical.

Two or three years back, I wrote about outgrowing yet another hard disk. Hard disk updates are a bitter pill. It’s not just updating my main storage drive, but also my backups. The ecosystem has to grow, not just a part of it. As the adage goes, “If it’s not stored in three places, it doesn’t exist.”

Earlier this year I moved my photo library to a new iMac 5K from my aging MacPro. It was a much needed boost in performance. I also looked forward to putting those snappy Thunderbolt ports to good use. My storage capacity needs were also growing. RAW files from my newer Sony camera are larger than my older Nikon system. I’m creating more video content than ever before, too. Photography training courses, YouTube tutorials, personal projects. If you want to chew up storage fast, make videos.

In 2016, it was time to get ahead of the curve.

How Much Storage Do I Need?

There’s two things to know when building your storage system. What are your storage needs and what is your budget? Let’s talk needs first.

I reviewed my photo library and measured its growth over the last 12 months. I’m out shooting every week, usually twice. Yet, I’m not a prolific shooter. My landscape photography is much more targeted. I’ll leave a location with 100 photos on average. Only a subset of those go through processing with ON1 Photo or Photoshop. That’s important to know—once a photo round trips from Lightroom as a PSD it can easily reach 1GB in size.

Another factor is video content—I’m making a lot more video in 2016. I produce at least 2 photography videos a week on my YouTube channel. I also produce longer form photography video courses. In the first quarter of 2016, I released two courses and had a third in development. I tallied up the numbers for the first few months of 2016 and ran the projections. I estimate growth between 1.5TB and 2TB a year. Steady growth, but nothing horrifying. An 8TB system will meet my needs for several years. Larger capacity would of course be better.

Then there’s budget. Remember, you want three copies of your photos. Drives and array systems will fail. Your budget needs to cover not just the disks to hold your masters. It also needs to cover the costs for backup drives, both offsite and onsite. I already own some older, slower USB disks. Totaled up, they have more than 8TB of storage. That satisfies my needs for several years, so I can repurpose those as offsite storage disks. Offsite storage does not need to be fast. It needs to exist and be offsite should anything happen to the entire studio

I need to buy two redundant 8TB systems to last me for several years. Photos are important to me, professionally and personally, but I’m not independently wealthy. I decided on a budget of $2000 US. Amortized, that’s a few hundred dollars a year for my photo business—well worth the expense.

What Storage Should I Buy?

This is an interesting question with a few dimensions. Newer computers have internal SATA drives and USB3 or Thunderbolt connections. Thunderbolt v2 is the fastest of the lot. eSATA has a slight edge over USB3.0. USB3.1 leapfrogs eSATA, but is still behind Thunderbolt in raw transfer speeds. The speeds of USB3.x and Thunderbolt are quite good. External drives are easy to add, so I chose to go that route.

Next, decide if you want a RAID system or not. There’s lots to choose from—Drobo, G-Tech, Synology, etc. I went with a RAID system to maximize speed (more on that in a moment). I chose the G-Tech G-RAID Studio system. How did I arrive at choosing G-Tech? I took a serious look at both the Drobo and G-Tech products. I wanted a Thunderbolt connection which helped me home in on a few products. For the capacity I needed, the G-RAID Studio was a better fit than the Drobo 5D for me and at a better price point.


Also, I looked at customer service reports from users of both Drobo and G-Tech. No matter the vendor, you will find both positive and negative reviews. Some stories are quite… passionate, shall we say. Nobody can please everyone. What I look for is how a company responds to and cares for their customers when equipment breaks. I accept that drives will fail. What I need to know is my vendor will be there to take care of me and get me back up and running at full capacity quickly. I liked what I read about G-Tech, and some of my photographer heroes I respect use their products, too. That means something. And, to date, I haven’t had to call G-Tech’s support line. Touch wood.

I mentioned a RAID system for speed—let’s get back to that. When setup as RAID0, data in the RAID array gets striped across several drives. More drives fetching data simultaneously means faster response and snappier performance. The speed comes at the cost of data protection. RAID0 offers no redundancy. If your array has 3 or more drives, you can use a RAID5 setup and gain protection from a single drive failure. But, the array itself is still a single point of failure.

Some consider the proprietary RAID algorithms in such arrays as a disadvantage. A potential failure mode is the array chassis itself breaks, but the drives are fine. Without the proprietary controller, you can’t read the data on the drives. The actual data is “clouded” by the RAID algorithm. RAID0 splits data across drives. RAID5 intercedes parity bits among the data. No controller, no data.

The solution? You buy two RAID arrays. RAID0 offers no data protection in a single array. RAID5 offers protection against a single drive failure, but not an array failure. You need at least two of them for redundancy. Offsite backup becomes your third tier of data security.

How Do I Setup My Storage

I’ll share my setup with you. It works for me and I think it’s a good balance of high performance and low complexity.


My system has several disks:

  • Macintosh HD: A 3TB Apple Fusion drive internal to my iMac. “Fusion” is Apple-speak for a hybrid drive. A part of the drive is solid state and the rest is spinning rust. This is where my OS and applications live, including my Lightroom catalog. I want the speed advantage of the SSD part of the Fusion drive for snappy Lightroom performance. Other than my catalog, no vital data gets stored on this drive.
  • iMac Time Capsule: A simple USB 3.0 external disk for backups of the internal drive. Access speed is not a primary concern for this disk.
  • SDP Master: The first of my two G-Tech arrays. All my vital data is on my “SDP Master” G-Tech array. Photos, videos, documents, the lot. It’s contents are crucial and need to get backed up. Twice. This array connects via Thunderbolt to my iMac, so performance is great.
  • SDP Clone 1: The second of my two G-Tech arrays. It’s my onsite backup and also connected to my iMac via Thunderbolt.
  • SDP Offsite: (Not pictured) Another simple USB disk to backup the contents of “SDP Master”. It is only in the studio for periodic backups and remains offsite most of the time.

The contents of the internal iMac drive as functional—it’s and OS with Apps. The exception is my Lightroom catalog. I want the speed benefit of the Fusion drive there. So, I have configured Lightroom to make a backup of the catalog every day and store it on my G-Tech disks.

To set this up, go to Lightroom > Catalog Preferences. In the General tab, choose the frequency to backup the catalog. The next time you exit Lightroom, you are prompted to backup your catalog:

Choosing where Lightroom backs up your catalog.
Choosing where Lightroom backs up your catalog.

Use the Choose button to set the location of your catalog backups. Every day my Lightroom Catalog gets backed up to the G-Tech array. That’s how I funnel my catalog into the rest of my backup flow.

How Do I Back Up My Photos

I’m a Mac user and love the simplicity of Time Machine. Yet, Time Machine is only suited to backing up your OS disk. And it’s great for that. It’s my opinion that it’s worth it to get specialized software to run your backups for the rest of your data.

My criteria for backup software is:

  • It’s Fast: It needs to be fast. I’ll take initial slowness for the first backup. After that, later backups need to be fast.
  • It’s Smart: Daily backups need to copy only changed files from one disk to another. Most of my data doesn’t change from day to day. The software needs to be intelligent, scan for what’s different, and only back up the changes.
  • It’s Automatic: I want backups to run without me having to start them. I also want control over how often the backups fire up.
  • It’s Not Mirroring or Cloning: A problem with drive clones and mirrors is it doesn’t protect against human mistakes. If I accidentally delete a batch of photos, the next mirror or clone duplicates my mistake. Poof… my onsite backup is gone too.

ChronoSync from Econ Technologies met all my needs. To my knowledge, it’s a Mac only application – a top rated one at that. I started using ChronoSync when I “graduated” to external disks. Creating a backup schedule is pretty easy in ChronoSync, and they have thorough documentation. Here’s the job “document” I use to copy “SDP Master” to “SDP Clone 1”:

Setting up a synchronization job in ChronoSync
Setting up a synchronization job in ChronoSync

The Setup page reads left to right by default. ChronoSync has more options than most of us will ever need. An option I turn on is Synchronize deletions. I also select Move to trash in the Destination Target setup area. I know there will be temporary files as I work on projects and I will delete them. When I delete something from “SDP Master”, ChronoSync moves the file into the trash on “SDP Clone 1”. This is my safety net to prevent accidental deletions.

Look closely and notice “SDP Clone 1” is fuller than “SDP Master”. I’ve deleted files and they are gone from “SDP Master.” There is still a copy of them in the trash bin on “SDP Clone 1”. From time to time, I’ll go into the trash and clean up files I know for sure I no longer need.

Once your document is setup, run a Trial Sync and then Analyze the results. There are a few OS X temporary files and folders that you can excluded from the synchronization. The ChronoSync documentation has all the details.

You can run synchronization jobs by hand with the Synchronize button, or scheduled to kick off automatically:

My evening synchronization to save off the day's work
My evening synchronization to save off the day’s work

I also have a ChronoSync job setup to copy “SDP Master” to “SDP Offsite”. I don’t schedule this one since my offsite disk isn’t usually attached to my iMac. I fire it off by hand when I’m refreshing my offsite backup. Ideally, I do that every 2 weeks but in practice it’s more like every month. That’s my risk tolerance. One month’s worth of work is gone if disaster were to strike at the studio.

Why don’t I use a cloud-based backup? I have too much data. My upstream internet connection is good, but not great. I’ve read the stories of others that have tried cloud services and the problems they’ve had. Large numbers of photos. Questions about RAW file storage. The pace new work gets created. It doesn’t add up for me. It might for you, so think about it.

Am I Done with Storage?

You’re never done. There’s no finish line. In a couple of years, I may upgrade camera bodies again. Megapixel counts keep climbing and that means larger RAW files. I’ll keep creating. I may graduate to 4K video… or 8K video when that comes to pass.

The G-Tech drives in a few years and grow the ecosystem again. The difference is for my next upgrade I have a good framework to work within. It’s never the end. Unless and until I stop creating photos and videos, which is not likely. Or, when I reach my end date and universe reclaims my energy, which I hope is a long time from now.

About the author: Scott Davenport is a photo educator and landscape photographer based in San Diego, California. You can find his work and educational materials on his website, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. This article was also published here.