How I Learned a Lesson About Having Multiple Backups as a Photographer

We’ve all heard the horror stories of wedding photographers having their cameras stolen only to lose all of their couples’ photos, the photographer whose car was broken into after leaving their camera gear inside, only to lose important photos in the case, etc. You never think it’s going to happen until it happens to you.

Sometimes the most valuable lessons are the most expensive or the most stressful ones, and many of these issues could have been avoided with a little precaution and better preparation.

I was once 7 days into a 21-day commercial shoot for a grocery store chain. We were tasked with photographing over 3,000 items for an online ordering app they were developing and while dumping photos from Day 7 onto an external drive, the drive died and the backup system I thought was working didn’t. I had to pay an assistant for 7 days of reshooting over 1,000 items as the photos could not be recovered from the drive.

Then there was the time I was shooting headshots at a corporate event. I always shoot these tethered to a laptop so the subjects can choose their selects on the spot. At the end of the first day, and dozens of headshots later, the laptop drive died. Luckily I was able to round everyone up on the second day of the conference and reshoot their photos, but it certainly wasn’t a fun day to hear all the grumbling from attendees who had to go through that all over again.

So what are the lessons here? Now everything I shoot gets uploaded to a RAID 1 (mirrored) system where the drives are monitored regularly for integrity and then immediately backed up into the cloud. As an extra layer of protection, all our storage cards go through a double-check system of labeled bins and are never allowed to be formatted until they are checked twice against the uploaded network drives.

When I shoot headshots now, all photos are saved on the internal SSD drive and we use a program that monitors the folder and then copies all the contents of that folder into an external drive in real-time (there are many great paid and free programs you can download online that do this valuable task). So we then have two layers of protection.

Expect the Unexpected

We shoot a lot of large corporate events, many of which are for companies most people have never heard of, but we routinely shoot for a variety of Fortune 500 companies as well. One such shoot was for a three-day conference of a major telecommunications company. There were several of us shooting photos and videos during this event, oftentimes in different locations at the same time. Two of us would be shooting stills on an exhibitor floor in one room while breakout sessions were being filmed in another.

At the end of the long day, we were all shooting a major press conference where they were announcing a new product to be released the next quarter. They wanted some photos edited at the end of the night so they could be sent out to news outlets and bloggers the next morning. I collected the cards from all of my photographers, put them in a card case, and drove home. My plan was to back up the photos, edit a few, and then get some sleep in preparation for another long day of shooting the next day.

Always plan for the fact that no plan ever goes according to plan —Simon Sinek

With the cards in their case, I put the case in my pocket, grabbed all my gear, and started the long walk through the conference center to the parking garage. I loaded everything up, and a 9 o’clock at night, I drove home. As I was on my 30-minute trek through the Las Vegas roadways I mentally planned out my evening of charging batteries, grabbing an extra light stand I would need for the next day, dumping photos, etc.

I got home, grabbed my camera case, and went inside. I went into my office to start transferring photos and I realized that the SD card case wasn’t on my person. “Hmmm… that’s strange,” I thought, “Maybe I left them on the front seat of my car?” I went back to my SUV on the driveway and started looking in the front seat…nothing. I expanded my search to the entire front section of my vehicle, then the backseats, then the door compartments…nothing.

I grabbed a flashlight and started walking back and forth between my car and the front door to my home and couldn’t find the case. Now I’m starting to panic. I spent another 30 minutes looking everywhere I could think that case could be, in my camera bag, in the car, everywhere, only to be met with failure. Where were these cards?!

Thinking I lost the case in the parking lot I decided to drive back to the hotel where the event was being held. En route, I called the hotel security and explained the situation hoping they might be able to find the card case before someone else did. I gave them my description, where I had gone, when the last time I saw the case was, what it looked like, etc.

When I arrived, they had a dozen security guards roaming the entire pathway I walked from the conference center to the parking garage with flashlights looking for this case and we didn’t find it. I was devastated. An entire day’s worth of photos and video gone. It was now midnight, and I not only had to get some sleep, but I also had to let the client know that I lost all the media they needed for the morning.

When I arrived at home the first thing I did was email the client to let them know the bad news. I knew I was walking into a mess the next day but they needed to know. I went to bed stressed out, knowing I had to face the music in a few hours of what would be a very angry client. I woke up a few hours later to my phone ringing. Assuming it was a furious client, I answered.

“Hi, this is the security desk at the Aria Resort, we found your SD cards!” said the voice on the other end of the call. That woke me up more than ten cups of coffee.

“Where were they? How did you find them?” I asked, amazed that they found the card case.

“You were pickpocketed and the thieves, thinking they stole your wallet, realized that the SD cards were worthless to them so they threw the case away and we found it,” said the head of security.

The Eye In The Sky Sees Everything

No documentary about Las Vegas goes without discussing the incredible amounts of surveillance inside of the casinos, otherwise known as the “Eye in the Sky.” After their security team roamed the casino floor looking for my case, they decided to do a little investigating into the matter. As the conference we were shooting had concluded and I was waiting for my photography team to check in at the end of the night to turn in their cards, most of the attendees had already left. The rendezvous location for all of us was at the top of some escalators in the conference center and we were all wearing black, so we were pretty easy to spot.

As it was a slow evening with nothing else to do, the hotel security took it upon themselves to review the security cameras to see if they could find us. Lo and behold, they did. Tracking me through multiple cameras on my way from the conference center to my vehicle in the parking garage, they noticed that when I entered the parking garage elevator, something looked suspicious.

I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that when the doors opened to the elevator there were already four people inside on the main level.

“What floor?” one of them asked.

“Fifth floor please,” I responded.

As the doors closed, a presumably drunk woman was staggering in the elevator and bumped into me. It was at that exact moment that one of her three accomplices used this distraction to pick my pocket, assuming that what they were taking was my wallet with money inside it. What they didn’t realize at the time was that it was, in fact, a bunch of SD cards from the day’s photo shoot.

I exited on my floor, loaded up my car, and drove home. They all rode the elevator back down to the casino level, walked clear across the property, and opened the card case to see what their caper was going to provide them for the night. When they realized there was no money or credit cards inside, they tossed the case in a trash bin and walked away… and it was all caught on camera!

The security guard reviewing the footage called one of his team members and asked if he could go retrieve the case from the bin hoping that it hadn’t been emptied yet. A few minutes later, my SD cards were on hold at the security desk and then I got the call. As soon as I heard the news, I called my on-site contact for the client and told her the news. She hadn’t even read my earlier email yet where I was giving her the bad news that our photos were presumed lost.

I got down to the hotel as soon as I could, got the cards from security, edited a batch of them before the conference started, and everything went off without a hitch. The client was happy, I didn’t have to deal with an awkward day of shooting knowing I had lost thousands of photos and hours of video from the day before, and some pickpockets were foiled in their attempted robbery of an exhausted photographer.

Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable. —George S. Patton

I never would have thought that losing photos from a pickpocket would ever be a scenario I would have to deal with in my life, but here we are. Like many of life’s most valuable lessons, the most painful ones are the most valuable.

Now it is our company policy that no matter how tired we are, no matter how many hours of shooting we have done through the day, everything gets backed up now on-site before the photos ever leave the property. All of our photographers are required to shoot on multiple cards where we take one, they take one, and all photos are transferred to a laptop on-site and duplicated to an external drive. The photographer doesn’t format their cards until we have verified that everything is transferred and backed up in our office computers and there is little to no chance of data being lost.

With so many stories of photographers losing photos, the stories should all be important lessons to any professional about the importance of backing up files. If you are a professional charging money for your work, then you owe it to your clients to have a reliable system for data storage and as someone who’s been in the situation where I’ve had to tell a client that I lost their photos, I can assure you, that’s a phone call I hope you never have to make.

Spend the extra money on a reliable RAID system, online backup, extra cards, and a consistent method for data storage and management, and in the long run, I can assure you, it will be worth every penny you spend on it. I know, that new Nikon lens just came out and you can’t wait to buy it but sometimes spending that money on something as un-sexy as data storage will save you dearly in the long run, both financially and emotionally.

Remember: you never think it’s going to happen until it happens to you!

About the author: Adam Sternberg has been a professional photographer and videographer in Las Vegas for over 25 years. He is the co-owner of, one of the largest corporate photo and video companies in the city.