A few years ago my iMac’s internal hard drive crashed. I should have seen it coming, as my computer had been sluggish while working on files in Indesign, but eventually started acting normal again. I chalked it up to the file being much larger than usual. But then, a few weeks later, it happened. The “beach ball of death” would not quit spinning, and once I realized the drive was doomed I was unable to even copy and paste files from one computer to another. It was dying, and I was helpless.

What I lost

Thankfully I didn’t lose anything I could not replace. Nearly all of my photographs and important files were on an external drive, backed up every day to a second external Drobo. And all of my working files (in-progress videos, Indesign documents, etc.) were in cloud storage. However the one thing I failed to do for this computer was set up a backup for my main iMac hard drive. Whoops.

The biggest thing I lost—aside from the time it took to get everything back in order—was my entire Lightroom catalog. I didn’t lose any images, only the organizational metadata (picks, etc.) and collections. (Thankfully I have my catalog set to store metadata on sidecar files, so no edits or embedded metadata was lost.) Even a few years after this hard drive failure I am still feeling the pains of having to start over with a new Lightroom catalog. I tend to use the “pick” flags to rate and organize my images, however that system has the disadvantage of not being embedded into the metadata. And because of that, I lost the majority of the important organizational structure I had seen up in my catalog, going back nearly fifteen years. I still find myself rummaging through old folders looking for images to use in tutorials or blog posts, and I expect this will be something I will continue to do for several years.

My backup strategy

After this incident I have been much more diligent about my computer backups. I purchased another external hard-drive that is used solely for my iMac, and make sure that it gets backed up every day. Here is how I have my computer, external drives, and backup software set in my home office:

Computer: iMac

  • What it stores: Applications, Lightroom catalog, working files, etc.
  • Backs up to: 6TB External Western Digital Drive
  • Backup software: Carbon Copy Cloner
  • How often? Every morning

Main External drive: Drobo 5D

  • What it stores: All raw and source video files, important documents, eBooks/Video courses
  • Backs up to: Drobo 5N
  • Backup software: Carbon Copy Cloner
  • How often? Every morning

iPhone Backup:

I create a lot of personal photos with my iPhone don’t want to lose them. There are a lot of different ways to back up a smart phone, but I have found that the most fail-safe way is to use the Google Photos app. I make sure to launch it every once in a while to upload the photos and videos from my phone, and I also have it set to store the originals. Google Photos is also a great way to search for old photos (it has excellent visual recognition to know what is in your photos, so you don’t need to keyword or tag them).

How to prepare yourself

All hard drives, eventually, will crash, and it is always bad timing when they do. There are, however, some very easy ways to prevent this! Here’s my super simple list of what you should do RIGHT NOW if you are not already backing up your computer or hard drives:

  1. Back up your data: Whether you are using your internal or external hard drive, you need to make sure that you have at least two copies of each of those drives. For heavy-duty storage needs, like photographers or other visual artists, you will likely need to have a physical backup; in other words, a second hard-drive connected to your computer that mirrors the main hard drive. For lightweight users (a handful of everyday photos and documents), or for those with extremely fast Internet (you lucky people, you), I would consider looking in to an online cloud-based backup solution, such as Backblaze or Carbonite.
  2. Set up a backup automation: I highly recommend using software that will automatically back up your data so that you never forget to keep your drive up-to-date.
  3. Check your hardware regularly: On a Mac, you can run a diagnostic on your hardware by holding the D key as you start up the machine (note that this will sometimes send over false errors for memory if you are like me and replace it with third-party RAM). I did this while my drive was crashing and it positively identified that the the drive was failing. Windows machines are a little different, so you may need to refer to the brand of computer you are using to find out how to test the hardware.