We just lost an entire wedding’s images!

…I am sooo glad that we have never had to say this! :)

Now that we have your attention though, read on so that YOU never say this to a client.




I treat my back-up process like a new baby. Never drop it just because I’m tired!
– Zach Gray
Let’s talk back-up systems and why the system you choose to use will either make you and your clients happy while keeping your precious images safe, or why it will potentially cause a MASSIVE problem in your business that you might not recover from.
Even if you don’t shoot weddings, it does not mean that you can re-shoot something if you lose images. We had a friend who shot a senior session, and 2 weeks later the senior passed away.
That may not ever happen to you, but it is just good practice to do everything within our power as a photographer to protect and back up images each and every time we shoot.
Here is our system: 

Step #1 – Download the Safest Way Possible




I first download all the images using the SD cards ONLY from my Canon 5d3. I use the SD cards because they only have a contact plate instead of 16 pins (like in your CF card) and there is less chance of breaking something when it is removed from the camera.

I only download them in the office on a quality, Lexar USB 3 card reader that never leaves my office. It never leaves the office because the reader or the cables it uses can be damaged during travel, which gives you a higher chance of card failure. Most failures happen not from your cards, but from something your card interacts with (camera, bad card reader, the environment, water, heat or impact).

If you download more than 2 cards per-shoot, then you can check out the Lexar Hub that allows you to add any type of reader to that hub (up to 4). You can add an SD reader, or a CF card reader. You will need 1 of these for each card (and type) you download and this allows you to download them all at once instead of one at a time (which wastes time).

(Side note: I shoot all images on Sandisk 64 gig Extreme Pro SD and CF cards MIRRORED on the 5d3. Every time I shoot an image it’s recorded to BOTH cards at the same time. I NEVER open the CF card door during a shoot since that gives the highest potential for an error. I only open the CF card door once I am home, in my office in a safe environment. If I have any camera issues during the shoot, which has happened once before, I grab my back-up camera and leave the main camera alone until I can look at it in a safe place).



Step #2 – Back-Up 1


I first copy my images directly to my main editing drive (and not to my computer) as I don’t want thousands of photos bogging down my laptop. I do NOT use any other program (like Lightroom) to move my photos for me as that just adds one more point in the system which could cause an error. I simply copy the images directly from the SD card, and paste them into my main editing drive.

My main editing drive ($449) is the G-Tech 4TB zero raid USB 3 drive. This drive writes all data to two hard drives that spin simultaneously in order to deliver data to your computer (using USB 3 connections) at around 250 Mbps. This is fast enough that you don’t notice any slow down versus having the data directly on your computer.

(It is NOT a mirror style back up even though it has two drives, so if you lose data on this, it is gone).

You also do NOT need the Thunderbolt version of this which costs an extra $150. The reason is that USB 3 can move data at 600 mbps and this drive can only spit out data from the spinning hard drives (that work in unison) at 250 mbps. You can only move data as fast as the slowest part of your system, and Thunderbolt only makes sense when sending multiple signals through one line.

Step #3 – Back-Up 2 & 3


Next I make two more copies (directly copied from my SD cards and NOT from the main editing drive copy) to my Black-X system.

This is essentially a port that accepts internal hard drives that you can buy for a reasonable price since they do not have cases, fans, and all the other stuff that external hard drives use. The Black-X is cheap and works really well for making extra back-ups without breaking the bank.

I use two 3TB Western Digital drives that then plug into the black-X and make my 2nd and 3rd back up copies on these.

Once the back-ups are complete, I take one of these Western Digital drives out of the Black-X, pack it up in the case it came in, and send it to a friends house for safe keeping (just in case the house burns down, gets broken into, or has something like water damage from a leak).

All of these back-ups happen simultaneously and it takes just a few minutes to copy my RAW files from the SD cards and start backing up to all 3 drives that I use.

(You will notice at the end of this post that I have TWO Black-X Drives. I bought mine before they had one Black-X drive that accepted TWO hard drives. You only need the one drive linked above and two internal drives to go into it).

Step #4 – Online Back-Up


Once I have all 3 back-ups complete, I edit the entire shoot (when we shot weddings, I did this the Tuesday after the wedding which was our first day back in the office), and then export the high-res JPG files to PASS.

PASS backs up the images on Amazon S3 servers for 10 years.

I now have 6 total back-ups of the images.

  • 1 copy on my CF card/s (I never delete cards until JPG files are on PASS),
  • 1 copy on my SD card/s
  • 1 copy on my editing drive
  • 1 copy on my Black-X drive 1
  • 1 copy on my Black-X drive 2
  • 1 copy of the JPG files on PASS

6 Total Copies

At this point (once all the files are edited and on PASS), I am free to move my Lightroom catalog off of my main editing drive and place it on my Black-X drive 1, and then delete the images from my main editing drive and from my CF and SD cards.

When all the dust settles, I will still have 2 copies in my office of the RAW files on my Black-X drives and 1 copy on PASS of the JPG files.



All of my drives (as well as my printer, Shuttle Controller, internet hard-line and editing screen) are all connected to my laptop with just one cable using the amazing Elgato Thunderbolt Dock.

What I LOVE about this dock is that I can use my laptop (my only computer these days since it is so fast and powerful it is insane) and only have one cable connecting all my editing tools, then unplug that one cable, and go mobile easy and fast.

All my other devices like my external keyboard, mouse and Apple TrackPad are all connected with bluetooth.

My Desk


As you can see, there are almost no cables plugged into my computer and everything is neat and tidy. I keep all my SD and CF cards in a card case to keep them organized and if a card is facing out (where you can see the red color from Sandisk) that means do NOT use it. Red=Dead.

You may also notice my Veri-Desk that holds my computer and my monitors. I will do a post on this coming soon, but this addition to my desk allows me to go from sitting to standing in seconds so that I don’t die early from sitting all day working. :)

Homework – Create YOUR System

The most important thing you can do after reading this post is create a system. A system means it is written down somewhere (either on paper or digitally) and each and every step of how you download and back up your files is checked off for each client as you go.

Having a system written down somewhere will help you to not make a mistake and get out on a shoot and wonder if you backed up your files you are about to shoot over. The last thing you want is to lose files due to a simple lack of a good system.

Happy back-up-ing!

  • Brock Kirschenmann

    Simple question… you said all 3 backups happen simultaneously? (from sd card to 1: main editing drive, 2: copy one of backup 3: copy two of backup) are you just dragging and dropping the files to your editing drive, and after that starts then dragging and dropping to the other backup? I didn’t know you could copy from the sd cards twice at the same time at different rates? Or is there something i’m missing here. I do the same thing but one at time so you have to baby sit it. Last is the 2 black box externals for backup a mirrored system, so you copy to one and the files end on both are you, actually dragging dropping onto both mean you are reading from the card 3 times all at once.

    thanks so much for all your wonderful help over the years. your family is a huge inspiration to me.

    • Zach ‘n Jody Gray

      Good question! I open the SD card folder, presss “command+a” to select all and then “command+C” to copy them all. Then I open all back up drives (3 of them) and press “command+V” to paiste the images into each one. I then walk away and come back 30 minutes later when it is done. Check that all the files match the files on the SD cards and I am finished downloading.

  • Brock Kirschenmann

    Wow, also maybe your experience is different with the older single BlacX docks, but the new duel usb3 version has insanely horrible reviews, in almost everywhere I looked, amazon, newegg etc. People are reporting unanimously that the duel usb 3.0 version is completely unreliable. Darn, I was totally going to buy that thing.

    • Zach ‘n Jody Gray

      If that is the case, then grab two of the single USB 3 units. I have had a USB 2 one for years and it is an awesome product.

  • Eric Gay

    Hey, Zach! Great post. Not only is it informative for photographers, but it also gives brides and grooms peace of mind knowing that us photogs take such good care of their big day. Just out of curiosity, what external display are you using? I’m looking at IPS monitors and am wondering! Thanks.

  • Zach ‘n Jody Gray

    Thanks friend! I use the Asus PA248Q editing monitor. Amazing! http://www.amazon.com/PA248Q-24-Inch-LED-Lit-Professional-Graphics/dp/B008DWH00K

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  • Cynthia Fontenot

    You no longer do PC? If not, do you have PC recommendations?

  • Ruben Barreto

    So if I’m understanding you correctly, in step 3 you send one of the 3tb drives to your friends house for them to hold on to permanently? Does this mean you are buying a new 3tb wd drive for every job/wedding?

    • Zach ‘n Jody Gray

      We would use two drives and swap them out back and forth until we had them saved online on PASS. Otherwise it would get very pricey! :) -Z

  • Sterling T Steves

    I just initially copy them to my main drive on desktop(SSD) and back them up
    to an external drive (used just for storage) and have Backblaze
    ($5/month) continuously backing up all my files (raw, psd and jpg
    exports) to their online server (11+terabytes backed up at this point).
    I shoot in RAW and the 5DIII slows both cards down to their SD card speed
    (less than 45) when you use them simultaneously. So you will not be able to shoot as frequently as you will run into waiting for the buffer to write to the cards.
    Your greatest point of failure is your initial copy to the stripe drive. Stripes
    double the chances for failure since if one HD drive fails, the data is
    lost on both drives. Of course, I assume like me, you don’t delete files
    from your cards till after at least one backup is completed.

    • Zach ‘n Jody Gray

      Love it! And yes, you are slowed by the buffer speed of your camera initially, then the length to download to the slowest card (the SD pro cards from sandisk are 95mgps speed).

      • Silverstream

        The 5DmkIII most likely is probably half that in actual speed. My 6D(which came out afterward) interface is limited to 45mb/sec so you will be limited to that speed. That Sandisk card is 90mb/sec write btw. 95mb/sec read. I just got one for my mkIV that I will have in two Days!!!!

      • Silverstream

        The 5DmkIII most likely is probably half that in actual speed. My 6D(which came out afterward) interface is limited to 45mb/sec so you will be limited to that speed. That Sandisk card is 90mb/sec write btw. 95mb/sec read. I just got one for my mkIV that I will have in two Days!!!!

      • Sterling T Steves

        The 5DmkIII most likely is probably half that in actual speed. My 6D(which came out afterward) interface is limited to 45mb/sec so you will be limited to that speed. That Sandisk card is 90mb/sec write btw. 95mb/sec read. I just got one for my mkIV that I will have in two Days!!!!

      • Sterling T Steves

        The 5DmkIII most likely is probably half that in actual speed. My 6D(which came out afterward) interface is limited to 45mb/sec so you will be limited to that speed. That Sandisk card is 90mb/sec write btw. 95mb/sec read. I just got one for my mkIV that I will have in two Days!!!!

  • Kathrynne Willhoite

    I like the main editing drive that you use, but it’s a little out of my price range and I don’t need quite that much storage right now. I looked at this one https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009DYCU6Q/ref=pd_sim_147_2?ie=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=RQ7M4XRAXKT1ZHBTHGKE . It’s a little more budget friendly, but I was just wondering if it not having the dual drive would just make it slower or if there is another difference. Also, what do you do with back up hard drives that are full?