What if Your House Burned Down?

As many of you know, I live northwest of Fort Collins where a fire’s been raging for a week now. Sunday evening the fire got close to our home and we packed up a trailer and were ready to evacuate in a moment’s notice. Fortunately, we were not asked to leave and our home is now quite safe.

However this exercise taught me a valuable lesson: don’t wait until you have a fire to decide what you should take with you. I ended up taking my camera gear, my hard drives and my Ansel Adams’ print.  I figured everything else could be replaced.

This near miss led to some valuable discussions with concerned friends about how to best backup our digital work.  These days even film guys convert their images to a digital file for printing, so this topic might be of interest all.  Let me simplify this sometimes complex topic and suggest five simple things you should do to protect your images.

And let me point out the obvious; backing up your work is not just in case of a fire or other catastrophic disaster, it also protects you from hard drive failure, power spikes, home flooding and a host of other big and little disasters.  I know too many people who have lost everything because they didn’t have a backup.

Here are the five basic steps for backing up your work.

First, you should use a backup program that automatically runs each day.  You do not want to rely on a backup plan that relies on your memory! My images are backed up automatically and I don’t do a thing.  Simple, reliable and invisible.

Second, back up your primary drive to another hard drive in your office.  This is the most basic protection from a hard drive failure, which is the most likely disaster you will encounter.

Third, use bare hard drives in external drive docks. This is a simple and inexpensive system that allows you to grab a drive and run in an emergency.  I have about 20 drives  in dual docks and I mark my essential drives with a red label so that in an emergency I can easily spot and grab them.

Fourth, you should also backup to the cloud.  I have two cloud backups that continually run, ensuring that a copy of my images are safe even if a fire destroys my home.

Fifth, have an additional drive that backs up only once a month.  This protects you against an accidental change to one of your images because it allows you to retrieve a file for up to a month. For example if I unknowingly make a change to my original file, within a day my backup has overwritten the good file with the bad one. By having one drive backup only once a month, I can retrieve that file once I discover the error. This gives you a 30 day protection against accidental errors that you do not immediately discover.


We have all heard the backup warnings over and over again, yet I am amazed at how many do not heed the warning.  I guess it’s because our computers are so reliable and disasters so infrequently occur that we are lulled into a false sense of security.  We just don’t believe that it will happen to us.  But remember the old computer saying: it’s not “if” your hard drive will fail, but “when.”

Personally I just cannot take that risk, my life’s work is on my computer and if I were to lose it, I would be devastated.  I refuse to allow that to happen.

Please do not put off properly backing up your work.  If you cannot do everything all at once, then start with item 1 and work your way down the list, it is prioritized.


P.S.  Here is specific information on the backup equipment I use:

  • Drives:  Any brand of 3tb, 7200 rpm hard drive.
  • External drive bays: Dual docks by NexStar (available in USB and eSata)
  • Software: SyncBack SE by 2BrightSparks.com
  • Cloud Backup: Carbonite



P.P.S.  Here is some additional information in answer to the great questions asked:

Carbonite:  I use the cheap $59 a year plan that does not back up external hard drives.  What I have done is install a large second internal hard drive and  have all of my final images (TIFF’s) on that drive.  I only back up these  final files to the cloud, not my RAW or working files.

Slow Internet:  I doubt anyone has slower internet that I do, I’m on microwave and I’m outside of the useful range of the transmitter.  This means that my upload speeds are about 100k in good conditions and more usually 50k.  My initial backup took more than a month and updates new files in its own sweet time.  But that’s okay, I’m backed up and protected, speed is not an issue!

Cloud Security: Some people are concerned with the security of the cloud, I am not.  It’s not like I’m Ansel Adams and people are  motivated to hack into my cloud and steal my work!  Actually if they want it that badly, they can simply go to my website and download the free wallpaper images.  http://www.colethompsonphotography.com/Backgrounds.htm

Why 20 Drives?  I have a lot of drives because I have a lot of images.  I save all of my RAW files (I never delete any of them), all of my working files and all versions of my final files.  All of these are backed up a number of times in different ways, for example one drive backs up three times a day.  Another drive backs up once a day, another every week and another every month.  Then I do all of that for my family pictures and also for my business files and documents.  I have a lot to backup and I back everything up several times.

We don’t have natural disasters in my area:  A friend insinuated he didn’t need this level of backup because their area didn’t have forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and etc.  As I think several people have pointed out, there are a number of reasons you need to be backed up besides a natural disaster; burst pipes, failed hard drives, power surges, theft, etc.  Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) most of us will never need to use our backup systems…is that good or bad?

16 Responses to “What if Your House Burned Down?”

  • Luca Cesari Says:

    Nice writing, Cole.

    I just completed (last week) another backup/catalog of all my RAW and processed files (on a new disk); I’m still evaluating the online backup, since I have more than 500 gb of data and my DSL would take ages to complete that.
    Nice to know about the Carbonite service, it’s hard to find an unlimited backup service at that price.
    Thank you.


  • Steve Coleman Says:

    … got me thinking. I’ve got lots of back up but most are in my home. I’m going to start to keep an off site (off-home) back up or two.

    Thank you for the post.

    Cheers, steve

  • Jeroen Akershoek Says:

    That must have been a very frightening prospect! Lucky for you that you didn’t have to abandon your home.

    Good backup strategy. Mine isn’t as elaborate as yours, but it will cover most disasters. I use Time Machine (MacOSX) which is very easy to use. It keeps copies of every hour over the last 24 hours, one copy per day for the last month, and one copy per week for the other months. It does it all automatic, which is great.

    I don’t like the idea of having my photos in the cloud, it’s the idea that my work is stored at somebody else’s harddrive I guess.
    I have two backup drives, one is in my home and the other at a different location which I switch regularly. So if there was a disaster at my house, I would only lose a small part of my recent work.

    What I don’t get, why do you have so many (20) drives?

    Good idea to write about this on your blog, I think I’ll do the same.

    All the best,

  • Roland Says:

    I do keep a backup off site for the very reason that I would not want to have to care about my main body of photograhic work, in case that all my other belongings and of course much more important: my family are in danger. Very nice to see you post a blog post on this important topic. It is very well worth the time to check the personal backup strategies before (!) they need to be effective…

    One more thing to consider: never, never and really never trust a single hard drive. These items tend to have a pretty limited life time and recovering a 500 GB drive with a recovery service is very expensive. So, having a strategy that cycles bewteen four drives seems a good strategy to me:
    One drive is the internal HD (eventually even 2 as a raid)
    One drive is a internal backup (automatic)
    One drive is a external backup that could be easily grabbed and taken away
    One drive is a external backup that is kept off site. The two external drives are swapped from time to time, depending on how much new material I produced.


  • Michael Says:

    A few weeks ago we were evacuated from our lakeside home in north eastern Ontario due to a massive forest fire that was all too quickly coming our way. We were out for nine days but the story ends happily – our home is fine – the fire never got closer than 4 km’s – thankfully. Like you, I took two external USB hard drives with my backed up files and images, a few paintings and some other pieces of art that are particularly precious, some old unscanned family photos, jewellery, our passports and insurance documents and a few changes of clothes. What is truly important becomes clear when you are told you have less than an hour to leave your home!

  • Laird Says:

    Glad that you and yours are safe…

    Even though I would like to think that all artists are aware of the need for a backup in the event of disaster… it does bare repeating.

    My own methods are the same as yours, just to a lesser degree.

    Unfortunately even my pared down version is expensive by most peoples’ standards. Which brings up the dilema that there are many out there that know what they should be doing… but simply can’t afford to do so.

  • Sam Blair Says:

    Cole, I was wondering about your house and the fires. I’m relieved to learn you dodged it. As one who has been through Hurricane Iniki in Hawaii, I can relate to such vulnerability.

    Great advice, and thanks for sharing your system for making files fail safe.

  • Paula Owens/ Mo Mapes Says:

    I was thinking about you when I heard on the news that there was a fire near you and some of my relatives. I’m so thankful you are OK. Been there- done that and it isn’t any fun- fires are scarey- you never know when they will turn. I agree with our choice of Carbonite. I have had it for a year and just paid for another. I had hard drives fail me twice- one was from brown outs and I lost a year of photos and art! I now have a huge battery backup/surge protector and use Carbonite. I was told by a computer guy that having any hard drives in house is bad because if you are robbed they take your external drives also. Never even thought about that- I don’t have a criminal mind! So Carbonite it is! You can’t beat $59/year.

  • Mary Alston Says:

    I am very happy to hear that the fire did not reach you, though the waiting must have been stressful. In the Fourmile Fire two years ago, there was no waiting, we just grabbed what we could and fled which is when offsite backup is the most critical. Because the fire started at 10 am some people were not at home and by the time they learned of the fire, they were not allowed to go back to their homes.

  • Bobbie Says:

    Cole – recently my iMac desktop hard drive failed with 25,000 images on it.
    Only a few months earlier I began backing up the system on an external drive using Time Machine.

    Now have two externals. Plan to add a third running Carbon Copy Cloner instead of Time Machine.

    Storing a fourth drive off premises will complete the plan.

  • Scott Says:

    I have my images all backed up to a 12 TB drobo and individual aperture libraries backed to individual 2TB hard drives. I feel pretty well protected against failure, but I don’t have an off-site backup. But as Laird said above, it can be pretty expensive to duplicate all of this with an off-site copy. Unfortunately, that $59/yr Carbonite plan is ‘unlimited’ for the main drive on your computer only. That’s 1TB in my case, not nearly enough. I don’t keep anything there, other than the current library I’m working on.

    My first drobo is full and now I face the prospect of expanding that. More $$. I wonder if anyone has used SmugMug Pro as their cloud backup. I get true unlimited uploads of jpegs under 25mb with my $159/yr pro account and have considered starting the process of uploading all of my selects up to private, locked galleries there. I shoot 90% of my images in full-frame raw files and have been saved by the ability to download a file I’d uploaded as a full-sized jpeg. This happened before my current backup strategy after the failure of a 1TB hard drive. Only problem I see with this is a long grueling, time consuming process as my upload speeds are painfully slow. Anyone out there doing this?

  • Roland Says:

    I see again and again that people spend lots of $ on lenses and bodies and other gear and in the same time feel like a few hard drives to redundantly backup the pictures is expensive. After all, what use is a good lens, if the shot pictures vanish later on…?

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    I’ve added a “P.P.S.” with some additional info to answer some of the questions asked.


  • Jeff Gaydash Says:

    Great post Cole, this is an important topic that is very often overlooked. I have been using multiple drives and swapping around for a long time but found it very difficult to keep track of what was on what drive and such. Not quite sure how you manage to keep track of all those drives, but knowing you I am sure you have it all figured out.

    I ended up investing in a Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) RAID backup with hot swappable drive bays. Sounds similar to your cool looking drive bays except that the RAID provides redundancy. If one of the drives fails you can swap out the failed drive for a new one and it will automatically resync. I use this as an archive, but it also runs scheduled incremental backups as well as a million other things beyond the scope of this discussion. It’s a web, FTP, media and music server and I can access my files from anywhere. I can even stream my music collection to my car via the iPhone app. If it senses a fire, it has legs and will run out of your house to a safe location! Well, it’s not quite that advanced yet, but still is one of the coolest pieces of technology I have ever owned, I highly recommend them.

    As far as offsite storage, I currently take my most precious files and store them on an external HD and regularly copy them over to one of my work computers. Will have to look into something like Carbonite to complete my backup routine.

    Best Regards,

  • Gary Larsen Says:

    Hi Cole,

    I had been wondering how you were doing with the fires in the area. Other friends from the Ft. Collins area have described some pretty nerve racking times and discomfort from all the smoke! I’ve seen some pictures from the LaPorte and Horsetooth Reservoir area, and they are unbelieveable. I’m glad that your home, family and photo work are all safe! Good luck!


  • Chuck Kimmerle Says:

    Instead of the HD backed up one a month, it would be better to use a progressive backup, which saves each new version of a file. That way, you can go back a week, a month, a year to retrieve a file, or version of a file, that was accidentally or incorrectly deleted/changed. I use Retrospect.

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