The Complete Photo and Video Media Backup Workflow

February 15, 2018

Disclosure: There are some affiliate links below, but these are all products I highly recommend. I won’t put anything on this page that I haven’t verified and/or personally used.

My video production businesses generate a TON of data each week and keeping track of it used to keep me up at night. It was early on in my career (college days) that my car was broken into and my backpack with several hard drives was stolen. Fortunately, I didn't lose any active client projects I lost a bunch of my old work which was devastating, so I learned the hard way.  I hope this guide gives you the tools you need to never have to experience data loss from theft or drive failures.

It's one of the least exciting parts of the job, but one of the most important. It's something that every single creative should understand: importing, storing, and backing up your precious media. This workflow is geared towards anyone who creates digital media (photo, video, graphic, etc) and is easily scaled to grow with your media and budget for storage.

Of course, what you're about to read isn't the only way to do this. For some creatives, it may be using just passport drives - for others, it may be RAID arrays, expensive networked storage arrays. Either way, the basics remain the same and scale accordingly. Among the many work-related nightmares I've had, losing footage is one of the worst.  Fortunately, I've only had one "test" of my backup strategy when a passport drive was accidentally knocked off a table by a client. Fortunately, everything on that drive was backed up on multiple other drives, so it was easy to just create another copy and keep moving along - No expensive recovery services needed.

What we'll cover

Storage and backup basics

1. Be organized.  The weakest point of a workflow is going to be at the import.  Ideally, when on larger sets you hire a DIT to manage your media, but that's not always possible. When you're on location with a client, be sure you have a good system in place to make sure that all your cards are 1) marked and not going to be overwritten and 2) not missed when it comes to importing.  I have two Pelican 0915 SD Card cases, one with green paper tape (safe cards) and one with red (used cards). As soon as a card comes out of a camera, I immediately use a red strip of paper tape, write the card name/number on it, and cover the contacts. It goes right into the red case, which is then secured with me for the rest of the shoot. There are a number of ways to do this well, but this method gives me the most confidence.

2. Make redundant copies. Whatever you do, do not make one copy of your media and then duplicate that copy. If there happened to be any issues with the transfer, you've now duplicated that issue to all your copies.  I use Hedge (10% off with this link!), an all-in-one media backup suite made for video. (It works for any kind of transfer though!) It's built around best-practices for media backup, including making individual copies to each attached drive, high-speed transfers, and media verification through check-sums.  The reality is that hard drives will eventually fail, and you don't want to find yourself with no backup copies.

3. Keep a clean copy of your media. Before you start transcoding media or dropping it into any software, make sure at least one of your copies is left unaltered.  If you run into any issues with transcoding, make a mistake, or your proprietary software alters something, you want to make sure you can start fresh.

4. Keep everything separate. We work from the concept of 2 +1 for the number of copies we make at a minimum - by the time we are done with a project, we usually have 4 or more copies. Two copies that live here at the office (one for editing, one on a backup drive) and then a third copy that is kept off-site.  This helps protect you from not only drive failures but also the less likely scenarios such as break-ins or physical property damage from fire or weather.  If you have a RAID array on site, that can act as your redundant on-site backup - just make sure you have something stored off-site as well. We also use cloud storage as another form of backup for extra piece of mind.

Media Storage Basics

The cost of hard drives and digital media has dropped dramatically over the years. I almost never delete footage because hard drives are cheap enough to just budget in new drives with each project.

Hard drives: Not all hard drives are created equal! Even with a good backup strategy, it's key to use drives that aren't going to force you to test your strategy often.  BackBlaze, a data-center company posts data about hard drive failure rates for each brand and size of drive offered. It's an interesting read, but if you want the summary- stay far away from Seagate Drives and go with brands such as G-RAID, Hitachi, or Western Digital. For field drives, I exclusively use La Cie Rugged drives which offer a high level of protection from bumps, spills, and drops. For long-term storage, I use a combination of a RAID array (we'll get to that later) and external passport drives.

Software: While using your OS' file browser to transfer files gets the job done, it offers very little protection against errors, whether human or technical. If you're going to go that route, be sure to copy each memory card to separate hard drives. If you copy your cards to one hard drive and then duplicate that backup to another drive, it will carry potential errors with it.  The best addition in the past year to my software toolkit is Hedge, a tool that handles simultaneous backups AND performs Check-Sum verification of your drives. Check-Sum verification is a foolproof method of ensuring that what was on that memory card, is now on your hard drive.


The bullet-proof ingest and backup workflow

At the end of a long day of shooting, there's still the chore of ingesting your media and properly backing it up.  In this section, I'll walk you through each step of my process.

1. Memory Cards

The foundation of keeping your media safe starts with using good media cards.  It may be tempting to use the $10 SD card you found online or on the shelf at the store, but you really need to invest in quality cards that are reliable and fast enough to handle your camera's write speed.  I see people post on Facebook groups frequently about weird lines and artifacts in their video files and asking for help with fixing it- unfortunately, that is usually a result of a card that was too slow for the camera or a failing card and there is no fix for that.  My favorite brand of cards is the SanDisk Extreme Series which handles most of the cameras in my kit.  Now if you're getting up into high-end cameras, be sure to check the specs of what you need as those cards can easily be several hundred dollars, but the same concept applies

2. Card Readers

Depending on your computer setup, the availability of multiple USB ports may be limited. Using my MacBook Pro, I got pretty tired of only being able to import one card at a time, so I purchased an Anker 4-port USB hub and multiple card readers to increase my ability to import up to 4 cards at once.  Now if you want a less DIY solution, you can pick up a dedicated 4-Bank Lexar Reader Hub for under $80.

3. Storage Media

Since this can vary so much by the size of your operation and budget, I'll keep this basic (using passport hard drives as an example) since the concept scales up to more complicated RAID arrays and network storage methods.

Make sure to get quality hard drives and don't always go with the cheapest option. Whether you're buying a passport drive or a RAID drive, stick with Western Digital. I shared the link about hard drive failure rates above, but it's worth sharing again - Hard Drive Failure Rates - BackBlaze.

Always, always, always make multiple copies of your data. You should at least have two copies and then a third off-site. That could look like having a copy on your computer for editing, a backup copy on an external drive, and then a third harddrive at home. Always keep a clean, unmodified set of your files and be careful using editing programs to run your backups because they could be changing file data in the process.

Now at a more complex setup, I'd recommend having a Drobo RAID as the primary backup destination, then having a passport drive as a secondary backup somewhere safe at the office. I have a 4TB Lacie Rugged Drive which I use to shuttle projects home where I keep my off-site backups on a hard drive.  And as a bonus often upload smaller projects to our Google Drive for extra peace-of-mind.

3. Import Software

For several years, I relied on Finder to copy cards to hard drives but that resulted in a few times where it would have errors and I never felt completely confident in how it transferred the media. Getting into editing a few weeks after clearing your cards and finding out a file was corrupted is terrible, especially if it's something really important like an interview.  I was elated when Hedge Backup Software (10% with this affiliate link! launched a few years ago because it completely handles the backup workflow in a very simple and secure way. Hedge uses Checksum verification, which examines the original media file and then the copy and ensures that they are exactly the same which eliminates the potential of finding corrupted files later on. Furthermore, it creates a unique copy of every file on each copy destination giving extra security.  Hedge is the fastest software solution I've ever used and it's the cornerstone of my backup system.

Using Hedge is as simple as dragging your media cards to "Sources" and your hard drives to "Destinations". Be sure to use good naming schemes with your cards to keep everything organized. Everyone has their own system in place for what works for their studio and team. For us, we typically use the camera name, card number, and then which camera it was, so that looks like A01_C300 (Camera A, Card 01, Camer from the C300).

Once you hit "Start Transfers, Hedge gets to work importing and verifying your media. It will show you the time remaining, as well as the transfer speeds to help you find any bottle necks in the transfer process (Slow hard drives, hubs, etc)

Hedge will do it's thing and you will get a confirmation and the option to eject your media and add new cards!

Hedge also has introduced several new integrations to further help improve your post-production workflow. My favorite free add-on was the introduction of ParaShoot. ParaShoot will automatically check to make sure that card is fully backed up (another layer of security) and then "erase" the memory card.  The cool part here is that it doesn't actually delete any data. Rather it just scrambles a few things in the card's header file, so that your camera will force you to format the card in-camera. If I pop a new card into my camera and don't see the format note, I know something isn't right.

With this workflow, I have had two harddrive mishaps over the years - one being a client knocking a harddrive off the table and the other one a drive failure. Hearing the clicking sound from a bad harddrive was terrifying, but no data was ultimately lost because I had proper backups.

And finally for the list of gear mentioned in this post: (may contain affiliate links)

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