This post was written by Hendrikus De Vaan.
Back when everyone was still shooting on film, you’d occasionally hear horror stories of a lab fire destroying part, or all, of a film's negatives—with all of the work lost forever.
But now with digital, the risk of losing all of your work is still very real, and it’s important to familiarize yourself with some storage and backup best practices.
I see so many people with a giant pile of miscellaneous drives of different sizes, speeds, and connectors—most not backed up, and no real way of knowing what’s where. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a big post house to be able to implement a solid data management strategy.
I created the following video guide to act as an introduction to principles and terminology, as well as to be an actionable roadmap to building and implementing your own storage and backup strategy.
Understanding the Basics
Once you understand the basic principles, it becomes much easier to design and build your own setup that’s going to be serviceable, manageable, and most importantly—scalable in the long term.
The main takeaways for storage are:
- SSDs for working drives, HDDs for storage, archiving, and backups
- Try to get high quality larger drives, instead of RAIDing a bunch of smaller drives (unless you have a very specific reason to do so)
- 3.5” 7200rpm with at least 256MB of cache for any spinning drives (HDDs)
- Design your storage and backup strategy before buying anything
And for backing up:
- Have at least two local copies of your files
- Have at least one off-site copy of your files
- RAID is not a backup
- Make sure one of your backups is not live synced
- Which data source you backup from matters
Credit: Hendrikus De Vaan
Use Software to Manage It
An essential part of a good storage and backup strategy is actually sticking to it, and backing up regularly. I’m a firm believer in setting up infrastructure that results in the path of least resistance.
You’ll need two bits of software. One for managing your local backups, and one for your off-site cloud backups.
For local file management, I personally use FreeFileSync. It’s incredibly powerful software that, once set up, makes doing your local backups an absolute breeze. It’s also free and open-source (although I encourage you to donate to the project if you like the software).
Jump to the “Local Backup Management” section of the video to get a look at how this works.
This was probably the best upgrade I’ve ever made to my data management strategy, and it didn’t cost a cent.
For my cloud storage, I like and use BackBlaze (Editor's Note: this is an affiliate link, learn more here). It’s quite different from services like Gdrive and Dropbox in the sense that it’s unlimited storage for a fixed price, and is generally a lot slower. However, it’s also significantly cheaper and comes with a bunch of features that really make it shine as a backup solution over fast access cloud storage—my favorite being that if you have a catastrophic local data failure (lose all of your local files), you can get them to send your files to you on physical HDDs, rather than having to download terabytes of data from their servers.
I go into more details on cloud backup solutions, and also the limitations of this specific service, in the “Off-site Backups” section of the video.
Putting It All Together
Once you’ve figured out your data storage needs and your risk tolerance for data loss, I recommend drawing up what I like to call a “Backup Tree." This will help you visualize and make big-picture decisions before buying or wiring up any hardware.
The following is the backup tree for my personal setup. With this diagram, I was able to set everything up really easily for what otherwise might have been a little more complicated.
Credit: Hendrikus De VaanIt also made it a lot easier for implementing the software side of things. Once I’d set up FreeFileSync and Backblaze, my backup routine takes me less than a minute to do now (not including the actual copying time of the files, but that’s all automated).
My Recommended Setup
My wife is a high-end photo retoucher and was getting a bit overwhelmed with wrangling a ton of 2.5” external HDDs, and knowing what was backed up and what wasn’t.
I designed and implemented the following setup for her, and we’ve been stress testing it for over six months now and are very happy with it. I specifically designed it to be as simple, robust, and affordable as possible (while using high-quality drives).
Credit: Hendrikus De VaanIt consists of:
- 1x Samsung T5 1TB SSD
- 2x Seagate 16TB HDDs (with EXOS drives inside)
The diagram shows how everything is set up. This is set up for a single-button press backup—which is perfect for my wife when she’s working like crazy towards a tight deadline and doesn’t have the time or mental energy to deal with it all manually. “Path of least resistance” means backups actually get done regularly!
Credit: Hendrikus De Vaan
Go Forth and Backup!
When you spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars creating your content, having a robust backup strategy that you can trust can alleviate a lot of anxiety when you inevitably have a piece of hardware fail on you (usually at the worst possible time, too). It’s not difficult to do, and you’ll never have to worry about telling your client or crew that those irreplaceable moments captured in time are lost forever.
As always, this guide is meant to be a starting point from which you need to decide what your own personal risk tolerance is and how to proceed—but if nothing else, the basic setup I recommend would put you well ahead of the curve.
I go into quite a bit more detail in the video itself, so I definitely recommend watching that for a better understanding of it all (make yourself a cup of tea, it’s a long one).
Having a solid backup strategy doesn’t require an IT department and a ton of money. Audit your current setup and see how well you’re protected.
Hendrikus De Vaan is a cinematographer and filmmaker based in Auckland, NZ. Harrie has a rich and varied history in the film and video industry, spanning departments, and has worked as a filmmaker in both NZ and Europe. His short film, DISAPPEAR, was chosen for a Young Directors Award by a panel including Danny Boyle and went on to win a Silver Young Directors Award at Cannes Lions, taking him around the world.