Home > Photo and Tech News, Photography > My new approach to offsite backups from Lightroom

My new approach to offsite backups from Lightroom


Hi all,

I realise I haven’t posted in a little while here, apologies firstly but the simple truth is I haven’t been anywhere outside work trips (airport-hotel-meeting-restaurant-hotel-airport is not usually conductive to photography) and the UK weather has not exactly been inspiring photo jaunts of late either.

Anyway I am posting today not to show new photos, but to talk about something simultaneously quite pedestrian and yet essential: backups of your photos.

I have a pretty large archive (1.5TB) of my past digital photos stretching back to 2000, and even farther back – I’ve got scans of photos from the pre-digital era. They’re all fairly well organised into folders by year, then month, then subject (e.g. “2008 > 01-January > Marrakech”).

Now I’ve been lucky that (thus far) disaster has not befallen me. I’ve never had a hard drive crash before I could get my photos off of it, nor have I had a fire or burglary which has taken from me my only copies of any precious shots. But this is down to luck so far, and a casual perusal of the internet is all it takes to remind you of how easy it is to lose everything, even by something so daft as an errant press of the delete key.

A couple of years back I was running out of space on my main photo drive, so I upgraded to a RAID system (a QNAP 419+) with 2x 2TB drives operating in a RAID mirrored configuration, with 2 empty drive bays for future expansion. The RAID mirroring means I don’t have to worry about a hard drive failing – if it does, the other drive will just take over until I can replace the dud one. So far, so good.

However, this is not truly backed up. For one thing, I could still fall victim to the dreaded accidental Delete key. RAID won’t help with that. And I could still lose the whole thing in a house fire or burglary. In an ideal world I would either be using Time Machine on my Mac – which would involve having another, even BIGGER drive to back up to – or I could keep an external hard drive, remember to back it up once a week or so, and keep it offsite. To be frank, I was too lazy to do this.

I do, however, have two assets that I should be able to use to effect a lazy-man’s offsite backup: Adobe Lightroom and Dropbox.

Like many photographers, I have been using Lightroom to catalog, organise, and process my digital photos for the last couple of years. I have also been using Dropbox for about the same amount of time. Never before, however, had I figured out how to combine them to good effect. But Eric Scouten’s recent update of his Lightroom workflow made me think about backup again and how I might use Dropbox.

I wanted somehow to make it so that I could tag my “keeper” photos in Lightroom and somehow automatically export them into DropBox, crucially with my existing folder structure intact – so a keeper from my Marrakech trip would still be found within the “2008 > 01-January > Marrakech” folder in my new DropBox archive.

My Eureka moment was when I found the HierarchyExport plug-in for Lightroom on the Adobe site. It’s very flexible, allowing the user to either create a new export folder hierarchy (e.g. based on photo metadata, Lightroom collection hierarchy) or, and here’s what stuck out to me, to replicate the file folder hierarchy of the source image. Crucially, it also has an option to skip or overwrite files in cases where the filename already exists in that location.

Then I figured out how I could semi-automate this from Lightroom. I started a new Smart Collection called Dropbox Backup, which I set to include only the photos that had the keyword “DropBox” added to their metadata. I then went about setting up the first batch of photos to backup. Your mileage may vary, but I use the green label (“8″) for “artsy” shots that might end up on Flickr or the blog, and the blue label (“9″) for social / personal / snapshot images. Most of the time, if I then Flag the image (“P”) then it signifies that I’ve uploaded this somewhere. So just to start out and build my collection a bit, I filtered my 2011 photos for green- or blue-labelled, flagged photos. I then did a Select All in the grid, added the Dropbox keyword, and watch the Smart Collection populate with my just-selected photos.

You can see where I am going with this. The process I have come up with is:

  1. Install HierarchyExport plugin referenced above using Plugin Manager
  2. Create new “Dropbox Backups” Smart Collection filtered for photos with the “dropbox” keyword
  3. Tag “keeper” photos with keyword “dropbox”
  4. Switch to “Dropbox Backups” collection. Verify photos appear in this collection.
  5. Select All photos in Grid View
  6. From the File menu, choose Export…
  7. At the top of the Export dialog, change the dropdown to HierarchyExport
  8. Change the parameters of the plugin to suit yourself. In my case I use Original Folder structure, and I skip files if they already exist. Note: this will prevent you writing out the same files over and over again as your collection grows.
  9. Set the image export particulars to suit yourself. I actually went for exporting to 100% quality, non-resized JPEGs. I would have gone for TIFFs if not for space concerns. I also turned off watermarks in case I want to use these as print files.
  10. Set the Export location to somewhere within your DropBox folder. I actually put these in an “Archive” folder within the Photos folder on mine. That ensures that I can browse them from anywhere on the internet, if need be.
  11. Save this as a User Preset by using the + button on the left. Call it “Backup Dropbox”.

From now on this means that all I have to do is tag my photos in Lightroom with “Dropbox”, go to the smart collection, select all and do File > Export and pick the “Backup Dropbox” preset. Lightroom and the plugin will backup all my chosen photos with folder structure intact, will be smart enough to ignore ones it’s already done, and I will finally have my long-sought-for offsite backup.

UPDATE August 2012

Well a few months into the process, I have made a slight modification that saves a lot of time on exporting. Once my files have made it through to the DropBox folder, I select all of the successfully-backed-up images in Lightroom and change the keyword from “dropbox” to “dropbox_backedup”. I have also changed the Smart Collection filter to exclude any of the “dropbox_backedup” images. In short, I have saved the export routine from going back over all of the previously-exported images every time I want to do a backup. This saves a lot of time on my increasingly-ancient iMac.

  1. May 2, 2012 at 10:24 pm | #1

    Luke, Great approach to backup!!! I browsed the site and was really impressed with your photos. Your perspective on so many of the buildings is really createive. I loved the series of bird photos and also some of the human portraits. Great work! Stan Merrill

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