Back Up Your Photos like Pro Photographer Onne van der Wal Does

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For a working professional photographer like renowned maritime photographer and Canon Explorer of Light Onne van der Wal, the most valuable part of his business is not the tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cameras and lenses he carries, it is that which cannot be covered by insurance or easily replaced: data. Clients don’t care if your Canon camera was lost to Davy Jones’s Locker in the middle of the shoot or if a lens was ruined by a rogue saltwater wave—they just want the images. Van der Wal, based in Newport, Rhode Island, has compiled more than 1.5 million digital images during his career since switching from film to digital, in 2001. To help manage his critical digital assets, he has now added an automated backup system using Synology Network Attached Storage (NAS) systems for data management and protection. What is his workflow for managing these files, backing up with Synology, and how does he store and access them for his clients, gallery, and stock business? Let’s take a look.

Above photograph and other maritime images © Onne van der Wal

The Field Workflow

Van der Wal travels the world on assignment for advertisers, boat builders, yacht racing organizers, and other clients. When shooting on location, he travels with his camera gear: three to four Canon camera bodies, an SKB case full of Canon lenses, and an Apple MacBook Pro laptop. After a day on or in the water or shooting from a helicopter, he will return to his hotel room and upload all of the memory cards onto the laptop, simultaneously, using a Lexar Professional Workflow HR2 Hub. He also has a Lexar hub in his gallery digital darkroom for uploading cards after local assignments. After the upload is complete, van der Wal will copy all of the images from the laptop to a Lexar 1TB SL100 Pro USB 3.1 Portable SSD. Rarely is van der Wal on an assignment in which a quick turnaround is needed for the images, but if he has to send images out to a client for social media posts or other reasons, he will do a quick cull and edit—sending a reduced-resolution watermarked file at this time via email. “Nine out of 10 shoots are for advertisers,” he says, and they do not demand the files in any rush.

Lexar Professional Workflow HR2 Hub with SDHC/SDXC and CompactFlash Card Reader Kit
Lexar Professional Workflow HR2 Hub with SDHC/SDXC and CompactFlash...
Lexar 1TB SL100 Pro USB 3.1 Portable SSD
Lexar 1TB SL100 Pro USB 3.1 Portable SSD

If there is a subsequent photo shoot the following day, van der Wal will verify that all of the images are on the laptop and SSD before formatting his memory cards for the next day’s photos. Now, with all of the data on a pocket-sized SSD, van der Wal can head out to dinner with his images backed up. The portable SSD gives him the peace of mind that, if something were to happen in the hotel room (fire, theft, etc.), he still has a copy of the day’s images in his pocket. In the past, he would carry a portable external hard drive for this purpose, but today’s portable SSD drives are much smaller and faster.

If he is in a location with a strong Wi-Fi signal and connectivity, an der Wal can also start uploading images from his hotel room to his Synology NAS for even more redundancy and to get ahead of his workflow for when he returns to Newport.

Van der Wal’s SSD and card reader hard at work

Due to the dynamic nature of his photography, flying back to a remote island in the South Pacific or Antarctica, re-renting a helicopter or chase boat, or getting back into the water for a shoot in perfect weather isn’t something that can be done over at the drop of a hat. “You cannot recreate magic,” he says. Therefore, he needs to protect the files as far as technology allows. Van der Wal considers himself lucky that he does not have any horror stories about gear being pilfered from hotel rooms in remote parts of the world—many pro photographers have sad tales to tell—but he attributes his luck to his healthy paranoia and diligent workflow. Cameras, lenses, and laptops are insured. “They can steal all the camera gear they want,” he says, “but don’t steal my images!”

When traveling back to Newport, van der Wal again physically splits the images by taking the laptop into the aircraft with him in a carry-on bag and checking the SSD with his luggage. This prevents the scenario where images can be lost if a single piece of luggage is lost or stolen.

File Structure and Naming

Back at the studio, it is time to start culling and editing images, but first they need to be organized and placed into van der Wal’s system. Many photographers make the mistake of not thinking of a future-proof file naming/folder system when they launch into digital photography. Van der Wal considers himself lucky to have thought of a solid system out of the gate that has stood the test of time and prevented him from misplacing or overwriting existing images.

Van der Wal explains his file naming and organization system.

Van der Wal uses a combination of date-based organization with numbered files and folders. He starts a new folder for each year and client shoots (and personal images) are given a consecutive number inside that year. For instance, the 24th client shoot of 2019 will get a folder named “2419.” Yes, he will have to re-think this system in the year 2100, but he has 81 years to come up with a plan. Inside of the 2419 folder he will have subfolders for raw images, top images converted to JPEGs, as well as specialized folders for reduced social media/watermarked images, and more.

A screen capture of Photo Mechanic on van der Wal’s desktop computer showing his folder structure and file naming. Note that all the files are on the external Synology NAS, not on the desktop hard drive.

Each image from a shoot gets a consecutive number that starts with the folder number, in this case 2419, followed by the image number from 0001 to 9999. This way, each image has a unique number that will not be duplicated (until the year 2101!).

Processing

Van der Wal does all of his own culling and post-processing using a workflow that starts with Photo Mechanic and ends with Adobe Lightroom CC and Canon printers. When asked if he ever turned the editing process over to others, van der Wal states that he likes to keep control of the images as he knows, while shooting, what he wants the final image to look like in terms of development and cropping. In order to speed his Lightroom process, he employs a Palette Aluminum Expert Control Surface Kit with dedicated knobs and sliders for Lightroom controls.

The Palette controls and a B&H Payboo credit card are featured in a fully outfitted digital darkroom.

Backing Up

It is recommended, for all photographers, that you do not store all of your images under one roof. This way, an entire archive will not be lost in the unfortunate case of a house fire or flood. Again, images/data are the only part of the photographic process that cannot be easily insured or replaced if lost. Prior to installing the Synology NAS system, van der Wal was literally carrying external and SATA hard drives back and forth between his gallery and office in Newport and his home, across the water, in Jamestown. As diligent as van der Wal is about backing up his data, this system was decidedly manual in nature—requiring the swapping and transport of labeled Toshiba hard drives in protective cases. The system worked, and was working, but it was also cumbersome and somewhat subject to the whims of demands on his time and distractions from the task at hand.

Last year, van der Wal began to investigate a new method for storing his data with the added goals of automatic backup and remote accessibility for him, as well as accessibility by Tenley—his office and gallery manager, wife, and boss—and other employees.

Van der Wal considered using cloud storage for his needs, but with more than 35TB of data in excess of 1.5 million images, uploading to the Internet would be time consuming and expensive. Working with Josh Johnson of Stenhouse Consulting, a Providence, RI-based IT consulting service, they recommended using a Synology NAS system to meet van der Wal’s storage and backup needs. One multi-bay Synology system would be kept in the gallery, in Newport, and the other system would be located at the house, in Jamestown.

In the downtown Newport Bannister’s Wharf gallery, there is a Synology DiskStation DS1819+ 8-Bay NAS Enclosure with Seagate 14TB IronWolf Pro 7200 rpm SATA III 3.5" Internal NAS HDD drives. At van der Wal’s residence, in his bedroom closet, lives a Synology DiskStation DS2419+ 12-Bay NAS Enclosure also equipped with 14TB IronWolf drives.

The Synology DiskStations in van der Wal’s home and office

For those unfamiliar with NAS systems, the NAS enclosures function similarly to an external hard drive or hard drive system but, instead of connecting directly to your computer, they connect to your Wi-Fi router. This allows users the ability to access the enclosed drives via Wi-Fi on the local area network, or, if you set it up, remotely from anywhere you can access the Internet. The system functions just like a cloud-based storage system, but the user owns the infrastructure (enclosures, storage hard drives, and Internet/Wi-Fi system). According to Synology’s Steph Clayton, “Everyone should have a backup plan that includes both on-site and off-site storage. On-site storage allows easy access to your files, but off-site back up is essential to safeguard against any unforeseen disasters. With Onne using two NAS devices for his on-site and off-site storage, he’s able to have his own private network, which gives him greater control and privacy of his storage, without worrying about monthly subscription fees.”

Now, when van der Wal returns from a remote shoot, he uploads the SSD card data directly to the Synology NAS in his office using Photo Mechanic—bypassing the hard drive of his Mac Pro desktop system. If he is shooting locally in New England, he will upload the camera memory cards from the Lexar reader directly to the NAS via Photo Mechanic. The files are automatically backed up inside the NAS enclosure (RAID) and then, daily, in the evening, the office NAS enclosure will automatically transfer the newly uploaded images to the NAS enclosure at the residence and sync both NAS systems. Van der Wal says he loves hearing “the system spin up around 8PM” every night as it intakes the files from the office. Once the files are transferred, van der Wal gets an automated emailed report that verifies the backup. Stenhouse’s Johnson set up van der Wal’s system to a RAID 6 configuration and recommended Synology for its easy modern interface, web access, performance for large files, reliability, and built-in backup solution (Hyper Backup). The configuration they chose requires that the off-site storage be more than double the on-site. This is why the unit in Jamestown is a 12-bay, while the unit at the gallery in Newport is an 8-bay.

Van der Wal was concerned that post-processing images from the NAS would be noticeably slower than working on the local desktop hard drive, but those concerns have been alleviated and he says the system is as fast, or even faster, due to the fact that desktop hard drive space has been cleared by moving the images to the NAS.

With the Synology system in place, van der Wal has the peace of mind of an automatic backup system with the added benefit of remote file access. When he is on location, but connected to Wi-Fi, he can upload images to the NAS, and Tenley and others in his gallery can see the images before he returns from the field. If he is on assignment and a request comes in for stock images, he can now access the system from afar and get the client the images they need within a few minutes of receiving the request. Or, if a client forgets to download the images, van der Wal can easily re-issue them remotely.

Would your workflow and backup process benefit from a NAS system? Let us know in the Comments section, below, or contact us at B&H to see what system best fits your needs.

To see more of van der Wal’s photography and get tips for doing your own nautical imagery, check out this B&H Explora article and visit the Onne van der Wal website.

2 Comments

interesting, and nice to see what others do, and really nice to see that i already do most of what he recommends.  my folder system is one step more complex.  i have a year then numbered shoot, similar to him, but i have subfolders for the day of the shoot, before it breaks into specifics.  i shoot birds, so i have more images to deal with until i am satisfied and cull.

also, i use 2 SSDs while traveling, rather than putting anything on my laptop.  the laptop does have my Lightoom catalog with its previews on it (which if you do lose files, those previews can be screenprinted and edited in PS and work out fairly well in a pinch!).

i use cloud storage as my second roof, which is good enough for my present needs.

i do like the idea of carrying one of the SSDs in my pocket.  thanks!

Hey paul,

Thanks for sharing your experience!

I am glad you enjoyed the article. It sounds like you have a great system in place already. Good stuff!

Thanks for reading!

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