How I Backup My Images – Microsoft SyncToy

I noted in a previous post that Lightroom abdicates responsibility for backing up your images. You have to work it out for yourself. My trusty Sony laptop’s hard drive crashed with no warning a couple of months ago. I could have lost everything from its 120GB drive but I was able to get almost everything back from my backups. Actually the hardest thing was finding all the applications and utilities IĀ  had installed over the years – but that’s another story.

There are so many potential backup solutions out there that it is almost overwhelming particularly if you are not a computer professional. I was and i still get confused.

I think the main thing is to choose a backup solution and stick to it. If you buy something very powerful but complex it’s quite likely you will give up. More important than the consistency with which you use it.

I am now in the habit of doing my backups last thing before I go to bed. I kick them off, go to clean my teeth and usually everything is done when I come back to the PC. I achieve good dental and PC hygiene in five minutes.

The tool I chose is Microsoft SyncToy 2.0. It’s a free download from Microsoft here. I have a bit of a bias against Microsoft software in general. It is often too slow and complex for my simple needs. I think Microsoft has a digital assetĀ  management solution that competes with Lightroom and ACDSee but I did not consider it because of my prejudice.

But SyncToy is one of Microsoft’s free Power Tools that are simple and designed to do one thing well. I recall reading that it was designed by a Microsoft employee who’s also a photographer to do just what I wanted – back up only those files that have changed since the last backup.

Note that SyncToy isn’t restricted to image files. I use it back up all my data.

I won’t bore you with the details of my setup – yours will be different. the important fact is that SyncToy lets you define directory pairs and to synchronize files between them. SyncToy refers to them as the left and the right directories. I think of the left directory as the one on my laptop (M:) and the right as the directory on the backup drive (N:).

Thus I synchronize the Lightroom-managed images on my TrueCrypt encrypted M: drive with a corresponding directory on my Seagate 320GB TrueCrypt encrypted portable USB drive that I mount as drive N:.

Here are two screenshots from my SyncToy installation. The first is the result of scanning my image directories and is a list of the files that SyncToy will copy.

Note that if you change the metadata of an image in Lightroom it writes the changes to the image in the XMP format. So if you fiddle around with your image organization and keywording, or you experiment with different develop presets Lightroom modifies your original file. It doesn’t modify the image data in the RAW, DNG or JPEG files but it does update the metadata.

If you make a virtual copy of an image Lightroom does not make a copy of the image – all that information is in your Lightroom catalog and the XMP.

The preview screen also tells you how many files it didn’t have to copy because they were unchanged.

The preview screen from SyncToy

The second screenshot is the result of a SyncToy run showing the number of files it copied and any errors.

The results screen from SyncToy

You get three choices for the “action” SyncToy takes on the files in your defined directory pairs. You choose them when you set up each directory pair and you can change them. Microsoft actually simplified SyncToy for its 2.0 release. I think there used to be five choices but they were very complex to explain. This may be the first time Microsoft has simplified its software in an update.

The choices are:

  • Synchronize. New and updated files are copied both ways. Renames and deletes on either side are repeated on the other. I don’t use this. It’s useful when you may be modifying files in both directories in the pair, but that is very bad practice. Keep your backup drive for backups only.
  • Echo. New and updated files are copied left to right. Renames and deletes on the left are repeated on the right. I don’t use this on my images because if I delete an image accidentally an Echo will delete the backup. I do have my Lightroom generated backup from my original import to fall back on but I will lose the metadata updates Lightroom wrote to the XMP.
  • Contribute. This is the one I use. New and updated files are copied left to right. Renames on the left are repeated on the right. No deletions.

There are other details of SyncToy’s operation I haven’t mentioned here but I want to keep this post short so I won’t go into them. I encourage you to download a copy yourself and try it. If it doesn’t work for you no worries – you have not wasted a satang.

When I got my new Compaq PC to replace the Sony first I installed TrueCrypt and mounted the USB backup drive. I crossed my fingers that a new TrueCrypt install on a new PC would recognize my encrypted drive. The new install was a later version and I had visions of compatibility problems. But no – TrueCrypt worked great and I didnt’t lose a byte of my images.

I copied all the files from the USB drive plus a backup of my Lightroom catalog, started Lightroom and it was like nothing had changed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and I am sure my blood pressure dropped significantly.

The next thing I did was download a SyncToy and set up my directory pairs again so I could continue my backups.

SyncToy meets my needs and it has the great advantage of being free. Of course that means you don’t get much support if things go wrong but I have never had a problem with it in about three years of daily use.


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4 Responses to “How I Backup My Images – Microsoft SyncToy”

  1. bkkphotographer Says:

    I just read a Wikipedia article on SyncToy at It says there are file corruption issues with Windows XP. I use XP so that scared me but I have never encountered issues.

    I need to do some testing of my backup drive.

  2. GB-in-TH Says:

    Here is a tool that works hard to verify image backups:

    It’s not a simple issue and this page gives a lot of detail about the approaches the tool uses – multiple.

    The Image Verifier is linked to another tool – Image Ingester – that enhances the process of importing your images from a camera, backing them up and so on. I don’t think I have a use for Image Ingester as I am happy with my Lightroom Import and backup methodology. But it may be useful for professionals who shoot many more images than I do.

  3. My Workflow « Bkkphotographer's Blog Says:

    […] use Microsoft SyncToy to backup the pictures to another USB drive that I have dedicated for Lightroom. That’s a […]

  4. That Was Easy! But … « Bkkphotographer's Blog Says:

    […] the old drive to the new (where they are a backup of the files on my PC’s hard drive. See here.) Both drives are TrueCrypt encrypted so the software has to decrypt according to the old […]

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