Backing Up with SyncToy

by Wren McMains

If you are using a PC, SyncToy is a great tool for backing up your images to another hard drive, either an external drive or a network drive on another machine. To learn more about it see the Wikipedia SyncToy Page.

If you are using a Mac, the equivalent tool is probably Carbon Copy Cloner by Bombich Software.

SyncToy is free. You can download it from this page at Microsoft. (If you have the 64-bit version of Windows download the one whose name ends in x64, if you have the 32-bit version of Windows download the one whose name ends in x86.)

Operation Summary:

  1. If you are using an external drive I recommend you Change the Drive Letter to something like X: so it doesn't change later. (Windows assigns letters to drives including USB flash and external drives as it sees them, if you attach them in a different order next time the letters will change. If the letters change folder pairs you setup in SyncToy will no longer work.)
  2. Setup folder pairs (see below), for example:
  3. When setting up folder pairs use "Echo" for external backups, or "Synchronize" if there is any chance the contents of the backup might be modified by another machine.
  4. Always "Preview" first, then use the "Run" button. See Why I don't like automatic backups.
  5. Backup frequently (every day you make changes and immediately after downloading new images).
  6. Use the All Folder Pairs option to backup everything at once, but still Preview first.

Setting up Folder Pairs

After installing SyncToy you specify what you want to backup (and where to back it up to) by creating Folder Pairs. Just click on the "Create New Folder Pair" button and you'll see:

Dialog Box

Type in the paths or use the Browse buttons to select the top level of the tree you want to backup (the left folder) and where you want to back it up to (the right folder):

Dialog Box

On the left I specified that I wanted to backup my Albums folder on my E: drive. On the right I indicated I wanted it backed up to a folder named Albums-E on my external drive mounted as X:, I didn't need to name the backup folder the same. When I look at that drive I know the Albums folder on it came from my E: drive. I could have also named it something like Backup_of_Albums_E.

Once you press Next > you get the following choices:

Dialog Box

One normally chooses Echo when backing up to an external drive. If there's any chance of the backup copies has been updated by another machine choose Synchronize. Since my backup drives are on other machines on the network, I always choose Synchronize. That way images modified on the other machine are updated on the machine running SyncToy, and images modified on the machine running SyncToy are updated on the other machine. Files deleted on either machine are deleted on the other. If both machines have modified the same image the latest modification wins.

The third step is to give the Folder Pair a name:

Dialog Box

Click the Finish button and it gives you a summary of the default options.

You can change the options by clicking on "Change Options ..." (discussed a the bottom of this page).


Since we want to backup everything is the Albums tree we just click on "Preview". I highly recommend always doing a preview first. Why? The short answer is it allows you to identify folders you have accidently moved, or problems with the file system or drive that might cause entire folders of images to be deleted permanently. For the long answer see: Why I don't like automatic backups.

SyncToy will start looking for changes:


The amount of time this takes depends on the number of files in the Folder Pair. Even with a couple of TBs of images in the tree it will only take a few minutes. The exception is the first time you Preview and/or Run a backup on a Folder Pair. This time it has to build the lists it uses in the future and I've seen it take 15-30 minutes or more with two or more TBs of data.

When complete, it gives you both a summary of what's changed and will be backed up:


And a complete list of the individual files:


First I look at the numbers in the summary. Do they make sense? If you've just loaded images from a shoot you might have 1-2,000 new files, but 10's of thousands of new files usually means something funny has happened and you don't want to run the backup until you fix the problem.

You can adjust the size of the window, and as with spreadsheets or other interactive tables the widths of the columns by dragging the lines separating the column headers.

Files being deleted are always shown first, then files being over-written (updated). Both are shown in red. Then it shows files being renamed (these are files that haven't changed, but have been moved to a different folder. SyncToy doesn't copy these files again, instead it just "renames" them. Finally the new files are shown. I always quickly scroll down the list checking to see if everything looks reasonable.

Here's the same list after I adjusted the widths of the columns:


The final step is to press "Run". This is usually very quick unless you've just loaded a LOT of new images. And as I said before, the one exception is the very first time you press Run for a new Folder pair. It seems to do all the updates and then nothing for a LONG time ... just let it. Next time it will be very quick.

Also as I said before, SyncToy allows you to change the options for each Folder Pair so that only some files in the trees are included in the backup. Here's the dialog box you get if you click on "Change Options ...":


You could for example exclude all files with a .BAK extension by specifying *.bak in the Files to Exclude list. You can also select sub-folders of the tree to exclude by clicking on "Select subfolders". I usually backup an entire drive with one Folder Pair by selecting the drive itself instead of a folder, and then I use "Select subfolders" to exclude certain folders.

One other thing to note in the dialog box above is the "Active for Run All" check-box. When running SyncToy you can either backup an individual Folder Pair by selecting it in the column on the right, or at the bottom of that column you can choose "All Folder Pairs". This allows you to backup EVERYTHING at once, but some of your pairs may be used in special situations, you can exclude these by un-checking the "Active for Run All" box. Even if you haven't un-checked it, SyncToy gives you the option to check/un-check individual pairs after you choose "All Folder Pairs".

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