How to Create an Image of a Raspberry Pi SD Card? (Win/Linux/Mac)


Creating an entire image of your SD card can be really useful on Raspberry Pi. The system and your data are on this little piece of plastic, not the safest πŸ™‚
In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to make a full backup copy of your SD card (system, configuration and data).

For a Raspberry Pi with many data or even critical data, it’s a good practice to create an image of the entire storage.
On Windows, Win32 Disk Imager is the best tool to do this.
On Linux, the dd command can do this. And on macOS, ApplePi Baker is the best choice for a graphical solution.

Here it is for the short answer, but all these tools are not easy to use for the first time. So, in this guide I’ll show you step by step how to do in each case.
But before that, we’ll start by a short explanation on why it’s so important to do this from time to time, if you are not sure yet.

Why do you need to create a Raspberry Pi image?

If you are on this, page, there is a good chance you already know why you want to create an image of your Raspberry Pi.
But they are many reasons you may not have considered all the benefits of this procedure, here is a quick list of reasons or cases to help you.

Your SD card will stop working

The first thing to consider is the storage you are using on Raspberry Pi.
As your system and critical data are on a micro SD card, don’t expect to keep years for life in the same state.

The lifespan of a SD card is expected to be of 10 years or more. But, this depends a lot on the model, the usage and how you handle it daily.
If you use it with caution, always in the same device, with a low disk usage on your Raspberry Pi, it could be true. But if you change devices regularly, travel a lot or let your Raspberry Pi run on heavy load all day, it’s probably not the same story.

Also, your system may be corrupted one day, due to updates, security breaches or any mishandling.

In short, don’t expect your SD card to work forever, and anticipate a malfunction at anytime.

A solid backup is mandatory

Basically, I never expect a storage method to be 100% safe.
That’s why I recommend doing regular backups of them if you keep critical data on it.

I already have an entire guide on how to back up your Raspberry Pi, whatever your situation is.
And today, we’ll see how to clone the entire SD card on your computer.
That’s the best way if everything is important.

By the way, even if you have a retro gaming solution like Retropie on it and think you’re not concerned. If there is a huge catalog of games on your Raspberry Pi, I really recommend doing this πŸ™‚

Use this technique to save time

Small anecdote here, when I started on Raspberry Pi, I tested 5 to 10 new projects each week (while writing my experiences on RaspberryTips).
SD card preparation, update and configurations (like Wi-Fi and keyboard layout) was a waste of time for me.

My solution was to create a basic Raspbian installation on a small SD card, and create an image on my computer.
This way, I could flash this image instead of the one from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and everything was already ready to use.

Now, I have learned a lot, and generally use the configuration files to do this (I have the files on my computer, and I copy them on each SD card I flash).
But at the beginning it was really useful.
Even so, there are probably many cases where it makes sense to do this (cluster? Multiple web servers? Many Raspberry Pi deployment?).

Create an image on Windows

As most of you are generally on Windows, let’s start with this system.

Win32 Disk Imager

Win 32 Disk Imager is a well-known tool on Windows for Raspberry Pi And Linux users.
It’s often used to create SD cards (or USB disk) from an image of an operating system, downloaded on the Internet.

You can download it here on SourceForge
It looks like this:

But the goal today is the opposite: creating an image from a SD card.
Win 32 Disk Imager can also do this, let’s see how!

Step-by-step image creation with Win32 Disk Imager

Here are the steps to follow to create an image of any SD card on Windows, with Win 32 Disk Imager:

  • Insert your SD card in your computer
  • Find the partition letter corresponding to your SD card: Open the File explorer and go to “This PC”

    Take note of the drive letter, you’ll need it later
  • Open Win 32 Disk Imager
  • Start by choosing an image location and name for your image

    Make sure to have enough free space on your disk where you want to store the image (a 64 GB SD card can quickly fill a SSD disk ^^).
    You can use a local storage, or an external USB drive.
  • Then select the device you want to back up:

    Generally, you’ll only see the “boot” partition, but don’t worry, Win32DiskImager will create an entire image of all partitions on the device.
  • You can now click on “Read” to start the copy:
  • The process will start, it can be a bit longer, depending on your SD card size (between 15min and 1h in general for a standard size)

Once done, your image is safe, and we’ll now see how to flash it on another card.

Restoring the image to any SD card

I recommend you doing at least one test to recover the SD card from this image before considering you are safe.
I have had to many backups in my life that didn’t work when needed, so consider that we are never sure if a backup will work in real conditions πŸ™‚

What you can do, is to insert another SD card in your computer, and flash it with the image.
To do this, you can use Win32 Disk Imager almost the same way:

  • Choose the image file
  • Pick the device letter in the list
  • And click on “Write” to start the copy

If you prefer, there are other tools to do the same thing.
The one I recommend everywhere on this website is Etcher. And you can also use Raspberry Pi Imager if you want (official software from the Raspberry Pi Foundation).

Create an image on Linux

If you are a Linux user, let’s see how to do this on your favorite system!
I’ll show you on Ubuntu, but the tool is the same on any distribution.

The dd command

“dd” is a base command on Unix. The goal is to offer a tool to manage files.
You can use it for example to erase a partition (filling it with zeros), generating a random file, but also to manage disk images!
I’m also using it for benchmarks (like in this post about SD cards)

As dd can do a complete backup of any disk, it’s really useful in our case.
Let’s see how to use it!

How to use “dd” to back up the SD card

Find the device name

Looking for the drive letter on Windows was pretty easy, but on Linux it’s a bit more hidden.
A device name on Linux is something like /dev/sdX (if you use an USB adapter), or /dev/mmcblkX (if your computer has an SD card reader).

On Ubuntu, you can use the Disk Utility to find this information:

In my case, I’m using a 16 GB SD card for this test, so this is this one (/dev/sde).
If you are not on Ubuntu and you don’t find a similar tool, you can also jump to the terminal and use the following command:
sudo fdisk -l

It will show you a list of drives on your computer. You just need to find the one corresponding to your SD card.
In my case, it looks like this:

So, we have a disk named /dev/sde, with two partitions (/dev/sde1 and /dev/sde2).

Create the image with dd

Once we know the device name, we just need the correct command to create the image of this device:

  • Open a terminal
  • Type the following command:
    sudo dd bs=4M if=/dev/sde of=/home/username/MyImage.img
  • Don’t forget to replace the device name (if for input file) and the file destination (of for output file)
  • You’ll get something like this:

    Expect at least 15min to create the image (depending on the SD card size).

Image restoration to the SD card

Copying back the image to another SD card is almost the same thing.
I recommend trying this one time at least, to be sure that your image is working (don’t try on the same SD card!)

To copy an image to a new SD card, there are two ways you can use:

  • The first one is to use dd again, in the reverse order:
    • The command is something like:
      sudo dd bs=4M if=/home/username/MyImage.img of=/dev/sde
    • Like for the first time, you need to edit this command with the correct path, image name and device name
  • The second way, that I always recommend is to use Etcher:
    • Etcher is a free tool you can download here
      The good news is that it’s a graphical tool, very intuitive.
      The dd command seems simple now because you just used it to create the image, but in 6 months, you’ll probably not remember the correct options
    • The tool looks like this:
      etcher menu
      Just select your backup image, your drive (automatic in theory), and click on “Flash!” to start the copy

Whatever the method you use, it should create an exact replica of the original SD card.
Once done, insert it in your Raspberry Pi and check that everything is working correctly

Create an image on macOS

The last operating system is macOS.
I will be quick on this one, as I didn’t test because I don’t have a Mac for this πŸ™‚
But I know they are working methods to create an image from your Raspberry Pi.

First method: use dd

The first method is to use “dd”, like in the previous part for Linux.
As macOS is based on Unix, dd is also available on it.

Just run a terminal and follow the Linux part πŸ™‚

Second method: try ApplePi Baker

If you prefer a graphical tool, I found ApplePi Baker that seems to do exactly what we need.
You can download it here on Tweaking4All
Scroll down to the ApplePi-Baker V2 download link, get it and install it

The tool looks like this:

It’s intuitive, with big symbols for each step.
Start by choosing the disk you want to back up on the left, then click on “Backup” to set the image name and location.
Once done, the process starts, and your image is created as with dd.

Restoration on macOS

As on any operating system, it’s mandatory to try your backup at least once before considering the job done.
What you can do, is to take a new SD card and flash the image to it, then test it on your Raspberry Pi

I already explained in the Linux part two ways you can use: dd and Etcher. They will work perfectly on macOS.
If you want to use these tools, go to the previous part about Linux, and find the “Image restoration” section.

The other way if you installed ApplePi-Baker, is to use the “Restore” option on the right.
Pick the disk you want to flash (“1” on my picture), and click on “Restore” to select the image to copy.
The process starts directly. After a few minutes, try to boot this SD card on your Raspberry Pi, and see how it goes.

If everything is OK, you can consider your backup safe.
Redo the same process regularly to keep an updated version of the image (if needed).

Conclusion

That’s it, you now know why to create an image of a Raspberry Pi, and how to do this on any operating system.
I hope this guide was useful for you, if it’s the case, please share it on your favorite social network!

Don’t forget this technique, even if you don’t need it yet. It will save you much time in the future if you remember to create images for your most critical systems.
By the way, try to keep the image at a safe location too (or keep two copies), your computer disk can also break or be formatted πŸ™‚

Related links:

Patrick Fromaget

I'm the lead author and owner of RaspberryTips.com. My goal is to help you with your Raspberry Pi problems using detailed guides and tutorials. In real life, I'm a Linux system administrator with a web developer experience.

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