Backing up Photos in the Back Country

28 Jun

Any photographer who has ever lost some of their photos will tell you how important it is to have a good backup system. For your best photos, you should have three or more copies, located in at least two different physical locations at all times. You absolutely shouldn’t have any of your photos located in just a single spot, or you’re asking for trouble. But how do these recommendations apply when you’re traveling, particularly if you’re out in the middle of nowhere and don’t have access to your normal backup equipment? In this article, I’ll cover some ways to back up your photos in a secure way no matter where you are.

You’ll need a way to back up your photos even from a cabin in the middle of nowhere.

1) To Bring Your Laptop, or Not?

It’s always nice to bring a laptop along if you’re trying to back up your photos in the field. However, that comes with another set of complications. Packing your laptop can take up valuable weight and space in your luggage. Also, if you’re planning on camping and doing long hikes, you either need to carry it along (never fun) or risk leaving it in your car while you’re away. In short, it’s not a hugely reliable way to back up your photos, and it certainly isn’t the lightest.

For some trips, bringing a laptop isn’t a problem. If you’re staying in hotels, it is much safer to leave it in the room, or in the room’s safe box, than to leave it in your car while you’re hiking. And if weight isn’t a major concern while you’re packing, there’s very little reason to leave your laptop at home.

In general, though, I recommend figuring out a backup system that doesn’t depend upon bringing a laptop everywhere you go, since doing so will not be feasible all the time. That’s what I’ll go into below.

2) Keep a Copy on Your Memory Cards

The most important rule of the lightweight backup game is to avoid formatting your memory cards, even after you transfer your photos elsewhere. (If your camera has dual card slots, you can format one if you must, but leave the other card undeleted.)

This may mean that you have to buy extra memory cards if yours are small, or if you’re planning to take a large number of photos along the way. But it’s worth the small expense.

Taking this step is what saved my photos when my external hard drive crashed halfway through my Iceland trip. I know a number of photographers who have experienced something similar, or who wished they had kept a copy of their photos on their memory cards for the same reason.

Memory cards are sturdy little things. I’ve had two hard drives break in the past two years, but I’ve never once had a problem with any of my memory cards. Obviously, other photographers have experienced card problems, so it’s not a perfect method. But, as a component of your larger travel backup system, memory cards are a very solid option.

3) Don’t Use Spinning Drives

If you’re backing up your photos to external hard drives in the field, it’s important that you avoid using spinning hard drives (i.e., the cheap ones).

My broken drive in Iceland was a spinning drive, which is part of why I’m making this strong recommendation. Spinning drives break very easily — even “extreme” drives with bumpers on the edges to protect them from drops. Personally, my brand new drive failed after experiencing just one week of moderately bumpy roads, even as I tried to keep it in the safest possible places. That’s not a good sign.

The best solution is to use SSDs (solid state drives) instead. These drives aren’t immune to breaking — no drive is, and I have experienced an SSD failure — but they have no moving parts, and are much better at handling bumps and shakes that come with travel. You can get a 250 gigabyte SSDfor $100, or a 500 gigabyte SSD for $180, which should be enough for most travelers. After the trip is over and all your photos are safe in your normal backup system, clear the drive and start again.

4) Backing Up Photos to an External Drive Without a Laptop

Many photographers don’t realize that it’s possible to back up your photos to an external drive even without using a laptop. This is useful for a number of situations, particularly when you aren’t able to bring your laptop along on a trip.

The specific device I use is called the Ravpower FileHub RP-WD03. It has a memory card slot and a USB output, which lets you attach a hard drive directly. You then use your phone as an interface to copy photos from the card to the hard drive. As far as I’ve been able to find, the RP-WD03 is the only such device on the market, but there may be others that do something similar. At $40, and as a device that works without being plugged in anywhere, it’s a pretty good deal. (This isn’t a sponsored placement; I bought the RP-WD03 a few months ago and have only started using it recently.)

An important thing to keep in mind is that all your backups should be kept in different locations to minimize risk. This is harder when you’re traveling, but I still recommend keeping each copy separate whenever possible. For example, you may choose to keep one backup device (a memory card or an SSD) in your zipped jacket pocket, one in your backpack, and one in your car.

If you bring along a laptop, you wouldn’t need something like the Ravpower device, and you can simply copy your photos to the external SSD like you normally would.

5) Conclusion

All of these tips leave you with a step-by-step process that looks like this:

  • While taking photos, if your camera has two memory card slots, you’re writing a copy to both cards simultaneously.
  • Periodically, you’re removing one of the memory cards and backing it up to an external SSD, using your laptop or something like the Ravpower device to do so.
  • When your memory cards are full, rather than formatting them, you’re replacing them and keeping the full cards in a safe location.
  • You’re keeping your backups in as many different places as possible to minimize risk.

That’s all it takes. This backup system weighs less than a pound (including the SSD, the extra memory cards, and the Ravpower device). Yet, it lets you back up all your best photos to at least three places, even when you’re out in the middle of nowhere.

There’s no foolproof way to keep all your photos safe, particularly when you’re on the move, but this is about as good as it gets. If your photos are in three places at once, and none of them are on spinning drives, it will give you much more peace of mind in the field — and, some day, it may save you the pain of losing irreplaceable photos.


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