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.
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 SSD for $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. 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.
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.
Spenser- Not sure if you’ve already addressed this in a separate blog: was hoping you or Nasim have solid suggestions on cloud based back-ups. That’s taking the home based back-ups solutions to a higher level—just in case. Some like Amazon look great but are limited to non-commercial use. Flickr also sounds good but I have concerns about security should it be bought out by multinational competitors(2016 MS sells Nokia). And of course, the ever riding concern about digital security. A sweet spot might be an Adobe cloud back-up of all images via Lightroom but again, not familiar with the pro’s & con’s. Care to comment? Thanks.
I second the suggestion on the WD my passport method for in field backup.
After much thought and contemplations I have chosen to use SD cards as my travel backup.
My D500 lets me copy data from my XQD card to the SD card.
I bought A bunch of slower SD cards and now also a large fast rugged SD.
End of the day I copy my days shooting to two seperate SD cards, which I keep separate from each other.
Light weight no extra power needed and relativly cheap.
That’s a great method, and a very useful feature on the D500. My D800e doesn’t have the same ability, or my backup strategy would look a lot more like yours!
Are you sure Spencer? I have a D800 and am sure I have copied files from the CF card to the SD card before in camera as people always want images and their laptops usually only have SD capability. Maybe it depends on how you are using the cards – I use them in overflow mode with CF as primary card slot.
I could be wrong as I don’t have my camera at hand to check at present.
Michael, thank you for adding this — You are correct! And I learned something new about the D800 today :)
Playback menu > Copy images > source > images > copy images. It also gives you the option to select protected images only, which is a nice feature for selective backups.
This is a backup method that I’m certainly planning to use in the future.
On long backpacking trip when weight saving is premium. I have been backup my files exactly what you described on my Canon system using several inexpensive SD cards (128 GB for $40). The RAW files are saved CF cards (slot 1) and copy over to second slot with the backup SD card at the end of the day. So transfer speed is not as important since I am having dinner and getting ready for next day.
Here is the path on Canon bodies: Playback menu (third option) > select-Image copy > select-All image > copy to Card 2 > OK.
In trips when weight is not as crucial, I bring along a small laptop to make a second backup. The added benefit is the ability to cull through the files when I have spare time.
Can data recovery options wkrk with broken hard drives? I lost some important photos to a broken hard drive and just cant seem to recover those photos
Muhammad, if it is a single hard drive, you can try different recovery software to try to get your files back. I remember back in the day when I had a hard drive failure and nothing worked, I put the failed drive in a ziplock bag, put it in the freezer for a few hours, then took it back and connected it. I was able to get the most important files back. Unfortunately, this trick doesn’t work anymore, since there are a lot more electronics inside the hard drives and by freezing them, you might make the problem even worse. If the data is very important for you and nothing you try works, your best bet is to try to reach out to a data recovery company. They will most likely charge you thousands of dollars, but if the data is critical, it might be worth the price tag.
That’s why backups are so critical – always make sure to have a solid backup workflow in place! Eid Mubarak!
Thanks for the great reply Nasim. Khair Mubarak and Eid Mubarak to you and your family too.
SanDisk actually makes a recovery application for their SD Cards. go to their website and look for it.
Or buy one of the cards that comes with a free version of that software for a year.
I had done all of the above for backing images in the field and found that my method lightens my gear weight and no worry about powering laptops or external devices or their failures. All my cameras have double slots for cards. In the case of the 1DX2, compact and CFast cards. Not to slow down the camera I use the CFast alone and when full, transfer it to the Compact Card (for a 64 Gb takes @20 minutes); depending on the images, I will make a second Compact Card copy. Then I erase the CFast for reuse. I have an extra CFast just in case it gets full but a 64 Gb last me usually all day.
I use the same strategy with the 5D3 and the 7D2 but in this case, a Compact and a SD Cards (64 Gbs) are used. As with the 1DX2, I only use one card slot at a time and when the car is full, copy it to the # 2 slot. But in this case, after a copy is made, I remove both cards so I end up with two copies and store them separately.
Would really ike to see an article that also addresses field backups that can accommodate CF card users without the need for carrying a laptop. Thanks!
From a backing up point of view, there is no difference between CF and SD cards.
My cameras (Nikon D800E and Fuji XE-2 use both.
Use the cards as your back up or look at the links in my post above.
Sharon, that’s a tough one, since there aren’t that many storage readers available that can access CF cards. My recommendation would be to get the Sanho Hyperdrive. It is a pretty sweet storage device that can take both CF and SD media, and it works pretty well for field backups.
NextoDI ND-2901 is great, however it needs additional battery if you’re going to use SSD drive inside.
Sharon, take a look at the device that Robert recommended in comment #10. It works with a CF card, and you don’t need a laptop as an intermediary. The main issue is that it’s a spinning hard drive, but that’s not a huge problem if it isn’t your only copy of your photos.
How about the WD my passport wireless pro; (www.wdc.com/produ…s-pro.html) a HD with SD card memory slot and an autobackup function. However with a spinning HD though….
Robert, thanks for adding this, I hadn’t heard of that product! It’s $180, which may seem expensive at first glance, but the one I mentioned in the article comes without a hard drive — so, the prices are pretty comparable. The spinning drive isn’t ideal, but, so long as it isn’t your only copy of your photos, it should be fine. And this one also works with CF cards, which is great.
I realize after more thoroughly reading the comments (I’m new here) this may be a more consumer camera oriented forum, as most of my cameras don’t use SD cards, so many of the suggestions seem centered on SD card options. My primary camera (D5) doesn’t use them and my secondary camera (D500) will, but it’s not the card I use, except for vacation images on non-photography trips, with a consumer camera I wrangle with. In that context, I could easily run with the suggestions made in the article, and do. Not trying to be a snob – just practical.
Mark, unfortunately, XQD has not become an industry standard yet. I hope it will someday, as it is much better than flimsy SD card media. I loved CF cards, but those are big, heavy and the stupid pins are problematic. XQD is small, lightweight and super fast. Hoping that all future storage readers, including the ones on laptops will standardize on XQD!
Yeah, I preferred CF until Nikon went with XQD. Have piles of CF from previous gen cameras. The big pain I find with XQD is different generations requiring different generation readers. Trying to determine if there is a single reader that reads all generations of XQD cards. Love the robustness and speed of the cards, but getting the images into storage system can be a pain if one is using more than one generation of the XQD at a time. At home I use current gen XQD in D5, and last gen (from D4/D4s) with D500 – plenty fast enough for it, but a pain on the road since the newest readers don’t read the older gen XQD, or at least not the one I have, nor some I’ve researched.
Hey Mark, no worries, your comments make sense. From your equipment, I’d imagine that you photograph a lot of wildlife/sports. If that’s the case, a full set of duplicate memory cards for a multi-week trip would be very, very expensive, especially with the fast cards that are necessary. I shoot landscapes almost exclusively, so a three week trip for me usually fills no more than a couple 64GB cards (about 3000 RAWs), and they don’t need to be the fastest ones on the market, so it really isn’t that expensive. I use the D800e, with an SD and a CF card.
Photographing wildlife would require entirely different sets of backup equipment, though. It sounds like you’ve got a good system for what you do.
In general, I agree with the suggestions, but it seems the author has not made an extended trip AND followed these suggestions – unless he has a lot of disposable income, especially if traveling with two cameras that use different memory cards. As a person who has made several trips to distant continents – some with laptop, some without due to weight/space restrictions. It can get mighty expensive to carry a small army of fast camera cards to cover a two or three week journey – especially if the purpose of the trip is photography. Traveling with a laptop is always my preference and a light one is barely heavier, or larger, than an iPad. That plus quality SSD drives and one has options that are fast, reliable, and space/weight efficient. I have not lost an image in the field, nor had a card/drive failure.
Mark, I travel quite a bit and have had trips over 3 weeks at a time, with multiple cameras. I have two cases of 32 and 64 GB cards and I have never run out of storage. But just like you, I also still prefer to always take my small laptop with me to keep a primary backup there.
Please do not say that (Never had a Drive/card failure). Bragging about is the most guaranteed way for you to get bit. Karma can be ugly.
Great article. I have a similar setup to transfer files to an external HDD on the go, without a laptop, with a USB hub, Android phone, & OTG cable. Cheap & effective! I wrote a blog post about it here: www.shawnmoreton.com/trave…-the-road/
I do use a spinning drive in this setup, though I agree with you that an SSD is the way to go. Keeping a copy on your SD canrds is definitely the simplest method, & like you said, worth the investment!
Thank you, Shawn, glad that you found a workable solution!