After losing a memory card with the best pictures from a trip I took across the western USA, I decided to write a quick article on how to store memory cards and how not to lose photographs during long trips. It was a lesson learned the hard and painful way, so a couple of days after the loss, I came up with a plan to protect my data going forward and try not to lose it any more in the field. Below you will find my plan and my recommendations.
Losing images from a long-planned and expensive trip can be very painful. After it happens, you realize that it is not the financial aspect of it, but the effort you put into creating those images instead that hurts the most. We as photographers have to work with the best light during the day, which happens at sunrise and sunset times, no matter where you are located. In Glacier National Park, the sunset times in summer can be as late as 10 PM and as early as 5 AM in the morning. Northern Canada and Alaska are even worse, with sunset times close to midnight in July and sunrise in less than 5 hours. Add +1 hour after sunset and -1 hour for sunrise to get back and to the location, and we are talking about less than 3 hours of sleep at night. In addition, those late hours are also the peak and active time for wildlife, making it dangerous to hike to get to a good spot. And I am not even talking about the weather, which can go against you in those twilight hours. In addition, you carry the heavy weight with you and spent a lot of time tweaking your equipment and composing your shots using different spots and angles. So with so much effort put into making those images, the last thing you want is to lose them. What’s worse is, if you have been shooting for a while, you know if you got a great photo right at the time you take it. You take a look at the camera LCD and you know it is a keeper, a potential for your showcase portfolio. Once you lose photographs, you start to remember those keepers and deep regret hurts even more. So, why even take the chance? Take all the steps you can to protect your photographs when traveling and working on the field.
1) Back Up Your Data
Whether you are a professional photographer or a photo enthusiast, it is critical to not only back up your existing data, but also the new data that has not hit your permanent storage yet. I always take my laptop with me and back up photos from memory cards on a daily basis. I did not take my laptop with me just once when space and weight were an issue, and of course, it was the time when I lost many “keepers” on a 16 GB compact flash card. It was painful to lose so many great images, but maybe it happened for the better – going forward, I will remember to always take a backup device with me. Now when I say “back up”, I do not mean back up photos and then delete them from memory cards. You should never keep data in a single location, because any data medium can fail. With hard drives, it is just a matter of time. So when I back up my photos, I keep the originals on memory cards, until I safely get back home. Only after copying all images to my home storage and backing them up, I then format the memory cards for my next assignments.
Backing up your data on the field can be done in several different ways. If your camera is equipped with dual memory card slots (like Nikon D7000, D300s, D3, D3S, D3X), you can configure your DLSR to write to both cards simultaneously. While this means wasting one card, it is a good idea, because two cards will contain the same images. If data is corrupted on one card or one of the cards is lost, you still have a backup on the second one. Memory cards are cheap, so if you do not need the speed for video or fast action photography, get multiple slower cards that you can use in parallel.
If your camera is not equipped with a dual memory card slot or if you want to still back up your data to a different location, another option is to use an external memory card reader with a hard drive. There are many different options available on the market with devices of different hard drives sizes and obviously the price also varies depending on size and features. Something like Sanho Hyperdrive, although expensive, would work great for this purpose. Backing up your photos to an external storage device is a good idea – what if you were to lose your camera, or if you dropped it somewhere you cannot recover from? And lastly, if you travel with a laptop, just backup your photos to your laptop’s hard drive. That way you do not need to worry about getting an external storage device.
2) Label Your Memory Cards
I typically label my memory cards and provide my contact information on the back of them. If your memory card does not have space to write on, just put some white tape on it (make sure to use thin tape and do not tape over contacts) and provide at least your phone number. If anybody finds your memory card, they will at least have your contact information to contact you.
3) Properly Store Your Memory Cards
Keep your memory cards organized and store them properly in your camera bag. There are many different memory card holders out there, but the one I personally like and use is the Pelican 0940 CF Memory Card Case that securely holds 4 Compact Flash Cards. If you shoot with SD cards, you will want the Pelican 0910 SD Memory Card Case that can hold up to 8 SD and 16 Mini SD memory cards. Both card cases are water-resistant and well-protected against occasional abuse. If you have been storing your memory cards in camera bag pockets, I highly recommend getting one of these. I have four 16 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro cards stored in the 0940 Pelican. When I lost one of my memory cards, it was because I temporarily put it into my pocket in rush. Storing memory cards in pockets or in camera bag pockets is not a good idea, since dirt, moisture and other factors could damage them. Dust can get into the holes in CF cards.
If you only have one or two cards and do not want to purchase a card case, at least store the memory cards in plastic cases that came with the cards. When you are home and you are done using the memory cards, store them in dry, cool space (room temperature).
4) Mark Used Cards
I once formatted a used card with photos I needed, because I did not label or mark it after it was used. While you can recover photos from formatted cards, if you happen to write anything over the formatted card, the images you had before will not be recoverable, especially if you fill up the card with new images. You can purchase small color labels from any local store (for example green labels for formatted and red labels for used cards) or you can just come up with a smart method to identify used cards. Personally, I simply flip memory cards over in my memory card holder after they fill up and this way, I know that I will not be touching that card until I get home.
5) Format Cards on Your Camera
If you have a habit of copying your images from your memory cards and forgetting to format the cards afterwards, I highly recommend to stop doing that and get in the habit of formatting memory cards in your camera instead. Formatting memory cards in your camera is very fast and with some cameras, you don’t even need to go to the camera menu to format images – on a Nikon DSLR for example, just holding two buttons with red labels and then pushing them again will format the memory card. It will usually take less time to format a memory card in a camera, than to deal with deleting each individual image on a computer.
6) Don’t Rush Deleting Images From Your Camera
If you do not like an image, or if it comes out blurry, it is OK to delete that image, but don’t rush with the process – take your time to delete only the image you need to delete. On many cameras, if you don’t pay attention to prompts and go too fast, you could accidentally delete more than one image, which could be a problem if your earlier image was something you were happy with. I have had cases when I was shooting a wedding and I managed to delete more than what I needed to delete, just because I pressed buttons too fast. If you need to delete an image you are not happy with and you shoot something important, just do it later, when you have the time. Or better yet, you could do that during your image culling process.