5 Ways to Backup Photos While Traveling

One of the biggest challenges facing photographers is backing up their images. For many photographers, it isn’t that challenging because you can go home after a shoot and backup your photos immediately.

For travel photographers, however, you don’t have the luxury of going home at the end of the day properly backup everything. For those on shorter trips, you’re looking at days and weeks where you’ve liken taken hundreds (or thousands) of digital photos on your smartphone or camera. For travel photographers, round the world trippers, and digital nomads, you need backup solutions for months and years worth of travel.

The easiest answer is to just backup to the cloud—online storage has come a long way in recent year. But you may face big obstacles, such as slow wifi speeds. If you’re carrying a separate camera and taking RAW images, you will also have huge file sizes.

Since travelers can only carry around so much gear, let’s dive into my current photo backup routine. I have been a professional travel photographer for more than 12 years, traveling to some of the most remote places on earth (hello, Antarctica) and never lost a photo (knock wood).

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Common Ways to Backup Your Photos While Traveling

great barrier reef photography
Photographing a clownfish underwater at the Great Barrier Reef.

Back in 2008, when I started traveling, I remember holeing up in a guesthouse in Melbourne, Australia to backup my travel photos to stacks of CDs and an old iPod (the old white ones with a hard drive and the wheel in the front).

Since then, things have changed considerably.

Over the 12 years I’ve been traveling, I have used every possible backup method to keep my travel photos safe. I constantly reassess my methodology to not only use the most current options, but to create the most seamless backup process possible. Let’s dive into how to backup photos while you’re on the road, and then we’ll also cover how to create a system at home that’s just as secure.

3 Ways to Backup Photos Without a Computer: 

  1. Create a Backup Inside Your Camera
  2. Backup Photos Using Cloud Storage
  3. Use a Wireless Hard Drive with an SD Card Reader

2 Additional Backup Methods for Travelers:

  1. Backup to a Laptop
  2. Backup to at Least One (Ideally Two) External Hard Drives

If you’re simply going on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, you may choose to combine just a couple of these options for a secure backup of photos from your Smartphone or lightweight camera.

If you’re a professional photographer, you’ll likely use four different methods for duplication at the end of every shooting day. Here’s what each of these looks like. 

Create a Backup Inside Your Camera

The workflow for backing up your travel photos begins inside your camera. In particular, it begins with your memory cards. This methods draws disagreements amongst photographers (to protect against memory card failure), but I stand by my method.

Backing up within your camera involves using high capacity memory cards: I use these 256GB and 512GB SD cards in my camera.

Why use this method? In more than a decade of shooting, a memory card has never failed on me. That’s a decade of travel and hundreds of thousands of photos—not a single corrupted CF or SD card. This isn’t to say it can’t happen, or that it won’t happen to me in the future. Memory cards can fail. But when weighing risks, this is a lower risk than alternative backup methods. The truth is, while corrupted memory cards are a risk, manufacturing has improved over the years and the rate of card failure is nowhere near where it was 10 years ago. Also, if your card fails, applications and services can recover the data from most cards.

Cautions: While I’ve never encountered a corrupted card, memory cards have slipped out of my fingers. I’ve left them on tables because they were so small I couldn’t see them. Some have come loose in my camera bag (which I deeply love after an exhaustive search for the best camera bag). In one memorable incident, I dropped a memory card within a few inches of a sewer grate.

How to store your backups: The safest place for a memory card is inside your camera. While it’s easy to misplace an SD card, you’re unlikely to misplace your camera. A 256GB card will handily store most—if not all—of the images you shoot on a normal vacation. Even with my professional camera, which creates 84mb RAW files, I don’t have to swap out my memory card on most trips. In the event that I need more space, I have an additional 256GB card available.

Even if you don’t use large-capacity memory cards, carry enough capacity in the your SD cards to cover all of the photos you’ll take on your trip. You should never have to delete a photo from a memory card until you get home. Never. Your memory cards are your primary backup source, no matter what happens to your other backups.

If your camera offers dual memory card slots, write images to both cards, so one serves as a backup of the other. If you use the second card as an overflow, you don’t get the redundancy.

Gear Required: The cost of large capacity memory cards has come down considerably and 256GB SD cards cost under $100 on Amazon. Even if you use other backup methods, this one is a no-brainer. 

Create a Backup with Your Camera Gear

the gear required to backup my travel photos on the road
The range of hard drives, lenses, drone, camera gear, and electronics I carry with my on my trips.

The next step of my photo backup workflow takes place in my hotel room. Once I’m done for the day, I copy photos from my memory card and put them in three different locations. Several of these photo backup methods are possible even without a computer, if you’re also carrying the right type of hard drives and cables.

  1. Backup Travel Photos to a Laptop: This is very straightforward. My MacBook Pro has an SD slot, so I pop in the card and drag all recent images to a folder on my desktop. I don’t use Lightroom at this point. I just copy the images as files—once home I will import them into Lightroom for editing. Once the images are backed up onto my laptop, I immediately place the memory cards back in my camera. If your laptop doesn’t have a native SD reader, you’ll need a dongle adapter—these are pretty affordable.
  2. Backup Images from Laptop to USB Hard Drives: I carry two different USB 3.0 hard drives with me. One is kept in my camera bag, and the other is kept in my checked bag. The contents of each drive are identical. The redundancy is to deal with several possible eventualities. My laptop is stolen or damaged, my camera bag is stolen, one of the hard drives dies, or my checked bag is lost.
  3. Backup to a Hard Drive Without a Computer: If you’re not traveling with a laptop, this step is still possible using a wireless hard drive with an SD memory card reader. For travelers prioritizing traveling light, this is an effective way to backup a large number of travel photos. If you’re taking too many photos to efficiently use the cloud backup option (covered below), your best option is carrying a small external hard drive. The WD My Passport Wireless Pro is the best/only real option out there right now.

Cautions: The weak point here would be if my camera and my computer and my checked bag and my camera bag were all stolen or lost at the same time—I’d lose everything. I’m not sure this risk can really be avoided without cloud backup. Or, for those on the road for months, you can ship duplicated memories card back to a trusted friend back home—this is akin to all those backup CDs I shipped home during my first years on the road. All told, this method requires isn’t zero risk, but it is low risk.

Gear Required: The two USB hard drives I travel with are nothing special. I use standard 1TB Western Digital hard drives. Rugged hard drives, like those made by LaCie are options for truly off-roading trips, but I’ve never needed them—I keep my hard drives in case, and call it a day at that.

Also consider buying a solid state drive (SSD)—I will replace one of my external backup drives with this style when I upgrade in the future—but for now, my traditional hard drives work (and SSDs tend to be more expensive and offer less storage). The Sandisk 1TB Extreme Portable SSD offers the best value for size and storage—all important considerations for travel photographers

At this point, at the end of each day, I have four backup copies of each travel photo:

  1. Memory cards
  2. Laptop
  3. First USB hard drive
  4. Second USB hard drive
travel gear
Gear I carried with me on my first year of world travels (notice the iPod I used for backups!). Even then (and still now), I pack light on clothes so that I can carry enough photography gear and backup solutions.

Backup Photos Using Cloud Storage

Most travelers what to know how to use cloud backups for their travel photos. It’s a good question.

  • Back up Without a Computer to the Cloud: In general, in you’re only shooting with a smartphone, then cloud storage is a perfect solution—you can even buy local SIM cards for very little money in most places and back up using a combination of data and local WiFi. Google Drive might be the best option for casual travelers, or a service like Smugmug, more on that below.
  • Back Up to the Cloud From a Computer While Traveling: For professional photographers, or those carrying a lot of gear (think DSLRs, drones, etc.), I have long been unconvinced that cloud backups could work effectively. Until last year. Services like Backblaze can work for daily backups from your hotel room, if you can find even decent local WiFi speeds.

Why use this method? Before, cloud-based backup systems dramatically throttled upload speeds. Services would throttle upload speeds so much that even uploading a terabyte of data—which isn’t a lot nowadays—could take over a year. Upload speeds were throttled to the point of dial-up speeds. 

One way I planned to get around this throttling was to create my own ‘cloud’ backup service once home—I have a gigabit fiber connection at my apartment and I can connect to my ISP at almost ethernet speeds. I would use a rack-mounted Drobo (more on that next) and put it at my ISP and use that as my cloud storage. It wouldn’t have been cheap, but it would have worked and the upload speeds would have been tremendous.

Thankfully, I shelved that idea when Backblaze removed upload speed limits from its backup service. When I installed Backblaze, I was reached peak upload speeds of 170mb/sec, which is several orders of magnitude faster than any other service I had tried. Instead of months or years, I backed up my entire archive of travel photos to my Drobo in a little over a week!

Cautions: You will not find gigabit fiber connection speeds in most places in the world, which means cloud backups should not be your primary or only form of photo backup—internet is simply too unpredictable. If you’re taking one to two hundred photos or so a day on your smartphone, there’s a good chance you can sync an upload every evening. If you’re using a DSLR and your photos are larger files, don’t count on it working or fully syncing every night—meaning count on your redundancy backup of hard drives and memory cards. 

Gear Required: You’ll need to pick a cloud backup service. If you’re a casual traveler and just need something for your next trip, use Google Drive. 

If you’re not quite a pro photographer but you’re taking a lot of photos on your trip, let’s talk about Smugmug, which is technically not a backup service but does offer redundancy. Smugmug is a photo hosting service—it doesn’t store RAW files or anything beyond jpg/gif/png images. I use Smugmug to store my processed and photos—the actual working images that I can make prints from or that I put on my website. If you don’t shoot in RAW, then a photo hosting site like Smugmug can actually serve to backup your photos throughout your trip—as a bonus, you can also share your portfolios of photos with friends.  

If you’re backing up to a laptop each evening, then Backblaze is an option for those wanting cloud services—just realize that it may take days and weeks for your backups to catch up as you bounce to various WiFi networks and speeds. 

How to Backup Travel Photos Once Home

My first priority when arriving home is backing up my photos more thoroughly—I do this before I take my dirty clothes out of my bag, or anything else. My home backup workflow occurs in two parts:

Backing Up to a Desktop Computer

I copy images from my SD card to my desktop computer, and these become my working images: the ones I’ll be editing in Lightroom. I find performance to be better if I am working off local images, rather than images off of a network.

I am a bit odd in that I don’t use the catalog feature on Lightroom (if you’re new to travel photography, even an hour of tweaking can dramatically improve your trip photos—learn how). Because I spent nine years on the road before traveling from a homebase, I never had enough storage capacity to keep all my images available in a catalog, so I never Lightroom that way.

That habit has carried over to today. When I’m done editing images on my desktop, I delete them. That way the images on my desktop serve as a type of to-do list. Any image in a folder on my desktop is an image I still have to process and upload to Smugmug.

Using a Drobo for Maximum Photo Security

How to back up travel photos
This is the Drobo I use at home for archiving my travel photos.

After nine years of a nomadic existence, when I finally got a place of my own, one of the first things I purchased was a Drobo. A Drobo is a consumer RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) system where you use multiple hard drives to store your data. My Drobo has four 4-terabyte hard drives.

If one of drive fails, I can swap it with a new one and maintain total data protection.

Some professional photographers take their home backups even further—they may have multiple Drobos, or they  keep an additional Drobo at someone else’s house, in case their house is destroyed.

This is prudent, and it’s something I might consider in the future. But as of right now, the additional cost and hassle doesn’t seem worth the trouble. If I did more video, or had greater storage demands, I might consider it, but it hasn’t been an issue for me yet.

I also have several legacy external hard drives I used to archive photos early in my travels. For the most part, these hard drives just sit on a shelf. The drive contents are copied to my Drobo, so they’re simply another redundancy (always ideal).

Cleanup and Deleting Photos

The images on my Drob—and subsequently on Backblaze—are images I never touch. Once they’re there, they’re there. However, I can’t keep images on my memory cards and external hard drives forever. Eventually, they fill up and need to free up space. I keep everything on my cards and drives as long as I can, and at least until I have processed all of the photos through Lightroom so I am completely sure every photo I shot is accounted for in my files.

Cleaning your memory cards is important though. You must clear enough of them for your next trip so you’re not in a position where you need to format a memory card, but it contains images from that day that haven’t been backed up.

A good backup philosophy is this: Don’t consider a photo to exist until it is in at least two places. As much as you can, always keep multiple copies of your photos in as many places as possible. The more copies you have, and in as many places as possible, the lower your odds of ever losing your precious travel memories.

8 thoughts on “5 Ways to Backup Photos While Traveling”

  1. I love photography and this is always a issue for me… I usualy travel with my computed and a hard disc… so… I keep them in my memory card until there is no more space or choice; back them up in my computer who I leave in my handbag; and also back the in my Hard Disc witch I keep in my main bag or backpack.
    Also, if the is good internet I back up everything in Google Drive Cloud…

    ¿A little too much? It’s not always enought when it comes to my photos and memories!!

    thanks for the post!

  2. This has been a really helpful read, thanks Gary! We’re always debating the the best way to manage our image files between SD cards, laptops and USB hard drives, and the pros and cons of the cloud. We really need a system and your article couldn’t come at a better time! Love your backup philosophy too. Time for us to get a Drobo and get organised!

  3. Great tips. I usually copy the photographs to my external hard drive only. And what you said about the cloud storage is true the uploading speed is so pathetic that I end up cancelling saving them in the cloud.

  4. Great advice!
    I agree that the best place to keep your memory card is in your camera – otherwise, they are far too small and easy to lose or leave lying around.
    When it comes to backing up, I copy all my photos from my camera onto my laptop. If the internet connection is strong enough it will then also back it up to my cloud storage. Only when I know that the images are fully backed up in the cloud (and on my laptop) do I delete them off the memory card.
    Good luck with the rest of your travels :)

  5. Hi Gary…couple of questions for ya. Do you import into LR on your MBP or just wait until you get home? If on the MBP…how to you handle moving originals over somewhere else as the SSD gets full…LR will relocate them for you of course but that’s not very quick. I’m looking to streamline my photo processing a bit…the MBP is my only computer as we live in the RV but I do have a NAS in the RV that I currently keep the originals on. I’m toying with moving at least this year and last year’s originals onto the laptop SSD but need to make sure I fully understand the end of the year rotation process.

    It almost sounds like you don’t put the images into LR until you get back to the desktop computer which is likely wired instead of wireless so network access is probably faster…unless you just keep the originals on the desktop and a backup copy of it and the LR catalog on the Drobo.

    • I will usually import photos into Lightroom on my laptop, but only to process images I’d like to get online quickly. I do most of my editing on my desktop, however, so I don’t have two versions floating around.

      The main reason for moving images to my laptop is so I have another copy when I’m on the road, and so I can get the images to my external USB drives.

  6. Excellent advices, Garry. One doubt, the raw images you are storing on your laptop, do you delete it…? I don’t have much memory in my mac to store all raw files…

    • One the files have been transferred to Drobo and my desktop computer, I can delete the images on my laptop.

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