Backing up your photos on the road

My storage solution while Im on the road: Mr Blue and Mr Red
My storage solution while I’m on the road: Mr Blue and Mr Red

Over the last several days I’ve been going through packages of DVDs and hard drives I shipped home from the road with backups of my travel photos. After many hours I have finally assembled all my photos together and have created identical copies on two, 1 terabyte hard drives. Despite all the overseas shipments, the half assed storage solutions, and damaged DVDs, I have lost only about a dozen of the tens of thousands of photos I’ve taken over the last two and a half years. I consider myself pretty lucky.

The last time I touched on this subject was over a year ago when I was in Australia. The issue of what to do with my photos while I was on the road is something that I have been struggling with since I began my traveling. Much of the advice I have on this subject come more from the what not to do category, than the what to do category.

I have many people who write me asking what they should do with their photos and video on their big trip. Here is my first-hand advice on the subject.

Online Storage

Most people assume that they will just upload their photos while they are on the road. This is what I thought I’d be doing too, but it didn’t quite work out that way. If you are shooting low res images in jpeg, and you are in a location with good bandwidth, this might work for you. If, however, you are shooting video or RAW still images, or if you are in a location without good internet connectivity, then online storage just isn’t going to work.

I can easily shoot 4gb of photos per day. I found uploading that much to be a challenge even in places like Australia. Remember that uploading is usually much slower than downloading. If you have any sort of network interruption, which can happen frequently if you are on wifi in a hotel, a long overnight upload session might end an hour after you started and went to bed. Moreover, even really good services like have a limit of 100gb, and you have to pay $200/year for that. Even using Amazon’s S3 service, which is about as cheap as you can get, will cost you a lot if you are dealing with tens or hundreds of gigabytes of images.

Obviously I did upload some photos, otherwise, you never would have been able to see any on my site. I uploaded about 10% of the photos I shot and those were all jpeg, not the original RAW files. No photo hosting site that I know of lets you upload RAW files. I usually had to do my uploading in batches when I had a good internet connection. I would usually find a place with wifi and let the upload run overnight. There were several times when the uploading process would take several days because of dropped connections and general slowness. So even several hundred megabytes was a painful upload in some parts of the world.

To give you an idea of the difference between uploading as a backup and uploading to an image hosting site, I will usually upload 10-20% of the photos I take in the form of high-resolution jpeg’s. Those images are usually about 5mb, compared to the 15mb RAW files my camera takes. This means the amount of data I upload to Smugmug is only 3-6% of what my camera is capturing on a given day. That 3-6% is still usually over 100mb and can take many hours to upload. Trying to archive everything in RAW is pretty much impossible.

Burning DVDs

This is another thing people tell me they are planning on doing. While I was in Melbourne I spent several days doing nothing but burning files to DVD so I had a backup of my external hard drive. That way if the hard drive broke, I’d still have a copy.

There are three problems with using DVDs as a storage medium: storage capacity, time and weight. The compact flash card in my camera is 4gb and my backup is 2gb. The storage capacity of the DVD-R I purchased in Taiwan were around 4.3gb. This means that every time I filled up a card (which I can easily do in a day) I had to burn another DVD. Burning DVDs takes a long time. I’d literally put a DVD in the drive of my computer and go do something else for a half an hour. Finally, a stack of 50-100 DVDs is a lot of weight to carry around. I ended up carrying this DVD spindle around for months which was a lot of weight to deal with when you live out of a bag.

As I pulled my archived DVDs out of storage this week I found that half of them had damage significant enough that I couldn’t read all the files on the disk. Thankfully I could still get them off the external HD I used, but had I exclusively used DVDs I would have been screwed.

Multiple Memory Cards

One storage option is to not bother backing up at all. If you are only traveling for a short time, this might be a viable option. Just bring enough memory cards for your camera and put it a new one when one gets full. There is, however, one massive downside to this strategy: if the cards are lost, stolen or damaged, you lose everything. This is something I’m willing to live with during the few hours I’m shooting, but not beyond that.

External Hard Drives

This is the solution I am currently using. It is not perfect but it is the most reasonable thing available in terms of cost and effort. When I started my trip, the 100gb external USB/Firewire hard drives were only first hitting the market. Today, I went to Best Buy and saw 500gb drives smaller and cheaper than the 160gb one I purchased in Honolulu.

After the fiasco I had trying to backup and ship everything in Australia, I purchased 2, 300gb external USB hard drives when I was in Cairns. I mirror the two drives and keep them in separate bag so if one is lost or stolen, I still have a copy on the other. If I was traveling with someone else, I’d have each of us keep a hard drive just to keep them separate.

The hard drives are small and light enough that they can be shipped via a FedEx envelope. I don’t know if I’ll need to do this in the future, but if I should fill up the drive while I”m on the road, I’d send one of the two drives back to someone who could copy it to another drive. Once I’ve had confirmed that the drive arrived safely and had been backed up, I could delete the drive I had with me and buy a new drive to act as a mirror. This scenario is more likely happen with video than with still photos.

The cost and size of small external drives is now well beyond what you will need for still photography. I highly recommend using external hard drives for photo storage while traveling. Even with cameras shooting over 20 megapixels, storage is growing faster that file sizes. If you can afford an SLR, getting a pair of 300-500gb external hard drives should be within your budget.

20 thoughts on “Backing up your photos on the road”

  1. Great post Gary very informative.

    I’ve also used external HD’s in the past to back up data whilst travelling but being as most of my travels are on a motorcycle I was always concerned about the vibrations and dust being an issue with an external HD that has moving parts.

    I’ve seen a few solid state HD’s in some laptops recently, don’t know if there are external versions available yet but these would be great for this purpose being that they have no moving parts.

    Cost is a factor of course but as you know it wont be long until they are ten a penny.

    Great site by the way, i’ll bookmark you and have a good read once i’ve slept.

  2. i have a nikon camera with 2gb space. i want to expand its memory. what are the different options available for it.

  3. i have a hard drive but it’s not work well ,i guess that he’s out of order! :)


  4. Excellent words of wisdom, Gary! I too use a similar method, although I only carry one external hard drive, which I partition and carry two backups of my entire computer on.
    I also keep the external hard drive separate from all things computer, so if one is lost/damaged/stolen, I have the other.

  5. The problem with xHDs is that they are notoriously unreliable. They last less than a year, in most cases – and my latest xHD lasted only 2 hours (TWO HOURS!) before crashing to a completely dead state – it could not even be formatted.

    If you look up reviews online you will see numbers of people saying the same thing. If they worked – they’d be great. Make sure you understand the faults before buying one.

    • I’ve had no issues to date and I’ve probably had close to a dozen in my life. I’d still go with the external HD because there isn’t really any other option for storage of large amounts of data on the road.

  6. Great article, definitely gives me something to think about on my next trip. On the last major one, I managed to survive on one 8GB SD card (my camera wasn’t shooting in RAW, anyway) for three weeks of travel. About halfway through, I managed to back-up my pics on to a 4GB USB drive, but after that, I didn’t have time or energy to back things up. Maybe for my next trip, since I’m probably bringing along my laptop, the external HD option would be best for me…

  7. I need to get an external hard drive one of these days. Maybe taking all those photos off my computer will make it work a little less slow. Plus, I wouldn’t mind having a back up of everything (not just the photos).

  8. Thanks for all this information. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about as we plan for our rtw trip. I find uploading a pain at home, so I imagine it’s 10 times worse on the road. I’ll have to look into external hard drives. A very useful post!

  9. One word to the wise: Gary’s points are all correct for anyone traveling and wanting to back-up files exc exc. Forget about trying to load files to the internet other then a few here and there or small JPG’s for Facebook or something. The only thing about the WD hard drives is that sometimes they don’t work.

    What I mean is, when I went to Egypt for a vacation I didn’t want to pack my computer around (to save weight) and only took my SLR camera and 1 WD 300g hard drive. Thought I had myself covered and was doing a smart thing. Except I couldn’t find a good computer 1/2 the time that would “accept” the WD drive. I went to the White Desert and when my CM Flash cards got full I thought “No problem. Just find a computer and clear them off.” All the computers in the village were one step up from the old days of the Apple green screen stuff you used when you were a kid. So I had to have them burn the pictures to CD (freak’n took forever) and 1/2 of the files were corrupt (major mad about that one…errrr).

    You would think I would have learned my lesson but it happened again in Ecuador on a later trip. You have to remember that a lot of computers out there are as old as 10 years old and your WD won’t work on them…they just ain’t got enough tech in them to read the hard drives.

    Best solution for me was to carry my own computer (which I know we all hate) and a couple 500g WD hard drives as back-ups (you can’t have enough back-ups and if your computer ever crashes with no plan B…you’ll know what I mean). It’s the burden you live with if your wanting to do RAW files. There is one other option that not many people are doing anymore. It’s an external hard drive that needs no computer but can accept all camera chips. They’re hard to find now as they were the rage for a few years then dropped off because of the small WD hard drives. You can find one here if you don’t know what I mean.

    • I didn’t mention that I carry my own laptop, so using another computer is never an issue for me. I also have to do my editing on the road, so i sort of have to have a laptop.

  10. Another thing to consider is getting external drives with significant built in protection against falls or drops, which are likely to happen while on the road. I do not yet know from experience (we take off on our trip in 2 months) but the reco from the Apple store was the LaCie 500GB Rugged All-Terrain Hard Drive. It has a maximum drop height of 35 in./90 cm. As well it has a firewire 800 connection for 2x faster uploads than usb 2.0, but only helps if your computer has a firewire port.

    • I did not get anything extra rugged and haven’t had any issues so far. That being said, it probably wouldn’t hurt and is probably a good idea.

  11. gary – interesting. i have avoided doing any dvd backups bc i just think that method is too fragile, i guess is the word. thanks for the tip on the drives.

  12. Just to re-affirm your word of warning. DVD backups are great short term, but horrible long term solutions. They scratch and scuff easily, especially as they rub together as your bag gets jostled – even doing basic activities like walking. Use them in a pinch – but not for long term backup.

    • Now that you mention it, that is probably why my DVDs were in such bad shape when I opened the box. They were shipped from Sydney to Dallas, then again from Dallas to Wisconsin. Between all the movement during shipping and temperature changes, it did quite a bit of damage.

      I also forgot to mention, when I shipped the DVDs from Australia, I had to sign a special form saying the contents were not copyrighted material nor were they pornographic. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were opened and handled by customs at some point along the way.

  13. I have not personally done this from the road, but I think another option for online storage would be to have a personal web site. I know I have my own web space for about $5 a month and it has unlimited bandwidth and storage. It does not change the points you made about speeds of uploads though, but at least it is a cheap way to store your files.

    • Uploading is still an issue. I had an “unlimited” service I used when I was in Japan and could never upload more than about 100mb at a time before it failed.

      Also, when you are talking about 100’s of gigabytes of data, the “unlimited” hosting for $5 might suddenly hit a wall. There are practical limits most of those services have to deal with. If you are seriously abusing the system, they might decide that it is worth more to get rid of you as a customer than to keep you around. If that happens, you are really up a creek if you can’t get access to your files.

  14. This is great information! Thank you. I think 2 x external hard drives are definitely the way to go. I thought I was lacking in not having an online backup – but everything I shoot is RAW and connections not always sharp. I’ll spend that money on more hard drives. Thanks.

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