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.