The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
23. Safeguarding Data
Image Backup While Traveling
Sailing the Southern Ocean: Iceberg and waves near South Georgia. Nikon D700 • 34 mm • 1/800 s • f/10 • ISO 800
Anyone who takes pictures on a trip has a vested interest in bringing those photos home with them. The good news is that backing up data is neither terribly complicated nor exorbitantly expensive. The somewhat less good news is that backing up data requires a bit of discipline.
How you back up your images while traveling is one question. The much more important matter, however, is that you’re backing up your images at all, and not just while traveling. As is the case with all types of security systems, the magic word is redundancy. In the realm of digital photography, this basically means that the security of your data increases with each existing copy.
It’s obviously not possible to set up the same data security measures while on the road as you might have in place at home, but it’s imperative to save at least one copy of your files while traveling. There are photographers who neglect to do this. Some find the process too inconvenient, others lack the necessary equipment, and others just don’t see the importance of the matter. But the lesson learned when you don’t back up your files can be a painful one, especially if it involves the loss of data.
As mentioned, one copy is a must, two copies is better, and three is better yet. At the same time, there’s no need to go overboard, since backing up data on the go should be practical; otherwise, it will face the same fate as the bulky, heavy tripod: chronic neglect. This isn’t of any use.
My own recipe for backing up files looks like this: I leave my images on the memory cards for as long as possible. Memory cards are a robust medium and unless I need to refill the card for lack of other memory, the photos stay saved there. This is one reason it makes sense to bring an ample supply of memory cards with you on the road.
I also copy the files to at least one, better yet two external 2.5-inch hard drives using a netbook and a USB card reader on a more or less daily basis. I take this opportunity to perform an initial sifting of the photos (more on that later). This allows me to spot any technical problems with a camera or lens that I didn’t notice when I was taking the pictures. Whenever possible, I store the two copies in separate places; one hard drive gets stashed in my main bag, for example, and the other stays more or less permanently with me.
Since card readers can malfunction – for example, if the little pins in the CF card slot bend or break – you might consider bringing a second one along (ideally with its cable). As an alternative, digital cameras can usually be directly connected to a computer (via a cable, which obviously only works if you have it on you, or via a wireless connection). This method depletes your camera’s battery, however, and the data transfer usually takes longer than with a card reader.
Try to develop a routine for your backup process to prevent mistakes and avoid redundant efforts as much as possible. You might, for example, always set the cards that have not been read to the left of your computer and the ones that have already been copied to the right. Or you might set one group with the top side facing up and the other group facing down. Or, or, or... the main thing is to not get confused, and to establish a reliable routine.
High noon: Light and shade pattern on the floor of Wadi Rum Visitor Center, Jordan. Nikon D700 • 48 mm • 1/400 s • f/10 • ISO 640
As far as hard drives go, I opt for tried and tested solid models that feature a rubber casing. This not only helps them survive the challenges of sand, dust, and moisture a bit better than their unarmored cousins, but it also prevents them from sliding off tables. Drives with a capacity of 500 to 750 GB have served me well, even when I’ve backed up the photos taken by travel companions in addition to my own.
In the future, it’s possible that compact solid state disks (SSDs) will develop into viable alternatives to traditional hard drives. Their biggest advantage is that they have no moving parts, which makes them mechanically more robust. As of now, however, portable SSDs are too expensive for average users, but it’s probably only a matter of time before that changes. USB flash drives are a possibility for smaller amounts of data. If you go this route, look for models with fast writing speed because otherwise data transfer with them can quickly turn into a real test of patience.
The centerpiece of a backup system should be a compact notebook or netbook computer, which allows you to not only save images, but also view, organize, edit, and send pictures when needed. Apart from that, of course, it’s useful for many other tasks as well. I use an Apple Macbook Air, specifically the smallest model available (for space and weight reasons) with the maximum RAM (for speed reasons).
The process that I’ve described up until now only makes sense when you have regular access to electricity. When you’re visiting locations where that’s not the case, such as the Sahara, for example, portable photo storage devices with integrated card readers are a good option. Ideally these devices operate with standard, readily available batteries, and with a single click they copy your data onto their internal hard drive. Unfortunately, these devices appear to have fallen out of fashion. There are only a few models available on the market and they usually have proprietary batteries, which dramatically limits their usefulness.
Modern photography nomad: Your author in action in Patagonia. An inverter provides power to my netbook and external hard disk in our rental car. Photo by Ingrid Petrowitz. | Fuji S5Pro • 24 mm • 1/100 s • f/4 • ISO 320 • built-in flash
I don’t think much of saving images onto CDs or DVDs, mostly because of their limited capacities and the relatively time-consuming process of writing data to them. The same goes for uploading image files to the Internet to be stored on servers or in the cloud. This may be an alternative for travel photographers visiting cities where hotels or public places offer fast Internet connections via wireless networks, but in most parts of the world the connections, if they exist at all, are much too slow for transferring large image files in any practical amount of time.
Discovered too late: The white area in the upper left corner was caused by a gray filter that wasn’t properly attached. | Leica D-LUX 6 • 90 mm • 1/1600 s • f/2.8 • ISO 160
If you’re traveling in a car, you can use a cigarette lighter adapter, also known as an inverter, as a power supply for your notebook, hard disk, battery charger, and cell phone. For trips that require total self-sufficiency, such as a desert trek, an adequately large solar panel with a portable power outlet could be the solution of the future. The technology for this is here, but I’ve yet to give it a try.
Whether you view or even edit your images while on your trip depends on the amount of time you have and the technology available, as well as your personal preferences. I know photographers who refuse to examine any of their photos while on the road, and others who simply can’t imagine not looking over the day’s yield every evening. Some guided photo tours even include an evening photo review as part of their program.
When I transfer my photos to the external hard disk, I use the opportunity to perform a quick, initial analysis with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. I immediately delete any photos from my digital library that are out of focus or have bad exposure problems – that’s assuming I didn’t already do this in-camera immediately after taking the picture. I flag the photos that appear to have been particularly successful so that I can quickly find them again later. This helps to limit the number of photos that I will eventually consider editing to a reasonable quantity.
Opposite: Eerily beautiful – the morning fog in Ittoqqortoormiit, eastern Greenland, suits the subject of gravestones in a local cemetery perfectly. | Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/800 s • f/14 • ISO 200
If the need arises, I might spend some time editing a photo at this stage, but this is far from being fun on the Air’s 11-inch monitor. The only images I decide to edit are those that I need right away. For example, I might want to give a photo to someone I’ve met or prepare a photo for an image analysis discussion that’s part of a guided photo tour. Anything more than this is usually not needed and I’d rather be taking pictures than spending valuable travel time in front of my computer.
Even if you don’t plan on editing your images at all while traveling, there’s value in inspecting them at the very least. This will help you detect technical problems that may not have been visible when checking the photo on the camera’s small display.
You might discover a stubborn spot of dust on the sensor, which you would want to remove if possible, or a strange blur that occurs for manually focused shots, which after some investigation turns out to be from an accidentally activated diopter correction in the view-finder. Or you could find that your built-in gray filter got snagged and subsequently affected the light entering your compact camera since it wasn’t on or off all the way, which is what ruined the photo of flotsam off the Falkland Islands (page 209). I didn’t spot the problem on the camera monitor because of the bright sunlight at the time. After reviewing the file on my computer, however, I took extra care to make sure that the filter was attached or detached properly.
Examining your photos also provides an opportunity for learning. If particular camera settings didn’t pan out well or a photo was flawed for whatever reason, you may be able to repeat your effort on the spot. And even if you can’t, the settings for the failed image will reveal to you how to make adjustments to get better results next time.
Bottom: Drive no further – lava road block at the end of the Chain of Craters Road, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, USA. | Nikon D700 • 20 mm • 1/400 s • f/11 • ISO 400