Storing & Backing up Digital Images while Traveling



Last modified: 

01/07/2014 - 22:09

Next to my life, health, and well being, the thing I least wanted to lose while I was traveling was my pictures, after all every thing else is replaceable.  When you are traveling for years at a time and generating a huge number of large image files, storing your images securely can be a bit of a logistical dilemma.

When developing my system for image storage I considered:

While traveling:

#1  hard drives fail.
#2  things get be stolen.

So to minimize this risk my priorities were:

  1. I wanted to always have to copies of my images ideally in different locations most ideally at least one copy that was not physically with me.
  2. I didn’t want to be paranoid about theft to the point it would affect my trip
  3. I wanted a system that would work in areas where internet connections were not reliable
  4. I wanted a cost effective solution
  5. I wanted the least amount of extra gear and weight

This was the system I ultimately used:

1. Download from your memory card daily don’t wait until it fills up

Shoot during the day download the pictures to my laptop at night.  I now have two copies (1) memory card and (2) laptop. Memory card stays with me and my camera gear laptop in my room wherever I'm staying, use a simple laptop cable to lock my laptop up when I’m not around and I have my own combination padlock I can use at cheap hotels.

2. Backup to a 2nd harddrive before formatting your memory card

Before formatting a memory card, I back up computer images to a portable usb hard drive which I keep with the camera gear I walk around with during the day. Two copies one on my laptop and one on my portable hard drive.

3. Backup with dvd

Periodically, usually when I’m in a city and can buy dvds, I burn the images from my computer to dvds (I used a portable usb external dvd burner they are cheap relatively small and if it breaks throw it out and get a new one).  I just bought the dvds when I needed to burn them so no need to carry them around.  Blank dvds are available in most any decent size city in any country in the developing world, since blank dvds are used for bootleg movies and software. 

4. Mail dvds and backup on remote hard drive

Once I had the dvds I would mail them home.  Mailing dvds is cheap and safe since the dvds have no commercial value and can not be reused making them unlikely to be stolen in the mail and I usually paid ~$5 to $10 to mail 10-15 dvds (47 to 70 GB) from Asia to the US and never had any go missing in 6 years.  I then had someone back home load them on to a hard drive once I received conformation that the images successfully copied without errors, I could delete them from my computer hard drive to save space.  I now had images in 3 places my backup hard drive with me, a hard drive at home, and on dvds at home.

5. Document your backup workflow

I kept a document which I backed up as well documenting which images were on which dvd (dvd labeled with a sharpie) when the images were burned and when the were sent and when I received conformation.

The results:

6 years of travel  ~1.5 TB of images
1 stolen laptop
1 failed backup hard drive
~50 images lost due to book keeping errors when the hard drive failed I wasn’t as diligent at step #5 as I should have been and I had a gap in my dvd backups

Other options

Mail Memory Sticks

If your against the DVD option, with as cheap as memory sticks are getting these days you could do the same thing mailing usb memory sticks. I would be worried about mail theft in some developing countries so if you went this route you may want to use fedex to ship them when you didn't trust the postal system, which will of course be significantly more expensive.  But that would save you the weight and bulk of a dvd burner and you can buy sticks as you go since they can be found in most every country.

Hybrid: Internet and Mail

When you have good internet access you could use a web based storage system such as dropbox and then the mail when you don’t.  If I was going to mail usb sticks I’d probably go for this hybrid option and upload as much as I could.

No Remote Storage Options:

For shorter trips it may not make sense mess with a remote storage solution instead just use a 2 drive solution laptop plus a backup.  The backup in addition to the laptop could be a portable usb harddrive or enough memory cards to last you trip, so you have one copy on the memory card one on the laptop.  Put the used memory cards somewhere safe like a money belt, but be careful not to inadvertently drop them too.

Non laptop solutions

Often for shorter trips it’s nice not to have to travel with the bulk and weight of a laptop no matter how small. 

One option are hard drives that can directly copy memory cards without a computer.

Another option is relying on internet cafes to transfer files to a backup usb drive the major risk here is that internet café computers are often infected with viruses which can be transferred to you memory cards and backup drive.

Tablet options

Using a tablet to transfer files to a hard drive is also a nice option unfortunately the most popular user friendly tablets ipad, kindle fire, Google nexus, and Samsung do not support usb hard drives.  Which means to use them to transfer files means you need a wifi hub you can plug your usb devices in like this, or card reader (or camera) and wifi enabled hard drive.  The other option is to limit your selection to a tablet that supports usb devices such as the Microsoft surface and live with the drawbacks of the windows platform and limited apps.


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