Backing Up: 10 Steps to Peace of Mind When Traveling in the Digital Age

August 1st, 2010

I travel a lot and I need a safe and reliable way to manage my images while on the road. I have employed a very simple back-up system that has worked for me since I started shooting digital with the invention of the Canon EOS 1″D” series camera. In my view the best system is one that is not only simple but also one that is redundant and safe. Here is what I do, step by step, to ensure my images are safe, easy to access and redundant!

1. I make sure I have enough digital media to get me through a full day’s worth of images. This will depend largely on what I am photographing and what camera I am shooting with. I am not a heavy shooter and generally have plenty of space on a few 16 GB drives, even with my higher resolution EOS 5D Mark II or 1D Mark IV cameras.

2. I always carry a laptop computer and at least two flash card readers designed for the fastest download of my images from the media that my camera supports (compact flash cards in my case). If I have multiple ways of hooking these up to my computer I carry one of each (USB, Firewire and Express Card Slot for instance).

3. I carry at least two external portable hard drives. I use USB powered Western Digital My Passport Drives in 250-500GB capacities. These are small 2 1/2″ drives that can hold a lot of data cheaply and they come in various sizes. I usually purchase mine from and a recent search brings up lots of options including a 500 GB version for $89.00.

4. Since I run workshops I am rarely away from someone else with a laptop in case mine fails. I therefore format my drives to universally work with Mac and Windows machines so I can access them from any computer. I label each drive with the location and date of the trip – marking one as Primary and one as Secondary.

5. Each night I download all the images that I shot that day to both external USB powered hard drives – in duplicate. I use Lightroom as a downloader but you can do it manually or use a program like Downloader Pro if you’re a Windows user or Photo Mechanic if you’re a Mac user.

6. I then edit and throw away the easy to spot missed shots from the Primary drive. All the images remain on the secondary drive.

7. I carry at least one of these drives wherever I go in case of theft or loss. I do not put them in my checked bags when flying home. Even if I park at a restaurant the drive goes inside with me and does not stay in the car.

8. When I return to the office after the trip I download all the data from the primary drive to my permanent storage drive as well as a duplicate to my main backup drive. At this point I have 4 copies of my images from the trip.

9. I do not erase the USB drives but, if there is still space, I use them again until they are full of images. Sometimes I can get 3 or 4 trips on each drive. Both drives then becomes a RAW “archives” and at least one gets stored off-site – just in case the office burns down or gets robbed etc. I often carry one of them with me as a “traveling archive” of that series of images in case I want to access them while on the road. That also counts for an off-site backup 🙂

10. As I edit images in the office and archive and organize them more permanently I create additional back ups to store off-site, but most of the time the images I process for print or web display are separated into separate folders so they are easy to find.

NOTE: If I am using my laptop drive as a Primary and know I have enough space on it for all the images from the entire trip then I can get away with only one external as a Secondary Drive. This is not as safe however as my laptop drive is generally more likely to become corrupted or damaged since it contains the system software and is in use under more demanding conditions and increased heat. I also need to erase them from the laptop eventually and eliminate one of my 4 copies at that point.

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