Protecting Your Photos Simply and Cheaply

You will be taking a lot of photos on your travels.  Many of these photos will be really nice and some of them are likely to be spectacular.  Losing your data would be a damn shame at best, and catastrophic at worst.  Let’s talk about how to avoid that.

I’m going to make a few assumptions here, so see if this sounds like you.  Your photos are precious and you want to take steps to protect them, but you don’t want to spend a lot of money on backing them up, and neither do you want to pack anything big or heavy.  If that’s you, then I have the system for you, tried and tested on many, many trips.

Overview of My Backup System

What we are aiming for is three copies of our photos.  This is what the experts recommend to ensure adequate protection.  If that seems excessive, well, it did to me too until the one time I was down to one copy after a series of errors on my part.  We’ll stick with that goal.  The experts also recommend that one of those versions be off-site, but you aren’t really in a position to do that while on the road.

I think the easiest way for me to share this information is to simply tell you up front what the system is, and then come back and tell you the benefits and explain how it all works.  It is simple. The three versions of your photos are:

  • The copy on your memory card (in other words, don’t delete any pictures from your cards).
  • A copy on your laptop or tablet.
  • A copy on a flash drive or external hard drive.

Now let’s flush this out a bit.  You can watch the video immediately below, or read on, whichever you prefer.

Version 1: Your Memory Card(s)

The SD card to which your camera writes your pictures is actually a really good storage device.  They are solid state in that there are no moving parts or anything like that.  They are pretty hardy, and I’ve run more than one through the washing machine without incident (I left in my pocket).   I’ve personally never had one fail (although there are a lot of stories out there by people who have had that happen to them). In any case, this should be your first copy of your pictures.

The key here is simply: Do not write over your memory cards while you are on the trip!

That means you’ll need to bring enough memory to last you the entire trip.  While that used to be a big deal, with the falling price of data, now it isn’t.

How much storage will you need?

But how do you know how much you will need?  There is no way to know for sure, of course, but I can give you some idea.  I find that if I am engaged in a day of shooting, I will use, at most, about 8 GB of data in my camera.  That’s a heavy day shooting all raw files and usually bracketing my shots.  A typical day a probably closer to 4 GB.  In any case, let’s assume that you are a heavy shooter and you blow through 8 GB a day.  On a trip of 13 days you’ll use, at most, about 124 GB of data (8×13).

These days, they make 128 GB SD cards (they even make 256 GB, 512 GB and even 1 TB cards, if you are so inclined, but these start getting pretty spendy).  I just checked and you can get a SanDisk Extreme Pro 128 GB card on Amazon for only $35 (even less for slower cards).  I recommend you go that route.  If you think you might use more data, you can get the 256 GB version for $65.

One memory card or several?

What about getting a series of cards with smaller data amounts?  Perhaps something like 16 GB or 32 GB cards.   That has the advantage of allowing you to swap out the cards and save them to your computer and flash drive.  That’s acceptable, but I find it better to use just one card.  You can backup the big SD card and put it right back in your camera and keep shooting.  Honestly, the safest place for your memory card is in the camera.  More about that in a bit.

In any case, by keeping all your pictures on your SD card, you now have one solid version of your photos.  On to the backups.

Version 2: Your Laptop or Tablet

You may or may not bring your laptop on most trips.  If you are coming on one of my trips, however, you are  probably going to want your laptop.  I will help you edit your photos throughout the trip, so you will want the laptop so you can edit yours.  That being the case, the second copy of your photos will be to your laptop’s hard drive.

There are a few wrinkles to this I want to mention.  First of all, if your laptop has insufficient storage for your pictures, you’ll need another storage device.  In that case, I’d just save it to a flash drive.  (Yes, a flash drive is our third copy, so technically you’ll have your data on two different flash drives, but you’ll keep them in different places so there is still a point to it).  Keep the flash drive with your laptop.

Next, you might really, really not want to bring a laptop on the tour.  If that is the case, you’ll forego editing your photos while on tour (and on the plane ride home, which is where you can get a lot done).  But if you really don’t want to bring it, you can still backup your photos.  You can use my laptop (or someone else’s) to save your photos to a flash drive.  In addition, there are storage devices on the market designed for you to save directly to them without the need for an intervening laptop.

One final note.  I keep saying laptop, but tablets are getting more and more robust.  In addition, photography software for tablets is getting more and more robust as well.  At this point, I think it is a viable alternative to bring a tablet instead of a laptop.  So although I refer to laptops throughout this article, you can insert tablet where you see that.

Version 3: Flash Drive

The final version of your photos will be on a flash drive.  Using the same calculations set forth above for determining how much data you will use, a 128 GB flash drive ought to be sufficient.  A SanDisk 128 GB USB 3.0 flash drive is under $20 on Amazon.  If you want more storage, 256 GB drives are under $30 and 512 GB drives are $60.  You can get a lot of data for very little money at this point.

I should mention that I actually do things slightly different than what I am suggesting for you here.  I spend a lot of time on the road, so I want a lot of my pictures, documents, and other files with me.  Therefore, I carry a 4 TB external hard drive with me.  I keep all my files on it and add the photos I take on trips to it.  If you are someone that travels a lot, you might want an external hard drive instead of a flash drive.  But for most people a simple flash drive will do.  And the flash drive has the benefit of being small enough to fit in any pocket.

Here's the Really Important Part: Keep Them In Different Places!

You now have your three copies of your photos, so we are on to a very important step.  Now you need to keep each of the three versions in a different place.  Here is how I do it:

  • I keep the laptop in my suitcase;
  • I keep the memory card(s) in my camera backpack (usually in the camera itself);
  • I keep the flashdrive on me, in a pocket.

You don’t want them all in one place, otherwise one lost or stolen bag means all three versions are gone.  Neither do you want all of them in your luggage, as it could conceivably all disappear.  With this system, if either of your bags is lost you still have the other one, and if both somehow get lost then you still have a copy on you.  I usually put mine in a side pocket in my pants, or a zippered pocket in my fleece or jacket.

The Real Enemy

Now I’m going to let you in on a secret.  The secret is that everybody is worried about the wrong things when it comes to protecting your data.  Ask any photographer about backups, and they will start talking about drive failure.  Or if you ask them about protection while traveling, they will start talking about protection from theft. 

Neither of these is the real enemy.  Drive failures are very rare.  I’ve actually never had one (although I know people that have).  As storage transfers to solid state, the failure rate is falling even more.  Theft is uncommon.  It is not unheard of, and you need to take precautions.  In the case of Ireland, which is my current focus since it is where I am leading tours, it is a safe country, especially in the remote areas to which my tours will be going.  In Paris, it is not unheard of for a pocket to be picked or a bag to be swiped, but it is safe as well, and a small amount of protection will keep your stuff safe.

The real enemy when it comes to protecting your data is misplacing it, whether that be a card, drive, or even your camera bag.  This is far more likely to happen than drive failure or theft.  People leave cards or drives in hotel rooms.  They leave them on airplanes.  They leave them in rental cars.  They leave them in restaurants.  They fall out of pockets.  You get the idea.  All this is much more common than drive failure.

Another real enemy is user error.  People get confused and write over cards they didn’t mean to.  Or they accidentally delete folders with photos in them.  When people are on the road they are out of their normal routines and often forced to move fast. Mistakes get made resulting in lost pictures.

People don’t talk about these issues though.  Partly they just don’t think about them.  As mentioned, for some reason people’s minds’ immediately go to drive failure and theft.  Even when they do think of these real culprits, they just aren’t something they want to think about or talk about.  Everyone’ attitude is “surely I couldn’t be so stupid as to misplace or delete my own data.”  Don’t be so sure.

In any case, saving your original files on the SD cards will go a long way in protecting your data, as you will never be deleting anything.  Then the extra two copies in different places will make a loss almost unthinkable.  You’ll be safe from all threats to your data – whether they be external or self-inflicted.

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