Coming home from a trip empty-handed isn’t much fun. When you’re on the road, the last thing you want to happen is that you lose all the irreplaceable photos you’ve taken. You might be able to go back to the same places one day, but recapturing the moments is a lot harder. But there are some basic precautions you can take to help ensure that your images come home safely with you. And one of those is backing up regularly to a portable hard drive while you’re on the road, not just waiting until you get home.
One of the biggest downsides of going digital is your images can disappear as quickly as you took them. Back in the film days, it was easy enough to accidentally expose your film, have it fogged by airport security x-rays, or simply lose the rolls, but there was something physical to hang on to as well as a full spectrum of trouble between safety and disaster. These days, it’s all virtual and the data is pretty much there or it isn’t without much in between–your data is either safe or gone.
Keep it Redundant and Distributed
The saving grace of digital, though, is that the data can be replicated infinitely. And having multiple copies on different media in different places is the best way to safeguard your images. There’s two parts to it–having redundant and physically distributed. Even then, there’s no guarantee your data is safe, but the chances are much, much better.
The bare minimum requirement is having two copies of your images, but better yet is three or four copies. And those copies should be on different media and packed in different bags. It’s not much good having four copies if they’re all in your checked luggage and the airline loses your bag!
Backup, Backup, and for Heaven’s Sake Backup!
So the first line of defense is having multiple copies on different media that you can separate. When I’m on the road I typically have a minimum of two copies of all my images: one on a Nexto eXtreme storage drive, Hyperdrive, and one on a separate, small, external hard drive. If I’m traveling with a laptop, I’ll also copy the images onto its hard drive. And if a hotel I’m staying at has a fast, reliable internet connection I can leave on overnight, I’ll also try to upload some to my server, although it’s rare to be able to upload 20GB a night reliably so that’s usually just a selection. I used to also burn two copies onto DVDs and send one set back home via post, but carrying a bunch of blank DVDs and spending all that time burning got rather impractical.
Digital Memory Cards
Some of the newer pro DSLRs have the facility to write to two memory cards at once; if you have that option, it’s an excellent start. Memory cards, with their solid state memory, are generally very stable—not perfect, but pretty good. They’re not especially fragile and they can stand up pretty well to temperature fluctuations and even airport security scanners.
The problem with just relying on memory cards, though, is that their gigabyte to dollar ratio is still quite high compared to other kinds of media storage, especially if you’re using fast memory cards. So buying a bunch of memory cards and only using them once on any given trip is technically possible but not very cost-effective.
Portable Hard Drives
For the moment, I always take at least one portable hard drive with me to include in my mix of backups. They’re still not ideal–a good hard knock will pose problems–but they’re pretty good.
In choosing an external hard drive for travel, these are the key things I look for:
- Small. I need something that I can slip in my walking around camera bag so that I don’t have to leave it back at the hotel room with my laptop. I also want something that fits comfortably in a lightweight waterproof option like these Sea-to-Summit dry bags. You can’t take them diving, but they’re excellent for stopping a leaking water bottle or being caught in a sudden thunderstorm from ruining your hard drive.
- Powered by BUS. I don’t want something that needs yet one more specific power adapter and another international adapter. Aside from the hassle of carrying around something else and risking forgetting it in a hotel room, but have you ever noticed how few wall outlets there are in many hotel rooms and how often they’re hidden in nearly inaccessible corners behind the heaviest furniture in the room? Powered by BUS means that it gets its power via the USB or Firewire cable and you don’t need to plug it into the all separately–it gets its power from the laptop.
- Reliable. An SSD drive would be more reliable, faster, and less susceptible to the bumps and knocks of travel. Eventually, I’ll almost certainly switch to them, but for now, they remain too expensive. Which brings me to my last requirement . . .
- Cost Efficient. I’d rather have two good cost efficient hard drives than one bleeding edge expensive one, partly because that allows me to have two backups in different places rather than one, thus further reducing the risk of losing everything, and partly because technology is a constantly moving target.
There are quite a few options out there that fit these requirements. Here are a few I’ve used personally and recommend. And if you do decide to buy a hard drive, I’d recommend getting it well in advance of your departure so that you have a chance to test it before you leave and replace it if necessary. Unfortunately, a very small number of hard drives, even by reputable brands, can be duds. And if you’re unlucky enough to drawn the short straw on one, it’s better to find that out before you leave than when you’re the road!
Western Digital MyPassport
The Western Digital MyPassport SE hard drives are available in different colors and are now available with USB 3.0 (older versions in USB 2.0). They’re very slim and, in my experience, work as advertised. There’s also now a 2TB version.
Western Digital has also recently released a weather-sealed, rugged case created especially for their MyPassport series, the WD Nomad. It’s sealed against water, dust, and sand, and because the drive is cradled in rubber supports, it’s supposedly possible to drop from 7 feet onto a hard surface without damaging the drive. I picked up one of these cases recently and it’s solidly made and the drive fits perfectly, but I haven’t done a drop test (and don’t plan to do one on purpose). The outside of the case has a loop for a strap, but unfortunately there’s no space internally for the bespoke USB cable that the MyPassport uses. You’re not going to be able to use the drive without that cable and with its specialized flat plug on one end it’s not a cable you can pick up in a normal store especially while traveling, so you don’t want to lose it. I’ve used a velcro cable tie to attach it to the strap loop.
OWC Mercury On-the-Go-Pro
The On-the-Go-Pro drives from Other World Computing are another very good option. If you have a Mac, these can be an especially good option because there’s an option with Firewire 800/400 (and USB 2.0). There’s another version with USB 3.0.
The Lacie Rugged range are also good. I like that there’s a version with Firewire 800 and the “shock proof” protection seems good, but I don’t like the way that all the inputs remain exposed. I’d prefer that there was a way to seal those from weather, sand, and dust.