Coming home from a trip or photo shoot empty-handed isn’t much fun. Whether you're traveling or shooting on location for a client, 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 while you're on the road. Sure, backing up to the cloud sounds good in theory and works well at home, but hotel or cafe wifi usually isn't up to the task. So a portable hard drive is the way to go.
Keep it Redundant and Distributed
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.
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 copies and having them 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. Sometimes I use a self-contained card backup drive. Other times I use a laptop. In both cases I like to also have a separate, small, external 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 hotel wifi is usually so slow and flakey that it's rare that this is a reliable backup option. 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. Memory card manufacturers claim that their SD and microSD cards are waterproof, temperature proof, shock and vibration proof, x-ray proof, magnet proof, and impact proof.
The prices of memory cards has come down a lot, and you can even get 512GB SD cards now (although they're not cheap!). So if your camera has the ability to copy to two cards at once, it's a more practical option than it used to be, although they still don't offer the same cost-per-gigabyte economy of hard drives. So backing up to memory cards still isn't ideal--it'll eat in to your camera's battery life and memory cards aren't really designed for archival storage (and are very easy to lose)--but it's an ultra-lightweight option that makes more sense as cards get bigger and costs come down.
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. Prices are coming down on them, but there are still some very good magnetic hard drive options. 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.
Portable Hard Drives
There are quite a few options out there that fit the requirements I've outlined above. And since I originally posted my roundup of portable hard drives a few years ago, manufacturers have come out with some interesting new offerings.
Seagate Seven Portable Hard Drive
This has become my go-to hard drive on the road for the simple reasons that it's truly tiny and solidly built. The selling point of this one is how thin it is--Seagate markets it as the "thinnest 500GB portable drive," and it's hard to argue with that. It is literally 7mm high, which is where it gets its name from. It weighs a touch over 6 ounces and measures 3.2 inches by 4.8 inches. It's only available in a 500GB version. Its interface is USB 3.0, and in a nice touch, the USB cable that comes with it is braided to make it more rugged than your average cable. It doesn't require any external power, and it's encased in a stainless steel enclosure. It doesn't come with many bells and whistles, but does include Seagate's Dashboard software installed by default (you can also reformat and start with a clean drive, as I do).
As a hard drive, it does what it needs to do, and does it reliably. But the thing that makes me choose this most of the time over the other hard drives I have is that I can slip it into an internal pocket of my camera bag and carry it with me all the time. So if my hotel room gets ransacked, I'll still have the backup of all my photos physically with me.
LaCia Rugged Hard Drives
LaCie, a French company now owned by Seagate, has long established itself as a leader in the rugged hard drive market with its drives wrapped in its distinctive orange padding, and they're a very popular choice for photographers and videographers. With both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt interfaces, as well as being compatible with both Mac and Windows, this portable hard drive has a lot going for it.
Its ruggedized case protects it from hard knocks, although does add some bulk so the total package is a bit bigger than some of the other options. And in a nice touch, it comes with a Thunderbolt cable--they can be an expensive add-on if you have to buy one separately.
For even more protection, Lacie has a new RAID version in its portable, rugged series. It has a maximum potential capacity of 4TB that spans two 2TB drives stacked on top of each other inside the case. It's really designed to have a usable capacity of 2TB by using RAID 1 to duplicate the data internally to provide the added protection that RAID offers. But you can, if you like, use RAID 0, which treats the two hard drives as one big 4TB drive but doesn't give you the added protection of RAID 1.
Western Digital My Passport
Western Digital has added a whole bunch of different options in its My Passport range in recent years. It's no longer just about colors anymore. There are many different varieties. The Slim version is the one I like because of its size. It's available as either a 1TB or 2TB drive. While not as thin as the Seagate Seven, it's still a very compact little drive and fits well in a camera bag.
It comes formatted for Windows NTFS, so if you want to use it on Mac you should reformat it using Disk Utility. If you want to use the pre-installed software, there are things like password protection and backup to Dropbox available. I prefer just to wipe them and start with a clean drive.
Western Digital also now has a weather-sealed, rugged case created especially for most (but not all) of its drives in the My Passport 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.
Western Digital My Passport Wireless
While this is one of a number of different drives in the Western Digital My Passport range, this one rates a special mention for photographers. The wifi aspect has found itself in the name of the drive, but the interesting part for photographers is the built-in SD card reader. It's larger than the Slim drive above and some others in the range, but having an integrated card reader can come in very handy if you're looking to backup your photos without a computer. Unfortunately there's no version for compact flash cards and it doesn't have the kind of file verification and other features of other card reader/hard drive combinations, but it's an interesting hybrid that's worth a look. I'll be posting a detailed hands-on review of these soon.
Drobo has been a major player in off-the-shelf and easy-to-use large storage solutions for a while. I've used a Drobo S for several years, and it has worked very well for me as one part of my in-office backup system.
Drobos are enclosures with several slots that you can add multiple bare hard drives to, so you can control the amount of storage and upgrade to larger hard drives later if you need to. They use a proprietary RAID-like system that provides protection against data loss if one, or perhaps more, of your hard drives fails. You can accomplish basically the same result, often more cheaply, by building your own NAS box or putting together options from other brands, but Drobo realized there's a market for packaging the hardware and software together in an easy-to-use, non-intimidating package that just works.
Most Drobo boxes are designed for home or office use--they're not the kind of thing you put in your bag and take with you. But they now have a smaller, portable option called the Drobo Mini. The principle is the same--it's a box that you add up to four 2.5" hard drives to--but it's much smaller and easier to take on the road. It has Thunderbolt ports as well as USB 3.0 (it doesn't come with a Thunderbolt cable). There's also a carry bag for it that's sold separately.
You can buy it in various configurations, starting with a basic Drobo Mini enclosure and then buy up to four hard drives separately. One thing to note is that because the 2.5" drives are originally designed for laptop use, you don't tend to get the same massive storage sizes you get with larger 3.5" drives. You can get up to 6TB drives in the 3.5" size, but 1TB is more typical with 2.5" drives. The Drobo Mini also works with SSD drives, which are faster, quieter, and more shock-resistant but also more expensive.
One negative compared to most of the options I've mentioned here--and one of the requirements I listed at the outset--is that the Drobo Mini needs to be plugged into AC power.
MyDigital SSD OTG
Tiny and solid-state, so naturally shock-resistant, this drive fits easily in a pocket. The OTG stands for "on the go." It's available in 256GB or 512GB. The downside is that it's priced over double a small 512GB HDD like the Seagate Seven. It's available at Amazon.
G-Technology G-DRIVE ev ATC
G-drive make some really good hard drives, and this one caters to those on the go. It's really two pieces: a hard drive and what they call an all-terrain case (or ATC). The case protects against falls from up to about 6 feet, floats, and keeps out dust. There's a choice of drive to put in it with 500GB and 1TB sizes and USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt interfaces. The package is sometimes sold as a complete unit and sometimes as individual pieces, so be sure you know which you're getting. Available at Amazon.
Transcend USB 3.0 M3
Transcend markets these as having "Military-Grade Shock Resistance" with a special shock absorption system built in. They're traditional hard drives--not SSD--so are relatively inexpensive. They're available up to 2TB and have USB 3.0 interfaces. Available at Amazon.
Apricorn Aegis Padlock Hard Drive
If you need to add an extra layer of security to your data, the Apricorn Aegis Padlock drive has a keypad interface built-in for a numerical passcode and encrypts the data with AES XTS 256-bit encryption. If you're using a Mac, be aware that it's formatted with NTFS by default, so you'll need to enable NTFS writing on your computer. It uses a USB 3.0 interface and has a built-in cable.
It's available in 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB versions from Amazon.
Inatack 2.5" Enclosure
This one isn't a hard drive, per se, but an enclosure that you can swap out 2.5" drives in. So if you've got 2.5" drives already, or you want to swap out multiple naked drives, this will add a USB 3.0 interface along with some protection. It effectively turns any internal 2.5" drive into an external drive. It's available at Amazon.
It wasn't that long ago that a 16GB thumb drive seemed pretty huge. Now there are 256GB or even 1TB thumb drives. While the cost-per-gigabyte is still higher than a regular hard drive, they're becoming surprisingly cost-effective.
Aside from being tiny, they're also solid-state flash memory, which means that you have to try pretty hard to damage them physically. They don't need external power, you don't need to worry about a connection cable, and being USB 3.0 they're widely compatible. Here's an inexpensive 256GB drive from PNY and another from Patriot. And while it definitely doesn't qualify as inexpensive yet, you can even get a 1TB thumb drive from Kingston (there's also a 500GB version that's about half the price).