A roundup of some of the best options for small, reliable external hard drives that are perfect for backing up your images while traveling.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s available in 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB versions from Amazon.
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.
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).