Even now, in 2017, when processors and storage are much smaller than yesteryear, dedicated backup solutions for travel photographers are rarely pragmatic and viable.
Having built various networks, servers, desktop computers, and set up nearly every Linux distribution available, I’m fairly computer literate. However, I’m all to aware this article might get obsoleted soon; moreover, some of this is subjective and you may prefer to use another method. With this in mind, I am in no way suggesting my methods are a perfect solution to the age old problem: how does a travel photographer back up his/her photographs without breaking his/her back, backpack and bank?
An obvious backup solution
The easiest way to backup data is to have a camera with dual card slots and you should factor this into consideration when buying a camera. It is always a good idea to backup data as many times as possible, but the chances of two cards failing at the same time are incredibly slim, especially if you buy your SD cards at a different date i.e. they (hopefully) won’t be from the same batch and if there’s a problem with one production line, it shouldn’t affect you beyond one SD card failing. Another advantage to this method is that if one memory card slot fails to function, the other should continue to work.
The disadvantage with this is that up until recently, cameras with dual card slots have typically been bigger, and more importantly, heavier. This isn’t because they have to be, for example the Sony a7rIII and the Sony a9 are small cameras. Not everyone can afford to buy the Sony a7rIII or the Sony a9 though; many lightweight, small, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras still have single card slots.
It’s not a perfect solution to have dual card slots either. If someone steals your camera or it fries, you might lose both cards. It’s also worth considering that on some models, the second slots are slower (this is true with the Canon 5d Mk III, Sony a7rIII, sony a9, etc.) and this may screw with your shooting style. Nonetheless, I believe dual card slots are the best portable backup option for a travel photographer.
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A dedicated device: perhaps the worst option for travel photography
An external storage device can be useful for duplicating data; these are somewhat heavy and unfortunately a lot do not currently have SSDs i.e. many use older, unnecessarily heavy mechanical drives.
The RAVPower FileHub Plus is a versatile wireless travel router, an SD Card USB reader and a portable hard drive companion which includes a 6000 mAh external battery pack. It weighs 5.4oz or 154g, but the majority of that weight lies within the battery. If you’re going to go this route, I’d suggest the RAVPower FileHub Plus, but I’d wait until you’ve read the next method…
A better backup solution for travel photography
Using a smartphone with USB-OTG (on the go) support allows you to plug in external devices and use the phone like a regular computer. While the accumulative weight on a mirrorless camera with a single card slot and a backup solution might be equal to a heavier DSLR with a dual card slot, the weight is modular by design–you can distribute it around your body or bag(s) in a more manageable fashion. Moreover, if you’re using a phone as a backup device, the chances are, you’re going to be bringing your phone anyway i.e. it’s not an additional weight. This solution is your best bet if you don’t own a camera with dual card slots, and even if you do, you might want an additional backup method for a few different reasons e.g. to send an SD card home.
It’s a small, lightweight solution to the problem and as phones get faster, it’ll only get quicker. I recommend picking your memory card reader wisely, for example the Transcend memory card reader is not that good. If you get a Kingston Mobilelite G4 memory card reader, you can plug in an SD card and a microSD card at the same time, and then copy the files from one card to the other. Many do not allow this and only allow you to plug in one card at a time–it is advertised as simultaneous writing. Please read my memory card reader review page for more information
You can do something similar with a Samsung T5 SSD and you add very little carrying weight (about 30-50 grams.)
The caveat with using your smartphone is that write times can be slowish due to the smartphone itself; this depends entirely on the model of smartphone e.g. the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 has extremely fast USB-OTG speeds. Unfortunately, even those that that support USB-C and USB 3.1 file speeds don’t always support USB 3.1 speeds when multiple devices are connected i.e. they revert to USB 2.0 speeds. when multiple devices are connected. Please note, this isn’t as complicated as it sounds.
I recommend the Kingston Mobilelite G4 memory card reader compared to the transcend.
For this phone method to work, you have a few options:
- Copy files from an external card reader onto an internal microSD card i.e. use the internal microSD card as your backup
- Copy files from an external card reader onto an internal microSD card and then copy those files back onto an external drive or SD card
- Copy files from an external dual card reader, from one card to another (the reader must support simultaneous writing and the USB port must support high speed when multiple devices are connected)
- Copy files from an external card reader onto the phone itself
MicroSD cards are also getting incredibly fast these days which helps to speed up the process. The Google Pixel, Samsung Galaxy S8 and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 have a USB-C port with USB 3.1 speeds and although the USB port might slow down when multiple devices are connected, you can still use the internal MicroSD card.
Many Android phones allow you to connect a Samsung T5 and an SD card at the same time (or connect two SD cards instead of the Samsung T3), and transfer data from one to the other. USB-C USB 3.1 devices (such as the Google Pixel) have changed portable backup tremendously; they allow extremely fast write times and this means that you’ll be able to copy the files on an SD card to an external drive like the Samsung T5 much quicker than before. With most microUSB phones, you can expect write times of about 20MB/sec at best. USB-C is just a connector standard and it is worth making sure the product you are interested in has USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 and not USB 2.0. USB 3.1 technically allows write speeds of 10gb/sec but a phone and SD card often max out at about 90MB/sec (I haven’t tried the Samsung T5, it might give better results.) That’s about two compressed raw files a second or about one uncompressed raw file in under a second, with the Sony a7rII or Sony a7rIII.
In simple terms, you can expect to backup an entire day’s worth of raw photographs to a 30-50gram external SSD drive or microSD card in only a few minutes. The Samsung Galaxy S8 and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 are the best phones to offer what I want in a backup device but I wish the USB 3.1 port would remain USB 3.1 when multiple devices are connected. Alternatively, if the MicroSD card slot was a little easier to access, it would help.
Lastly, in regards to this method, be very careful when buying USB-C products. There are a lot of bad USB-C products available i.e. they might have the wrong resistor inside.
An absurd backup method for travel photography
For some people, bringing a tablet with a full sized USB port can be another way to store data; there’s the option to either store data on the tablet directly or use an external drive. For me, this method is absurd as it’s extremely heavy. If you frequently stay in hotels or whatnot and you only go for day hikes, this method might be something you’ll want to consider.
File rotation is slightly better than nothing
The final option, and it goes against my recommendation, is to take a few photographs, take out the SD card (when it is not full) and rotate it with another card. Thereby not losing all the photographs taken in one day.
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