As a photographer, there’s nothing worse than losing your hard shot photos, whether it’s from hard drive failure, theft, or anything else. With a good backup strategy, it’s easy to keep your photos safe at home, but what about when you’re still out shooting? What if you’re going off the grid and away from your laptop for a couple of days, or even a few weeks? Let’s take a look.
While you’re out on location, the most significant risks to your photos are theft, loss, and data loss. The solution to all three risks is mostly the same: make sure you never have just a single copy of your images on a single SD card or hard drive, or all your copies in a single location. There’s a bit more to it than that, so read on.
To minimize the chance of data loss from a failing SD card—which can happen, although it’s super rare—before even heading out to shoot, make sure you’re using high-quality cards that are in good condition. We recommend SanDisk and Lexar cards and really, there’s no excuses for not using the best: a 32GB SanDisk Ultra SD card costs less than $10. Just be careful about buying fakes.
If your SD cards have been sitting in a drawer gathering dust for a while, it’s worth looking them over. Check that they’re not dented, scratched, or otherwise damaged. You should also format them before every shoot.
Dual card slots are a professional feature and, if your camera supports them, absolutely use them. Unless you’re shooting a lot of bursts, shoot RAW to both cards. This way, you automatically have a backup of every image you shoot. The odds of one card failing are tiny; the odds of two cards failing at the same time before you have a chance to back up your images somewhere else are essentially zero.
Even if you are shooting to dual cards, it’s a bad idea to leave them both sitting in your camera. If someone steals your camera or it falls off a cliff—which also can happen—you don’t want both cards going with it. When you’re not shooting, take one out and store it on your person, with someone else in your group, or in your bag.
The chance of something happening to your SD cards goes up the longer you use them. Since SD cards are so cheap, it makes sense to use a lot of them. For multi-day trips, I use two cards every day: one main card and one backup card. At the end of each day, I store them separately—usually one in my backpack and one in my hotel room or AirBnB—and put two fresh cards in my camera. This way, if anything happens, I’ll only lose a single day’s worth of images rather than a full trip’s worth. It doesn’t matter whether the cards are full or not.
If you’re going this route, it’s a good idea to number your cards, so you know what photos are on each one. My camera shoots to both CF and SD cards, so I number the CF cards as 1.1, 2.1, 3.1, etc., and the SD cards as 1.2, 2.2, 3.2, and so on. Any numbering system that works for you will do.
An increasing number of portable hard drives, like the GNARBOX or Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro, have a built-in card reader. If you’re traveling without your laptop, it’s worth investing in one. You then have a way to back up your photos every night, or even out on location. It’s especially important if you’re only shooting to a single SD card.
One thing to note is that some cameras, like the Nikon Z6 and Z7, shoot to different card formats: make sure whatever hard drive you buy supports that card format or has a USB port and supports a regular card reader.
With backups, one is none, and two is one so even after you back your photos up to a hard drive, it’s a good idea to leave the photos on the storage cards until you know your images are safely stored in multiple locations—or better yet, in the cloud.
Once you’re home—or back where you’re staying on an extended trip—your first task, before showering or getting a drink, should be to start importing and backing up your images. If you don’t do it first thing, it’s too easy to get distracted and procrastinate.
Import your images into Lightroom or whatever other file management app you’re using, upload them to Dropbox or another cloud storage provider. If you’ve shot more than a handful of images, the whole process is going to need to be left running for at least a few minutes; longer if you’re on hotel wifi. Only when you’re sure that your images are stored in at least two separate locations is it safe to reformat your SD cards and use them again.
If all this sounds a bit paranoid, well, you’d be right. But data loss does happen. Camera gear does get stolen. And, if you’re not prepared, you could lose hundreds or thousands of images you’ve spent time, money, and effort creating.
Image Credit: Eddie Yip on Flickr.