iPad photography

Backup Your Photos like a Pro

  by Dustin Main9 Comments

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There is an oft-quoted line that goes something like this.

“If there’s a fire in the house, people will grab the kids, then the pets, then the photo albums.”

So what about if you’re traveling?  Chances are your camera won’t catch on fire, but maybe a hooligan will try to cut you for it.  How do you safeguard your digital memories without worrying about it 24/7?

My friends say I’m a bit of a photo bug, and I’m often asked how I manage it all.  Here’s the solution that I have used for the past 3 years and how you can use it too.

I call it “The Doubles.”


What You Need

Camera (I hope)
Memory cards (more than a couple)
Laptop (and an external hard drive won’t hurt either)

Step 1: Don’t Erase Your Memory Cards

First off, every day be sure to copy whatever new photos you have taken to your laptop.  Do not remove them from your memory card.  Remember: memory cards are cheap and small, so have a few.

When the memory card is full, swap it out for a new one, but don’t format (delete the images) from the older memory card. Just keep it in a nice, safe, waterproof bag.


Now you have two copies.  One on your laptop, one on the memory card.  I typically have these memory cards in my day pack, and my laptop back at the guesthouse.  Two separate locations nearly all the time.

Bonus points: Create a third copy onto an external hard drive if you travel with one.

Step 2A: Send a Copy Home

After I have filled up all of my memory cards (4x 32GB + 3x8GB = 152GB total, this takes me about 6-12 months), I buy an external hard drive ($50-$75) and copy my complete photo library from the computer onto it.  I ship this “home” which takes about 2-3 weeks typically from just about anywhere in the world.

Once it arrives, have someone verify that the files are OK, and they copy them to a computer.  This could be a friend’s computer, or anyone else for that matter.  Once that’s copied, start reusing my memory cards one by one.

Still two copies, One on your laptop, one back “home”

Bonus points: Have the photos copied to a RAID-like backup device such as a Drobo (or in my case a home server) when they arrive home.

Step 2B: Backup to the Cloud

You may have a cloud backup solution already.  Mozy, Crashplan, and Carbonite are all popular choices.  Even Dropbox can work as a backup.  If you don’t shoot much, or you’re using a smartphone / P&S camera, the cloud can be a great way to back up your photos.

Whenever you’ve found yourself some internet access, it will back up your photos online for you automatically.

If you’re like me though, you can shoot a couple GB worth of images in a day without a sweat.  Even with the pay plans (some are even “unlimited” in storage) you may run into the bigger problem of finding internet access fast and reliable enough to get it up there as fast as you’re shooting.

Still two copies, one on your laptop, one online

Step 3: Don’t Stop at Home

Just because you’re not carrying around your camera shooting parades in Rio anymore, doesn’t mean you can slack on caring for your photos.  Keep two copies here as well.

While you still have a copy on your laptop, make a second copy onto an external hard drive and take it out of the house. Give it to a family member or friend and have them stick it on a shelf or in a drawer.  Failing that, even a safety deposit box will do fine.  If something happens to your computer, or your home, you still have a safe backup offsite.

Still two copies, one on the computer, and one on an external hard drive offsite.

Bonus points: If you’re more serious with your photos, make another backup for the backup.  In my case, it’s a home server w/RAID and desktop computer.


I shoot with a DSLR, and it takes big pictures, so I have big memory cards (4x 32GB + 3x8GB = 152GB total) and 2 external hard drives. I prefer Western Digital “My Passport” 1TB hard drives, and Sandisk Ultra 32GB SD Cards.

I know first hand about hardware failures and worst case scenarios from my years in the technology services industry. You don’t want a hard drive failure, fire, theft, or any sort of malware to leave your photos nothing but a fading memory.

Data recovery is expensive, and I’m sure you would rather spend $2000 on your next adventure instead of recovering some of your photos from a past trip.

Whether you shoot with a $100 point & shoot, or a $4000 DSLR, remember your photos are once-in-a-lifetime, so treat them right.

For more on safeguarding your data while traveling, see our posts on Backing Up on the Road and Encryption for Travelers: The Basics

About the Author

Dustin Main

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Dustin just can't get enough travel or technology, but when he's not directly feeding one of those insatiable habits, you can probably find him at some far away ice cream shop taking pictures of empty cups. That, or on top of a mountain somewhere shooting photos and finding adventures to share on his website "A Skinny Escape".


  1. Great tips! We keep our memory cards in a little ziplock bag like that too. Last week we thought we lost the bag:)

    1. Author

      Nice! I don’t think my image above illustrated it well, but I keep them in a ziplock, then in a padded “money belt” thing, then rolled up inside another heavy duty ziplock. I usually have these in my daypack so keeping the moisture out is #1 for me!

  2. The class 4 memory cards are ok for an entry level DSLR, but if you’re doing anything demanding like timelapse or HD video on a camera that supports high bit-rates, they’re just too slow. In some cases they may make your DSLR quite sluggish.

    As a long-term backup solution, multiple SD cards may be ok with low photo volumes, but a cheaper and more convenient solution is really multiple external HDDs. So far I haven’t had any trouble with the WD 1TB drives, but I’d steer clear of some of the cheaper brands, and definitely avoid using a drive that isn’t designed to be portable (ie. anything that plugs in to mains power).

    1. Author

      Definitely agree with you that some may require faster cards, but I think that most people will see no difference day-to-day. I’ve shot 15min of HD on a D7000 with one of these cards and it didn’t burp.

      If you are shooting higher frame rates, a faster card is a must without a doubt. It’ll become more important with some of these 30MP cameras coming on the market. I’ve found that the better brands rate their cards lower than they actually perform, but obviously if the performance is key, go for the best match for your usage.

      As for the backup, you’re right, there is no one-size-fits-all. I think for most, dropping some cash on a handful of good memory cards is a good option though. I know that the time lapse that you and Michael are doing these days eats up memory and it wouldn’t be a good match for you.

      Finally great tip on the portable hard drive cables. It’s not too often these days, but I still see a few requiring a 2nd USB lead or AC cable. Huge pain. The extra power that accessories can pull from the USB3 spec should finally eliminate that all together.

      Thanks for the great tips! Maybe I’ll cover SD card speeds in a future article. The specs, and especially the naming of them all, is a giant confusing mess for the lay-person.

  3. I was actually also robbed in Saigon a few years ago, fortunately the night before I had gone to an Internet cafe and burned DVDs of all my photos. It sucked to be robbed but I had apartment insurance so after a quick trip to the police station to fill out a report I went to a camera store and bought a new one.

    1. Author

      Didn’t your bag get slashed that time? For some reason I thought you were robbed in BsAs too, but when I looked it up again, turned out it was Kirsten. 3 camera robberies would have been reason to never carry a camera again. 🙂

  4. Great article. I have lost memory cards, and I have also had a computer crash. I was able to recover the photos from the computer crash, but they I am still going through the recovered files and getting them reorganized. I discovered that the files don’t get recovered in a nice orderly fashion! I use Western Digital as well, and I swear by them. I also upload a lot of photos to Flickr. That can be slow, but for 25.00 per year it is cheap storage!!

    1. Author

      Thanks Nancie. I didn’t make a mention about flickr / smugmug in this article as they aren’t automated like a product such as mozy. I should do a roundup of those!

      File recovery is always a little iffy, and can be even trickier with flash memory and SSD drives. Glad to hear you were at least able to get some data back.

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