Digital Image Protection and Backup

In the old days of film (film’s not dead yet by the way) there were a couple of factors that possibly could destroy your photos forever. The film in your carry on baggage could have been damaged by the X-ray machine at the airport, you could accidentally open the camera back after a big night and expose the film to light, you could even loose your negatives at the lab when the new trainee mixed up the chemicals wrong.

In today’s day and age of digital photography there are an equal number of things that can go wrong with your digital files. There are literally thousands of resources on the Internet that talk about file management, but I’ll keep to brief and simple to suit people that would just be going on holidays with their camera, whether it is a digital compact, a new camera owner or even an advanced amateur.

So, you have your camera, your bag, your plain tickets, your hotel bookings and tours planned. You now have to think of a strategy to manage your digital files, so one: you don’t lose any photos and two: you have a realistic amount of memory cards. Lets face it, no one want to lose once in a lifetime travel photos or miss an opportunity for a shot when your memory cards are full.

I’ll generally talk about both the person starting out with a new camera (or is new to digital) and people like me that would take a case load of gear and 80% of the reason of the trip is to take photos.

What memory cards to take:
Well this totally dependent on how trigger happy you are and whether you can off load digital files along the way. A good starting point is two cards. On my 5 week trip to the USA I only really used my 8GB card and on seldom occasions used a 4GB card for backup. Please buy them at home at your local department store or at a camera specialist as they charge an arm and leg at the airports and tourist spots. Make sure you get good name brand one designed for cameras, much like the Sandisk Extremes III or IV, Lexar Pro, Hoodman etc.

Handling the cards:
When you get a new memory card or empty a card onto your computer, you should always format it in the camera. Simply refer to your camera’s manual to see how to do this. Get into this habit every time you go out to shoot as well as having your batteries fully charged. I make it a ritual to do all those things every time I go out on a job or a photo expedition.

Formatting a card sets up the appropriate file structure suited to the camera to allow accurate file placement when the camera takes a picture. It also deletes any other data that doesn’t need to be there and any old photos so the card is not littered with fragmented files. Because simply deleting them off the card still leaves a trace of the file, so much of it can still be recovered by special data recovery software. But before I format my cards I always check that I have two copies either on my separate hard drives on my PC or on any other storage media (like DVDs).

The card is full what now?
If you have a second card you can continue to shoot with that until you have an opportunity to transfer your images files to something. When I travel or I have an important location shoot like a wedding I take a laptop with two hard drives. This is so when all my cards are full I can back them to my portable hard drives and feel safe when I need to format my cards. Try to do it one card at a time (as in one per night) because it takes a long time to empty 16GB worth of shots onto a PC (I shoot RAW files and a small JPEG for easy identification on my PC).

Travelling with a laptop is not always practical for many people, so there are other ways to successfully backup your images. There are numerous portable card reader/hard drive storage units, but these are usually left to the professionals and it’s beyond the scope of this article.

Unless you are shooting deep in an Asian jungle or in a remote desert, you surely will have access to photo kiosks or shops. This maybe problematic in countries you don’t speak the language of, but in many cases there would be self serve digital kiosks in tourist areas or shopping centers to back up the images on to a DVD. I would suggest doing this twice as I have read of cases where the DVD used was faulty or the files didn’t write properly. If you have the opportunity, verify if the files are on the disc/s before formatting your memory cards.

Summing up the risks:
Losing digital files is easy. It’s something that is not thought about too much by people these days, but when it happens to you, you would be devastated. A photo in most cases can’t be taken the same way again, especially a travel photo. We never in the past thought so highly of the safety of photos as it was a rarely publicised and talked about topic. But with the increased saturation of digital photographers out there and the ability to buy a camera for under $200, image loss is more common than ever.

It will happen to anyone and at anytime. On my trip to the USA I brought a laptop and a 160GB backup drive, along with 16GB of memory cards. I often filled two of the cards over the course of a few days. I would backup to both the laptop hard drive and the backup drive. On the last night of a 5 week trip, the laptop hard drive crashed. After a re-boot it reverted back to factory settings with a blank hard drive, so all the photos disappeared. Luckily we had a backup on the other drive and we got that home safely. I only lost one folder The old saying goes: “its not a matter of if the hard drive fails, its a matter of when.”

The risks don’t stop there. If you have backed up you images on a DVD, can you make sure that disk gets home safely? Your bag could get lost or stolen at the airport, the bag could get crushed by that person that over packed their suitcase. Get two copies, one for carry-on and one in the suitcase.

USB drives are a great storage alternative and very reliable as they don’t use moving parts like in hard drives. But being so small they can be easily get lost, sat on or stolen.

Now, what to do when you get the images home. Don’t be like most people and leave them on the camera until the time you buy a new camera, get them backed up, printed into physical prints, put them in a photobook or a DVD slideshow.

So there you have it, image protection is easy, it just takes a little thought and discipline. In the next article on travel advice I’ll talk about whether to shoot RAW or JPEG files in the space of a few paragraphs.

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