Photo backup options for travellers

One of my primary activities while travelling is photography. I’m no Ansell Adams, but have had a strong interest and enjoyment of photography since I was quite young. I have an old-school 35mm SLR – the Canon A1, purchased in Hong Kong in 1984. At its time, it was about the most technically advanced camera around, offering a range of automatic exposure controls.

Reclining buddha at Suwan Khuha cave temple in Phang Nga
Reclining buddha at Suwan Khuha cave temple in Phang Nga

I haven’t used that camera for travel since 2000, having opted since then for compact digital cameras. As mentioned previously, I recently upgraded to an Olympus OM 10 compact DSLR. It’s compact, aesthetically reminiscent of my old Canon film camera and has a huge range of controls and functions, which three months in I am still coming to grips with.

Once I’ve become more confident with those controls, I may write about some of the functions, which have been both innovative and helpful in my travels. But this post is about ensuring that those precious photographs survive the journey.

Amazing decorative figure at Bangkok's Grand Palace
Amazing decorative figure at Bangkok’s Grand Palace

My camera uses memory cards to store the data that comprises photos, as do most modern cameras. These are tiny fragile chips of plastic and silicone and all it would take to render them useless is a stray grain of sand or a speck of dust or moisture in the wrong place.

In the old days it was rolls of film, strips of delicate, light sensitive plastic. However, a roll of film generally stored up to 36 photos, whereas, after four weeks on the road. (I know I need to edit that number down to a sensible quantity but I bet you shoot way to many too! I also point out that I have configured my camera to save photos in two formats – JPEGs for instant sharing and viewing, and high resolution RAW camera files for potential future editing and use for reproduction or publication – but that’s all a topic for another post.)

If something unfortunate happened to a roll of film, perhaps a day’s worth of memories were lost. If something happened to my SD card, all my photos would be gone, which would be unbearable.

The writer on the fabled Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
The writer on the fabled Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Fortunately the connected digital era offers a variety of backup options for travellers.

Firstly, I downloaded each day’s photos to my iPad, so I could view them and share on various social platforms. This was previously achieved by plugging the SD card into a special adapter purchased from Apple and plugged into the iPad’s port. My new camera (like many new models) is equipped with inbuilt wifi connectivity, so photos are transferred wirelessly between camera and mobile device.

This backs up medium resolution versions of the JPEG format images, and my 64 GB capacity was plenty for all my photos at that resolution for the duration of the trip. Think of it as getting your 35mm film processed and your photos printed as snapshots. The high-resolution negative is still vulnerable, but at least you have copies of your photos.

The writer on 'James Bond Island' in Phang Nga Bay
The writer on ‘James Bond Island’ in Phang Nga Bay

The second step was to post my favourite photos on social media. Those low-resolution copies are stored in the cloud, so if all my luggage and gadgets were to be stolen or dropped into the depths of the Andaman Sea, at least I’d have those images to remind me of my trip. It’s a bit like posting copies of selected prints home to family and friends.

Andrew with cooking buddy Harold at Blue Rice cooking school, Kanchanaburi
Andrew with cooking buddy Harold at Blue Rice cooking school, Kanchanaburi

The third step is use of cloud-based storage services. I use a number of these, but Dropbox is my go-to cloud storage service, handy for holding copies of travel documents, itineraries, guide books and anything else one might need to access in a travel emergency. Dropbox has long had a function whereby photos from your connected device are uploaded to a Dropbox folder called Camera Uploads. This was enhanced further with the launch late in 2014 of Carousel, a Dropbox app that makes viewing and backup of photos to Dropbox easy.

In a tuk tuk after a foodie tour through Bangkok's Chinatown
In a tuk tuk after a foodie tour through Bangkok’s Chinatown

The backup happens quietly in the background when the device (my iPad) is connected to the internet, and it was comforting to know that overnight my photos would be uploaded to my Dropbox while I slept. To continue the comparison with negatives and prints, think of this as sending copies of all your photo prints home.

Dropbox offers 2 GB of free storage. I hit this limit around half way through my trip. My options were to either delete large numbers of backed up photos (an enforced, and ultimately necessary edit), to pay Dropbox for an increased storage capacity, or to redirect some photos to another service, which I managed to do, manually loading photos from early in my trip to my Microsoft OneDrive account, freeing up space on Dropbox for more backups of new photos. Not exactly elegant, but it worked.

Of course, I was also constantly aware of being careful with my camera and SD cards, ensuring that they never were in a situation that could cause them damage. The riskiest moment is changing batteries, as the card sits in the same compartment, and the battery will always go flat at an inconvenient moment. Try to move to some shelter or cover and minimise the amount of time that the battery compartment is open. Wireless connectivity and not needing to remove the card itself is helpful in helping to protect it. Once full, I placed stored cards in small sealed bags inside a small bag that offered some physical protection inside my luggage.

Cooking in Aoi's kitchen during an overnight homestay in the village of Baan Mae On near Chiang Mai
Cooking in Aoi’s kitchen during an overnight homestay in the village of Baan Mae On near Chiang Mai

Since returning home, however, my preferred cloud backup solution is now Google Photos. Previously embedded in Google+, Google’s famously under-utilised social media network, roll out of Google Photos as a stand-alone service with its own app commenced in late May. I had previously backed up photos from my laptop to Google+ (via Google’s excellent Picasa photo library software). Those photos are still there, and the app, available for tablets and smartphones on both iOS and Android, extends this backup to the mobile world. Users can upload unlimited images at an optimised resolution of up to 16 megapixels. Uploading at higher resolution is possible, but counts against your Google Drive storage account limit (currently 15 GB without paying for additional capacity). Like the Dropbox Carousel solution, this uploads in the background so wins on convenience too.

Another option that might be worth checking out is Flickr, Yahoo’s photo sharing service, which has also recently added new mobile apps for iOS and Android and apparently offers up to 1 terabyte of free storage. However the integration with Picasa makes Google’s option work for me, at least at the moment.

What arrangements do you make, if any, for backing up your photos and other data while travelling?  Please, leave a reply because I’d love to hear any suggestions, solutions, comments or questions.

Handy resource – Bits and Bytes – Digital storage demystified

If you have trouble knowing the difference between a megabyte and a gigabyte, this handy cheat sheet might be of help. Not only does it explain them in terms of bits and bytes, it also offers some helpful, or at least intriguing, examples to help in imagining the sheer quantum of data represented by these terms.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the challenges of staying connected via wifi while on the road.

A late night at Chiang Mai's Ladyboy Cabaret
A late night at Chiang Mai’s Ladyboy Cabaret

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