Within the first four days of my time on the Marco Polo I’ve had no less than four people come and ask me to help recover images (and video) they have lost.  So I thought this might be a good time to talk about….

Backup strategies while travelling

First let’s look at the basic principle for keeping images safe when travelling.  It really is very, very simple – have more than one copy of each image and if possible keep the copies separate.  I am paranoid about data loss so as you will see I have multiple copies.

Ian’s backup strategy

Let me tell you how I do it when I am working on the ships – this will work for a few people but I know it will not work for everyone.  So after I have explained what I am doing on this trip I will look at some alternatives and perhaps just as importantly what to do if things go wrong.

I am fortunate that my Canon 5D Mk III has two memory slots, a CF slot and an SD slot.  There are lots of ways you can configure the camera to work with the two slots, but more often than not I have two 64Gb memory cards and I get the camera to write a copy of each RAW file to both card.  So right from the point where I press the shutter release button – I have two copies of every image.

I don’t want to rely on that as my only backup.  I could still lose the images if the camera was stolen, lost or dropped in the Caribbean sea.  So at the end of each day’s shooting I copy the RAW files from that day on to my laptop.  I now have three copies of the images.  One copy will remain on the ship (on the laptop), the other copies travel with me (on the memory cards in the camera).

Actually, to be strictly accurate I copy the images onto an external drive connected to the laptop and not on to the internal drive.  This is because in the unlikely event that we should have to abandon ship, I know I would not be permitted to take either laptop or camera bag with me.  However a small external drive can easily be slipped into a pocket at the same time that I am collecting my life jacket from the cabin.

I try to do as much editing and captioning in Lightroom as I can on my travels.  To safe guard that work I ensure that “automatically write changes to XMP” is set.  This means that all my metadata and processing settings are written out to .XMP sidecar files for RAW images and written into a special reserved area in .DNG files.  If I lost my Lightroom catalog I could reimport these images into any Lightroom and the metadata and processing comes with them.  I also run regular backups when exiting from Lightroom.  My catalog is on an external disk so I save the backups to the internal disk of the laptop.  This means that in the event of the external disk failing I have the LR backup on the laptop and the RAW files on my memory cards and it would be possible to reconstruct everything.  It wouldn’t be easy as I would need to convert the RAW files to DNG outside of Lightroom and rename them too.  Not easy but it is possible.  To make life easy for myself I will often copy the DNG files to either the internal disk or to a second external disk so that I can don’t have to go back to the RAW files on the camera’s memory cards.  Yes, that now means I have no less than FOUR copies of all my images.  Did I mention that I am paranoid about data loss?

Travelling Light?

So what can you do if you aren’t able to take a laptop with multiple external hard drives with you and your camera only has one memory card slot?

It is difficult to give a definitive answer.  It really depends on what you have available to you and/or how much money you are prepared to spend.  The overriding principle has to be have multiple copies and keep them in different places.

Let me give you a few things to consider.  Firstly look at what other items you will be taking with you?  Do you have any spare capacity on your phone or on your tablet?  It is unlikely that you will be able to copy several gigabytes of RAW files onto a mobile device.  However if you only shoot JPG then you might be able to daily copy your images to your phone or tablet so that you have two copies.

If you shoot RAW it is unlikely that you will be able to copy all your RAW files to a mobile device.  However one option is to shoot RAW+JPG and copy the JPG files to your phone or tablet each day.  A JPG file is not ideal but if anything happened to the RAW images it is better than nothing as a reminder of your trip.  One word of warning though, if you use the apple USB connector iPads and iPhones don’t permit you to be selective about what you copy over – it will ‘suck in’ both RAW and JPG files.

Another possible solution is instead of having one large capacity memory card buy multiple smaller ones.  Instead of having one 64Gb card buy 4 x 16Gb cards, and regularly swap over which card you are shooting on.  For example everytime you have a break from shooting or get yourself a drink or ice cream.  Swap the card for the next one.  Then if something goes wrong and a card becomes corrupt you still have three quarters of you images on the remaining three cards.

Years ago, it was possible to buy ‘digital wallets’ these small devices which were effectively an external drive with a card slot.  These are not so common.  However many personal hub devices have both card slots and USB ports.  I have the Kingston MobileLite which I normally use for transferring data to and from my iPad and iPhone when I have no internet connection available.  However one additional thing I can do, by using the app that comes with it, I can transfer data from an SD Card to USB Drive.  A great way to back up RAW files!  Also I could use the same app to selectively copy just JPG files from my cards to my iPhone or iPad if I wanted to.

If it all goes wrong!

What should you do if you suddenly realise you have accidently deleted some or all your images off your memory card and you hadn’t got them backed up anywhere.  This was the situation some of the passengers I mentioned found themselves in.  There are two things you need to do immediately:

  • Don’t panic!
  • Don’t shoot anything else on that memory card

The latter is most important.  When images are deleted – they aren’t actually deleted – the space they occupy is just marked as being available for reuse.  So if you don’t write anything else to that card it is relatively easy to scan through the card and look at the ‘available space’ to find the missing images.  However if you continue to shoot, some or all of the ‘lost’ images may get written over and be lost forever.

If you find you have accidently deleted images, take the card out of the camera and put it somewhere safe.  You will need to install some recovery software on your computer.  I use ‘Recova’ (http://www.piriform.com/recuva) which has both a free version and a paid for version.  So far I have only ever needed to use the free version.  Simply insert the memory card into your reader, run the software and follow any on screen prompts.


I can’t say this often enough.  Backups are important.  You need at least two copies of every image.  Think about what your strategy will be now, before you next go travelling.

Also, if the worst happens, don’t panic, it may be possible to get deleted images back, providing you don’t use the card before you try.

If you have all that in place, you can relax, put your feet up and enjoy your trip,

Until next time, keep MAKING great images,