Mobile backups — don’t lose your photos when you’re on the move!

(Hopefully) most photographers have settled on a good backup scheme for use while they’re at home. Backups can be life savers when it comes to protecting against data loss — whether due to human error, hardware failures, software problems (either accidental or due to a hacker’s intrusion), theft, even natural disasters.

But of course, it’s easier to have and use a robust photo backup approach when you’re sitting still in your own home, compared to when you’re on the move. Routinely backing up your photos while you’re traveling introduces a number of challenges and complexities. You have to contend with limits on the weight and size of your backup hardware, you may or may not be able to count on a WiFi connection, and you’ll have additional constraints on your time. In particular, it’s much more challenging to do automatic (set-and-forget) backup while traveling.

But fear not, gentle reader — not all is lost on the mobile backup front. The march of technology has been a big help to us lately.

3, 2, 1, let’s go!

We should start with some basics. When it comes to backing up data (whether at home, or on travel), it’s a good idea to start with the 3–2–1 backup rule. This approach dates back to 2005, when it was first published in “The DAM Book” by photographer / writer / tech consultant Peter Krogh.

Conceptually at least, it’s pretty simple:

3 — You store your original data as well as two backup copies.
2 — Your backups need to be on two different types of media (and both are preferably of different media types than what’s hosting your original data).
1 — At least one of your backups should be “offsite” (i.e., physically separate from your original data and the other backup). While traveling, this really requires some sort of cloud backup approach — assuming that you’ll be headed somewhere that has at least occasional WiFi service.

It’s good to see 3–2–1 as only a starting point, and I’d recommend you consider going beyond it. You can also implement this approach in a number of ways — some more robust than others — depending on your personal situation. You’ll want to think through your options methodically, with consideration to how and where you’ll be traveling, and the constraints you’ll be working under.

So, just what are you afraid of?

I’ve found it’s a good exercise to brainstorm a solid list of scenarios you need to protect against. I’d also suggest you make this exercise more than just a mental one, physically write your scenarios down. Then when you start sketching out a prospective backup scheme, read back through the list and make sure your approach really protects you on all counts.

Just how many things could cause you to lose your travel photos? In an attempt to be thought provoking, I’ll sketch out a few scenarios for you, starting with relatively minor ones and getting into uglier situations as I go along.

Memory card corruption — sadly, this should be a fairly easy thing to imagine. I suspect it’s happened at some point to all of us. Using a camera with dual card slots can help here, but otherwise about the best you can do is mitigate your loss by routinely backing up your photos on a daily basis. Bad news: you’ll likely lose one day’s photos; good news: you’ll lose no more than one day’s photos.

Memory card loss — your camera’s memory card is physically lost or damaged (for example, due to mishandling when you remove it from your camera to use a card reader). Again, regular (daily) backups can mitigate if not eliminate this risk.

Camera loss, with the memory card(s) in it — your camera is stolen or fails catastrophically. You will lose all the photos it carries that you hadn’t already backed up. Again, daily backups are your best mitigation here.

Loss of cloud backup — you lose one leg of your triad, mitigated by your “local” copies. And yes, this happens.

Loss of one piece of luggage — you lose a camera and its memory card(s), or any physical backup that was in the lost bag. This scenario is particularly likely with checked bags, so I avoid packing any camera equipment there. But of course, air travel isn’t the only way to lose a piece of luggage — theft happens, as do occasional odd hotel mishaps. Ideally, I’d suggest you pack so that of your 3 copies (original data and 2 backups), only 1 is in any given bag.

Loss of all luggage — this could be due to theft, or fire, or some other major disaster. You’ll lose all of your camera gear and memory cards, and any physical backups you were traveling with (unless, of course, one of them was on your person). Speaking from personal experience, this is a painful thing.

Having a bad day

I’ll admit, it’s unpleasant to spend a lot of time thinking through these nightmare scenarios — but just like the mental exercises behind buying life insurance, it’s necessary from time to time. Lest you feel that I’m over-thinking this issue, allow me to share some experiences I’ve had over the years I’ve been traveling with digital cameras. It may prove inspirational.

Tikal, Guatemala — (remote location, no wired internet or WiFi available) — I had a handy memory card backup device for this once-in-a-lifetime trip. The idea was you inserted your camera’s memory card, pressed a button, and the gadget copied your card to the device’s SSD. One night, I’d backed up my camera’s memory card to my iPad, but when I then used the backup device, it corrupted the card — destroying all the photos on it. I did daily backups, but the camera I used had only a single memory card slot, so the only photos I brought home from that day of the trip were the ones that I’d fortuitously already copied to my iPad.

Munich, Germany — on a trip a few years ago, we stayed in a hotel that was in the upper floors of a building, above ground-level retail. One night, the fire alarm woke us up at 3:00 am — a Pizza Hut two floors below us was ablaze. We could only throw on some clothes and rush out of our room. Fortunately, the building construction and fire suppression system contained the fire where it started — but if we’d been in another / older building, we could easily have lost all our luggage, if not our lives.

Burnt-out Pizza Hut

As an aside, when you go to bed while traveling, I’d recommend that you keep your phone / passport / wallet all together so that if something like this ever happens to you, you can grab them all in one swift motion on your way out the door. Make this simple, your brain won’t be working at full power in a scenario like that.

Rotterdam, Netherlands — in the central train station, a thief distracted a family member while an accomplice stole some of our luggage. I lost both my carry-on bag and backpack — including every piece of photo equipment I took on the trip. My cloud backup was the only source of photos from that multi-week European trip.

Knowing your options

Now that the fright-fest is over, let’s discuss your options for dealing with the risks of travel. An array of hardware is available for on-the-road backups, so what you choose will depend on how light you need to travel, how constrained your time will be, and how much you can / are willing to spend. As for the offsite leg of your triad, you can choose from a number of cloud storage providers, and all have their own strengths and weaknesses.

For the sake of discussion, I’ll assume you travel with at least a smartphone and/or tablet. Most relatively modern devices (thanks, EU!) now have USB-C interfaces. Aside from being a simpler / universal data interface, USB-C allows a device to provide a little bit of power to connected devices — easily enough for a solid state drive or memory card reader. Older iPhones and iPads have lightning ports, which complicates things — you need to use a special dongle and provide it power via a wall charger or USB battery in order to connect even a flash drive.

A menu of approaches

So let’s look at some ways in which backup hardware could play out, optimizing at first for a compact set of gear, and (for the time being) not getting too concerned about how much time the backup process would require. I’m using an iPhone 15 Pro as the centerpiece of this approach, since it’s what I own — but of course, it’s not the only way to do things.

Photos & videos taken with phone, plus local backup, and cloud backup
This is the cheapest and simplest approach — if your phone has a good camera, it has sufficient storage for a trip’s worth of photos, and you have a reasonable expectation of good WiFi connectivity on your trip (backing up to the cloud via a cell connection is slow, and can get expensive). A USB C flash drive isn’t the fastest approach for a local backup, but it’s reasonably priced, and takes up very little space in your luggage.

Gear photo 1

Photos & videos taken with phone (with limited storage), plus local external storage and backup, and cloud backup
If your phone doesn’t have enough storage to hold all the photos you expect to take, you’ll need to offload at least some of them on your trip. This approach is just a bit more expensive and complicated than our first option; here one flash drive acts as your “primary” storage, while a second flash drive acts as your local backup. To protect against potential hardware design or production issues, I’d recommend you use flash drives from different manufacturers.

Gear photo 2

Photos & videos taken with mirrorless camera or DSLR, primary storage on memory cards, local backups on phone or flash drive, and cloud backup
In this scheme, you’ll read your photos from your camera’s memory card (at least temporarily) to your phone, then copy them to a flash drive (if your phone doesn’t have enough storage to serve as a backup) and the cloud.

With the above approaches, you can easily buy yourself a little extra protection (for when WiFi is spotty or unavailable) by just adding one more flash drive. It’s not as robust as off-site backup, but it does buy you some added protection.

Know your hardware

Before you start spending money on hardware for your backup approach, it’s good to do a little research so that you can spend your money wisely. Faster hardware can make your daily backup task quicker, but at the same time there’s not a lot of sense in spending extra for a backup drive that’s “too fast” — namely, faster than anything you can “feed” it with. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and backing up photos will be throttled by the slowest hardware in that chain.

So for the sake of discussion, let’s look at the data speeds supported by the latest release of iPhones (all with USB-C interfaces). An iPhone 15 Pro or Pro Max can support data I/O at USB 3.2 Gen 2 speeds (up to 10 Gb/sec). But an iPhone 15 or 15 Max can only support data I/O at USB 2 speeds (up to 480 Mb/sec). On the photo source end of things, SDXC memory cards top out around 300 MB/s (so, 2.4 Gb/sec), which is faster than any thumb drive I’ve tested, but slower than a good portable solid state drive (I own and speed tested a Crucial X9 Pro 1 TB device).

A table makes comparison of all these numbers a bit easier (I’m including CFexpress and USB 4 speeds for context).

Table of memory speeds

So if your travel backup solution is built around an iPhone 15 (or older), your phone will be the limiting factor when it comes to reading photos off your camera’s memory card(s). A reasonably fast thumb drive will give you a solid backup, while only slowing your process down a little.

If you’re working with an iPhone 15 Pro or Pro Max, though, the situation changes. Now, reading in photos from a memory card will be limited by the speed of the SD card (assuming SDXC), while you’d be well advised to purchase a small solid state drive for to save time spent backing up. You’d need to use a camera recording to CFexpress cards before an iPhone 15 Pro / Pro Max would be the limiting factor in your backup speeds.

Android users will need to do their own research in this regard (there are just *so* many Android devices to choose from). But the bottom line is that there’s no reason to spend extra for backup hardware that’s faster than your mobile device can support. Unless, of course, you are trying to “future proof” your travel gear.

You’ll also need to consider the mess that is USB-C cables. If you’re connecting your phone to a solid state drive or card reader with a cable, the cable can easily be a choke point for your data throughput. There are, unfortunately, no labeling standards for the things — so you can’t generally tell visually whether a cable is optimized for charging (while only supporting low data rates), or whether it can support your mobile device’s full data throughput. Oftentimes the sales ad copy for a cable will be studiously unclear on this point (i.e., touting super-fast charging while not mentioning data transfer speed).

If you need to use a cable as part of your backup approach, make sure to buy one that’s rated for a sufficiently high data throughput speed (this is the most-easily avoided bottleneck)— and mark it yourself, if it doesn’t come with data speed labeling of its own.

A well-labeled cable end
Note to cable manufacturers: this is how to do labeling correctly

As one last aside, a USB-C hub / splitter is both affordable and worthy of consideration as part of your kit. With a hub, your phone or tablet will still be the center of your backup data flow — but you don’t need to use any of its storage for photo backup space. You can copy your photos from your card reader directly to two flash (or solid state) drives and to the cloud, without them even temporarily being stored on your phone. This is a particularly good approach if you have a phone or tablet with relatively limited storage.

Full hardware kit

For what it’s worth, the USB-C hub that I travel with is this one — it costs all of $25, and is skinny enough to easily pack in your luggage. If your phone / tablet provides at least a little power to the USB-C port, the hub doesn’t even need a separate power input (but there’s a port for it, if you’d like). But obviously, there are plenty of hubs on the market to choose from.

How to (accidentally) defeat yourself

Once you have selected and purchased your backup hardware, the job’s only half done. You also need to use your hardware in the most robust way possible. Unfortunately, once you’re traveling, there are plenty of ways in which you can inadvertently defeat an otherwise solid backup scheme.

You’ll need to avoid some bad habits:

1. Traveling with your local backups together in one bag, or in the same bag as your primary photo storage.

2. Relying on the 2nd card slot in your camera for 1 backup. If your camera has 2 card slots, writing to both cards in parallel is good — but it only protects you against a subset of threats (card failure, primarily).

3. Neglecting to back up regularly — daily backups are an essential habit to get into.

Wrapping up

Nobody likes thinking about bad day scenarios, but it’s far less painful to work through them in advance, than to regret not having a good plan after something goes wrong. It’s also far too easy to get complacent once you’ve established a backup approach, and this can blind you to gaps in your protection.

My core recommendation is that you come up with the best approach you can, then stop and think about it critically (and revisit this periodically). Once you get to a place where you can’t really find any way to destroy all your photos, you should be ready for what the world can throw at you.

1 — this is a revised version of an article I previously published on Medium.
2 — some of the links in this article are affiliate links.