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Digital Travel Photography: Backing Up and Sharing Your Images

'Having a wonderful time; wish you were here!' is never truer than when you've got some great photos to share. Fortunately, sharing your images has never been easier, and you don't even have to wait until you get home.

One of the best things about travel is the chance to get away from it all -- meaning a temporary replacement of the elements of your everyday life with new sights, sounds, foods, customs, people, and surroundings. Getting away from it all also means new photographic opportunities. Whether you're just traveling across your home state or province, across the country, or even across an ocean, what is commonplace at your destination can present new and exciting things to photograph.

Getting away from it all also means that you'll want to share your new experiences with your friends, family, and colleagues back home. "Having a wonderful time; wish you were here!" is never truer than when you've got some great photos to show to others. Fortunately, sharing your images has never been easier, and you don't even have to wait until you get home.

Before digital cameras, even the traveler couldn't enjoy photographs that had been taken until returning home and dropping rolls of film off at the lab. The only options were to have the film processed while on the trip (practical only either if you planned to remain in the same location for awhile, or were willing to spend some valuable travel time at a one-hour photo retailer) or to use a film processing mailer to send your film on ahead for (with any luck) processing and delivery to your home by the time you got back. These solutions required extra steps or extra risk for your photos.

Today, you can review your images on your camera's LCD seconds after you take them. Carry along the AV cable furnished with your camera, and you might even be able to figure out how to link up with your hotel TV and view those pictures every evening on a bigger screen.

Of course, digital pictures are so easy to take and so easy to review, and cost you nothing in terms of film and processing (you pay to print only the shots you really want). So, you end up taking many more photos than you did in your film days. People who thought taking 10 to 15 rolls of film along on a week-long vacation was a lot (that's 250 to 400 photos or more), now may find themselves snapping 100 digital pictures a day -- or more!

Let me help you plan for the inevitable moment on your trip when you realize that you've taken many more great pictures than you expected, and now are wondering what to do with all these photos.

Backing Up Your Photos on the Road

Every silver lining has its cloud. The ability to take hundreds of pictures in a day also means that your memory cards fill up rather quickly. An embarrassment of photographic riches may add up to storage poverty. When you're near your home base, it's easy to download any pictures you've taken in a day to your computer, erase your memory cards, and begin shooting again. But when you travel, your home or office computer can't go with you -- unless it happens to be a laptop. Your alternatives are to buy enough blank memory cards to last for your entire trip (which may require you to curtail your shooting at the end of the journey if your cards fill up faster than you expect), or find a way to copy your photos to other media.

Portable/Personal Storage Devices

The portable/personal storage device (commonly known as a PSD) provides you with a way to copy your travel photos to media such as CDs, DVDs, or a transportable hard drive. Once you make a copy, you can safely erase your memory cards and reuse them. You must then be very, very careful of the hard drive or optical media that now contains your photos, because if it is lost or damaged, your precious images are lost, too. For that reason, many traveling photographers are reluctant to use portable hard drives -- they have been known to fail. Optical media fail, too, but, at least, you can make several copies of each backup to reduce your chances of losing any pictures. There are other advantages and disadvantages of each of the most popular personal storage devices. The next sections cover some of these devices and give you practical information to consider when making your choice.

Portable CD/DVD Burners

A transportable CD or DVD burner can be a relatively inexpensive backup method for your travel pictures. For maximum flexibility, choose a model that is battery powered and includes a card reader. All you need to do is insert your memory card in the CD burner's slot and make one or several copies of your photographs. If your burner has a Verify function for the copy cycle, use it to confirm that your images have been duplicated successfully. You might want to make two or three copies, and mail one of them home. Divide the other copies among the luggage of several travel companions if you can. Then, if something bad befalls your luggage, you still have at least one copy of your images.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Large size. Even the most compact portable disc burner can be quite a bit larger than hard drivebased alternatives. Make sure you have enough room to tote around the drive and its AC adapter/charger (if provided).
  • No review. Once the images have been stored on the CD or DVD, you may have no easy way of reviewing them, as the burner device won't have an LCD screen to display your photos. However, your CDs or DVDs can be viewed on any computer with a CD/DVD drive. And, you might even be able to connect the burner to a computer somewhere as you travel.
  • Limited capacity. CDs hold about 700 megabytes of information -- or about 70 percent of the capacity of a 1GB memory card. If your digital camera has a resolution of 6 megapixels or more, you might find that you need quite a large number of CDs to store all the photos you shoot. Multiply the number of CDs by the number of backup copies of each disc that you plan to make. If you have a high-resolution digital camera you might want to consider a DVD burner instead.
  • Time consuming. Burning CDs or DVDs takes time -- count on spending half an hour or more to set everything up and make a copy or two -- and is something you'll probably want to do in your hotel room rather than in the field.

Portable music players

Your Apple iPod or other MP3 player might be usable as a PSD. Indeed, adapters to link music players to memory cards are readily available. The combination is tempting. If you plan on taking your MP3 player with you anyway, pressing it into double duty for picture storage means one less device to carry around. Plus, you can listen to music. However, there are some drawbacks to consider:

  • Hard drive players only. MP3 players that use solid-state memory are usually limited to about 6GB or less of storage. That's plenty for storing tunes, but insufficient when archiving images, unless your digital camera has 4 megapixels or less of resolution, and you don't plan to take many pictures. You need to use a hard drive-based MP3 player with 20 to 60GB of storage.
  • No review. Not all MP3 players have a color LCD capable of displaying your images; nor do these LCDs always have sufficient resolution to give you a good look at your photos.
  • Slow transfer. Those who use iPods and similar devices for picture storage report that transfer from the memory card to the MP3 player can be excruciatingly slow and uses an alarming amount of battery power. Unless you can transfer your photos in your hotel room at night, have an AC adapter, and a few hours to spare, you might find storing your images on an MP3 player is clumsy.
  • Tunes or photos? The more songs you have stored on your MP3 player, the less room you have for photos. And vice versa. Sometime during your trip you might have to jettison some of your tunes to make room for more pictures.

Portable hard drives

If you're looking for the most compact PSD with the highest capacity, fastest transfer speeds, reasonable security, and the possibility (with some models) of reviewing your photos after you offload them from your memory cards, a hard drive-based solution may be your best choice. These range from very economical (I paid $135 for my CompactDrive PD70X device (which came as a shell, with no hard drive inside), plus $70 for a notebook-sized 2.5-inch 60GB hard drive I installed myself inside the unit) to very expensive (Epson asks $699 for its P-4000 multimedia device). All have the same weakness as MP3 players used for photo storage: hard drives eventually fail, even though that failure can take many months or years to occur.

Here are some things to think about:

  • Small size. Although larger than even the most humongous MP3 player, portable hard drives have the footprint of a 3"X5" index card, are less than 2 inches thick, and can fit right in your camera bag. Because they have a built-in card reader, they're practical for use in the field, so you don't have to wait until you have time to go back to your hotel room if your memory cards fill unexpectedly.
  • Fast transfer speeds. I took my PD70X on a recent trip to Spain, and found it could transfer a 1GB memory card in about two minutes and a 4GB card in less than eight minutes. That's fast enough for use in the field, too. However, not all portable hard drives are this fast, and using the system's copy verification feature to make sure your files are duplicated correctly can double the transfer time.
  • Easy computer interfacing. Portable hard drives use a USB interface, so you can connect them to a computer and use them as if they are just another hard drive.
  • Efficient use of batteries. I regularly transfer 30GB worth of photos on one set of 2500 mAh rechargeable NiMH AA batteries. The AC adapter might be needed only for continuous use (as when you connect the portable hard drive to a computer).
  • Review, maybe. The most compact portable hard drives have a status LCD that displays the device's functions and prompts, but lack a color LCD for reviewing pictures. You'll find such an LCD -- up to 3.8 inches in size -- on more expensive units, particularly those that are advertised as multimedia units that can review photos, show videos, and play music.
  • File compatibility? If you have an advanced digital camera and shoot in formats like RAW or TIFF, make sure that your portable hard drive device with review capabilities can play back these file formats, too. All units with a color screen can show JPEG files; RAW and TIFF might be problematic.

Laptop computer

If you take your laptop computer with you (say, for business), or you feel you have unlimited space to pack stuff (you're traveling by van or motor home), a laptop computer can be the ultimate image transfer solution. That's especially true if your laptop has wireless Internet capabilities, and you can find a hot spot or two on your journey. A laptop allows you to copy files to your hard drive for review on the portable computer's large screen. If your laptop has a CD or DVD burner, you can make backup copies. WiFi Internet access makes it easy to upload your photos to the Web or to send them by e-mail (which is discussed in the sections that follow).

For most of us, getting away from it all includes escape from the pervasive personal computer in breaking away from daily hustle-bustle, but if a laptop is part of your travels, you might as well take advantage of its capabilities.

Excerpted from Digital Travel Photography Digital Field Guide by David D. Busch currently available wherever books are sold or at