Photography / Buying Guide

Guide to Portable Hard Drives for the Travel Photographer

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You finally made it to your destination, and as you kick up your feet and sip from an ice-cold drink, the last thing you want to worry about is storage. It is a little insane that you must rely on a semi-mysterious device to hold the photographs from your most recent excursion safe, especially as you plan to do a bit more shooting as you go about your travels. Hopefully, this portable hard drive guide will help you pick out a reliable and compatible option that allows you to relax a bit during your next vacation.

Interfaces, Speed, and Capacity

Before we jump into travel-specific concerns, I want to address the most critical criteria for picking a drive: make sure it works with your machine. Some drives, or their software, will only work on certain operating systems, or they may require a reformat before you can achieve 100% functionality. Along with this, make sure the interface on your drive is supported by your computer, and is the fastest choice you have available. For example, if you are working with the latest Macs, you are going to want to find a drive that supports Thunderbolt™ 3, or if you have a tried-and-true laptop that is getting a little long in the tooth, then maybe you are going to have to go with FireWire 800 and, if you just want something universal, you can stick with USB.

Once you have figured that out, you are going to want to find something that is bus powered. What does that mean? Basically, the drive will be powered by the connection to the computer. This alleviates the worry of needing to find an outlet to back up your photos and can be a lifesaver if you need to unload some cards in the back of a cab or on a flight. Even if AC power isn’t going to be hard to find at your destination, it does mean you can pack one less thing.

Seagate 2TB Backup Plus Slim Portable External USB 3.0 Hard Drive

So now that you can find a drive that will plug into and work with your computer, the next step is then determining the speed and capacity you need. I would recommend looking at solid-state drives, or SSDs, especially if you are going to be doing a lot of traveling. SSDs are much faster than HDDs and feature no moving parts, making them less likely to fail if they get bumped or jostled during a trip. However, HDDs can be found at much higher capacities for much less money. As a photographer, you will probably be just fine with slower 5400 rpm HDDs for backing up every night, but if you plan on shooting and reviewing 4K video from the same drive, you will likely to need a large SSD.

Samsung 500GB T5 Portable Solid-State Drive

Advanced Features and Functions

One of the most obvious features that will benefit travel photographers is ruggedization. Numerous manufacturers have developed lineups or accessories that provide protection from drops and bumps that your drive may incur while on the road. These normally rubberized builds will help add just a little bit more insurance that your drives won’t catastrophically fail during your trip. A couple of good examples of this are the G-Technology G-DRIVE ev RaW Hard Drives with Bumpers and the LaCie Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drives.

G-Technology 1TB G-DRIVE ev RaW USB 3.0 Hard Drive with Rugged Bumper

If you desire more speed or extra protection, RAID is something you should probably be considering. RAID arrays are common backup solutions for desktops, but there are a few portable options should you absolutely need the added security. For redundancy many portable RAID options, such as the WD 2TB My Passport Pro Portable RAID Storage Drive and the LaCie 4TB Rugged RAID, offer RAID 1, which mirrors your data across two different drives. This means that if one drive should fail, you will still have access to all your data. If you are simply looking for extra speed, however, you will want to get set up in RAID 0, which stripes the data across two drives, effectively doubling the speed by reading from both drives simultaneously, especially if you are using two SSDs like the Glyph Technologies Atom. As a side note, there is a JBOD (just a bunch of disks) option, as well. This basically lets each drive function independently.

LaCie 4TB (2 x 2TB) Rugged RAID

Sometimes you will need to perform card backups even when you don’t have access to a computer. This is when options like the WD My Passport Wireless Pro External Hard Drive come in handy. This drive has a multitude of features that make it ideal for travelers. The most significant feature for photographers is the built-in SD card slot, meaning you won’t need a computer to do transfers. It also has a USB 2.0 port, which can be used to charge your phone and other devices using the drive’s internal battery or as a method for transferring data from a connected camera. Finally, something that is just icing on the cake at this point, is the built-in Wi-Fi, which provides the ability to browse files and setup the drive via a smartphone while you are out and about.

WD 4TB My Passport Wireless Pro USB 3.0 External Hard Drive

Finally, there is a little something for the action enthusiasts, especially those who like to check out and edit their footage as they ride in the van once they get off the mountain or beach: the GNARBOX. This is a sweet new device that has numerous functions beyond simply acting as a 128GB backup drive for your photos and video. It features multiple USB ports along with SD and microSD card slots to give you multiple ways to unload your files. You can then use the built-in Wi-Fi connectivity to access the drive via an app, and then organize and begin editing your footage while on the road. If you want to learn more about it, be sure to check out John-Paul Palescandolo’s review right here on Explora.

GNARBOX 128GB Portable Backup & Editing System

Alternatives and Final Tips

Just because hard drives are the most common and obvious solution for backing up files, it doesn’t mean they are the only option. A variety of dedicated memory card back-up devices are available that let you transfer files quickly and easily from your memory cards. Many of these also have a screen and controls so that you can set up and control how your transfers are performed without needing a computer or other connection.

Sanho HyperDrive ColorSpace UDMA 3 Wireless Storage Device

There are occasions when a separate hard drive or backup device is just one thing too many to keep track of. In this case, I would say to just add a couple of memory cards to your kit. You likely already have a few of these in a dedicated case or wallet, and they take up much less space than a dedicated drive. This is especially useful if you have dual card slots in your camera, allowing you to shoot with images instantly being backed up, and then swap out both when they get filled. And nowadays, with pretty much every laptop offering built-in card slots, you don’t even need to carry any readers.

Plenty of options are out there to help back up your files when you are out on your next adventure, so after going through this article, you should be confident enough to find something that is just right for you. How do you plan on keeping your photos safe during your next trip? Or, if you still have some questions on finding that Goldilocks storage solution for your trip, feel free to let us know in the Comments section, below!

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I keep it even simpler. My 11.6" laptop always travels with me for
communication with family and backing up photos. I place a fresh 128GB micro
SD card and a couple of 128 GB pen drives, each one good for thousands of
RAW photos. Y use them to diversify the back ups as an insurance, just in
case of loses, burglary os failures. I never erase the camera cards, which I
save as "negatives" (with the date and palces refference writen on it) and
simply buy more. Back at home I transfer the files to my Desktop PC in a hard
drive on it reseved for that use, an all is backed up in an external USB
drive. Even not beeing a pro, I'm rather paranoic against losing my photos. I
miss the time when you could toss your negatives an prints in a vault and
take a look to remember trips and moments. Digital photos are not posible to
share in a small group of people gathering at home and is only posible to
share through social media on a many individuals basis, not in a tribal way.
We, Southamericans (spanish and italian descendants) are more like that.
 

I recently had a 4 TB Hitachi XT HD that I bought in 2013, fail. I shipped it to Drive Savers in California and when they took it apart, a determination was made that the two spinning discs were defective. (It was a surprise to me that the drive even contained two, separate, 2 TB spinning disk drives - double trouble.) While I've had five different Hitachi drives since 2008, this was the first Hitachi Drive failure, possibly because all the older drives were 1 TB, not 4 TB drives. Drive Savers commenced data recovery and it appears at this point that most if not all of my photo files have been recovered. Since I wanted to avoid a repetition of the spinning disk failiure problem now and in the future, my plan was to buy two Solid State XT HD's. However, I was warned that if a solid state drive fails - all drives fail eventually - data recovery would be much more difficult and expensive than with spinning disk drives. With that in mind, I bought two, 4 TB Buffalo spinners. Drive Savers also strongly recommended that I regularly monitor both external drives, something I rarely did before. While most manufacturers claim their drives last three years, thousands and thousands of data recovery procedures have shown that most drives have a two year life span at best. By the way, my data recovery process cost over $2,000. 

Hi Bill,

Sorry to hear about drive failures, it is always going to happen. While it is true that SSDs will eventually fail, it is determined mostly by usage. Over time the solid state memory will begin to falter, but usually only if it is being used. It has a better lifetime in that if you aren't constantly writing/erasing/rewriting it is not wearing out. But, one unfortunate issue with current options is that after a few years you should be moving backups to more modern backup solutions and newer drives. It's a never ending cycle. One option is to do a third backup to a cloud service, which is slower than a local backup, but more secure and in the event a local drive fails can be a lifesaver.

Also, not sure exactly what system you have, but a RAID setup can also be invaluable because it accounts for drive failures. You can have a variety of different setups that can account for 1, 2, or even more drive failures. Certain RAID software will even monitor the state of the drives and alert you when one should be replaced, in which it can automatically rebuild the backup for you to prevent data loss. Though these aren't exactly what I would call portable options.

I recently completed a 25 day trip to Europe where I took over 3000 photos with my Sony A6000/HX-90V.  I have always been concerned about backup of the SD card before but not this time.  I travel with my 128 GB  iPhone 6+ And a 128 GB iPad Air 2.  This trip I purchased and took the ADATA  MFI certified 2 way transfer lightning card reader/writer with an SD/micro SD slot for the iPhone or iPad.   This very small card reader/writer (a few ounces) plugs into my iPhone or iPad and will copy up to a 256GB card (all media types) to the IOS device.  If I choose to do so I can then copy the photos to another SD micro SD card for double backup and later transfer to my PC at home.   The drive is not fast and the IOS device cannot be charged while the ADATA device is attached … so charge before copy.  The ADATA device worked very well for daily copies of my photos.  I was able to copy from my backup 64GB SD card to my PC when I returned home.  You can view the photos you copy using the ADATA device with the required free downloadable app.  Photos are not available to native IOS photo apps.  Photos ca be deleted from the IOS device with the ADATA app.

This is an excellent solution for travel backup with minimal equipment other than a high capacity IOS device.  In the past I have used a PC SD card reader/writer with dual addressable slots to copy from the camera SD to a backup.  While this also work

I have also use a dual addressable SD reader/writer that reguires a PC … cruise ship/boat or Internet cafe that will allow you to plug in a USB device.  Does not require you to copy to the PC … direct transfer between the SD cards in the adapter with native PC software.  

I hope this helps someone to ensure that you backup your travel photos.

I always travel with a WD Passport Wireless

This has a slot to nsert my SD cards and allows me to backup my photos without a computer

Sort of contradictory that the articles suggest cutting back on gear but carrying a Macbook.                             If I am shooting in Africa I'm going to have my 500 f4 and a full frame body.  When I return to Camp I hard wire the camera to an Ipad Mini 3 via USB cord an Ipad camera adapter and load keepers. Before leaving for the campfire/dinner I establish a direct WIFI link to my Ravpower Filehub  unit and load same images from Ipad to An SD card or thumb drive. But since the Filehub is also a battery backup and has a USB port you could also use the drives mentioned in your articles. leaningpalmstudio.com

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