What Can Go Wrong, Will Eventually Go Wrong! Back-up in The Field. 

Believe it or not. One day you will loose some of your images, unless you are really careful and put all the measures in place to avoid disaster striking. You may be lucky and never have a disk failure, never have a memory card failure, never accidentally delete a photo. You may be lucky. But do you really want to risk to lose those great pictures from your three months Australia holiday? Or from this commercial wedding shooting you did last weekend? No. You don’t. And with some initial efforts at setup and limited costs, you can ensure your photos are always save and always backed-up. Play it save – back-up at every step of your workflow, starting with back-up in the field!

I had disk failures, I had whole computers dying and I also was stupid enough to accidentally delete images. So I have learnt my lessons and I am taking all the steps I can, to manage my risks to avoid losing images. 

Things can go wrong in every step of the process. At the shoot, in the evening at the hotel, while transferring the pictures at home, four months down the road when your cat accidentally presses the delete button while jumping on your keyboard. Hence you need to take care of back-ups along the whole process chain, if you want to reduce the risks to a minimum. 

This is a 3 part series, covering all angles of backing-up your pictures throughout the whole process. There are many different ways on how to do this, the one outlined here, is what works well for me. For someone else, a different workflow may bring better results. Part 1 will be focusing on backing-up your images while still in the field at the shoot. In part 2, we will cover what to do when spending the night in a hotel. The final part is outlining all the back-up steps to take once back at home. 

Back-up Your Images In the Field

When you are in the field, the biggest risk really is that your memory card has a failure, which you don’t recognize. Once you transfer your files to the computer and its not able to read it, you  realize a whole shoot is gone. If you have a large memory card and don’t copy the files to your computer every evening, it may be even worse. You may lose several days of great pictures, because you didn’t bother managing your risks. 

Use Two Memory Cards for Back-up

Today, many DSLR and DSLM cameras are equipped with dual memory card slots. You can then configure your camera to store the image onto both cards in parallel. If one card fails, you will still have the images on the second card and you are save. If you have both cards fail, I guess the gods didn’t want you to shoot pictures that day.

two memory card slots

But My Camera Doesn’t Have Two Memory Card Slots !?!

Even very expensive cameras do sometimes not have two memory card slots. Just recently, Nikon and Canon announced their new line-ups of full frame mirror-less cameras. All of them plenty expensive, but all of them have only one card slot. Also  entry level cameras usually only have one card slot. There is no silver bullet for this. A few thoughts on possible approaches to at least minimize the risks of losing a whole shoot:

  • If you can, use two cameras and switch between the cameras. The memory cards in the two different cameras will not fail at the same day. 
  • Cycle your memory cards. Don’t click away the whole day with your latest super expensive 128GB memory card. Instead use small cards and switch them throughout the day
  • Make backups of your pictures throughout the day onto a disk. Either by using a mobile memory card backup solution / photo tank or by starting up your laptop in the field and copy the files onto the laptop.

While not perfect, those approaches at least limit your damage, should the worst case scenario happen. 

Disadvantages of Using Two Memory Cards

While I am clearly recommending to leverage both your memory card slots, there are good reasons why sometimes you may consider skipping this back-up option. And that is simply speed. If you are in Africa and you want to shoot this cheetah running at 60 miles per hour, hunting some deer, speed is everything. Some simple tests will show you, that the frame rate may come down if your camera has to write onto two memory cards. If that happens, that usually also means your buffer will fill up quicker and you can do less shots following the cheetah before your camera slows down drastically. It is great if everything is backed-up. But if your back-up approach results in you missing that exact shot where the cheetah catches its victim, all back-ups in the world will not bring you back that image you never took. 

You can maybe work around that by only writing JPG’s onto the back-up card and save RAW only to the primary card, but likely your camera will still slow down. 

I guess at the end it is up to you to decide the right approach on a case by case basis. If speed is everything, yes, you may be wanting to take the risks. If you are shooting a wedding, speed is likely less important. But clearly, you will not survive the meeting with the bride, where you explain to her, that all the nice pictures of her wedding have been lost, because you didn’t bother putting in a second memory card. 

Gear Stolen from Your Car

So you just shot for two hours in the field. Great photos of some misty mountains at sunrise. On your way back to the hotel or back to your home you make a quick stop at this lovely restaurant to have lunch. After that nice steak with fries and a too big dessert you leave the restaurant and find the back window of your car broken. And your camera backpack with all your gear gone. Including the two memory cards still in the camera. 

All your efforts to have two copies of the images on two different cards where for nothing. Your equipment is gone and so are all the images. One of the key rules of professional back-ups is to always have a backup in a different location. One option would be to take the back-up card out of your camera at the end of your shoot. Put that back-up card in your pocket, to reduce the likely hood of both cards being lost or stolen. Alternatively, just take the backpack with you to the restaurant. 

In the next part of this series, I will outline how I back-up my pictures in the evening in the hotel, when I am on a trip. 


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