Getting Digital Files Home Safely

Professional photographers know that clients accept no excuses. If you don’t deliver, you don’t get paid, and if you screw up badly enough, your future career can be in jeopardy.

Fine art and amateur photographers going on long and arduous shoots also know that their often not-inconsiderable investments of time and money will be forfeit if they don’t come home with the goods.

In the days of shooting film this meant concerns about accidental loss or theft of film, along with X-Ray damage and lab mishaps. Labs are now out of the equation, and X-Rays don’t affect memory cards or hard drives. But the potential for loss of images due to memory card and hard disk errors, as well as simple loss and theft of property, remain as serious issues.

The Card Player. Guilin, China. October, 2005

Canon 5D with 24-105mm L IS @ ISO 800



From the moment that you press the camera’s shutter the bits recorded on the memory card are a unique record of what was photographed. If those bits are lost, erased, corrupted or stolen you will lose time, money and maybe even your livelihood, not to mention suffering a great deal of grief.

Ensuring that your image files get home safely entails several extra steps beyond normal file handling, and does entail some additional expense. But, the peace of mind that the following technique provides may well be worth the extra cost and effort, especially when something does go wrong. Remember –Murphy was an optimist.

Anything that can go wrong, will.

It’s not a matter of if. Only a matter of when.

When traveling on a shoot, as soon as a card is full it is removed from the camera and placed into an Epson P2000 (or equivalent) where its files are copied to the Epson’s hard drive. Once the card has been copied it is removed and then placed in a metal card wallet. The card is placed inside facing backwards so that it can easily be identified as anexposedcard. Since the Epson 2000 has a 40GB drive there is more than enough storage for even the busiest day’s shooting. It can also copy more than ten 2GB cards on a single charge, so using it in the field without AC power is not an issue. (The P4000 with an 80GB drive was announced in late 2005 and is just becoming available as this is written).

With this procedure, I have my data in two places at all times. As will be seen, this is the core of my file safety strategy and workflow.

Cliff Edge. Huangshan, China. October, 2005

Canon 5D with 24-105mm L IS @ ISO 800

When I return to my room in the evening I copy all files on the P2000 from that day to my laptop computer’s hard drive (or an outboard drive). Once the files are copied I copy them again to (another) outboard hard drive. In other words, the files now exist in 4 places. The original memory card, the P2000, the laptop’s hard drive (or outboard drive), and a second outboard drive.

At this point, and after verifying that all the files are properly copied, I erase the memory card(s) and P2000 for use the next day. The laptop and the outboard drive are then stored in different places. The laptop goes in my briefcase, and the drive goes in a pocket of my vest, which I wear at all times. When I leave the hotel room the laptop or briefcase remains behind, usually locked to a table with a Kensington cable, while the mini-portable drive is always with me. This way, if my room is broken into and the computer is stolen, I still have the files on the hard drive in my pocket. If I were robbed on the street, and the pocket hard drive stolen, my laptop would likely be safely back in the room.

When flying between locations, or home, I similarly keep the laptop and the backup drive separate. Since the drive is kept in a zipped pocket of my vest, and I try not to forget my briefcase at security or on the plane, chances are that both will arrive home safely with me. But this is by no means an overabundance of caution. I recently got in a cab at the airport after a 26 hour flight, and left one of my bags on the luggage cart. Jetlag happens!

Also, hard disks fail. It is never a question of if, only one of when. Theft happens as well. Not often, but it does. Lapses of reason happen, and one can easily forget a bag at airport security or in a lounge. All of these are threats to the security of your images. But if you take the simple precaution of making a backup of your data files from the moment that the card comes out of the camera right through till when you archive your files back home, and keep these drives separate from each other at all times, none of these potential hazards need prove disastrous.

Equipment can be ensured and replaced. Lost images will be lost forever.

Michael – October, 2005