Backing up photos to a portable hard drive without a computer

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Iceland, I’ve had to tackle a problem faced by many travelling photographers: How do I backup my pictures without having to lug my laptop around with me??? Being surrounded by a plethora of gadgets these days, it seems to me this should be a no brainer issue. Turns out it’s not. You can’t simply plug your camera into a portable hard drive and transfer the files over. Of course, you could use a laptop or other portable computer to do this. But it seems like overkill to carry around a large, relatively expensive device for the sole purpose of backing up images.

So I thought to myself, surely there must be a small, portable device out there that will act as an intermediate between my camera and portable hard drive, allowing me to easily copy pictures from one to the other when out and about. I discovered there are a handful of devices on the market that house a small hard drive (small physically, not storage wise), and have a slot to plug your memory card into, allowing you to copy your images from the memory card to the hard drive.  However, these devices are quite expensive, not particularly fast (surprising, given the availability of USB 3 now), have limited capacity, and not all allow you to copy to a second, external hard drive for the purposes of backing things up in duplicate (which I HIGHLY recommend). In the words of Kevin O’Leary, there must be a better way!!!

The next thing to pop into my head was, “Hey, I’ve got this pretty versatile little device sitting in my pocket at almost all times… my phone! Could I possibly harness its power to copy pictures from one digital medium to another?” After Googling around a bit, I determined that yes, it is in fact possible to do this. It turns out a lot of people have thought of this idea before me… however most of the info I came across on the internet is spread about in bits and pieces in tech/photo discussion forums and the like. So, I figured I’d do this little write-up for those in the same shoes as me, to hopefully make their lives a little easier by summarizing this info in one spot.

Not sure if this will work on all phones/tablets (my guess is it will not work on Apple devices), but apparently it works on at least a subset of Android devices. I can guarantee that it does work on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, as I have now tested it on there successfully. Here’s what you need:

  1. Galaxy Note 3 (will probably also work with some other Android devices with a USB port)
  2. A USB-based memory card reader
  3. An external, portable hard drive
  4. A USB hub
  5. An OTG adapter cable that fits the USB port on your Android device (for the Note 3, this means either a male micro USB or male USB 3 port) – these can be purchased on eBay, Amazon, etc. for a few dollars

The idea is to plug the USB port into your Android device using the OTG adapter cable (i.e. the USB hub cable should be plugged into the female part of the OTG adapter cable, and the male part of the OTG adapter cable should be plugged into the Android device). Then all you have to do is plug the card reader (with a memory card inserted in it, of course) into one of the ports on the USB hub, and plug the portable hard drive into another one of the USB hub ports. Wait a few seconds for both external devices to be read by your Android device, and voila, you’re ready to start copying image files. I personally use an app called ES File Explorer to copy the files, but I’m sure there are many similar apps that would also work.

Using this technique, I was able to copy files directly from my camera’s memory card to my 1 TB portable hard drive at a speed of about 17 MB/s. That means it would take about 1 hour to back up an entire 64 GB memory card… not crazy fast, but not too bad either. My plan would be to do this a couple of times at the end of each day while I’m travelling (as I mentioned, I always back things up in duplicate, and so would have to carry out the process using two separate hard drives).

A few things to note:

  1. At least with the Note 3, unless you’ve rooted it, the hard drive needs to be formatted in either Fat32 or exFat format – NTFS will not work. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that Fat32 supports a maximum file size of 4 GB (potential issue for people making long videos) and a maximum overall drive capacity of 2 TB. So you’re better off using exFat, which seems to work fine based on my experience so far.
  2. It’s better to use an externally powered HUB and/or hard drive, to avoid potential power draw issues and to reduce draining your phone’s/tablet’s battery.
  3. With some cameras, you may be able to circumvent the need for a card reader by plugging the camera itself (with the memory card in it) into the USB hub.

I’m hoping to be able to increase the transfer speed by using a USB 3 HUB and USB 3 OTG adapter (I’m currently using USB 2 versions). It’s possible that the phone is the limiting factor, but I figure it’s worth a try. I’ll update this post once I’ve given it a go.

The importance of backing up your photos (and other data), and my preferred strategy

I just heard a horror story from an excellent wildlife photographer whose work I admire a great deal, and thought it worthwhile sharing the story. Long story short, this photographer had several hard drives filled with photos sitting in his car. The car was broken into, and the hard drives stolen, along with EVERY SINGLE photo he’d ever taken. In his own view, the fruit of years’ worth of extremely hard work and passion simply evaporated, in one fell swoop. As you can imagine, this poor guy is totally devastated, to the point where he’s considering abandoning photography altogether (which I strongly feel he should NOT do!). I know if this happened to me, you’d have to peel me off the wall of the psych ward.

Anyways, I’m sharing this story as a stark reminder about the importance of your data backup strategy, whether it be photo data, work/personal documents, or whatever computer data you consider valuable and irreplaceable. There are so many things that can go wrong with computer storage systems. They can be stolen, they can be destroyed in fires/floods/etc., and they can (and eventually WILL) fail due to breakdown of internal components/materials. So a good data backup strategy is absolutely ESSENTIAL.

The system that I use for my own photos is the following (but the same system can be used for any type of data, not just image files): I have every photo I’ve ever taken (along with the corresponding edited versions) sitting on a fast internal hard drive. This is the hard drive I work off of for viewing and editing my photos. I then have an exact mirror of everything that’s on this internal drive on TWO separate external hard drives. I keep one of these external drives on my computer desk at home, but I keep the second one off-site, in my office at work. This off-site storage is a critical aspect of a good backup system, and one that many people overlook.

With this approach, I’m protecting myself against all the ways in which something can go wrong. If one or even two of these drives fail, I’ve still got one more. If there’s a break-in, fire or flood at my apartment or in my office at work, I’ve still got at least one other, unaffected hard drive. If I accidentally delete an image or otherwise make some unwanted human error, I’ve still got two other drives to go back to. Basically, all of Vancouver would have to go up in smoke for me to lose my data. If that was the case, I’d probably have bigger problems than losing my data.

There are, however, a couple of things to watch out for with this approach. One is that it relies heavily on performing backups on a regular and frequent basis. I personally do this manually (what can I say, I’m a control freak); but there are various pieces of software out there that will perform automatic backups at predetermined intervals. Do keep in mind, though, that you’ll still have to perform at least one manual backup from time to time – namely for the drive that you keep off-site, which you’ll either have to bring home temporarily or bring new data to. This brings me to the second issue, which is that, if you deal with the off-site backup by bringing the drive home, there will be some period of time during which all the drives are in the same place. This is a very risky, vulnerable window of time. So either minimize this time window (but we all know how that can work out, as in the case with the photographer I started this post off with), or get new data to your off-site drive by bringing one of your home drives to your off-site storage location.

There are other, fancier backup systems out there, such as RAID arrays and so on. But after some research into these, I’ve found them to be overly complex and expensive for my needs. And some of these systems even have severe limitations, such as if the actual RAID system dies (not the drives that are inside it, but the RAID system itself), the data on the drives can end up forever locked away on the drives, encrypted in some proprietary format. So, for the vast majority of people, I highly recommend my own system that I described in detail above.

For people with smaller amounts of data to backup (say, in the dozens of GB range or less), another great option is to use an online service such as Dropbox (many of which are free). These services allow you to sync the data that’s stored locally on your hard drive with “the cloud”. That way, if your hard drive crashes, gets stolen, or destroyed, you just have to get a new hard drive and re-download all your data from the cloud. Another great advantage of this approach is that it allows you to access the same data on multiple computers in multiple locations (for example, you can access your documents on both your home and work computers, without having to worry about which version is the most recent). This is in fact the strategy I use for my non-photo data (i.e. documents, music, etc.). However, the drawbacks with this approach are: (1) It doesn’t work well if you have large amounts of data, due to internet bandwidth and download/upload limitations (imagine trying to download/upload a terabyte of data, for example – this would take months for most people!), (2) there are sometimes privacy/security issues, in that the cloud data is stored on non-local servers, which may not be totally secure or impervious to governmental prying eyes.

Whatever your data backup strategy, make sure you do have one and adhere to it regularly, because if you don’t, it’s just a matter of time before you lose your precious data! If you don’t already have a backup strategy or if yours could be improved, I hope this article helps you.

ADDITIONAL NOTE 1: When backing up your photos, if you work in Lightroom or some equivalent, make sure to back up your photo catalog along with your images. While the catalog data is not quite as critical as your actual image data, imagine how long it would take to reconstruct all the edits you’ve done over the years!

ADDITIONAL NOTE 2: If you adopt the approach that I use, when mirroring your primary hard drive with your backup drives, be very careful not to mess anything up, as whatever mistakes are made will be transferred to the backup drive. For example, if you’ve accidentally deleted a file on your primary drive, this file will then be deleted on your backup drives when you perform the mirroring procedure. For this reason, I take EXTREME care when mirroring. You can get around this issue by performing additive backups instead of mirroring (i.e. making a completely new backup from scratch every time, keeping past backups totally intact), but this method will use FAR more hard drive space, and may not really be feasible if you have a lot of data.