Since the dawn of the digital era, I’ve sometimes wondered whatever became of the "travel lighter" promise of filmless photography. Finally, it was said, we wouldn’t be required to lug around hundreds of rolls of film on extended trips. While it’s true that a laptop alone is lighter and less bulky than a couple of hundred rolls of 35mm film, what I didn’t realize early on was that the laptop was only one of several components I felt compelled to carry to do digital photography on the road.
At first, no one factored in the bulk and weight of the backup hard drives and CDs/DVDs I needed to achieve the redundancy digital demands, all the battery chargers and AC adapters the new gear required and the battery-operated $150 rotating sensor-cleaning brushes, along with the special swabs and cleaning fluid that rival the most expensive French perfumes in cost per ounce. Before I knew it, my computer bag easily weighed (and certainly cost) as much, if not more, than a bag full of film—even with processing!
The final straw came when many professionals learned (sometimes the hard way) that a laptop is just a housed hard drive with a keyboard, and it’s a digital truism that all hard drives will fail eventually. To achieve the greatest amount of security for imagery on extended trips, I really needed to carry two laptops!
Why two? If your laptop’s drive packed it in on day two of a three-week trip to Africa, you’d be hard pressed to find a CompUSA to replace it, and it would be impossible to download and back up your daily take. Professionals can’t take chances like that, so many of us took to traveling with two computers. It was enough to make your spine, not to mention your wallet, howl in protest.
Is there any way to dodge this digital backup bullet, any way to leave the computer at home? One laptop-free option would be, of course, to buy enough CF or SD cards to last your entire trip, use them once like film, and save all the downloading for when you get home. With memory getting cheaper, this is becoming a more viable option, but at this writing, it’s still a very expensive way to go, especially if you like to shoot a lot with a large-megapixel-sized sensor. And although flash memory is far more stable than moving hard drives, this solution doesn’t provide any backups.
Another option is to use a stand-alone CD or DVD burner from Delkin and other companies. These have slots into which you can slide your memory cards, and you can burn directly from the card to the disk. The advantage of this system is that you can make multiple disks of each card for backup. The downside is that it takes a long time to burn even one DVD, and there are no viewing screens on these burners.
The portable viewer/storage units, like those made by Epson, JOBO, Wolverine and others, are another option. With these, you can download your cards and view the pictures on a small LCD screen as well, all on a device that’s about half to a third the size of a laptop. These are terrific devices, but until recently, they begged the question of backup, since the only way to make a second copy was to literally buy a second wallet and download the cards again—not an entirely economical solution, time-or money-wise. And if you’re like me and prefer at least two backups, then we’re talking real inconvenience.
Fortunately, a couple of companies, Epson and JOBO, heard the pleas of photographers asking for digital wallets with the ability to back up to small external hard drives. Backing up to multiple small hard drives remains the fastest and easiest method in the field.
The Epson P-3000 and P-5000 (40 and 80 GB capacities) and JOBO GIGA Vu PRO Evolution (with capacities of 40, 80 and 120 GB) boast larger screens and bigger drives than earlier models, but they also provide the ability to back up to small USB hard drives. You have to look deep into the reviews and product descriptions to find this, but the ability to back up to a USB hard drive is there, and it’s wonderful! (I don’t understand why more isn’t made of this feature in reviews and promotional literature for these devices; it could be that most reviewers and marketing people don’t realize the importance of multiple backups, but we photographers do!)
Now you can have the size and convenience of a small storage unit with the backup ability of a laptop. The auxiliary hard drives you back up to are small and light (around six ounces) and are available with capacities of 80 GB and more. Yet the footprint and weight of, say, an Epson P-3000 and a couple of drives is less than that of a laptop only. It’s the ultimate kit when you need to travel light, but you don’t want to sacrifice the security of having multiple copies of your files.
Pros And Cons
Before you put your laptop up for sale on eBay, though, there are a few things to keep in mind when going the portable viewer/storage unit route. First, although you can view your photos on these devices, it’s slow, or in the case of the Epson, impossible to rename and caption them. Daily downloading, renaming and captioning is an important part of the workflow for travel photographers because it’s tough to remember names of people and places weeks after you photographed them.
You also have to be careful in your choice of small auxiliary USB hard drives. Most on the market are designed to be bus-driven only. That means they don’t have their own power source, but derive their power from the USB port of your computer. In most cases, the digital wallets won’t have enough power to fire up the bus-driven auxiliary hard drive, so you have to make sure you get a drive that has an optional power source; only a few of the really small drives do. Not to worry, though, these AC adapters aren’t huge—most of the drives run off small five-volt, two-amp adapters that weigh a couple of ounces and are very compact.
Free At Last...Not!
So does this mean I’m leaving my laptop at home on my next trip? Not a chance! I still need to caption, and I’ve deliberately stuck with small, 12-inch Apple iBooks to lighten my load from the start. What this may mean, though, is that I’ll leave my second iBook at home and use the Epson P-3000 instead, along with my usual 12-inch iBook and three small backup hard drives.
Maybe it’s because I travel to off-the-beaten-track places in rough conditions, but I’ve encountered nearly every manner of digital breakdown you can imagine. So while some have called me paranoid when it comes to making multiple backups of my work on the road, I like to cite the quote widely attributed to Henry Kissinger. It applies to digital travel photography as well as it does to statesmanship: "Even a paranoid has some real enemies." Amen, Henry!