My Backup System: Part 1 In The Field Backup

Image backup is one of those topics that many don't think about until they encounter a problem, a card, hard drive or computer failure, and by then its too late.  Thankfully (touch wood!!) I have only ever experienced a memory card being corrupted once.  This was one too many times and at the time I had no real backup system in place.  This made me think about backing up my images and I researched the different methods and systems available.  

One of the most common backup systems is the 1,2,3 Backup Rule:

  • THREE Copies of Data
  • TWO Different Types of Media
  • ONE Off Site Copy

What this means is you should have three copies of the data (including the original file) on at least two different types of storage media and stored in two different places.  The idea of this is to give a system that can cope with most disasters thrown at it.  Many people think of backup as a necessary system regarding storage of files on computers, this is of course correct but they seem to forget the need for 'in the field' backup systems.  Ensuring you are able to get the photos you have taken to your computer to process them is quite important.  I have experienced loss at this point before and there was no way to retrieve my lost images, thankfully I lost only 4-5 hours of images from a day at a wildlife park that I could repeat in the future, it was not a once in a lifetime experience.  Ask any wedding photographer and they know they need for this, one in a lifetime events like weddings means you can't just say 'sorry the memory card failed and all your wedding photos are lost.  

My 'In The Field' Backup System

It has taken me a while to think about my 'in the field' backup system, I have now got it to a point where I'm happy I think I have covered the '1, 2, 3 Backup Rule'.

Second Data Copy- Twin Memory Card Slots

Modern DSLR's make backing up in the field easy as many now have 2 memory card slots.  Both the DSLR's I use, the Nikon D7000 and Nikon D7100 both have twin SD memory card slots.  This is very helpful as the DSLR's have a feature where you can decide the role played by the memory car in slot 2. I always choose 'Backup' which means the image file is automatically recorded to both SD memory cards.

I use four 8GB SD memory cards in slot 1 and one 32GB memory card in slot 2.  The 8GB memory cards are kept in a hard memory card case that is kept in my pocket.  The 32GB memory card stays in slot 2 of the DSLR.   

Now at this point I have 2 copies of the data split over five SD memory cards.  To lose a whole days worth of images I would need five separate memory card failures.  This is the reason why I use four 8GB memory cards and one 32GB memory card rather than just two 32GB memory cards.  There is less chance of five memory cards failing than just two memory cards.  The chance of all five separate memory card failing is quite small.  If the 32GB memory card and one 8GB memory card were to fail I would not lose all of my images from that day.  There is a higher risk of me losing all five SD memory cards rather than experiencing all five memory cards failures.  To compensate this risk I never keep all of the memory cards in the same place, this means they cannot all be stored in my camera bag at the same time.  The four 8GB memory cards are kept in a hard memory card case in my pocket, and the 32GB memory card stays in the DSLR.  If I stop at motorway services on the way home my camera bag comes with me and the hard memory card case stays in the car.  This means I can keep the data storage places separate and I have the two different locations of storage needed in case my camera bag or car is stolen.

Third Data Copy- Laptop Storage

If I'm on a photo trip or holiday (i.e. more than one day away) I can take my 13 inch laptop with me.  The laptop allows me to copy the 32GB SD memory card across to the laptops hard drive at the end of each day.  

The laptop either stays in the car hidden away or its left at my accommodation.  With the laptop I meet the requirements '1, 2, 3 Backup Rule'.  At the end of each day I have three copies of the images files (on the 8GB and 32GB memory cards and the laptops hard drive), stored on two different types of media (on SD memory cards and the laptops hard drive) and one off site copy (on the laptop in the car or at the accommodation).  

An Alternative Third Data Copy- A Large SD Memory Card

Although using a laptop as part of my 'in the field' backup process is an ideal solution to meeting the '1, 2, 3 Backup Rule' I do find it can be a pain due to its size and the fact it can need the battery recharging.  This is especially a problem for my planned 2 night stay on Skomer Island where the accommodation has no power sockets!  This has lead me to look at other ways to make a third data copy on long photo trips.  So far I have found and tried an iPad and a Hyperdrive ColourSpace UDMA 2.  I found the iPad is not designed for RAW file storage and my 16GB version has very limited free storage space available so its no way ideal.  The Hyperdrive ColourSpace UDMA 2 was a perfect alternative to a laptop, its smaller and lighter and you can fit any sized 2.5" SATA hard drive into it.  It has both SD and CF memory card slots and data transfer was quite quick at 25MB/s.  The only downside was it's cost.  Through friends I found out some modern DSLR with 2 slots have a 'Copy Image' feature that allows images from one card slot to be copied to the other card slot.  

This feature gives me the same function a Hyperdrive ColourSpace UDMA 2 does with only the need to carry an extra memory card.  This means I do not to carry any extra equipment or power cables, meaning less weight and items to forget to pack.  The copy image feature is quite fast and easy to do.  The only downside is you are copying to another SD memory card so you are not complying with the 2nd rule of the '1, 2, 3 Backup Rule' by not backing up to two different types of media.  I personally do not have a problem with only backing up to SD memory cards for the advantages they give me over carrying a separate media storage system. 


Backing up your image files 'in the field' is an important aspect to ensure you don't lose any image files, especially if its a once in a lifetime, can't be repeated moment.  Having experienced a card failure previously due to a faulty memory card slot corrupting the memory card, I know what its like to lose images.  Employing an 'in the field' backup system can, at the very least, be as simple as automatically recording the image files to two memory cards instead of one.  Having a third copy can give you a further safety net. To provide further security I leave the 8GB memory cards alone until I get home, and only copy from the 32GB memory card to produce further data copies.  

The problem with my 'in the field' backup system is my first backup copy is completed automatically by my DSLR when I take a photo.  I have to remember to manually complete my second backup copy myself.  Any manual human intervention in a backup system can cause the backup system to fail.  At the moment I can't see another automatic solution to this problem until DSLR's come with a third memory card slot!  Personally I feel the use of automatic data copies via wireless transfer to a phone, tablet or laptop is not a viable solution to produce an automatic third data copy for a nature photographer, the practicalities of carrying a large enough data storage with you whilst stalking wildlife would be difficult.  Completing the second data backup at the end of the day is a simple solution and still gives me enough data backup protection, as long as I never keep both sets of memory cards in the same location (camera bag or still in the DSLR) until I complete this end of day backup.


17.4.15 Update: A move to the Nikon D800

A few months ago I upgraded to a full frame Nikon D800.  One thing I had heard about before purchase was the huge D800 RAW files, I didn't think it was too much of a concern computer wise but I didnt think what effect it would have on the memory storage of my backup system.

Below you can see the range of RAW files sizes I have experienced. 

  • D7000 = 15-20MB
  • D7100 = 15-25MB
  • D800 = 35-40MB

The D800 RAW files are nearly double the size of the D7000/D7100 RAW files.  This meant my SD cards could now only hold half the number of RAW files due to the increased size of the D800 RAW files.  The D800 takes one SD card and one CF card, not two SD cards like the D7000/D7100. I had to make a decision whether new cards were needed and what size to go with.  As I already had a fast 32GB SD cards the choice was what do I do about the CF card slot to allow backup of images to both card slots.  The options were purchase 4x 8GB cards and change them more frequently as they would only get around 125 images per card, or use a larger CF card.

I decided to opt for 32GB cards for both SD and CF, these would hold roughly 500 images and still use the backup to record the files to both cards.  I felt this was about the right compromise for the number of images per card against the frequency of changing cards.  If I'm out for the day I can always swap in a new pair of 32GB cards for the afternoon if I want to ensure I don't lose all of the images from the day.  The other benefit of the D800 is it uses CF and SD cards so already I have different media types and it allows me to only take the CF cards out of the camera 

I have purchased since purchased a pair of 64GB cards for times I don't want to change cards at all (shooting on the beach and when going out in rain/snow).  This allows around 1000 images to be stored without needing to open the camera to harsh weather and environment factors. One factor at the time of purchase was the 64GB cards were very good value compared to the 32GB equivalents.

This memory card speed test comparison was very helpful when selecting the right memory cards.  One thing to notice with the D800 is there is no point buying the fastest CF cards out if you are going to use the 'backup' feature and write simultaneously to both SD and CF cards.  The fastest SD card (SanDisk Extreme Pro 95MB/S) would write at 38.7MB/S, about half of the speed the fastest CF card (Lexar Pro 1066X at 71.1MB/S).  When writing to both cards on a D800 the transfer speed would only be as fast as the slowest card, in this case the SD card.  It is important to note the fastest SD card (SanDisk Extreme Pro 95MB/S) writes faster in the newer D810 at 71.8MB/S compared to 38.7MB/S in the D800.  The D800 SD card write speed seems to be limited to a maximum of 40MB/S.  With this in mind I chose to pair up the Lexar Professional 800X CF cards with SanDisk Extreme 80MB/S SD cards as they were the best suited pair when considering write speed (34.3MB/S and 31.3MB/S respectively) and cost.