What Computers and Memory to Bring — or Not
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You're going on a photo trip. Should you bring your laptop, or just bring more memory cards? Should you bring your iPad instead? If you're copying to one of these, should you back it up? Hey, the iPod Touch has as much memory as an iPad, so why not just backup to your iPhone? If you're backing-up in the field from a laptop, are CDs, DVDs, hard drives or thumb drives best? How about online backup?
Personally, if I go away for several days, I just bring a few cards and leave the computer at the studio. I bring an iPad for fun, but not for storing my photos. It's not fun to carry a laptop, chargers, cords, mice, backup drives, more cords, blank DVDs, hard drives, more cords, a power strip and the extra suitcase it winds up filling.
Less is more; I want to have fun when I'm out, and for that, that's my iPad, which has nothing to do with my photography except holding photos from previous trips. I'll do the computer work when I get home — but that's just me.
If I'm gone for a week, I bring my MacBook Pro only so I can update this website for your folks who expect daily updates. If it wasn't for this website, I'd just bring plenty of cards, and be careful not to lose them — but that's just me.
Less is always more. The less you carry, the more fun you'll have, and the better pictures you'll take.
I'm now shooting raw DNG files in a LEICA M9, and even with these fat 18MB files, I don't shoot more than 4GB in a day on tiny SD cards. You'll get better shots if you calm down and FART before making 100 indiscriminate shots every three minutes. Shoot promiscuously, and you'll have to bring too many expensive cards, and you'll lose track of them.
With SD cards, I flip the LOCK switch after I've shot it, and don't touch it again until after I've gotten home and loaded everything into my big computer. Too many people who shoot more than one card in a day have formatted over the morning's work that afternoon!
How much down-time do you expect to have to twiddle with computers and data?
When I'm out shooting, I have no idle time. I need to be up before dawn, I shoot all day and night, and hit the sack as soon as I've enjoyed dinner. Even in winter, there's never any "free" time for me to spend on a computer, when I'd rather shoot, research the next location, or get to sleep ontime so I'm up well before dawn and well-rested all day.
Too many people come on workshops, party and play on their computers all night, and then wind up sleeping-in or being half asleep the next day.
Even if you're not on a dedicated photo trip and are simply on a vacation with others, especially girlfriends or family, there is no downtime. Women think we men are nuts when we spend vacation time on a computer looking at pictures of our vacation while we're still on vacation, and they're right: we could be spending that time on vacation with them instead of on a computer with ourselves.
If you're by yourself and expect downtime when you can't be shooting, eating, exploring, playing, researching or sleeping, by all means, a computer not only will let you store and play, you could even complete the job while you're out. The real question is if you have the time to take away from shooting and enjoying the trip to waste staring at a computer.
Less Is So Much More
We have so much junk today it's insane. All because you own it doesn't mean you need to take it on vacation.
It takes a lot of attention away from more important things when you bring a computer and all its supporting infrastructure with you.
Even if you have to bring a computer for work, time spent on it is wasted time, not time you've spent on vacation.
People spend so much time staring at screens today that humans are forgetting about reality. Ours may be the last generation that had childhoods where we played with real frogs, lit fires with real gasoline and shot real BB guns at each other. If you're spending your vacation time staring at a screen, you're not there — you're off in some cyberworld, which you could be doing back in your office on someone else's time.
Your Work Computer
If you do have to carry a computer for work, then by all means, put your pictures on it.
If you have to bring a computer for work on vacation, time spent on it isn't vacation, and shall not be charged against your vacation time. If your employer expects you to check work email, voicemail or return phone calls, even just for a moment each day, the law entitles you to at least four hours pay for any day you do any of this. If you employer won't comply with the law, then leave his computer back at his office and enjoy your vacation. It's not a vacation if your employer expects you to work; the reason so many jobs hand out mobile devices and laptop computers is precisely so they can get more work out of you for free on your own time; don't fall for it.
Leave the junk at home. Bring your camera and imagination, and enjoy where you are. F*c*b**k is for losers sitting in their offices; not for you out enjoying your freedom.
Before we start worrying about backups, and I know how to worry about backups, let's be honest: just how horrible would it be if some files got lost?
If you bring enough cards, isn't it easier to keep a close eye on them than to carry a computer and all the related backup hardware and cords and power supplies and chargers — and keep a close eye on all of that? When was the last time someone had memory cards stolen? Thieves want your laptop, not your SD cards.
If you're shooting for fun, is the tiny chance that you might lose some files that aren't exactly prize-winners really worth the 100% definite pain of hauling around all the crap related to a computer?
A pro might get sued for messing up a wedding, and might never get hired in that town again, but for most people including myself, no one is going to die if some shots get lost.
If you're on a photo trip for fun, life is for the living, not for worrying about backing up photos.
If I've got a second camera, even in the unlikely event that everything from my prime camera gets lost, it all wouldn't get lost.
I used to worry myself sick about backups, until I realized that I'll always be around to take more pictures.
I've never lost anything so far, but I have had to haul all sorts of computer junk all over the world with me and wasted time backing up in the field. Computers are not cool — unless you're a nerd. Time in the field is golden. Even though I do this for a living, field time is only a small percentage of my day. I try to make every minute count; I have no time to waste in the field.
If you only get four weeks of vacation a year, your time in the field is even more precious. Ask yourself if you really want to spend those premium moments lugging a computer, or worse, working on it.
But wait: in all the time I used to waste making backups in the field, I could have been out making more great pictures. The actual process of backing-up has cost me because of the awesome photos I didn't make because I was lip-locked with a computer. That's more pictures lost than I've ever lost from any technical problems or theft.
Remember film? I still shoot it. With film, we put our spent rolls in a Ziploc bag, and watch that bag very carefully for the rest of the trip. Just like film, the data on a card is robust so long as you don't drop it in the toilet.
Another great reason not to take a computer is that you won't waste any more time trying to back it up in the field
Personally, I strongly prefer cameras like the Nikon D7000 or D3S with two card slots. I put a large-capacity card in the second slot, and let it keep a copy of everything I shoot. With backup in-camera, no other backups are needed once you transfer data, or change the card in the number-one slot.
My pro friends who lead workshops all over the Earth question the wisdom of bringing a lot of cards and no laptop. This works great, until someone loses their cards. That's the problem: cards are physically so small that people were losing their cards during tours to the far corners of the Earth. Personally, I like the idea of bringing a few cards instead of schlepping a computer with me.
If I get paranoid with a one-card camera, I use a MacBook Pro, and two self-powered Firewire hard drives. I use Super Duper to clone my entire computer each night (takes only 15 minutes), and alternate between the two drives each night. I put the just-copied drive as far away as possible from the computer.
Each morning I take the freshly-copied drive with me and leave it in the rental car all day, while the laptop and older backup drive stay in the motel room. I've never had a problem with theft, and of course I always leave a tip for the maid.
You might prefer using large thumb drives just for the pictures; Super Duper copies your entire computer to a new drive.
When I was really paranoid, I'd mail myself CDs each morning from yesterday's shoot so the data was in a different place. I'd also upload to my iDisk, so even if the whole continent sunk, hopefully Apple's iDisks would be on a different continent and be just fine.
Other Portable Storage Devices
I don't trust any of the Epson, Delkin or whoever's glorified hard-drives-with-card-slots. This is because these expensive doo-dads are not computers, so they can't show me that they actually have my complete, legible files stored on them. They can't run Aperture or Photoshop or Dreamweaver to open the files and let me see them properly.
I do trust external hard drives, which work with a computer. I use small self-powered drives which run from the power in the Firewire cable.
I would trust USB flash drives, since again, they plug in a computer which can confirm that you've got it all.
I bring an iPad for fun, not for downloading photos.
My iPad is filed to the rim with DVD videos of my kids, books, photos from previous trips and camera manuals. There's no room in its limited 64GB (really 59GB) for unedited new photos, and even if there was, who cares? I use my iPad for fun, not work.
The iPad is awesome for showing edited photos from previous trips.
Sure, you can use it with the Apple Camera Adapter to download photos from this trip, just that my 64GB iPad is already stuffed.
Do you know why Hollywood so often loses the original film (negatives) to classic movies and has to make the DVD from a scratchy print instead? It's because people forget to label and catalog all the elements so they can be found years later!
Likewise, the biggest threat to losing your photos before you get back isn't technical, it's that people lose loose cards and discs while on the road.
Backups need to be separated from you, from your gear and from your hotel. If you get hit, your backups need to be elsewhere.
Travel is difficult, since everything you have at any one time is probably in one place, your car or your motel room.
If I bother to back up, I use at least two rotating hard drives stashed in different locations.
Give a lot of thought to how and where you'll carry your backups, otherwise, why bother?
Online backup could be the most resistant to regional disaster or loss, but unless you know that you'll have a fast enough Internet connection in the field, don't expect to be able to upload 10 GB each night.
It's easy to backup to my iDisk, but takes too long, even with my data-stingy JPG shooting.
The most robust backup is burning discs (or drives if you're a heavy shooter) and mail them back to yourself each day.
This way if a disaster wipes you off the face of the Earth, at least all your photos are waiting for your next-of-kin back at home.
It doesn't matter if you don't trust the mail. Backups are in themselves worthless except in the unlikely event that you suffer a failure. Likewise, if backups are needed, it it also very unlikely that they would have been lost.
You're only in trouble if two highly unlikely and unrelated events happen at the same time.
If we expect a very large 1% probability of loss while on the road, and an also very large 1% probability of loss in the mail, there is still only an 0.01% (1% of 1%) chance that these will happen at the same time, giving you at least a 99.99% chance of success.
We're all different.
I prefer to carry as little as possible, which lets me accomplish as much as possible with the limited time I have in the field. I bring enough cards, keep the spent ones in their own section of my camera case with the LOCK switch set, and carry my little camera and case with me 24/7. I never miss a shot, and never lose a card. I'd rather spend all my time shooting, and get to look forward to seeing my great photos on the big screen for the first time when I get back to my studio.
Other people prefer to carry a 17" laptop and an entire infrastructure to turn their vacations into work, and if you're a pro on location, it is work.
What's best for you depends on how much time you want to spend with computers instead of shooting while you're in the field, and how easy it is for you to carry all this extra stuff. If you've got people to pack and carry all the gear for you, and time to burn, by all means, bring everything.
I know people who are so efficient that they can process each scene in Aperture as they are driving to the next location, and by lunch, they have an edited slide show ready to share!
I hope this helps; we're all different.
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