Digital Photo Storage On the Road

Digital Photo Storage On the Road


Today Peter Carey explores different photo storage options for when you are traveling.

Copyright William Hook It’s very easy today to take more pictures in a single week long vacation than ever imagined possible ten years ago. For one thing, not many people had digital cameras ten years ago and those that did had a lot of problems with ample, cheap storage. Compact Flash and SD cards weren’t as inexpensive and voluminous as they are today. And yet today, images coming directly out of the camera can regularly exceed 10MB or more.

As I see it, there are two main paths to take when a vacation is planned and the camera will be tagging along. Either purchase more memory cards or purchase a digital storage device. I’d like to take a look at both options and lay down some pros and cons to help you decide which path might be right for you.

Portable Storage Devices

Portable Storage Devices(PSD) are what their name describes; a harddrive in a case that lets you transfer storage card data without a computer, and is easy to carry around. Most of these devices a bit bigger than an iPod (you can even use and iPod with an adapter), weigh less than two pounds and range in price from $100-$400.


  • Ample storage, ranging from 20GB-120GB+
  • Read many different cards
  • Some have viewing screens to review and edit images
  • Various models have video/audio out cables to use the unit as a slideshow viewer on a standard TV
  • Most run on AA batteries which are available everywhere


  • All your eggs in one basket. If the drive goes missing, you’re out of luck.
  • Extra batteries needed
  • They can be bulky in a day bag
  • Time spent transferring can vary from a few minutes to a quarter hour or more
  • If the unit has a sealed battery chamber, you’ll need to bring a charger along

Personally, I use a PSD on longer trips. While the size can be an issue, I use a stripped down version sans image playback and other bells and whistles so battery life with a set of rechargeable AA’s well worth it. While it is not something I’d take hiking, it works well for all other trips. My unit also has a user replaceable harddrive allowing me to upgrade size when my needs exceed capacity. Or, if I were on a longer trip, I could swap out the harddrive midway through a trip.

Multiple Storage Cards

This idea seems straightforward enough but can have some trade offs to using a PSD.


  • Lighter, more compact
  • Easily adjust size depending on trip (take a few or multiple cards)
  • Little initial investment, only buy what you need
  • Expandable while on a trip as cards are available in all major cities
  • Can be shared with friends on a trip
  • Easy to send home when full


  • A storage pouch or hard case is still advisable, adding bulk
  • A system is needed to make sure cards aren’t overwritten (easier with cards such as SD that have a tab to lock the card)

It may seem the Con list is a bit light, however the last point is the deal breaker for a lot of travelers. The fear of overwritting precious memories can be too great for some and if you’re normally a disorganized traveler, the thought of six or seven cards bouncing around loose in the bottom of your bag can send shivers up your spine.

There are two other options which can be used with either idea above. They are quite simple: don’t overshoot and delete on a daily basis. Overshooting is more of a habit than an accident with today’s camera abilities. Stopping to accurately compose and meter a setting before snapping a picture can save a lot of space and organizational headache when you return from your trip. But if your finger gets a little too trigger happy anyway, take some time each evening to delete all the duplicate or bad images. While this may seem like it’d take time away from the vacation while you’re on it for a task better left at home, the 15 or 20 minutes of reflecting on the day helps put things in perspective and can slow down a busy vacation.

Keep watching DPS for a future post helping you choose a personal storage device.

Peter is an avid photographer who enjoys travel, portraiture and wildlife photography. A travel related blog of his past and current shenanigans can be found at The Carey Adventures.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Starrpoint November 24, 2008 01:09 pm

    I usually travel with my laptop and transfer all my files to it, then put them on a dvd or cd.

    I also have on line storage that I can upload to.

  • EllenK July 23, 2008 07:19 am

    I have used a variety of methods for storage when travelling, usually depending on the type of trip.

    On a month long trip to Australia in 2002 (mostly camping) I took sufficient memory cards to not have to delete anything. The next trip required two trips to places that burned CDs for me (one for $5 and one cost $15).

    I have also brought my own CDs and borrowed laptops to burn photos.

    On car trips and business trips, I usually have my laptop.

    Last year before a 3 week trip to Alaska I bought a Digital Foci portable storage device. Each night I downloaded my photos and could view them on the screen to ensure they were there. One advantage was that it reads any type of card, so I was able to store my brother-in-law's photos when he ran short of memory card space. You can do some editing on this device, but I never had the time. I have used it on a couple of other trips since. It plays sound and video files as well, but I haven't explored that aspect much. You can also connect it to a TV to show the photos. I am very happy with it, and I think they have come way down in price since I bought mine.


  • xlt July 21, 2008 09:08 pm

    i use two CF cards - 4 Gb and 8 Gb, try not to overshoot (thats pretty hard ;) and delete often. Its okay for short trips / event shooting though not enough for longer trips.

    When i traveled to Romania for more than two weeks i was more than glad i took my laptop with me to store all the photos. still the laptop is much of extra weight (well, not a problem if you go with a car) so portable storage devices might be an option.

    overwriting is not a problem for me - i delete pics from a card just i download them.

  • Sherri July 21, 2008 06:43 am

    This is my first visit to this site & I have to say - WOW. I've read some awesome ideas & hints that I will definitely use in the future. I'm a relative newbie to the photo world. I hope to learn more from all of you.

    Something that I noted is that everyone is worried about using a memory card they've already used (not a problem for me yet as I only have one). What if you wrote a small number on the label & then used them sequentially. So if your removing card #3 from your camera, the logical choice would be to replace it with card #4. Just a thought.

    I generally back mine up to my laptop when I'm travelling & then when I get home I download to my computer & then back it up to an external HD (I have a 500GB SimpleTech that I picked up at BestBuy for about $130).

  • Steve July 19, 2008 09:11 am

    When I take my camera on motorcycle trips I try to go to a Walgreens drug store. I can upload my pictures and get two cds. Then I mail one home.

  • Michael July 18, 2008 10:57 pm

    I use a smartdisk with 40GB and 2 160GB external HD's when I return. Date and exif on download. Files I change or photoshop go into a sub folder.

  • Dave July 18, 2008 07:56 am

    I just got back from a 10 day trip to Maui with my new panasonic super-zoom and an my old Norcent 1020 point and shoot (which is great for family shots). I had a freaking blast! 4000 Hawaiian photos later... I'm still feeling the love! :)
    The best thing I found before I left was a trip to my local MicroCenter where they sell 8gb sdhc cards for just under $30 (get the bulk kind with the store name on it!) which was pretty good... I bought two of these to augment my supply of (5) 2gb sd cards and (4) 4gb sdhc cards mostly for the Norcent which my spouse used extensively, but I took when we went out to restaurants or cultural events because it hid nicely in my shirt pocket and lets you still have full control when you want it. (but back to storage)

    I had both our laptops and back up drives to back up to but still didn't have to delete anything from the cards! it was amazing!
    Now my problem is figuring out which photo editing/organization program to buy to really put it all together! And which online service to start storing the stuff on! OY...

  • ride no evo July 18, 2008 05:35 am

    I am leaving for a trip about Europe in about 24 hours...I have a new D300 a pile of CF cards, my laptop, and a stack of blank DVDs. The plan is to shoot as much as possible, then back them up to DVD, I will only erase the CF if I really need to but I should be good, I've got enough to hold 6000+ exposures

  • Greg Goodman July 17, 2008 01:47 am

    I recently backpacked through Central America and just didn't have the money to buy tons of memory cards, so a Wolverine drive was my answer. Despite being terrified every time I put my precious memories onto that drive (I got the one without a viewfinder, so all I knew was that the available drive space was lower), the photos and the drive made it all the way through my 3 month adventure.

    That said, I have read horror stories about the drives and, should I ever make it rich one day, I will 100% be traveling with a pouch of 16 gb memory cards!

    For more on my adventures across Central America and the rest of the world, check out Adventures of a GoodMan at

  • Czar July 16, 2008 09:10 pm

    Well, having all the pros and cons of the two stuffs laid down, I guess I'll be sticking on using the multiple storage cards.

    Since I made my choice, can somebody tell me what's the best multiple storage card in town right now?

  • Silverhalide July 16, 2008 05:37 am

    @topcitybird: Online storage isn't a practical for most of the world, especially if you shoot RAW.

    I get about 150 RAW images on a 2GB CF card, and average shooting 1 - 3 cards per day (2 - 6 GB/day). If I were to upload all of that on my home highspeed DSL connection (which my ISP claims is 640 Kbps upload) that takes 7 - 21 hrs to upload, daily.

    When I was in Thailand two years ago, I often encountered internet cafes boasting "high-speed" connections -- this usually meant a 56 Kbps modem, shared among a dozen computers. I don't think we need to bother with the math to realize that general online storage is untenable.

    On the other hand, there should be no problem uploading select images (top 2 - 6 daily), especially if converted to jpeg first.

    As for your offline storage idea of burning to DVD, an excellent approach, especially if you burn two copies -- one to keep with you, and one to mail home.

  • Bryan July 16, 2008 05:14 am

    Not too long ago, my wife and I went on a 3 month trip through southeast asia, and we took a Wolverine FlashPac 60gig storage device to backup our photos. It worked very well. We each had a dSLR and were taking many photos (about 8000 by the end of the trip). The particular model was about $150 and held up very well. We would backup our photos at the end of each day, and the thing could be recharged from a plug or from a USB cord plugged in to a computer. We did not take a laptop with us, and the device is very lightwieght, a little bigger than an ipod. The only real negative is that you can't preview your photos on the little screen. The screen only shows you how much space is left on the drive and other utility type information. But for the price, I can't complain.

  • Ira July 16, 2008 02:14 am

    I think you missed one of the cons to multiple cards.


    A PSD with 250Gig drive is like $300 but a couple of fast 8Gig cards can run you that much. (16Gig vs 250Gig) I opted to go the PSD route because I anticipate taking a lot of photos in RAW on my next trip.


  • Kirk July 16, 2008 02:09 am

    I have a 2 Gig CF and a half-gigger CF. Generally, this is more than I'll need in the course of a shooting day. I just got back from a 3-day stay in the White Mountains, New Hampshire and took about 500 photos. I got back to the cabin each day and uploaded all my images to my laptop. I did, however, bring along my I/O Magic Digital Photo Library just in case. It's a 20 Gig storage that takes all the cards I use (CF, Sony Memory Stick & SD). Also, it is a rechargable unit. I got it from 1 sale a day dot com for like $80, which is relatively inexpensive @ almost 50% of its original cost.

  • Doc Holliday July 16, 2008 02:08 am

    As I just found out, Apple *used* to make something called a camera connector card. With it, you could plug your camera into your iPod and download images to your iPod. Unfortunately, they recently quit making it. It was designed for the iPod Video and I think the connector died with the iPod Video. Apparently, won't work with anything but the Video, which was replaced by the Touch.

    Belkin still makes something similar, but from all the reviews I have read about the device, it is slow and it goes through batteries in the device and your iPod relatively quick. Although it is not designed for a specific iPod, it won't work with the Touch...

    I just got an iPod Touch and was really looking forward to being able to use my 16GB Touch for this...

  • Ryan July 16, 2008 02:01 am

    I carry (2) 2GB and (2) 4BG CF cards (I use the 4GB cards last) with me in a slim storage case. It doesn't take up much room at all. After I use a card, I put it back in the case upside down, so I know not to use it and it stands out from the other cards. I am not a fan of using giant cards because if that card goes bad, you only loose 100 pictures or so as opposed to loosing 400 pictures. On long trips, I bring a laptop for storage and to use to upload my pics to online storage.

  • Jeremy July 16, 2008 01:57 am

    I recently went on a 17-day trip, took over 3100 photos. I couldn't take a laptop, I invested in a Nokia n800, which has two SDHC slots. One had a 16 GB card, the other I used to copy images from my Nikon D40x. Additionally, the Nokia n800 has a mini-USB port, and I attached an external hard drive.

    The Nokia n800 isn't quite as full-featured as other photography-specific devices like Epson or the Wolverines, but it was much cheaper (~$200), included wifi, bluetooth (I took along a bluetooth keyboard for journaling), and a nice bright screen. It only reads JPEG, I shot NEF+JPG so that wasn't an issue.

  • cbinsa July 16, 2008 01:37 am

    I'm currently touring southern Germany for 4 weeks and I have 2 psd devices. I keep one with me at all times and the other stays back at "home." So far this seems to be the best setup for my comfort level. Sure it cost me a few extra bucks to get the 2nd drive on sale but I figure I will just ebay/craig's list one when I get home. So far I've spent the better part of a week walking around with my gear in a backpack and haven't noticed the extra weight.

  • Ed O'Keeffe July 16, 2008 01:36 am

    I carry 8 2GB SD cards in my camera bag. I am on a shoot that last more than 24 hours (like a weekend or week away) I usually have my MacBook Pro with me and a Western Digital 120GB Hard Drive for backup.

    Ideally I would also like an Epson PhotoView for on the move backups in the middle of shooting. Never does any harm having two or more copies of your photos.

  • Loose_Canon July 16, 2008 12:48 am

    I carry 8 CF cards in a pouch. I reformat each one before use, then when the card is full, I place it back in the pouch BACKWARDS - back side facing out. So I can easily recognize new cards from used.

  • Jon July 16, 2008 12:14 am

    I'd second the CD burning. I travelled from Singapore up to Japan over three months, and while I only took 4 x 1GB cards with me, there were internet cafes everywhere which burned CDs. I got 2 copies of each CD made, and kept one copy in my big backpack which I left at the hostel/hotel, and the other copy tucked in my daypack. It worked a treat.

  • Steve Briant July 15, 2008 11:45 pm

    I used to take a Nikon Coolwalker 40Gig backup device with me on hols, but with the falling price of storage cards, I now carry these instead. They are smaller, lighter, and at least if one goes missing you still have the other cards to hand.

  • Image-Y July 15, 2008 10:41 pm

    Before I delete my CF card I transfer the images to my PSD (Epson p-3000) and then to my laptop. I have 4 CF cards so I only delete once I went through the other 3.

    If I shoot for a client on location and I'm not able to go back home, I'll also back up the files to You get 2 GB of free storage but I pay $5/month for unlimited storage since it's a business expense. ;)

  • topcitybird July 15, 2008 07:04 pm

    Other ideas:
    - Offline storage - some internet cafes and photo processing places will burn your images to Cd or DVD for you. We did this in Iceland after losing our camera case with all our spare memory cards (thankfully still empty at that point).
    - Online storage - have a pro account at Flickr and you can upload all of your pics - you can make them all private until you have time to select the ones you want to share. Once your stuff on online you don't have to worry about losing it. I've not tried that wifi sd card yet - but it syncs your photos whenever it finds a wireless network - which would work for most vacations where your hotels and coffee shops have wifi.

  • zinek July 15, 2008 06:21 pm

    Asus eee + card reader + external HDD. Yes, it adds bulk but it's acceptable while having relative comfort for viewing, some light editing and full connectivity should you choose to upload stuff somewhere online.

  • Bob July 15, 2008 06:13 pm

    @Sean: Are you going to Japan for 10 months without a laptop? In that case a PSD would definitely be necessary. Otherwise, I'd stick with what normally works for me: upload to the laptop after a day/trip, backup to multiple sources, delete from card.

    Also, make sure the time settings on both your cameras are relatively in-sync. It's nice having a photo progam auto-sort your pictures in time-order when you upload them from two cameras.

  • stewblack July 15, 2008 04:29 pm

    I took a laptop with me last year (no good if you're camping obviously) and downloaded onto it each evening. Also I noticed that Jessops have machines which offer you the option of transferring to a DVD from every conceivable media. Again only any use if you're near a town. I think the old ipod or zen from ebay is the way forward for me, thanks for all the tips.

  • Sean July 15, 2008 02:45 pm

    Im going to Japan this spring for ten months with two cameras in hand, a p&s and a DSLR. Ill probably have a 4 gb stick in each. I take a fair amount of photos a month and like to have both raw and jpeg.

    What type of storage should i use? Im thinking a PSD. WHat are the best PSD's in that case?

  • Sean July 15, 2008 02:16 pm

    Getting enough cards to keep all of your photos is easy, but "backing up" your photos means making a second copy somewhere. On a recent three-week trip to southeast Asia, I used a small portable hard drive (80GB) and a card reader. When I hit an internet cafe (which are everywhere now), I could dump photos from the card reader to the drive quickly. The setup cost less than most standalone solutions would (way cheaper and lighter than carrying a laptop everywhere), and worked perfectly.

  • Homburg Pokes July 15, 2008 12:58 pm

    On a recent week long hiking / camping trip I took over 15GB of storage via CF cards and used every last bit of it. While I normally wouldn't shoot quite that much, I was shooting for HDR images and in RAW, meaning that each 'image' was 3 JPGs and 3 RAW files.

    At the end of each day I would offload the images to a laptop (along with GPS data). I did not reuse the cards though, I just went through all of them. If I had needed more space, I would have wiped one of the cards, but a little calculation into how you are shooting, and for how long will prevent you from having to reuse a card. 12GB of storage was cheaper than the gas to get there, and knowing that my photos existed in two places (laptop and CF card) gave me some assurance that my work was not to be lost.

  • John P July 15, 2008 12:39 pm

    If you are deleting images daily from a camera card make sure you do not hit "delet all" by mistake. Take it from me it's not nice watching images disappearing before you realise what has happened! From experience I now "protect" all images I want to keep before I start deleting any.

  • Steve July 15, 2008 12:29 pm

    I took the Wolverine ESP5120 with me on my trip to Scotland as a way to store photos (jpeg and RAW) from my digital camera without a computer (accepts all storage card types). It uses a rechargeable battery, so I didn't have to worry about buying batteries all of the time. I can also listen to music and watch videos on it.

  • Alan July 15, 2008 12:26 pm

    I carry a 20GB SmartDisk FotoChute with me. It's a small harddrive that's built specifically for transferring photos once your camera gets full. Just connect your camera to it with a USB cable, turn it on, and press the button.

  • Christian July 15, 2008 11:25 am

    I have an 8GB card for my camera and then a cheap USB camera adapter for my 80GB ipod (which is never more than half full). 48GB is enough for me and this stuff isn't expensive (ok, the ipod is, but you can buy old 20GB Gen4's for nothing these days).

  • c3l5o July 15, 2008 11:09 am

    I don't think that someone will overwrite a card if they check before they format it... It's simple, just format all cards, only change cards when the one your using is full...

    If the new card is full then it wont take anymore pics and you know it's full and you shouldn't erase it!

  • Patty Hankins July 15, 2008 11:08 am

    Another option is if you have a laptop with you when you travel is to bring along external hard drives. Since I always have mine with me on the road, I copy everything to the computers hard drive, and then to two separate external hard drives. I have three copies made of the files before I delete them off the compact flash card

    I keep one of the hard drives with me - the other is usually left at the hotel. Since they are in separate places, chances are if one gets stolen - the other one will still be safe.