How to keep your digital photos safe and organised while you’re on the move.
Travelling with a laptop is commonplace, although these days many laptops are being replaced by more portable ‘tablet’ devices. Unfortunately, while they provide an attractive platform for viewing your photos as you travel, most tablets are designed for consuming media, rather than creating or managing it.
Tablet computers provide attractive viewing platforms for images and videos and can make it easy to share files but their storage capacities are limited. Adding a USB thumb drive, as shown here, can extend storage for some tablets.
Many smartphones have higher-resolution cameras than most tablets and provide a wider range of adjustments. They can also be easier to use. However, both types of devices, while fine for grabbing quick snapshots, are difficult to use for creative photography because their control suites are so limited. They are also JPEG-only, with all the compromises inherent in that file format (see below).
Being able to email shots you’ve taken with the built-in camera in your mobile device while you’re on the move is extremely convenient. But, if you’re at all serious about your photography and want to come home with memorable images of your trip, you really need to take a dedicated camera.
This raises the issue of how to manage your high-resolution images as you travel and ensure the shots you take are stored and backed-up safely when you need to free up space to capture more. It’s not as simple as it may seem.
Capture to Storage
Backing-up image files is essential as you travel. When you review the day’s shots each night, you need an efficient way to transfer image files from a camera to a safe storage system plus sufficient storage space to accommodate the files you want to keep.
Storage requirements vary with different types of photographers. Casual snapshooters who seldom shoot video clips could probably get by with around 16GB of storage space for a fortnight’s trip. Tablet-based storage could be an option for these photographers, although they may require an additional USB thumb drive to provide back-up security and space for data overflow.
In contrast, serious photographers will need at least 20GB ““ and probably more, particularly if they shoot raw files and/or record video clips. A portable hard drive is currently the only choice for high-volume shooters, although it needs to be carried with you throughout your trip. (Make sure it’s packed in a different carrying case from your computer.)
You must also balance the need to preserve the files you want to edit and print while at the same time having easily accessible JPEG versions for sharing. Some cloud-based storage services (see below) make image sharing easy as they automatically resize the copies of shots you send without changing your originals. Uploading images to a tablet is another option that can achieve the same result.
Important image files can also be copied to an optical disk, which is easy to post home while you’re en route. Most photolabs around the world offer back-up to CD or DVD as a service.
Even though the storage capacity of disks is limited, they’re cheap enough to make disk storage a worthwhile option for photographers who shoot raw files and want to preserve their integrity until they return home.
Issues to Consider
If you’re determined to travel light, the first decision you must make is which file formats you’ll shoot ““ and whether you plan to record any video clips. Both raw files and video are data-hungry and you’re likely to fill an 8GB memory card in a few hours if you shoot mainly in either format. In fact, if either raw or video shooting is your main focus, you might as well forget about using a tablet and stick with your laptop.
But, even if you’re a JPEG-only shooter, before you replace your laptop with a tablet for travelling, there are a few additional issues to consider:
1. There’s a limit to the amount of data a tablet can actually store. At entry level you get 16GB, rising to 64GB with premium products. Space fills quickly when you try to store JPEGs from your 16-megapixel (or higher) camera ““ and even faster if you shoot movies and/or raw files. Some tablets can’t handle raw file formats and a some provide no facilities for expanding the on-board memory.
2. Syncing files between your regular computer and a tablet’s file system can be difficult. In the case of the iPad, files are treated as components of each app’s workspace and transferring them from one device to another involves cables, add-on accessories, iTunes and a lot of toggling. Bluetooth and WiFi are available in the iPad 3 and also in many Android machines. Some Android tablets have USB interfaces and/or SD card slots that provide several options for memory expansion, including the ability to connect portable hard drives. However, transferring files between devices can be tricky and is often slow.
3. Moving images off a tablet also requires a fair bit of bandwidth, particularly when you have large files. While travelling you’re often dependent on the WiFi hotspots in cafes, at airports and in hotels (although some provide plug-in internet access). At best, these places provide a limited service that’s good enough for sending emails and basic browsing. But don’t try sending 16GB of image files.
4. Bandwidths are smaller and costs are significantly higher if you try transmitting files via your telecom’s services, either as an upload from a 3G tablet or via a smartphone. And you can easily exceed your monthly data allowance if you try uploading a single day’s shots this way.
Given all these obstacles, travelling with a laptop still has a lot going for it, particularly if you buy a high-capacity portable hard disk drive for backing-up your files. Even a fairly basic laptop should have at least one USB port plus enough storage capacity for a couple of weeks’ shooting. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should ignore the cloud storage option.
An attractive solution when travelling is to store files ‘in the Cloud’; in other words, online. Tablets and cloud storage may seem like a marriage made in heaven, but making that marriage work isn’t as simple as you think.
There’s an ever-present worry that the transfer of files could be interrupted, the provider’s servers might crash or somebody may interfere with your data. And even when things run according to plan, you require a reliable way to download the files you’ve stored when you need them. Getting all these factors right is a pretty big ask even though much of the technology infrastructure is available to make it both possible and efficient.
Fortunately, there’s nothing particularly new about cloud-based storage. If you have a Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail or Windows Live email account it’s where your emails are stored. The same is true for photographers who use Google’s Picasa Web Albums.
Google’s Picasa Web Albums provides an easy way to share photos with family members and friends and offers free storage for images up to 2048 pixels wide and up to 15-minute video clips. It also integrates with Google+.
However, if you want to use these facilities to extend the amount of storage your tablet provides, you need to be aware of the restrictions they impose. Picasa Web Albums provides free storage for up to 1 GB for photos and videos. Photos up to 800 x 800 pixels and videos up to 15 minutes don’t count as part of this free storage.
Some services assume you are uploading images solely for the purpose of sharing them online and will automatically re-size the files accordingly. Google+ provides unlimited storage for photos uploaded in Google+, which are automatically resized to 2048 pixels (longest dimension). Videos up to 15 minutes in length are also free. Raw files are not accepted.
Photo Review has been using Dropbox, one of the most versatile forms of cloud storage, for sharing documents and image files. It has the benefit of synchronising the files across all of our computers and mobile devices but for images it’s JPEG-only.
Apple’s iCloud service is also accessible across multiple devices, including computers running Windows. iCloud allows users to store music, photos, applications, documents, bookmarks, reminders, backups, notes, iBooks and contacts, as well as providing a platform for Apple’s email servers and calendars.
Microsoft’s Windows Live SkyDrive allows you to upload a variety of files, including documents, images and video clips via smart-phones, tablets or computers using simple drag and drop. Microsoft may limit the number of files that each user can upload to SkyDrive each month.
Uploading images to the Windows Live SkyDrive storage
Sharing an image via SkyDrive.
Viewing and captioning an image in SkyDrive.
SkyDrive is quite versatile. You can invite people to view your image galleries or read documents you’ve posted in your storage site. You can also play slideshows, share images via Facebook and other social networks, order prints, delete and move folders and download folders as you saved them or through Photo Gallery, an optional application for viewing, organising and editing photos and video clips.
Several hard disk drive manufacturers have developed storage devices that support ‘private’ cloud storage that you can access from your smart-phone and tablet computer. The advantage of such systems is that they are free. However, you have to set up dedicated user accounts and apply encryption to protect your data. You must also set up internet access before you can store data.
Internet upload speeds are critical for your private cloud storage to be practical because you will be required to pay for both uploading and downloading when accessing files as you travel.
File Formats Revisited
Digital photographers typically use three image file formats: JPEG, TIFF and raw files. The latter are mostly proprietary formats and specific to a particular camera and only ‘unlocked’ with special software.
Raw files consist of unprocessed data and contain ALL of the information captured by the camera. Photographers who want maximum image quality convert raw files into 16-bit format for editing.
Because this creates large TIFF files that can’t be posted online, you must rely on JPEGs when we want to view or share travel photos. Being compressed, JPEGs are ideal for social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Online services such as Flickr and Picasa Web Albums only accept images in JPEG format.
Some of these services resize images automatically; for others you must do the job yourself. Even a basic editor lets you do this easily, as shown here.
Resizing an image with the popular freeware editor, GIMP. The circled area shows where to input the changes to the image size.
Photographers who shoot RAW+JPEG pairs should consider matching the file size of the JPEGs with the resolution of the largest screen on which they will be viewed. This enables you to optimise the available storage space while shooting and makes it easy to transmit them quickly and efficiently without incurring an apparent loss of image quality.
The highest resolution in a TV screen at present is 1920 x 1080 pixels. If that’s where your images will be viewed, your JPEG files need be no larger than 1920 x 1440 pixels.
Most computer monitors support resolutions between 1920 and 2560 pixels wide. Panels for professional applications can go as high as 4096 x 2160. At that size files may be too large to transmit easily online.