Simple, On-the-Road Photo Backup


Because I like photography, and because I take a lot of pictures while traveling, I like to have a backup system that I can take on the road with me. The first part of this is easy: carry a laptop to download pictures along the way. But what if my laptop hard drive were to crash? Well, if I do not clear my memory cards and instead leave the pictures on them, then I would have some form of backup in place. However, shooting RAW files at more than 12 megapixels will fill up cards fast. What I do is simple: download to the laptop, and then backup the files to an external hard drive.

Now, ultimately it is best to have your photos backed up somewhere other than the gear you have with you to prevent things like theft or an act of God. This can be done over the Internet in a few different ways, just not always right away. Maybe it is lack of connectivity, like while on safari in Africa. Maybe it is lack of time, like when you are shooting a friend’s wedding and the upload would take too long. The point is, having a fast, physical backup can be a lifesaver.

Now, I know that some people would complain that carrying an external hard drive around with them would be a pain. Given the size of the hard drive in this solution, it really is not that much more to pack. Here is what Chase Jarvis has to say on the matter:

Backup Gear List

  • Laptop, in this case loaded with Windows Vista
  • External hard drive, bus powered
  • Backup software
  • Digital photos ( and they better be in RAW format! )

The Laptop

Now, I know that many creative types like to use Macs, and I do think that they are great machines. The truth is, Windows Vista is not bad, either. Now, a similar backup solution can be done with a Mac, but in this solution, a Windows Vista laptop is to be used. Besides running Windows Vista, all that is required is for the laptop to have an avalible USB 2.0 port.

In this solution, the laptop hard drive is only one partition, the C: drive. In the root of the C: drive, create a folder named “Work.” No quotes, no period, just Work. There is also a DVD drive, the D: drive. What means is that when the external hard drive is plugged in, it will show up as the E: drive

The External Hard Drive

As stated earlier, the USB hard drive needs to be bus powered. What this means is that the hard drive will be powered up simply by plugging it into the USB port. No AC adapter required. LaCie makes a great rugged external hard drive that is perfect for this application. It is bus powered, is inexpensive, and it can take a beating.

One other thing: bigger is better. Once we get to the next step, we will discuss that this solution will easily work with multiple laptops without any modification, as long as you have the space.

The Backup Software

Next, you will need backup software. There are many solutions, from software that comes with the external hard drive to specialized backup systems. Many of these are good, high-tech solutions, but they also mean additional software must be installed on your computer system, and not all are portable. What about a simple backup solution, on the road, without the additional softare overhead? What about that multiple computer option mentioned earlier?

Enter robocopy.exe.

This command line utility, built into Windows Vista and later (avalible for XP, as well,) is well known to many in the Information Technology field as a good, fast solution to copying files. It has many advantages over other built-in ways to copy files, and for this solution the ‘mirror’ function is the key. With the ‘mirror’ switch ( robocopy.exe /mir ) set, many things will happen. First, any new files in the source location will be copied to the destination location. Second, all existing files will be left as-is, greatly speeding up the backup process over a traditional file copy. Finally, any files in the destination that do not exist, or no longer exist on the source drive will be removed.

This last part might sound like something that we would not want to take place, but trust me, you do. Simply put, you only have to do file maintenance once. When you do something like move your files over to DVD backup, and then free space on your laptop, you also free space on your backup drive on the next sync.

The Final Piece

At this point, all we have really done is plug an external hard drive into a Windows Vista laptop and create a folder on the C: drive named Work. Now we get to the backup.

In the Work folder on the C: drive, create a text file with the name backup.cmd. Make sure you can see file extesnsions, or the filename may end up being backup.cmd.txt, which will not work. Right-click on backup.cmd and choose edit. The file should open in Notepad. Type in the following:

robocopy c:work e:%computername%work /mir

Save the file, and you are ready to go. All you have to do to run the backup is to double-click backup.cmd and let it do its magic.

The Breakdown

  • The cmd file extension is simply creating a batch file.
  • %computername% is replaced by a variable that will use the actual computer name. This is what will allow multiple computers to use the one drive. Each computer will automatically creat its own folwer on the external hard drive, provided they do not have the same computer name (unlikely, but possible.)
  • The /mir switch is what tells robocopy to mirror the drive contents, either adding or deleting, as required.


Fast, easy, and simple is what we have. Let’s not forget multiple laptops. There are many other ways to backup on the road, but few that do not require special software and resource overhead. In fact, this solution is so flexible that that can be implemented it in many other ways, such as over-the-network backups to a server share. Oh, and it makes a great iTunes backup, as well.

One Response to “ Simple, On-the-Road Photo Backup ”

  1. John says:

    Hmmm… Some of this sounds vaguely familiar. 😉 Thanks for finally putting it down in writing.

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