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Either you shoot video or photo – perhaps both – proper backup of your work is a must.

I spent a few months planning my last photography tour through the northern Argentina. Among the multitude of options to prepare, I wanted to find an efficient way to backup all the photos and videos while on location without hauling a laptop with me.

Backup & Replicant

Replicant is perhaps the worst Jean-Claude Van Damme movie ever made, but take a minute to understand its noble and important message: You should always backup your serial killer daily!
You can’t expect your SDs cards to last a lifetime. Manufacturers know that the life expectancy of a card is approximately 10 years. There are many factors at play with card’s longevity such as model, daily use, components and capacity. Not all Van Damme movies are a clone of themselves, so don’t expect every card to behave the same way.

Routine backups of your work should be a priority, either at location or at the studio, most IT professionals consider 3 separate backups as the bare minimum.

Say Hello to My Little Backup Friend

Tony Montana Illustration

Paper cut illustration by Matthew Gorman

Tony Montana’s Scarface character put many holes in a lot of places, so don’t expect this hacked DIY to be any different.

Start by taking an of-the-shelf WD My Passport with an SD port. Drill several holes on its front until you gain access to the ‘guts’ of the drive. As Scarface perfected, I too added some extra heat, but with a welding iron to make the hole big enough to remove the HDD and swap it with an SSD.  The idea is great. A commercially available product and some minor changes can perhaps make it the perfect solutions.

I got a used WD My Passport at Ebay for less than $100. Add a new SSD drive and repeat after me with your best Al Pacino’s cuban accent: “Say hello to my little friend…”WD Passport hacked with hole

It works like this: Configure the drive to automatically dump all its content into the drives. It neatly arranges the folders with the time and day of the dump. Swap the drives once they finish with the daily backup and store them at different places. Presto!
You can monitor the transfer by drive’s wireless connection interface as well as checking battery’s status. Yes, the awesome thing of this system is that it has an independent battery attached to it. No electrical outlet? No problem. You can run it from the internal battery and then re-charge it with an external power bank, neat.

This sounds so super, doesn’t it ? 
Well, transfer speeds are a problem.
Even after hacking the drive by including the SSD, the transfer speeds are slow. Very slow if you plan to transfer an entire 64 GB card, and don’t even get me started with 4k video.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The good, the bad, and the ugly illustrationIt seems like the market for fast, portable and reliable backups options is like the wild west of all the spaghetti westerns of the 60s: There are some sharp heroes in the plains, but this is still a convoluted ecosystem.

It’s was hard to test this process on a large scale prior to departure. There’s always the risk of something failing, something that you can’t resolve quickly on the go.
Keeping this in mind, I shot with fresh SD cards every day. I left all the cards full at night. My plan was to keep them as my second backup. Since this was the first time I used this system as a backup. I was fearful of loosing any data… And of course It failed… big time.

The Bad

The only way you can hack the WD Passport into accepting an alternative drive, other than its original WD HDD, is by utilizing its original firmware release.

The subsequent firmware updates make sure you can’t install any other model HDD than the one shipped with the unit.

The Ugly

This problem seems acceptable, until you discover its pitfall: Every video file over 50 Mb was corrupted. All the photo transfer worked fine, but every file over 50 MB was damaged. It seems that the original firmware has some type of bug resulting in a nightmare scenario for anything over 50 MB.

The Good

This solution was almost the holy grail of location backups. Affordable, customizable, slow but with some decent monitoring.

A Bridge Too Far

Unfortunately I came to the realization that this was too big of a risk to take for me.
At this time, I believe that a small, 13″ SSD laptop with USB3 connectivity will be the unavoidable future solution for photo tours backups on the go.
I considered to use the Raspberry Pi as an option, but at the end of the day, it’s just a scaled down version of a full blown laptop and, thus far, without USB 3 connectivity and monitoring, it’s not worth exploring.
Did you had successful backups while on remote locations ?
I’d love to hear what other people do on the go.

My search continues for the most portable, affordable and reliable backup desert.