Many photographers travel for both work and pleasure.
Much of the time the travel is temporary. A week, or so of vacation. A few days, or a week traveling on an assignment. Managing images in these situations isn’t usually that difficult. You take along a laptop, perhaps an external hard drive, or two. Generally editing is kept to a minimum until back home.
Extended travel is a different matter. When you’re not going to be returning to home for many weeks, or months the needs change. You have to be able to organize and edit on the road. For some, like embed photojournalists, there’s still a need to travel lighter. For others, a more robust mobile office can be assembled.
In the fall of 2019, I embarked on a year-long coast-to-coast-to-coast trek around Canada. I’ll be living and working in a 20′ travel trailer. This kind of extended travel with more permanent living conditions (that is, not in hotels) allows me to set up a more substantial working environment.
This article will walk through my considerations and needs and how I chose gear to meet those needs.
I had a laptop before leaving on the trek. It was decent, not great. There are, despite what many manufacturers tell you, very few laptops that are really suitable for serious image editing. Yes, that includes Apple. A good laptop, one that I could have an extremely high degree of confidence in what I was looking at was top of my list.
Next was image storage. Being on the road for a year, accumulating photo and video assets was going to require a lot of storage.
After that is backup. If I’m gathering all these visual assets, I want to minimize the risk of losing some to a disk failure.
Laptops are notoriously bad for serious photo editing. I don’t care who says otherwise, the vast majority of laptops on the market aren’t up to the task. There have been improvements, certainly. As more laptops incorporate better IPS, and similar panel technologies, as more include discrete graphics cards, they are getting better. Most still lack in terms of color gamut and contrast – two key components for photographers and filmmakers.
I’m a Windows user. The three I considered were the HP ZBook Studio with the 15.6″ screen and incorporating HP’s Dreamcolor display technology, the Dell XPS 15 customized with the best graphics card, memory and display and the Microsoft Surface Book 2 15″ customized with the top display, memory and graphics card.
The choice? The Microsoft Surface Book 2. Why? The biggest factor was the graphics card. It had the best discrete card of the three that were considered. One thing I don’t like is it has a glossy screen. It is getting difficult to find a good laptop with a matte screen. Keep in mind that even discrete graphics cards in laptops are stripped down versions of a full desktop GPU, so any laptop is still a compromise on some level.
The HP is able to be customized in the U.S. market. I am in Canada and here, HP does not allow for custom configurations. That meant I was unable to get some features I wanted and had to take some I didn’t. It had the worst discrete GPU of the three.
The Dell was a fairly close second. I’ve used Dell monitors in my office for several years and been quite happy with them. The discrete GPU in the XPS was not as good as the Surface Book.
The Surface Book 2 with the 15″ screen is working out very well. Out of the box colors were not great. After calibration and profiling, it’s very good. I have complete confidence in what I’m seeing on screen. It’s fast. On the downside, it is heavy. It’s also expensive. It was the most expensive of the three I considered. Initially I thought the 15″ screen 3:2 aspect ratio (compared to the 15.6 16:9 on the others) would be an issue. It is not. Having used 2 monitors in my office for years, I was also concerned about using a single, smaller screen for the long term. That too has turned out not to be a big issue. The pixel pitch of the Surface Book is high enough that there is sufficient screen real estate for Ps/Pr panels and still be able to view the image.
The Surface Book is distinct from the Surface Laptop. At the time I was looking, the Surface Book was a much more robust device with much more capability than the Surface Laptop. I also bought the Surface Pen to use with the touch screen. The Surface Book also has a detachable screen which can be used as a graphics tablet in combination with the Surface Pen in a more traditional desktop editing environment.
How many pictures and how much video do you think you would take over the course of a year? Now think about that in terms of being on the road for a year for the sole purpose of photography and filmmaking. If you do timelapse video, those numbers go up even more. Capturing video in 4k? Rendering timelapses in 4K, or higher? Yep, it can all add up. Particularly with our high-resolution cameras these days.
The Surface Book only has a relatively small internal drive of 500GB. I’m also not a proponent of keeping data on the system drive, so I knew I’d need an external solution. Buying several individual enclosures, plugging and unplugging as needed and trying to keep straight what drive I needed at any given time wasn’t workable. A multi-bay enclosure was what I would need.
I’ve been using a Mediasonic 4-bay enclosure in my office for years and have never had any issues with it. Since I know the brand, it made sense to find one of their current models that would meet my needs. I went with a 4-bay enclosure that can take drives up to 12TB in size. It connects via USB Type-C and is updated with Gen 2 (10 Gbps) capacity. Unfortunately the Surface Book is only capable of Type C Gen 1 speeds (5 Gbps), so I can’t take full advantage of the enclosure. 5 Gbps is still plenty fast.
I chose four, 2 TB drives to go in the enclosure. The decision was between 2 TB and 3 TB drives. 3 TB drives were significantly more expensive and I didn’t think I’d need 12 TB of storage.
N.B. Windows hard drive designations are not permanent. You can assign drive letters to the drives in your enclosure. Each time you plug in the enclosure those drive letters will be honored. BUT! If you plug any other drive in without your enclosure being plugged in and turned on, your drive lettering may change because Windows will assign the next available letter. For example, if you plug an SD card into an internal SD reader, Windows will assign it the next available letter (likely D, if no other peripherals are connected). If you have assigned D to one of the drives in your enclosure, it will be overridden and will become E. Lightroom will not be able to then find the photos on that drive, if you use Lightroom. Even when you disconnect the other drive, the drive letters in your external enclosure will not revert to the previous state. You will have to reassign the drive letters in Disk Management.
Solution: There are a couple. One, always have your external storage enclosure plugged in and powered on before inserting any other device. Two, assign the drive letters in your enclosure to letters higher in the alphabet that won’t conflict with any other ports on your computer. Personally, I use the 2nd option because I don’t always have my external storage enclosure connected.
Being able to store the assets we create is important. Even more important is taking steps to prevent losing those assets. Hard drives will fail. That is simply a fact of life in computing. At some point in time, you will have a hard drive failure. Most probably more than one over time. Having a good backup solution is vital to overcoming a drive failure, or some other loss.
There are some who will say their primary storage is set up in a RAID configuration so they don’t need a backup solution because of the redundancy of RAID. WRONG! RAID in and of itself is not a backup. A backup is an entirely separate copy of data. Ideally more than one copy.
That said, RAID as part of a backup solution is fine. For my backup I went with a Mediasonic ProRAID 4 bay enclosure. I set mine up in a RAID 5, which allows for one hard drive failure at a time in the backup. If two drives fail in the backup simultaneously, data will be lost. The chances of two drives failing at the same time is very small.
Inside the RAID are four, 3 TB drives. This allows for 9 TB of data backup. The redundant data in the RAID array is spread over all four drives, with none being on the same drive as the original data. I have up to 8 TB of data, plus my system drive of 500 GB for a total of 8.5 GB, so 9 TB in the backup is fine.
I do only have one copy of my backup. Earlier I said more than one copy is ideal. And it is. When you have a second backup copy, one version should be stored off-site for security. Each time you do a backup (e.g., weekly) you rotate the drives. The one that’s off-site is brought back and the one that was used last time is put in the off-site location. The off-site can be a friend’s or parent’s house, a safety deposit box, anywhere secure you want. This is done so that in the event of a catastrophic loss (e.g., fire, flood, theft) you still have most of your work. You’ve only lost a week. A week is really the longest to go without doing a backup. If you’re accumulating significant data each day, then backing up daily, or every other day is better.
When traveling, the opportunity to have a second backup copy isn’t practical. I could carry a second RAID box, but that would be onsite, so there’s little benefit. I can’t put it in an off-site location because I’m traveling. There are cloud solutions available. Those are still not practical for large amounts of data. They’re expensive and upload speeds even from major broadband Internet providers still aren’t that fast. It can take days to upload a significant amount of data to a cloud service. Further, traveling all the time often means using cell service to transmit data, or an open wifi connection. Cell service is expensive and slow if you go over your cap on an unlimited plan. Open wifi can often be slow as well.
The Mediasonic ProRAID is USB 3.0, which has a transfer speed of 5 Gbps. Setting up the RAID array is simple.
I use Acronis True Image as my backup software and use incremental backups for both my data and system image.
You can assign your backup location to a specific drive letter in Windows Disk Management the same way you did for your primary storage. In my case, I assigned it as drive Z. Once again, these drive letters are not permanent. If you unplug the backup storage from your computer, then reconnect it at a later date, the drive letter may change and become the next available letter. If this happens, you will need to reassign the drive letter in Windows Disk Management.
If you have changed the drive letters of your primary storage, as noted above, your backup routine will not likely work properly because the backup software won’t be able to ‘find’ the data it’s trying to back up. In Acronis, this is simple to deal with because there is a function that allows you to Change Source for the backup. The incremental backup routine will then continue on with the reassigned source location.
Hard drives and hard drive enclosures are not things that should be jostled around a great deal. Non-solid state drives can break internally with too much vibration, or knocking about.
To minimize the possibility of damage, I bought a thick, firm foam sleeping mat that would be used for camping under a sleeping bag. I cut pieces out of the sleeping mat and used duct tape to assemble the pieces into boxes that the hard drive enclosures can slide into. The two drives fit perfectly side-by-side on a shelf in a cabinet in the trailer. There has been no damage from bumping, or vibration. And I’ve driven over some very rough roads.
That is the essence of my mobile office. It wasn’t inexpensive to set up. It addresses most of my needs as a traveling photographer. In the nearly year that I have been using the setup it has worked very well.