Digital Nomad; processing and backing up images on the road.

Given that I aim to fund my travels as best I can by working from the road, I carry a relatively vast collection of electronic devices. It’s by far the heaviest part of my setup and somewhat at odds with the rest of my ultralight gear – but a necessary burden when I’m away for so long.

Here’s an overview of what I use, the programs I like, details on my travel work flow, and some advice on backing up images.

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Apple’s Macbook Air’s packs a real punch for its weight. Battery life and build quality are excellent.

Hardware: 

Canon 6D, 24mm f/2.8, 40mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/4: Yes, it’s a heavy system, but the image quality is great, and I love the low light benefits of a full frame camera. If I was starting afresh, I’d look at weather resistant mirrorless cameras, like the Fuji XT-1, which seems to rule the roost in terms of the image quality/build quality/size ratio. Or for a smaller setup still, Olympus’ excellent OMD series.

Day to day, the camera lives in my Carradice saddlebag, which sits on a Nitto front rack, and hangs off the handlebars – for details of the setup, see here. The camera nestles in a minimal case, on top of a layer of clothing, with lenses to either side. When needed, a waterproof liner keeps everything dry. I tape up my camera and cover logos, to both protect if from scuffs and to help lend it an old and beaten-up look.

MacBook Air 11in: Very powerful for its weight (1kg). Slim. Its solid state drive is extremely robust. Mine is a couple of years old, and it’s survived both drops and being shaken around over the roughest of roads. And, it fits in my XL Pugsley/Krampus framebag (a perk of being tall). It’s stored in a homemade case, constructed from pieces of Thermarest Ridgerest for extra padding, inside a dry bag in my framebag. If I wasn’t writing so much, or I was heading out on a shorter trip, I’d probably downsize to a tablet. But as it is, it’s really useful to have a laptop.

1 x Western Digital My Passport Ultra 1TB: Short of being dropped, these hard drives seem very reliable, in as much as any non solid state hard drive can be. I’ve used several in the past, and never had any problems – they’re also cheap and readily available. The hard drive is stored in a padded case, in a dry bag within my seat pack.

Dropbox Pro 1TB storage: £79 ($99) for the year. A complete set of online backups will eventually supersede the need to carry a more fragile hard drive. £79 a year seems like good value for peace of mind. And, it saves weight! I’ve also set up Dropbox to automatically sync all my documents whenever I’m online, providing a backup, and allowing me to access them from other devices.

2 x San Disk Extreme 64GB USB 3 flash drives: Blazing fast, super reliable and tiny. I use these for a second round of backups, or to store other media. There are now 128GB and 256GB flash drives available too, which is crazy given the size.

When I have them, I place a bunch of silica gel packets amongst various electronic bags, to help keep dampness and humidity at bay.

Photos:

To get the most out of my images, I shoot in RAW – the difference in quality is worth the extra processing time, especially if you like to have more control over your images.

I use Lightroom 5 to process RAW images. It’s quick and easy to use. Setting up a series of processing presets helps give photos a ‘look’ and sense of continuity, and saves time in front of the computer screen. I’ve made up my own series of presets, based on VSCO’s excellent film emulation collections. Lightroom is an excellent program that has a bunch of useful tools, one of my favourites being the Spot Visualizer and Spot Remover, which are excellent for tidying images taken with a dusty sensor. I also carry one of Giottos’ Rocket Blasters, which helps dislodge most particles of dust from sensors.

If you’re happy writing on a tablet (which are becoming ever more powerful), Photo Mate R2 looks like a good RAW conversion option, and Snapseed is popular too. On an iPad, I’ve heard good things about Photogene.

I keep a backup of all the edited files on my hard drive. As I mentioned above, I’m slowly uploading all of these to Drop Box, with the eventual aim of having a full copy of images stored online, in both RAW and high res JPEGs – so I’m not reliant on carrying my computer all the time.

Editing:

After importing images into Lightroom, I set about culling those I’m not happy with to save on disc space. Then I process the images to taste, making sure the RAW files are piggybacked with the xtml file (you can set this up in Preferences). I then batch rename the images according to where they were taken or the set they’re in, always preceded by the Year/Month/Date. This makes tracking down images a lot easier later on; it’s well worth the initial effort.

eg: 150208_cotopaxiloop_01.

I convert one set to 1200px jpgs, compressed for web use (my Tumblr site’s default size is 1200px). These can be easily emailed or uploaded to the likes of Instagram. Being obsessed about backups, I also make a second high res version saved at 3MB in size, which I upload to Dropbox when I get the chance. Same goes with the RAW images – whenever I stay in a hostel with a good internet connection, I upload these overnight.

27 thoughts on “Digital Nomad; processing and backing up images on the road.

  1. Leon

    “I also make a second high res version saved at 3GB in size, which I upload to Dropbox when I get the chance”

    – I hope you mean 3MB??

    Thanks for sharing this info, always wondered how how much camera/electronic gear you carted around. Regarding the dropbox – what are internet speeds like where you are? I’m guessing you do all your backing up to the cloud once you’re back home and not whilst on the road?

    Cheers and keep up the good work, love your stunning images!
    Leon

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks Leon. Oops! 3MB of course. Will update.

      Here in Quito the connection is really good – which is why I’m finally getting round to setting up Dropbox Pro. I’ve already uploaded all my images from the last 4 months. Aside from Bolivia, connections have been ok generally, at least in the big cities, or every once in a while. With diligent editing, I think that uploading to the cloud is pretty viable. I’d still carry some flash drives, to tide me over with backups until I can.

      It’s definitely a lot of camera gear to cart around. Partly it’s because the Canon is what I have, and I’m not in a position to invest in a new system at this point. But it’s modular too. If I’m not riding with others, I’ll often forgo the long lens, in which case it’s just the pancake 40mm (130g) and 24mm (280g). That’s more manageable space and weight-wise.

      Reply
      1. DNL

        Here in Central Asia Dropbox would be completely useless! Internet connections are way too slow to upload RAW images and even high res JPEG. Anyway I have almost the same workflow! The trick I use to have images quickly to share on Facebook/Instagram without having to use the computer, I shoot in RAW + Small JPEG, then I can connect my camera to my android through an OTG cable and I have immediately the JPEG available. I do basic adjustment with snapseed (now integrated in Android), and that’s it! 😉 Thanks for sharing!

        Reply
        1. Cass Gilbert Post author

          Thanks for the comment. Slow connections in Central Asia? Somehow that doesn’t surprise me…

          With the 6D (and a bunch of other new cameras on the market), I can actually wifi images across to my phone, and upload to Instagram from there. But seeing as I already have my computer, I just find it easier to process a high and low res version at the same time – that way I’m only making adjustments once.

          But I’ll definitely check out Snapseed for times when I leave the computer behind. Thanks!

          Reply
          1. DNL

            You’re right, but I have the chance to use the computer only once in a while, maybe twice in a month, while I upload pictures on social networks almost in real time! That’s why I transfer quickly the small jpeg to my phone! 😉

  2. steve makin

    Hi Cass, for your interest I just got back from New Zealand, I used the Fuji XT1 with their 18-135mm lens, both weatherproof (and at times they needed to be) I was very happy with this set up, using a mini Ipad and snapseed worked fine for quickly editing and uploading jpgs.

    Now back home and starting to look at the RAW files and am really happy with the image quality coming out of this combination, I doubt I’ll ever use a DSLR on the bike again.

    Reply
  3. Ellen

    Great read Cas, I do kind of the same and I have more or less the same gear. (5DIII and a couple of lenses).

    I love dropbox too and upload all my processed images, I tried uploading the RAW’s… but that was a little too much for the internet connections, so I carry a second harddrive. 😉

    Oh, and I use Time Machine for a complete backup of the MacBook Air, in case it fails or gets stolen, I don’t loose my programs such as PS.

    Thanks again for this read! Gr. Ellen

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks for the message Ellen!

      I guess the internet connection in Ecuador must be pretty good then. I managed to upload the last few months of pictures just fine. Slow going though.

      I’m a fan of Time Machine too!

      How is your Mk3 holding up? I think the seals are perhaps better than the 6D. I’ve just had to replace the whole rear plate of mine – it’s finally back in action again. Opening it up gave me a chance to see its innards. No seals at all!

      When does that new bike arrive?? (-:

      Reply
  4. steve Jones

    Time for me to get a new laptop. Any thoughts on the new Macbook Cass? I’m keen on the high res screen and slightly bigger screen size. Would it be viable on the road with only one port and an adaptor for devices? what do you use for loading images from the camera to the Air?

    Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Cass Gilbert Post author

    Hey Steve,

    I just use a small USB3 SD card reader – it transfers super quick.

    I don’t know too much about it, but the new Macbook certainly looks very cool in terms of spec, screen size/weight/battery. But until the rest of the tech catches up, having just one port (including power) strikes me as a bit of pain. Although there are various adaptors, it seems the Macbook is moving in a cable-free direction, which is perhaps ok for home and some parts of the world, but not so great for travelling overall. For now, at least.

    I see there’s also a new Macbook Air out too. I don’t quite understand why Apple have added the Thunderbolt 2 port to the latest Air, if they’re planning on using USB-C in the future. If I was planning on using it to travel right now, I’d probably still be swayed by the Air – and it’s a fair bit cheaper too.

    As for the display, a bigger screen without a larger body would definitely be nice. I’ve never had any issues with the quality of the screen on the Air, but maybe comparing it side to side with the Retina screen of the Macbook would make me think otherwise!

    Reply
  6. Brent Knepper

    Cass I gotta tell you I picked up a used Fuji X-Pro1 a year ago, and it’s made me abandon my D800 for touring and backpacking. While I miss the resolution, I don’t miss the bulk of the camera and lenses or the bulk of its file sizes. I stick to wide primes and am really impressed by Fuji’s 23 (35mm equiv) and 35 (50mm equiv) lenses, and tomorrow I start a 7-day tour-to-backpacking trip with their 50-140 tele in the bag as well. So many focal lengths and great images with like half the weight of a full dslr setup! This past summer I tried to ride a bridge made of scrapwood under two feet of water on bum trails in Minneapolis, and naturally I completely submerged my X-Pro1 with the 35mm lens on in the process. The camera was off luckily, and I let it dry out for a few hours afterward- still using everything problem free ever since!

    Also I’m curious if you’ve thought about Backblaze at all for online backups? With longer trips planned this summer I’m debating switching to a macbook air in lieu of my ipad mini and haven’t decided how to best go about backing up online.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks for the message, Brent.

      50-140mm? Nice! If I moved over, it would definitely be on my wishlist. This said, it actually weighs more than my 70-200 f4 IS, which is also a lovely lens.

      The 23mm would certainly be on the list too. It’s just cash that’s holding me back right now – Fuji glass is top quality, with a price to match. Seeing as I just got my Canon fixed – replacing the whole of the backplate – I can’t really justify the outlay right now. But believe me, it’s definitely on my mind… I can’t fault the 6d’s image quality, and the file size is reasonable. But the build quality leaves a lot to be desired for, so it’s good to hear the X-Pro 1 is surviving.

      Haven’t heard of Backblaze. Will check it out. Certainly, Dropbox pro is excellent. I don’t regret having my Air on longer trips, given how much I use it. But further research into tablet alternatives is needed.

      Look forward to seeing/hearing about your trip!

      Reply
  7. Jeff NY LON

    Cass no more new bike stuff until you get the Fuji ,Its the way to go every one loves them and it feels like a real camera in the hand .

    Reply
  8. gypsybytrade

    Anything for Sage is excused. Bring on the WeeHoo! Lael’s nephew is graduating from a Specialized HotWalk to a pedal bike this summer, so we’ll be shopping for 16″ or 20″ wheels soon.

    I killed one MacBook Air hardrive, but managed to boot the computer by loading the OS onto an external drive (a new, empty drive purchased in Kyiv) and salvaged a duplicate of the files on the internal drive. Upon returning to Denver the HD was replaced under warranty by an Apple store. Sadly, I doused it in 2L of water a few months later.

    I think my method of carrying the MBA in the Carradice supported by the Nitto rack transmitted too much shock to the computer (I packed it vertically). The Revelate seatpack I am now using seems to limit shock through a natural suspension system, with clothing packed at the base near the seatpost. The MBA is now packed in a neoprene zippered case, inside a USPS Tyvek mailer, inside of a 5L REI rolltop drybag. The Revelate pack also has a waterproof liner stitched inside of the typical VX exoskeleton. The bottom of the bag has a stiffener to limit stress on the body of the computer.

    Here is the 5L REI drybag to fit a MacBook, or similar: http://www.rei.com/product/862471/rei-waterproof-lightweight-dry-sack

    I’ve also had a WD drive fail, and now carry two in place of online backup, eventually mailing one to a safe place.

    Lastly, I’ve had a computer stolen in NM, as you know. I do my best to keep my eyes on my bike and my stuff, no secrets there. No bikes stolen since I lost two about ten years ago.

    Any other exciting repairs to the MBA over the years? As I recall you were fighting mold growth on the battery at one point.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      My first Macbook was inherited by Nancy – it’s still going strong, bar the battery which could do with being replaced. I bought my current one a couple of years ago when Apple bumped up the processor speed; it now blitzes through Lightroom. No issues with it at all, thus far, stored as it is in my framebag. Perhaps the cushion of fat tyres help (-: I’m intrigued by the Air-specific seat pack though.

      Perhaps you could replace one of your hard drives with the likes of a 256GB flash drive (eg the PNY Turbo USB 3.0, which is only $76) – to be mailed onwards and copied onto a master hard drive, then returned to you. Certainly, with the ever expanding capacities of flash drives, and their superior reliability over optical ones, they would seem the way forward for bikepacking.

      Sage’s time with the Weehoo will come soon, I hope. In the meantime, we’ll be exploring a little of the UK on my Big Dummy, which I’ve been storing there.

      Reply
  9. Brian McGloin

    I’ve been shooting more and me film lately with one rangefinder body and one 50mm lens. I also started using an iPad instead of a laptop to upload and fiddle with pictures.
    He last the I shot like that was the cyclocross nationals here in Austin. I used my beaten old Nikon d80 and an iPad Mini with the Apple card reader adapter. I used the built in photos app, which synchs with Aperture on my elderly iMac at home.
    I shot it all in jpg (and print film), keeping originals on the card until I got home in the evening. If I were traveling with this setup, I would add a Bluetooth 3tb battery-powered drive. I use Apple iCloud as a digital backup (I’m condisering changing to Drop Box)
    The battery power and screen resolution of the iPad Minni is phenomenal, especially for the price. I have a 5200 MhA external battery, which can recharge both this iPad and an iPhone 5s more than once (the battery was on sale for $10!).
    When I have a break in class, I have a mountain of film to develop, a website to update and bike riding to do. I can’t see returning to a 100% digital workflow again, unless I find a box of money and buy a Leica M-P or Nikon d810.
    Thanks for sharing how you do things.

    Reply
  10. Jen

    I’m glad I’m not the only one lugging around a heavy DSLR on my journey. Thanks for this look into your electronics bag.

    Why do you choose to use drop box vs Flickr or Google to store your images? I’ve never had so many that I’ve had to store them somewhere other than an external hard drive, so curious about your choice.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Hi Jen,

      I’ve used Drop Box for a long time, and it’s always been really reliable and straightforward to use. I prefer it over Google Drive, and it offers a lot more control than Flickr. I did some research, and it always comes up amongst the top choices.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: Bikepacking Photography Gear - Pedaling Nowhere

  12. Marc

    Hello Cass,
    I have seen in the exif of your latest post pictures that you are now using a 5D markIII and a 35mm f/1.4. Sounds like an upgrade! 😉
    Are you happy with the move?
    Cheers, Marc

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Hey Marc,

      Yeah… Unfortunately, despite repeated repairs, I kept having issues with the 6D and its function buttons, and I didn’t want to sink any more money into it. The 5dMk3 took a big price drop on ebay in the States after the recent new model announcements. After much deliberation, I went for it… IQ wise, I might actually prefer the 6D, but the 5dmk3 feels a lot more solid, and the focus is a definite improvement. It’s a big camera though, so a lot to lug about.
      I’ve actually had the Sigma 35mm 1.4 for a while, I just don’t often take it on trips, as it’s so darn heavy compared to the 40mm 2.8. But it’s a wonderful lens. I sometimes find it hard to nail focus at apertures below 2, but when you do, there’s something magical about it.

      Reply
  13. Skyler

    As we prepare for more long travels, I’m seeking a way to continue shooting raw, and process/post from the field, without dropping $1000+ on a Macbook Air or Surface Pro 3. Does anyone here have experience with raw processing on a tablet? Any recommended tablets?

    Reply

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