Mobile Workflow: Photos

Whether you’re a professional photographer shooting a destination wedding, or you simply enjoy taking photos while traveling, figuring out how to handle your image workflow in the field can be a bit daunting. Not only are your photos super vulnerable when you’re moving around, but everything in your system needs to be smaller, lighter, and more efficient as well. 

Developing a great mobile workflow is certainly more of an art than a science. But with a bit of preparation and thought, you can create an efficient system that ensures your awesome photos are safe and sound.

In this post we’re going to walk you through all the steps it takes to get your photos from your camera, onto your computer, and safely backed up. Mobile style.

The Equipment



Lets start with the computer. If you want to be serious about taking photos on a trip, and want to be sure you won’t lose all your work, you’ll need a computer.

For this trip we’re using an 11 inch MacBook Air. It’s certainly not very powerful, but what you gain is an ultra light computer thats easy to carry around and an absolute pleasure to use. When you travel, size and weight become extremely important. The less you have to lug around, the more you enjoy yourself.

Now, a MacBook Air isn’t great for doing lots of editing of your photos. It just doesn’t have enough processor power. But when you spend so much money to get yourself across the world, your time is much better spent enjoying your trip; save the processing for when you get home.

Of course, you might absolutely need to have a serious workstation when you travel. In that case, check out the new MacBook Pro.

Card Readers

We have Compact Flash and SD card readers that are super compact and easy to carry around. They’re far easier and quicker to use than plugging the camera itself in to the computer.

Hard Drives

For hard drive storage we’re using three Western Digital 1 TB My Passport drives. These drives are great: super portable, bus powered (no external power needed, just plug right into the computer) and fairly affordable.

If you can, try to pick up some kind of neoprene case to put them in. We had a few that came from older drives that we use to give additional protection (it’s easy for drives to get bumped around in your gear bag, which is really not good for them).

Each drive is individually labeled with a number, the size of the drive, and our email address. If a drive should get lost, at least there is the possibility of recovering it!

The Process

In a nutshell:

  1. Download cards into Lightroom catalog on Drive 1
  2. Convert to DNG on import
  3. Back up images and Lightroom catalog to Drive 2 and Drive 3
  4. Bring Drive 1 with you at all times

Detailed description:

After a day of shooting we head back to our hotel and start downloading our memory cards. We use Lightroom to import the photos and automatically convert our raw files into the DNG file format.

Converting to DNG is something new for us, as we formerly just imported the original raw files. The reason we’re converting to DNG is that much of our travel work is material we want to be able to easily access for the rest of our lives. Raw file formats are proprietary and are not open source like DNG, which means that there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to easily view/edit raw files in the future.

Note: For our wedding and portrait work we usually turn things over so quickly (Raw to JPEG/TIFF) that, in our opinion, it’s not absolutely necessary to convert to DNG. (I should mention that converting to DNG does take a bit of extra time.)

Because we’re using a MacBook Air (which has a relatively small solid state hard drive) we import the images directly to one of the Western Digital passport drives. We also have the Lightroom catalog that we’re using stored on the same drive. 

Once the images are downloaded and converted we backup the newly downloaded images and the Lightroom catalog folder to the other two hard drives. You can use a program like Super Duper to “Smart Backup” drives so that only the newest data is transferred. It’s fairly quick to back things up – it probably takes a couple minutes on average to transfer about 5gb.

The reason we use three separate hard drives is for backup and redundancy. Drive 1 acts as the main drive that we actually work off of. It contains the Lightroom catalog and all our DNG files. This is the drive that we take with us when we’re out shooting during the day. If something should happen to our apartment or hotel we still have all our images.

Drives 2 and 3 are identical copies of Drive 1. Having one backup is useful just in case something happens to Drive 1 (lost/stolen) or if one drive stops working. But if you’re shooting something super important (commercial assignment, wedding, months worth of travel photos), having that 3rd extra backup is great. You can send that drive home by mail so that in case anything happens to your other two drives while in transit, you still have another one headed home to the studio. The cost in terms of money and time is nothing compared to the savings in peace of mind.

Final Thoughts

This may all seem like a bit of overkill. At any one time, there are 3 copies of our images, in two locations (if we’re out of our room).

But here’s the thing. Travel is unpredictable. You could have your bag stolen in an instant, or your room broken into while you’re out all day. You could leave something behind (like the two hard drives we left with our laundry bags), or get caught in a rainstorm and have your gear damaged by water.

You put so much effort into your images, they deserve a great system to keep them safe. 

And, as you can see, it’s possible to make that really great system with a small amount of gear and an efficient workflow!

Do you have a great way you keep your images safe while traveling? Any tips to share? Hit up the comments and let us know!

Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photography ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!


15 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. Just curious, but what do you use the USB dongles for, then?

  2. Hey Jocelyn!

    Those are actually the USB card readers. One is for compact flash and the other is for SD memory cards. The memory cards plug right into the sides of them and then you can plug them directly into the computer. No extra cables to bring!

  3. Great Post! Just as an FYI, I recently picked up a "thunderbolt" 13" Macbook Pro and LOVE it. It's not a bantam-weight like the Air, but it's plenty fast.

    Right after getting it, I upgraded the main HDD to a Other World Computing 60 GB SSD, then used OWC's "Data Doubler Kit" to remove the optical drive and insert a 750GB 7200RPM Seagate HDD. My application data and OS sit on the SSD (called the "Boot" drive) and all my data (photos, music, docs, etc) sits on the internal HDD (called "Master"). I also upgraded the RAM to 8GB.

    Needless to say, it's a fast fast fast little system. Removing the optical drive was a little hairy and not for the faint of heart (especially after buying a brand new MBP). OWC has tutorial videos that are a great help, but didn't have the latest MBPs up when I did the upgrade. A little work on google and I was able to find out all the screw placements.
    I have had a little bit of a hit to battery performance, since I'm now powering 2 storage devices, but it's not bad. I get about 5.5-6 hrs on a charge instead of 7.

    In any event, it's a great system. I get the performance of an SSD, the storage capacity of a HDD, 8GB of ram, plus I'll be able to offload my storage to external drives when Thunderbolt becomes available.

    Here's some helpful links if you'd like to do the same:

    Other World Computing Upgrade Center:

    Other World Computing info on SSDs:

    Other World Computing info on installing Data Doubler:

    AWESOME info on how to optimize your Mac for max performance:

  4. I've noticed that DNG files are generally a bit smaller than RAW files, which is a small bonus. About 17 vs 23MB. Disk space is cheap though.

    When traveling, I generally travel light and bring enough cards to keep me through and then just download them when I get home. Risky I know.
    On one trip, that wasn't enough, so I downloaded the photos to my ipod (this was with a smaller MP camera, so I could get quite a few photos on it). Downloading took a while and drained the ipod battery, but it worked and was very light.

  5. @Joshua Thanks for sharing! (especially all the links!) I've had my eye on those data doublers for a while now, thinking they would be perfect for just what you did! The performance hit to the battery sounds like a a reasonable compromise for the additional storage as well as SSD speed. I'm curious are you using this as a main workstation (plugging into a monitor when you need a large screen) or is this just a beastly mobile computer?

    @Evan Clever use of an iPod! For the destination weddings we shot we also tried to bring enough cards so that we didn't have to upload and erase – it was nice to have that extra bit of security just in case. Memory cards are getting so large and cheap it's easy enough to do. Thanks fo sharing!

  6. Right now it's my main workstation. One day in the future, a Mac Pro would be nice, but with the advent of Thunderbolt, it may be all I need for a while! Thunderbolt is so fast,that even an SSD with a 6GB/s (OWCs are currently 3GB/s) write speed would be the bottle neck, not the I/O!!

    Now he only real bottle neck is the 8GB of RAM, believe it or not. I plan to upgrade it to 16GB when the prices become reasonable.

    In the future, I may even remove the HDD altogether and put in another SSD when the capacities go up and the price point go down.

  7. Oh, I forgot to mention, I have a Mini Display Port to DVI adapter connected from the MBP to a 24" Dell for working from home.

    The 13" screen is OK (better than my previous 2008 MB), but it's really really glossy. It'd be emergency use only for picture editing.

  8. Thanks for the awesome advice! Now I just need to travel somewhere . . .

  9. This post is great because it tells me I've been doing things right!
    I'm on a 1 year volunteer placement in Vietnam and so my 'Travel' process is a little more like home:
    I keep the primary copy of my DNGs on the internal harddrive of my Macbook Pro as well as the Lightroom files, Photos get backed up as they are imported on to a USB harddrive (for some reason Lightroom only does the original RAW files here) and a second USB Harddrive acts as a time machine backup of the primary files.
    So at any one time I have 3 copies of the photos I took.
    The Macbook Pro also has a SD card reader that eliminates the need for the dongle – Gold!

  10. I wish they'd put an CF Card Reader on them! But I may be asking for too much. :D

  11. Thanks for sharing your workflow. I was hoping to find some insight on using a dedicated photo storage drive like the NEXTO eXtreme3 or the Picture Porter 35. Have you are looked into those? Does anyone else use those in their workflow? Particularly for wedding backups?

  12. Hi Ray!

    We haven't personally used devices like the Nexto or Picture porter. To be honest I've been a bit confused as to what purpose devices like that fill. I can't see it being super useful for wedding day backups unless you're downloading it to the device as soon as a card fills up (which would be tedious). If you're waiting for a couple points throughout the day to backup (i.e. after the ceremony, then after portraits, then after first dance) that might be a bit less tedious but still a lot of work (though if you have an assistant it could be part of their job).

    In any case these devices can really only be thought of as an emergency backup. You wouldn't want to upload your cards to it and then reformat the cards (unless you maybe had a few of these devices and you could confirm backup).

    Good Question!

    If any one else has experience with these devices (mobile download and storage devices) I would love to hear about it!

  13. I tried using a Hyperdrive Space model on a wedding shoot, but it was so incredibly slow that it just wasn't practical. I was paranoid to move it while it was downloading, for fear of corrupting my data. I ended up having to leave it on a table and keep an eye on it, which isn't good at all. If that memory card had vanished, I'd be toast.

    The harddrive is user replaceable . . . I may try to put a SSD in it one day when the prices go down. For now, it's just too slow for wedding use.

  14. Thanks for the input Joshua! The limit of hard drive speed would be quite a problem.

    I'm sure there is potential in the devices like this, maybe once SSDs become cheaper like you suggested!

  15. A 13″ Macbook Pro (2012 model, non-retina) which I just bought turned out to be the perfect compromise for me! The screen is big enough to edit on the go, it’s powerful enough, has both USB-3, Thunderbolt and Firewire 800 (I’ll be replacing my 2.5″ Firewire 800 external drive with a bigger capacity and faster USB-3 drive for backups -faster is good for battery use on the road), a built-in SD card reader (I shoot a lot with a compact camera using SD cards) and a built in DVD burner (I know many people replace them with a 2nd drive as mentioned above or just don’t use it but I like the fact that I can watch DVDs I buy while traveling). A bus-powered external hard drive is perfect for traveling as it eliminates an additional power adapter/power cable (eliminates the extra clutter, and multiple free AC power sockets are sometimes hard to find/unpopular to claim in backpacker places etc.).

    “Chronosync” is the software of my choice for fast, efficient and hassle free backups to my external drive (I can assign it to automatically backup whenever the drive is attached). Chronosync. It can also synchronize the files between two computers (such as with my home computer (a 2010 model Mac Pro) meaning both computers will have the exact same files so you can carry on working regardless of which computer the files were originally on to begin with! Labelling the hard drives with your name/email address is a good idea in case you lose/forget your stuff somewhere. I’ve also labelled the computer itself and of course eliminated automatic login. So if I do lose/get the computer stolen, at least I won’t have to worry about someone accessing my private files!!

    Rob: which neoprene case did you use for the hard drives? I haven’t found anything like that and it would be great for traveling. Also, a zipper-free neoprene case for the Macbook Pro would be ideal.

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