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7 Tips for managing digital photographs while overland traveling

Posted by on May 14, 2013

Fast cameras do a few things very well, and filling up cards and disks is one of them. It may not be something that we really want to happen, but with the best will in the world it does happen. When you are overland traveling, that brings its own issues. This post is about how we manage digital photographs and video files, and what works for us.

Step 1. Download every photograph.

Every evening, we download everything. We shoot with a number of cameras, and any camera that got used, gets down loaded.

Tip 1: We download and review images in the evening so we can see the laptop screen correctly! doing this with strong sunlight on your laptop makes it very hard to properly evaluate your images. At the very least, view the image in the shade with no sunglasses on.

We download using a Sandisk Extreme USB 2.0 reader. Ours is a couple of years old now, but still plenty fast. you can get models that will take multiple card types, or just one card type. Either is fine, but be sure you use a robust one as they are not that easy to come by when your on the road. You will find cheap ones in various stores but they will often be slow. After having been through a few “iffy” card readers, we now only use good ones.

We download to an external disk, and never to the laptop directly. This is mainly because our laptop does not have much extra space on its disk, but also because we use a number of external disks specifically for photographs and video. Regardless of where you download the files to, the important thing is the directory structure. We have been using the same structure and practice for over 3 years, and it works well for us.

We use a new directory every time we have a new subject, or area that we are shooting in. If this does not change, we create a new directory every 2 weeks at the longest, or when there are over 1000 images in the directory. So, no directory will hold more than 1 subject, more than 2 weeks images or more than 1000 images. The directory names have the structure “BUC_999_subject”. An example would be:

  • BUC_310_Torres_del_paine
  • BUC_311_Camping_chile
  • BUC_312_El_Chalten

The reason for this is that it puts all our images into chronological order, and this makes the backups easy to do. If we were in Torres del Paine for 1,2 or 12 days, then all those images can be in one directory. If we were doing the directories by date, then it is broken down by day, week or month, and not by the time we left one place and started in another.

Directory structure managing digital photographs

Directory structure managing digital photographs

The sequence number is what manages the order, and be sure to start with buc_001_subject so that the sort order does not go funny after the 9th directory. Those leading zeros help a lot.

Tip 2: Pick a structure and a route of how you do this, and stick to it. It will make it easier to identify where images are in the future.

When downloading all your cards, do NOT delete all the images from them. Leave that until later just in case you make a mistake along the way. At this point, you have 2 copies of today’s images, on the cards and on your disk.

There are 3 reasons we download every photo.

  1. It is hard to decide on the back of the camera if an image is worth keeping or not. Its easier to do it on a larger computer screen, even the laptop is way better than the back of the Camera.
  2. If you delete on the camera and you make a mistake, you may delete the best (or all) shot(s) of a given subject. At that point there is no backup, no way to easily fix it. Yes, there are undelete programs available, and you may well have one on your computer, but isn’t it just easier to wait till you can see them on your computer?
  3. Looking at the images on the card from the camera, and just picking the ones you want isn’t bad, but what if you make a mistake, and don’t copy the one you really want?

Step 2. Document / Catalog your Photographs

Once you have the photographs downloaded, it’s time to catalog them. You may also do this as you download them depending on what software you are using to help you out. We use Lightroom, and find that it works well for us. It allows us to set the IPTC fields to our preferred values. The IPTC fields are places in every digital photograph where you electronically record information such as who took the picture, when it was taken, who owns the copyright etc. With Lightroom you can set this up to be done automatically.

Tip 3: Whatever download software you decide to use, take the time to see how you can set defaults for some of the IPTC field such as Photographer, copyright, contact email address. This is an area that is not always 100% clear, and why not make it clear that they are your photos?

digital photography Properties of a jpg to show IPTC fields - 5 tips on managing digital photographs

Example of Properties of a jpg to show IPTC fields

If you look at a directory of photographs on your computer, and if you were to right-click on one (Windows computers), and you were to look at the properties, you would see some of the IPTC fields. The main one we see is the Author, which says clearly who the Author or Photographer is. There are many other fields like contact email address, phone number etc that can be seen by looking at the IPTC through Photoshop or other photo software.

You can also see a field named TAGS, and this lists all the tags that the image was marked with. We usually mark digital photographs with a number of tags for different reasons. For example if the picture was of both of us, and the truck, and had Torres del Paine in the background and had a sunset, we might use the following tags.

  • Torres Del Paine
  • Chile
  • South America
  • Sunset
  • Landscape
  • People
  • Sarah
  • Merv
  • Moglander

The reason we do not create specific directories for each subject is because some photographs cover more than one subject. What if you had a directory of landscape images, or a directory of people images? or both? Would you put a landscape photo with sarah in it into both directories? if not, which one?  What about if you have a directory for sunset images.

Tip 4: It is much simper to have just one copy of the photograph with multiple tags on it. We will see how to search for them later in this post

Step 3. Select the best, dump the rest

Now it’s time to select or rank the best shots. We have a couple of rankings.

  • 1 Star means it’s good enough for web use, it’s a nice shot, clean and in focus.
  • 2 stars mean it’s really good. Nice and sharp, nicely exposed, good composition and the best of a selection of shots on the same subject.
  • 3 starts means it jumps off the screen as being a pick of the day photo.

Now comes the tough bit. Filter down to the unranked images, just look at the ones where they did not even make a 1. Take a good look and pick out the handful you really want to keep, the only shot you got of a signpost, or you got photobombed by a local. Sure, keep them. Make them a 1. Do this for 10 minutes or so, then delete the rest. The whole lot of them. You either are impressed by them or not. This part is not easy, and it’s a personal choice to do it or not. But you do need to ask yourself, do you need or want more than 5 images of the same church from the same angle? maybe just different DOF, different exposures, different clouds behind it, different strangers in front of it. It’s time to house keep! Hit that delete button!

Tip 5: in Lightroom, you can mark all the photos you plan to delete as “Rejected”. You can have them hidden from view, and just before you decide to delete the rejects, you can take one last quick peek in case you still need any of them.

Step 4. Backup, Backup, then Backup again!

The backup process for us is easy. we have a second external hard drive that holds the backups of buc_000_subject directories. We backup a whole directory at a time, so the only thing we need to check is is what is the last directory number we backed up. If we backed up as far as buc_320, and buc_321 and buc_322 exists, then they are ready for backup. We just copy them from the “working” hard disk to the “backup” hard disk. There is no real point in doing a backup onto the same disk, that will protect against some human errors, but the biggest worry that we have on the road is damage to a hard disk from the vibration and dust.

Once we have completed the backup copy process, both disks typically have identical sets of photos on them. Now it’s 100% safe to reformat the cards from the camera. They were our backup right until this point.

Tip 6: Don’t delete anything off your cards for your camera until the day you plan to use them again. That way you have a “just in case” copy as long as possible.

Store your disk drives safely

This probably sounds silly, but mind your disk drives. We store the “working” disk in a plastix box with all the cables etc to give it a little bit of cushioning as we drive, and box keeps it clean. It’s kept out of direct sunlight, and somewhere it cannot fall or get wet.

The backup disk is stored inside a pelicase. Fully padded, and well protected. We take no chances with this if we can help it. Every now and again, we try to send the backup home, or leave it with someone for safe keeping (after all, we hope we will NEVER need it again). We would like to do this more often, but we do the best we can.

Tip 7: We don’t use the disk drives as we drive, or when the engine is running. We try to keep the dust, vibration, strong sunlight, heat and damp to a minimum. Regular hard disks have rapidly spinning disks inside, and have readers that skim over the disks very very close to the surface. Picture an old record player hopped up on 3 espressos, and you’re not a million miles away. Imagine using one of them as you drive down a dusty track?


Searching for Photographs

This is where the hard work will pay off. Searching for pictures using tags is really easy.

manage digital photo windows explorer

Windows explorer showing all photos in a directory

The above screen shows all the images in a given directory. Each image is tagged using a few different things, including the name of the species. If we wanted to find all the Cheetah pictures, Windows can do this for us. We just type Cheetah into the search box in the top right of the screen.

manage digital photo windows explorer

Searching for Cheetah

We use Lightroom from Adobe which has this, and more powerful search options available in it. So does many other software products, just find the one that works for you.

Well, this is how we managing digital photographs.  There are more considerations  such as Raw Vs  JPG, but I think that may be the subject for another post.


This is the first post in a series of articles I plan to write about overland travel photography. I hope it helps someone when they are planning their trip.

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