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Editing on the road

Steve Davey | Photography and Photographers | Published Aug 13, 2012

A laptop and external harddrive for backup and storage are essential companions for the modern photographer. In this article, award-winning travel photographer Steve Davey shares his tips for travelling with a camera. 

Serious travel photography is always a balance between having the right equipment in your bag when you need it, and having to carry it all. Just as your photography can suffer if you are suddenly inspired to shoot star trails, but realise you have left your tripod at home, an entire trip can be ruined if you are so loaded down that travelling from place to place becomes all but impossible, and certainly unenjoyable. If your travels involve flights, then an artificial limit on gear will be placed on you by airline baggage limits.

As with many things in life, you have to aim for balance. This means evolving your kit so that you have everything you need, but without being weighed down.

This article is aimed at the serious, committed photographer, looking to improve their travel photography. It might be that you are on a photography tour, or travelling independently but with great photography as your primary goal. Hopefully I can convince you that there is one piece of kit you just can't leave behind.

A laptop computer can be invaluable when travelling, not only for viewing and editing images but also research and communication. Just make sure you back it up regularly, to avoid losing any precious images. 

When I am getting ready to run a photography tour, the main question that I am asked is whether people should take a laptop with them on their travels. My answer is usually an emphatic yes! Having a laptop is central to my reviewing and backing up strategy, and how I manage images on the road. It is also vital for learning about technique, and improving my own photography. As any professional photographer will tell you, you should always be improving your work!  

Backing-up images

Digital images are inherently ephemeral: they can effectively disappear into the ether and be lost forever. However, you can also make unlimited copies of them, so there is no excuse for ever losing a picture.

I make at least three copies before I will reuse a card. The first copy is made straight on to my laptop, and imported directly into Adobe Lightroom.  (This catalog of travel images is imported into the 'master' Lightroom catalog on my desktop system when I get home.) A second copy is made onto a LaCie Rugged drive using the built in Apple Time Machine software. I use Time Machine to back up the contents of the laptop's entire drive, not just the images. This way, armed with my laptop's original install DVD I can effectively restore my computer on the road if it becomes corrupted in any way.

The Hyperdrive Colorspace is a portable and very affordable backup device that can even run on AA batteries - useful for those occasions when you're caught away from a source of electrical power. 

My third and final backup is independent of the laptop – a direct copy of the card using a Hyperdrive Colorspace device. This is one of the cheaper models available and also has an adaptor that allows you to run it with 4 AA batteries when you are unable to recharge it.

It is wise not to keep all your eggs in one basket: keep one of these backups with you at all times, and the others safely locked in a hotel room.

The way that memory cards have dropped in price, it is possible to take enough cards that you never have to reuse one on the road. This would allow you to skip the third back-up, but I prefer having a smaller number of high quality cards, and reusing them, rather than stocking up on large numbers of cheaper cards. 

Editing your work

Many people see editing their work as a pointless chore, and go about it in a desultory and rushed fashion. 

When I'm editing, I look to throw away as many images as possible, because anything that gets through the editing process should be good enough to be used professionally. There is no point in keeping images that just don't work. All that you are doing is building up storage problems for yourself.

This is not done in an absolute fashion: sometimes a shot might not be technically perfect, but is still an interesting and important image with no alternatives, so I will keep it. Other times I might have 50 shots taken around a subject and so I might only keep the ten best ones that really work. 

Get used to reviewing images with the EXIF data showing so you can assess your technique as you edit.

A press photographer might tell you never to delete any pictures, in case a person subsequently becomes newsworthy. This might be the case if you are regularly photographing President Clinton shaking hands with unidentified interns, but culling twenty overexposed and out of focus shots of the Taj Mahal hardly counts as a Monica Lewinsky moment!

Wherever possible, try to edit your work when you are still on the road. This has a lot of advantages. On a simple level, you can avoid a massive backlog in images when you get home. I have recently returned form a trip to the mountainous region of Ladakh in Northern India with about 7500 pictures. This is an average of about 500 images a day.

I try to get through these every night. But if I am in an area away from a power source, I won't use the laptop for editing, just for performing backups. And the images do start to quickly pile up! It can also be tough in the summer in the Northern hemisphere when the nights are short: try to shoot sunrise and sunset, and you can only get a few hours off for sleep! 

If you edit without zooming to 100% then you can't properly check the focus of a picture. You run the risk of selecting what you perceive to be the better image, but throwing away the sharper of the two!

I always check focus at 100% before deciding which shots to delete. If you edit at anything less than this, you risk keeping the visually better shot, only to find that focus or camera shake renders the picture useless. This is especially true when editing portraits, where focus on the eyes is critical. I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and I find a good time-saver is to set the software running, and creating full-sized previews when I'm away from the computer. Once this is done, zooming images to 100% will take much less time. 

Zoom to 100% and you can see that in the image on the left the eyes are in focus but on the right they are not. Without checking the critical focus on the eyes, I might well have deleted the wrong image.

Editing on the road is about far more than storage and efficiency though. Diligent editing can allow you to maintain a rolling assessment of your equipment and your own style of photography. When editing work look out for patterns in images. A series of out of focus pictures might indicate a problem with a lens, your camera or even the way you are shooting. Check metadata of rejected images to isolate any problems.

I always edit with the EXIF data overlaid on the image, showing focal length, ISO, shutter-speed and aperture, so they are always in the forefront of my mind when I am looking at images.

Troubleshoot for next time  

And this leads me on to my next point - when going through your shots, you're not just looking for equipment issues: if you find a couple of pictures with camera shake, assess what shutter speed and focal length you used. It might be that you should have changed these, and can remember to next time. It will also give you an up-to-date idea of your handholding ability for a given focal length.

Also check sensitivity: you might have had the ability to use a higher ISO to avoid the problem. This can also be the time to asses what is the highest ISO you are comfortable using. This is a personal decision based upon your camera and your own tolerance of image noise. 

Here, I've sorted images from a recent trip by the aperture at which they were taken, using Adobe Bridge CS5.

Filtering by EXIF data allows you to pin down 'problem' apertures and shutter speeds for your particular camera/lens combination, as well as identifying other issues, like when you've raised the ISO sensitivity just  a little too far. 

Be aware of your own technique too. Is your composition as good as it might be? Have you cropped off your subjects feet, or plopped their face in the middle of the frame with too much sky above their heads? Has your shutter-speed failed to freeze any action, or is the aperture too wide for all of the important elements to be in focus? Could you have shot the image in a different way? These potential flaws might not be enough for you to reject an image, but a critical review may prompt you to take a bit more care with certain aspects the next day.

If you only travel a couple of times a year, finding all of this out once you have returned home and got round to editing your images is going to be of limited use. Edit on the road and you can learn, and develop your creativity day after day.  

A few practicalities

I have stressed the importance of a laptop, and I use a 13" Apple MacBook Pro, but there are a number of other options. Super-compact netbooks are ideal for travelling, but some of these have rather small hard-drives. This is one of the main drawbacks with the ultra-slim MacBook Air, and similar 'micro' laptops.

Many photographers now travel with a tablet, such as the ubiquitous Apple iPad. These can have many advantages, but sadly disc space is not one of them. There are a couple of options for external drives that can boost storage though, and many tablets incorporate memory card slots for quick and relatively cheap memory. 

The Apple iPad can be used as a backup device for digital photographs, using the Camera Connection Kit. This allows you to plug your camera into the iPad directly, but also includes an SD adapter, so you can get images straight off the card, and onto the iPad. 

However, limited inbuilt storage means that the iPad might not be the most practical solution if you're shooting a lot of pictures. A small laptop and portable harddrive are a better bet in this situation. 

A warning though before taking any device on the road. It is vital to make sure that everything on it is completely backed up at home. Remarkably some people never backup their laptop, but will still take it away, full of irreplaceable photos and personal data. As an extra security measure, I use Apple's FileVault encryption software so that even if my laptop does go missing, no one can access my data.  


Steve Davey is a professional photographer. He is also the author of the acclaimed Footprint Travel Photography, and runs his own series of unique travel photography tours to some of the most exotic parts of the work. Forthcoming trips include Nepal and Laos & Vietnam. More details on Steve, his work and his tours can be found at www.bettertravelphotography.com