I’ve been through various iterations of location backup workflows over the years. When I started out with DSLRs back in 2002 I was using the Super DigiBin, which allowed me to pull files off my huge 128MB CompactFlash cards and back them up onto a (for the time) ridiculously huge 20GB hard drive.
Things have come a long way in the last couple of decades since I relied on that Super DigiBin. These days, I back up my memory cards to SSDs quickly and easily on location using my smartphone. OWC recently sent over their Envoy Pro Elektron SSD and 5-port USB hub for us to try, so I thought this would be a good time to show you my current location backup workflow and offer up some of my thoughts on the OWC gear.
The last iteration of my location backup workflow came when 1TB microSD cards started becoming a thing. And it was pretty great except for a couple of tiny niggles. For a start, file transfers weren’t that quick when I got home and wanted to recover all my files over the phone’s USB socket or WiFi. So, I still had to copy everything over from the cards when I got home and the phone backup was a “just in case” for emergencies if I lost my cards.
Also, with an SD card reader plugged into the phone’s only USB port, you couldn’t keep the phone charged while transferring. If you’ve got a lot of cards to transfer over that are packed full of video files, it can drain the battery fairly quickly. So, you need to make sure your phone is fully charged before you start the backup process. There’s also the fact that fewer and fewer smartphones these days seem to come equipped with a microSD card slot (my OnePlus 7 Pro doesn’t have one).
You can get around the power issue by using a USB hub but if you’re going to use a USB hub and a power bank to keep the phone topped up, then you might as well add an SSD and transfer your files to that instead of (or as well as) a memory card inside your phone – if it has a slot for one.
The basic overview
The setup is quite simple. First, you’ll need your smartphone and despite mentioning my OnePlus 7 Pro before, I’m not saying you need this phone – I mean, I do recommend it, it’s an awesome phone (no notch! no black dot!) but this process works on all modern Type-C Android devices, so use what you have. If you’re an iOS user, you may be out of luck – even if your device has a Type-C socket – but you could just get a cheap Android smartphone with a Type-C socket to be able to do this backup process. Just treat it as another tool that isn’t as big and clunky as a laptop.
You’ll also need a USB power bank to power everything and keep your phone topped up during transfer. You should be able to use just about any of them, although I’d suggest looking for one with a Type-C USB socket that supports USB-PD (Power Delivery) and offers at least 10,000mAh capacity. You don’t necessarily need USB-PD, but USB-PD power banks often tend have the most reliable cells and tech inside them. I’ve owned the power banks in the photos below for over two years now and they still hold a charge as well as they did when I first received them.
Some kind of storage device will be obviously required. I prefer an SSD because they’re smaller, faster, more rugged and durable and consume less power than portable hard drives. They’re also faster and larger capacity than memory sticks (although that is another option). In this case, I’m using the OWC 1TB Envoy Pro Elektron USB 3.2 Gen 2 NVMe SSD.
You’ll also need a USB hub to plug everything into. Ideally, you’ll want one that has a built-in card reader for the format you primarily use. For me, that mostly means SD cards for DSLR and mirrorless cameras and microSD cards for things like drones, action cameras, 360° cameras, etc. If you can’t find a hub that accepts the memory card format you use, then you’ll need a card reader, too.
Everything basically plugs into the hub and then once your phone’s detected it, you just run whatever file manager app your smartphone contains. Then you can browse to the folder on your SD card that you want to copy, choose it and then tell it to transfer over to your SSD.
I generally start the transfer going as soon as shooting ends and then just leave it to it while I pack up the gear. Usually, by the time the gear’s packed, the transfers are all done. Otherwise, I can just start the transfer going in the car and leave it to do its thing while driving back.
The transfer process will vary a little from one Android device to another as every brand of smartphone has its own slightly different format and layout of file manager, but it’s pretty straightforward on all of them. For a more detailed look at the process, read my post about the SanDisk 1TB microSD card.
OWC USB-C Travel Dock
There are a lot of potential options out there when it comes to both USB travel docks and SSDs for location backup solutions for photographers and filmmakers and I’ve tried out a number of them over the last few years to find ones I really like. The OWC ones stand out amongst the crowd, though, so let’s take a closer look at them, starting with the USB hub – the OWC USB-C Travel Dock.
One of the biggest benefits of this particular hub for photographers and filmmakers is that it has a built-in SD card slot. This in itself is not particularly unique. Plenty of USB hubs on the market do, but what makes this one notable is that the SD card slot in the OWC hub is UHS-II. And if you want to read something besides an SD card, you can always plug in your regular card reader into one of the two USB 3.2 Gen 1 ports.
But the built-in reader means you can get the full read and write speeds from those fast UHS-II memory cards that you often need for video or fast-action photography where you’re shooting raw files in big bursts. While a UHS-II card reader isn’t essential to just unload cards, if you’ve got a 300MB/sec card then it will potentially cut your backup transfer times to about a third of what they would be if using a UHS-I reader.
A short built-in Type-C USB cable stores neatly underneath the hub and supports USB 3.2 Gen 2 for transfer speeds up to 10 Gbps. There’s also a second Type-C USB port that offers up to 100W power passthrough for charging your smartphone, laptop or other devices while working.
There are also two Type-A USB 3.2 Gen 1 sockets, providing up to 5Gbps throughput, along with a full-sized HDMI output for plugging into an external monitor that supports up to 4K resolution. And, of course, there’s the aforementioned UHS-II SD card slot.
Overall, it’s a well thought out device that does its job very well. And unlike most other USB hubs that offer this kind of performance, it has a very reasonable price tag.
Side note: If you plan to also use your USB dock with your laptop and you want an Ethernet port, OWC also has the OWC USB-C Travel Dock E. It’s essentially the same as this one, but with an added Ethernet port.
OWC 1TB Envoy Pro Elektron NVMe SSD
While you won’t be able to utilise the full speed of an SSD when copying files over from SD cards (after all, you’re limited by card speed), once you have got everything copied over and plug it into your computer, you’re going to be able to drag them onto your regular storage very quickly and easily.
Or, if you’re a travel photographer who left your laptop at the hotel, you can also just plug the SSD into your laptop and start working straight off the drive itself. Whether you’re editing stills or video, this drive is plenty fast enough for all but the most very demanding of users in that example. Here’s a quick speed test of this drive plugged into the USB 3.2 Gen 2 socket on the ASUS ZenBook Pro with a 16GB file in AJA System Test.
Note: I’ve also included speed tests for the very popular Samsung T5 and the Crucial X8 SSDs on the USB 3.2 Gen 2 socket, too. The Samsung T5 advertises maximum speeds of up to 540MB/sec and the Crucial X8 advertises maximum speeds of 1,050Mb/sec.
Naturally, if you plug this OWC Envoy Pro Elektron into a Type-A USB 3.2 Gen 1 socket, the speeds are going to drop down a bit as the drive is faster than the 5Gbps limit of the port. Of course, it’s still going to be pretty quick. For comparison, here’s the same OWC SSD plugged into one of the USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A sockets on the same ASUS ZenBook Pro used in the above test. Again, I’ve included tests for the Crucial X8 and Samsung T5.
A quick side note on the speed tests. I find it quite interesting that the OWC drive is the fastest of all three in write speed on both USB 3.2 Gen 2 (by a wide margin) and Gen 1 sockets, making it ideal for this sort of application, although the read speed is slightly slower than the Crucial X8 on Gen 2 and slower than both of the other two drives on Gen 1.
If you are limited by the speed of your USB sockets, then you’ll still get some fairly decent speeds, as you can see above. You might not get the kind of speeds you need for editing multicam 6 or 8K in real-time but certainly fast enough for photography and 4K video editing. And while you could potentially save a little money by going with a slower drive if you’re limited to USB 3.2 Gen 1 sockets, you’ll find yourself feeling somewhat underwhelmed when you do eventually upgrade your computer to something that offers USB 3.2 Gen 2 or faster ports. You’ll probably end up buying a faster drive then anyway so you might as well just get a faster one to start with.
Case in point: My first external SSDs were Samsung T5 SSDs (I got them to be able to record externally on the Blackmagic Pocket 4K) and while they’re reliable drives, I almost never use them anymore since acquiring SSDs that offer transfer speeds of around 1GB/sec or faster. It’s the same reason I rarely use UHS-I SD cards now that I have a bunch of UHS-II cards, even in cameras that don’t need them. They’re simply quicker to unload on the computer and time efficiency is important. Every second saved in different parts of the workflow is valuable.
The OWC Envoy Pro Elektron is available in 240GB, 480GB, 1TB and 2TB capacities, all with the same transfer speeds of up to 1,011MB/sec. As well as being quick, they’re also very rugged and IP67 rated (up to 1 metre underwater for half an hour), allowing use in the harshest of conditions – and for a location photographer, that’s a vital requirement.
It’s also a really small SSD. It’s just very slightly smaller than the Samsung T5 (although a hair thicker) and noticeably smaller than the Crucial X8. So, it takes up virtually no room inside your camera bag or (ideally) your pocket. After all, the whole point of creating a backup is so that you have a copy in the event that your originals disappear, no matter what the cause, so it needs to be pocketable. If your gear gets stolen from your vehicle on the way home from a shoot, then at least you’ll still have your work with you.
Backing up your work is a vital part of any workflow, but it’s one that most people don’t think about until after they’ve gotten home and want to transfer their cards onto the computer. Personally, I’d argue that backing up photos and video footage from your location shoots is more important than backing it up after you get back home due to the risks of damaged, lost or stolen cards in transit. And if you’re shooting with multiple cards in multiple cameras or you’re covering things like weddings or events with second or third shooters, it’s a lot easier to keep things organised if you back up as you go.
Backing up as soon as the shoot’s finished or whenever I need to swap out a card is essential to my location workflow, and this process makes it simple, faster and painless. And once I do get home, everything’s already all organised together in different folders on a single fast SSD. All I need to do is just drag everything over to my PC and walk away. No swapping or waiting for slower card transfers.
And when it comes to speed and durability, I’d certainly recommend the OWC Envoy Pro Elektron given my experiences with it so far. It’s extremely solid and durable for location use – OWC even boasts that it’s “built like a tank” – as well as being fast and IP67 rated. So, it can handle being dropped into a puddle or two. It’s also compatible with Mac, Windows, iPad Pro, Chromebooks and Android devices. As for the OWC USB-C Travel Dock… It also feels solid, offers up to 100W USB-PD power passthrough, a pair of Type-A USB 3.2 Gen 1 sockets, a built-in UHS-II SD card reader and an HDMI socket capable of putting out 4K. For what it costs, it’s well above average.
While it might seem like there’s a lot of bits to deal with, most of us are carrying power banks in our camera bags for our phones anyway (which we’re also always carrying with us). And if you normally take your laptop with you then you’ll likely have a card reader in there already, too. So, the only extra item is the USB hub. And if you’re removing the laptop from the equation, a little USB hub is nothing by comparison.
How do you back up your work on location? Do you back up your work on location at all?