Off the grid

Posted by Eric Kendall on 04/11/2006
Nepal. Photo: Eric Kemball.

The digital age is upon us, and we’ve never been so connected. But this comes at a price - paid in the weight of chargers we now routinely drag around the world. But just what happens to your digital photography when you have to leave mains power far behind? Eric Kendall unplugs himself to find out.

As a ski journalist working alongside photographer (and wife) Penny, I experienced a film-to-digital conversion a couple of years ago. But only last September, with a two-month trekking trip to Nepal - the first journey that would take us seriously off-grid since making the switch - we reluctantly had to consider abandoning power-hungry digital and reverting to film.

Going back to film would have been daunting. OK, we’d only be limited by the number of films a yak could carry, but the old headaches would return once more; trying to keep the film cool, the thought of sorting all those slides on return, the cost of processing. It wouldn’t be pretty. And anyone contemplating a big trip, regardless of whether you’re a professional photographer, could face a similar dilemma.

The good news is that yes, you can go digital in the wilder parts of the world. But the bad news is that it can get a bit technical if you don’t know your Ohms from your elbow. So, learn from our mistakes and read on for some pointers on leaving the comfort of a wall socket far behind. But beware, this isn’t a guide to different camera models, nor is it possible to suggest one simple and neat solution: your choice of battery will obviously depend on the camera you use, which also dictates which charging method and storage device will be most suitable.

The challenge is to build an effective chain whose links you have first to track down and then join together - although there’s no guarantee that they’ll actually fit. And just when you think you’ve got there, someone in a shop will say something technical to you, with an equation in it, and you’ll lose the will to live. But right from the start one thing is crystal clear: digital cameras are designed for a world that’s just hours away from mains power and modern computers. And even the best photographic shops are only geared up for this mainstream rather than your adventurous requirements.

The central issue to consider is power. All your gear decisions depend on the availability of volts, watts and amps. You might have thought memory capacity was the issue. It is, but it too depends on sufficient juice to fill it up, even with solid-state memory cards like Compact Flash. Going up a notch, a hard drive of any kind might increase your theoretical capacity but this consumes even more power - just think how quickly your laptop battery runs down when you’re away from the mains.

If you’re thinking, “what’s he on about?” then you probably fall into the happy group of people who just take relatively low resolution images with a small digicam. Be grateful, since your life is simple, and the only things you need to consider for a big trip are the best spec of battery to take as spares, and a few extra memory cards to take into account the astonishing effect your first visit to Bhutan or Patagonia might have on your photographic output. And if you think you’ll be reaching an internet café once in a while, take a small card reader to plug into a computer to download and back up your images.

If you’re aiming slightly higher, taking pictures that are several Megabytes each, then you’ve probably already done the maths. With the output of a modest digital SLR high-resolution picture files are around 10 Megabytes in size. So 100 pictures = 1000 MB (1 Gigabyte); 1000 pictures = 10 GB; and 10,000 = 100GB (the size of a big computer hard drive). 10,000 pictures is obviously a ludicrous number of shots unless you’re on assignment for National Geographic (and probably not reading this article). But one, two or three thousand is not remotely over the top for an extended trip - in fact any number of good photographers will tell you that simply taking more shots is the single most effective way of boosting the quality of your work, so the less constraints there are on your capacity, the better.

So what are your main options for storage and power? Let’s take them in that order, as you should aim to power both camera and storage by the same means.
 

Storage

Memory card
Digital film. You need a card in your camera to take and store your photos whether you plan to download the images to a separate storage system or not. So with enough cards of sufficient capacity you can use them like film, removing them when full and replacing with a new card. For many casual snappers this may be all you need. Various types are available, but you’re limited to whatever type your camera takes. Secure Digital (SD) is the emerging leader. Compact Flash (CF) is used in pro cameras. Also available are microdrive high capacity cards fitting Compact Flash slots, however these are less robust as they use miniature hard drive technology.

Pros: very portable and easy to protect, solid state, security in diversity (if you don’t keep all your cards in one place), seamless integration with camera.
Cons: expensive, not a backup option.


PSD (Portable Storage Device)
There are dozens of PSDs on the market. These small battery powered units have memory card slots and a hard drive (anything from 1-80GB or more) on which to download pictures. Just remove the full card from your camera, stick it in the PSD to download, then replace the card in the camera and re-use. Fancy PSDs have screens for reviewing what you’ve shot. Even an iPod or similar, with a card reader attachment, can be used as a PSD though it’s impossibly slow. However until the arrival of the Compactdrive PD series and the Nexto, all PSDs had a fatal flaw: storage capacity far exceeded built-in battery capacity, making them next to useless without an additional power source. The excellent Nexto performs so quickly and with minimal battery drain because of the unusually efficient way it transfers data to the drive.

Pros: portable, huge capacity (and some models are expandable - the hard drive can be easily replaced with a standard laptop hard drive); cheap enough for keen photographers to take two and download the same content to each one for image security; great backup solution & picture reviewing facility (on models with screens).
Cons: feature-rich models are power hungry; limited product choice as so few cut the mustard on autonomy.


CD burner
CD burners with card slots operate in a similar way to PSDs but store images to CDs rather than a hard drive. They are relatively bulky, and may have too many moving parts for reliability in tough conditions. There are also issues with the integrity of CDs as a backup medium.

Pros: portable, capacity limited only by battery power and CD supply.
Cons: potentially fragile, power hungry, relatively bulky.


Laptop computer
Ideal if you’re returning frequently to a base.

Pros: moderately portable, good capacity.
Cons: fragile, not a good trekking option.

Power

Batteries
There are two battery strategies. Either take enough (rechargeable or standard) to give sufficient power while away from the mains, or take rechargeables and a portable charger such as a solar panel. Building a system around AAs is a good solution if you can and allows you to mix rechargeable with disposable as a fallback option. AAs are available in the most unlikely places on earth, though quality is often suspect. Also remember that if you have otherwise excellent lithium ion batteries, they are dying from the day they were born, whether you’re using them or not. A two-year life is quoted so you need to buy recently manufactured ones and replace them before a big trip if you’re nearing the end of their useful life - you probably won’t have any performance drop-off to indicate that’s the case either.

Disposables
Pros: widely available if you want AA or AAA – the CR range is harder to come by.
Cons: heavy to carry and when they’re finished you should bring them home to dispose of them at a first-world recycling facility; pricey.
Rechargeables
Pros: re-useable, environmentally friendly at point of use, and you only need to carry a couple of sets (one in use, one charging); excellent value for money.
Cons: needs a power source to recharge.


Solar powered recharging
Photovoltaics have come of age though they’re still incredibly inefficient in their conversion of the sun’s power. Flexible roll up and folding panels are durable, portable and extremely lightweight; they can be mounted to a rucksack or similar for recharging on the go, but in practice a static set up (during lunch on a trek) with accurate orientation to the sun is best. Connections to battery chargers are typically via car-cigarette lighter adaptors, so you’ve also got the kit for car charging if you happen to hitch a lift.

Pros: very portable; great when the sun shines and surprisingly effective even with cloud cover.
Cons: with a mid-size panel charging is very slow (just 350mA); a prudent strategy incorporates extra batteries (minimum is one in use while one recharges) to charge up on rest days and to bridge weather gaps, so you incur the cost and weight of spare batteries too. High start-up costs, although they begin to pay for themselves (versus paying to recharge) after approx two months.


Local power sources
Not out of the question even in remote areas, many tiny settlements in Nepal have photovoltaic panels on the roof, but it’s usually expensive to access, of random consistency and impractical. Most high capacity batteries take a long time to recharge, particularly on a limited power source, and several units could take longer than overnight. The kind of sources you might find are solar, mini-hydro, diesel generator power and mains electricity in cities, towns and some big villages.

Pros: weighs nothing, easy to use when you find it.
Cons: unreliable – will it be there, will it work?


As you can see there’s no one-stop easy solution to suit your needs. Allow enough time before your trip of a lifetime to do the research and find what works for you - good luck!



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24/05/2024
Great insights on the film-to-digital conversion! As someone delving into <a href="https://www.myassignment-services.com/climate-change-economics-assignment-help.html">climate change economics assignment help</a>, I find it fascinating how technological shifts impact various fields. Your experience transitioning with Penny underscores the broader changes we all face. Looking forward to more of your engaging stories that intertwine personal and global transformations.

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