What you’ll need if you decide to go digital

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See also the Travel Checklist

Last updated July 27, 2004


Ground Truth

In early 1999, a seemingly innocent RPD post inquiring about the suitability of digital cameras for backcountry photography sparked a very informative, unusually long-lived and often heated thread entitled “digital cameras in the boonies”. The thread may still be available via http://groups.google.com/.

The backcountry certainly has a way of forcing issues, and that’s precisely why this thread touched on so many important practical aspects of the film-versus-digital debate.

Issues surrounding battery and image storage capacity and output resolution rightly dominated the discussion, but relative cost, trailworthiness and even disposability figured prominently as well. Religious feelings about film often colored the exchanges.

To my mind, the upshot was that some backcountry photographers still need or want film, but digital is more than ready for the backcountry—if you’re properly equipped and can accept a few limitations mostly related to cold weather and maximum print size. Of course, you’d need to be properly equipped and ready to accept a limitation or two on the film side as well.

By the time all the dust had settled, the debate had largely boiled down to matter of preference as of early 1999, and the situation has only improved on the digital side since then.

The Trip

First, let’s define a specific reference trip to keep this discussion on track:

  • 4-6 days away from cars, camera shops and FedEx deliveries.
  • No external sources of electric power after leaving the trailhead, including the car.
  • No available external image storage options such as laptops or Clik drives, but you can carry all the film or memory cards you want.
  • No backup camera.

Marks the paydirt On such a trip, you can safely go digital or use film, as you prefer, provided you have the right gear. Your critical decisions will boil down to

  • What kind of output will you need—hardcopy or digital, and at what size or resolution—especially once you’re home?
  • Are willing to take along any expensive camera, digital or film?

The Issues—Film vs. Digital

The table below outlines the major issues surrounding DP in a backcountry setting. Take stock of your situation and pack accordingly.

NB: Most of the rows are organized in a point-counterpoint manner.

Reasons To Choose Film Reasons To Go Digital
You’re primarily after slides or prints—for presentations or hardcopy scrapbooks, for example—and have little use for digital images. You’d like the ability to confirm shots before leaving the scene and the flexibility to delete shots to make room for better ones on the fly.
Your digital camera lacks the resolution to support the largest prints you’re likely to want, or you lack the memory to shoot the entire trip at the resolution you require. Your digital camera’s resolution supports all credible after-the-fact images uses and you have the memory to take full advantage of it.
You have the resources (ready access to a suitable scanner and the time to scan prints or slides, or the cash and storage for PhotoCDs) to reap the digital benefits noted at right after the fact as desired. You lack a suitable scanner, the time to scan, money for PhotoCDs, or otherwise prefer direct access to the substantial benefits of digital image management, post-processing and annotationincluding passable to astounding salvage of many a bad shot.
You have a workable system for storing and more importantly retrieving your hardcopy as needed. You’d like to be able to retrieve and review all your images quickly and easily, preferably with a malleable graphical (thumbnailed) interface.
You’re unwilling to put any expensive camera at risk in the backcountry and are content with the image quality of a “throw-away” film camera. As of 4Q2003, cheap recycled digital cameras are available.
You have no qualms about spending the money, windshield time and gasoline involved in buying, processing and printing all the required film. You’d enjoy

  • the freedom of knowing that all your shots are free once your digital equipment is paid for
  • the convenience and control of “processing” and printing your own photos at home as desired.
You anticipate very cold temperatures or other harsh conditions beyond the design limits of your digital camera, memory cards or batteries. You’re equipped with an external NiMH or lead-acid battery pack that can be kept warm with body heat to preserve capacity for low temperature work. See Temperature and Battery Performance elsewhere on this site for details.
You’re headed into bright, glary or snowy conditions, and you’re not prepared to shell out for a digital camera that can mount polarizers or other necessary filters. Your digital camera can mount polarizers, filters and auxiliary lenses and lens hoods up to the photographic challenges your trip will present.
You have an unflagging devotion to film and would sooner cut off an ear than go digital. You’re determined to suffer the slings and arrows of digital photography, no matter how unsuited it may be to your trip.

If you still think digital technology might meet your backcountry photography needs, read on.

Marks the paydirt Packing for Digital

Travel Checklist

Practically speaking, the volume occupied by 10 rolls of film (360 exposures @ 36/roll) alone could easily hold more memory and power than you’ll need for a digital version of our reference trip:

  • An ample supply of memory cards, and perhaps an external storage solution as well.
  • A smart, fast NiMH charger with a 12V car adapter, like the Maha C-204F.  Beat the inevitable 1% per day NiMH self-discharge rate by topping off all your batteries last thing before leaving home, or better yet, on the drive to your destination.
  • 16 or more spare NiMH AA batteries, for a minimum of 5 complete sets, counting the one in your camera.
  • Optionally, a solar-powered NiMH AA charger, which also handily holds 8 of your 12+ spares.
  • Optionally, an emergency supply of 4 non-rechargeable lithium AAs, especially if you anticipate freezing temperatures. These featherweight AAs have a 10-year shelf life, an excellent service life and superior cold-weather performance to boot.
  • Polarizing, graduated neutral-density or other filters and lenses required by your destination.
  • A compact, lightweight camera support such as a monopod or mini-tripod for windy conditions and for telephoto, long exposures or self-portraits.
  • A compact beltbag for daily use.
Marks the gotchas If you run short with this much memory and battery capacity, you’re spending too much time shooting and too little time being on your trip!

How Many Batteries?

Travel Checklist

Carrying an adequate supply of charged NiMH AAs will pose neither a weight nor a volume problem on our reference trip. A total of 6 sets of high-capacity NiMH AAs should be adequate with reasonable power conservation. A 7th backup set of disposable lithium AAs is wise insurance. Substantially longer trips and outings in freezing conditions may present significant power challenges, however.

The dpFWIW article Batteries for AA-compatible digital cameras discusses battery options and performance limitations worth keeping in mind. There you’ll find

among other handy battery and charger tips pertinent to backcountry digital photography.

The Links section on the  dpFWIW home page lists several other useful battery-related sites.

How Much Memory?

Travel Checklist

I know of no hard-and-fast rules regarding how much memory one should carry for a given trip, including our reference trip. I’ve found 64MB per day more than I usually need with a 2MP camera, but I usually record JPEGs weighing in at around 1MB each. With 5MP cameras and RAW recording becoming commonplace, 256MB a day may well be too little. You’ll have to do your own math ahead of time.

To be safe,

  • Review the storage requirements for the various resolution and compression combinations available in your camera,
  • Estimate how many exposures you’re likely to make, and at what resolutions and compression levels,
  • Translate all that into how much memory you should carry (make a reusable spreadsheet for next time),
  • Pad the estimate by 50-100%
  • Arrange an external storage solution as needed, and then
  • Hope for the best.

Running out of memory need be no more or less likely than running out of film. A digital camera at least gives you the option of sacrificing selected earlier exposures for the must-have shot before you now.

The only real upside limitation on memory is the cost. CompactFlash cards and microdrives continue to offer larger capacities than SmartMedia (SSFDC) cards, but either way, an adequate supply of memory cards will pack with negligible weight and volume.

Stretching the Memory You Have

To stretch your memory cards along the way,

  • Review images as you go along and cull the obvious dogs
  • Increase JPEG compression as you get desperate—that will almost always be a better strategy than decreasing resolution
  • Use digital zoom (DZ) when you know you’ll be cropping to the subject anyway

The last applies only to cameras with DZ implementations equivalent to in-camera cropping. Cameras that interpolate up to full resolution, DZ is no help here.

The Marine Theory of Memory Cards

Whether it’s more prudent to carry a few big memory cards or lots of little ones remains controversial. I’ve come to favor carrying “just a few large cards” because cards seem to be most vulnerable during and around card changes. This applies not only the cards headed into and out of the camera, but also to any cards sharing storage with them. The fewer card changes, the less likely something can go wrong (e.g., a card caddy dropped into a lake), or so the thinking goes. Spontaneous  card failures and card losses secondary to camera mishaps would favor smaller cards, but these seem to be very rare events.


YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary)

Whatever you bring memory-wise, keep in mind that your total available image capacity will vary dramatically with the image resolutions and file compression levels you actually use along the way. The table below gives an idea of the range of file sizes and card capacities available with representative 1.3 and 2.1 megapixel cameras.

Camera & card >

Oly D-340L & 8MB card (1.3MP)

Oly C-20x0Z & 32 MB card (2.1MP)

Recording Mode Size (Pixels @ KB)

Capacity

Size (Pixels @ KB)

Capacity

SQ JPEG 640×480 @ ~60KB 122 640×480 @ ~60KB 489
SQ JPEG

n/a

n/a

1024×768 @ ~240KB 136
HQ JPEG, medium comp. 1280×960 @ ~200KB 36 1600×1200 @ ~400KB 64
SHQ JPEG, low compression 1280×960 @ ~400KB 18 1600×1200 @ ~800KB 32
SHQ TIFF, no compression

n/a

n/a

1600×1200 @ ~5,500KB 5

Table note: All data above are for true color (24-bit) images.

Sacrifice resolution last, but if memory gets tight, be realistic about your output needs. Let your most stringent credible image end-uses be your guide. The C-20x0Z’s medium-compression 1600×1200 “HQ” JPEGs make decent if not stellar 8×10 prints, and the D-340L’s 1280×960 “HQ” JPEGs make good 5×7 prints, I’m told. Lowly 640x480s are plenty good enough for most web work if you know that’s all you’ll ever want from them, but what if one turns out to be a great candidate for an 8×10 print?

See the metric but excellent digitalkamera.de guide to resolution and printing for further details.


External Storage Solutions

For extended backcountry outings beyond the scope of our reference trip, you can reuse your memory cards by off-loading images to external storage, but you’ll have to be willing to drag along one of following:

And don’t forget the required memory cards, blank discs, cables, adapters and card readers. Highly portable USB readers like the tiny Microtech Zio fit in your fist, require no external power and come at an affordable price.

If you can’t bring a laptop, you might still be able to dump images to CD-R at a suitably equipped resort or cybercafe. And if you’re willing to count on finding broadband Internet access away from home, you might be able to dump image files to a holding server via FTP—provided you also have access to the kind of server space that would require.

Large CompactFlash Cards vs. IBM Microdrives

Anyone venturing into harsh conditions should strongly consider using high-capacity CompactFlash (CF) cards as image caches. Compared to the closest competitor, the IBM microdrive (MD), a large CF card is more rugged, more compatible and increasingly more cost-effective. CF cards now beat MDs on cost-per-MB at the 512MB capacity, where CF cards go for $200-300 and MDs for $315 as of 3Q2002. But at 1GB, a CF card still costs twice as much as an MD.

Microdrives are more likely to stir up compatibility issues than CF cards. They’re compatible with most CompactFlash II-compatible cameras now but still stumble occasionally with associated devices like computers and card readers.

With a 512MB or 1GB microdrive easing your memory concerns, you can worry about having all your eggs in one basket instead. The fragility implicit in the egg metaphor is apt. Mechanically, CF cards are far more robust than any portable storage solution involving a hard drive. The 512MB and 1GB MDs seem to be fairly durable (less so the 340MB models), but tiny moving parts mean limited shock resistance— 175 Gs in operation and 1,500 Gs powered down. A 3-foot fall onto a hard surface could easily do one in. IBM also warns against microdrive use above 10,000 feet, where the reduced air pressure could allow the read-write head(s) to drop down onto the spinning platter. (Ouch!) For 512MB and 1GB microdrives, IBM recommends a temperature range of 0 – 55°C operating and -40 – 65°C non-operating.

Given the microdrive’s vulnerability, consider recording on memory cards in the field and transferring their contents to your microdrive in a safe setting (like a hotel room or tent) chosen to minimize the risk of falls, knocks and high-altitude head crashes.

External Memory Transfers

Card-to-card and card-to-MD transfers are possible now with suitably equipped laptops, PDAs and PocketPCs. (The Compaq iPaqs and HP PocketPCs and handheld PCs seem to be the best bets at this juncture.) For those unwilling to bring a laptop along, the handheld transfer solutions are light, compact and modular in the sense that all the components have other potentially valuable uses. They’re also fairly affordable if you already own a workable handheld and need only the required adapters, but they’re a very pricey solution (easily over $1,000 total investment) if you’re starting from scratch.

I’m betting (and certainly hoping) that before too long someone will offer a small, AA-powered CFII-compatible card-to-card transfer device supporting both the microdrive and large CF cards as image caches. Until then, the closest you’ll come is the compact and reasonably-priced Sima Image Bank with an standard upgradeable 3.2GB 2.5″ hard drive, dual SmartMedia and CFII input slots and a USB cable to connect to your computer. The Image Bank CP-150 is currently powered by either car or AC adapter (both are included), but the BermanGraphics review notes that an optional battery pack taking NiMH AAs is in the works. (Now we’re talking!) As of mid- 2001, the 6MB Minds@Work Digital Wallet lacked the affordability, the car adapter, the AA-compatibility and the modularity I’m looking for, but I understand that a more affordable 3MB version is coming.

In-Camera Memory Transfers

The 5MP Oly E-20 digital SLR, with its dual SmartMedia (SM) and CompactFlash II (CF) memory slots, supports SM-to-CF image transfers in-camera, obviating the need for an external transfer device when using large CF cards or microdrives as images caches. Oly recommended against MDs in the earlier E-10, but they work well in the E-20. (The E-10 incompatibility probably relates to the MD’s hefty power draw at camera start-up, but the details were far from settled as of 2Q2001.) The C-5050Z also allows transfers among its SM, CF and xD card slots.

What About The Knocks?

Take a long, critical look at your digital camera’s suitability for backcountry use before deciding to take it along. Low temperatures aside, hazards your camera will certainly face include mechanical shocks, abrasions, dirt and water. Is your lens adequately protected? Is the strap secure? Is the camera adequately sealed against dust and light rain? Is your camera bag sufficiently padded and weather-proofed? Is your microdrive image cache up the challenge?


Armor

With some cameras, you can definitely improve the odds on these fronts. The fragile extending zoom lens assembly on the otherwise robust Olympus digital rangefinders begs for added protection. Once I armored my Oly C-2020Z with a sturdy, fully enclosing lens adapter with filter and a secure lens cap, I had no qualms about taking it on the trail. My armored C-2020Z shrugged off many a light rain with aplomb, but one RPD post warned of moisture trapped in the top LCD of its predecessor, the C-2000Z, after the user dripped sweat on the camera.


Clamshell Designs

Many clamshell-style point-and-shoot digitals like my rugged little Olympus D-340L or the newer and much more competent Oly D-490Z are pretty much trail-ready right out of the box. The D-340L protects its lens when not in use with a hard plastic sliding cover that doubles as the camera’s on-off switch. With the cover closed, the viewfinder and LCD are still exposed, but the low-profile camera controls look fairly indestructible. This camera’s held its own on many backcountry trips now, including several rainy ones. I have yet to see evidence of internal dust or moisture, and not for lack of exposure.

Of course, few cameras, digital or film, will survive a tumble down a rocky slope or a good dunking in a fluffed stream crossing. If such things are likely on your trip, consider carrying an inexpensive film camera instead. You can always get digital output on the backside via scanning or PhotoCDs.

If a bear sits on your camera, consider it privilege to have such a story to tell.

Why I Go Digital

I prefer digital photography in the backcountry for all the same reasons I prefer it over film photography in general. For details, please see the dpFWIW article Why I went digital.

References and Links

(See also the home page links.)

REI online catalog—Lots of gear, some of it of photographic interest.

Campmor online catalog—More backcountry gear.

The Walking Stick—all about walking sticks.

ultralight-hiking.com—an informative semi-commercial site devoted to, well, ultralight hiking gear.