Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Digital Toys for the Field Operative


James Bond has "Q." Sydney Bristow and Vaughn have Marshall. Every good field operative has a genius back at the home office who provides the really cool toys that mean the difference between the success and failure of a mission.

When you are shooting on location, whether that location is in your neighborhood or some remote, exotic destination, it's the little things that can make the difference. As Gary Voth points out in his story earlier in this issue, planning and preparation are the keys to success. Gary mentions several tools that are essential when shooting digital in the field. Two important things to deal with are power and storage.

There are still lots of places you can go where power may not be available all the time. In those places where you can find the power, it may not be in a form that is compatible with your devices. You will need to make sure that you can recharge or replace your batteries when you need to. This can mean carrying lots of disposable batteries or being able to recharge frequently.

Most digital tools, like digital cameras and laptops, use some form of rechargeable battery. Most flash units can use either disposable or rechargeable batteries. Typically, I carry enough batteries for a day of shooting and recharge or replace at the end of the day. I use disposable batteries for my flash units and when I change my batteries. I also give them to guides or local people, as they are still usable for most portable music devices. One battery that is becoming popular is the Digital Camera Battery, a portable power system that can provide power to a camera and flash unit simultaneously while shooting, and can still run laptops, cell phones and other devices later. The company sells many different cables that hook up to all sorts of devices.

Most chargers that come with laptops, digital cameras and other devices are universal, meaning that they can deal with all the various voltages found around the world. As soon as you leave North America, however, you will discover that the plugs are not compatible. You also may find that the number of power outlets to which you have access is limited.

I've developed a little system that is lightweight, simple and easy to use. Because all of my plugs are the American-style two- or three-prong type, I carry a six-outlet power strip. With this arrangement, I have only one plug that needs to go into the wall, and I can daisy-chain power strips if I need to.

I plug the power strip into a Voltage Valet, which is a step-down transformer that acts as a voltage regulator, a power conditioner and a surge protector. Most of the power converters on the market are not designed for the continuous use needed when charging batteries. The Voltage Valet is designed specifically for this purpose and comes in various wattages to meet all needs. The 85-watt unit that I carry weighs just under two pounds.

To convert my Voltage Valet to the local power grid, I use a Franzus All-in-One adapter, a nifty little unit that has the four most common plug configurations in one four-ounce package. Now, I don't have to carry several different plugs or know in advance which plug adapters I'll need for which countries; it even has a little power light. Haven't you always wondered how 007 keeps all his toys powered and ready for action? Now you know.

Digital wallets

So, you have your tools powered and you're out shooting. How do you back up your image files and clear your cards? Lugging around a laptop in the field is not the answer. You need one of those little devices that Agent Bristow conveniently pulls out of her jumpsuit when she has to download those secret files quickly from the enemy's supercomputer. She uses her digital wallet.

Many excellent digital wallets are on the market, and more companies are adding this important tool to their product offerings. Each has its own features, designed to serve a particular set of requirements.Here's a basic list of features, prioritized for my needs:

  • Compatibility with camera media, i.e.
  • CompactFlash cards, SD cards, etc.
  • Storage capacity: 10 to 80 GB
  • Ability to display RAW files and EXIF information
  • Type of viewing screen: color or black-and-white, resolution, etc.
  • Battery usage
  • Ease of use, i.e., one-button copying
  • Price
  • Physical size and weight
  • USB and/or FireWire connection
  • Extra features, i.e., MP3 players, video-out jacks, etc.

You will need to decide what features are most important for your field assignments. Obviously, the wallet has to support the type of media you use in your digital camera. For my needs, CompactFlash card support, good battery life, large capacity and a good color viewing screen are essential. The device I wanted had to be able to store an entire trip's worth of images, display RAW images with the basic exposure information and provide enough battery power to use for a whole day of shooting. I also wanted the ability to easily copy a card to the device and carry the whole thing in my bag, or even a jacket pocket.

I currently use the 80GB SmartDisk FlashTrax. With my Nikon D1X in uncompressed NEF (RAW) mode, I can store around 10,000 images on the drive — the rough equivalent of more than 277 rolls of film. An easy way to determine what capacity you need is to think in terms of cards. How many cards are you shooting per day, and how many days are you shooting? With a 1GB card, I can store 80 cards' worth of images; with a 512MB card, 160 cards' worth; and so on. Whatever image format you use for shooting, make sure it can be displayed on the wallet. The better wallets display the most popular RAW formats as well as the EXIF information for each image.

The battery usage of the wallet is also critical. You can't download and clear cards if the battery on the wallet is drained. To cover a whole day of shooting, I purchased an extra battery for the FlashTrax. Some wallets use regular AA batteries; some have built-in rechargeables that are not interchangeable. Just make sure you can get through a day with enough power.

The FlashTrax has a one-button copy feature that I use a lot. I can just slip the card in the slot, press the copy button and get back to shooting. The blinking light lets me know that it is copying, and the light goes off when it is done. I don't really have to think about it.

With USB and/or FireWire connections, wallets can be connected to PCs or Macs and appear as another hard drive. This will provide you with the ability to make additional copies of your images, as well as do some editing. Many wallets can double as MP3 and movie players, and some can show images directly on a TV screen.

Gary Voth used the Tripper, available from InsideComputer, on his African trip. There also are devices from Image Tank, Archos and Delkin, as well as the new Epson P-1000 and Nikon's recently announced Coolwalker. The Archos GMini is smaller, costs less and has better battery life than the FlashTrax, but only comes with a black-and-white screen. Epson's new P-1000 has a gorgeous screen, but currently is limited to 10 GB. The Nikon Coolwalker, not yet available, will have a 30GB drive, but will support only CompactFlash and MicroDrive cards.

Now, when you go on assignment with your new digital tools, people will be asking you the same question that Jack asked in "Batman": "Where does he get all those wonderful toys?"

Richard McEnery
Story Author: Richard McEnery

Richard McEnery started photographing as an amateur in 1976 at rock concerts and sporting events in New York City. Today, he is a professional photographer specializing in sports, travel, nature, and underwater photography. His nature and underwater work has been featured at the Long Beach Aquarium and the National Museum of Wildlife Art as well as in Popular Photography, Outdoor Photography (UK), Sport Diver, Scuba Times, and Dive Travel magazines. He has also received a "Highly Commended" award in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Richard has worked at the US Open as an assignment photographer for Tennis Times. He is also a regular contributor on digital photography subjects for PhotoMedia magazine.

Website: www.mceneryphotography.com/ E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it