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Traveling with a Digital Camera

Janet Zinn

There's no doubt that the popularity of digital cameras has increased by leaps and bounds in the last few years. While in many ways digital photography makes our photographic endeavors easier, compared to film, it also brings with it some complications that we never anticipated. So many of us, myself included, naively thought that digital cameras would mean less "stuff" to tote along and fewer complications! But much like the myth of the "paperless office", we've discovered that digital cameras bring their own "baggage" - no pun intended.

In this article I've tried to give an overview of some of the difficulties that digital photography presents to travelers, and suggest some solutions and tips for coping. (Some of these tips can be applied to film photography as well.) Whether you have a simple point-and-shoot camera that fits in your pocket, or a complex DSLR system (Digital Single Lens Reflex) with multiple lenses, you should find some useful tips here.

Janet's DSLR camera (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and telephoto lens

Janet's DSLR camera and telephoto lens (used for birding)

Before Your Trip

Create a checklist

Many of us could not survive without a packing list for our clothes and sundries. Create a separate checklist for your camera equipment. Include every piece of equipment that you own; then customize it for a particular destination by deleting what you don't need to bring for that specific trip. You may not want your telephoto lens on a sun 'n fun trip to the Caribbean, but you'll surely want it on an African safari! Don't forget to include batteries, cleaning supplies, cables, plug adapters, etc. By having a primary list with ALL your equipment you are sure not to forget anything you really need.

Check your insurance

If you are taking substantial equipment, make sure it is properly insured. Your current homeowner's policy may cover you (make sure it covers "off-premises theft"); or you may need to purchase a rider. These policy additions are relatively inexpensive, and well worth the peace of mind. They usually cover not only loss by theft, but damage as well. so if you drop your camera off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, yes it is covered! If your equipment is stolen, be sure to report it to the police and get a copy of the police report. Your carrier may or may not ask for this, but better safe than sorry. Make sure your policy covers "full replacement cost", as cameras, especially digital cameras, depreciate fast.

List your serial numbers

This is a simple, yet crucial step that many don't consider. Make a list of the serial numbers of all your equipment; if possible, also list the cost of each item. Carry a copy of this list with you while traveling; keep it in your money belt or wherever you keep the photocopies of your passport. These will be invaluable in making a police report in the event of theft, and will save much time with the insurance claim. It is also useful if you are questioned at customs. (If you are carrying a laptop or other electronics, it wouldn't hurt to put that on the list as well. As bird-watchers, our expensive binoculars are also on this list.)

Carry on vs. checked luggage

We are all struggling to keep our carry-on baggage light and small. With digital, it seems we have more and more accessories to contend with: batteries, flash cards, chargers, back-up devices. Of course, everyone knows never to pack their camera in their checked luggage. But I am amazed that some people will pack their battery charger! Unless your camera accepts readily available batteries, such as AA or AAA, never pack your battery charger in checked luggage. Certainly not if you are going on an extended trip, where you will undoubtedly need to recharge your battery. I never check anything that is indispensable to the use of the camera.

Outbound, I check nothing related to my camera, other than my tripod or monopod. Other things that you can check: user manuals (see below), extra batteries, tele-converters or other accessories that you can live without. Coming home is a different story. Then, if you need to make room in your carry-on for wine, souvenirs, or olive oil, you can check less expensive accessories such as the flash, chargers, cables, etc. Just make sure they are insured!

Many wonder whether the x-ray security machine will damage digital equipment or memory cards. The simple answer - no. Pass your equipment through without worry. Of more potential concern are metal detectors, which emit magnetic fields. There's a slight chance that these could effect memory cards or other magnetic media. But no matter; you won't be walking your camera through the metal detectors!

Bring your user manual

No matter how well you think you know your camera, bring your user manual! Bring the manual for your flash, too, if you are taking a separate unit. You just never know when some mysterious error message will appear that you've never encountered before. Or you may suddenly decide that you want to try that nifty multiple exposure or panorama feature you've never thought you'd need.

Tip: If you are bringing a laptop, you can download many manuals in PDF format from the manufacturer's website and leave the bulky booklets at home.

Pauline's Canon Powershot SD550 Elph, small digital camera

Pauline's Canon PowerShot SD550 Digital Elph, small point-and-shoot camera, great for snapshots

All You Need to Know About Transformers and Adapters

Much confusion revolves around what you need for charging your batteries in another country. Virtually all electronic devices, including laptops, digital cameras, and portable digital storage devices, are sold with a dual-voltage compatible charger. To be certain, check the ac adapter or your charger; if its dual-voltage it will say "Input 100-240V". You can use this anywhere in the world without a transformer or "power converter". (For more information on this, with photos, see the Slow Travel article Bringing your Electronics to Europe.) What you will need is a plug adapter for the country you will be visiting.

There are several websites that give a rundown of different styles of adapter. Here are a couple that I've used:

www.walkabouttravelgear.com/nongr.htm: Walkabout Travel has clear explanations, cheap prices, and low shipping costs.

kropla.com/electric2.htm: Another comprehensive site is Kropla Electric.

Tip: Bring an extension cord, and/or a multi-outlet adapter (make sure these are rated appropriately for the voltage at your destination). Often there may be only one outlet in your room, usually located "conveniently" under the bed, or in the bathroom (and you don't want to be charging your camera or battery on the bathroom sink, unless you want to be fishing it out of the toilet!).

Tip: If you have multiple battery chargers and cords for various items, label them (I simply take a file folder label, and fold it over around the cord.) It saves a lot of frustration when you arrive jet-lagged and are trying to figure out which cord goes with what.

Photos Storage Options

Digital cameras open up a world of possibilities, and many people find that they tend to shoot more images digitally than they ever did with film. This ease of use has one major drawback, however - storing those images safely while traveling. As newer cameras utilize larger and larger files, due to steadily increasing sensor resolution, this problem only gets compounded. The following list presents your current* options for dealing with storage-on-the-go. Which option to choose depends on many factors: your shooting style, the type of trip you are taking, the file size of your images, and of course, your budget.

Buy more memory cards

Prices of memory cards are dropping, and the most economical, and easiest solution for many may be to buy more cards. Assess how many photos you expect to shoot and the file size produced by your camera in the resolution you usually shoot at. However, I would suggest not putting all your eggs in one basket; instead of one super-large card, for example, you'd be better off with two or more smaller cards. Cards are easy to misplace or lose; if you are taking several cards, buy a card-carrying wallet. Some of these are even waterproof. (One example can be seen on Adorama.com.)

This solution is usually not appropriate for people shooting RAW format, at least not for a multi-week trip. A single RAW file from my 6-megapixel camera is approximately 9 MBs and a 2GB card will hold approximately 200 photos. For those of you with newer 8, 10, or 12 megapixel cameras, your RAW file sizes will be even larger. Since I can easily shoot 200 photos or more in a day, I'd need 20GBs worth of cards for a one-week trip. This is neither feasible nor economical - yet!

Bring your laptop

This is often your best choice, if you have one; but depending on your travel habits and type of trip, it may not be practical. You may not want the extra weight and bulk; or you may not want to have to worry about the security of a laptop left in a hotel room or car. I only bring a laptop if my trip doesn't involve day-tripping which necessitates that luggage be left in a car or another non-secure place.

Pros: You can do minor editing or culling of your photos during your trip, if you are so inclined. If your laptop has a CD or DVD burner, you can further back-up your photos for optimal security (I always burn discs even when I take the laptop; I would never trust my precious travel photos to a hard drive only.)

Cons: The obvious: extra weight and bulk to pack. Something else to worry about in terms of theft. Expensive if you don't need it for other purposes.

Tip: If you take a laptop, invest in a laptop cable lock such as those shown on kensington.com; almost all laptops have a slot for this, and you can secure your laptop in your hotel room or even in the trunk of your car.

Tip: If you take a laptop, make sure you fully back it up at home before you leave (either onto CD/DVD or an external hard drive), just in case of theft or crash.

Portable CD/DVD writers

Many people are unaware that there are now several portable CD and DVD writers available that are specifically tailored for backing up photo files. These are about the size and bulk of a CD Walkman® and come equipped with a slot to input your Compact Flash, SD, or other memory card. No computer is required! This is my method of choice when bringing a laptop is not feasible. I feel most comfortable knowing that my photos are safely stored on CD or DVD discs, rather than on a hard drive.

Pros: More portable than a laptop; relatively fool-proof; for additional safety, you can make duplicate discs and mail one set home if you like. When hooked up to a TV (via provided cable) most units also can serve as a portable DVD player and also display your photos in a slide-show. When you get home, your photos are already archived on CD so there's no need to do it again.

Cons: You need to carry ample blank discs, adding to the weight (not as much of a problem with DVD units, since you need far fewer discs.) Current DVD units available today are quite slow and it can take 15 minutes or more to burn 1GB of files. Battery life is generally poor, so these work best when an outlet is available. No units currently available have a screen to allow you to preview your photos.

Some of the current* units available:

reviews-zdnet.com.com: A comparison of some units.

Janet's Apacer Disc Steno CD writer showing CD and memory card

Janet's Apacer Disc Steno CD writer showing CD and memory card

Portable storage devices (hard-drive based)

A popular solution for many is a Portable Storage Device, or PSD (sometimes also referred to as a "digital wallet".) Essentially these are small hard drives in a hand-held unit with a slot for inserting the memory card from your camera. These come in two basic flavors: with a color screen to view your photos, or without. (All have a simple monochrome screen on which you view the status of your upload, battery status messages, etc.) The units with color image viewing screens are considerably more expensive. They also come in a variety of storage capacities, from 10GB to 100GB and more. Many favor this solution because they are small and lightweight.

Pros: Most lightweight and compact solution. Large capacities. Those with viewing screens allow you to preview your photos, ensuring that they've been transferred properly; and even to create a slideshow for others to view. Some also double as MP3 players for music files, and some can play video files too. Faster data transfer than CD/DVD burners. Longer battery life than CD/DVD burners or laptops.

Cons: Just one, but its major, in my opinion. Your data is stored on a hard drive, which can crash, just as a hard drive in your computer can fail. As unlikely as this may be, it's still too likely for me to be comfortable with these for my irreplaceable photos. I'm in a minority here; I know many professionals who use and trust these units. If I were to go this route, I would likely purchase two, and back up to both in parallel. The chances of both failing concurrently would be slim.

Comparing all the different hard-drive based units is beyond the scope of these notes, and the list changes rapidly, but here are two resources for comparative purposes:

fhoude34.free.fr/PortableHD.htm: Very complete list, continually updated!

www.offrench.net/photos/articles/portable_storage_devices.php: List of PSDs.

Tip: Multi-use devices are becoming more prevalent and popular (Apple I-pod®, Archos Multimedia Jukebox®, RCA/Thompson Lyra®, to name but a few); but research these carefully before you buy one for photo storage, and think carefully about what your usage will really be. These are usually more expensive than a simple digital wallet (they could cost more than your point-and-shoot digital camera!), and most will not display native file formats from your camera (RAW files.) They may be slow and unwieldy for downloading photos, and/or may require optional attachments. For the most part, these "Swiss army knife" units are primarily geared towards multi-media playback, and not data storage. Of course, in time these will mature and the prices will drop, but for now, do your research first!

Use an Internet cafe

Many people opt for utilizing a public Internet cafe to either burn CDs or upload their images to email. This would be my last choice as an option. Who wants to give up precious vacation time searching out an Internet Cafe, timing your visit to when its open, and then waiting around while your card is downloaded and a CD is burned? You may even have to come back the next day to pick it up (in the meantime, you'll be without your card.) In many areas outside of major cities, this option may not even be available.

Furthermore, I would not entrust my precious photos to a clerk who may or may not really know what they are doing. I have a friend whose card was "accidentally" erased by an Internet cafe employee, before it was successfully transferred. I've also heard of cases where the discs burned could not be read once they were brought home, or had corrupted files. As for emailing files home, this is really only practical for small amounts of low-resolution images; most email accounts have low storage limits or only allow short-term storage of large files; and many Internet cafes, due to security concerns, will not allow uploading of files at all.

Of course, in a pinch a cafe may be a good option, but there are so many other options available that I'd only recommend an Internet cafe in an emergency.

The bottom line is that there are many solutions for the storage issue - only you can assess which one is right for you. Hopefully these options will give you a basis for some comparison.

Other Digital Camera Resources

Here are a few more excellent resources that you might find useful:


www.pac-safe.com: Pac-safe is a company that sells a steel mesh bag that secures your laptop (or camera bag, backpack, or luggage) to any suitable support. They also sell other security devices such as locks and steel-cabled bag straps. I have used the smallest Pac-safe to secure my camera backpack to the inside of a car trunk, or the steel frame of a bed.

General Digital Camera Information

www.dpreview.com: Digital Photography Review, the most comprehensive site, which offers very high-traffic forums for every camera type, as well as a Storage and Media Forum where you can ask any question about portable storage and have it answered within minutes. Also offers excellent reviews and product comparisons.

www.steves-digicams.com: Steve's Digicams, another popular site for digital camera reviews, general information and lively forums.

* All products mentioned are current as of the writing of this article, November 2005. Please note that in the world of electronics, products change rapidly.


www.jczinn.com: Janet Zinn's photos.

www.slowphotos.com: Slow Travel Community Photos, thousands of photos posted by Slow Travelers.

Slow Travel - Bringing your Electronics to Europe: Converters and adapters needed for your electronic items.

Janet is an advanced hobbyist who carries entirely too much equipment on trips, but wouldn't leave home without it. Birder, photographer, world traveler, her images can be seen on her site, www.jczinn.com.

© Janet Zinn, 2005, www.jczinn.com

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