Picture Taking

Since we knew right from the beginning that we'd take a lot of pictures on this trip, we decided that it was time to buy our first digital cameras. I spent some time researching this subject on the Web and consulting with knowledgeable friends, and in September, 2003, we each bought a camera.

Here are the vital statistics, for you photography buffs:

My camera: Olympus C-5050Z, 5 megapixels, 3x optical 35-105mm (equiv) f/1.8-2.6 zoom lens, max image size 2560 x 1920 pixels.

Dorothea's camera: Canon Powershot A-70, 3.2 megapixels, 3x optical 35-105mm (equiv) f/2.8-4.8 zoom lens, max image size 2048 x 1536 pixels.

We also bought two Compact Flash cards for each camera: one 512MB and one 256MB. The smaller card was intended to be a backup in case the larger one reached its capacity while we were still taking pictures, but in fact this never happened.

Both cameras were set to take pictures at their maximum image size. Dorothea's Canon had three levels of JPEG output, "Normal," "Fine" and "Superfine." She chose the last (least compression, least potential distortion, largest files). My Olympus had two JPEG levels, HQ "high quality" and SHQ "super high quality." I chose HQ (more compression, greater potential distortion, smaller files).

I based this decision on a study done by Andrzej Wrotniak, whose website devoted to Olympus cameras (wrotniak.net) I found very useful. Wrotniak painstakingly compared details in pictures of the same subject taken in both JPEG modes, and concluded that the differences were negligible for anything smaller than a 9" x 12" print. I found this reassuring, because the SHQ mode produced files three times larger than HQ. When I set the camera to HQ, the display told me there was room for 410 pictures on my 512MB CF card. When I set it to SHQ, this number changed to 139. I wasn't sure I could manage a full day at a place like the Grand Canyon without filling both my main card and its backup (which had only half the capacity).

As a result of these decisions, Dorothea's image files were somewhat larger than mine even though the pictures contained fewer pixels. The Canon told her to expect to get about 315 pictures on her CF card. Such estimates are approximate, since image size varies greatly depending on the amount of detail, but they do seem to reflect the comparative sizes of our files pretty well. The larger Canon files were no problem for Dorothea, who on this trip was a more discriminating photographer than I, taking about three pictures to five of mine. She never filled up a card before I did.

Since both cameras ran on AA batteries, we each bought two sets of four rechargeable Powerex NiMH batteries, rated at 2200mAh, and a Maha C401FS charger. We were careful to keep both sets charged, keeping the spares ready in our camera bags, and there were times when we had to to change batteries before the day was over. Olympus had supplied a set of 1700mAh NiMH batteries with my camera, which I also took along because there was room in my bag, but I never needed them.

I couldn't resist also buying several accessories for my camera:

  • A 1B skylight filter to protect the lens from dirt and scratches, and an extension tube to protect it while it moved in and out.
  • A polarizing filter to control reflections. I had used these with SLR cameras, but was unable to make this one work on the C5050 (which is not an SLR, so I wasn't able to look through the filter while adjusting it).
  • A rubber lens hood. This was not at all successful; it caused vignetting (i.e., it appeared as a curved black shadow in the corners of many pictures). I didn't know this until later because I wasn't looking through the lens.
  • An Xtend-A-View Pro attachment for seeing the LCD monitor in bright light. (It magnifies the monitor image a little too much, but it was still helpful the couple of times I used it.)
  • A Velbon Maxi 343E tripod, compact and light, with a quick-release head made by Ideesigns. As it turned out, I only tried this once. It worked perfectly well, but there was no wind, so it wasn't a real test.

Candor requires me to admit that Dorothea managed nicely without any of these things.

Picture Storing

We knew that our CF cards were much too small for the number of images we were likely to accumulate on such a long trip, and it was obvious that any cards we could afford to buy would be filled several times over before we could get back to our home computers. It was necessary, therefore, to find some way to transfer images from the cards to some storage medium where they would be safe until we got home. Once the images were stored, the card could be erased and reused.

Some travelers carry along laptop computers for this purpose, but we don't own a laptop, and have no compelling reason to buy one. We considered stopping at Internet cafés to download the images and email them home, but a quick survey on the Web showed me that the Internet café is an institution whose time has already passed. There weren't many listed in the places we were planning to go, and when I tried to check their websites, I found most of them down.

Devices capable of solving our problem were available in two forms: portable hard disk drives (HDDs), and portable CD burners. Designed for digital photographers, both types had slots built in to accept flash cards, and their internal chipsets contained simple operating systems capable of copying image files from a card to the hard disk or CD without having to be connected to a computer. The HDDs had been on the market for a couple of years; the CDs were just beginning to come out. As far as advantages went, HDDs could work faster and hold very large quantities of files. They could also do more work on a single battery charge, and were easier to use outdoors because (unlike the CD burners) they didn't have to lie perfectly flat and perfectly still while copying. They were also smaller and entirely self-contained; there was no need to carry along a stack of CDs.

On the other hand, a CD burner potentially offered greater security for the images. When you transfer your pictures to an HDD and then erase and reuse the card, you still have only one copy of each, and as the images accumulate during a long trip, they are all in one place. Should the storage device be lost or stolen on the last day, all your pictures are gone forever. If, say, a moose were to step on it, you might recover the device, but it would probably take the services of some very expensive technicians to get any of the pictures back.

With a CD burner, on the other hand, you could copy the images to as many CDs as you'd like before deleting them from the card. Should disaster strike the burner, you'd lose the ability to save any further images, but the ones you had already stored wouldn't be affected. Even if the CDs with your pictures on them disappeared in the same catastrophe (this might take more than a careless moose, but there are ways that it could happen), you could previously have made extra copies and stashed them elsewhere.

So we decided to opt for the burner. We weren't much bothered by its relative disadvantages, because we intended to use it in the motel, plugged in and lying on a table, rather than outdoors running on batteries while balanced on a rock. Our station wagon had plenty of room for CDs. In fact, we took along 100 of them, less than a third of which we used. Having plenty of time to prepare in advance, we bought high quality Mitsui Gold CDs from an Internet supplier and got packages of Tyvek envelopes and cardboard mailers cheaply through EBay. We made address labels and bought stamps, and whenever we unloaded pictures from our CF cards, we burned two CD copies of each set, kept one in the big duffle with the blanks, and stuck the other in a mailer and sent it home. Both sets of CDs, the ones we carried and the ones we mailed, got home safely, and neither of us lost a picture.

The burner we chose was the Apacer CP200, a Taiwanese product. It made faster copies than most others on the market at the time, and unlike any of them it had an optional cycle that not only made a copy, but afterwards checked it for accuracy. Apacer was the first to come to market with one of these devices and the CP200 was their second model, which had just come out. Not only did we find the features attractive; we were also reassured that they had built a track record of mostly satisfied customers.

The CP200 burner can also display pictures on a TV, if it has input jacks you can plug the cable into. This is a good way to make sure that all the pictures one remembers taking have been copied onto the CD. When we burned our first CDs of the trip, at Durango, CO, we were anxious to check this, as the Apacer was new and still pretty much untested. However, the TV in our room lacked the right jacks. Since this was our first transfer of images on the trip, we were too nervous erase the cards until we had put the CDs into a computer and verified that all the pictures we could remember taking were on them. Fortunately, the young lady at the motel desk knew where there was an Internet café, and we took our CDs there. To our relief, not a picture (as far as we could tell) was missing.

After this first trial, we became more blasé about trusting the Apacer, and it never let us down. This was good, because although we had expected to do frequent TV checks on the CDs we burned, we found that very few motel room TV sets had the necessary red, yellow, and white input jacks. Although most consumer sets come with these, it appears that many motels buy “motel special” TVs that don't have them.

The second time we burned a set of CDs, the Apacer reported an error on one of the four. (We always burned four at a time: two copies of mine and two of Dorothea's.) We tossed the CD and made another copy, which was verified successfully. As the trip continued, verification errors occurred from time to time. They seemed to be random — we never got two errors on the same set of images, for example, and after one reject there was never any problem with the next copy.

It wasn’t until the third or fourth time it happened that I realized I should be keeping the rejects to examine at home. At that point I began to save them, and brought home three, two from my memory card and one from Dorothea’s. Careful comparison, using a good program made for that purpose, revealed that there were no differences between the “good” discs and the “bad” ones: all the error reports had been errors themselves.

Obviously the verification process didn't work perfectly, but I couldn't get terribly upset about this. A false failure is always better than a false success, because if you think there’s an error when really there isn’t, you can make another copy right away, before the card is erased. If, on the other hand, you think there’s no error when really there is, you may not learn the truth until it’s too late to do anything. I bought very high quality CDs in bulk before we set out on the trip, and we had plenty of room to carry extras. Each of those 5 or 6 unnecessary copies cost all of 90¢: a grand total of five dollars or so. That's pretty cheap insurance.