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 Nature Photography :: Publications :: Digital in the Bush

Ran by Digital Photography + Design magazine, Dec 04

For three years I've been living on the road with my trusty Canon F1s, recording the sights of Australia on film. Admittedly I've been half digital for that time, shooting on film, and scanning the negatives. But as far as I was concerned, when it came to going fully digital, the cheap cameras weren't good enough, and the good cameras weren't cheap enough.

Talking to fellow photographers who were using digital didn't help much either, with complaints about dust and battery life being common.

I was still keen to upgrade to digital, but I felt that things just weren't right, digital cameras were ideal in the studio or newsroom, but they weren't for the nature photographer who spends long periods in the field. I put my upgrade on hold, but kept the brochures just in case.

The final nail in film's coffin came, for me, after spending some time in Tasmania's northeast early this year, for over a month I had no chance of having my film processed. On my return to Launceston I found myself, yet again, faced with a massive scanning and cataloguing task.

Within two weeks my five bodies and ten lenses were sitting in the window of the Camera Exchange in Melbourne, and I was learning how to use a Canon 10D, a camera that has more options than my computer.

It was goodbye film, hello Flash cards.

As I write this it's been two months since I've handled a roll of film, and I've never had so much fun with my photography. Being able to review photos immediately has allowed me to easily experiment with new techniques. Moreover, the absence of film costs has freed me to shoot as many frames as I like, not important with static subjects, but very useful with fast-moving wildlife.

I have also made my first convert; a fellow photographer who was camped near my truck in the Flinders ranges in South Australia. We got talking and I waxed lyrical about my newfound faith.

I showed him some 8x12s from yesterday's shooting, brilliant glossies of images that were captured just a few hours ago. The die was cast, and he was on the phone to Melbourne enquiring about a trade-in.

The questions he had asked of camera store staff were mostly the same that I had raised. How do I store the images while in the field for long periods? What about batteries? Can I do the post-production work on a laptop? Is it practical to work this way in the bush? In general, he received the same answers I did, either the salesperson didn't know, or said it can't be done.

Well it can be done. It's quite practical to spend long periods in the field shooting, post processing, printing, cataloguing, and even selling photos.

To find someone like myself, living in the field and working with digital, was a revelation to him, finally someone could not only tell him that it does work, but show him how.

Shooting
There are some differences between film and digital, but not that many in my view. One obvious feature of digital cameras is the ability to review a shot and reject it. I find however that I rarely do this; the LCD screens on these cameras are not good enough to allow rejection of an image based on anything but the coarsest of reasons, eg. It has gross camera shake, or you missed the subject entirely. Any of the finer faults, such as a slight back focus, cannot be reliably detected on the LCD.

I have, on occasion, reshot because the review indicated that I'd blown out the highlights. The 10D seems to have quite a good dynamic range, but the brighter parts of the photo easily blow out. If you're used to using slide film and exposing for the highlights you probably won't notice the difference. I've been using neg film for years, and had to make a small adjustment to the way I think.

As I mostly photograph wildlife these days I admit that I worried about the buffer size and motordrive speed. I needn't have. I have yet to fill the 9-frame buffer and had to wait to take another shot. And as far as motordrive speed, until we get 30 fps, I still believe it's better to use your judgment to take a single photo at the precise moment.

Processing
In the past, at the end of the day, I would just relax and sit back with a beer; there was nothing I could do with the film, and therefore nothing I had to do. This was nice, but of course the work didn't go away, it just piled up. These days I still have an evening drink, but I offload the photos at the same time.

There are two methods to get your photos from the camera to a computer, directly and indirectly.

With the direct method you simply connect the camera and computer with the supplied cable, and run the appropriate software. This works just fine, but is agonisingly slow on the 10D, and doesn't provide me with a backup. Therefore I use an indirect method; the images make their way to my computer via a portable CD burner, in my case the FotoBar.

I remove the memory card from the camera, plug it, and a blank CD, into the burner, and press the "backup" button. When the job is finished I place the CD into my laptop and load the photos onto the hard disk.

So why the apparent duplication of effort? Two reasons, if I were away from a power source and computer, burning onto CD would free up my memory cards. Secondly, I now have a backup CD with the RAW files; no matter what disaster strikes my hard disk, I still have my "film".

If I was working overseas I could burn duplicate CDs and mail a set home every week or so.

So why not use a digital wallet? No particular reason, I just like the idea of having my RAW photos on a reasonably robust media like CD. Digital wallets are just tiny hard disks; if they fail you've lost 1000s of images. And even if you do use a wallet, you still have to burn the files to CD/DVD one day.

What are the cons of using the FotoBar? The device will only burn a single CD at a time; if you have too many images on your memory card it will not split them over several CDs. When this happens you're stuck, and the only way to get the images off the card is to load them directly from the camera to your computer, or use a generic memory card reader. Both methods are impossible if you're spending the night under the stars with no computer.

For this reason, when bushwalking and without a computer, I recommend having two 512Mb memory Cards. Smaller is OK too of course, but with the larger 1- and 2Gb cards you run the risk of shooting too many photos and being unable to get them off the card.

With a 6-megapixel camera, a 512Mb card will fit about 80 photos in RAW mode, while a CD will fit about 120 such images. This isn't exactly a perfect match, however the FotoBar does create multi-session CDs, so you can add images in batches until the CD is full, or at least until it doesn't have enough space for the next batch. So, for example, if you shoot and burn 80 photos one day, and only 40 the next, they will all fit onto a single CD.

At this point, if I'm bushwalking, that's the end of the day's work, my shots are safe on CD, my memory cards are free for tomorrow, and I can sit in front of the fire. If I'm working from my vehicle it's time for some postproduction.

How long can I shoot in the field?
If you're away from the car for a few days the camera's battery will last, maybe with a spare or two just in case, and don't use the LCD screen any more than you must. The FotoBar's battery will last long enough to burn 3½ CDs, that's about 420 photos, or equivalent to nearly 12 rolls of film. Add the photos on your two 512Mb memory cards and you can shoot a total of 580 photos, or 16 rolls of film without needing power.

With a spare battery for the FotoBar you can take up to 1000 photos. Unless you're shooting for National Geographic that should be more than enough capacity.

Having said that, I find I'm regularly taking more photos than I would have with film. I can easily go for a quick wander, find a nest of bull-ants, and come back half an hour later with 70 or 80 photos "in the can". I do that because, when I'm based with my vehicle, there's no reason not to.

At the other end of the spectrum is a trip I embarked on last year, two weeks in Tasmania's Tarkine Wilderness, with 12-volt power only available every few days when we moved from one area to another in a vehicle. I was using film then, but either way the same reasoning applies, when in the field be very frugal; don't blow 70 shots on some bull-ants.
One thousand photos in a few days may sound like a lot, but if you're shooting unpredictable subjects like wildlife, it's very easy to do.

Why not just buy more memory cards?
Two reasons, price and sustainability. Using the above hypothetical example of shooting 1000 photos over several days, you would need 12½ 512Mb memory cards at a total cost of around $5000. Once these cards are full that's it, you need to buy more cards, find a computer, or stop taking photos. The first two options won't happen, so your photography stops; you've "run out of film".

With the FotoBar, a spare battery, seven CDs, and two 512Mb memory cards you can achieve the same 1000 photos for around $1504.90.

But wait there's more; once the batteries have been recharged you can repeat the cycle over and over for the cost of a few CDs.

Post production
On my return to the vehicle I place the CDs into the computer's drive, and read the RAW files as though they were in the camera. Canon provides a program to read and convert these RAW files, it's called File Viewer, and it can also be used for processing of images. But why would you? I do almost all post processing using industry-standard image manipulation software such as Photoshop or Paint Shop.

The only exception is for fixing gross errors, like a two-stop under exposure (well I'm still learning how to use an automatic camera). The camera manufacturer's software can work directly with the RAW files, allowing the adjusting of exposure levels, colour balance, contrast etc., as though you did it in-camera.

File Viewer has the ability to batch convert all the RAW files into 8- or 16-bit TIFFs, and place them in a folder on my hard disk, and that's about all I need. The program will number the images consecutively, starting with any number you like, and you may find this useful for filing. I don't use this feature, mostly because at this point I don't know which images will be kept, and which ones will be culled and wind up in the bin, so to speak. I let the software allocate numbers according to it's own ideas, I re-number after the cull.

In general I find the resultant TIFFs are about right, just requiring a slight adjustment of levels or curves. However one thing I am encountering is dust. Within a week of purchasing the camera I was starting to see dust particles on the images. They're still there, and getting more prolific by the day. Still it's no worse than the blemishes I encounter when scanning film, and at least they are always in the same place.

Not long ago I would have said that it wasn't possible to use a laptop to work on photographs, mostly because of the way the LCD screens change density as you move your head around. This problem has not gone away, but my latest laptop is a lot better, and I now find that I can do all my work with it. I haven't used my desk top computer for weeks. To be fair, for critical work that requires precise colour matching, the average LCD screen is not up to the job. But for general pictorial work, I find it's more than good enough.

Once the day's batch of images look good, I renumber them according to my system, burn the 18- to 40-meg hi-res files onto DVD, and finally load lo-res JPEGs into my photo management software.

Photo management
Whether you're shooting digital or film you need to manage and organise your images. There are many programs available that perform this task, and Canon does provide one (called ZoomBrowser) with the camera, but it's very light-weight in features, and I'm an ex-programmer, so I wrote my own called Picman. This has the advantage that I can add any features I need, and the disadvantage that I have to fix the bugs myself.

Although the general use of photo management software is outside the scope of this article, there is one issue that relates to the workflow I'm talking about here.

You should have a method of linking each image back to both the CD it's RAW file is stored on, and to the CD\DVDs that hold the finished files of various kinds.

The camera labels each photo according to whatever criteria the manufacturer thought reasonable; in the case of the 10D a photo's RAW file will have a name something like CRW_1234.CRW. This file in turn will be on a CD, which, in my case, is labelled with just a number. The final lo-res image, after renumbering, may be 01882.JPG on the hard disk, the Photoshop file 01882.PSD on a DVD, and a printer-ready version 01882-A4.TIF on another DVD.

Imagine trying to find the respective files without the proper cross-referencing in your image management package.

It doesn't have to be fancy, a simple text field in your database with, say, "1234:212,01882:233,01882-A4:245" as the value will do. This may indicate that the RAW file CRW_1234 is on disk #212, the finished Photoshop file is on #233, and a printer ready, A4-sized TIFF is on #245.

Picman uses separate database fields, renumbers the files, scans CD/DVDs and inserts the data into the database automatically. ZoomBrowser does none of this, but does provide a text field where you can insert data as I describe in the previous paragraph.

But I don't know anything about computers
Sorry, but I can see no practical way of working seriously with digital images without a computer.

My converted photographer friend I mentioned earlier in this article was totally computer illiterate. This doesn't mean he can't go digital, but it will increase his burden as he climbs the learning curve.

At the very least you'll need a good laptop, and software to perform the following functions,

  • image management
  • photo manipulation
  • CD/DVD burning

Rudimentary versions of most of this software come bundled with printers, cameras and scanners these days. There's also free/share ware versions, for example, on UNIX/LINIX machines, instead of Photoshop you could try GIMP.

What about power?
All this high-tech equipment runs on batteries, and these batteries need to be recharged.

Every piece of equipment you use will come with a charger of some kind; they'll be all shapes and sizes, and all incompatible at the charging end. Fortunately, at the other end, they will feature the same 240v plug.

It follows then that you need 240 volts AC to run all these chargers. This is easily obtained from an inverter or a generator; both produce 240v power that works much the same as in your house. Generators will do the job, but they're noisy and very inefficient, so I'll concentrate on inverters.

For the purposes of this article, inverters are small black boxes that convert the 12v DC from your car battery, into 240v AC, which is suitable for running the aforementioned chargers. Inverters can be purchased from electronics stores such as Dick Smith or Jaycar, caravan accessories suppliers, alternative power suppliers etc.

Buy a "pure sine wave" type, and be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars. Once you have an inverter rigged up to your car's battery, you can work in the field in much the same way as you do at home.

Conclusion
It's possible to work indefinitely when based with a vehicle, and for several days in the wilderness with a tent. That covers almost all scenarios short of a trans-arctic expedition, which means that, for most of us, digital photography is up to the job, regardless of where we photograph.

The only problem is that you'll be enjoying your photography so much, and taking so many photos, that you may start thinking about selling the results. But that's another story.

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