and their headlamps before dawn
Lamding, Himalaya (Khumbu region, Nepal, Asia)
digital photography up to the challenges of extended
outdoor adventures in harsh conditions? A year ago,
I would probably have answered: no. As a trekker and
mountain climber, it was actually the main reason why
I stuck with my film SLR.
That is, until this spring, when I could not resist
the call of the new EOS 10D. And when I embarked this
autumn on a climbing expedition to the Himalayas, I intended
to photograph digital.
The purpose of this article is to share my planning
process and conclusions, focusing on the specific questions
and issues that outdoor photographers face on longer
trips (I assume we want to use a a high-quality setup,
but I won't discuss the merits of specific cameras, lenses
or tripods, nor shooting techniques).
1- The challenge
makes outdoor adventures fantastic experiences is precisely
what makes digital photography challenging: there is
no power grid readily accessible, the weight one can
carry is very limited, and the environment is not exactly
as electronics-friendly as in a fashion studio. Those
challenges go hand-in-hand:
was what worried me most: we planned to spend 3 weeks
trekking and climbing, with 15 days or more
in the wilds.
storage of digital images is a very much correlated
issue: as I could not afford to bring 15 Gb worth
of CF cards, I needed power both for the camera and
for a storage system.
actually is an issue only when weight is a constraint:
that good old car battery would have enough juice
to keep you shooting, but that's not really what
you'll want to take along for a trek. This was a
small and lightweight expedition, so any heavy system
was out of question.
for the environmental constraints, the whole setup
should be able to withstand some rough treatment
and potentially harsh weather, where humidity and
cold pose the most problems. The altitude (base camp
would be at 4500m/16.000 ft, the climb would take
us at over 6000m/20.000 ft) and the associated low
air pression is a factor that affects badly not only
humans, but potentially also hard disks.
was clear that any hard-disk based solution (microdrives
and storage systems) should be excluded: when you invest
so much in such a trip, you don't want to see all your
images just disappear because of a (probable) disk
failure. A laptop was also out of question, for power
requirements and weight reasons too.
chose to take 2 CF-cards, 1Gb each, the second one
mostly for redoundancy should the first one fail.
for the storage system, I figured that a portable
CD-burner would withstand base camp's conditions,
and once on CD, my shots would be safe. I planned
to burn each card on 2 CDs, again for redoundancy.
I bought the Apacer Disk Steno CP 100: small in size,
relatively lightweight, capable of operating from
a battery pack or from an external 12V power source.
It was anyway the only model available at that time.
Downside: heavier than a hard disk, it also needs
more power... and is it really more reliable?
now needed power for the camera and the CD burner.
After doing some research, I discarded the obvious
solar charging solution: to be reliable, it needs
a high-quality panel and a regulation system,
too heavy and expensive.
The next candidate solution was non-rechargeable
external lithium battery packs: specially designed
for extreme conditions and filming expeditions,
they are lightweight and have a good capacity.
A 7,5 V pack could directly power the camera, but
having an SLR tethered to an external pack is obviously
not an appealing perspective for climbers. Another
option would be a 12V pack to power the CD burner,
that could also act as a power source to recharge
the original camera battery, although in practise
energy would be wasted in the charging process
and the non-rechargeable pack's lifetime would
be greatly reduced. A 12V/100Wh pack has about
8 times the capacity of both the camera's and the
CD-burner battery packs. Interesting solution,
but its necessary testing would require time and
money I did not have (a single 12V pack costs between
$150 and $300, plus in my case import taxes and
shipping delays to Europe).
The (rather proprietary) Apacer battery lasts
for about 2 hours in standard conditions, equivalent
of about 25 CDs. Shooting on average 75 pictures
per day in RAW format (climbing would keep me otherwise
busy), I would burn less than 2 CDs per day on
average, including backup CDs. So, in theory, the
burner's battery would be just enough for the time
we'd spend in the wild.
chose to take the risk and take only the original
Apacer battery: since it would stay in basecamp,
it should not be exposed to very cold temperatures,
and in any case, I would have a film SLR with
me. After so much research, I also finally went
for the most straightforward, lightweight and
economical solution to power the camera: I bought
5 extra standard battery packs (BP-511) that
I would charge before the trip.
charged all batteries in Kathmandu before leaving
to the mountains. I made sure they were exposed as
less as possible to the cold, keeping them in my
sleeping bag at night, and kept the devices turned
on only when needed.
I did not use the camera's LCD display: I had learned
enough about the camera to expose properly, albeit
not optimally, without checking the histogram. For
the record, I always used selective metering and often
metered on the brightest (white) area, over-exposing
by about 2 values.
I soon run into trouble with one CF-card:
the CD burner would not accept it, but the single "error" LED
would not tell me the reason. After multiple tries
in different conditions, I had to recognize that I
would not be able to use that card anymore (the camera
could still display the images stored on it). I still
had the backup card, but I obviously got worried...
I needn't, and my film SLR stayed in
its waterproof bag all the time. After 2 hours and
10 minutes of mainly
successful operation, when we reached civilization
again the CD burner still had power. I did not get
any corrupted image file, and I transfered the pictures
stored on the "faulty" CF-card directly from
the camera to my PC, back at home, without any trouble,
so I did not lose any image. The lifetime of the camera's
battery packs, when not using the LCD, simply amazed
me: 3 packs would have been enough!
Seing how hard and committing climbing at high altitude
is, I actually hardly can imagine carrying above base
camp anything heavier than a couple of standard battery
packs for the camera. Actually, the 300D would probably
have been more suitable...
Every morning, fog would set on our base camp at 10:30
for the rest of the day: it's not pleasing, but it
would have become a nightmare had I gone for a solar-powered
is beautiful. I took a risk when deciding to go this
light and take only standard battery packs along,
but it seems it was the right thing to do. Some things
I have learned:
but redoundant: as much as possible, plan for the
time when something will fail. 2 copies of
each CD, 2 CF-cards (more of them would have been
better), etc... and obviously, the ultimate protection
is to carry a film camera.
LCD display is a battery killer!
longer trips or colder conditions, a better solution
is needed for the CD-burner: a non-rechargeable "expedition" lithium
battery pack seems to be an excellent candidate:
used only for that purpose, it would allow for about
15 hours of operations. I am also looking for a second
standard battery pack.
verbose error messages on the CD-burner would have
been highly appreciated!
with a digital camera, I am a conservative shooter
and that implies specific assumptions on the power
needed: your mileage may vary.
but not least, I am not suggesting that my choice
is the ultimate solution. Thanks to the work of the
engineers who designed those products, It worked
for me and, although simple, met complex requirements,
but there are surely other good ways to achieve the
same goals. Your feedback is welcome!
So, back to my initial question: is digital photography
up to the challenges of extended outdoor adventures
in harsh conditions? Yes... but with backup solutions.
- Feb 5th, 2004
I have been asked several times the
same good question: why in the first place did I
chose to use a digital
camera and carry the necessary equipment when a film
camera would have been lighter and a safer choice?
I'm tempted to give the same answer as climbers often
do when they are asked why they climb mountains: "because
they are there"...
But more seriously, a digital solution is not clearly
superior to a film-based solution since it has its
own drawbacks, but the advantages I saw, and that were
important to me, are:
film needed (except for backup): much lower cost,
no fear about damaged film at airports... ;
feedback, although I did not used the LCD display
a lot because of the power consumption, no need to
change film while climbing, on-the-fly ISO setting
adjustments and other known niceties of digital ;
reduced post-processing time (no need to scan slides)
and easier archival ;
a film camera can fail, so two bodies are needed
anyway. Since my DSLR and my film SLR are both Canon,
they share the same lenses, so the extra weight is
Now that I have understood that even battery consumption
is not a big issue, I will use the same solution on
my next trips. The combination of a DSLR and a film
body of the same brand as a backup is an excellent
solution, both in terms of protection against failure
and in terms of choice made available to cope with
Photographs from this trip can be found in the
on Nepal Himalayas.