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The Amazing Race 3, Episode 8 (27 November 2002)

F├╝ssen (Germany) - Freidrichshafen (Germany) - Romanshorn (Switzerland) - Schaffhausen (Switzerland) - Zurich (Switzerland) - Grindelwald (Switzerland)

Travelling with a Digital Camera

This has been the breakthrough year for digital camera sales, and tomorrow is the “official” start of the holiday gift buying season in the USA. A camera is the most expensive thing in most travellers’ packs. The contestants on “The Amazing Race” may be in too much of a hurry to take pictures (even in an episode like the one this week, when no one was eliminated), but almost every other traveller does. The best way to get yourself taken for an expatriate, rather than a tourist, is not to carry a camera. (Since all tourists carry cameras, a person without a camera must not be a tourist, most people assume.) Even the host of the “The Amazing Race”, Phil Keoghan, has started posting his (digital) snapshots from the route of the race each week on the CBS Web site.

So it should be no surprise that advertising on the broadcasts of “The Amazing Race 3”, and on the CBS Web site for the show, is dominated by ads for digital cameras from Kodak and T-mobile.

Advertisements and hype aside, what should you look for if you are buying a digital camera for international travel, or planning to take one with you on a trip abroad?

  • Types of memory: Digital cameras use a bewildering variety of similar looking, but incompatible, removable memory chips: compact flash (CF) cards, memory sticks, multimedia cards (MMC), smart media cards, and secure digital cards. All of these work basically the same way, but they are different sizes and shapes and have different connectors. Which is best? All else being equal, the one that’s cheapest per image, easiest to find, and most likely to be compatible with whaetver computer you find in a cybercafe or at a friend’s home or office. At present, the clear winner on all of these criteria is compact flash memory. CF has become the de facto standard for the majority of digital cameras as well as a large variety of other portable electronic devices such as palmtop computers and PDA’s. In a pinch, you stand a better chance of being able to borrow a CF card from someone else until you can download your photos, or of buying one locally (even at kiosks or small local shops in tourist destinations) than any other kind of memory chip. And far more cybercafes have CF readers (sparing you the need to install any special drivers for your camera’s cable connection) than have readers for other types of cards.
  • Buying more memory: The more memory you have, the more higher-resolution pictures you can take before you have to transfer your photos to a computer and burn them onto CD’s. It’s worth shopping around for memory cards. They’ve become a commodity, and prices from Internet or storefront discounters can be as little as 20 percent of the cost of brand-name memory cards from camera shops or full-price retailers. Generic memory cards are produced in the same chip factories as the brand-name ones, and seem to work just as well. My favorite price comparison site for computer and electronic commodities like this is Pricewatch.com. Currently they list 128MB CF cards for about US$40 each, 256MB for US$75, and 512MB (almost as much as a full CD) for US$150. I’ve gotten similar prices over the counter at discount warehouse stores in Silicon Valley like Fry’s. Memory cards are very small, so you may be better off with more smaller cards, so you don’t lose so many photos if one gets lost or damaged. The cheapest prices will probably be from companies you’ve never heard of, but there’s very little risk if you pay by credit card — see my discussion of credit card consumer protection, especially for travel purchases, in “The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace”.
  • Batteries and chargers: Digital cameras use much more power than film cameras, even film cameras with electronic focusing and exposure adjustments. A few digital cameras use standard AA batteries, which are preferable because in a pinch you can find AA batteries everywhere. But single-use batteries are expensive and produce extremely toxic waste, so you might want to get a couple of sets of rechargeable batteries and a compact battery charger. Most digital cameras use proprietary batteries that are expensive, hard to replace while you are travelling, and can only be recharged either in the camera or in a special proprietary charger. A separate charger with a spare battery is much better than a charger built into the camera: you can leave one battery in your hotel room charging while you are using the other in the camera. And only the charger and battery, not the entire camera, is at risk of being stolen while it’s charging. (Finding a safe place to leave a camera, mobile phone, or other electronic device plugged in and charging can be a particular problem for travellers staying in hostels or other dormitory accommodations. Proprietary batteries are less likely to be stolen, since they are unlikely to fit anyone else’s devices.)
  • AC adapters and power supplies:As with any electronic device for travel, look for a dual-voltage “auto-switching” or “universal” charger or AC adapter for your digital camera that handles 100-220 volts, 50-60 Hz. (Standard 110 volt devices made for use in the USA won’t work, and may catch fire or explode, if plugged into 220 volt power outlets in most of the rest of the world.) It’s a very bad mistake to buy a camera (or any electronic device) for international travel that uses a proprietary battery and a single-voltage recharger or AC adapter. Shop around: most electronic devices distributed in the USA with cheaper single-voltage AC adapters are also available from outlets with an international clientele in versions with dual voltage power supplies, often for the same price. You’ll also need a set of half a dozen plug adapters, but remember that these don’t convert the voltage or frequency. Plug adapters should only be used with dual voltage devices, or ones that you are sure are made to operate on the voltage and frequency of the local power supply.
  • Viewing photos while on the road: You may want to look at the photos you’ve taken before you get home, to decide which ones to save and which to delete, or just to see how well they’ve turned out. Almost all digital cameras let you review the photos you’ve taken on a viewfinder screen the size of a postage stamp. If you want a larger view, you’ll need to either carry a laptop computer with you (not recommended for most travellers, as discussed below), go to a cybercafe (with an appropriate cable and either your camera itself or a separate reader for whatever type of memory card it uses), or connect your computer to a television. Not all cameras are capable of displaying photos on a TV, and not all TV’s have the proper input connector. But even in relatively cheap hotels, some TV’s do, and it’s often more convenient to review your photos late at night or early in the morning in your hotel room than at a cybercafe where you are paying by the hour. Video cables are camera specific: if your camera comes with a video output cable, bring it with you on any extended trip.
  • Transferring photos to a computer: You can delete photos you don’t want, to make room for more, directly on your digital camera. To do anything else with your pictures — edit them, crop them, e-mail them, or upload them to a Web site — you first need to get them onto a computer. Different cameras have different kinds of connections, but in general you can either connect the camera directly to the computer with a camera-specific USB cable, connect a USB memory card reader to the computer, or use a memory card reader, if they have one for the right type of memory card (CF card, MMC, memory stick, or whatever). Connecting the camera is more likely to require installing special drivers on the computer, which means carrying a software CD with the drivers, and getting permission to install them. Cybercafes are surprisingly accommodating — more so than they probably ought to be — to customers who want to install drivers for their digital cameras or memory card readers. Separate USB card readers are cheap (less than US$20) and are more likely to work without installing any special drivers, so if you have room it’s worth getting one to take with you, especially if you can find one that works without the need to install special drivers. Some laptop and palmtop computers have memory card slots (usually for CF cards). For laptops without CF card slots, you can get an adapter to use a CF card in a PCMCIA (PC-card) slot for less than US$10.
  • Editing photos: Most digital cameras come with image editing software you can install on your PC. On the road, you’ll also find basic (and sometimes advanced) image editing software at most cybercafes. Especially if all you want to do is select, organize, and crop your photos, and you don’t use a specific high-end image editing program, it’s probably counterproductive to bring a laptop computer with you solely or primarily to deal with your digital photos. You can probably do it better in a cybercafe, without the expense, risk of theft, and fragility of a laptop with a hard disk. Even if you bring a computer, you may be better off with a smaller, less fragile palmtop without a hard disk. Palmtops well suited for techno-travellers, with color screens adequate for photo sorting and built-in CF slots (they use CF cards instead of hard disks as their primary storage media, so you can use the same cards interchangeably for your palmtop or your camera) include the Windows CE or Pocket PC “HP Jornado” series (about US$1000 new — as much as full-size laptop, but better suited for travellers), and the Psion Series 7 and netBook (currently being phased out, and available on eBay.com or from other liquidators for US$500 or less — probably the best current value for the money in a travel computer, if you aren’t wedded to Windows). Any of these have touch-type keyboards 75-90% of full size, hugely longer battery life and shock resistance than anything with a hard disk, and all the basic software a traveller needs built in: communications, e-mail, Web browsing, word processing, etc. [NOTE: This article was written and first published in my e-mail newsletter in 2002. If you are looking for a more recent device with some of the same features, see my 2017 blog post on Digital Devices for World Travellers (including a comparison of Psion successors and other devices I have used) and my 2018 review of the Gemini PDA. For what it’s worth, the device I currently use that is closest to a Psion netBook in size is a dual-boot Windows/Linux Panasonic “Let’s Note” CF-J10 I bought second-hand from a surplus dealer in China through a Taobao buying agent in 2017. It cost about US$500 including an extra battery and extra power supply (mains adapter) and a licensed English-language copy of Windows 7. This is the second “Let’s Note” I’ve owned; I replaced the first one, still working as well as ever after years of hard knocks including thousands of miles of bicycle touring, only to get a newer model. The Panasonic “Let’s Note” series is well established in Japan, especially for business travellers, but little known in the U.S.]
  • Mailing photos and putting them on the Web: Don’t do this unless you have to. From time to time, you’ll find a cybercafe with a high-speed Internet connection. But that’s rare, and in some parts of the world almost non-existent. Sending photos over a dial-up connection, even if you have your own laptop with you, is likely be even slower. Most of my clients who set out intending to maintain a Web site of photos while they travel around the world abandon their plans as soon as they hit their first Third World country, and discover how much time it takes. You may want to e-mail an occasional choice photo to friends or family, or post it to a Web site. But wait until you get home, or until you get lucky with a cheap cybercafe with a very fast connection, before you try to e-mail or post a whole gallery of photos.
  • Storing photos and getting them home: If you don’t have enough memory cards to last through your trip, the best way to save your photos and get them home safely is to burn them onto CD’s. You could bring a laptop with a built-in or external CD burner with you, but that’s not necessary: most cybercafes will burn a CD for you for US$5 or so, once you’ve transferred your photos to their computer. CD’s are fairly durable, and they are immune to airport x-rays and metal detectors. But they can get dropped, broken, or scratched, so I’d burn at least 2 (preferably 3) CD’s of any photos I wouldn’t want to lose. If you are travelling with a companion, you can each carry a set, and you can mail another set home.

Have fun, but don’t get carried away. Reality is in front of your eyes, not in the viewfinder, Experiences and memories can be more valuable than any photograph.

Happy travels!


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