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Edward Hasbrouck on "The Amazing Race 3"
Episode 8: Wednesday, 27 November 2002
Füssen (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
- 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
- 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
series (about US$1000 new -- as much as full-size laptop, but
better suited for travellers), and the Psion
Series 7 and
(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.
- 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.
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