Travelling Without Aperture

by Ben Long

I'll be leaving for South Africa this week to help Steve Simon with a shoot that he's doing there. He and I will work together for about a week-and-a-half and then I'll be on my own for another ten days, trying to work my way into the bush for some landscape shooting. As Steve describes here, planning for a trip like this can be tricky. We'll be travelling around in-country a lot, and I don't want to carry much, but I also don't want to find myself wanting for a piece of kit that I've left at home. Also, because I plan on going backcountry, I need to bring a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and other items that I normally wouldn't bother with.

So, I've decided to go computer-less.

I agree very much with Micah Walter's post that the immediate feedback of digital shooting, as well as the immediate post-processing made possible by a laptop computer, can really change the way you shoot. Personally, I need to let images sit, unobserved, for a few weeks before I can make a reasonable assessment of what I really think of them. Very often, if I look too soon, I find that I'm disappointed. Only with a little time am I able to judge them fairly. Consequently, to ease the weight burden, and to see what it's like to remain in a shooting mindset for the duration of the shoot (rather than going back and forth between shooting and post) I'm leaving my Mac, and Aperture, at home.

This, of course, creates several issues that need to be dealt with using other technology, the main one being how to handle the storage issue. I will be shooting with a 5D, exclusively raw, and I tend to bracket a lot so storage will be an issue. With a Mac I could, of course, dump things onto a hard drive and be done with it.

Fortunately, Steve will have his Mac with him, so there's a chance that I can let him hassle with carrying the computer around, while I simply "borrow" it from him in the evenings. (My hopes are that his internet access is currently so limited that he won't be able to learn of my plan until it's too late.) I have prepared a bootable external drive configured the way that I want it, so that all I have to do is reboot his machine off of that drive, and I'll have my own self-contained environment, that will pose no threat to his own files, settings, or organization. This, combined with some blank DVDs might provide a reasonable backup scheme.

The problem with this idea is that Steve will also need to be offloading his images. If our only time is late in the day, and we've got a lot of images to move, there might not be enough time for me to swipe his computer from him. And, of course, I'll only have access to his machine for the first half of the trip.

One possible solution would be to simply treat media cards like film: buy enough to cover the shooting that I need to do for the trip and then never erase them. The main problem with this is that, price-per-megabyte-wise, flash memory is still the most expensive way to go. Also, I'm not sure how to calculate how much I might be shooting, and if I figure wrong, then my shooting would be over, or I'd have spent way too much on storage. But also, this just feels wasteful. Flash memory is designed to be re-used a lot, after all.

The other problem with this approach is that I would have no redundancy. Of course, film users don't either, but they don't have the option. Given the cost of flying to Africa and all the other usual travel expenses, coming back without every image amounts to a waste of money. So, investing in a redundant technology is a small cost compared to the overall price of the trip.

So, of course, the best option is something like the Epson P-2000 that Bakari Chavanu discussed. The Epson media readers are great, and I've used them before. Unfortunately, they're also expensive, and part of my scheme here was to not review my images, so I don't actually need a reader with a screen.

There used to be a lot of media reading products in this category, but I gather that most vendors must have learned that the market is fairly small, as there seem to be fewer and fewer made. At one time, there were companies that sold enclosures that you could put your own drive into, but I don't have any extra 2.5" drives laying around at the moment, so I decided to opt for the Photo Safe from Digital Foci.

Like the Epson media drives, the Photo Safe has a built-in hard drive, card reader, and interface. Insert your media card, press a button, and the contents get copied to the drive. You can then yank the card and erase it, and you're ready to continue shooting. The Photo Safe comes in 40, 80, and 120 GB sizes, so the next question was how much storage I actually need. Since the 80 is only $30 more than the 40, that seemed like an easy enough solution.

Finally, to address the redundancy question, I decided to buy two of the 80 gb models. I can copy each card to both drives, and end up with two copies of everything. It's been a long time since I've had a drive go bad beyond the point of recovery, and it seems like the possibility of two drives going bad is pretty small.

Also, many people are uncomfortable with readers that don't have screens, because there's no way to ensure that your files are actually copied. I've never had a problem with a device like this mis-reporting a transfer, but with two drives that fear is minimized.

These drives transfer a gigabyte in about 5 minutes, which is somewhat slow - the latest Epsons do the same amount in a little over 2 minutes. Since I'll be making two copies, it will actually be ten minutes of transfer time before I can reuse the card. Obviously, I'm not going to shoot up an entire second card while managing my transfer, so the slow-ish time shouldn't be an issue.

In my next post, I'll report on how I plan to power all of this stuff.


2007-09-03 11:28:46
I solve the problem you describe by downloading to my iPod.
I have experience of using two iPods: a 4G 30GB model (which needs a Belkin Media Reader to interface with the CF card) and a 5G 80GB model (for which Apple sells a tiny adaptor which converts the camera's USB lead into a dock connector). Both work flawlessly, although the Belkin Media Adaptor eats batteries at an alarming rate - about 6GB downloaded per set.
If you are taking your iPod - you'll need some music for those long night in the tent - then you could certainly use it as a backup.
As for all the juice, South Africa should keep one of those solar chargers going strong.
Dan D
2007-09-04 04:43:37
Nice post. I think the powering of all these devices will be the biggest issue, but the previous commenter is right when he says: "As for all the juice, South Africa should keep one of those solar chargers going strong".

Interested to see your next post...

2007-09-04 05:57:57
I too will be going to Africa this fall and have been looking for solutions similar to yours. I opted for the photo safe due to cost and in my tests it has worked well.
My my only other issue is power, as I have been told not to expect electricity and not to bring solar. So I have a crank light with a USB charger out on it...
On the internet, good luck and if you find it I have been told it is slow...
Have fun.
Rick P
2007-09-04 09:52:02
I'm wondering - why were you told "not to bring solar"?
2007-09-04 09:56:21
I have no affiliation with this company (Hyperdrive) at all...but I do own their old model (HD80) as well as their new model (SPACE) and they have been absolutely great! Affordable, upgradable, dependable, and FAST!

The SPACE model is a homerun! I used it with my 5D in France for a week and could not have been happier. No way to view pictures but it even has a file verification mode that checks files down to an absurd amount if you're really worried. Way faster than Epson, incredible battery life....I never even had to charge it the whole trip with countless card downloads.

2007-09-04 11:06:17
I'm using a device similar to the Photo Safe by NEXTO. I found out about them a year ago in a discussion group. Case for about $100 and you install your own laptop drive (In my case 100GB for about $100) Has worked will for me. I had to order from Asia (Singapore I think, but arrived sooner than the hard drive I order from the US at the same time). Cost, weight and "theft resistance" were my criteria. I figured the lack of a screen and the smaller size would make it less likely to disappear. It is nerve racking not to be able to see the images on the device, but about half the size and cost, seemed like a fair trade off. NEXTO has been around a while and provides regular software updates (PC only for my unit, but I saw some Mac stuff when I last updated).

I like the idea of two devices, I'll look at the Photo Safe. More complicated to have devices from two manufacturers, but better odds of one continuing to work. We travel off the grid and the low battery requirement of the NEXTO were a plus too. The battery requirements ruled out the iPod for me. I'd read that I might not even be able to download my cards on a single charge. I had planned to travel for two months and figured I'd need about 50GB (hence the 100GB--how often have we underestimated). Our trip was cut short (only lasted two weeks), but we'll be doing the planned two month trip in Nov.-Dec. We took solar, but didn't get off the grid long enough to get a good trial, but my use camping has shown that it's difficult and slow. The sun moves, clouds, and if you're moving one is almost always getting temporatily shadowed.

2007-09-04 11:15:46

Being South African and having moved around the African continent, unless you are really going deep, power is just fine in most cities. Africa has a large internet base, in fact most cities you can purchase a pay as you go mobile phone and use that as a modem to upload images. I have done so with many picture editors using 56k and it works.

Seriously there are some shortcomings about the continent, but as a whole South Africa, and a large chunk of African cities, are nothing like you must have been told. We have power, we have Internet and we even have roads.

Oh and we have no animals roaming the streets and yes, we do have something to stop the monkeys from stealing the straw from our roof.

2007-09-04 12:42:14
I will be off the grid for the most part, sorry that I gave the perception that there was no power or internet in Africa, for me this will be true much of the time. Africa is huge diverse content of many extremes, I was seen my trip and photography issues without giving the readers a base of understanding. It was my poor writing and not explaining, my apologies.

2007-09-04 20:43:31
It's ok, I wasn't taking it the wrong way.

I still get asked about animals in Johannesburg and with the recent Miss Teen USA issue, i can now see why :)

Post the images for the rest of us to see when you are done!

2007-09-07 07:07:08
You can now buy an 80gig ipod video for $249. Buying a blank enclosure and separate HD to install yourself for $200 seems to make little sense
2007-09-23 01:37:20
Downloading on the run. I have been using a Vosonic Xs-Pro Drive for over a year now and is a cost effective alterative to the Epson 200P. I think there are newer models now, and they also come in vaious hard drive sizes. mine is a 40 GB which I find ample for most locations, has a small screen for reviewing and takes a Fuji video battery (so can have a spare) as well as 12v car adaptor and mains power adaptor. really a nice kit. Also has a voioce recorder which is great for notes, interview etc, and can also handle video and music. Cards are inserted into the appropriate slot (takes all formats) and a really nice simple back-up screen appears - and it's all go. I have show to a few journo's and they've been wrapped - and by the way, it includes instructions for replacing your own 2.5" hard drive. One of my friends got theirs with a 120 gb drive to start. having just got back from a 3 month assignment o/s this little box saved my images on several occasions and I've now downloaded all the RAW results successfully - my only gripe is I have to update the software as i can't "see" the RAW's from my new cameras - they can't be reviewed 'on screen' but downloaded perfectly. The 20D back up camera shots are fine though.