Digital info for serious shooters: specializing in Nikon & Canon

DigitalPro Shooter Volume 3, Issue 2, February 14, 2005
Welcome to DPS 3-2. Every time I travel to photograph or am preparing an article or photo submission on deadline I'm constantly aware of what can go wrong. Particularly in the world of digital we are at the mercy of technology. As a result I work hard to have backups for almost everything I can think of that might get in the way of finishing my job. In that spirit this issue features a list of David's Top Ten Things to have Two of for digital photographers. I'm sure your list has some of the same items and some different ones, so I'd love to hear your suggestions in our Photo Tools forum. I've also got my updated event calendar for the year. We've still got openings on the added Grizzly Bear week, our Monterey Bird & Marine Mammal trip (great for couples), our Bay Area Bird week and our Botswana/Namibia trips (which will feature large mammals, birds & scenics, so something for everyone--couples welcome with special programs for non-shooting spouses), so now's the time to get out and put into use all those great skills you've been working on--or to make time to come on out and learn those skills you wish you'd been working on!
Finally, we've got an update on some cool new products, the Sensor Brush from Visible Dust and the new super-size 400GB hard drives, complete with some exclusive DPS tips on how to make the most of your existing drives.

David's Top Ten Things to have Two of

10. Laptop Hard Drives

Actually, I have three of these. One of course is in my notebook computer, the has a complete duplicate of the drive in the computer and the third has a backup of my drive plus enough room to back up the images from my current trip. This system protects me against a hard drive crash or corruption--I can just swap with the cloned drive--and against loss of my images--I have a spare copy on my third drive. I use Norton Ghost to make the cloned drive and either Ghost or Stomp Backup MyPC to make the drive backup.

Until recently this system worked perfectly. Unfortunately software activation has made life relatively miserable for those needing backups in the field. Say, for example, I'm in a remote location and my hard drive fails. Great, I swap in the clone. Since Photoshop was already installed on the drive before I left for the trip, it says it has been more than 15 days since installation and will refuse to run. Sure if I have good phone connections I can call and get a number I can type in, but many of the places I go don't have reasonable phone service of any kind. Windows XP has some similar issues but it is inexpensive enough for me to have an extra license that I can work around them more easily.

9. Image Backups

On the road isn't the only place where you can lose images. Remember that even your desktop computer or server can suffer from a drive crash or some other glitch that costs you data. And your backup disk or tape may also be bad. I always keep at least two backups of my images, one in a safe deposit box and one at a neighbor's house. Traditionally my backups have been large capacity tapes, but now disk drives are inexpensive enough that one of my backups is literally a hard drive. I also keep yet a third backup copy online with my system in case I need to copy corrupted or erased files. I use Danz Retrospect to quickly and easily clone drives for this purpose since it has very flexible support for ways of copying files and folders. If you only need to copy full drive Norton Ghost also works well.
Note that these backups are more in the nature of archives and are different from the system backups that I do each week (and incrementally update automatically each night) using Stomp's Backup MyPC.

8. Flash Cards

Okay, so I have closer to 8 of these than 2. But I'm amazed by how many photographers are in the field with only 1 or 2 cards and rely strictly on a portable storage device to offload their images. Not only can the storage device fail but a card might also fail. For that reason I highly recommend having several digital film cards with you. If you're really paranoid, leave a couple smaller ones back where you are staying in case something happens to your digital wallet while you're out shooting.

7. Wallets

I'm not talking about your flash card wallet here, but your actual wallet with your cash, credit cards and ID. Almost nothing ruins a trip faster than losing your wallet. I always carry an extra wallet in my suitcase--tucked down among my clothes--with cash, a spare credit card and copies of my Passport and Driver's License. Unless you're one of the few that has two legitimate driver's licenses you may find it the hardest item to replace on a trip. And I've learned the hard way that it is nearly impossible to rent a car without one. But at least the spare wallet ensures you'll be able to keep traveling and working while you get your other cards and documents replaced and find a way to get some more cash.

6. Shooting Plans

Perhaps even more important than having spare equipment is having flexible plans. Poor weather, travel problems or uncooperative subjects can ruin your planned photography. Make sure and have a backup plan for where to go and what to photograph. For example, if the Moose or Deer you're hoping to photograph then maybe you can create some great fall color shots or capture the local waterfalls or historic buildings.

5. Mice & Cables

Especially if you use a wireless mouse, make sure and take a backup wired mouse as wireless transceivers can fail at the drop of the hat. Same for your other cables--for connecting to phones and networks. In my case I even carry a spare wireless adapter, but that may be a little extreme.

4. Power Adapters, Batteries & Chargers

Even with the incredibly long life of batteries for the D2H I still make sure to have a third battery with me (the first two are in my two cameras). With the D1X and D1H I carried a total of 4-5. Having a spare is protection against an extra long shooting day, forgetting to recharge one between outings or that infrequent malfunction where your camera drains your batteries quickly. When I can I also carry a spare charger. With the D1/H/X this was pretty simple since I'd have one AC charger and one DC charger with me on all my trips. I haven't found any reasonable DC charging solution for the D2H so I either just live dangerously with one charger or bring my extra AC charger along just in case.

3. Internet Connections

Not everyone has a lot of options when it comes to Internet connections, either at home or on the road, but if you can figure out a way to always have two ways to get on the Internet you'll avoid costly downtime when your ISP goes down or when there is some glitch in your ISP's dial-up software. Often your home/office ISP will also give you some type of dial-up access as a backup. Several times I've gotten to a hotel and for some reason been unable to connect to my normal dial-up ISP (Earthlink) and have had to rely on a backup dial-up until I got things sorted out again.

Cardinal Photo 2005 Events

San Francisco Bay Area Bird sign-ups, May 16-19, 2005
(maximum 8 shooters, 4 slots open)

Alaska Grizzly Bear & Puffin Trip sign-up
ADDITIONAL SESSION: July 11-18, 2005 (maximum 6, 3 openings). See images from our 2004 trip.

The July 17-24, 2005 is SOLD OUT, email to be on the waiting list.

Monterey Bay Photo Safari sign-up
October 23-27, 2005 --  (maximum 7 shooters, 6 slots open)

Southern Africa! (Botswana & Namibia), November 20-December 2 (max 12, 5 openings)

2. Computers

It may not be practical to have two computers with you when you travel, but in the office you'll be a lot less stressed if you have at least two machines. One can be your field laptop, as long as you have a way to quickly get to your images from it. Having two machines makes it easier to do maintenance on one or keep working when one crashes--as they all inevitably do. In my case I have one machine for Photoshop, one which serves the images and runs the printers and my laptop.

1. Camera Bodies

Particularly in this era of cameras chock full of sophisticated electronics it is more important than ever to have at least two camera bodies on any "mission critical" project. There is no way to guarantee that your primary camera won't fail. Ideally, of course, you two cameras would be identical so that you could continue where you left off. Or next best are two cameras with very similar controls and image characteristics, like a Nikon D1X and D1H or Canon 1D and 1D Mark II.
For budget and space reasons you might also want to consider a smaller, less expensive backup like a Nikon D70 or Canon Digital Rebel, if they can do they job for you in a pinch. The nice part about having a "prosumer" backup is that you can use it as a casual camera when you don't feel like lugging all your gear along.
Another good reason for two camera bodies is being able to have two lenses mounted at once. This has always been handy for many applications. For bird photography, for example, one body can go on the long lens on the tripod and the other over your shoulder with a flight lens. But with the advent of digital there is another advantage. Having two lenses mounted reduces the number of lens swaps you need to do while you're working in the possibly dusty field environment. That'll minimize your dust issues. I still carry a Sensor Brush with me though!

What I don't carry two of any more

I no longer carry lots of extra lenses. I'm sure I'll regret it someday but I carry fewer and fewer spares for my main 4 lenses (12-24, 24-120 AF-S, 70-200 AF-S and either my 200-400/f4 or 600/f4). Sometimes I'll bring my 80-400VR and my 24-85 as backups and I often bring a fast 50mm just to have, but I don't try to have two full sets of lenses because I've had very good luck with most of my lenses being quite reliable for a long time now.
Laptops. I don't carry two computers, except on very rare occasions. This isn't because I'm confident mine won't fail, just that it is so much hassle that I've gotten lazy. I do have an older laptop staged back at the office that can be sent out as needed, which is some solace, and of course I have my backup drives & accessories. I also carry a full set of CDs for re-installing Windows, Office and Photoshop as needed. And I'm never without Photorescue for recovering images from my cards in the event they fail.

New Products: Sensor Brushes & 400GB drives

Dust'b'Gone!: I've been using the Sensor Brush from Visible Dust to clean the sensors in my cameras. I'm not only incredibly impressed by how well it works but really happy to be able to "dry clean" the sensor and not have to worry about not leaving streaks with fluid cleaning. The brush comes in a couple different sizes, with the 8mm version suitable for putting in your "quick repair" kit for touching up the sensor and removing spots you pick up while shooting. They also have an innovative Chamber Cleaning product that helps get the metal filings out of your mirror box before they turn into sensor "dust." Both products are well worth the investment given how painful it is to clean the dust any other way or clone it out in Photoshop.

Super-Size it: 400GB hard-drives

The rush to shoot in Raw mode and the even faster rush to mega-mega-pixel cameras puts pressure on your CPU, memory and disk storage. Fortunately the disk drive makers are working hard to keep up. The latest wave of 3.5" drives (the size used for almost all desktop applications these days) is 400GB drives. We'll give you a quick overview of your options if you want to expand your storage using these or other large drives. For more information or questions please feel free to visit our Hardware Forum.

Drive Types: First, these drives come in two flavors now, IDE (Parallel ATA) and SATA (Serial ATA). Your motherboard may support one or the other or both. SATA is newer and capable of higher speeds, but it is only available on newer machines. For all practical purposes either variety will work just fine. We won't talk about SCSI drives here since they are smaller & much more expensive, although they can provide the best overall performance for high-end users with a large budget or perhaps for smaller "work" drives.

Connection Options: Second, you need to decide how to connect to the drive. If you have a spare internal slot and drive connector on your motherboard or disk controller the "simplest" approach is to put the drive in your spare drive bay, connect it to your power supply (of course you need to make sure it has enough power!) and to your motherboard & you're ready to format it. However, if you think that sounds more than a little scary you'll want to use either a Firewire or USB2.0 external enclosure.

Initially I was a big fan of Firewire drives (they aren't really firewire drives, just ATA drives in a firewire enclosure), but recently more and more users seem be be plagued with device errors when using large drives on firewire, so they are a mixed blessing. Firewire tends to be a tiny bit faster and use less of your CPU. Firewire drives can also be daisy-chained. The downside may be dealing with "delayed write" errors in Windows. As long as you buy enclosures which support both Firewire & USB2.0 you can always switch technologies without needing to reformat your drive. I've had great success with Venus DS3 enclosures by AMS. They are not cheap (about $70 for one with both Firewire & USB and $38 for one with just USB) but have a nice internal and very quiet fan and are easy to assemble and disassemble. They also have an aluminum chassis for better reliability and cooling and a cable-free internal connector. Formerly I had been a proponent of ADS cases which are big, expensive and had a good reputation, but it seems like recently they have given me nothing but trouble with noisy fans and flakey interconnects.

External Bundles: The most turnkey option is to buy an external drive complete with enclosure from the drive manufacturer. Seagate & Maxtor both have a line of these, but both receive lots of complaints on many forums for their plastic drive enclosures. In addition, while the bare drives from both vendors have 3-5 year warranties the bundle with the enclosure only has a 1-year warranty. For me that is a good reason to think about building your own version or perhaps buying from a high quality vendor like LaCie who assembles drives + enclosures and sells the bundle. I do have a Maxtor One Touch which has worked great as an archive drive. As an archive drive it doesn't get used continuously so heat is not as much of an issue. And the new version, the One Touch II, has received an excellent review from PC Magazine.

Getting Files on the Drive: If the drive will be used as your primary storage device then of course you'll just save files onto it as you would any other drive. But if you want your new monster drive (or one of them) to be a backup you'll either want to run backup software or copy one of your existing drives to it. A couple excellent tools for doing that are Norton Ghost 9 (unlike Version 8, version 9 runs fully within Windows) or Retrospect backup software which comes with a handy Drive Duplicate function (I wish my normal backup software, Backup MyPC came with one!). The great thing about duplicating the drive is that it is simple to grab files off it when you need to.

Backing up your Backups: Remember, your 400GB drive will be nearly impossible to back up to tape or DVD. It is 20 $8 DD3 20 GB tape cartridges for example, or 40 dual-layer DVDs. So as the cost of these drives comes down under $200 over the next year, you may want to duplicate your drive and keep the duplicate as part of your archive.

Using your "old" drives to beef up your system: Of course as you upgrade drives you'll start to find yourself with an increasing set of perfectly good older and smaller drives. One fairly clever use for them is to construct a RAID array. In my case, for example, I've taken 3 of my "old" 200GB drives and made them a RAID 5 array on my server, using a Promise IDE RAID controller (I was running into serious performance issues with my Adaptec IDE RAID controller so I switched). For those not familiar with RAID, the idea is to use some combination of inexpensive drive (it stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives) to provide increased performance and/or reliability. RAID 5 uses 3 drives to do a little of both. I get 400GB of useable storage and if any of the 3 drives crashes I can replace it without losing any data. Conveniently I can back this array up onto my new 400GB drive. Now I've got double redundancy and the extra performance of a RAID array.

If you don't want to get that fancy you can set your drives up so that several drives look like one, using our DigitalPro tip of the week:

DigitalPro Tip

All of us have struggled with the problem of having multiple drives worth of photos and having to remember what drive letter to use to refer to which. Having your file cabinet in DigitalPro spread across multiple drives that way is no fun. Now there is a clever solution. If you have formatted your volumes using NTFS and are running Windows XP you can use the Disk Management function of the Computer Management utility to "mount" your drives in empty folders on other drives. In other words you can have a second drive appear to be a folder under an existing drive, instead of or in addition to having it appear as a drive letter. This is incredibly handy to be able to do as your drive proliferate!




Subscribe to DigitalPro Shooter
Enter your email to receive our newsletter on shooting digital.

ND Image
All contents copyright Pro Shooters LLC. All rights reserved.
Nikon is a trademark of Nikon Corporation. is not affiliated with Nikon Corporation.