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Some Thoughts on Camera Equipment for Ultralight Cycle Expeditions

"Hiking a desert or marveling the cold of Antarctica, you ain't gonna be charging your batteries for a digital camera for sure"..."Personally I would take spare batteries, a backup storage device and a solar battery charger :)"

-Anonymous poster on Slashdot

The point of this article is not to renew/continue the analogue v. digital debate with respect to photography-there are plenty of perfectly good flame wars on the subject elsewhere on the internet. What I am going to do here is consider the pros and cons of the two options for a single very specific application, namely self-supported cycle touring in remote regions, based on our experiences in Bolivia. So nothing here about the relative merits of the two systems in terms of resolution, or whether digital's convenience makes it "better" than analogue, etc. There are two points in this discussion, viz:

(1) Weight.

(2) Self-sufficiency.

July in Bolivia is winter, and at 4500 m nocturnal temperatures reach -20 C. When cycle touring in the mountains, weight is always at a premium, never more so than when you have to be self-sufficient in food as well. There is nowhere batteries can be recharged, films developed, or data downloaded. We had three cameras-a 35 mm film SLR, a digital compact and a digital SLR. The film SLR just did its job. When getting low on the dozen-odd rolls of Velvia I'd brought, I was able to get a few more replacement rolls of some Agfa slide film in Uyuni. It was past its date, but turned out fine. I also carried a single spare battery with me, but never needed it.

The digitals also mostly worked well, and the digital SLR was able to get one shot that was effectively impossible for me with my film camera-the night sky over the Isla Inkawesi in the Salar de Uyuni, taken at (I think) -15C and 3200 ISO, balanced by hand for 1 minute. I'd have needed a proper cable release and the exposure would have been about a quarter of an hour with the slow-but-beautiful Velvia! On the other hand, we needed several spare batteries for the digitals, and a solar charger and a portable hard drive. The digital compact in particular had a voracious appetite for batteries. Therefore in practice the weight/bulk advantage is not all on the digital side as one might expect, but depends on how many films/cards one anticpates using, and on how long one expects to be out of range of the resources of civilisation-power points and CD burners. Both the charger and hard drive had problems-the solar charger turned out to be incapable of fully charging the batteries, and was unduly fragile even though it was designed for such use. Fixed with glue and gaffer tape, the first task at any stop was not to get the tent up, or a brew on, but get the solar unit charging camera batteries. A directory that became corrupted on the hard drive meant it was unusable for part of the trip, precluding the use of (big) RAW file shooting later on, and we had to go and burn CDs of the images at a cyber cafe in Potosi, the first opportunity. When shooting with the digital SLR in the cold, such as early in the morning, Tom typically got one shot and then had to change to his other battery and put the one he'd just used down his pants to warm it up.

I therefore conclude that both formats have their advantages for cycle expedition use. For something like an ultralight crossing of Tibet, the best choice might be a 35 mm compact film camera with a decent lens, with about a dozen rolls of Fuji Velvia/Provia and a spare battery. The good lens and slide film would give decent shots, and you would save the weight of both an independent recharging unit for the batteries and external storage for the pictures.