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Prepping Your Camera for the Long Haul

Any digital camera turns into an expensive paperweight if it runs out of battery power or memory card space. Here’s how to make sure you can shoot all day and all night every day.

Spare Battery

If you don't already have a spare battery for your camera, make sure you buy one before you hit the road this summer. Yes, you might get sticker shock if your camera uses a proprietary battery pack, but you’ll get over it, especially when you realize that you can keep on shooting.

Spare battery packs are sold by the camera vendor, but third-party plug-compatible batteries (Figure 3) work just as well and are often $10-20 less. They’re available from many camera stores, camera departments, and storefront and online specialty retailers.

Figure 3 A Canon lithium-ion battery for a Rebel XTi (rear) and two third-party equivalents (center, front).

Charger

Make sure you take your battery charger with you, and if you're planning on going overseas, make sure your charger will still work when you arrive at your destination. While most digital camera battery chargers are designed to handle voltage ranges from 110V to 240V, you might need one or more AC power adapters to handle the connections used in different countries.

High-Capacity Flash Memory

Even with plenty of battery power, your digital camera will still become a paperweight if you run out of flash memory space. If your digital camera uses SDHC cards, you can find deals on 4GB or larger memory cards almost every week at electronics and discount stores. If you’ve never used an SDHC card in your camera, but you’ve been using SD cards only, don’t buy an SDHC card until you find out whether your camera can use SDHC cards.

Improving Carry Comfort (Straps and Cases)

If you’re tired of being a walking advertisement for your digital camera vendor, replace your current neck strap with something more comfortable. Neoprene rubber or leather and foam rubber combinations are some of the materials used to make your camera easier to wear around your neck or wrist.

While a traditional shoulder bag is a great place to store cameras, lenses, and accessories when you’re not in the field, it’s not the most comfortable bag to use for protracted hikes. The Photography Review website provides user-generated reviews of a wide variety of camera cases, photo vests, and backpacks for photographers. If you want to carry your camera more places, making the task more comfortable should be “job one” before you hit the road.

Upgrading Your Reach with a New Lens

If you're using a digital SLR camera with a standard zoom lens, also called a kit lens, you probably have the equivalent of a 3X zoom lens (18-55mm for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony; 14-42mm for Olympus/Panasonic Four Thirds). What should your next lens be?

  • Can’t get close enough to flowers, rocks, insects?—Pick up a macro lens; these lenses allow you to shoot just inches away from small objects. Macro lenses also make good portrait lenses (use 50mm to 100mm for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony; 35 to 50mm for Four Thirds).
  • Can’t bring distant subjects close enough or make them large enough?—Get a telephoto zoom lens. For Canon, Nikon, Pentax, or Sony, choose one with a 55-80mm short setting with a maximum length of 250-300mm. Compared to a kit lens at 18mm, 250mm is just shy of 14X magnification, and 300mm is about 16.7X. Four Thirds users use a 40-150mm or 50-200mm lens as equivalents.
  • Can’t get everything into the scene, no matter how far you back up?—You need a wide angle zoom, such as a 10-22mm or 12-24mm for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, or Sony (Four Thirds users need 7-14mm through 11-22mm).
  • Want to shoot in dim light without a flash (flash is often forbidden in many tourist destinations)?—Get a ”fast” (f/2.8 or wider aperture) lens. These are available in 25 to 50mm prime (non-zoom) types or in 3X or longer zooms. If you don’t want to replace your zoom lenses, the best deals are for 50mm f/1.8 lenses, which enable you to shoot in about 1/3 the light of an 18-55mm lens.

Protecting Your Lenses

You can spend several hundred dollars for a single lens, so why not spend a few dollars more to protect it? Each of your lenses should be equipped with a clear filter, such as a UV or lens protector filter. This filter stays on the lens at all times except when you use a different filter. It’s better for the filter to be damaged than the lens.

Keeping Your Lenses Clean

To keep front and rear lens and filter surfaces clean, I prefer to use a microfiber cloth and spray lens cleaner. I spray the cleaner spray on a portion of the cloth and then use the remainder of the cloth to clean and polished lens will. An alternative that's less messy is to use pre-moistened lens tissues plus a microfiber cloth. Either way, you can also use them to keep sunglasses and eyeglasses clean.

Better Photos with Better Filters

After purchasing a protective filter, make your next filter purchase a circular polarizer (“circular” refers to the design of the polarizing material; older linear polarizers don’t work well in autofocus cameras). It enables you to darken blue skies on sunny days, remove reflections from foliage and windows, intensifies all colors on a sunny day, and make rainbows brighter and easier to photograph.

To reduce unwanted reflection off filter surfaces, upgrade from low-cost uncoated filters to coated filters.

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