Canon™ PowerShot S230 (Digital ELPH™), Brunton™ Solar Charging System, & Portable Hard Drive Storage System
Climbing is rough on your gear. You know it, too – think about all the belay holes in your favorite t-shirt, the rips in the knee of your new Gramicci™ pants, the misaligned lobes on your single-axle cams. No doubt about it, we demand a lot from our gear, and abuse it more than we probably should. One of my favorite bits of hardware for climbing trips has always been my camera. I’ve taken them all over the world, carried them in brutal conditions, accidentally dropped and left them at 21,000 feet (I climbed back up for it that time). Without the camera, we’d be missing out on sharing our great (and not-so-great) moments with our friends, family, and the rest of the climbing community who live vicariously through us.
I’ve gone through five or six decent cameras in eight years now, and the life expectancy of my gear keeps getting shorter and shorter.
Nothing bites more than breaking your lens or your batteries failing on the first day of a climbing trip, hours from the nearest camera shop. A close second is getting back your roll with high expectations of unbelievable shots, and getting fuzzy images because of condensation, a failed lens cover, or minimum-wage workers at the one-hour photo over-exposing your negatives. I was done with film a few months ago; no more, I swore! I’m going to find something better!
With a week-long trip to the Bugaboos planned, I decided to see what was out there in digital-land for a hack climber and very amateur photographer. I’ve been building and testing this system for a couple of months now, and although I’d make a few different decisions now, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve cobbled together. I had some basic system requirements:
• Digital camera with the resolution to get 8x10 prints at better-than-film quality,
• Enough memory to hold everything I’d want for a week or two of climbing,
• Battery power to keep the system working for the entire couple of weeks, without AC power, and
• Small enough to be able to carry it on hike-in approaches and on long climbs.
Digitals have their drawbacks. They’re expensive, and not traditionally as rugged as film cameras. The battery life is numbered in hours of use before recharge is necessary. The memory hasn’t been reliable until recently. The resolution, until last year, hasn’t been able to compare with film cameras for anything but small, web-quality images. I think they’re now coming of age, though; the newest generations have impressive features and abilities, and years of improvements (thank you, US space program) have made them as good as, if not better than, 35mm film point-and-shoot cameras for many applications. They have their advantages, too –
you can review your shots and discard those you don’t like, saving memory. With some models you can take web-quality video for home movies – without lugging around a big videocam. The new ones are tiny – smaller than anything film-based – and they’re more rugged (see my testing, below) than they have been before due to advances in solid-state electronics and flash memory. It’s like the difference between your old 286 that booted off of 5-1/4” floppies ten years ago and 3+gig desktops more powerful than decade-old supercomputers, on our work desks today.
After some shopping around, I decided to go with a small point-and-shoot 3.2 megapixel Canon™, the Powershot S230
(Digital ELPH™). It’s ultra-tiny, and a friend’s experience with it on some climbs in Eldorado Canyon convinced me of it’s user-friendliness and value. The link above will take you to the Canon Powershot site with all of the unit’s vital statistics, so I shan’t bore you with them here. What you want and need to know is that the camera works like your old film PnS camera, has better quality than what you could expect from film, and takes a decent beating (I’ve tumbled with mine a few dozen times at 40mph on skis to make sure).
The camera has a built-in 2x optical zoom (film equivalent 35-70mm) and 6.4x digital zoom, an optical 82% viewfinder, a TFT color LCD screen for viewfinding, playback, and menus, f/2.8-4.0 aperture control, built-in flash, and records on Type 1 Compact Flash (CF) cards, which are available in 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, and 1024MB capacities. The unit comes with a 16MB memory card (not enough for our applications), a non-memory 840 mAh battery (you don’t have to fully discharge it to recharge it to full capacity), an AC battery charger, USB connection cabling, and software to take advantage of it’s still and video image capabilities.
A neat software program that comes with the camera is PhotoStitch. It allows you to take several overlapping photographs either horizontally or vertically and stitch them together into a seamless panoramic shot. 35mm is no longer our limit with digital image processing – want a shot of the entire Bugaboos range from the Kain Hut? Take a half dozen shots and put them together at home. This is a real advantage over film, which would (maybe) get scanned in, overlapped, and then show lots of white balance and exposure flaws, as well as inconsistent seams.
There’s a new PowerShot camera on the market now, the S400, available since I purchased my S230; it has some enhanced capabilities like a 3x optical zoom and 4 megapixel resolution. The cost is about $100 more than the S230’s street price of $399. I’ve also played extensively with the EOS Elan30, a digital camera body that takes Canon-compatible EF lenses for regular SLR cameras; this series is much more suited for the professional photographer who doesn’t worry about taking the size and weight of body, lenses, and accessories necessary for professional photography with him. The series is quite good for professional photography, but overkill for simple climbing photography.
You’re probably thinking, ‘$399 for a camera is a lot of money.’ Yes, it’s not lunch money. There’s not a lot of rationalization needed, though, if you think about it this way: A decent film camera that will last for a year or two, with zoom and the other features we really need while climbing, will cost you around $180-$200. For arguments sake, a quality roll of 35mm film and processing (double prints, of course) will run you $15 or so. For the same cost as the camera, you would get about 12 rolls of 24 shots printed out. If you shoot anything like I do, you get one or two decent shots per roll developed. The beauty of this digital system is that you can take as many as you like, and there aren’t any more costs until you need to upgrade or replace something that’s broken. And, you can still get your best digital prints printed on film dirt cheap, at up to 8”x10” with better-than-film quality. With a 4- or 5-megapixel camera, you can get poster-sized prints at film quality. The cost tradeoff is pretty gratifying after a couple of months of playing with this thing.
Now with a camera, I decided to look around at accessorizing. The first things I needed to look for were memory (the 16MB card that comes with the camera holds around 15 images at full resolution – not nearly enough for even a day of climbing) and a spare battery. The less expensive CF cards on the market are compatible with the camera, but I would recommend against them strenuously. Data coming to light now about their access times (speed of the NANDO flash memory) seems to indicate that they may have some compatibility problems, even though they meet the CF standard. Only cards from Canon and SanDisk™
are 100% compatible with the camera. I had some format problems with the less-expensive PNY™ cards, and lost several dozen shots that I wanted to ‘CF card error’ problems. For a day or two of shooting, I normally carry a 64MB SanDisk card and a couple of 128MB PNY cards (in case one craps out I can still take a few roll-equivalencies of film). These get downloaded every night after climbing, so I have a full set of ‘film’ every morning – important, because in good light, mornings and evenings, I sometimes want to take ten or more shots of the same scene over a few minutes to ensure that I get the lighting when it’s optimal. Multiple sets of panoramic shots with variable lighting eat up a lot of memory too – about 1meg per picture at full resolution, so it’s important to have plenty of memory. A SanDisk 64meg CF card can be had at most retailers for about $40.
There are two batteries out there for this camera. The older one, the NB-1L, is a lower-powered 680mAh model that doesn’t hold nearly the charge and has gotten quite a few poor reviews in various online forums. The NB-1LH 840mAh NiMH battery comes with the camera now, and is highly recommended for a back-up battery; it’ll run you from $34 to $59 depending on where you buy it. A fully charged battery pack is good for something around 200 shots with flash and LCD viewfinder running – or, about a day of shooting with the LCD on, some video, some playback, and some review of files. It’s essential to have a backup. You can recharge a fully discharged pack in 130 minutes using the included AC charger. But what happens when you’re in the woods for a few days and run out of juice?
With this thought on my mind, I went through my options. Small wind turbine mounted on my climbing helmet. Replace the haul bag with a small fusion generator. Really long extension cord. None of those sounded feasible or easy, so I looked at solar. Photovoltaics (PV) have a disadvantage – they only work well when the sun is out. How do we overcome this obstacle? Well, if you figure it out without carrying storage batteries in addition to your 40 pounds of climbing gear to that big wall, let me know. I went through what was available, and came up with the car charger, CBC-NB1, that runs on standard 12V auto systems and outputs 4.4W. The specs say that it will also charge a battery pack in 130 minutes from flat. The driver for the system is a pair of Brunton™ SolarPort 2.2
polycrystalline chargers, rugged little devices designed to recharge cell phone batteries in the field. They weigh 11oz and operate from -40* to 176*, so long as there’s a bit of light. In full sunlight (no clouds) they do a very respectable job of recharging the battery in a couple or three hours. With clouds, they still give a nearly-full charge after a day. The system is almost complete, and it all fits into an OR stove case. You can earn extra money or trade power charges for food or cell calls if you’re so inclined with the system, as well.
How many shots would you want to take in a big, open wilderness, day after day, for a week or two? My experience is showing that a hundred a day, to sort through later, is not at all unreasonable. With a regular, full-resolution shot taking up around a megabyte of disk space, you’ll get around 65 images on a 64MB card. In order to increase our carrying capacity for week-long and extended trips, I found a Digital Wallet from the defunct company MindStor with a 3GB hard disk. It’s specifically designed for this purpose, and comes with a PCMCIA card adapter for CF cards. Now, each night I can quickly download the CF cards onto the shock-resistant portable hard drive, erase the cards, and start fresh each morning with a clean few hundred MB of flash space and fresh batteries. What could be easier? At home the upload to my desktop computer for image processing takes only a few seconds per megabyte.
Our system is complete. I’m still undergoing testing as I write this, most recently on a 3-day climbing trip with a rockclimbing.com party in Colorado’s South Platte. I’ve carried the camera on a dozen days of telemark in cold, wet, dry, and generally nasty conditions, tumbling with it plenty but coming out with good shots and great video; as well as on a dozen ice and rock climbing trips. So far I’m going to say I’m pleased with the system. Start small, but think about it. You might start to like the advantages.