This is a technical post about what to do when (before!) equipment fails and how to work around difficulties in non-urban locations. Earlier this year we travelled to Kruger National Park with a small group and spent a fantastic two weeks exploring the southern part of the park. We’d been before and have plenty of experience in Africa and isolated locations. The first few days went well technically and thankfully this was the period we saw most wildlife. As the trip went on though, our equipment started to misbehave. In this post I’ll take each occurrence, detail what happened and what I’d do differently in the future.
Hard drive glitching or failure – having an alternate approach
We usually back up our CF cards to a pair of Freecom Tough Drives before clearing them ready for the next day’s shoot, and use a laptop to do the copy. On this trip, something odd started happening: extreme lockups for 30 seconds or so whether nothing was possible, then a return for 10 or 20 seconds, and back into a lockup. The computer was basically unusable (not helpful for Marie trying to prepare some work materials on holiday) and this was the first time it’d exhibited this behaviour. I suspected an SSD failure but out there not much can be done to work around it – the laptop went back in the boot of the car and stayed there.
Three things to learn:
a) don’t change anything before you go on a trip. We hadn’t, actually – the SSD has been in use for some time, but clearly something updated or the disk hit some issues which meant it performed terribly. Once I got back, I had some success through updating the Intel RST drivers, but even then there are issues with Windows 8 which mean I’ve switched back to a spinning disk for greater reliability in the field.
b) take plenty of storage for your cameras. We were a little pushed by the end up the trip, to the extent of having to use our near-abandoned 1Gb CFs cards on the final days, which with 25mb files coming out of the 7Ds is like using your final roll of film. We just scraped through, and obviously could have started to sift through the early cards to erase clearly missed photos, but that just cuts into your day.
c) take a second operating system. Probably the main learning experience from this particular drive failure is that when you are only using the laptop to do data transfers (rather than Lightroom processing or editing) then it doesn’t matter much what you are using. In future I’ll take a USB stick with bootable Ubuntu installed so that if the laptop drive fails entirely – and this is always a possibility – there’s still the opportunity to use the machine as a bridge between camera and external disk. There are other ways to do this – a Nexus 7 or smartphone can feasibly be a backup with the correct cables and software.
DO change things before you go on a trip – fix any bugs
In contrast to the above advice not to tweak and play around with a stable system, one of the major frustrations for me was having a Canon EOS 7D which had performed flawlessly for the previous 3 years but suddenly started freezing once we’d reached Kruger. It would seize up entirely without warning and responded to nothing – even the power switch had no impact. The only way to get back into shooting mode was to remove both batteries from the grip and re-insert them, at which point it’d be available again. This was clearly frustrating on self-drive safari, where things happen quickly and you have seconds to stop the vehicle, pick up your camera, and find that nothing works.
After I returned home I discovered there had been a firmware update a couple of months previously which addressed this problem, and having applied it I haven’t had the same lockups since. However it’s one of those cases where it is worth spending the time to ensure that everything about your gear is clean and in order – and a rare occasion where ‘if it ain’t broke (yet) don’t fix it’ is not applicable: keep an eye on the release notes from your camera manufacturer and if something seems a serious issue, even if it isn’t hitting you yet, consider upgrading the firmware to avoid disappointment on location.
SD cards which are too slow for HD video – the importance of testing and knowing your gear
On a whim after seeing Charlie Hamilton-James’s fabulous shots of cheetah in infrared we fancied a try and had bought a little Olympus XZ-1 (“Little Yellow”) due to reports of the infrared blocking filter being pretty ineffective. Experiments in the far north of Finland with Little Yellow and an infrared pass filter were interesting (see below) – however the slow shutter speeds required, the resulting high noise from a smaller sensor camera, and the fact that you have to pre-focus before attaching the black filter made it clear that this wouldn’t really work in somewhere as fast paced as Africa. While preparing for the trip we decide at the last minute to splash out for a DSLR infrared conversion – as existing 18mp+ users we picked up a second-hand Canon EOS 550D (“Big Blue”) from Protech Photographic. Great service from both companies – the camera had been on both round trips in less than 10 days and was ready to roll.
However, this meant little time for testing, and even though we’re used to using Sandisk Extreme CF cards in our DSLRs, the 550D’s SD card slot tripped me and for some reason I went for normal Sandisk SDs. It wasn’t until later in the trip that we realised that while the RAW capture rate was fine, any attempt to capture HD video (yeah, in infrared) was thwarted as the cards just couldn’t keep up for more than a second or two.
Action: know your equipment, think about your needs, don’t scrimp