Keeping Gear Safe

ATV Camera Transport • Not All JPEGs Are Equal • Out, Darned Spot! • Worn-Out Imaging

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tech tips
To get to the Yellowstone River near the upper falls in Yellowstone National Park, a photographer needs to travel by snowmobile for many miles. To keep the equipment safe during the jarring trip, I wear a photo backpack, and my body absorbs the bumps. This image was taken in two images with a Canon EOS 5D and a 17-40mm lens. They were combined in Photomatix software ( and optimized in Photoshop CS3.

ATV Camera Transport
Q I live in southern Utah where there’s an extensive ATV trail system and the possibility for some unique photographs. The dust, dirt and jarring from rough trails can be incredible at times. Do you have any recommendations and tips for transporting photo gear on an ATV under these conditions?
J. Heit
Via the Internet

A When you’re off-road, be it on an ATV or a snowmobile, you’re subjecting your camera gear to potential damage from impact, dirt, moisture, heat and cold. You want to contain your equipment to keep it from flying off the vehicle, but you also need to protect it from the jarring and lurching frame. The best option is a carefully organized backpack that separates your equipment with adjustable inserts. You can improve on that by wrapping your most delicate pieces in a thin layer of foam, or look at the customized jackets from Camera Armor ( The backpack needs to stay snugly on your back while you’re in motion so that your knees and arms work as shock absorbers. If you don’t secure the backpack well, it will beat you senseless.

The newer high-quality backpacks are well sealed against most dust and moisture. I use the Lowepro Vertex AW200 pack, which offers an excellent barrier against the elements. Some modified backpacks that work like a sling and can be easily moved from back to front work well in this environment for male photographers. A larger fanny pack can be useful, also. In cleaner environments, check out the option of wearing a belt with a series of holster-type enclosures that essentially organize your gear on your body, which absorbs the jolts.

Less delicate items such as tripods can be strapped directly to the machine you’re riding, but check them often as vibrations can “unscrew” the parts; when your ballhead is 30 miles back in the snow, it’s pretty much useless.

As a side note, when working off-road in larger vehicles, take care to keep your equipment off the floor, where it will receive direct impacts. Keep it in a pack on the seat next to you, secured with a seatbelt.

Not All JPEGs Are Equal
Q Using a Canon EOS 40D with a freshly formatted 4 GB CompactFlash card, the dis-play shows that the card can store 999 images when the capture quality is set to Fine/Large. On a Nikon D200 (also a 10-megapixel camera), the same size and brand 4 GB card at the same quality setting shows fewer than 600 images can be stored. Does this mean that Canon’s image compression algorithm is more efficient than Nikon’s? Or is it that Nikon’s file contains more information/larger files, potentially producing a “better” image file?
D. Miliano
Via the Internet

A You’re dealing with a number of variables. First, the number of images shown for an empty card is projected on the basis of an average file size and the count won’t be accurate until the card is nearly filled. For Canon, the LCD display allows only three digits, so 999 is the maximum that can be shown. An “average” large/fine file is 3.5 MB for the Canon 40D and 4.8 MB for the Nikon D200, assuming that to determine an “average” file, each company shot the same standardized target. When opened with image-editing software, either file will be approximately 30 MB. So the compression ratio for the “average” file is roughly 9:1 in the Canon and 6:1 in the Nikon. The compression ratio represents the decision of each manufacturer in balancing capture file size with the maximum image quality that can be obtained with their processors. In either case, the best quality is obtained with an unprocessed RAW file rather than a JPEG. Even RAW files are compressed, however, Nikon’s to about 2:1 (15.8 MB average) and Canon’s to about 2.5:1 (12.4 MB).

Even with the camera set consistently at the highest JPEG resolution, compressed file sizes will vary depending on the complexity of the information being captured. An image that’s predominantly composed of a single color, such as a gray card, will be more compressed by either camera; a more complex image, such as a hillside of wildflowers, will yield a larger file. If you were to take exactly the same picture with each camera, the file sizes likely be would different, however, because the image and the number of megapixels on the sensor are only two of a number of factors that affect the file size. The two cameras have different-sized sensors (the Nikon’s is slightly larger and actually uses 10.2 megapixels vs. Canon’s 10.1), different processors and, as we’ve noted, different compression algorithms.

I don’t know if anyone has done the kind of test you’d need to do to determine which camera actually puts more JPEG images on a 4 GB card—that is, to take exactly the same series of images with both cameras. But I do know that it’s not really that important when it comes to image quality. I’ve examined the output from similar cameras of both manufacturers, and there’s little discernable difference due to compression. The differences you can detect are most likely due to other features, such as optics.

Out, Darned Spot!
Q I have a Canon EOS 30D, and its warranty expired a few weeks ago. All pictures taken with it have a spot in the upper-right corner. I thought it was dust. I attempted to blow the sensor off with air, but the spot still remains there. What would you recommend I use to clean the sensor? Should I send the camera in to Canon to repair?
K. Lui
Via the Internet

A You need to go further with your sensor cleaning. Who knows how this happens, but stuff gets stuck to the sensor, and more than a puff of air from a bulb blower is needed to clear it. (Never use canned air to clean your delicate camera parts, by the way. It’s much too harsh and will leave hard-to-remove liquid propellant on your sensor.) Even your newer self-cleaning sensors can host adhered dust and debris that won’t come off with soft-brush methods. Stubborn spots need a wet method, and there are several options. Go to for a full lesson in sensor care and guides to a number of excellent products.

Worn-Out Imaging
Q Is there a point at which it’s clear that rechargeable batteries or CF cards are in need of replacement or disposal? Should I replace at certain intervals?
R. Sistare
Wilmington, N.C.

A It’s easy to tell when rechargeable batteries have lived out their useful lives and require proper disposal: They stop taking and/or retaining a charge. The new ones last longer, but they still wear out. Batteries are less efficient in cold weather, so don’t assume that the shorter active charge means the battery is gone. When you’re ready to let them go, the best choice is recycling. NiMH, NiCd and alkaline batteries all can be recycled, and some communities have mandatory requirements. You can find out more by going to the website of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation website at

CF cards last a long time and over many cycles. One problem with them is corruption of the allocation table. To prevent this, always reformat the card when you put it back in the camera after transferring your images to the computer. A number of card manufacturers offer free or low-cost software that will check and recondition cards, as well as extract data from a corrupted card.

Chances are that as you progress with the advancing technology of digital photography, you’ll purchase cameras with more megapixels, which need faster and/or larger media cards. Long before your smaller cards fail, they’ll be abandoned because they’re not up to the challenge of more sophisticated equipment. I have a lot of 256 and 512 MB cards lying around that would only store a couple of images from my newer 21-megapixel cameras.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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