Moving Fast And Going Slow

Technology lets us go through life at breakneck speed, but not always in the correct direction

Kananaskis River, Alberta, Canada.Kananaskis River, Alberta, Cana

It’s surprising how often we curse the complexity and expense of the new cameras and computers, but at the same time, demand more speed and efficiency. And this isn’t just limited to cameras and computers, but extends into every facet of our lives, including cell phones, handheld GPS, satellite phones, MP3 players, compact, high-power strobe lighting and an endless array of other electronics we now depend on when we go outdoors to shoot photos. Ten years ago, most of these devices had no part in our lives, yet today we couldn’t see doing without them. I’m not reminiscing about the good old days because I absolutely love all the new electronics. I’m not a tech wizard, but I still probably spend too much time exploring the photography applications of the newest and fastest technology. I figure I only need to know enough to operate the device—I don’t have to understand the design of its inner workings.

In my digital immersion, however, I’ve learned to temper my digital zeal for speed and always distinguish what aspects of my photography are best served by this digital wizardry—when the speed and efficiency are beneficial and when I need to slow down for the photo. Today, with so much modern digital photo and accessory gear available, I find that I’m constantly making decisions between the high-tech and the low-tech approach, from travel to the location to photography and processing the photos afterward. A GPS or a cell phone, even though it seems far removed from photography, can be a critical piece of photography gear.

I remember at the start of one canyoneering adventure when I thought using a simple compass to locate the trailhead would, in the long run, be more efficient than our GPS. Four of us were at the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico. We were seeking a route to the Verde River in the Barranca Del Sinforosa, the deepest of the canyons in the Copper Canyon region of the Sierra Madre. On the map, we located a likely descent that allowed an easy route to the canyon floor that didn’t look blocked by cliffs.

To arrive at this trailhead, we traveled via a 4×4 truck. This is rugged terrain, so we hired a local guide/driver who swore he knew the region like his own backyard. We had a GPS, but instead we decided to use a compass and map. Since we were under a forest canopy, using the GPS would require that we stop the truck in a tree clearing to lock in a signal. With a compass, we could route-find on the move. In theory, the compass might prove the faster device. Perhaps because we were in the company of a knowledgeable guide, we were lulled into thinking that our compass was only a backup.

As we drove up and down an endless maze of old and new logging roads, it became evident our guide was lost. Our dead-reckoning skills with the compass and map proved useless. Other issues that should have told us to use the GPS sooner included a setting sun and the fact that half the roads weren’t even on our map and our map was outdated.

We had been driving for hours when we estimated we were close to our trailhead. We stopped in a clearing and checked our location with the GPS. When I saw the results, I wanted to cry. The GPS must be broken. We logged in the coordinates again with the same results. Steve, our certified GPS wizard, assured me that the GPS wasn’t wrong, but our orientation was way off. We had missed our trailhead by 12 miles as a bird flies. By not using the GPS, we had lost valuable time, and our driver had to leave the Sierras before dark. With some effort, we found an alternate descent downstream from our original route. This route cut 20 miles and some of the narrowest and most scenic sections of the canyon. I chose the wrong technology for finding the trailhead, and my photography suffered. We had a nice hike, but I knew that by skipping the first 20 miles, I also missed the best photo opportunities in the canyon.

But from the creative photography standpoint, I’m careful not to allow pure speed and efficiency of digital automation to overwhelm my photography. While typically I’m the first person to grab for a digital camera, high-output wireless strobes, fast autofocus lenses and anything turbocharged, I also consider non-tech alternatives. I still travel with a panoramic Hasselblad XPan film camera for in-camera panoramic action photos you can’t get by stitching together a digital photograph. I also use portable reflectors to reflect light with results unlike anything you could get with electronic flash, and I still carry a simple compass as a quick reference to figure out the position of the sunset and sunrise.

My digital armada has changed many aspects of my photography and especially my digital office. The digital has saved me money and time in getting a photo from concept to finished picture. Digital also has allowed me to quickly and accurately shoot complex lighting setups, but my photographic style and eye for a photo has remained consistent. I now have what will be an ever-evolving fast digital system. And I admit, I’m addicted to the thrill of reviewing the day’s images on the laptop while sitting in the camp tent.

This photo was shot using equipment that wasn’t around 10 years ago to produce a photo that wouldn’t have been possible to shoot under the same conditions had I been using the best equipment available in 1997. As the sun passed in and out of the clouds, I shot this with a Nikon D200 and an 80-400mm VR lens attached to a Gitzo monopod braced against a tree. The exposure is one sec. at ƒ/18, with a white balance of 5300K, and the location is on the Kananaskis River in Alberta, Canada.

This is my current road warrior computer setup:

Laptop: 2.4 GHz, 15-inch MacBook Pro, 2 GB of RAM
Flash Cards: Lexar 8 GB UDMA 300x, SanDisk 8 GB Extreme IV
Card Reader: Lexar FireWire 800
Portable External Hard Drives: LaCie Little Big Disk Triple Interface (7200 rpm, 200 GB fanless), G-Technology G-RAID Mini (160 GB)
Photo Software For Editing And Browsing: Photo Mechanic
Postproduction And Archiving Software: Adobe Photoshop CS3, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom
Pocket GPS: Garmin eTrex Vista C
Cell Phone: I’ve promised myself I’ll wait at least six months before I buy the iPhone.


Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.