Rock'n the Road, the guide to your next adventure.


Only digital cameras will be covered here, since they are useful for web sites, are great for travel and are now commonplace. Product models and technology change by the second, so particular products will not be covered. The concepts covered here are basic ones offered in consumer-level cameras available for under $500.

  • PROCESS TIME - This is the first disappointment you will experience with your new, digital camera, yet one which they seldom tell you about in the store. With a film camera, you can turn it on and shoot immediately, with very little pause between shots. Welcome to digital. My cameras took about 10 seconds to "warm up" and about that long to process each photo between shots. This doesn't sound like much, but it is, especially when that great shot is walking or running away, or when you are asking a subject to pose for you.

    So, it is important to use the camera before you buy it. In stores, the cameras usually don't work, because people steal the batteries and media cards, and the average clerk's favorite answer to these questions is a firm shrug of the shoulders. Be persistant, and ask the clerk to make a camera operable for you.

  • STORAGE - There are five popular storage media, in two groups:

    • Chip - These come in three popular forms; a "stick" a "wafer" and a "flash card." The card (which I used) is the most popular. It worked and held up very well for me. Cards are available in sizes up to 64meg (or more -- who knows, these days...) which will hold over a thousand photographs at a good resolution and 300-400 at very good resolution. You can purchase several ($50-$150 in 2000) and have easy, compact and virtually limitless storage.

      To get the photos into your computer, you can use a cable, which is dreadfully slow, or a PCMCIA adaptor, which is very fast and easy -- your computer sees it just like another drive.

    • Disk - This is very popular because the storage (floppy disk) is cheap and versatile. It is also easy to transfer the photos to your computer. Some cameras even use Superdrives, which hold 100 meg. I see three downsides to using these on the road: The reliability of the moving parts, the extra battery use of the motors and the large size of the cameras.

  • POWER - Power was a problem for me, because I was on a motorcycle. If you will be riding in something larger, batteries will not be a problem, but they will be a constant concern. Buy an electrical inverter, which will take your 12 power from your car battery and convert it to 110. With this, you can run your laptop all day, and also charge batteries while driving. They are less than $50 at most department stores.

    My camera ran on 4-AA batteries, and so I made sure that anything I bought that needed batteries (radio, flashlight, pager) also used AA. Many cameras offer battery packs -- if yours does, then buy several. If it uses AA batteries, here are my suggestions:

    Use Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH.) I never did, but I understand that they are now better than Ni-Cad, last as long as alkaline between charges, and don't develop a "memory" when discharging.

    Use Ni-Cad if you can't get NiMH. I used Ni-Cad, and I had good success with them for two reasons. First, I found a charger at Radio shack which actually fully discharges the batteries first, then charges them (in only 3 hours.) This way, they don't develop memories and their charges last a long time. Not all Ni-cads are alike, and I found some rated at 1100 mah -- and have seen them as high as 1300. Be careful, as some Ni-Cads rate at only 500 mah.

  • VIEWFINDER - Using a digital camera with the LCD viewer is a peculiar experience for the traditional photographer and it takes getting used to. I would only use this if I wanted to impress people (it works, I admit) but for little else. I suggest turning the LCD off, as this will save batteries (I found it doubled the life) and LCDs are pretty useless in strong sunlight.

    Also, the camera will display your photo between shots, and I shut this off (again, doubling my battery life.) The more you take photos, the less you will rely on that LCD. On important shoots, take a break and review the photos you have.

    Contrary to popular belief, masking the LCD with tape will not conserve batteries. (I felt it was time for a good joke...)

  • FLASH - Most digitals have a flash, most of which are only fair. (Remember, at the consumer level, you're pretty much using a point-and-shoot camera.) The digital medium doesn't have the same problems with artificial light that film does, and I have gotten very nice shots under incandescent and even fluorescent lights. I usually turn off the flash, or at least take several with and without the flash.

    Shots with bad lighting make the LCD display helpful, but be cautious, as the LCD may have a brightness setting and therefore will not show the true brightness of the image. Now, it's true that you can change the brightness of an image using computer software, but keep in mind that any changes like that degrade the quality of the image. Always try to get your best shot into the camera!

  • ZOOM - Be warned, your average digital camera has a lens in the 20-30 mm range, which is about half as powerful as your standard SLR film camera's 55mm lens. My camera had a 2X zoom, which pretty much brought it up to a normal range -- whoopie.

    Some cameras also offer a "digital zoom." This is, of course, not a true, optical zoom, so be cautious. The popular 2x optical with a 3x digital zoom seems reasonable, but some cameras brag a 130x digital zoom, which should be pretty useless.

  • MEGAPIXEL ! - This is usually the first thing you see on spec sheets, and the manufacturers like to pretend that it is soooo important. Well it can be, but usually isn't.

    I shot most of my work at a mere 640x480 resolution, which worked perfectly. Remember, the greater the resolution, the (much) more memory it will take up, and the longer it will take to process on your computer. Also, when publishing on the web, you'll often have to degrade the photo to 72dpi anyway. When I had an important shot, such as a landscape or a special subject, I would bump it up to 1162x854. There is a very a valid argument for having more power when you need it, especially when you want to print out a very special photo, so get the megapixels -- just keep in perspective their importance.

  • SOUND and VIDEO - These are very cool features, which are offered on more and more cameras. It may not be practical yet to put such features on your web site, as compatibility and speed with your users is still a concern, but the times are a'changing, so keep up with them. Even if you don't publish sound or motion on your site, it would be nice to have them, at least so you'll have something to show your grandchildren, decades from now. ("grandpa, how come that picture doesn't move or make noise? And why can't I smell it?")

  • TRIPOD - You will need a tripod. Digital cameras have a pretty slow shutter speed, and you will get much sharper, clearer photos with a tripod. This will also help when taking panoramic shots and when putting yourself in the photo.

    Get a cheap one. I immediately ditched my $160 Bogen and bought a $20 tripod at Wal-mart -- it was much lighter and more compact, and I didn't worry about it getting lost, stolen or damaged.

  • CARRYING CASE?- Your camera is your best friend on the road, and you want to have it with you at all times. I made a leather holster and kept mine strapped to my waist 16 hours a day. In fact, if you have a large, expensive camera that you need to keep in a case, and you're nervous about it because it has audio and motion video and costs as much as your car, I suggest you keep it in your car. I suggest you buy a second camera for a few hundred bucks, and keep that one on you at all times. Believe me, when the day is done, or worse yet, when the trip is over and you're back home, you will regret not taking more photographs -- and the film is free!

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