Nikon D1X Digital Camera in the Bush

The D1X is a wonderful digital camera. I fell in love with its predecessor, the D1, over the course of the year 2000 and promptly obtained the D1X when it became available. In August 2001 I used it to make about 2000 shots on a photographic safari to Tanzania. Here are some of the bush usage notes that follow from that extensive experience:

I lucked out in having just about exactly the right digital camera setup for Africa - considering I didn't know what I was doing and nobody had any D1X experience in the bush at that time which I could appeal to. I got the D1X just a few days before departing so I was learning the camera as I got on the plane, not while planning the trip. Two systems worked out just fine:

1. I rented, almost as an afterthought, a lens doubler. This effectively converted my 80-200mm telescopic into a 160-400mm [see note]. As you can see by looking at my sample shots, this was just about perfect. A true 400mm lens is a monster that I was unwilling to schlep around in the bush. And 600mm, 800mm? Forget it! The doubler added about 3 inches in length but no width to my lens. You lose an f-stop or two with it, but in the bright light conditions in the African bush this did not pose much of a problem. My doctor (and advisor on this trip - he had used the same safari outfit, Wilderness Africa, before) urged me to take the largest lens I could, so the doubler was my solution. The only artifact that I detect is a slight darkening of the edge of some foreground objects. Now doublers do detract from the quality of yours lens system - there's more glass and another mechanical connection. For very high resolution tripod work it is almost certainly not a good idea. But for this handheld stuff (see below) in the bush, it worked very well. And the size and weight improvements of my package were greatly appreciated.

2. Digital requires charging. I figured this would be my undoing in the bush. I did hypothesize, however, that I might be able to get sufficient charge from the cigarette lighter in a Land Rover to do the trick. With this in mind, I took along a DC-AC converter that plugged into a lighter socket. My camera charger is an AC-DC device, wouldn't you know. My "digital wallet" is too. Well, it worked! The Rovers are designed for this kind of heavy duty use of their lighter sockets, multiple sockets in some units. My fear that I would run down their batteries with the many-hour recharge of my camera battery was unfounded. Another bit of luck was that I, again as a last minute thought, threw in the battery from my "old" D1. I went through a battery a day during the trip. I would recharge one during the night so a spare was always in readiness. This worked wonderfully. My "gaffer", son Jesse, would pitch me the spare battery in heat of battle and I would just keep shooting! Apparently Nikon has a lighter-based charger for the D1X but I couldn't get one in the time I had (2 days) before leaving for Africa. A DC-DC solution certainly makes more sense than what I used. But then my buddy Bob couldn't have recharged his computer, which we used to show the camp crew my pictures at the end of each day. They flipped out. Think about it - they never get to see the photos made on "their" safaris. Digital changes that too.

I should mention also that the Digital Wallet was a necessity. I purchased, again in the last two days, a 20GB version to go with the D1X. I was using a 6BG version with the D1. Also it was important that I had two fairly high density camera memory cards. I therefore had a spare for the heat of battle - invoked several times. I have 256MB and 360MB cards [one year later: this seem puny now; I now use 1GB cards]. I would download a full one to the Digital Wallet, when I got a chance, and then clear it for next use. During the two weeks and approximately 2000 shots, I downloaded 22 cardfuls to the Digital Wallet. About 45 of these shots were at full res - 5.5 megapixels. The rest were at the second-highest res - 2-3MB Jpeg files. I chose this format for speed. The full res shots take 12 seconds to store. I was unwilling to wait that long - too much happening - so went down a notch, where storage was almost instantaneous. At the chosen res, I could store approximately 100 shots or more on a card. Looking at my records here, I see that I got 128 on one of them once. I used about 7GB for the trip, and the wallet required recharging only about every 3 days (I disconnected its battery after each use to keep charge from leaking).

All shots were handheld. This is saying a lot when you consider the beast of a lens I was manhandling (I am so thankful that I didn't attempt one of the monster lenses) and the weight of the D1X itself. My lifesaver was a couple of sandbags the safari folks thoughtfully included in each Land Rover. I would just pop one of these sandbags on the top edge of the hole in the roof of a Rover and prop my lens on it while I drove the business end. Then I relied on the shutter speed to reduce or remove blur. So low-light shots (long shutter opening) usually failed. I ended up printing about 300 of my shots, for about a 15% success rate. Only a dozen or so of these were shot at full res (TIFF). None were shot in Nikon's raw mode which I use a lot now.

So here's a summary of my digital photography package for African bush: Nikon D1X, spare battery for it, two memory cards for it (256MB and 360MB), 80-200mm telescopic lens, lens doubler, 17-35mm lens [see note] (which I hardly ever used), a tripod (which I used only once), a 20GB Digital Wallet, AC-DC chargers for the D1X and the Digital Wallet, DC-AC converter for cigarette lighter, a British 3-prong adapter (for Tanzania), a Netherlands 2-prong adapter (we went in and out via Amsterdam), a PC card adapter for the camera memory card (for input to the Digital Wallet).

What I used in addition: two sandbags about a 6x9 inches each, by about 2 inches thick, a laptop computer (provided by my friend Bob Kadlec who accompanied us). The PC card was used for input to the laptop. I could have used my USB software for USB input to the computer from the Digital Wallet. It didn't occur to me that this would be useful so I didn't bring it, although I did have the USB cable.

What I didn't need: the tripod. Sacrilege!

What I could have used or should have used: a backup to the Digital Wallet. Rather than take a second wallet, a laptop with sufficient disk space (several gigs) would suffice. I was just lucky that I didn't lose any files. The fact is, it was nuts not to have a backup of the data. On the good side the Digital Wallet did not fail even though it was being downloaded on a bouncing Land Rover (but held in my hands to cushion the ride). I also should have taken along a spare battery for the Digital Wallet. I did not have a backup. I should have taken along my D1 camera body too. I could have used the short lens on this camera and not gone through so many lens changes as I did, in dusty environments which made me nervous.

On the printing side: I touched every one of my 300 or so prints. Sharpening was required on virtually every shot, probably because they were all handheld. I cropped a majority of the shots. I usually bumped the contrast and brightness a bit. I originally printed them all on glossy 8x10 inch Hewlett-Packard Premium Plus paper, on the HP PhotoSmart printer (the original one which I like much better than the second version). I have reprinted all of them at 13x19 inch Epsom Archival Matte Paper on the Epson Stylus Photo 2000P and have been very pleased with the results. I use Epsom's archival inks. I use Microsoft PhotoDraw v2 as my principal software. I occasionally use NikonCapture 2 software (must use in raw mode), and Adobe Photoshop v6 with it, Image Composer, and even the old Altamira Composer.


Digital Note: My lens says 80-200mm on its label, but this is a "wet" camera designation. To convert to a D1X equivalent, you must multiply these numbers by about 1.5. So I was really using a 120-300mm lens, or 240-600mm with doubler. Similarly, the 17-35mm lens was really a 25.5-52.5mm lens, or 51-105mm with doubler. [I didn't know until I returned that I was not supposed to use the doubler with this particular lens. I could have seriously damaged it. Apparently in one extreme position, the lens glass can come in contact with some of the doubler structure. I guess I just never exercised that particular limit - luckily.]

Alvy's full digital photography site

Alvy's (my) full site

Ars Longa is Alvy Ray Smith's digital photography company