Photographing the Gallotia lizards – Part 2: Gallotia bravoana

The access to the area with the remaining population of Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana) was relatively unrestricted although this species is listed as critically endangered. This place — Risco de la Mérica (La Mérica Rock) — is right behind Playa del Inglés — a popular beach of Valle Gran Rey. It has a very distinctive pyramidal shape and therefore is easy to find. It is also on any map of La Gomera with a scale of 1:40 000 or less, along with the breeding station of the conservation project “Centro de Recuperacion del Lagarto Gigante de la Gomera” (or “Lagartario”) which is right in front of the rock. The entire area north of Playa del Inglés is officially protected as a nature reserve. The access to it is open to everyone who obeys the usual rules for such conservation areas — “Do not litter”, “Do not disturb wildlife”, “Do not make fire”, etc. — which are also stated on an information board placed at the beach.

Risco de la Mérica - terra typica and the entire distribution area of Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). The information board is telling about a conservation project supported by the EU. One of the aims of this project was building a fence in front of the habitat of the lizards. This fence collapsed after the project was finished, and the protection area was looking abandoned when I visited it.
Risco de la Mérica – terra typica and the entire distribution area of Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). The information board is telling about a conservation project supported by the EU. One of the aims of this project was building a fence in front of the habitat of the lizards. This fence collapsed after the project was finished, and the protection area was looking abandoned when I visited it.

I stayed in a hotel nearby for 5 days and could reach the rock within a few minutes. I made 3 excursions to it attempting to find the lizards. The wall where the lizards live is looking west. In the morning this slope is cold because it is completely within a shadow of the rock. The sun starts coming out to this side of the rock at 10 a.m., and in this season at noon it is already burning with full power. There was no sense to come earlier than 10:00 a.m. or later than 11:00 a.m., i.e. there was only 1 hour for work — when, according to my estimation, the lizards might be basking and not hiding.

View at La Mérica rock (Risco de La Mérica) through a window of my hotel room — the terra typica of Gallotia bravoana and the stronghold of the last population of this species.
View at La Mérica rock (Risco de La Mérica) through a window of my hotel room — the terra typica of Gallotia bravoana and the stronghold of the last population of this species.

The rock is in reality larger than it appears when you are looking at it from the town. The base of it is completely covered by debris that you have to pass to reach the the stony wall and to start climbing to the levels where the lizards live. It is very difficult to walk on this field of smaller and larger stones, and I needed about an hour to cross it.

The wall is steep but not really vertical, i.e. anyone in good physical shape should be able to climb at least the lower half of it even without special equipment. The upper half is steeper but also not vertical. Most of it is free of vegetation. Some green plants persist only on ledges that are very easy to recognise even when you are standing at the bottom of the rock. Since adult gallotias of this species are strictly vegetarian these ledges can be the only places on the rock where they come to feed. Therefore it appeared logical to search there.

I reached the lowest of them carrying the backpack with photo equipment. Without this heavy load I could climb even higher. To be able to do get also the equipment on the rock one would need a ropes, nails and hooks. It should be also wise to wear body and head protection (helmet). I had nothing of that stuff. Therefore I stopped climbing when I arrived at the second such ledge and recognised that the slope was getting steeper. Leaving the backpack and climbing without it didn’t make much sense because I came to photograph the lizards. To continue without ropes and protection also appeared too dangerous. Therefore I searched the places with green that I had access to. After that I sat down on the highest ledge that I managed to reach and started waiting for the sun to shine at this place. It was 10:30 a.m., but the entire western side of the rock was in a deep shadow. One hour had to pass till the sunshine reached the place where I was sitting. It was quickly getting hot. I started searching again because it looked like the only time when the lizards, if there were any, should come out for feeding.

View from the habitat of G. bravoana at Punta de la Calera, Playa del Inglés and “Lagartario” - the breeding station. This photo was taken at 10:25 a.m. As you see, this side of the rock was still entirely in a deep shadow.
View from the habitat of G. bravoana at Punta de la Calera, Playa del Inglés and “Lagartario” – the breeding station. This photo was taken at 10:25 a.m. As you see, this side of the rock was still entirely in a deep shadow.

I searched very carefully all places with green vegetation that I could reach and was also using a binocular to look at the places that were higher. Unfortunately, I discovered neither lizards nor any other animals. The area appeared almost lifeless. Near noon the entire western side of Risco de la Mérica stood in bride sunshine and the stones rapidly got extremely hot. I could not believe that any lizards would stay on surface in these hours. It was also the time when lizards of the common species — G. caesaris — were disappearing, too. Even if G. bravoana don’t hibernate in this season, their daily period of activity should be limited to a couple of hours. Since such large lizards need much food and since the green plants are rare in their habitat, it appears to me unlikely that one or two hours would be enough time for finding and eating them. A lizard also needs some time for basking because its body has to reach certain temperature before the animal can feed.

Breeding station of a conservation and reintroduction project for Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). Just behind it - the habitat of the only existing population of this species.
Breeding station of a conservation and reintroduction project for Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). Just behind it – the habitat of the only existing population of this species.

I have no doubts that I was searching in the right place. The ropes that were hanging on the rock and that the researchers were using as climbing aid were another confirmation of this. Since I didn’t find even young individuals of this species who probably eat insects, I suppose that the lizards weren’t active at all in this hottest period of the year. Since the entire wild population of this species is estimated as 150-200 individuals and since this south-western wall of Risco de la Mérica is the entire distribution area of it, I can’t believe that the lizards were there and active but I’ve just overseen them. Therefore I have two recommendations for someone willing to find the giant lizards on La Gomera and for me if I should decide to go there again. First, the season should be colder — either spring or autumn, or even winter. Second, the search should be tried higher on the rock. Of course, it should make sense to contact an expert — a staff of the breeding station, or someone who conducted a research of this species.

To be continued in Part 3: Gallotia intermedia.

Photographing the Gallotia lizards – Part 1: Tenerife and La Gomera, 2012

The wildlife of the Canary Islands is scarce. No endemic mammals live there except bats. The largest mammals are introduced rabbits and domestic goats who now live free in the mountains. There are some interesting endemic species of birds, including the famous Atlantic Canary (Serinus canaria), the ancestor of the domestic Canary bird, which is very common. More exotic looking birds, such as parrots, either escaped from captivity or came from nearby Africa, and live also free on these islands. The proximity of Africa also explains the relative richness of the invertebrate fauna of the Canaries.

The focus of my interest and photography efforts was this time on Canarian herpetofauna which is pretty unique. All native species of reptiles are endemics of the islands. Amphibians were originally absent there, but now populations Stripeless Tree Frog (Hyla meridionalis) exist on all 7 islands of the archipelago. This species is widely spread on the European continent and was introduced to the Canaries in the recent history. Native species of snakes and turtles are also absent. Unfortunately an allian species of snake is found on Gran Canaria — Californian King Snake (Lampropeltis getula) — that now threatens the endemic fauna, particularly the lizards.

Certainly, lizards are the most exciting and unique group of vertebrates on the Canary Islands. Around 16 species of them are currently recognised there, and all are endemics. Most species, or subspecies, are endemic to a particular island, but, unfortunately, some of them were brought from there to the neighbour island in the recent past — most probably as “passengers” on ferries.

Western Canaries Lizard

I concentrated my activities on true lizards of the endemic genus Gallotia. Only 7 species of them are currently recognised which can be found only on the Canary Islands. I decided to make a small project consisting of three or four trips with a goal to photograph, if not all, then at least most of them in the wild. Chances for that are quite good, except two species — La Gomera Giant Lizard (Gallotia bravoana) and El Hierro Giant Lizard (G. simonyi) — that are bred in captivity at special farms, and are difficult to access in the wild.

Interestingly, populations of all three rarest species of Gallotia that are regarded as closer relatives — G. simonyi, G. bravoana, G. intermedia — are remaining only on the western and southern coast of the island each of these species is native to — El Hierro, La Gomera, Tenerife. I haven’t yet seen any scientific theory explaining why it is so. Did these species ever live on other sides of those islands? If so, why did they remain only in the south-west? Certainly, there should be an ecological reason. If it would be found, it may also explain why the attempts to artificially establish their new populations in other places were failing. Obviously, the habitats of all these species are very similar: steep, almost wall-like slopes of high rocks, facing the ocean, with scarce vegetation. The ecological specialisation should have been an obstacle for their wide distribution on the islands, unlike the other two species of Gallotia that are very common throughout Tenerife — G. galloti — and La Gomera, and El Hierro — G. caesaris. These and other two species — G. stehlini and G. atlantica — are ecologically much more flexible, and therefore evolutionary more successful.

When I was planning the destinations of this trip, the main reason why I chose Tenerife and La Gomera was the existence of 2 species of Gallotia on each of them, with 2 distinctive subspecies of one of them — G. galloti — on Tenerife. I thought that with some luck I would photograph 5 taxons of these lizards in one trip. Unfortunately, that were only 3 at the end.

I suspect three reasons why I failed to find both most interesting species — the “giant lizards” of La Gomera and of Tenerife. The first and most important reason was the season: It had been an extremely hot and dry summer; very few green plants were remaining. Even in less hot places than rocks I was seeing not so many individuals even of common species. I suppose therefore that the majority of lizards were hiding continuously from the sun or even hibernating. The second reason was the difficulty of the terrain that I underestimated in my planning. When I was seeing those habitats on photographs, of course, I was understanding that G. bravoana and G. intermedia live in a rocky area, but I didn’t recognise that to photograph them one would need to literally climb walls. If I knew that I would need it, I would have prepared myself for this. The third reason was my limited knowledge of the places where to search for these lizards. Ideally, there should be a local guide or a consultant. I didn’t know myself such an expert and had no time to find one because the decision to go to these region was made quite spontaneously. Therefore, there was nobody during this trip who could help me with exact knowledge of localities where the lizards can be found.

To be continued in Part 2: Gallotia bravoana.

Small memory cards are good not only for trolling a film fan

In disputes about advantages of film over digital, one of most usual arguments of film advocates is that digital photography leads to careless approach in image creation and that digital photographs often are results of trial-and-error process rather than of careful planning and composition. When the photographer knows that he can shoot with a digital camera as many images as he wants at no cost, and can review and correct exposure and composition on the spot, he has a different attitude to every single shot than someone who is restricted by a number of 36 images and knows that he will see the result only after the film was processed in the lab. Personally, I don’t share this opinion in general because it suggests that every digital image is a snapshot. Good photographers work thoroughly – no matter, whether it is digital or a film image – while a bad photographer will be able to spoil any image – digital and film likewise.

A digital photographer would most likely reply a film advocate that everyone is free to use a storage card that can take only 36 images and do as if it were a film. When I was saying now and then something like this, I wasn’t meaning that I myself should do it too. I have no problems with careful composing of every frame when I am shooting thousands of images to a big volume CF card.

But last weekend I did try it with a small card and realised that it does make sense indeed. I was going to the city for a short shooting. Since I knew that it will take only one or two hours, I took just the first card I saw in my memory card wallet. It was an old 1GB SD card. It had volume for 30 shots at most. Therefore, when I was photographing, I had all the time to watch the remaining space and to avoid making unnecessary shots. This required indeed much more discipline than usually – when I am using a 32GB card and know that it won’t get full, and had two great effects: Less images needed to be processed, and less processing work was necessary due to better quality of each image.

How much does it cost getting a broken camera display fixed?

This small post is for those who are asking this question. Usually I do when I have to decide if I should give my camera to service or just leave it as it is – a little broken but still functioning.

In my this year’s expedition to Central Asia I damaged my second camera – an EOS 5D Mk II – a little . Its display got a crack when the camera bumped at a stone.

Broken display of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Broken display of a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

After 6 weeks in the field, it was also full with dust and the enclosure was very dirty. The camera was still functioning normally however. Although I was afraid of high costs, I set it to a Canon technical service. They fixed it very quickly and returned the camera after a few days (I am a CPS member). It was looking like new – clean and with new display glass. I had to pay 132 € that is in my opinion a very reasonable price for such a good service.

I am looking for 3 travel partners to join me on my next trip to Central Asia

If you are a nature photographer or a nature photography enthusiast, come with me to one of remote and rarely visited by foreigners corners of Tajikistan.

Goal

This season is the best for photography of Tien-Shan Brown Bear, and good for Siberian Ibex and Tajik Marhor (a.k.a. Screw-horned Goat – a critically endangered species whose last population still remains only in this area). My main goal will be photography of these subjects. Other participants of the trip will be able to chose photography subjects according to own preferences and priorities.

Photographing Marhors, or Screw-horned Goats, is my main goal for this trip. Here you see a photograph that I made during my trip in July 2013 when the season wasn't favourable.

Photographing the last population of Marhors, or Screw-horned Goats, is my main goal for this trip. Here you see a photograph that I made during my trip in July 2013 when the season wasn’t favourable.

Destination

This short trip goes to an area at Peak Julius Fučik and near Pyanj River at the Tajik-Afghan border (marked with red dot on the map below).

The red circle indicates the destination of the trip I plan in 2014

The red circle indicates the destination of the trip I plan in 2014

The place where we are going to stay is situated near Afghan-Tajik border on the mountains at the right bank of Pyanj River, in vicinity of Peak Julius Fučik.

The place where we are going to stay is situated near Afghan-Tajik border on the mountains at the right bank of Pyanj River, in vicinity of Peak Julius Fučik.

Schedule

The trip will last for only one week (7 days) – between March 24 and April 6, 2014. The final dates have to be agreed between the participants. I chose this season because it is optimal for photography of bears, very good for landscapes and good for ungulates. Therefore these three subjects can be covered in this one trip.

Cost

With 4 persons participating, the trip is going to cost each of us around 1400 USD which is a fixed price requested for local organisation and logistics: around 200$/day x 7 days (are to be payed to local organisers upon arrival). This includes accommodation, meals (full board), transportation on road, services of a highly experienced guide, if necessary, also services of porters and helpers on terrain. This relatively high cost per person per day has the following reasons:

  1. The location we are going to is a private game reserve. The prices for stay and work there are set by its owners. It is one of few places in Tajikistan where it is almost guaranteed that you photograph a bear. It is also the only one place in this country and one of few in the world where opportunities to photograph marhors are guaranteed.
  2. The activities of every photographer have to be tailored for his needs. There will be no such thing as group of photographers walking together and photographing the same subjects. Instead everyone will receive personal services.

Alcohol drinks, personal expenses (shopping, cigarettes, medicine, etc.), personal preferences (such as special food and drinks), tips are not included and have to be payed extra.

Additionally we may need some money on the arrival and departure days (for food, etc.) – not more than 50 or 100$ per day. However, it depends on whether we will spend some time in the city or go directly to the location. In the last case no extra costs have to be expected.

A return flight from Europe to Dushanbe or Kulob costs around 360-700€ depending on the city you fly from. A flight from US (East Coast) should cost around 1000$. A tourist visa to Tajikistan costs around 60US$.

I expect the total cost of this trip for travellers from Europe not to exceed 1800€ (including flight).

What to expect

  • Opportunity to photograph the 3 species of mammals mentioned above at a distance of 50-100m. (Note: Of course, as with any wildlife, it is a matter of luck how close you get to the subject: It may be closer or farther than this.)
  • With some luck, there are chances for sighting or even for photography of Snow Leopard and Asian Porcupines.
  • Good opportunities for bird photography.
  • Fantastic scenery – great opportunities for landscape photography.
View at Pianj River and the mountains in Afghanistan

View at Pianj River and the mountains in Afghanistan

Alpine meadow at Fučik Peak

Alpine meadow at Fučik Peak

View at Fučik Peak.

View at Fučik Peak.

View from Tajik bank of Pyanj River at an abandoned village in Afghanistan.

View from Tajik bank of Pyanj River at an abandoned village in Afghanistan.

What will you need

The minimum requirements are the following:

  • A camera with a telephoto lens (minimum 300-400 mm), if you are interested in wildlife photography, and a wide-angle lens (for landscapes). If you aren’t going to photograph but only are interested in watching wildlife, you’ll need a binocular.
  • You have to be reasonably fit but no special physical training or skills (such as mountaineering) are necessary. It will be possible to choose for you personally such daily activities that will match your preferences and physical condition. However, to get the best results from this trip you should be able to walk for 3-5 hours at altitudes of 1000 – 2500 m above sea level and to climb (by walking) mountains and hills with stony and rocky slopes of  25-45°.
  • The accommodation and meals will be provided by a local family in their house that they maintain as a base for foreign hunting tourists. It is a stone building, but not a five-stars hotel. You should be open-minded to accept some reduced comfort and tolerant to local customs and traditional way of life.
  • Good hiking shoes – suitable for walk on rocky terrain. You may also find hiking poles helpful.
  • Warm cloths – for temperature down to -10°C – and windy weather.
  • Some knowledge of English or German – to be able to communicate with me and other members of our group.
  • Insurances: It’s up to you which insurances you will have when you go on this trip. I would recommend to get at least a good health insurance.

What you will not need

The following isn’t required for this trip:

  • Tent.
  • Sleeping bag and mat.
  • Camping utilities, such as stove, dishes, etc.
  • Knowledge of local language.
  • Own food supplies (except maybe some special food that you would like to have for your own)

Safety

Although the area this trip goes to is in immediate proximity to Afghanistan, it is absolutely safe. Tajikistan is a very peaceful country inhabited by very friendly and polite people. It is separated from Afghanistan by Pyanj River – a broad and very quick stream that is almost impossible to cross, particularly in this season. Afghanistan is a very big country, and extremist activities and political instability are focused in other parts of its territory than the area at the border to Tajikistan.

Please note: This is not a photo tour that I am leading. I organise this trip for my own photography work and finance it for myself with my private money. To reduce its cost for me, I am inviting not more than 3 persons interested in photography or wildlife watching in this region to join me as a partner and to share expenses. No payments in advance will be required.

 
Everyone interested in this trip is welcome to contact me via personal messaging on this site or using contact information on my website:
www.nature-images.eu

iPhone Apps for a Nature Photographer – Part III

This is the third post from a series of small reviews of software for iPhone that may be useful in nature photography. The full text is available at my website www.nature-images.eu among other equipment reviews.

Apps for Location Scouting

Although nature photographers usually have no time to explore a location prior to shooting, it should be at least attempted. Always when I plan a itinerary of my trips I reseve at least 2 full days for each place. After I have arrived there, I walk or drive around and look for best shooting locations. Often I don’t take all my equipment with me — but only one camera and one or two lenses. Now I even wouldn’t need them — when I have such apps for the iPhone. The only problem with iPhone as viewfinder is that the focal length of its lens is limited to 34 mm. Longer focal lengths are simulated by the app, but to view the scenery like it would appear in an image taken with wider lens than 34 mm, you need an accessory — an add-on lens that connects to the iPhone. Of course, this will make the use of iPhone less convenient and reduce the sense of using it instead of the real camera. If you wouldn’t use an add-on lens, such apps will show you only the image captured at focal length of the iPhone surrounded with empty field that corresponds to the rest of the image that a wider lens would capture. This should be enough for frame composition.

Viewfinder Pro

This app costs 20$ and is quite expensive, compared to most iOS programmes, although not too expensive, if measured at usual prices for computer software. However, in my opinion, the value of this app is a bit exaggerated and it is overpriced. Having used it for some time already and compared with other great iPhone apps, I mean that 10$ could be a more appropriate price. Overall Viewfinder is probably the best viewfinder and frame composition app for iOS intended for photographers. It is available in 4 different versions.
Besides Viewfinder Pro there are Basic, Cinema, and ALPA. The developers of this app went so far that ALPA officially accepts iPhone with Viewfinder Pro or Viewfinder ALPA installed as a real viewfinder for their cameras.

Already during the first serious use in the field I recognised some flaws in this app that are significant for outdoor photography. Compared to a real topographic GPS device, the so-called “location services” of an iPhone are quite poor. To determine the geographic coordinates better, iPhone needs to be connected to cellular phone or wi-fi network. Often none of these services is available in places where a nature photographer goes. This problem isn’t specific for Viewfinder Pro but is common for all apps that use geographic coordinates in their work. Once an interesting location was registered by Viewfinder Pro, it is almost impossible to return to exactly the same place because iPhone can’t be use for navigation on a terrain. To feed the coordinates in an outdoor navigation device they have to be exported to a format that the device would be able to read, such as KML or GPX. In the current version Viewfinder Pro doesn’t have such a function.

Viewfinder Basic

It is almost the same as <em style="color:#fff;”>Viewfinder Pro described above but costs 12$ instead of 20$. Compared to the Pro this app doesn’t use “real”, i.e. obtained from manufacturers, information about lenses but calculates the frame according to formal technical data of lenses that are stored in its database. I don’t know what consequences it has for accuracy of frame display — however, I’d suppose that not very big.

Artemis Director’s Viewfinder

Another “expensive” app, but a nice too. I haven’t tried it out because of the problem that I mentioned at the beginning of that review — absence of trial versions in Apple Store. Since videography isn’t my main field of interest, I preferred software developed for still photography. If you are a cinematographer or videographer, you should take a closer look at Artemis Director’s Viewfinder. The strength of this app is in composition of frames produced by professional cinema cameras although it works great for DSLR.

Focal Finder

The cheapest among frame composer apps, but almost as good as the much more expensive alternatives mentioned above. Unlike the viewfinders that include a camera and lens database, Focal Finder lets you create you own camera and lens setups by giving in sensor size and focal length.

Frame Composer

This app is similar to Focal Finder. The most obvious difference is the use of iPhone’s gyroscope for automatic level detection: While you are turning the iPhone over this programme keeps the picture straight. I doubt, however, that this feature is so important that it should make someone prefer this app.

Lens Pick

Lens Pick does basically the same as the other frame composer apps but with more focus on choosing a suitable lens for a given scenery. It is the most simple to use among the frame composer apps: You point the iPhone camera on a subject and select a number with a dialer. The programme simulates the image produced at the given focal length. Of course, since iPhone’s focal length is only around 34 mm, you won’t be able to see a complete frame wider than this. For the time of writing, iPhone 5 wasn’t supported by this app. Therefore, Lens Pick wasn’t an option for me.

Menus appear blank in Photoshop in Mac OS 10.9. (Update)

This  is an update of my yesterday’s post Rendering faults of Photoshop CC widgets in Mac OS 10.9.

This problem occurs when you use Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop for awhile. Even long use of only one of them doesn’t result in rendering errors of menus. Only after both tools have been exchanged a couple of times, all drop down and pop-up menus start to look blank at some moment. (See example below)

Image

It appeared first that an update of Wacom driver to the newest version 6.3.7-3 had a positive effect. Anyway I had an impression that the errors came not so soon and even thought that the issue was healed.

Rendering faults of Photoshop CC widgets in Mac OS 10.9.

On October 22 the new version of Apple’s operating system was released. As probably the majority of Mac users, I updated all my computers with this new OS release 10.9. (a.k.a. Mavericks) on the same day. Although this brought some new nice features and performance improvements, I now have to live with some bugs and incompatibilities in the software that I use and hope that they will be solved in future updates.
One of such particularly annoying bugs are vanishing menu contents in Photoshop CC. (Maybe it happens also in other versions of Adobe Photoshop but I currently have only CC.) Below you see two screenshots that show the problem: pop-up windows and panels in Photoshop aren’t rendered properly, i.e. appear white when opened.

Zoom menu and history panel in Photoshop CC under Mac OS 10.9.

Zoom menu and history panel in Photoshop CC under Mac OS 10.9.

Save menu and history panel in Photoshop CC under Mac OS 10.9.

Save menu and history panel in Photoshop CC under Mac OS 10.9.

This happens after some time when Photoshop was running. Then only restart of the programme helps to restore them, but not for long. Soon it happens again.

See updates about this issue in the next posts.

Some thoughts about field image storage

Freecom Tough Drives 3.0

Two Freecom Tough Drives 3.0 of 500 GB capacity that I currently use for storage of photographs in the field.

Keeping your image files safe when you are in the field is a very important issue – particularly when you are far from home for many weeks. Many shots that a nature photographer makes can’t be repeated – if these files get lost, your journey and weeks of work will lose any sense. Nowadays, any good CF and SD cards that are used with most DSLR cameras can accommodate thousands of images and are reliable enough to be used even under harsh environmental conditions for years. Due to their very small size it is easy to protect these cards from damage but also easy to lose them. Since the card is used only in a camera, there is also a danger that you unintentionally erase the files that you want to keep: The screens of cameras are too small and too dim for reliable judgement about image quality. Therefore you can easy make a mistake erasing wrong image file. Of course, cameras typically have a function that protects selected images, but I never seen anyone (including myself) who uses it systematically.

Carrying and using a laptop computer for file storage in the field isn’t ideal for several reasons. Laptops are heavy and bulky. They need much power to run. They can be damaged quite easily and normally don’t withstand extreme environmental and physical stress, such as heat, cold, low air pressure, shakes. One of few exceptions is a Panasonic Toughbook, but its very high cost – 3500 € for basic configuration – and quite heavy weight prevent it for becoming popular with outdoor photographers. Personally I don’t know anyone who uses it and have never seen such a device live.

A potentially better alternative to a portable computer could be a so-called “image tank” – a portable harddrive case with integrated card reader that allows direct copying of files from CF and SD cards. Some of such devices have an integrated LCD screen. Currently most common image tanks are of brands Santo, Nexto, Hyperdrive. Their screens are even smaller and have even lower resolution than in cameras. Therefore they can be used only to control if the files were successfully downloaded but not for assessment of image quality. Since photographers normally save images in proprietary RAW format of a particular camera brand, such a device should have an up-todate decoder to be able to present the content of a RAW file. Otherwise you would need to shoot in RAW and JPEG simultaneously. The biggest disadvantage of such image tanks is a quite high cost of storage – usually starting from 0.5€ per megabyte. For instance, a 640GB Nexto ND2730 with a tiny 1.44″ screen, costs 315€ while a rugged portable USB 3.0 drive of 500GB capacity, such as of Freecom or LaCie, would cost only 80€. Given that Nexto ND2730 doesn’t require a computer, I would be ready to pay for it more than for usual external drive, but not more than 180-200€. The current price is simply too high.

About four years ago I was still using an image tank Jobo GigaView Pro showed in the picture below.

Jobo GigaView Pro: Not as reliable as it looks.

Jobo GigaView Pro: Not as reliable as it looks.


Initially it had only 80 GB of storage, and I bought it 2008 at a discount price of 120 €. That was still a lot per megabyte if you consider that larger drives without a LCD screen were already much cheaper. Later I upgraded the HDD to 160 GB. The GigaView Pro was a very nice looking device with quite good screen that was much larger than in my camera that I had that time. It was also very easy and comfortable to operate with a small joystick. However, it had huge reliability problems that were making it almost useless. The file transfer from a card was very slow and power consuming, and if more than 10 GB were being copied, the battery could get drained in the middle of the process. The GigaView Pro was crashing now and than during the process of copying, and needed to be restarted. After that I couldn’t know which files were already copied and which not, and had to copy all of them again. When the device was running on battery files were often copied with errors and couldn’t be opened later. There was no way to know it before you erase them from the card, and if you erased there was was a danger that the images are lost. Although GigaView Pro was rugged and looked sturdy and solid, it wasn’t. When I took it to Cuba in 2009 it worked more or less despite relatively high humidity, but for unknown reason refused in Uganda: When I attempted to turn it on in a hotel in Fort Portal, it was completely dead. I thought that it will not function anymore and didn’t throw it away in Uganda only because I didn’t want to leave my garbage there. After I brought it back to Europe, it worked normally again.

I find the idea of an image tank as field storage better than the other alternatives, particularly if such devices can be used at higher altitudes and can be protected against basic environmental hazards, such as dust, moisture, cold, heat. Personally I would then prefer them to laptops if they would be more reliable, performant and had lower cost per megabyte. Laptops however give a photographer not only a possibility to store image files but also to review and even to pre-process them. Also they can be used for other tasks that their owner may want to do already during a trip, such as writing texts, communication, etc. Now, it looks like the trend is towards laptop computers, and that may be also the reason why Canon and Epson have discontinued the production and development of their Multimedia Storage Viewers.

My current field storage kit consists of a 11″ laptop (Apple Macbook Air) and two 500GB external hard disks Freecom Tough Drive and is a compromise between versatility of use and cost per MB, on one hand, and portability, convenience and reliability, on the other. I am not happy with this solution which I love and hate at the same time. Even such a small and light laptop still occupies much space in my photography baggage. It needs constant attention and has to be protected from thieves and physical damage. It can’t or shouldn’t be used at high altitudes as I have mentioned in another post Maximum operating altitude of Macbook Air may be too low. At the same time, I like to be able to review, sort out and pre-process the images when I return to my tent in the evening after shooting.

My feeling about the Freecom Tough Drives is also quite mixed. Their enclosure makes a very good impression: It is very solid built, and more or less shock-proof. It is also quite compact and easy to transport. A Tough Drive is smaller than its more popular competitor LaCie Rugged Drive and about the same size as small conventional, not protected, external portable drives. The following two pictures demonstrate this.

The side view at Iomega, LaCie Rugged and Freecom Tough Drive

The side view at Iomega, LaCie Rugged and Freecom Tough Drive

Top view at Freecom Tough Drive, LaCie Rugged and Iomega

Top view at Freecom Tough Drive, LaCie Rugged and Iomega

A very good thing about LaCie Rugged is that you can easy open its enclosure and exchange the HDD.

LaCie Rugged opened.

LaCie Rugged opened: A very nice thing about LaCie Rugged – you can replace or upgrade the drive yourself.

A Freecom Tough Drive doesn’t offer this or at least it can’t be done so easy. Since external drives are meanwhile cheap, I don’t see this as a big problem because most people would rather buy a new one instead of trying to repair or upgrade the old device.

The cable of the Tough Drive is very short.

The cable of the Tough Drive is very short and non-removable.

The cable of the Tough Drive is very short. Although it may be less prone to damages than a longer cable but inconvenient to use when your computer isn’t on a table. I’d preferred a 70 cm cable whose length were adjustable through automatic winding. It is also non-removable unlike in all other external drives I have seen so far.

Transcend 25H3P

Transcend 25M3Transcend 25H3P and 25M3 – currently closest competitors of Freecom Tough Drives (Photographs by Transcend)

Transcend 25M3 and 25H3P have detachable cables. These drives have similar enclosures and are the closest competitors of Freecom Tough Drives. A detachable cable has also its drawbacks: First of all, you can lose it or forget at home. Second, the connection sockets remain open when the cable isn’t connected, therefore dirt and moisture can get into them even if the drive is otherwise weather sealed. This is, in my opinion, the biggest problem of in all other aspects good Transcend disks. However, for your Freecom Tough Drive you can get a USB 3.0 extension cable for a couple of dollars or euros and have the same effect, but you will still have the option to use the short build-in cable. In my opinion this is more flexible, and can be viewed even as an advantage of Freecom drives over the external drives of other manufacturers. In real use, as I have discovered, the short cable of Touch Drive is extremely inconvenient: If you attach it to a laptop, the drive tends to hang on it, and, if you move the laptop even a little, the connection may become unstable and the cable connector can even fall out of the socket.

The really big problem with Freecom Tough Drive that I unfortunately had to recognise very soon after I got my two copies of it was that this device isn’t as reliable at all as I had expected. My two Tough Drives are absolutely identical and belong to the same series STPBAD. However, one drive didn’t function well already the first time when I connected it to my Macbook Air: It was constantly interrupting the data transfer and disconnecting itself after just a couple of gigabytes had been copied. I sent it back to Freecom, and they fixed it. Indeed the copying process was more stable after that, and the drive remained connected. However, now and than it was happening again that the file transfer got stuck. Also sometimes re-partitioning and re-formating of this drives failed. Anyway it appears not to be as faultless as the second copy of the same model and series.

Be careful with exchangeable camera mount of new Sigma lenses

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM has an exchangeable mount and can be adopted this way for any of supported camera systems — Canon, Nikon, Sony, Sigma. This means that if you some day decide to switch to a different camera brand, you can send your Sigma lens to the nearest service, and they will change the mount. The mount is attached to lens body with a metal ring that looks like a cup (see the picture below). There are no visible screws outside, therefore I think that it is fixated somehow before the mount ring is attached. Potentially this part may cause problems. I learned this after some time in the field — during a 43 days long expedition to Pamir and Alai. At certain moment, I noticed that the mount has a play, i.e. the lens moves a little when it is attached to camera. I thought first that the mount lock in the camera was the cause: I had observed already with some other lenses before that one lens attaches to the camera not so tight as the other. But this time it was different — the lens was moving much more. Finally I discovered that it was not the lens-to-camera attachement that wasn’t firm but the attachement of the mount to the lens was loosened so much that I finally had to bind it with an adhesive tape to prevent it from falling off. When I returned home, I sent the lens to Sigma service that fixed it on the same day for free because the lens was still on warranty. I am sure that the reason why the lens was broken wasn’t its quality but my too harsh treatment of it regardless its specific construction. Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM is an “Art” series lens: It is neither weather sealed nor rugged, and nature photography isn’t primary use area it is intended for. Certainly, it isn’t as sturdy as the Canon and Zeiss counterparts and has to be treated accordingly.

What's in the package: Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM, hood, pouch

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM: lens, hood, pouch