Third World Digital Photography Workflow

Earlier this year I spent a month overseas, most of which was photographing in the exceptionally remote village of Alendu, Kenya. Since returning home, I’ve wanted to outline a digital photography post production workflow for photographers working in a remote corners of the globe. Individual workflows may differ in terms of software, budget, how safe the area may or may not be, and what you can travel with, so I’m going to lay out a few premises for this workflow to level the playing field a bit.

1) Electricity access is zero.
2) You are photographing daily. In my case, capturing a minimum of 1,000 RAW images.
3) You need to charge all camera batteries, flashlights, and audio recorders daily. I was using two Nikon D3 cameras bodies, (redundant batteries and chargers in the event of failure), with Nikon’s 35mm f/1.4G and 85mm f/1.4G lenses. 4. Redundancy equals consistency.
5. Mobility is key.

GoalZero Solar Hardware
As for the hardware, the first component to my workflow was the use of GoalZero solar equipment. Their systems are extremely compact, light weight, and the power output is consistent (large, dirty, and loud gas generators can power surge, while also requiring fuel). Solar is free, green, reusable, and reliable. Relative to specific needs, at a minimum I would suggest two Nomad 27 solar panels and a Sherpa 120 power pack with a Universal Inverter. A power strip would also be helpful, but keep in mind that the more stuff connected, the more inefficient the system becomes. Currently I have two Nomad 27s, two Nomad 13.5, a Sherpa 120 power pack, and I’m beta testing a Sherpa 50 power pack for GoalZero. The new features on the Sherpa 50 are absolutely incredible, and I can’t wait until the final version hits the market. The panels are very light weight, work separately for redundancy, or when chaining the panels and batteries together to create a simple, well planned grid for harvesting power.

When using solar panels, make sure that all of the components chained together are properly connected and powered on. This is your lifeline, and if you are not collecting power, you are donezo. No camera batteries to capture, no means to download or backup images… you might as well go home, crack open a beer, turn on Netflix, and drink yourself into a stupor because you screwed up so badly. Be sure to get the panels out into the sun early. Set them out the night before if you have to. They’re built for the weather. I usually keep the power pack under the panels though to keep moisture off of them, and to keep power packs running cooler. In a warmer climate, with the exception of USB powered devices, it’s never advantageous to charge any devices off of the Sherpa battery during sunlight hours due to heat. Power inverters and notebooks have fans that kick on to cool them, and that draws valuable power. Backlit keyboards, wifi, bluetooth, all need to be turned off, with displays dimmed, to save energy.

Having enough Sherpa power packs for energy storage is crucial for a few reasons. Beyond being your warehouse for energy, the more storage you have, the better off you will be during inclement weather. While I was in Kenya, the rainy season went later into the year than expected. Daily at 3:30PM it would rain as though God himself hit a switch and the sky fell. That kept charging to a minimum, from 6:30AM sunrise to 3:30PM. Alendu is on the equator, so the days are consistently short all year round. The further towards either pole you travel, the more extreme sunlight duration in effect. Plus, if something goes wrong, or you miscalculate your energy needs, more is better. Basically, you can never have too much available energy when none is available to you otherwise. Also, GoalZero power packs can be charged from a wall, so should you find the opportunity, at say an airport, keep that cable and a universal outlet adapter handy.

The Mac
The second component is a 13′′ MacBook Air, Mid 2011, 1.8GHz i7. It has a crazy fast Thunderbolt connection, and the newest version of the Air has USB 3.0. I use iStat Menus 3 software to monitor the system in the Status bar (top right). Under the Temperature status, current power consumption is listed in Watts. Using fuzzy math, if you are drawing an average of 15 Watts and have a 120 Watt hour battery, you will get approximately 8 hours of use out of that source. It isn’t an exact science, but you get the idea.

Data Storage
For downloading, I had two Seagate 1.5TB FreeAgent GoFlex external hard drives, and a 500GB LaCie FireWire 800/USB 2.0 hard drive. Apple has since released the Thunderbolt to FireWire 800 adapter, so now I can use my Lexar FireWire 800 CF card reader to import. This saves 50% of the time to import over USB 2.0. Less uptime means less energy. Apple has also updated Aperture, so now images can be ingested using the JPEG preview from the camera, as opposed to interpreting the RAW file and ripping a full resolution JPEG from that code.

Processing images is the most time and energy consuming part of ingestion, and now that step can be bypassed. Individual (or all of the ) images will still fully render as desired, and image quality is not effected in the RAW file. Seagate also offers an adapter to upgrade their drives for use with Thunderbolt as opposed to USB 2.0. For comparison, I can download a 32GB memory card via USB 2.0 in 22 minutes, but with Thunderbolt, I can transfer 60GB of images to the same internal SSD from an external hard drive in approximately 5 minutes.

Software & Backup Solutions

In Kenya, I was using one main Aperture library, and each day vaulting that library from one drive to another. There are a few issues with this idea. First, you have two external hard drives spinning away at the same time, so to back up and clear your memory cards, you need to make sure you have enough power to complete a backup. Second, a vault is not a workable file. It’s a package file that contains all of the master and version data which can be rebuilt into a full library. I had an issue where my main drive would no longer mount, and I had to restore my library from a 255GB vault. I didn’t have enough sunlight to accomplish this for two days, and I think I lost about five pounds in that period due to the sheer stress.

In the future, I will create one Aperture library for each sequential day, stored locally on the SSD drive. After I’m done importing, cards are checked to make sure every file was downloaded, and images are rated 1-5 stars for the initial selection. Next I will copy that library to an external hard drive over Thunderbolt, and repeat this process to a second hard drive for an identical backup. Transferring from SSD over Thunderbolt is fast, saving on uptime, which saves power from the GoalZero gear.

Cards are only formatted after two copies are made, and by not using a more convenient vault, I have two workable, organized, sorted libraries, with one drive stored in a different location in a Zip-Loc bag. If the main hard drive would fail and I lose my image adjustments, so be it. When I’m in the field for a long duration, I typically don’t care about color just yet, but I will have an immediately workable backup library. I keep that third hard drive on hand just in case I need to make a third copy. The primary hard drive is stored in my water tight, latched shut Pelican 1510. The last step

Shipping & Handling

My entire GoalZero kit weighs under twenty pounds and folds up to fit into a backpack. The MacBook Air weighs under 3 pounds, the Pelican 1510 filled with my Nikon gear weighs around 42 pounds. In Kenya, I had a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 VR lens, two solar panels (Nomad 13.5 and Nomad 27), the Sherpa 120 battery pack with a power inverter, my 13′′ MacBook air and the power adapter in a single backpack. It never left my side, and was insured at replacement value. My Pelican 1510 stayed at my side, too, and the only thing I checked were items I could, in one extreme way or another, exist without (i.e. clothing, first aid, Nalgene bottles, electrolyte tabs, a tripod/monopod, extra shoes, etc).

As with any workflow, this is a work in progress. If you have any comments or questions, please use the field below!