As the days pass and images accumulate it becomes more important to ensure that your work is adequately managed and stored. Photographers using digital equipment face relatively fewer problems than those using film - yes, some people still use film!
Memory cards should be reformatted before beginning each day’s shoot to ensure that plenty of capacity is available. Work from the previous day must therefore have been off-loaded to a portable hard disk, a computer or a CD. A reasonable supply of spare memory cards is also essential, although those with large capacities are expensive. Some editing can be done in the field, if time allows, to free-up space occupied by unwanted images. However, this consumes battery power which may be a more valuable commodity. Memory cards that have been filled to capacity should ideally be stored in memory card wallets or plastic storage boxes. These provide physical protection until the images can be transferred to a portable hard disk or computer, or to a CD or DVD.
When working with film, it is clearly necessary to carry sufficient rolls for the day's work, although this may not be as simple as it sounds. Unexpected opportunities crop up and you can suddenly find yourself short of film. Get to know your typical shooting rate, think about what is planned for each day, and take more films than you expect to use. Then add a few more rolls. When on a family holiday I allow for a couple of rolls per day, but for a planned photographic assignment ten rolls per day may prove insufficient.
Film stocks permitting, it is worth changing rolls while waiting for particularly interesting events to begin. Loading a fresh roll of film at the height of the action may deny you key opportunities. Films should always be rewound into cassettes so that they cannot be reused. If you camera does not do this automatically, then do it manually. Make sure the used roll is labelled sequentially and placed in a secure bag which should contain a desiccant, such as silica gel, when working in a humid environment. Saturated silica gel can be reactivated by gentle heating in an oven. Labelling of films is difficult to preserve throughout the processing cycle because film canisters and cassettes, and the protruding tongues of films, are usually discarded. One way around this is to use the first frame of every roll to photograph a number written on a notepad.
At some convenient point, perhaps in an air-conditioned environment, all film cassettes should be returned to their plastic canisters. This provides additional protection against accidents and the elements. A Greek boatman once dropped into the sea about twenty rolls of film that I had unwisely handed him as I stepped into his boat from a jetty. He shrugged his shoulders casually as the bag submerged and was amazed when I followed it into the water. Fortunately it was retrieved within a few seconds and all the films were securely encased in watertight plastic canisters. The story would be little different had it involved memory cards.
Short-term exposure to high temperatures and humidity is unlikely to damage film, but it is wise to store both exposed and unused rolls in a cool dry place. Air-conditioned hotel rooms are ideal but may not be available. Refrigerators are obviously cool but can be very humid. Use the highest shelves to avoid anything that might drip, and if possible enclose films in sealed plastic bags containing silica gel. I have never had exposed film stolen from a refrigerator in an hotel room, but I suppose there is always a first time.
Another consideration for film users is whether it is wise to process film while travelling. This is a difficult question to answer definitively because the quality of commercial processing varies enormously from country to country, and from town to town. If the area looks dilapidated it may be reasonable to suppose that the quality of processing work will be of a similar nature. This may be unfair but it’s the only guide available. A second option is to send unexposed film home to a known laboratory. It is generally unwise to do this via the normal postal service because packages could be x-rayed and films may be lost or damaged in transit. I have posted material home in this way without problems in the past, but global terrorism has tightened up x-ray security in many respects. I have also known packages to be stolen in transit, if only for the value of the stamps before they are franked. A better option is to use well-known air-courier services and label parcels as unprocessed film not to be x-rayed. Even then there is a risk because assurances obtained at the point of dispatch are not always respected en route, and regulations vary from country to country. If the decision is to send unprocessed film home, put odd and even roll numbers in separate parcels and dispatch them a few days apart from different locations. It is then less likely that everything will be lost, but twice as likely that half of it will disappear! Shipped film is better sent to a relative or friend who will look after it, rather than to an empty house where it may lie in a warm hallway until your return. The other side of the debate is that film processed on location is not later at risk from airport x-rays, and provides some feedback on the quality of the images. It is therefore arguably worth accepting an element of risk to get your hands on the processed images, although these are usually more bulky than the unprocessed films. Some photographers try processing one roll to see what the results look like, and then make a decision. I prefer to bring all my unexposed films home to a trusted laboratory.
The monitoring and preservation of battery power is always a consideration for a travelling photographer. Most cameras have at least some indication of battery condition, and this must be checked regularly. As you get to know your camera it also becomes easier to detect the early signs of drained batteries. Rewind may be slower and autofocus lenses become sluggish. You will also get to know approximately how many images or rolls of film a set of batteries can manage. Dry cells should be replaced at regular intervals so adequate spares must be carried. Common types, particularly the ubiquitous AA size, can be purchased in many parts of the world but shelf-life and unknown brands are always a concern. Digital equipment generally consumes a lot of power and is consequently designed to use rechargeable cells. These are fine where there is access to a suitable power source, but when travelling in remote areas it may be necessary to carry fully-charged spares. Power conservation becomes a vital issue when out of the reach of a power outlet for more than a couple of days. In general, avoid using power-hungry features such as LCDs on cameras and portable hard disks, fancy review and editing functions on cameras, and unnecessary focus tracking with heavy zoom lenses.
Batteries can be recharged in the field given a little planning and a couple more items of equipment. Make sure you have available a universal mains power adaptor so that chargers can be plugged into any type of socket outlet encountered. When travelling by vehicle it is possible to recharge cells from a 12-volt car battery provided you have a suitable inverter. These units convert direct current into alternating current at the correct voltage to supply a normal charger.
Another day-to-day consideration for digital camera users is known as lockout. DSLR cameras have a buffer between sensor and memory card which holds image data until it can be written to the storage media. This buffer can fill up if numerous images are taken in quick succession, for instance when photographing action. Once this has happened, the photographer’s control of shutter functions is blocked while the images in the buffer are written to the memory card. This delay is known as lockout, and can be very frustrating when it prevents the capture of key images. This tends to be less of a problem with more modern cameras.
A daily review of what has been achieved is certainly worth the time and effort involved. When using a digital camera it is worth doing a limited assessment of the day’s images as they are transferred to a portable hard disk or computer, or to CD. Bear in mind that this should only be done in situations where a power supply is available for recharging. Otherwise restrict review activities to a few sample images. If results are considered satisfactory the relevant subjects can then be deleted from the list of objectives. Film users are at a disadvantage because their results are not immediately available. However a couple of worthwhile checks can be made. With film removed from the camera, open the back and hold the lens up to the light. Release the shutter at a few commonly-used speeds and check that the blinds open correctly. Also set the shutter to the “B” setting, press the release button and observe that the lens diaphragm is opening and closing appropriately. Although these are only rough checks, they do provide a degree of confidence. Also note which subjects have been adequately covered based upon your best guess, and delete these from the objectives list. A final check that is easy to make is to run a short roll of colour negative film through the camera in a quiet moment and submit it for processing at the first opportunity. This allows a proper assessment to be made of exposures.
A final observation on reviewing your work may be somewhat cynical but nevertheless conveys a worthwhile message. If every shot is a good one you have almost certainly failed!