Cameras and battery life

One morning, I was out shooting with my Nikon fm3a, set to Aperture priority mode with a fast lens, on the first shot, the mirror went up, the shutter opened and stayed like that. Even when I knew from experience there was enough light to warrant a fast shutter time (at least 1/125).

This was troubling, but I quickly turned the knob on the shutter speed from ‘A’ to one of the fixed shutter speed and sure enough, the shutter and mirror closed normally. Upon setting it back to ‘A’ mode again and taking another photo, the camera performed as normal with no further incident

Over the next few days, this would happen on every first shot. I decided to investigate the problem.

I thought could it be a problem with the electronics? After all, the mechanical shutter worked and would  “un-jam” the shutter, but subsequent shooting in ‘A’ mode would have caused the same problem and not work perfectly. That theory was not possible.

Temperature? No, that would be ridiculous, there are stories mentioning that the fm3a shutter design had been tested in Antarctica and I was nowhere near temperature that could cause such problems nor was humidity the issue. I’m in Asia, not the amazons.

In the end, the mystery was solved when I decided to change out the current CR-1/3N battery with a pack of regular LR44 I had stashed in my camera bag.

The next morning I tried it out and sure it enough, it didn’t jam on the first shot on ‘A’ mode – it was the battery, even though it may still had enough charge to operate the camera after the first jammed shot, but the voltage was now too low to fully power up the fm3a from the start. When I think about it, I shouldn’t be surprised as the battery had not been changed in 3 years since I bought it. In fact I think it was still using the same battery that came with it. (It should be noted it was a lithium CR-1/3N battery).

This started me thinking about the batteries I had ever used with cameras and their associated life.

DSLR

D6002Through the many years I have used DSLRs like the Nikon D50, Fujifilm S5 pro, D700 and finally on my current D600, I have had to always buy an extra battery upon purchase of a new DSLR every time as experience has taught me that with so many power sucking electronics in the camera, the battery power cannot last more than 1~3 days under regular usage on a single charge.

Still the features offered in return cannot be beat, instant preview, digital sensor, amazing metering, fast focusing speed are just some of the trade offs that results in a short battery life relatively speaking when compared to older cameras. That is not to say DSLR are battery hogs, quite the opposite in fact, on the same charge amount, they have managed to cram in wifi capability allowing for remote controls and even on the fly transferring of photos from the camera straight to computers or onto the cloud through pairing with an internet capable device – all on a single battery charge lasting maybe 10 hours or more.

p3000_fcs_690x460My time for the D700 was about 9~11 hours on a single battery charge with minimal chimping and no deleting of photos (after all, with high capacity memory cards, I could afford to leave the mistake on the card and instead focus on taking the shots) even when using an AF-D or silent fast focusing lenses. I spent most of the time previously storing photos using my then Epson P3000. A wonderful portable media storage device, it’s a pity I sold off mine and Epson had stopped making such devices all together.

While the D600 has roughly the same battery running time if not longer unless I used one of those wifi SD cards, then all bets are off as it takes a heavy toll on battery life lasting at most 4~5 hours. The tradeoff here is that I get a better preview of the photos I’ve taken using my ipad instead. So detrimental was the power drain, that I stopped using it altogether plus the transfer speed wasn’t really something to cheer about even when transferring just JPEG files.

Still, power efficiency on today’s DSLR have come a long way since the first DSLRs especially with the many additional features being tacked on every year.

Pro level SLR

Now you might be confused by why I used a different heading when compared to DSLR. I am not saying DSLRs are not professional gear for those of you DSLR supporters. But just like DSLRs, there are pro levels of SLRs and then there are the not so pro SLRs. I have only used the latter form for DSLR.

I have only used 2 Pro level SLR since my venture into photography, the Nikon F4 and the Nikon F6. Both being recognize as pro level cameras. Now keep in mind, that for film cameras (yes, these are film cameras, old tech. You can now Google about them and continue on from here later on.) power efficiency was not measured by how many hours it could remain on, but by how many rolls it could go through before it needing a battery change.

Back then, film SLRs didn’t have LCD screens for image previous, digital senors and SD/compact flash cards to read and write, it was expected for batteries to last very long on per set. All it had to power was the power winder, metering system, and the lenses for autofocusing, if available.

For the Nikon F4, I could shoot about 15 rolls on the 4 AA batteries while with the 6 AA default battery grip, I could go for about 25 rolls depending on the lens I used. Although what the F4 lacks in battery life, it makes up for sheer durability by being built like a tank (and weights just as much).

F6sideviewBIGFor the Nikon F6, using only 2 CR123A batteries, on average could go for 25 rolls before the battery power indicate low. I supposed could have opt to buy the optional battery grip (MB-40) using 6 AA batteries.

Determining battery life is still a bit of a balancing act when it came to film SLRs even if it had a battery power indicator. One advantage then was that SLRs, used readily available batteries like AA batteries or CR123A and a dozen of these are roughly the size of one modern day DSLR battery.

Electronic/Mechanical SLR

Now these are barebone cameras, most of them are not even considered pro level but were made mainly for the consumer market. These cameras are very limited and only offer the most basic of functions to take photos (except for certain cameras, these cameras weren’t really made for serious usage).

At the minimal, the only things needing power are the light meters, examples of these are the Nikon Fm, and FE. Even then some don’t even have light meters and were totally mechanical, examples are Nikon F or even the Leica M2, and M3.

No motor winders, no auto focus (everything was manually focused using the splitprism or range finder), with rudimentary light metering system, engineers and designers could easily have small batteries system added in.

d90004323_1For my fm3a as I just recently found out, the batteries have at least lasted for 3 years with normal usage — a phenomenal battery life. Keep in mind, my camera is considered quite a battery hogs as it has aperture priority mode, DX film detection mode and light metering —  3 years is quite short as I have seen friends with their Nikon Fm2n never having to change the battery for at least 8 years (if the battery didn’t leaked first) — the fm2n relies on a the light meter to only give an exposure reading while shutter/aperture and ISO setting is done using mechanical dials.

For it’s battery needs, I can easily slip a dozen spares in the same space of AA batteries.

Think about that, cameras like the Fm3a can last about 3 years while fm2n 8 years, how about cameras that have no electronics at all? The only thing stopping those cameras are the occasional mechanical problems, for exposure setting, setting them required an external light meter or just a good eye for sunny 16.

And recently I learned about cameras that have solenoid light meters that required no batteries, able to provide an exposure measurement instead relying on solar power. The drawback though I have read are that these meters tend to degrade after a few decades and I haven’t heard of anyone being able to repair these meters once they start to degrade.

Which one to take?

That is a subjective question, it has no definite answers, just guidelines to follow to answer that question. My guidelines are, if I am going out on an assignment, I bring the DSLR as I need the results in a timely manners, if I am going out for my own personal project, then I bring my pro SLR, if on the other hand, I am going on a vacation or personal time, I bring the mechanical SLR.

Ultimately, the guideline is “I bring what I need to get the job done, not what I want.” Plus it never hurts to bring plenty of batteries as well :).

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One thought on “Cameras and battery life

  1. Pingback: 2014: A year in review | dreaming Artemis

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