April 27, 2011

How to Maximize Your Camera’s Battery Life

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Written by: Manny Gonzalez
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How many times have you gone out spotting for the day and found yourself with a dead battery? If it has not happened to you consider yourself lucky. A dead or severely depleted batter can ruin your afternoon when the special livery you were waiting for comes in right after your camera shuts down.

Be aware of counterfeit batteries. (click image)

Another common practice (by yours truly) is to “accidentally” leave your charger at home when going on a trip. I have to admit I am guilty of that practice more than once and by now I have learned my lesson. More on that later…

Ever since cameras started to sport built-in light meters, batteries have become necessary in order to make them portable. Indeed a camera can be operated completely mechanically, no need for batteries. Older cameras had a manual or mechanical setting that required no batteries for operation. You had no light meter to guide you but at least you could get the shot when your batteries were depleted. The film would be advanced and the shutter cocked manually by cranking a lever usually positioned above the right hand thumb.

Well, those days are long forgotten. There is no single camera today that I know of that is fully mechanical with no need for batteries. Since Digital cameras are standard fare, batteries are necessary for the capture of the data, the computer inside that converts light into data, and battery life is as important as having an empty memory card to record the images.

Some Background

This short article could never do justice to the development of modern day batteries. But it is worth noting that batteries have evolved from their most basic form to the ultra-high performance batteries we use today in around the last 100 years. Early batteries consisted of very large plates of metal and baths of chemicals which would be considered mediaeval by today’s standards. However the principles are still the same no matter what technology is used.


The earliest batteries were not rechargeable. We take for granted that our batteries today can be re-used many times over. Once the battery was drained, it would become unusable. The first rechargeable battery was invented around the 1850s and was of the lead-acid type, still used today in most automobiles.

Dry batteries were invented in the 1880s and are the type used by most portable electronics. Huge advancements in battery technology in recent years have yielded smaller and longer lasting yet re-usable batteries.

The two most important battery technologies today are NiMH (Nickel Metal-Hydride) and Li-ion  (Lithium-Ion). The two technologies are very similar in their resulting capacities and energy output with minor differences in how they discharge. Lithium-ion batteries are the most effective batteries today as lithium has the lowest density of any of the metals on the periodic table and it is also the lightest metal. Interestingly for us, lithium is used in strengthening alloys used in airplanes.

So what about my camera?

Hopefully I have not bored you to death. Let’s talk about what are the common types of batteries used in cameras today.

Some camera manufacturers still use (NiCd) Nickel-Cadmium rechargeable batteries. NiCd batteries dominated the landscape of modern electronics rechargeable batteries. The main advantage of this type of battery is the high current drain it is capable of withstanding. NiCd batteries are commonly used in applications requiring sudden high bursts of energy such as motors. NiCd batteries are also widely available and prices have dropped considerably in the last few years. Negative traits such as “memory effect” and temperature sensitivity have caused manufacturers to select newer more expensive technologies.

Memory effect
A NiCd battery can exhibit this effect when charged and discharged numerous times to the same charge state (both depleted and charged). If discharged to a certain level and not fully drained, as the battery reaches the last drainage level it will show a decrease in output voltage. This means the device being powered can suddenly stop operating.

Temperature sensitivity
This is a two-fold problem. NiCd batteries perform poorly as temperature increases. The chemical reaction of the Cadmium and Nickel produces more heat as more current is needed. This can lead to battery damage and even fire and destruction of the device being powered.

The use of Cadmium is also not good for the environment. Cadmium is a heavy toxic metal which must be disposed of carefully.


Nikon's NP-E3 NiMH battery.

Most consumer cameras today use NiMH batteries. This technology literally eliminates the drawbacks of NiCd technology by having no adverse memory-effect and can also withstand higher temperatures without damage. However the cost of NiMH batteries is higher due to the cost of the metals used.

Advantages and Disadvantages
Nickel Metal-Hydride batteries also have a higher energy to density ratio which means you get higher capacity in the same space. They also have a better discharge curve than NiCd and Alkaline batteries especially under high current drain. NiMH batteries also have a longer lifespan than NiCds and are safer for the environment. NiMH is currently the most widely used high end battery technology, widely used now in modern Digital Cameras and Electric Vehicles.

Some disadvantages are a higher self-drain rate than NiCds and when over-discharged, polarity reversal can occur damaging the battery and causing it to fail permanently.

Lithium-Ion technology is by far the most advanced battery technology today. Li-ion batteries have higher capacity, no memory effect, rechargeable over a longer lifespan and are more durable than any other technology. The only disadvantage being a much higher cost than competing technologies.

It is more widely used in small electronic devices such as cell phones due to the smaller sizes and the need for longer battery life in the smallest possible space.

Maximizing your batteries performance

So what about my batteries? As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, running out of battery power during an outing can be really depressing. Whether you find yourself with a single battery and no spares or you only own one battery of not-so-high capacity, there are things you can do to make the charge last longer:

•    If your camera has an “Auto Power Saving” mode, use it. Make sure you know how it works in case it reduces performance in a way that will hamper your ability to take pictures in a particular situation.If your camera offers Live View, do not use it. Use the Optical Viewfinder; you’ll get a more realistic view of the scene anyway.
•    Disable any automatic settings you do not need. Anything that says automatic usually means a drain on the battery, even if a small amount, every bit counts.
•    Most cameras will use the battery when turned off. You should take out the battery if you’re not going to use the camera for a long time.
•    Turn off vibration reduction on your lens if possible. You really don’t need it if your shutter speeds are above 1/800th sec anyway.
•    If you’re desperate, turn off auto-focus. Use Gaffer’s tape to lock down the focus ring at infinity. If the airplanes are far enough, you’re shooting at infinity anyway.
•    Use Silent Wave of Ultra Sonic auto-focus lenses when possible. Sony calls their technology “Super Sonic Motor”. These Auto-Focus lenses without a built in motor use the camera’s internal focus motor and put a much higher drain on your battery.

Nikon MS-40 AA adapter allows common AA batteries to use in place of your MB40. (click image)

•    Keep your batteries warm. Cold weather drains your batteries faster. If you can, use an external power source or battery pack tucked away in your pocket inside your coat.
•    No editing in-camera. That also means no deleting in the field; wait until you get home. See the last tip below. The LCD uses a lot of high current voltage and it kills batteries.
•    Get out of the habit of stabbing your shutter button half way on and on before taking the shot. Most cameras activate Auto-Focus motors, Vibration Reduction Motors and the light meter(s) in this state, all of which drain your battery. As you prepare for the shot, there is no need to keep the subject in focus or the lens steady. Wait until the last possible moment to half-press, let the AF and VR settle and then gently roll your finger on the shutter all the way to take the shot.
•    Take LESS pictures. Turn your Continuous Drive Mode to the lowest setting or anywhere from 2 frames to 4 frames per second if you can. Unless you’re shooting the Blue Angels Solos crossing, you can get by with three or four shots.
•    Keep the camera On. It may sound counter-intuitive, but some cameras consume a lot of power during initialization and power down. Just leave it on and rely on the other tips for extending the life of your battery.
•    Don’t use the built-in flash if your camera has one. Make sure it is off and can’t accidentally turn on. Charging the capacitor of the flash even once can drain your battery much more quickly than by other means.
•    Only buy and use OEM batteries. Do not purchase third party batteries or Gray Market batteries. Always buy from reputable dealers in your area or on The Internet. Not only can third party batteries be of lower capacity, they can also damage your camera.
•    Buy a  Battery Holder or Battery Magazine which let’s you use standard off-the-shelf AA or AAA batteries.

And finally, No Chimping!

•    Checking your pictures on the rear LCD screen is the best way to drain your batteries other than vibration reduction motors and auto focus motors. If your batteries are already drained or if you want to maximize the life of your battery throughout the day, turn off auto preview if you can. If not, make sure after the last shot is taken, you turn off the rear LCD preview. Some cameras let you do this by simply pressing the shutter half-way or the AE lock or AF lock buttons. Read your manual to find out ways to disable the rear LCD preview feature. Most of the time, you can easily review pictures by pressing the playback button.

The term “chimping” comes from the fact that the behavior mimics Chimpanzees grooming one another.

Some Sound Advice

While the above tips can really help you get the most life out of your battery, there is a lot you can do not to fall prey to a dead battery. From personal experience and from the advice given to me by other professionals, these tips can reduce anxiety, especially at an important shoot or when you know you will be far away from an electrical outlet or B&H.

Battery grips are an obvious way to double-up your energy capacity, while also offering additional grip support and added camera features.

•    Have at least 2 batteries for EACH of your cameras. Invest in an extra battery as soon as you buy your camera. Add it to the cost of the camera when you first buy it. You never want to have just one battery. There is absolutely no reason to explain this.
•    When traveling, pack the charger(s) first and the batteries. Then your camera(s) and finally your lenses. After they are packed, double check your charger is packed and the extra batteries are packed. Yes, I have left batteries, chargers and both behind when traveling. It was a very expensive trip. Only after your camera gear is properly packed, pack your clothes and toiletries.
•    Find out ahead of time the nearest camera stores to your intended destination(s) and write down their telephone number and address. Call them ahead of time to find out if they stock your camera(s) batteries and/or charger(s)
•    Make friends with other photographers. If out spotting, don’t be afraid to ask a fellow spotter for a spare battery (or a compact flash card) if they have compatible camera gear. Knowing your fellow spotters and the gear they shoot can help you in a pinch. Most of us will gladly lend you a hand and you should always return the favor if you can.

Well, that’s about it. Please feel free to share your experiences and tips I did not cover above. Happy spotting!

About the Author

Manny Gonzalez



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