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South Africa in 11.3 Billion Pixels

After downloading the last batch of digital photos from my trip to South Africa, I discovered that my wife and I shot 2,272 pictures, or roughly 11.3 billion pixels’ worth of landscapes, rhinos, elephants, lions, and of course, family. As I mentioned in the article I wrote before leaving (see "Buying My Canon PowerShot S2 IS"), most of those shots were captured with a camera that I purchased expressly for this trip. I still have a lot of sorting and evaluating of pictures ahead of me, even several months later, but I want to follow up my first article by sharing some of my experiences with the camera, as well as a few lessons learned about shooting digital photography in the wild.


Since my trip in November of 2005, Canon released an updated version of the S2 IS, the PowerShot S3 IS, which offers 6-megapixel (MP) resolution versus the S2’s 5 MP; an ISO 800 setting for shooting low-light or fast-action situations (the S2 maxes out at ISO 400); higher video recording quality; a larger 2-inch LCD screen; a black camera body instead of silver; and a few other small changes. The changes aren’t significant enough for me to consider upgrading my current model, but if I were starting a camera search from scratch, I’d probably buy the S3.

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The controls and design appear to be the same with both cameras, so I’m going to assume that my impressions of the S2 generally apply to the S3 as well.

Usability — While preparing for the trip last year, I edited the second edition of Laurence Chen’s ebook "Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera, version 2.0," which launched me on the quest to buy a new camera in the first place. In it, Larry emphasizes the importance of usability, of how well the camera operates in day-to-day use. With the S2, I found the control layout functional and handy.

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For example, one important feature for me was the capability to switch to manual focus mode. The S2 IS doesn’t include a focus ring around the lens barrel as you’d find on a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) model; instead, you press and hold the MF button with your left hand, and use a four-way rocker switch with your right thumb to adjust the focus. A large area of the LCD zooms to give you a close-up of what you’re shooting to help you discern the focus level (a feature I wish was present on my older digital camcorder). With a little practice, I was able to manipulate the manual focus controls without looking at them, allowing me to pay attention to what was in the viewfinder.

I also frequently employed a focus feature that I wasn’t aware of at first: with automatic focus enabled, press the Set button and use the rocker switch to move a small green rectangle on the screen to indicate which area has focus priority. Shooting close-up photos of a lizard, for example, was made easier with this feature, and didn’t require that I set the focus manually. And because the Set button is placed just below the rocker switch, I could locate it by touch.

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Another example of good usability is another button on the back, easily accessible with my right thumb, to which I could map a number of the camera’s features. I set it to control ISO (shutter speed), which was useful when trying to shoot in low-light conditions or objects at high speed. Instead of navigating menus (which is always a pain), one button shuttled through the ISO settings.

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Features in the Wild — The S2 IS features a fast shot-to-shot mode that can capture approximately 2.4 images per second. When we tracked down a pride of lions in the Sabi Sands reserve, I used this feature extensively – these were the first lions we’d encountered close-up. The downside was that I nearly filled my 512 MB card, and I had forgotten to bring the backup card. I could have switched the shooting options to capture smaller-resolution pictures, or pictures with more compression, but… these were lions in the wild!

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After a short while, I realized that although we were in the middle of their territory, the lions didn’t actually pay much attention to the Land Rover we were in. And, because it was still early evening, they were particularly languorous. While they lazed about, I deleted some shots in the camera to make room, and ended up with enough space on the card to last the rest of the night’s excursion.

Another feature I appreciated was the camera’s relatively silent operation. Unlike a film camera, there’s no audible click when you take a picture. (There is a simulated click sound, but I turned off the silly sound effects when the camera first arrived.) I can hear the zoom motor engage when I’m in a quiet environment and I’m looking through the viewfinder, but otherwise the camera is quiet.

Normally, sound isn’t important, but one of the safari trips we took was a walking tour at Imfolozi. Unlike the other trips, where we rode around in Land Rovers, at Imfolozi we stayed at a central camp and then took hiking excursions into the bush. We were very much in the wild, led by two guides packing large rifles. Important guidelines are stressed at the beginning for how to act when you encounter an animal: never run, because running turns you into prey; hold your ground and stare down a lion, even if it attempts to intimidate you with a "mock charge;" if you come across a leopard, however, keep walking slowly and don’t make eye contact, which can be interpreted as a challenge. This rule was put to the test when we stumbled upon a black rhino, which is more aggressive than the more common white rhino. Rhinos have poor eyesight but excellent hearing, so we were told to find cover behind some nearby scrub trees and remain still. As the rhino investigated, I was able to shoot some photos without worrying that the sound would alert it to our location. After a few tense minutes, our guides finally chased it away by making a ruckus and throwing rocks.

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Finally, I’m almost embarrassed to say that the camera’s digital zoom feature genuinely surprised me. Digital zoom is something I disable right away, because it generally results in muddled photos: the camera’s image processor interpolates the pixels to simulate a more powerful zoom.

However, Kim and I went in search of hippos near the town of St. Lucia, where we were told they like to hang out. At first looking like a small clump of wet rocks, we found a trio of hippos lying partially exposed in an inlet. With the camera’s normal 12x zoom, you could certainly tell that they were hippos, but they weren’t very large in the frame. With nothing to lose (and bytes to burn on my memory card), I switched on the digital zoom feature. The images are slightly fuzzy, as I would expect, but they look more as if I hadn’t focused properly than blocky pixelation. I still can’t recommend digital zoom wholeheartedly, but it could mean the difference between getting a half-decent shot or nothing. I’m glad to see that the technology is progressing.

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Wild Pixel Storage — Unlike shooting on film, digital photography presents the problem of storage; you can’t just roll film canisters into your socks in the suitcase. Again heeding Larry’s advice, I brought two 512 MB SD memory cards, which worked out wonderfully. When one filled up, I could switch to the other and keep shooting. My 15-inch PowerBook G4 came along so that I could off-load the memory cards and store the photos on the hard drive using iPhoto. The only change I’d make for future trips is to ensure that I have plenty of free hard drive space available; toward the end of the trip, I found myself burning other data such as music files and old photos to DVD discs to make room for the new photos.

I also brought along my iPod and an Apple iPod Camera Connector, which was handy during excursions where it was impractical to bring the laptop. The iPod Camera Connector is a simple little USB adapter that enables you to connect a camera to the iPod and download photos to the iPod’s hard drive. It drains the iPod’s battery pretty aggressively, but it enabled me to do the three-day walking tour without dragging the PowerBook along.


Parting Shot — My only truly negative opinion of the PowerShot S2 IS is the poor design of the lens cap: it just doesn’t stay on well. A small amount of felt provides a little friction around the lens barrel, but it was constantly popping off and exposing the lens to the elements. I’ve heard that one workaround is to apply a couple layers of electrical tape to augment the felt; now that I’m back from the trip, I keep the camera in a small neoprene case that prevents the lens cap from detaching while the camera is in my computer bag.

I don’t have a background in photography, so for me the S2 was incredibly easy to use and produced, if I may say so, outstanding images (one of which even won an award after Larry browbeat me into entering it in a photo contest!). Although my trip to South Africa has made me wonder if I should explore the notion of moving up to a digital SLR, for now I’m wedded to the S2’s smaller size and great usability.

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