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What I learned from my camera-crippled vacay

A forgotten charger leaves photo bug Stephen Shankland in the lurch. But he gets a lesson in restraint, SLRs, and e-shopping.

Il Duomo, Gubbio, Italy
Il Duomo, Gubbio, Italy Stephen Shankland/CNET

Suppose for a moment you're a photography enthusiast headed off for a visually extravagant vacation week in Italy: medieval hilltop villages, 2,000-year-old Roman buildings, Easter in Rome at St. Peter's Basilica.

Then imagine that halfway through the first day you realize your camera's battery charger is sitting at home in your desk drawer.

You didn't even charge the camera before you left, and you're already down to three-quarters capacity because you failed to top up after shooting a couple hundred photos of a cute baby elephant and other zoo delights.

You probably won't be surprised to hear that I was distressed to find myself in that plight in April. But my ordeal actually turned out to be a good thing -- eventually.

Here's what I learned from the episode.

1. It's good to exercise restraint

I have no desire to return to the film era of photography. But one thing was good about it: film and development costs instilled a natural tendency to be careful with your shots.

Knowing how many Roman ruins, baroque churches, and ancient olive groves lay before me, it was clear that my three-quarters battery charge imposed a similar constraint.

my precious camera battery charger
My precious camera battery charger Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

When I'm visiting interesting areas, I'm accustomed to shooting a lot and working out what's good or bad later when I move the photos to the computer. I often start out by being more judicious, but as the day wears on, I'll just shoot a bunch of photos of a particular subject with the expectation that I'll find out later which shots are good or interesting.

With my battery problem, though, I tried to be more disciplined. I'd ask myself whether a particular shot would really stand the test of time. I have a documentary impulse -- my photos are my diary -- but I can take things too far, and my diary "entries" can get a little long. In general, when looking at my pictures a year or two after I took them, I'm sometimes embarrassed by how many pictures I snapped of some castle or mountain range.

To be clear, there are plenty of circumstances when it's still appropriate to shoot lots of photos. People and animals move around and show enough peculiar expressions that you can't assure yourself a good shot. But even in that circumstance, I tried to position myself more carefully in advance and figure out which shots I really wanted. If you can shoot smarter to start with, you also save time on the computer afterward.

My photography habit helps me look more carefully at what's around me. The battery meant being more careful about actually taking the shot, too.

Pantheon, Rome
Pantheon, Rome Stephen Shankland/CNET

2. SLRs still are awesome

I understand that mobile phones are taking over most mainstream photography, and indeed I use them more and more often. But smartphones just don't cut it yet when you need low-light performance, fast focusing on moving subjects, and ultrawide or supertelephoto views. When I'm shooting, I usually carry an SLR and two or three lenses. Yes, I'm one of those dorks still lugging around one of those hulking, old-school, button-studded hunks of electronics and glass.

I've long known, but only this time really appreciated, one big advantage of SLRs: they use comparatively little power.

I almost always shoot using the optical viewfinder, which unlike a camera-back display or electronic viewfinder consumes no power. But there's more that can be done: I set my camera to skip the two-second review that displays each image on the back screen after it's shot. I curtailed my practice of reviewing shots for focus and exposure and for deleting some duds. My Canon 5D Mark III lacks Wi-Fi and GPS, but I'd have disabled those if it had them.

The new school of photography is moving toward "mirrorless" cameras that are more compact than SLRs. That's because they don't need the bulky reflex mirror that an SLR uses to direct light through the optical viewfinder. Their smaller size makes them particularly appealing for travel photography. They still have relatively large sensors for high image quality, and they come with a growing range of good lenses for flexibility, too. I'm tempted, especially now that models such as Fujifilm's X-T1 are starting to fulfill the category's promise.

But boy, am I glad I didn't have one in Italy. The X-T1 is rated for 350 shots, for example -- it already would have been mostly drained by the zoo trip before.

Sure, I remember the days when film SLRs came with a tiny coin battery I'd change every couple years to run the power-sipping, crude, built-in light meter. Advancing the film was the job of my thumb, and I thought about power limits as much as I worried about plugging in a piano.

In today's cameras, wireless networks, GPS, touch-screen interfaces, and other electronics threaten to worsen power consumption and make my camera as battery-constrained as my smartphone. But for now, my throwback machine came through with flying colors.

Orvieto cathedral
Orvieto cathedral, Umbria Stephen Shankland/CNET

3. The Internet has its limits

We divided our week between rural Umbria to the north of Rome and then Rome itself. When I realized my battery plight, the first thing I did was to start scouring the Net for a way to buy my way out of trouble.

No dice. Unless I wanted to stay home all day, there was no way to get something delivered. Google's mapping and translation services have helped me tremendously in foreign lands, but they fell short when it came time for finding a higher-end shop that would have my gear and finding whether it was open. A couple of archived forum discussions on Yelp and helped some, but they were rather out of date.

The one store that was practical to reach turned out to be closed -- but I couldn't tell that online before I went there. Ultimately, with time constraints and extra closures because of the Easter holiday, I decided to tough it out and see if I could last the week.

Bernini's Four Rivers fountain, Rome
Bernini's Four Rivers fountain, Rome Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

4. Technology can fix this

Ultimately this was my fault, of course. But it did get me thinking about ways this might not have been as big a problem as it was.

More-flexible charging, for example, could help. My camera uses a proprietary battery with a proprietary charger, but wireless charging or charging over a standard USB cable would have been very handy. In fact, it would be very handy all the time, not just when hasty packing leaves me in the lurch.

Better mobile-phone photography also would be good. I'm delighted with the progress of smartphone cameras, even though I'm skeptical they'll be able to match SLRs in all scenarios in the foreseeable future. But their steady improvement makes them a better fallback when theft, carelessness, hardware malfunction, or a maxed-out flash card takes out your main camera.

E-commerce could do a better job, too. Maybe in a few years, when Amazon and its ilk have even more power over brick-and-mortar stores, and drones can deliver packages to wherever you happen to be standing, forgetfulness won't be as much of a problem.

Until then, I guess I'd better figure out how to make a travel checklist.