When my wife and I took a fly-and-drive vacation to the Pacific Northwest last year, I had no problem figuring out what to do with the photos from my digital camera. I packed a laptop PC and dumped my camera's memory card to the hard drive when it was full.
From our hotel rooms, I could transfer the best shots to a photo-sharing service to make sure they wouldn't get lost or ruined by an electronic glitch or airport security systems. The only heavy-duty laptop lugging involved getting the computer from the airport to our car on both ends.
Unfortunately, this year's trip -- a typical tourist trek to Rome, Florence and Venice with a stopover in London -- didn't lend itself to lugging a laptop. I figured that traveling by rail in Europe with a couple of big suitcases was enough of a hassle without adding a bag full of computer gear. And I was right.
That left two problems -- making sure I could take all the digital photos I wanted and keeping them safe.
One solution was to buy memory cards with enough capacity to store everything I shot. Even a year ago, that would have been outrageously expensive, but the price of camera memory has dropped precipitously. CompactFlash cards with 128 megabytes of storage are available for about $50, while 256MB cards sell for $80.
How many photos is that? It depends on the resolution of your camera and the level of compression and image quality you choose. At its default setting, a typical 4-megapixel camera can store about 90 shots on a 128-megabite card, the equivalent of almost four standard rolls of 35 mm film.
But most digital cameras have a review screen that lets you delete bad shots immediately. So, if the quality of your picture-taking is like mine (meaning that a lot of shots get tossed), a 128MB card is more like the equivalent of five to six rolls of film. Better yet, once you've transferred the photos to a safe place, you can erase them from the card and reuse the memory. That's one reason the traditional film business is sinking like a stone these days.
Unfortunately, on a trip like ours, this modus operandi would have required considerable faith in the camera's memory cards. I've never had one go bad, but I'm paranoid about the possible effects of X-rays and other detectors at airports these days. Many airports warn travelers not to pack film in their luggage because the powerful X-ray machines they use on baggage can ruin the images. I didn't want to be the first to find out that a nifty new bomb detector zaps flash memory, too.
So, I looked for a safe backup scheme. In Rome, it was a hole-in-the-wall photo shop, where I stopped in on a whim and asked the clerk if she could transfer photos from a memory card to a CD. A compact disk is made of plastic -- it's a non-magnetic, optical medium that's impervious to almost everything short of a hammer or flame.
Much to my surprise the clerk said it wouldn't be a problem. She disappeared into a tiny alcove behind a curtain, and 10 minutes and $7 later, I had a CD with copies of 182 shots from three memory cards.
But I still wasn't satisfied. Europe was in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave. What if the CD melted? (Yes, I'm really paranoid about this stuff.) The best way to make sure my pictures survived the trip was to upload them to ClubPhoto.com, the picture-sharing Web site I use at home.
That meant finding an Internet cafe -- which turned out to be fairly easy. But I quickly discovered that the price of Internet access varies enough to make shopping around worthwhile.
Our hotel in London, for example, had Internet PCs in a niche off the lobby. They were convenient, but the hotel charged $7.50 for 15 minutes of connect time -- a pretty stiff price for checking e-mail and prohibitive for photo uploading.
By way of contrast, five minutes away from our hotel in Florence we found an Internet cafe that charged only $4 an hour for DSL-level connect speed. Much better. Like the rest of that beautiful old city, it was jammed with college kids, so I felt like something of an antique when I walked in.
But the main problem wasn't fitting in -- it was finding a PC with a working CD-ROM drive. Most of the shop's machines were state-of-the-art back in 1998, so it took four tries before the manager located one with a CD that would spin. But an hour later, my best shots were safely stored on a server in the United States.
The fellow next to me didn't have as much luck. He figured he could bring his camera into the cafe, hook it to a PC with a USB cable, and e-mail his photos home. Unfortunately, USB ports weren't standard equipment on Italian PCs when most of the vintage computers in this shop were built.
When he did find a newer model with a USB port, it wouldn't recognize his camera. Computers running Windows ME or XP automatically communicate with newer digital cameras and treat their memory cards as disk drives. But all of these machines were running Windows 98, which requires a special driver for each type of camera. So, he was stuck.
It was a good lesson. If you're traveling with a digital camera and you're counting on uploading your photos en route, you may want to put them on disk as an intermediate step.
In the end, I probably needn't have worried. My compact flash cards made it home without a glitch, and so did the CD. But in exchange for two hours of time and $12 or so, I made sure the memories of that wonderful trip would survive. That's pretty cheap insurance.