Taking Your Photos With You

WD My Cloud service

WD MyPassport Wireless Pro

For the location photographer, getting photographs and videos back to the studio or to the client is oftentimes more daunting of a challenge than the actual creative assignment. The files created by still cameras and video cameras keep getting larger as sensor sizes and video resolutions increase.

While a lot of location work has the luxury of a timeline long enough that driving or flying back to the studio to edit and deliver images isn’t a problem, increasingly clients are requiring images to be delivered as soon as the shoot is complete.

In fact, many clients are requiring delivery of at least a few select images while an event is occurring. Years ago, I was shooting marketing and PR images for a major airline—documenting their charitable events and employee programs—and thanks to the pressures of social media, they began asking for a selection of shots to be delivered before the shoot was done. With the proliferation of camera phones, the company wanted to have its official, well-composed images online before rushed snapshots started to dominate social media coverage.

This presented some logistical challenges, as budgets were only big enough for a single photographer to cover any given event, and airport wireless accounts are notoriously poor. While I had access to the club lounge, and often to the company offices, the connections there were no better than those in the concourse.

On one memorable shoot, an off-airport toy drive at a high school where the company needed multiple shots at full resolution before the close of day on the East Coast, there was no on-site WiFi, so I left the event and drove as fast as legally allowed to the nearest Starbucks, where I mooched its free and relatively fast internet connection.

While trying to upload a 4K video for our YouTube channel while in a hotel in Las Vegas for a trade show, I found the upstream connection was so bad in my room, I calculated it would actually have been faster to fly home and go to my home office, where I have a 750 MB/s connection to upload the video.

Technology is improving, and so there are more ways to gather and deliver images than simply driving to a coffee shop (though that’s still a good technique, and I’ll talk more about that in a bit), but it’s still challenging to get files to their destination.

Off The Camera

The first challenge facing the location shooter is the task of getting files from the camera to the computer at a speed fast enough to keep up with the pace of a shoot. There are three ways to move files from a camera: 1) connecting a cable to the camera; 2) using built-in wireless transfer; and 3) removing the media card from the camera and using a card reader.

Theoretically, wireless transfer would seem like the logical best way to move files off of a camera thanks to the lack of cables involved and the elimination of the need to take a card out of the camera.

Streambox backpack-based transmission system

Unfortunately, wireless connectivity in today’s cameras is generally extremely limited. Most of the cameras with built-in WiFi have limited signal strength and throughput, limiting the speed at which files can be shared, and most of the camera interfaces require users to establish a direct wireless connection to the camera, which requires intervention (turn on WiFi on the camera, open the phone’s preferences and turn on WiFi, connect to the camera, switch to the app, and so on) and prevents the computer or smartphone from connecting with the internet at the same time. The next Bluetooth standard will be much faster, but it will be a long time before it’s available pervasively.

Also unfortunate is the state of today’s mobile apps for file transfer, many of which have kludgey interfaces and which often lack the ability to transfer video. Mobile devices like tablets seems like an ideal platform for image editing and delivery, but the fact that mobile devices lack the storage needed to handle the entirety of a big shoot prevents them from being used in high-volume shoots.

Plugging in a camera has some limitations as well because many cameras are only equipped with USB 2.0, which operates too slowly to transfer a ton of high-resolution files quickly. Cameras with USB 3.0 are much better at moving large files around, but it’s difficult to connect a camera to a mobile device, and even while connected to a computer for full USB 3 transfer speeds, the camera is forced to sit inoperable while the files transfer. (Quick note, many location shooters who can sacrifice the mobility can opt to shoot in tethered mode with programs like Capture One Pro, where the files are transferred to a computer with each shutter press and then can be sent to clients.)

Some pro cameras have either built-in or optional Ethernet and WiFi transmitters that can connect to a network for simultaneous capture and transfer via a protocol like FTP, but this requires the on-location availability of an Ethernet cable or private WiFi hotspot and a server at the studio or at the client configured and waiting for these files to be uploaded. Many high-profile sporting events do provide dedicated high-speed connection for the network and wire photographers, but this isn’t the norm.

In many cases, photographers simply stop occasionally and transfer images to a computer. This is one of the reasons why many photographers were angry when Apple removed the SD card slot from the revised MacBook Pro. I’ve spent many a shoot with my laptop open in a camera bag (a shirt over the keyboard so the lid wouldn’t close all the way and put the laptop to sleep) ingesting images into a photo editing app, while I filled another card. (See our review of the MacBook Pro on the DPP YouTube channel.)

Apple MacBook Pro
Apple MacBook Pro

An interesting interim image transfer solution is the Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro, an unassuming little hard drive with a built-in battery, SD slot and WiFi connectivity that allows shooters to insert cards and have them automatically import to the drive.

The My Passport Wireless Pro can be configured via a mobile or laptop dashboard to both connect to an available WiFi access point and provide pass-through WiFi for up to eight of a photographer’s devices. Show up at a sporting event, for example, configure the drive to access the location’s WiFi, and then connect your laptop to the separate My Passport Wireless Pro WiFi hotspot and insert a card. The drive can automatically import images, and then you can send files off without switching access points. The drive works with the WD My Cloud service and also connects to Adobe Creative Cloud. It also has a built-in battery that powers the drive and any connected mobile devices.

WD My Cloud service
WD MyPassport Wireless Pro

Getting The Right Connection

The next hurdle in the file-transfer chain is the biggest: moving files from a location to a client wirelessly. It doesn’t matter if you show up with a camera connected to a WiFi transmitter and have a server configured in your studio to receive files if you can’t access the internet.

A slew of broadband technology is beginning to converge into a standard that will someday be the replacement to both current WiFi and mobile connections, but it’s not ready for production yet. Called 5G, the standard is poised to replace both the 4G LTE connection protocol that’s in cell phones now and the internet connection your provider brings to your house. The throughput requirements for 5G call for 1 GB/s speeds inside an installed location and 100 MB/s or better in urban areas.

That’s a few years off, which means that now photographers have to cobble together connectivity options.

Of course, another option is to make a Starbucks run, like I did on my airline shoot. In fact, whenever I’m scouting a location for a shoot, I make a point of trying out the local coffee shops and restaurants to check the speed of their WiFi. Starbucks and the Apple Store often have the best speeds in any given area, but good speeds can often be found in hotels and shopping malls as well. I’ve had more than one leisurely meal at a restaurant with good connectivity while a shoot uploaded.

Another good way to get access in a variety of spots, especially on the East Coast, is to get internet service from a provider like Optimum or Time Warner that allows subscribers to hop onto their publicly available spots. Optimum installs a public internet point with every customer connection, which means Optimum users can log on with their billing user name and password, and access the internet anywhere someone has an Optimum, Time Warner or other sharing service. I maintain an Optimum account simply for the access it provides me when I travel.

The website speedtest.net is a good tool for judging throughput speeds from a given location, but be sure to check the upload speed, not the download speed. Most access points optimize the download transfer speed but have more limited upstream throughput, which, of course, is the most important for sending data.

Another often-used solution is to tether a phone or tablet to a computer to transmit data over LTE, and the speeds are often better than a local WiFi spot. There’s a huge cost associated with using your data plan, so be sure to build any costs of using your connectivity into your invoices.

Many photographers turn to mobile hotspot devices, which are available from all the major cell service providers, but they’re also very expensive. Expect to pay around $100 to $150 for up to 25 GB of data transfer. That’s costly for the individual shooter, but certainly reasonable when remote delivery is required.

For very high transmission needs, where cost isn’t an issue but reliability is, a few companies provide portable hotspots that can aggregate several LTE and WiFi connections together for faster throughput.

 JVC GY-HM890 ProHD Bridge
JVC GY-HM890 ProHD Bridge

At a recent trade show, JVC showed off its ProHD Bridge solutions, mobile access points that can “bond” the signal from its video cameras together and transmit live video, and also provide an access point to a connected laptop. For on-location video work, it’s a great way to get footage delivered. The company Streambox makes a backpack-based transmission system that includes up to 10 3G/4G modems to allow streaming video in areas with very poor coverage, or in places where a lot of videographers and photographers are jockeying for the same access points, and several manufacturers makes similar backpack systems.The technology of communicating data always seems to lag a bit behind the technology of creating the data. There’s a certain “which came first, the chicken or the egg” to the need to shuttle data from place to place. Before there are massive files that need to get somewhere right now, there isn’t a need to create a way to move them.

Until every camera comes with a 5G connection and instant syncing to the internet, we’re going to be running around to get things delivered to clients. Sometimes the solutions will be onsite, and sometimes they’re going to require a trip to a coffee shop, but at least you’ll be able to lament the problems with image transfer while sipping a latte.

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