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For the D1, it's a jungle out there  
Monday, August 21, 2000 | by
A total of 12 Nikon D1's, 28 EN-4 batteries, about 120 Lexar Media 160MB cards, 4 Powerbook G3 laptops and 4 VST 25GB FireWire hard drives are currently in the Malaysian rainforest, being used to shoot, edit and store photos of this year's installment of Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000, a grueling, team-based expedition race that got underway yesterday afternoon.

The Arkhaven Group - led by former Washington Times staffer Kevin Gilbert and made up of former Rochester Democrat & Chronicle staffer Reed Hoffmann, Sports Illustrated picture editor Porter Binks and famed Hollywood photographer Vincent Versace - is covering Eco-Challenge in the Malaysian Borneo on nothin'-but-digital for the first time since the event's inception in 1995.

Kevin Gilbert changes CompactFlash cards during pre-race coverage of
Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000. Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Arkhaven Group.

Says Hoffmann, who is shooting his fourth Eco-Challenge:

We've always covered this in a fast-reaction journalistic style, and we're trying to continue that style but with digital cameras. In the past we've mostly shot chrome, but always had a hard time getting film choppered back in from the field, processed and released in good time. In Patagonia last year the local processor ruined four rolls of my best film from high in the Andes, images I couldn't replace. Probably the most interesting part of it all is that we're committed to shooting in the D1's RAW .NEF format for the best possible quality.

Photos shot in the D1's RAW format will be browsed with Photo Mechanic, processed through either MacBibble or Nikon Capture, then made available to media covering the event, to USA Network (which will incorporate the Arkhaven Group's stills into the title sequence of a TV show on Sabah 2000), and for use in various USA Network and Eco-Challenge promotions. While the team is intent on keeping the camera locked to its 2.7r RAW setting, Hoffmann indicates that they may find it necessary to switch to JPEG Fine when shooting certain fast-moving sequences for which the D1's 10 frame RAW buffer wouldn't be sufficient. Images will ultimately be saved using lossless compression: Genuine Fractal's STiNG format.

Reed Hoffmann edits D1 photos using Photo Mechanic software on a
Powerbook G3 laptop. Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Arkhaven Group.

The four photographers face many challenges shooting digital over the 12 days of the race, thanks to its staging on the lightly inhabited east side of the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Hoffmann says their principal concerns stem from the rugged environment, but they've come prepared with the right gear, and lots of it, to ward off most problems:

Our biggest concerns are: Electricity (for charging battery packs, Powerbooks), rain and humidity (it IS a jungle out there, you know - there's a reason they call it a rainforest), heat, mud, bad roads and rough seas (beating the hell out of our gear), running out of cards and filling the buffer while shooting.

Some of the ways we're dealing with these potential problems: We've got Mac G3 laptops, 25GB VST Firewire drives, 30 cards each from Lexar, 7 battery packs per photographer from Nikon (not to mention 3 D1 cameras each!), dry bags from Ortlieb, shipping cases from Pelican, various Lowepro bags (Photo Trekker AW, Stealth Reporters, plus Street and Field bags, belts and harnesses) for both transport on the plane as well as to work out of and, most importantly, clothing by Columbia Sportswear (we're stylin' out here!). The Ortlieb bags saved us when we took a dive boat out to the first stop of the race, and we got completely soaked from the spray bouncing through the waves! In addition, I've always shot microdrives with the D1, and am enjoying the tougher cards. It's nice to know that if I drop one or get it wet it will probably be okay.

Yesterday I had to cover a river crossing in the middle of the rainforest. I was choppered in early, and was there all day. I had to keep crossing the river, and fell several times due to the strong current (some of the teams fell too, so it's not that I'm just clumsy!). Luckily, I had all my camea gear in Lowepro bags inside an Ortlieb Pro Packer dry bag backpack, and not a drop got in. Then the rain came, and I dumped everything but one D1 with a 17-35 into the bag and just left it out in the rain, while I shot from under a small umbrella. The combo also made it easy getting in and out of the choppers, being able to toss the Ortlieb backpack into the back with no worries. Oh yeah, let's not forget my driver backed his jeep over that Ortlieb bag yesterday morning. It had gear and a D1 in it. Nothing was damaged, and now I have a nice tire tread across the backpack! I think what saved it was the bag was well sealed, so the air inside prevented the gear from being crushed.

Two of the Macs have FireWire, and we've paired them with two Firewire drives for redundant backup (very cool running just hooking up the Firewire and going!). Of the other two laptops, one is running with a VST internal CD-burner (4X) for daily back-ups, and the other is burning CD's to an external CD burner. Obviously, getting to the laptops every day or two and being able to download and back up are high priorities in planning our coverage of the race. In the past, I've been out for up to five days shooting before getting back to civilization. That would be hard to do with digital.

Kevin Gilbert hands a Nikon D1 to an assistant during
preparations for coverage of Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000.
Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Arkhaven Group.

This is Gilbert's fifth Eco-Challenge (he began covering the event before leaving the Washington Times in 1998); Binks and Hoffmann are both shooting it for the fourth time, while it is Versace's first time out. Eco-Challenge is the brainchild of Mark Burnett, better known as the producer of the hit summer reality show Survivor.

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