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Covering Eco-Challenge a digital challenge  
Thursday, October 18, 2001 | by
The course features 3000 metre alpine peaks, waist deep glacier-fed rivers and winds of up to 200 km/h. This year's Eco-Challenge, being held in the mountainous regions of New Zealand's South Island, is truly a challenge for the 70+ teams that have flocked here for the 12 day adventure race.

Photographing the event is equally challenging. It requires keeping pace with the adventure racers over the 350 km course, shooting, editing and transmitting photos along the way. Eco-Challenge is tailor-made for digital, and is being shot filmless for the second year in a row.

Rob Galbraith works the Nikon D1X and AF-S 500mm f/4 II

Keeping an all-digital shooting team operational at an extreme event like this is no small feat. Blue Pixel, the group of 7 digital still photographers, including myself, covering Eco-Challenge for USA Network, Discovery Canada, Sony AXN and others this year, have assembled some of the best hardware and software available to capture, edit and store the gigabytes and gigabytes of photos generated each day. This article provides an overview of the photo and computer gear supporting the efforts of Porter Binks, Kevin Gilbert, Reed Hoffmann, Jeff Lawrence, Corey Rich, Tim Wimborne and myself.

Eco-Challenge Gear List

Each photographer on the course is equipped with enough cameras, lenses, flashes, CompactFlash cards, computers, peripherals and outdoor gear to handle just about anything. Even prior to Sunday's race start, Blue Pixel shooters have already hung from helicopters, pounded down rocky trails on ATV's and photographed white water rafting - from the raft.

A dirt-covered Reed Hoffmann and the ATV's

Here's a sampling of the equipment found in the backpacks, waist belts, shoulder bags and Pelican cases of each Blue Pixel photographer.

Cameras, Lenses, Flashes and Accessories

It all starts with the camera. Here, the decision was easy: Nikon's D1X is the only digital SLR that delivers high-resolution images, good portability, a decent frame rate and the durability needed to withstand New Zealand's uncertain springtime weather in the mountains. Gilbert, Hoffmann and Binks used the original D1 to cover Eco-Challenge in the humid, jungle conditions of the Malaysian Borneo last year, and the cameras performed without a hitch, so the D1X is a pretty good bet here. The kit of Nikon gear includes:

  • 2 or 3 - Nikon D1X digital SLR cameras
  • 6 - Nikon EN-4 batteries
  • 1 - Nikkor 14mm f/2.8
  • 1 - AF-S Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8
  • 1 - AF-S Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8
  • 1 - AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/4 II
  • 1 - AF-S Nikkor TC-14E II
  • 1 - AF-S Nikkor TC-20E II
  • 2 - SB-28DX
  • 1 - SC-17 off-camera cable

In addition, some photographers are carrying Nikon F5 film cameras (otherwise known as "the paperweights" around this group), specialty lenses, Ewa-Marine housings, PocketWizard MultiMax radio remotes and more. Hoodman Hoodcaps are protecting the rear LCD monitor of some cameras. Digital Camera Battery packs, 2 per each photographer slated to spend the longest time away from AC power, complete w/worldwide charger and cables for the SB-28DX and D1X, round out the basic equipment set.

Kevin Gilbert photographs helicopter rescue training

CompactFlash Cards

It's hard to imagine something so small could be so integral to the success of Blue Pixel's digital coverage. Photos from the event are destined for large and small print uses, all of them requiring maximum image quality. Key situations, called epic shots in the TV parlance used heavily by those involved in the production of Eco-Challenge, are being shot as NEF format RAW files, 7.7MB each as written to the card. Core race coverage will be recorded as JPEG Fine files, around 2.5MB when stored. Each shooter is carrying 3.5GB to 6GB worth of image storage.

Jeff Lawrence on the rocks

Photographers like Corey Rich, who will spend most of his time shooting the potentially treacherous alpine sections of the course, are loaded up with enough cards to enable multi-day shooting between download sessions. Big, fast and reliable CompactFlash is a must at Eco-Challenge. Lexar Media 12X CompactFlash, in 256MB, 320MB and 512MB capacities, are the primary card in use. Also to be found in the D1X's here are 512MB cards from Sandisk and Perfect Pix 320MB cards from Think Computer Products.

Computer Hardware and Software

With thousands of high-resolution photos being generated each day, my biggest fear preparing for Eco-Challenge is that the workflow would quickly become buried in pixels. Transferring images from card to computer, sorting and captioning them, transmitting keepers via wireless phone, storing them on RAID drives, writing them out to DVD and cataloging them all takes time. As one of the Blue Pixelites responsible for developing the workflow, I'm pleased to report that it looks like the assembled collection of hardware and software components is going to work well. Here are some of the tools we're using:

Apple Powerbook G4/400 Titanium laptops with 640MB or 1GB of Think RAM are the primary editing stations; several iBook G3/500 laptops with 320MB RAM are on hand too. This is a crew of Mac users, so staying on this platform was considered key to ensuring that shooters could embrace and adhere to the workflow.

Lexar Media FireWire CompactFlash card readers whisk images from card to computer. FireWire readers are a must for moving lots of big files quickly.

Think Fire-n-Ice 30GB and 48GB mobile FireWire drives, as well a prototype dual-75GB FireWire RAID array, are used for the storage of images, as well as the transfer of images from photographers in the field back to Blue Pixel HQ. The mobile drives have already proven themselves indispensable. Photographers copy all the photos off their cards to a daily folder on the computer's internal hard drive, edit, IPTC caption and rename them, then copy the day's take to a mobile FireWire drive. The daily folder on the mobile drive is then moved to the RAID array's drives.

Normally, I'd be pushing for a 100BT network to be set up so that photographers could copy photos across a fast network, but the remote nature of this event, and the speed of the FireWire drives, has so far made them a much better choice for moving pictures. They've also provided a welcome level of redundancy; if photographers shoot the amount of frames we've predicted, then a complete set of each photographer's photos will reside on the RAID at HQ, on each photographer's FireWire drive, plus the key selects will remain on each photographer's computer hard drive. Backup of images is critical; the Think Fire-n-Ice drives have made this too easy, and have performed flawlessly as well.

As the race progresses, DVDs will be burned using Roxio Toast Titanium 5.02 via a LaCie DVD/CD Rewritable Drive. Approximately 60 DVD discs, 3 identical sets for distribution, will be burned in all. We could definitely use a second DVD writer, but it wasn't in the budget.

Depending on where the images are destined, some NEFs will be converted to high-quality JPEGs using Nikon Capture 2.01 and MacBibble 1.99. We're still fine-tuning the conversion process, but the current plan is to use the batch processing function of Capture to handle the bulk of image conversion duties; MacBibble so far has played a role in the quick previewing of NEFs, as well as for processing out 30MB finished files from frames destined to be used BIG.

A private beta version of Photo Mechanic Pro for Mac has been a real boon in the handling of a mix of D1X JPEG and NEF files. It includes some new and nifty NEF browsing and previewing features that form the core of a future release of Photo Mechanic, in addition to intelligent captioning options that make attaching IPTC information to thousands of photos simplicity itself. Without Photo Mechanic Pro the editing workflow would be ugly.

iView MediaPro 1.2 for Mac will catalog the thousands of JPEGs and NEFs destined for DVD. The latest release of MediaPro can create preview-size 320 pixel wide thumbnails from both D1X JPEGs and NEFs, and do it quickly, as well as extract IPTC and shooting information, making it the ideal adjunct to Photo Mechanic Pro in this workflow. MediaPro catalogs will be distributed along with the DVDs so that art directors can make their initial selections from within MediaPro itself, then grab the originals from the DVDs from there.

Adobe Photoshop 6.01 is the image editor of course, though very little tonal and colour adjustment of images will be done. Photographers are expected to get it right in the camera, just as if they were shooting slide film, to minimize the amount of post-processing required before DVD burning.

We also have on hand a cool setup for recovering images from CompactFlash cards should a problem surface, one that can be done from a Mac without limitations. How this works and the tools required will be the focus of a November story on this site, so I won't say more until then (which also gives me a chance to discover and work out any bugs in the process).

Last but not least, the way-cool Kensington FlyLight Notebook USB Light will be illuminating keyboards in the tents, snow caves and camper vans of Blue Pixel shooters.

Outdoor Gear

Eco-Challenge is taking place in New Zealand this year, but if you stepped off a plane here you'd be forgiven for thinking you're in Columbia. That's because every one of the 1000+ folks involved in Eco Challenge are sporting something from the US outdoor gear company. The Columbia logo is everywhere. Columbia has absolutely bombarded this event with their product: shell pants, windbreakers, parkas, fleece vests, fleece coats, sweaters, t-shirts, light hikers, hats, backpacks and more. The load of swag, as this form of sponsor largesse is called, is unbelievable. Fortunately, Columbia makes nice stuff, which means Blue Pixel shooters looks pretty good, right down to our spiffy team jackets (below).

Logos, logos everywhere

Warm outdoor clothing is only the beginning. To emerge from the elements unscathed, Blue Pixel shooters are toting an array of survival gear. There are too many items to list them all, but a couple are worthy of mention. Exped tents and Exped sleeping bags will keep photographers dry and warm during overnight stays along the course. After that, it's a sea of crampons, shovels and ice axes through to bug spray, neoprene boots and sunscreen.

To keep the camera and computer gear intact, a multitude of different packs from LowePro have been pressed into service. The Pro Roller 2, Road Runner AW and Stealth AW were used by several Blue Pixel shooters to transport equipment from North America; once here, that gear has been transferred to a combination of Street and Field pouches hooked to Deluxe Waist Belts, Madison 1400 AW backpacks, Orion fanny packs and more.

The 2001 Eco-Challenge New Zealand event kicks off Sunday, October 21. Lead teams are expected to cross the finish line six days later, with race cut off set for about 6 days after that. Two more stories on Blue Pixel's coverage of the adventure race are planned over the next couple of weeks, in which I'll look at how the gear actually performed, as well as show some of the D1X photos taken by Blue Pixel shooters. You'll also find regular coverage of our exploits on Nikon.Net/Photo District News.

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