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Digital Camera Battery powers cameras, flashes and more  
Friday, June 8, 2001 | by
Over the past dozen years, my camera bag has been graced with no fewer than eight different external battery packs, most of them from Quantum, and all with a single purpose for me: to power a specific digital camera, or to boost the capacity and shorten the recycling time of an electronic flash.

The batteries' single purpose comes from their single voltage; the 6 volt packs can power only devices designed for 6 volts, the 9 volt packs can power only 9 volt devices, and so on. Shooting a nighttime river rescue one chilly winter's evening with an NC 2000e, DCS 520 and two shoe-mounted flashes, it dawned on me that having to carry three different battery packs - a Quantum QB5 for the NC 2000e, QB2 for the DCS 520 and Dynalite Jackrabbit for the strobes - to keep the cameras operational in the cold and the flashes recycling fast in available darkness didn't make much sense.

Why couldn't one type of battery do it all? Not only would it lighten the load in the field, but it would also mean not having to wrestle with incompatible chargers back at home base. And with luck, it would also eliminate the need to purchase a new external pack every time a new digital camera was introduced.

[Image]
30 watt Digital Camera Battery mated to a Nikon D1

Enter the US$250 Digital Camera Battery. By using a switching power supply in the battery for each output port (and placing the voltage transformer in the cable itself for devices operating above 16v), its creator Tim Dodge has built a single pack that can drive most anything that runs on DC power. This includes numerous 6 volt, 9 volt, 12 volt and high-voltage (330 volt, 360 volt) flashes, Kodak DCS cameras (right up to the power-hungry Pro Back), Nikon's D1/X/H, Canon's EOS D30, many other pro and amateur digital models, laptop computers and the Kodak RFS 3600 film scanner. It will even provide juice to Kodak's pro digital camera battery chargers.

It can also power two devices, one from each output port, simultaneously. This makes it possible, for example, to run both a camera and a flash at the same time from one Digital Camera Battery, even if each device operates at a different voltage. In short, this is one versatile power source.

[Image]
30 watt Digital Camera Battery connected to a DCS 520
[Image]
30 watt Digital Camera Battery powering a D30

Digital Camera Battery Features

Its one-battery-fits-all mentality is the Digital Camera Battery's most impressive attribute. But it's not the only distinguishing characteristic. After leaving a 2 year stint at Lumedyne in the late 90's, Dodge, a part-time wedding and product photographer who at one time developed a replacement controller unit for chemical-based paper and film processors, says he spent a full year developing the Digital Camera Battery. The engineering effort shows in everything from the sturdy, sleek anodized aluminum body and etched stainless steel front panel to the pack's strong performance and extensive list of features. These features include:

High capacity. From one of its two sockets the 30 watt NiMH Digital Camera Battery will power the Nikon D1 for 2118 frames, and the SB-28DX for an incredible 1102 full power bursts (see the Product Testing Notes sidebar for information on how these numbers were derived). Flash performance in particular is astounding; competing batteries, including the sealed lead acid Quantum Turbo Z and the NiCd Dynalite Jackrabbit, don't come close to delivering the same number of flashes per charge.

Consistent flash recycle time. Unlike most competing batteries, the battery's voltage is regulated. This translates into flash recycling times that don't vary as the battery depletes during a shoot, even after 750 full power bursts from an SB-28DX. Flash recycle times from the unregulated Dynalite Jackrabbit and Quantum Turbo Z, for example, increase by 50% to 100% as the battery is drained.

[Image]
Powering a Canon Speedlite 550EX through the flash's high-voltage port

Locking connectors. Eureka! Cables that lock securely into place when connected to the battery means no more accidental disconnecting of the flash's or camera's power cord during run-and-gun shooting. This has always been a frustration for me with the Dynalite Jackrabbit, and some Quantum packs too.

Meaningful status lights. The Digital Camera Battery's red-yellow-green traffic light-style status indicator informs the user of when the battery is delivering full performance (green), when its time to recharge and when some high-voltage devices will no longer operate (yellow), when time is absolutely up (red) and when power has been shut off to the ports to prevent cell damage (blinking red). Behind the curtain is a microprocessor-controlled circuit that prevents numerous battery evils, including deep discharge.

[Image]
Digital Camera Battery status indicator

Cables for everything. Okay, not everything, but Dodge says that if he and his staff of four don't make the cable now, they will on request try to fabricate one if it's possible; even trickier cables will apparently sell for less than US$100. The Digital Camera Battery's own stock of cables will power numerous digital camera models as well as flashes from Nikon, Canon, Vivitar, Sunpak, Quantum and Metz.

Several of the flashes, including the SB-28DX, 550EX and Vivitar 283/285, may be powered via a 6 volt cable to the battery compartment, or via a 330 volt cable to the flash's high-voltage socket. Cables for flashes that don't support running the display and other features from the high-voltage connector, including the SB-28DX and 550EX, ship with four 1600mAh NiMH rechargeable cells for the battery compartment. A charger for the AA's is not included.

[Image]
330v cable for the SB-28DX. All of the
Digital Camera Battery's high-voltage
cables include a small transformer box in
the cable to step up the voltage. At the
time of manufacture, all the air is sucked
out of the box, then sealed with epoxy,
which should translate into
good resistance to moisture.
[Image]
High-voltage cables plug into the high-
voltage socket of supported flashes,
including the 550EX. Flash connectors
are from Paramount Cords; Dodge and
his staff of four build the
remainder of the cable.

Dodge is currently working on a cable for the Powerbook G4, as well as my location monolight of choice, the Dynalite Uni400Jr. In the meantime, the Uni400Jr is supported via Quantum's Turbo Z cable for same, in conjunction with a 7 pin DIN adapter from Digital Camera Battery. Cables for the Quantum Battery 1 and 1+, as well as the Underdog, may also be used, via a 6 volt RCA adapter. Cables for other laptops and devices may be custom ordered; turnaround time on custom cables is usually about 2 weeks, says Dodge.

In addition, many devices that take their power from a cigarette lighter should also work with the Digital Camera Battery and its cigarette lighter connector cable. Powering AC inverters from the battery, however, is not recommended, says Dodge, though low-wattage models driving low-wattage devices may be okay. In all cases, however, much better run times from any compatible device will be achieved through the use of a direct cable connection to the Digital Camera Battery, or connection to its 12 volt adapter.

Three charging options (in the near future). The battery's included charger is a 110v AC unit that will top up a fully-discharged battery in 10-12 hours (much less than that of course if the battery is still holding a charge). In July, Dodge expects to begin shipping a worldwide charger of his own design that will automatically detect the input voltage (100v ~ 240v AC) and refuel a completely-spent pack in 5-6 hours. Both units switch to a slow trickle charge mode when the battery nears a full charge, making it safe to leave the battery connected to either charger beyond the recommended charge time. Dodge indicates that he's left the standard charger connected to a Digital Camera Battery for two weeks with no apparent damage. A car charger is promised for later this year.

Manageable size and weight. When shopping for a high-voltage portable battery pack some years ago, I selected the 5 x 3.75 X 2.25 inch, 31 ounce Dynalite Jackrabbit in part because it felt noticeably lighter and smaller than the 6.7 x 4 x 1.7 inch, 39 ounce Quantum Turbo of the day, but offered similar overall performance and would power my Dynalite Uni400Jr too.

[Image]
Dynalite Jackrabbit (left) and the Digital Camera Battery

The Digital Camera Battery offers substantially greater flash recycle capacity than the Jackrabbit, will also drive the Uni400Jr, but comes in a tall and slender 24 ounce package measuring 6.3 x 2.85 X 1.3 inches. The net effect is even less battery to carry in a lighting kit or clipped to a belt (below).

User-changeable internal battery. The Digital Camera Battery is rated to provide between 500-1000 cycles before performance drops considerably. When the pack inside is spent it can be replaced for US$75, either by sending the Digital Camera Battery to Dodge in Port Richey, Florida (send along the charger and it will be tested too), or by ordering a replacement cell kit for the same price. The Digital Camera Battery was designed so that a photographer can safely and quickly swap in a new cell component; the replacement kit includes instructions and the appropriate allen hex key to open the case.

Multiple aluminum shell colours and an optional soft-wrap case. The Digital Camera Battery is available in black, silver, blue, and red. Four colour options are not just to appease iMac users; instead, coloured packs are meant to be used as a way of identifying multiple Digital Camera Batteries. For example, if the red battery has been used to drive the main light in a location lighting set up all day, while the silver and blue have been providing nothing more than light fill duties, then the red pack should be first up for recharging. The soft-wrap case, an additional cost item, adds two D-rings and a belt clip to the Digital Camera Battery, in addition to some protection from dings and tabletop drops.

[Image]
Soft-wrap case for Digital Camera Battery

Available in 30, 60, 90 and 120 watt versions. The Digital Camera Battery described thus far, and whose performance is measured in the next section, is the 30 watt model. For most users, Dodge anticipates that the 30 watt Digital Camera Battery will have sufficient capacity. If that's not the case for your application, the 60, 90 and 120 watt versions are identical in function and appearance, except that each additional 30 watts of capacity adds 4 inches to the length of the pack, plus 2x, 3x and 4x the capacity of the 30 watt model, respectively. All but the 30 watt version are a special order; order 10 or more of any of the models, including the 30 watt, and Dodge will customize one of the labels on the battery's side panel with a line of text of your choosing.

[Image]
120, 90, 60 and 30 watt models
of the Digital Camera Battery

Battery performance

As its name suggests, the Digital Camera Battery was originally conceived to drive digital cameras. And drive them it does. In time-lapse testing with a D1 and Nikon Capture 1.1.2, the 30 watt Digital Camera Battery powered the camera through 2118 frames, compared to 675 frames from the D1's own EN-4 battery pack. With the EN-4 inserted, and the Digital Camera Battery connected simultaneously, it would be possible in this configuration to squeeze off up to 2800 D1 frames. The Digital Camera Battery should be a boon when the D1 is used as a remote sports camera and no AC power is available, since the EN-4 on its own struggles to power the camera through an entire NBA basketball game, for example, if it's kept awake by the pretrigger cable for the PocketWizard.

Even more impressive is the battery's capacity when recycling shoe mount flashes, though flash recycling time falls behind competing packs from Quantum and Dynalite, at least when those packs are fresh. The table below list the number of Nikon SB-28DX full power flash bursts each power source provides via the flash's hi-voltage socket, plus the recycling time at various intervals. Included is data for a couple of popular AA battery sets too, for reference.

Note: See the Product Testing Notes sidebar for information on how all the performance data in this section was generated.

All performance figures should roughly apply to the Vivitar 283/285 and Canon 550EX flashes too, with the notable exception of Photo Lithium recycle times, which are several seconds longer with the Vivitar strobes for some reason.

Battery capacity and recycle time with the Nikon Speedlite SB-28DX
Power source
Number of full
power bursts,
SB-28DX
SB-28DX
recycle time
after 10 bursts
SB-28DX
recycle time
after 250 bursts
SB-28DX
recycle time
after 350 bursts
SB-28DX
recycle time
after 750 bursts
Digital Camera Battery*
1102
2.3 secs
2.3 secs
2.3 secs
2.3 secs
Dynalite Jackrabbit*
427
1.2 secs
1.7 secs
2.5 secs
n/a
Quantum Turbo Z*
326
1.6 secs
2.3 secs
n/a
n/a
Energizer Photo Lithium**
188
8.9
n/a
n/a
n/a
Sanyo 1600mAh NiMH**
126
5.3
n/a
n/a
n/a

*The SB-28DX's high-voltage socket doesn't provide power to the flash's display and other functions. For the flash to operate with the three external battery packs tested, then, its battery chamber must be filled with AA's. In each case, Sanyo 1600 mAh NiMH cells were used. The Product Testing Notes sidebar provides additional information.

**The Energizer Photo Lithium batteries used in testing had a use-before date of 2010; the Sanyo 1600 mAh NiMH cells were new and had been cycled on a professional conditioner prior to their first use. While not shown in the table, it's worth noting that the voltage of both batteries stays relatively constant as they discharge, which results in reasonably consistent (in percentage terms) flash recycling times until the batteries are nearly exhausted. Given the slow recycle performance of the Photo Lithium's especially, it's unlikely that most photographers will notice the extending recycle time until the battery is more than about 80% discharged.

The performance table illustrates the benefits of regulated voltage: the Digital Camera Battery's flash recycle time simply doesn't change as the battery drains. And its capacity is unparalleled. The only area of performance in which the competition is ahead is flash recycle time when each pack is topped up. For me, this is significant, since a key factor in my selection of the Jackrabbit pack was its blistering recycle time at the 1/2 power and full power settings (or equivalent when shooting in TTL or other automatic mode) of the shoe-mount strobes that I use most.

Dodge correctly points out that to continually fire a flash like an SB-28DX every 1.2 seconds at full power will burn it out in short order. With that in mind, he has purposely designed his high-voltage flash cables to recycle the flash slower than the battery is capable of, in order to preserve the life of the flash and to play nice with flash manufacturers and their product warranties. Hence the 2.3 second full power recycle time with the SB-28DX and similar shoe-mount flashes.

In extended conversations with Dodge on this subject, I countered that I've never burned out a flash by powering it from the Jackrabbit. This is in part because I'm cognizant of the fact that too many powerful bursts in too short a time could destroy the flash. But more importantly, I, like most news photographers running powerful packs like the Jackrabbit, want the fastest recycling time possible not to continually fire the flash, but to capture 3-4 frames in succession at periodic points in a shoot, even if the flash is at or near emitting a full power burst. This would include the climax of a breaking news situation, or even when shooting a lit environmental portrait and I'm trying to capture a short sequence of frames of the best expression from a shy or difficult subject.

Dodge has responded to my continual proddings on the matter by agreeing to design an additional high-voltage cable type that will allow all of the Digital Camera Battery's oomph to go into recycling the flash, dropping the recycle time to about match the ultra-fast Jackrabbit. Based on how the cable would be designed, Dodge predicts that shoe-mount flash recycle times should be on par with Dynalite's pack when its freshly-charged, and exceed it when the Jackrabbit begins to drain. That cable type will be available later this year, and will differ in appearance from the current high-voltage cables by having a slightly larger inline box. It will not replace the current high-voltage cables, but will be an additional offering.

The Digital Camera Battery's performance is, as one would expect, dramatically better than either the AA NiMH or AA Lithium. For some time, I've been puzzled by the popularity of the Energizer Photo Lithium battery, which I spot with increasing frequency in the battery chamber of news photographers' flashes. This is the first time I've tested the performance of Lithium AA's in this way, and I'm now more puzzled than ever. The Photo Lithium powers a flash like the SB-28DX through an impressive number of bursts, considering they're just AA's, and feather-light ones at that. But the recycle time is poor (comparable to any run-of-the-mill alkaline cell), even at modest power settings. Put that against their high cost (approx. US$3-4 each) for a battery that can't be recharged and its clear to me they save only weight.

Most of the time, I use an external battery pack of some description; for those times that it's not practical to do so, I'll go with AA NiMH batteries like the ones tested. They cost less per cell, are rechargeable, and provide faster recycling times. A spare set compensates for the fewer bursts per charge they offer, thereby offsetting Lithium's only apparent advantage. The Energizer Photo Lithium batteries are a good AA choice for devices designed for a steady to small-spike, low-amp power source. Devices that draw current in big spikes, like flash units, will always perform better with a NiMH or NiCd power source.

Conclusion

It's obvious that I'm a big fan of the Digital Camera Battery. This is the sort of item that the world of professional digital photography needs more of: a product built from the ground up for pros, with a thoroughness to its design that is unmatched in competing products. In near-continuous all day (and all night!) automated testing, the battery hasn't missed a beat. In real world shooting it has just worked. It has also already survived a hardwood floor drop. Even my beloved Dynalite Jackrabbit has finally been eclipsed, in all areas except for flash recycle time, a problem that should be remedied once Dodge completes his zoomier high-voltage cable design.

No product is perfect, of course, and the Digital Camera Battery is no exception. Assuming flash recycle time is addressed, however, the remaining quibbles are few:

  • The current high-voltages cables, though they appear well-made, are pricey at US$99 each. This is, in part, the price of the battery's flexibility, as each cable contains the components to step up the voltage to 330v. Competing batteries places these components inside the battery case, lowering the cost of each cable as a result, but limiting the number of devices that the battery can work with to ones that match the battery's single voltage. Most camera cables and 6 volt flash cables, which don't require the same step-up circuitry, are US$39 or US$49 (the EOS D30 cable is the most expensive at US$59, says Dodge, because he must purchase the battery module component to build into the cable).

  • The mounting bracket arrangement offered for the Digital Camera Battery, while probably fine if the battery/bracket is meant to stay connected to the tripod or camera most of the time, lacks the quick-release functionality of the Underdog battery's 1/4" x 20 thumbscrew mount. One of the key reasons the Underdog has coexisted with the Jackrabbit in my kit is it can easily be attached and removed from the base of the camera, plus I can mount a flash directly on the Underdog and drop that onto the top of a filing cabinet for a quick and dirty second location light. I'd love to be able use the Digital Camera Battery for the latter purpose, and intend to work on a way to make that happen. Dodge promises additional mounting brackets in the future, but as it stands now, there's no simple way to duplicate a key capability of the Underdog.
[Image]

Underdog battery ready for placement as a second
light on location, triggerable by Canon's wireless
remote system or, as shown, the velcro-attached
PocketWizard MultiMax transceiver

Ultimately, the Digital Camera Battery's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. In fact, its arrival here marks the beginning of the Great Battery Purge of 2001. Gone already are my two Dynalite Jackrabbits, which have served me well but whose time has past. Also gone is a Quantum Battery 1+, which hadn't seen much use in awhile. More will follow them out the door, and bright, shiny Digital Camera Batteries will take their place. The only battery in my current stable to remain will be the 6v, sealed lead acid Underdog.

For more information, see www.digitalcamerabattery.com. For pricing, to view the list of available cables, adapters and accessories, or to make a purchase worldwide, peruse the online store. To request information on custom cables, or to order 10 or more batteries with a custom label, contact Tim Dodge directly at timdodge@digitalcamerabattery.com or by telephone at +1 727-817-0513.

Dodge is also working to build a dealer network for his products; if you'd prefer to buy the Digital Camera Battery through your favourite pro photo store, he recommends you put the dealer in touch with him directly by phone or email.

 

Battery type
Rechargeable NiMH (16 x 1.2v AA) in user-replaceable pack
Rating
30 watts (60, 90, 120 watt versions available by special order)
Output
Varies (set by cable) @ 0-5 Amps DC power
Number of output ports
2; both can power devices, simultaneously, even if each operates at a different voltage
Voltage regulated?
Yes
Dimensions
6.3 inches tall
2.85 inches high
1.3 inches deep
Weight
24 ounces
Case
Anodized aluminum body with stainless steel faceplate; additional soft-wrap fabric case optional
Charging time
Standard 110v AC trickle charger: 10-12 hours if battery fully discharged

Universal AC trickle charger: 5-6 hours if battery fully discharged (available in July)

Compatible devices
Can drive most anything that runs on DC power. This includes numerous 6 volt, 9 volt, 12 volt and high-voltage (330 volt, 360 volt) flashes, Kodak DCS cameras (including the Pro Back), Nikon's D1/X/H, Canon's EOS D30, many other pro and amateur digital models, laptop computers and the Kodak RFS 3600 film scanner. It will even provide juice to Kodak's pro digital camera battery chargers.
Available colours
black, silver, blue, red
Country of manufacture
USA

Product Testing Notes

Testing camera performance

The frame counts for the D1/Digital Camera Battery and D1/EN-4 battery combos were derived using Nikon Capture 1.1.2's Time Lapse Photography function. The new, professionally-conditioned EN-4 battery was removed from the D1 during the Digital Camera Battery tests.

Nikon Capture was configured to save Excellent Quality JPEGs directly to the hard drive of a FireWire-connected Mac G3/400 desktop. The interval between photos was 12 seconds, and the attached Nikkor 14mm f/2.8 lens was set to autofocus for each shot. Since there was no contrast at the focus point in the darkened test room, Continuous autofocus would hunt briefly each time before firing.

The resulting frame counts from each power source are, of course, directly comparable with each other, but are probably on the high side of what one might achieve out in the real world, where time spent writing to the card and viewing the rear LCD monitor will drop the frame count per charge. The drop should not be drastic however, since in field use the camera will not be awake continuously, nor be moving files across a FireWire cable, both of which affect power consumption.

Testing flash performance

With the fear of destroying of an expensive Nikon flash guiding my every move, I proceeded gingerly in setting up and executing the flash performance testing.

Three devices made it possible to perform the flash capacity and recycle time tests with both accuracy and repeatability: the PocketWizard MultiMax remote triggering system, a device designed to detect and count flash bursts called the Strobotone, and a small but breezy fan aimed at the SB-28DX (I was determined to bring the strobe out alive).

To determine the number of full power bursts each power source could provide, the MultiMax's intervalometer function was set to trigger the SB-28DX every 45 seconds, which was long enough between bursts to ensure that the flash's internal temperature didn't rise during continuous firing. The Strobotone was positioned to count the bursts.

Counting was stopped when each external battery signaled it had had enough, prior to the battery's charge dropping to damaging levels. The Digital Camera Battery makes this easy, since it simply stops powering the flash prior to the point where the battery's cells might be harmed. With the AA's, at a certain point their collective voltage drops lower than the SB-28DX will tolerate. At that point either the flash simply won't fire or the flash's display blinks and the zoom mechanism palpitates. The flash is only barely usable for the last 10 or 20 AA-powered frames, however, because the recycling time increases exponentially just prior to the batteries becoming exhausted.

The Digital Camera Battery was new; the nearly-new Quantum Turbo Z had seen steady use for about 6 weeks; the Dynalite Jackrabbit was almost 7 years old, but had its 10 sub-C, 1.2v SAFT NiCd cells replaced, with the identical-spec SAFT pack, 18 months ago. Just prior to testing (and to prep it and my second Jackrabbit for their anticipated sale) the Jackrabbit was professionally conditioned; the conditioner reported it was at 93% capacity.

Sanyo 1600mAh NiMH AA batteries that had been professionally conditioned prior to their first use drove the SB-28DX's display and other features, since the flash is not designed to draw power from its high-voltage socket for anything other than flash recycling.

Testing flash recycle time at key intervals was relatively easy. Using a combination of a digital timer, the MultiMax and a Minolta Auto Meter IVf, I determined the time it took for the flash to recover from a full power burst. The time of recovery was set at the earliest point the flash could emit a second burst equal to the first. I allowed for +/- .1 stop margin, but in practically every instance it was possible to obtain a reading on the flash meter that was identical for both the first and second bursts.

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