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Batteries: Learning to Buy and Use Them Wisely

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Photographers depend on batteries more than ever. Without them there’s no photography these days. So it's good to be prepared and have batteries ready when you go out to take pictures. In this tutorial, discover how to never be let down by your batteries.

Not having enough batteries can be a disaster for photographers.

The last time that you picked up your flash to take a picture, the truth left you in the dark. The batteries, charged just last week, were dead!

If this has happened to you over and over, and you want an urgent solution, this article is a must read for you. The answer is as simples as this: use LSD.

No, the acronym is not exactly what you think, if you thought what I think you did. LSD stands for low self-discharge, or LD (low-discharge) as they also are called, a type of battery that, as the name implies, can hold their charge for longer periods of time. This makes them suitable for a lot of devices, cameras and flashlights included. And also photography strobes, as you're about to discover.

Cameras nowadays use mostly proprietary batteries so there’s not much to worry about in that area. Still, if your camera uses AA batteries you have to decide which are best for you, and the short answer is nickel-metal hydride or NiMh, if your camera can take it. Check your manual to be sure and don’t hesitate if they can be used. Two or three sets and a charger will last you for a long time.

Lithium, Zinc and NiMh

There are so many brands and types of batteries that you need to know exactly what you're buying.

I am aware that there are different battery formulations in the market today, from lithium to zinc solutions that have both pros and cons (and sometimes more cons than pros). I could go on about all of them, but I rather write about my own experience and solutions that have been tested in the field.

These solutions are immediately available and will work for most of us without any problems. I'll leave the writing about esoteric solutions and wishful thinking to others and keep to things the common photographer understands.

So, without further ado, let me say that there's a name for the best solution in terms of batteries for photographers: NiMh, or nickel-metal hydride batteries as stated above. As I said, you can use them in your camera (again, check the manual to be sure they can be used, they usually can), but NiMH are the best choice for a lot of other uses. I am thinking about small strobes and LED panels.

I’ve used NiMh cells with my LED lights from LitePanels, and although they give me less lighting time than lithium, it becomes cheaper in the long run. As for my Speedlite flashes, they just love NiMh. And I even use them in my radio flash triggers, if my alkaline batteries die and I have no spare in my backpack or photo bag. The NiMh packs - I always carry a few four unit sets - are always charged!

Buy, Unpack and Use Them

The core of a rechargeable NiMh battery (image from Sanyo).

Now, when buying NiMh you have to be aware that not all NiMh are equal. In fact, although different battery makers do not always make it easy for the buyer to know what he is buying, referring to these batteries as “ready to use” and some other names, there are two types of these cells: NiMh and LD-NiMh, the LD meaning Low Discharge.

What that means is that while conventional NiMh will lose their charge daily at a high rate after being charged (10% on the first 24 hours and 1% each new day, which means that more than half of the charge is gone in a month), LD-NiMh will still have some 85% of charge after one year, if you don’t use them.

So, in practical terms, when you buy them from the shelf you can just start to use them. And if you charge them after a photo session and place them in your photo bag, you'll probably never relive the flash situation I've described above: you'll still have a lot of charge to use even after one year. With normal NiMH all the charge may be gone, on older batteries, even a week after being charged. So now you know!

It’s easy to see the advantages of a LD-NiMh. If you’re the type of photographer that forgets to charge the batteries regularly, you will love LD-NiMh, because they will still have juice for your flash any time they’re asked to deliver. With conventional NiMh you might not be so lucky. I know that because it has happened to me.

Shall I buy LD's?

For the celebration of eneloop’s 5th anniversary, SANYO presented the special edition of eneloop glitter.

You see, after using alkaline and Ni-Cd (nickel–cadmium batteries) for a lot of time, I moved on to conventional NiMh, which were pointed as the best solution in terms of price and environment protection, and I kept buying them and trying to remember to charge them up.

I used different types until I stopped at the Sony Cycle Energy NiMh with 2700mAh (the capacity of the cell), that I had to keep an eye over, as they have a large capacity, but drain rather quickly. So much, in fact, that when my older Sony cells started to die I decided to try LD-NiMh GP ReCyko+ batteries instead.

There is a difference between these batteries: the conventional cells usually have more capacity than the LD’s. The “normal” values for NiMh are 2700 mAh and 2100mAh for the LSD-NiMh. Firstly I felt I did not want to trade more capacity for less, but from my experience in the field, I would say that it is not something you have to be bothered about.

You do have less capacity, but you'll probably have more sets of batteries charged in your bag this way. I know I do, as I usually carry some four to six four-packs with me around and they never fail me even if I do not use them for weeks. I love to use flash.

Now, does this mean that you should only buy LD-NiMh? Maybe, unless you feel that you need the extra capacity and know for sure you’ll always remember to charge your batteries. If you’re like me, you’ll start buying more LD’s. My memory has its lapses so I love to have batteries that are always ready to be used.

The Famous eneloop

eneloop XX batteries provide more than twice the number of flashes per charge compared to conventional alkaline batteries!

When looking for batteries in the market you'll be told a magic name everybody knows since 2005: eneloop. These batteries from Sanyo are a bit like the Holy Grail of LD-NiMh batteries. They set the pace for the market, it seems, in terms of development, and are the technology on which all others are based.

Sanyo has some new eneloop batteries, AA- and AAA-size nickel-metal hydride batteries which maintain their capacity even after 5 years of storage after recharging. The new eneloop batteries are also rechargeable approximately 1,800 times, an increase of approximately 20% compared to previous eneloop batteries which are rechargeable approximately 1,500 times.

Now, eneloops may be the best or most popular solution in the market, but I find it can be difficult to find them in some places. And nowadays there are more and more new options appearing in the market, Duracell, Energizer, or Ansmann. And they all are improving their LD-NiMh, as Ansmann show with their maxE plus NiMH, that goes beyond the usual maximum capacity of 2100mAh. The brand new maxE plus cell now comes up with 2500mAh and therefore features an almost 20% increased utilization time of your applications.

And The Panasonic Evolta

Panasonic claims the Rechargeable Evolta keeps more charge for a longer period, as the image shows.

Another option that is easier to find in my area (check around your home for the best places to buy batteries, it's essential for a photographer to know these things) comes from Panasonic. The new Rechargeable Evolta, which take the place of the original Infinium from Panasonic, offer a longer life cycle, with up to 1600 charges against the usual 1000. I recently bought some four unit packs to go along with my GP ReCyko+.

One little secret: considering that Panasonic bought Sanyo in December 2008, it's only natural that the technologies from eneloop and Evolta mix in the future. In fact, you'll find eneloop already on sites under the Panasonic name, so I guess buying one or the other will not make much difference.

One last word of advice: if you go the rechargeable battery path remember to buy batteries from a reliable source, get a good charger, take the time to charge your batteries (quick chargers are alright if you’re in a hurry, but not all the time). These cells can be recharged a thousand times and more, but only if you really take care of them.

Tip: Avoid mixing older and newer cells. I mark each group of four cells with a different reference so I can tell them apart. If I need just a couple of batteries, I keep the whole set aside so I know they need recharging. I also date each battery, so I know how long they've been in use.
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