How to Conserve Battery Power When It's Almost Gone

How to Conserve Battery Power When It’s Almost Gone

conserve-battery-power.pngIt’s day two of your long awaited seven day vacation away from the worries of life at home.  You’ve seen the city, you’ve perused the shops and you’ve even found a few great places to eat.  After a long day of sightseeing you head back to your hotel and unwind a bit before getting ready for the next day of activities.  Knowing your camera battery is probably getting low after two straight days of shooting, you rummage through your bags for the battery charger.  Ten minutes later, with the entire contents of your luggage spread out upon the bed and nightstand you are gripped by the unspeakably horrible realization that, gasp!, you forget to pack your camera’s battery charger.

For those of us that really love photography and taking pictures on a trip, this moment leaves a pit in our stomach.  If your trip happens to be in an electronically outfitted area, you can probably remedy this situation by finding a camera shop and purchasing a workable solution.  But let’s assume for a moment that you happen to be miles up the Amazon River or high up in the Himalayan Mountains.  What now?  In no particular order, here are some tips that can help stretch the battery life of your camera and help you bring back some great photographic memories.

1. Think About Your Shot First

With the seemingly unlimited volume of most flash cards these days, a lot of photographers have grown accustomed to what’s often been referred to as the “spray and pray” mentality.  I’ll even admit to this method of photography from time to time.  Sometimes it’s easier to be lazy in the field, taking 20 shots of that pretty horse in the field, and then sort out the best shot later, at home on the computer.  But when you have a limited number of shots left, and you often won’t know just how many shots that is, it’s time to slow down and consider your shot before bringing the camera up to eye.  Is the image something you’ll really want to share back home?  Does it convey a great sense of what it’s like where you are or how your trip is unfolding?  How best can it be framed in the viewfinder?

Think about the shot’s value before getting the camera into action.  You may find that a lot of the pretty things you normally would snap four images of without thinking, turn out to be scenes simply enjoyed without need for a picture.  This step alone will save a lot of battery use indirectly by reducing the amount of times you want to get your camera out.  The next five tips will be your biggest power savings once you’ve decided you just have to take the shot.

2. Turn Off Auto Focus

This tip only works if you use a DSLR camera.  Most point and shoots (P&S)don’t have a focus ring on the lens like DSLR lenses do.  If you have a point and shoot, you don’t have much of a choice.  But for those with DSLRs, using manual focus can be a huge power savings.  Most cameras will start focusing when the shutter release is pressed down half way and will continue to focus until the shot is taken.  And the larger the lens, the more power will be sucked from the battery to bring objects into focus.

If you find yourself in one of these 5 situations where manual focus is better than auto focus, you’ll want to switch over anyway, even if your battery isn’t low.

3. Turn Off The Review Feature

Both DSLR and P&S cameras have the ability to review a shot after the image is captured.  While technology for screens is advancing and battery consumption is a prime concern (as well as clarity in sunshine) it’s still best to simply turn off the review feature.

4. If Your Camera Has A Viewfinder, Use It

More and more DSLRs are being shipped with “live view”, popular on most all P&S cameras.  But this can also be a huge power draw.  For the same reason turning off the review feature saves energy, turning off “live view” and using the camera’s viewfinder can possibly save more power.  Personally, I purchase P&S cameras that can still be used with just a view finder for this very reason.  Constant display of what’s in front of the camera is not a wise use of battery power when running low.  If your P&S does not have a viewfinder, allowing you to turn off the “live view” on the LCD during shooting, this tip may be of little help.

5. Turn off Image Stabilization

I absolutely love the image stabilization capability of my larger lens.  It allows me to get great shots at 300mm even at 1/20th of a second shutter speeds.  But I also know from personal testing that my battery will last a lot longer with it off.  Around 20% longer.  Just like autofocus, the battery is drained from constantly moving elements around inside the lens to compensate for camera shake.  It’s best left off, or only turned on for vital shots.

6. Power Off Your Camera When Not In Use

I know this one sounds obvious, but many of us get in the habit of leaving our camera on and letting it power down automatically.  If you have a P&S that does not have a viewfinder (and thus can not turn off the ‘live view’ display) it’s especially important to turn off the power.  As stated in #4, no matter how power conscious that display screen is, it’s still using power that is better served taking shots.  This tip also couples with #1; leave you camera off until you’ve thought about the shot and have it set in your mind, then power on the camera and get the shot.  Of course, if your camera has a sensor cleaning function when powered on and off, this may lead to more power use, but those features can usually be turned off as well.

7. Don’t Transfer Pictures

MSI StarReader.jpgIf you are accustom to using your camera to download photos to your computer, now might be a good time to think about bringing along a USB flash card reader (of course, if you forget your charger there’s no guarantee you’ll remember this too!).  Downloading from your camera will surely suck down more power as most cameras don’t take advantage of the power capabilities from the USB connection (and for the circuitry in the camera, it’s far more simple to leave it this way).  I’ve had batteries die mid transfer when I had no other option.  I now carry a MSI StarReader 52-in-1 reader (pictured right).  I know, the 52 is sort of misleading, but it handles most cards and even will read cell phone SIM cards, making it very handy for international travel.

8. Increase ISO To Lessen Flash Use

Your flash can kill your batteries in no time flat.  Depending on your camera’s capabilities, it may be a worthwhile option to increase the ISO a bit in marginal lighting situations to lessen the use of the built-in flash.  Before your trip, or right now, do a few quick tests in moderate indoor lighting (the most likely scenario for flash use) to see just how far you can push the ISO before it doesn’t look good to you.  This setting is purely subjective.  If you can stand the grain at ISO400 on your camera, then go with it.  Some cameras look horrid above ISO200.  Don’t take someone else’s, or some website’s, word for it, try it out yourself and see what looks good to you.  Flash use has been shown to reduce battery life by as much as 40%.

The Most Important Tip: Relax!

Leaving behind your camera’s battery charger, intentionally or accidentally, can really change how you approach photography while on vacation.  Once you get over the initial ‘freak out’ when it’s not found, remember there are steps you can take to continue using your camera to capture memories of your trip.  And never forget the most important tip: Relax, you’re on vacation!!

NOTE: When your battery does finally die with no chance for charging, be sure to remove the flash card and keep it with other valuables.  Chances are you’ll leave your camera behind or unattended far more than if it was working and it may fall into the wrong hands. Or get lost in the shuffle of checked baggage.  Keeping your flash card with you ensures your photos make it back even if the camera goes missing.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Rajev June 17, 2009 03:49 am

    The comments were as useful as the article. Thanks to everyone for sharing their experience with dead batteries. I got to learn a lot from this article. Keeping the batteries warm for increasing their life, licking the terminals to squeeze some extra power out of them, rubbing them for 20 secs to warm them up, and shaking the battries (not the camera LOL!), switching it on after it has turned off to get a few (5) extra shots, and lastly, begging the camera to switch on (this might seem riduculous to most, but it has been my personal experience, if you love your machines, they help you and listen to you under dire circumstances, be it cameras, mobikes or cars or anything) were extremely useful tips from experience.

  • Mark Newman in Iowa June 6, 2009 04:39 pm

    I liked this article, Peter, and will probably use two of these tips (maybe turn off review, but certainly turn off auto focus, a great suggestion).

    But I'd also like to add an incredible tip: While on assignment in the past, and again today, actually, my battery died (Cannon Digital camera with a big lens attached, it's our backup camera so I don't know the model). Anyhow, I needed a couple more pics of this Model T car and so I tried my desperation measure: I turned the camera off. Then I turned it back on. I took one photo and it died again. I turned it off then on again and got two more photos! I think I got five pics that way, and that's not bad for a "dead" battery; I worry it's not great for the battery, but like I said, I was desperate. And it works.

    Reporter (and emergency backup photographer!)

  • Christopher Wren June 3, 2009 12:17 pm

    Here's a tip for lithium-ion batteries - keep them away from the cold. If they get too cold, they run out faster. Also if your battery dies, you can usually squeeze a few more shots out of it if you just shake it real hard! I've gotten as many as 20-30 more shots out of my 20D by shaking the battery (NOT the camera).

  • ricardolumpas May 31, 2009 07:49 pm

    Peter, thank you so much.

    This is very helpful for people like me who do not have battery grip and spare batteries.

  • Will May 31, 2009 05:27 pm

    Option 2: make sure you use a camera that takes AA batteries (such as the Pentax K200d), or, even better, get some film action going on and use the sunny 16 rule for metering - that way you don't need any batteries at all!

  • Jeff Kolodny May 31, 2009 01:11 pm

    "Ten minutes later, with the entire contents of your luggage spread out upon the bed and nightstand you are gripped by the unspeakably horrible realization that, gasp!, you forget to pack your camera’s battery charger."

    Hahahaha this really happened to me! Oh my gawd! How stupid I was on a nature trip, having those bulky battery grips and extra batteries, and still not knowingly the extra batteries are only half-charged.

    Miami Wedding Photographer

  • peter k May 31, 2009 02:14 am

    Excelent advices both in the article and in the comments, so thank you all guys! I have to tell you that I keep the photo gear at all times concentrated in the backpack. I might leave home some T-shirts or pairs of socks, but is almost impossible to forget the charger or the 50mm f1.7, as I always put them back after using them. I preffer to carry with me the havy burden of the backpack all the time, only to do not even think that I might have forgotten some important gear.

  • E. Serrano May 31, 2009 01:10 am

    That's a good piece of advice!

    I've also found that removing the battery pack from inside the camera usually helps increasing battery duration. But don't do that between shots if you do not want to get nuts.

    Take also into account that in hot environments your batteries would last longer, while cold places drain battery power quickly. This doesn't mean that you should place your camera in a hot place (which could damage other components). Just keep an eye on your battery meter when shooting pictures of snow!

  • rob May 30, 2009 07:00 am

    Josh glad you got over the bummed out, my Fuji takes 4 AA batteries and it was the reason I bought it.

  • JPM8JPM May 30, 2009 02:17 am


  • Jim Karam May 30, 2009 01:26 am

    Thanks. This is good advice. I already practice some of it, but should get in the habit of doing more. Also, I've found it worthwhile to keep a spare charger along with other small items I tend to forget in the carry-on I usually take on trips. I've ended up with spare batteries and chargers as I upgraged cameras over the years, but the new 5Dii will require new investments.

  • Fred May 29, 2009 05:42 pm

    I've yet to see a SLR user using "live view" in any case other than shooting on a tripod but I expect that casual users will use it more and more. Still seems quite weird to me.
    Even with compact cameras I feel uncomfortable when there's no viewfinder. Presumably it makes me an old fart or something.

  • Shiralee May 29, 2009 05:08 pm

    I carry a spare battery !!

  • jakdedert May 29, 2009 09:05 am

    Good tips, both in the article and the comments. One more to add to the last: buy a disposable film camera. In totally remote areas this won't work of course, but neither would a charger. Otherwise, almost anywhere one goes, disposable film cameras are available.

    When you absolutely, positively MUST have the shot (or the memory), it's better than nothing.

  • Aniruddha May 29, 2009 04:53 am

    I loved this important note. And all points have been noted! I use a Sony H7, although a P&S, it still give me some nice images, I cant seem to get a clean image without use of flash for macro subjects, and it gives horrible amount of noise above ISO200. So flash is mandatory, and I carry an extra battery. Never forgot the charger even until now, but this is certainly an excellent write up! :)

  • apru May 29, 2009 04:33 am

    great tips - especially 1st one!
    Unfortunately I`ve experienced having no charger on great event (Carnival of Venice). Good way to save energy is to keep your batteries in your trousers` pocket to make it warmer. And of course - to plan a shot earlier, and decide what are the shots that you`re dying to do (and don`t waste the battery for others). In my case I decided to photograph only with good amount of light, without flash - and that worked! But I will never forget the moments when I was just ready to take a photo and my SLR just swittched off. Sometimes begging my camera to switch on also helped :)

  • David Bradley May 29, 2009 03:35 am

    Intriguingly, tips 1-5 might apply just as well to a "How to take better photos" post! Especially 1 and 4. think about your shot, 99% of a good photo should be done before you even pick up the camera through understanding what you're looking at and how it might be interpreted. #4 screens are nice for viewing after, but get the camera up to your eye to really see what you're taking...

  • Josh May 29, 2009 12:03 am

    My Pentax DSLR takes AAs (4 or them....) I have Duracell 15 minute rechargeable batteries and they could easily last me a full 2-3 days of shooting. I also carry and extra 2 sets of batteries and a card reader in my camera bag just in case.. Also, if you must use a flash, I would suggest the use of a hot shoe flash because it has it's own power source.

    I was bummed out about my camera taking AAs when I got it, but it's growing on me now because I can buy them just about anywhere.

  • FieldEffect May 28, 2009 10:49 pm

    If your camera is totally dead but you just need those couple of extra shots, take the battery out of the camera and rub it between your hands to heat it up for maybe 20 seconds. I had to resort to this last weekend, and from the point that the camera totally died, I managed to get another 15 shots by heating the battery after every couple.

  • Eric Mesa May 28, 2009 09:24 pm

    Although I own (and primarily shoot with) 2 DSLRs, this is one place where the P&S people have an advantage. Most often their cameras use AA batteries which are easy to find "anywhere". However, as some others have mentioned above, on the Canon XXXD and XXD models, you can get the vertical grip which has a canister that accepts AA batteries.

  • Chelsea May 28, 2009 02:39 pm

    Ahhh! This article came TOO late! I'm in Alaska right now, lost my charger and in Juneau there's NO place that carries any chargers or batteries...and my camera died on day 3. On the plus side I DID remember to bring my manual but there's so many shots that I feel would be better done with my DSLR.

  • Matt Becker May 28, 2009 12:33 pm

    One thing I've done with my DSLR is similar to #1. I'll use the optical viewfinder to set up the shot with the camera powered off. When I'm ready to take the picture, I turn it on, snap the picture, let it save, and then power back down. This would be a problem for camera's with a significant start up time, but with my DSLR, I can do it all in a second or two.

  • Thomas Flight May 28, 2009 07:24 am

    I often have problems with my camera's battery running out. I does change how you shoot when you use the viewfinder instead of the "live view."

  • Jen Abert May 28, 2009 06:27 am

    I'd also recommend removing the battery when you're not shooting for long periods (like overnight). Minute amounts of power are still drained when the camera is off (especially some DSLRs like mine, which display how many exposures you have left on your card even when the camera's off).

  • Gaurav Prabhu May 28, 2009 06:24 am

    Agree with Dcclark.
    Longer the exposures sooner the battery will die out. Just I was photographing yesterday with 25secs exposure I ended my voyage halfway & to my disappointment I forgot to charge my spare battery pair.

  • chris May 28, 2009 05:31 am

    another hint - lick the battery terminals. yes, LICK them. the moisture helps suck a little more juice out of a dying battery. works every time

  • Willie Coyote May 28, 2009 04:22 am

    Or.. take a film camera with you.. It's fun to shoot film from time to time. And I'm not talking about a SLR, even a disposable camera... It helps your composition (since you only have a few shots and a fixed angle), and a couple of AA bateries will last forever.. ha!

  • Trevor May 28, 2009 04:00 am

    Great post. The NOTE at the end of the article I find especially important as I have lost a camera on trip before. Thankfully it was just a P&S, but it did still have my memory card in it with photos from before the trip as well.

  • Fletch May 28, 2009 02:20 am

    Long exposures and flash have got to be the biggest killers of battery life for me. My battery can go from fully charged to dead in a couple of hours of night shots.

    A spare battery has got to be the best accessory to any camera. Then when the first one runs out if you discover you don't have a charger and you are less than half way though your assignment you can start to conserve power.

    Sometimes though its a blessed releif when the camera finally dies and you can just enjoy the holiday.

  • Scott May 28, 2009 01:13 am

    I carry the MB-10 battery grip with my Nikon, and that has a tray that can take AAA batteries in a pinch. That has been a big help at least once.

  • Kansas A May 28, 2009 01:12 am

    Great post. What saved me recently was I have the battery grip for my Canon T1i and was able to scavenge through my bag and find 6 AA batteries :) A lifesaver!

  • Paul Johnston-Knight May 28, 2009 01:00 am

    Great topic for a post, couple of things to add:

    1 - when out shooting I always keep my spare battery in my trouser pocket to keep it warm. A cell at body temperature has more and longer life than a cold one.

    2 - I'm not convinced that switching off the camera between shots is a good idea. Certainly large bodies, like DSLRs, some of which have sensor-shake facilities which activate when switching off and on, can use more battery power by being switched off and back on than being left on and allowed to go into "sleep" mode. Instead of switching off, I set the hibernation of my DSLRs to 30 secs or 1 minute, so when I'm not using them for a while, they are "asleep", waiting, but are not using power by being switched off and on incessantly.

    Hope that helps.

  • dcclark May 28, 2009 12:17 am

    There's some good advice in here!

    Here's one more: avoid long exposures! Nothing kills my batteries faster than heading out to take waterfall photos... those 1/2, 1, or even 2 or 3 second exposures really eat up the battery life. This may not be relevant for vacations, but I've found myself in the middle of the woods, miles from a charger, with a low battery more than once.

    Also, tip #1 is really excellent. I once found myself in the worst possible situation -- cold day, low battery, miles from home, wanting to take waterfall photos. I was forced to think about the shot, compose in my head, and be really sure that I knew what I wanted before I took that photo. And you know what? They turned out great! Here's one example from that day: Hungarian Falls. I highly recommend that process, even if your battery isn't low.