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Power to the People

Where I live, when the wind really blows power fluctuations or outages are likely. Sitting around for a couple hours yesterday in the dark with nothing but battery power got me to thinking about how we photographers rely on batteries. And that got me thinking about "power" in a much broader sense.

Gone are the days when you could continue feeding film into a fully manual camera, relying at most on a small charge to power the camera meter. Even later generation, auto-focus film bodies were happy when you fed them a few AA batteries now and then. I used to use lithium AA batteries rather than alkaline since they worked far better in cold temperatures, but they were still AA's. Worst case was I switched back to standard alkaline available for purchase just about everywhere if I ran out of lithium batteries on a trip.

Today, everything is electronic, and most everything takes proprietary batteries. Cameras simply don't operate any longer without power from a compatible battery. Very few gadgets are powered by standard AA batteries any more. Every generation of camera seems to require a different proprietary battery too. To some degree, this is to be expected I suppose even if it does mean buying new batteries with every camera upgrade when the old ones worked just fine. Advances in battery technology happen as regularly as do advances in camera sensor technology as the years go by so we get to upgrade one when we upgrade the other. Batteries today pack more juice into a smaller form factor than did batteries from the same camera maker in previous generations just as new camera sensors pack in more pixels and provide better quality.

Many Nikon shooters were recently surprised when a firmware update to their camera caused it to no longer recognize their third-party battery. Users of Nikon D3100, D3200, D5100, D5200 and CoolPix P7700 cameras have all reported problems. The change was supposedly made to let the camera more accurately report the charge remaining in the battery, but it had the side effect of then reporting some third-party batteries had no charge at all. Nikon has similar compatibility issues with some third party lenses of late and some years ago caused a big stink by "encrypting" various features of their NEF raw files making them fully compatible only with Nikon raw converter software. Other manufacturers have had similar hiccups too, but since I'm a Nikon shooter I pay more attention to this sort of thing when it comes closer to affecting me directly.

Such problems aren't limited to cameras either. As an example, skirmishes between inkjet printer makers and their customers erupt every few years due to the practice of embedding chips in ink cartridges. Makers of third party ink cartridges, even high end archival ink sets, can lose their ability to compete with the OEM cartridges made by the printer manufacturer themselves. Like with Nikon and battery compatibility, this is supposed to provide improvements but sometimes results in locking out competition for the accessory market.

People often think the worst, and some of these problems may actually be intentional on the part of the manufacturer — nefarious attempts to increase profits by ensuring customers by accessories only from them. Of course others may be innocently inadvertent consequences of not being able to test compatibility across all permutations and combinations of accessories and accessory makers. I suspect that many lie somewhere in between with original equipment manufacturers simply having little motivation to invest large sums in regression testing every change with every possible third party accessory.

Regardless of whether such issues are intentional or accidental though, the net effect is the same if you rely on the accessory suddenly made incompatible. Left to yourself, no one will volunteer in advance that this sort of thing may happen to you. Most likely, you won't find out until it does. You buy a third party battery that is supposed to be compatible and it isn't. You bought one last year only to find that this year's firmware update renders it unusable. Surprise! A camera without a working battery won't do much. Neither will a printer without a compatible ink cartridge.

One possible answer is to stay clear of third party accessories, relying only on the OEM version of everything. Often though ones from third parties cost less and occasionally even do more than the real thing. A basic Nikon cable release can run close to $100 while a functionally equivalent third-party one will set you back less than a quarter of this amount. It may be valid to argue that the real thing is better built, but could it possibly be that much better?

It would be great if there were some form of standard for compatibility so that buyers could be certain that they weren't risking future compatibility by saving a few bucks or trying to eke out a bit better performance by going third party. This wouldn't likely be very practical though since any such testing regimen would probably add more to the cost of third party accessories than you could save by not buying OEM.

Unfortunately, there really is no easy answer here. There are countless third party manufacturers out there and if there's a niche that hasn't yet been filled or if someone thinks they can do a better job for less than everybody else, another third party company will surely pop up. They're all trying to make compatible products and no OEM manufacturer is likely to admit to sabotaging those efforts, but little in the way of guarantees is really possible. In a sense, it can seem that we're all on our own with the choices we make in the marketplace.

The best we can probably do is to make sure the companies involved hear from you when something affects you or even when something that doesn't strikes a little too close to home. If this firmware update doesn't mess with your camera or your battery compatibility, the next one just might. Discussions on public internet forums can get companies' attention too as few companies can safely ignore what their customers are publicly saying about them. Unless you do only buy original equipment manufacturer accessories, you never really know when you might be the one facing the problem. Hopefully even articles such as this that try to raise awareness of the issue can help. In this sense, we're in fact all in this together.

Power to the people.

Date posted: January 12, 2014


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