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iPod as Digital Photographer's Best Friend

by Derrick Story, author of Digital Photography Pocket Guide, 2nd Edition

When I read the first few reviews of the Belkin Media Reader for the iPod, I was mildly intrigued. For the most part, the reviewers seemed to reiterate information that was already posted on Belkin's product page. In other words, you plug the media reader into your iPod, insert a memory card, and upload your pictures to its hard drive.

Based on what I've already discovered in Panther, I figured there had to be more possibilities than that. So I got my hands on the Belkin reader and started testing every scenario I could think of. Bottom line: my hunch was right. You can do a lot with this setup.

What's interesting to me isn't so much that you can upload pictures from a memory card to a portable storage device. As cool as this is, that functionality already exists with other tools. What makes the iPod scenario compelling is that it plugs into Panther, allowing you to leverage some of its powerful technologies. And that's what I'm going to explore here today.

The Belkin Media Reader is a self-contained unit (batteries, connector) that adds a new dimension to the iPod

Before I get to the fun stuff, let's take a look at the actual components, starting with the third generation iPod. Powered by the latest version of its software (version 2.1), this pocket sized FireWire hard drive can play music virtually forever, store text notes, display calendar appointments, record interviews (via the Belkin Voice Recorder), wake you up in the morning, entertain you with games, and, now, store your digital photos. And if you are carrying around the 40 GB model in your camera bag, you can store a lot of photos. (Can you say "three week trip abroad without lugging around a laptop"?)

When you plug a photo-laden iPod into your Mac, both iPhoto and Image Capture automatically recognize it as an input device. Very nice. Just click the "import" button on the capture program of your choice, and you're off to the races.

Photo storage is enabled by the Belkin Media Reader. It's virtually the same height as the iPod and about half again as wide. The Media Reader fits nicely in a camera bag pouch, and its Dock Connector is built into the unit, so you don't have to carry extra cords or adapters: it's all there in one unit. You can upload pictures from CompactFlash (Type 1 and 2), SmartMedia, Secure Digital, Memory Stick, and MultiMediaCards. It's pure plug and play with iPod software 2.1.

While the Media Reader is uploading pictures to your iPod, a green led light blinks to let you know its working away. One reviewer complained that the upload process is slow. That wasn't really an issue for me. The reader took 4:15 minutes to upload 40 6.3 megapixel images (99.7 MBs of content). Not blazing speed, but certainly reasonable. It does like to think about things for a few seconds when you first connect it. But once its ducks are in a row, it does its job without complaint. In my opinion, the Belkin reader works as advertised.

What really makes all of this interesting is Panther, with its array of hidden features including the Rendezvous picture sharing functionality that I wrote about last month. I'm sure you can already see the pieces coming together.

Yes, you can share images directly from a digital camera in Panther. But from the iPod too? Indeed you can. Read on.

Serious Storage Power

Related Reading

Digital Photography Pocket Guide
By Derrick Story

Okay, math time. With a 4-megapixel Canon S400, the average file size is in the neighborhood of 1.3 MB (shooting at the highest quality level). Dividing 1,024 MBs (that is, 1 gigabyte) by 1.3 and I get roughly 788 pictures to one GB of storage. If I set aside just 10 GBs of my iPod's hard disc for images, that means I can store well over 7,000 pictures (4 megapixel at highest quality Jpeg setting).

The iPod stores the pictures by "film roll." That's the same metaphor that iPhoto uses to organize media card uploads. You can scroll through the menu on the iPod and review the basic data for each film roll, including date and time of upload, number of photos, and disc space used.

However, regardless of how many film rolls you have on your iPod, when you upload them to iPhoto, they are considered one big film roll. You have to separate the pictures, if that's necessary, into separate albums after placing them in iPhoto. Bummer.

Personally, I'd prefer that iPhoto preserve the film roll organization as they are stored on the iPod instead of collapsing them into one big film roll. If I were on that fantasy vacation abroad for three weeks, I wouldn't want all of my images uploaded as one film roll. Maybe this is an improvement that we can facilitate through bug reports.

Looking at the pictures in iPhoto, everything seemed normal. The file names were correct, the metadata was intact, and the images looked great. And it only took 2 minutes, 10 seconds for those same 40 pictures (99.7 MB) to upload from the iPod to iPhoto. Ah, the joy of FireWire.

What About RAW and .Mov Files?

Even though Jpegs are the most common digital camera format, they're not the only game in town. Many advanced photographers shoot in RAW mode enabling them to fiddle with the images later without compromising quality.

Image Capture had no problem identifying RAW files from a Canon 10D, as indicated by the CRW files displayed here.

I shot a series of pictures in RAW+Jpeg mode with a Canon 10D, then uploaded them to the iPod via the Belkin reader. Image Capture had no problem identifying the RAW images and allowing me to download them. iPhoto could see them but, of course, had no idea what to do with the RAW format.

Image Capture is a good choice for grabbing Jpegs off your iPod. But for RAW and movie files, it's the best game in town.

So if you shoot RAW, either grab the pictures off your pod via Image Capture or by dragging them out of the DCIM folder located on the device. Either way, the news is good for RAW shooters.

The same holds true for movie files captured with your digital camera. For this test I used a Canon S400 and shot 4 movies. The Belkin Media Reader recognized the movie files and uploaded them to the iPod where they were placed in a new "film roll."

Image Capture displayed the movies as MVI_0000.AVI files, identifying them as AVI movies, which is correct. I opened the video clips in QuickTime and both audio and video played perfectly.

As with the RAW files, the movie clips could be dragged directly from the DCIM folder on the iPod to the Desktop or Movie folder on the Mac.

The iPod stores your pictures in the DCIM folder.

New Generation Digital Video Cameras

In addition to storing movies from your digital still camera, the iPod should be a great partner to the new generation of digital camcorders that write directly to Flash memory. For example, the Panasonic D-Snap SD Video Camera uses SD memory cards instead of DV tape. If you're shooting full resolution Mpeg2 with a 256MB card, you only have about 5 minutes recording time. In Mpeg4 mode, you get 20 minutes, but that's still not going to get you through an all day event.

If you had the iPod in your camera bag, you could upload one SD card while shooting with another, then alternate. Conceivably you could get through an entire day's worth of recording with just two 256MB cards and your pod. I haven't tested this because I don't have one of these cameras available. But I reviewed the specs, and it should work. If you have direct experience, please post a TalkBack and tell us about it.

Share and Share Alike

Here's where Panther makes things a bit more interesting. You can also share images directly from the iPod to other computers on the local network via Rendezvous. They never have to touch your Mac's hard drive, unless you want them to.

You can turn your iPod into a Rendezvous shared device allowing others on the local network to browse the pictures you have stored on it.

Simply follow the steps I outlined in my article, Rendezvous Picture Transfer with Panther, but instead of connecting a digital camera to your Mac, connect the iPod. Now anyone on the local network can view all of the pictures you've stored on your iPod and even download the ones they like. So not only does the iPod make picture storage a snap, but plugging it into a Panther Mac makes sharing just as easy.

Burning CDs Directly from the iPod

Next I opened Roxio Toast 5.2.3 and dragged Jpeg, RAW, and movie files directly from the iPod to Toast and burned a disc. It worked just fine, and I didn't have to copy the data to my Mac's hard drive. You could do the same the Panther's built-in burning software.

The advantage here is that you can go straight from iPod to optical media for sharing images, archiving, or for transfering to a desktop computer with a larger hard drive.

Publishing a Web Page from the iPod

Thanks to the versatility of Image Capture, you can also build a web page from selected pictures on your iPod, save it back to your iPod, upload the files to your web server, and, once again, never have a single kb occupy space on your Mac's hard drive. Here's how you do it:

  • Upload your pictures from the memory card to the iPod via the Belkin Media Reader.
  • Connect the iPod to your Panther Mac and launch Image Capture.
  • Create a web page folder on your iPod and tell Image Capture to place the files there.
  • Choose "Build a Web Page" as the Automatic Task in Image Capture.
  • CMD-select the thumbnails Image Capture is displaying from the iPod, then hit the "Download" button.

Choose Build a Web Page as the download action in Image Capture for fast authoring.

Image Capture will build your web page and save it to your iPod. You can either upload it to your server now or later. It makes no difference because you're carrying around the files in your pocket.

Final Thoughts

Apple has done a good job of letting the world know that you can store thousands of songs in your pocket. Now they can add the claim for thousands of pictures too. For the digital photographer on the go, the iPod can be a valuable addition to the camera bag. It entertains while stuck in airports between flight connections, stores your appointments so you know where to be and when, wakes you up if you oversleep, and stores an entire trip's worth of photos.

Panther users have even more flexibility thanks to the Image Capture app that comes bundled. With it you can share pictures from your iPod over a Rendezvous network, build web page catalogs, or download selected images to your Mac's hard drive.

If you want to work with your pictures directly off the iPod, I recommend that you grab the free image viewing utility, QuickImageCM 2.2. It lets you preview Jpegs at various zoom sizes with a simple ctrl-click (or right-click) of the mouse. This way you don't have to open your image editor or Preview every time you want to see what a picture looks like.

Even though the Belkin Media Reader isn't a speed demon, it works great and adds a new dimension to the iPod that is sure to be adored by digital photographers everywhere. Remember to keep a set of AAA batteries on hand in case your reader runs out of gas in the field.

After working with this setup, only one question remains. Why would any Mac photographer even consider another MP3 player?

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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