Six alternative uses for digital cameras on the road

We’ve reached the point where high quality digital cameras have become pretty common. It seems that every few months or so the minimum number of megapixels going into cameras goes up a notch. I saw a 12 megapixel camera in the store the other day. What does the common tourist need a 12 megapixel camera for? And why doesn’t anyone seem willing to put greater than 3 megapixels in a mobile phone camera?

Many people don’t think of it, but that high resolution and extra large LCD is good for more than crystal clear photographs of the sunset in Maui. You’ve essentially got a photo and storage database inside of your camera that you can use to store and reference all sorts of info while you’re on the road. This can cut down on weight and logistics while navigating a busy street or on your own for a daytrip in a foreign city.

1. Map and guidebook page storage: Say you’re heading out to Soho in London and you want to take the map from your Lonely Planet along. The London book is so huge that you don’t want to carry it around and you don’t want to rip a page out because you borrowed the book from your cousin Eddie, so you’re buggered on bringing a map with you. But you can take a high-resolution photo of the map page then replay the photo during your travels, use the zoom tool and scroll around the map. Similarly, you can take photos of small sections of your guidebook to reference them later. Of course this only works if you have a few small articles that you want to bring with you — if you want to bring entire neighborhoods of data, you’ll want to bring the guidebook.

Photomaps also work for pictures taken on LCD screens. So if you Google map something back at the apartment and want to bring it with you, take a photo instead of tracking down a printer and wasting the paper.

2. Makeshift binoculars: Can’t see a sign three blocks away? Take a high resolution picture of the sign, go back to the image and zoom way in. Even the lower (5-6MP) cameras have better resolution than the human eye.

3. Data storage: Unless you’ve got some hifalutin software that downloads and posts your pictures off of your camera, most interfaces work by plugging in a supplied USB cable to your computer where you can open a folder and copy over your images. If you’ve got a fairly large memory card, you should also have a fair amount of space left over on the rest of the chip. This space can be used like a USB flash drive where you can copy trip essentials over like MP3s or a resume or even pictures from another person’s camera. You’ll just have to plug the camera back in when you get to your laptop or home computer to copy the files off.4. Makeshift flashlight: Fumbling around in the dark without your contact lenses trying to find your glasses? The LCD from your camera emits a surprisingly strong glow, especially in pitch black. If you turn it on to “Play” mode with a lighter image, you can get enough light to quickly find what you’re looking for in your rucksack without staggering to the door or waking up your roommate. You know you’ve done it with your cell phone before.

5. Directions home: If you’re in a country where you can’t speak the language or even read the alphabet well enough to pronounce it, try taking a photo of your address or your destination before you leave. If you get lost or tired, you can jump into a cab, show them the picture and they’ll be able to figure out where you need to go. I’ve done this several times in China and Russia and cab drivers have always been keen on the idea.

6. Convenience store communication: When pointing, gesturing and horrible pronunciation won’t work, nothing beats a photo to tell the cashier that you need a fifth of Don Q Rum or a pack of smokes. It’s amazing how communication can quickly break down from a gesture that you thought would be easy to transmit to confused floundering. Last month in Tokyo I went into a convenience store looking for a Denny’s (three blocks down — not recommended, for the record), and looked at the cashier and said “Denny’s?” while I shrugged. He looked at me, walked to the front door, turned around walked behind the counter, turned around twice then picked up a plastic spoon and gave it to me.

Just remember to keep your battery charged while you’re out on the road. Several friends I have switch their batteries every day to lower the risk of failure while out for the day. And try to keep your camera in your pocket while you’re drinking. I’ve dropped my Canon IXUS so many times that the inner electronics are about to explode out of the case.

Keep those cameras shooting!