Thanks to the explosive growth in smartphone sales and the expansion of 3G/4G mobile broadband connectivity and the proliferation of Wi-fi hotspots many of us are now able to stay continuously connected, even when we’re out and about and well out of range of our home network.
Given this it’s hardly surprising that Wi-fi connectivity has established itself the one of the latest ‘must-have’ digital camera technologies.
Wi-fi connectivity on cameras is useful to photographers for a number of reasons. For starters, it allows us to share our images almost immediately after we’ve taken them.
It can also be used to email images to friends or clients without the need for a desktop computer, or at a more populist level to post images directly to social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube.
Some connected cameras also allow you to automatically back your images up to the cloud as a handy insurance policy against accidental loss or damage to your memory card, while others allow you to control your camera remotely via a smartphone or tablet.
This can be especially useful to wildlife photographers, or for self/group portraits where you want more control over the timing of the shutter release than the camera’s automatic self-timer function allows.
Last but not least, some Wi-fi cameras also enable you to send images directly to a printer without having to plug in any cables, streamlining the printing process.
Of course, there are some caveats. The main thing to bear in mind is that not all Wi-fi cameras are created equally; some are more advanced than others and the degree of Wi-fi functionality does differ between the various manufacturers and models.
While virtually all Wi-fi cameras allow you to wirelessly transfer images to a compatible smartphone or tablet, only a relatively small number can connect directly to the internet.
At its most basic level Wi-fi is a form of communications technology that uses radio waves to transmit data wirelessly from one device to another. The term ‘Wi-fi‘ is actually trademark that is owned and managed by the Wi-Fi Alliance – a trade association comprised of several hundred individual companies and interested parties.
The chief aim of the Wi-fi Alliance is to ensure interoperability between all Wi-fi certified devices and to this end all products that wish to carry the official Wi-fi logo must submit their product for testing before they can do so. This testing is based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) 802.11 standards, which has underpinned the development of Wi-fi since the beginning.
Wi-fi as a consumer product first began to surface at the turn of the millennium, and has since gone on to become the dominant wireless protocol for users of small communications devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers.
These days, Wi-fi is also big business with all of the major telecommunications players offering Wi-fi ‘hotspot’ access to their customers.
Essential Guide to Wi-fi – On The Go
Using Wi-fi away from home
Wi-fi, ‘smart’, or even ‘connected’ cameras as they are sometimes called offer a range of benefits over their non-connected siblings. In terms of pure convenience though the biggest practical advantage offered by connected cameras is that they allow you to instantly communicate your images when you’re out of range of your computer or home wireless network.
This is possible because the Wi-fi element of a connected camera can be used to turn the camera into a wireless access point, which in turn enables it to be connected to a smartphone or tablet. You’ll need to download and install a bespoke app on your mobile device beforehand, as this will allow it to communicate with your camera, however these are almost always available for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play.
For added security the connection between the two devices will usually be password protected too, usually via a code on the camera’s rear display that needs to be copied into your mobile device before the two devices will pair.
Once connected you can use the app to transfer single images or batches of images from your camera to your phone or tablet. From here you’re free to use them in the same way as any other images stored on your mobile device. This is the most basic set-up and is common to all Wi-fi cameras including the cheapest and most basic models on the market.
Pay a little more, however, and you may find that the camera comes with more advanced wireless connectivity features, for example the ability to connect directly to the internet without the need for a mobile device. As ever, it’s always worth researching the true extent of any camera’s connectivity prior to handing over any money. As we mentioned on the previous page, Wi-fi cameras are not all the same and some are much more richly featured than others.
Similarly, it’s also worth bearing in mind that the degree of functionality offered by the dedicated apps used to connect cameras to mobile devices varies quite a bit between the various manufacturers too. More advanced ones will offer additional features that can also be very useful in certain situations.
This includes the ability to control the camera remotely using your mobile device, giving you not only control over the shutter but also full access to primary shooting settings such as aperture and shutter speed.
Another useful feature offered by some wireless camera apps is the ability to transfer images on your camera via your mobile directly to popular social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube, or to photographic community sites like Flickr and Picasa, thereby cutting out the need to open multiple apps to upload a photo to a specific site.
Regardless of whether your camera allows you to access the web directly or via a mobile device you’ll ideally need to be within range of an open Wi-fi network or hotspot service to get online with. For this reason it’s worth checking with your broadband provider to see if there are any hotspot services you can access for free – BT broadband customers, for example, get unlimited access to BT Wi-fi, while SKY broadband customers get free access to The Cloud network.
Alternatively, if there’s no open Wi-fi network or hotspot that you can connect to then you could take advantage of your smartphone’s 3G/4G capabilities instead, although you do of course need to be mindful of any monthly data allowances imposed by your mobile provider, as things could otherwise get quite expensive.
Another useful feature offered by some manufacturers is the ability to back your images up to a secure cloud storage service direct from the camera.
This could prove worth its weight in gold should you be carrying important images and be unfortunate enough to accidentally lose or damage your memory card before you’ve had a chance to make any back-ups. It’s not something that all manufacturers offer as standard yet, however we can see it becoming much more of a standard feature in the future given its usefulness.
Essential Guide to Wi-fi – Around The Home
Using Wi-fi at home
Once you’ve got your connected camera home the built-in Wi-fi features aren’t quite as useful as they are out in the field, although there are a couple of obvious benefits. For starters, you will probably no longer need to use cables or a card reader to transfer image files between your camera and your home computer.
We say ‘probably’ because, somewhat surprisingly, not all Wi-fi cameras actually support wireless image transfer straight to PCs. That said, most Wi-fi cameras do and these usually come bundled with software that you’ll need to install on your home PC before you can get to two devices talking to each other.
That said, given the increased battery drain of using Wi-fi – especially for extended periods of time when you’ve got a large number of files that need transferring – it may well make more practical sense to use a wired connection or a card reader when you’re at home. After all, it only takes a second to plug a cable in and it may well charge your camera batteries rather than drain them.
One further use of Wi-fi in the home is the ability to send images to a compatible wireless printer directly from your camera, smartphone or tablet. Again, without having to use any cables or your home computer. Again, most manufacturers offer bespoke apps that can be downloaded for free to your mobile device to enable your device to talk to the printer.
Essential Guide to Wi-fi – Alternative Methods
Other ways to get connected
If you don’t own a Wi-fi enabled camera but would like to get connected then, depending on the make and model of your camera, there may be a specific add-on available. For example, Nikon offers the WU-1a and WU-1b Wireless Mobile Adaptors (£45), which are essentially small wireless access points units that can be plugged into a range of Nikon DSLRs, advanced compacts and compact system cameras to add Wi-fi functionality.
Canon also offers a range of wireless transmitters, although these are designed primarily for professional use and individually tailored to particular models in Canon’s EOS DSLR range. Olympus, meanwhile, offers a PENPAL PP-1 transmitter, although this uses Bluetooth rather than Wi-fi to push images to a smartphone.
Another way to get connected comes courtesy of Eye-Fi memory cards. These are essentially SD memory cards where the Wi-fi connectivity element is built into the actual card. The Wi-fi signal generated by an Eye-Fi card can be picked up by a mobile device using a dedicated app that’s free to both Android and iOS users. The beauty of Eye-Fi is that it’s open to all camera owners – at least those with cameras that take SD cards. The Eye-fi website allows you to check if your camera is compatible.
There are two types of Eye-Fi card to choose from, each of which comes in a range of storage sizes. The Mobi range is the basic card and offers basic camera-to-mobile image transfer. The more advanced Pro X2 range can handle Raw files as well as JPEGs and also offers additional support for use in home studios where a Wi-fi network is present. Neither card offers remote control over your camera, wireless printing or direct uploads to the internet though. Expect to pay around £35 for a 8GB Mobi card or £50 for an 8GB X2 Pro card.
NFC – the new wireless?
NFC stands for Near Field Communications and is a branch of wireless technology that uses radio waves to allow two devices to communicate over very short distances, typically of no more than an inch or two. NFC technology is overseen by the NFC Forum, which much like the Wi-Fi Alliance is a grouping of interested parties whose primary concern is to ensure interoperability between various NFC-branded devices.
On a more practical level the big advantage with NFC is that it allows two devices to share data (including image files) simply by tapping them together. This takes away the need for any complicated set-ups or configurations prior to exchanging information – simply tap and go.
With respect to digital cameras the technology is still not widely available, however it is becoming increasingly popular with mobile phones, so the chances are that it will soon catch on more widely with cameras too.