The Digicam AA Battery Page
Stretching battery life and saving money

Last updated 11 April 2008

Types of batteries

Let's be blunt: digital cameras can use up batteries at an appalling rate, especially if you choose the wrong kind of batteries. You can drain a set of AAs in as little as fifteen minutes! But don't despair—there are batteries that can keep your camera going for hours. You just have to know what to ask for, and that's what I'll talk about here.

When it comes to AA batteries, the kind many digital cameras use, you have your choice of almost half a dozen "families" or types. Which one is best for you depends on your shooting style (more on that later). Before I summarize their characteristics, here's a quick word about power ratings. Batteries are rated in milliampere-hours (mAh). This is a measure of how much electrical current a battery can put out—and for how long.

What does that mean in practical terms? Well, cameras vary in their power usage, but let's say your camera uses about 1,000 milliamperes (mA) when it's running with the LCD lit (see Martin Rommel's real-world current consumption figures for the QuickTake 200). In that case, if you had a set of 1,000 milliampere-hour (mAh) batteries in the camera, you could figure on getting about an hour of running time out of them. 2,000 mAh batteries would give you twice as much time, and so on. Alkaline batteries are the sole exception to this handy rule of thumb: they have high mAh ratings, but deliver very short operating times. (We'll see why in a minute.)

With that in mind, let's look at your choices:

  • Alkalinealkaline battery  These are the most common nonrechargeable batteries. They're cheap, but they don't do too well in a digital camera: a set of four alkaline AAs may only last fifteen to twenty minutes, despite their high power rating (see table below).

    Why the poor performance despite the good specifications? Standard alkalines have a high internal resistance, which means that in low-current applications (like personal cassette players) they do well, but when it comes to a high-current device like a digital camera, they just can't deliver the juice fast enough.

    Several manufacturers have introduced high-current alkalines that are claimed to overcome this problem—but they don't. In digital camera applications, Duracell's "Ultra" and Eveready's "advanced design" Energizer still trail well behind lithium, NiMH and high-capacity NiCd cells. Even the improved versions of the venerable alkaline battery should be used only as a last resort.

  • Rechargeable alkaline  Now a historical curiosity, Rayovac's 1995 "Renewal" battery was a low-capacity alkaline battery that could be recharged—but only a dozen or two times, and it lost storage capacity each time you recharged it. Even Rayovac recommended against using these batteries in digital cameras, and as far as I can tell they're no longer on the market... which is just as well.

  • Nickel cadmiumcheap NiCd battery (NiCd)  This is the oldest type of rechargeable battery, and is no longer recommended, since NiCds have only a fraction of the capacity of NiMH cells. NiCds are cheap, but they perform so poorly in cameras that they're just not worth bothering with.

    If you're interested in detailed technical information about NiCd batteries, chargers and technology, take a look at the NiCd Battery FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) web page.

  • NiMH battery

    Nickel metal hydride (NiMH)  These are the highest-capacity rechargeable AAs, and generally the best ones to get for a digital camera; a set of NiMH batteries should be good for at least an hour or two of continuous use. Radio Shack and most large hardware stores sell these, but you can get a better deal at ZBattery, where they sell various brands of NiMH cells in the 2,000-2,700 mAh range for as little as $2.75 apiece (even less in quantity). Since these batteries can be recharged many hundreds of times, they'll save you a pile of money compared to disposable batteries.

    By the way, as with most batteries, it doesn't seem to matter much what brand of NiMH cell you buy, as long as it has the current rating you're looking for (the higher, the better). If your Olympus camera came with instructions to only use Olympus batteries, relax—they're just trying to scare you into buying their overpriced batteries. Any camera or charger that's designed for NiMH batteries will work just fine with any battery of that type, no matter what the manufacturers want you to think. (We'll talk about chargers in detail a little later on this page.)

  • Hybrid nickel metal hydride (hybrid NiMH)  Like all rechargeable batteries, NiMH cells lose some of their charge every day, even if you don't use them. With most NiMH cells, a fully charged battery will be pretty much drained in a few months just sitting on the shelf. That means if you get out the camera only on holidays, your batteries may be dead when you need them... unless you remember to recharge them every month or so.

    Sanyo Eneloop

    But a new "hybrid" NiMH type, exemplified by Sanyo's Eneloop and Maha's Imedion, can hold 75% of its charge after a year. These batteries even come "precharged," ready to use right out of the package. There is a trade-off, though: hybrid NiMH cells only store about 75% as much power as the best regular ones. But for situations where you only use a device occasionally, they're worth considering.

    If you're interested in detailed technical information about NiMH batteries, chargers and technology, Duracell offers a 23-page technical bulletin on their website. (This is a PDF file, so you must have Adobe Acrobat in order to read it.)

  • Disposable lithiumlithium battery  These batteries aren't cheap, and they aren't rechargeable either... but they offer a big advantage: a shelf life of up to ten years. For that reason, lithium AAs make great emergency spares. You can be certain that they'll be ready whenever you need them.

    Note: many digital cameras use rechargeable lithium-ion (LiIon) batteries. This technology has many advantages, but its characteristic 3.6V voltage means it can't be used in cameras that expect standard 1.5V AA cells. So if you buy lithium AAs, make sure they are the nonrechargeable 1.5V type. Using rechargeable 3.6V LiIon AA batteries in a camera designed for standard AAs will damage the camera!

Here's a summary of AA battery characteristics:

Type alkaline NiCd NiMH hybrid NiMH lithium
Cost for 4 AA cells1 $1-$2 $6 $10-$20 $12-14 $8-$10
Capacity (mAh) 2,800 600-1,000 2,000-2,700 2,000 2,100
Running time2 0.3–0.5 hour 0.5 hour 2–2.5 hours 2 hours 2 hours
Rechargeable? no YES YES YES no
Shelf life3 2-3 years 1 month 1 month 1 year 7-10 years

1 when purchased in a 4-pack (cheaper when bought in bulk, obviously)
2 estimate based on 1A power consumption
3 shelf life is how long the battery will hold a charge if not used


Which battery is right for you?

Obviously you're going to save money in the long run with NiMH rechargeables. But it's not that simple. As mentioned above, rechargeable batteries lose a little power every day (about 1% for NiCds, slightly more for NiMH batteries) even if you don't use them. That means a fully charged set will drop to unusable voltage levels in a month or two—even if the camera's just sitting on a shelf! They're not permanently dead, of course—but they will need a recharge before you can use them.

Thus if your shooting habits fall into the Christmas/Thanksgiving/birthday pattern and the camera stays in the closet the rest of the time, NiCd or standard NiMH batteries are likely to be dead when you need 'em. If that's your style, you have two choices.

Hybrid NiMH cells such as Sanyo's Eneloop will stay usable for up to a year, so they're probably the best bet for most casual/occasional users. But if you want the maximum shelf life, disposable lithium batteries will hold their charge from seven to ten years on the shelf. (Alkalines have a shelf life of two to three years, but they perform so poorly in digital cameras that I don't recommend them for this use.)

On the other hand, if you use your camera frequently, here's a good strategy: use rechargeable, high-capacity NiMH batteries for regular shooting, but always carry a spare set of hybrid NiMH or disposable lithium batteries with you, in case the rechargeables poop out in the middle of a shooting session. (You know it's gonna happen sooner or later!) The lithiums make ideal emergency batteries, because as long as you don't use them, they'll hold their juice for many years—and meanwhile you can save a lot of money by relying on the rechargeables for day-to-day use.

A note about battery usage: heed those warnings you see about taking the batteries out of the camera if you are going to be leaving it on the shelf for a few months. Unused batteries—especially alkalines—can leak caustic chemicals that have the potential to destroy your camera's delicate innards. One reader lost his QuickTake 200 this way. Don't let it happen to you!

All-day battery beltpack

Even the best AA batteries will only get you a couple hours of operating time. But here's a great idea suggested by Ken Spencer: make a high-capacity rechargeable battery beltpack for your camera, using rechargeable D cells. Even cheap NiCd D cells store 5,000 mAh, and the better NiMH D cells pack a whopping 10,000-11,000 mAh!

battery beltpack

Here's how to build your own super-powered battery beltpack. Take a set of rechargeable D cells and stick 'em into a battery holder (Radio Shack #270-396, $1.79). Put the holder in an inexpensive fanny pack—that's "bum bag" to you English folks—($5-$10 at any department store) and add a short cable terminated with the appropriate DC power plug. Voilà! You've got yourself a super-powered rechargeable battery pack for your camera!

Another possibility—if you're really power-hungry—is to use a single sealed lead-acid battery. These are widely available at surplus houses and Radio Shack in a variety of voltages. (Make sure you match your camera's requirements, of course!) One of these "gel cells" fits nicely into a belt pack and will power the camera all day.

Important tips for any home-made battery pack:
  • Don't try to solder batteries together! You'll most likely damage them permanently, and you could even cause an explosion.
  • Make sure that a short circuit can't occur. These battery packs cram a lot of energy into a small space, and a short circuit can liberate all that energy within a few seconds, setting your fanny pack (and perhaps your fanny!) on fire. When you build a battery pack, make sure all of its exposed terminals are insulated with electrical tape or better yet, shrinkable tubing. And don't store loose metal objects in the same container with a battery pack. Hairpins, pens or even other batteries could short the terminals of your battery holder together, causing a fire.
  • Let your batteries breathe. Even "sealed" lead-acid cells can emit hydrogen when charging...and hydrogen plus air plus a spark equals a BANG!
Battery chargers

If you're using rechargeables, you'll need a charger—and not all chargers are the same! A few bucks will buy you a plain-vanilla charger from Radio Shack or Eveready that will recharge a set of four AA batteries overnight.

Maha 204c charger

If you really want to pamper your batteries, the chargers most often recommended by folks who are knowledgeable about digital cameras are those made by Maha. Their most popular all-purpose model is the MH-C204F, which will charge two or four NiCd or NiMH AA or AAA batteries in a couple of hours. Special sensing circuitry in the Maha chargers allows rapid charging without risking battery damage (see below).

My favorite charger is Maha's MH-C401FS. It has all the same advantages as the 204, but lets you charge one, two, three, or four AAs or AAAs at a time. Each cell is independently monitored, so each cell gets the fastest, safest possible charge. ZBattery sells this unit for $37.95 in an outfit that includes a charger case, battery case, and both 120VAC and 12VDC adapters... so you can charge batteries at home or on the road.

Some companies will sell you rechargers that claim to charge a set of batteries in under an hour. But rapid charging—anything under about two hours—can be tricky. You see, a rechargeable battery is designed to accept current at about 1/10 of the battery's mAh rating. For a typical 2,500 mAh NiMH AA cell, that works out to around 250 mA, so a full charge would take about ten hours. Force-feeding a battery in a shorter time can reduce its lifetime (the total number of charges it can accept) and diminish its capacity as well.

The key factors that damage batteries are heat and overcharging. An "intelligent" charger (like the Maha models mentioned above) will monitor time, current and temperature and ensure that your batteries are charged just as rapidly as is safe—and that they're not overcharged. On the other hand, if you really push it with an inexpensive "one-hour" charger, you can literally fry the batteries, overheating them beyond repair.

Even a slow charger can damage batteries if they're left on charge for days at a time. No battery likes to be overcharged, and you can substantially reduce a battery's lifetime if you make a habit of leaving it in the charger. Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are especially vulnerable to damage from this kind of long-term "trickle charging," though the Maha chargers are supposedly safe to use in this mode (I haven't tested this). In general, look for a charger that automatically shuts off—or time your charges manually, and take the batteries out when they're done. A little care can reward you with much longer-lasting batteries and save you money.

Two more important charging tips:
  • Be sure you put the batteries in the charger correctly! Get 'em backward, and it's bye-bye batteries.
  • Never, ever try to charge nonrechargeable batteries such as disposable carbon-zinc, alkaline or lithium cells. It's dangerous—some types can overheat and even explode—and it just plain doesn't work.

Wondering whether the NiCd "memory effect" is real? If you want a detailed—but readable—explanation of the electrochemistry of NiCd batteries, Ken Nishimura's NiCd FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page will tell you all you ever wanted to know and more.


Small QuickTake 200 image Return to the QuickTake 200/Fuji DS-7 Users' Page

If you have tips or suggestions about either of these two cameras, or if you've found any accessories I haven't mentioned here, send email to Andy Baird so I can put the information on this page.

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