Home Accessories USB-C: The standard that makes reliable in-camera charging a reality

USB-C: The standard that makes reliable in-camera charging a reality

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What does USB-C mean to you? Convenience, fewer cables, lower cost, in-camera charging? The latest connector, which is now virtually universal, is all these things. But in the photographic world there is still controversy. It seems the new standard has encouraged manufacturers to concentrate on in-camera charging and remove external charging options. Not everyone welcomes this.

On balance, though, the agreement of all manufacturers, including camera companies, to join the standard, is a positive move. It has entirely changed the scene for travellers. They can now manage with one plug-in charger and a couple of USB-C cables — for all their devices, including cameras. I think it is A Good Thing, and I will explain. 

Early problems

My earliest brushes with USB-C were not encouraging. I owned one of the first MacBook Pros to be equipped with USB-C instead of USB-A. The USB-C connection was a nightmare because of the loose fit of the plug in the sockets. Even the slightest movement of the computer on the desk would result in the forced unmounting of external disks. Just four years ago, I related my USB-C woes in this Macfilos article: Wobbling all the way to the Genius Bar.

I complained repeatedly to Apple’s support people, but they insisted on blaming the cables or the drives. It was never the fault of their sockets, and they suggested I bring in all my external drives for checking. I was never able to cure the problem and eventually, I sold the computer in frustration. Yet recently, I read that Apple now admits there were issues with those early USB-C connectors.

Fortunately, I have not experienced similar concerns with any devices since. The connection is now invariably stable. I am using it on my iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air and, of course, all my modern cameras. It is particularly satisfactory on my iPhone 15 which does not suffer from the “fluff in socket” syndrome. This bedevilled Apple’s proprietary Lightning socket.

The USB-C standard

I have no particular brief for one standard over another, provided the connection is stable. I was pleased with Apple’s Lightning connector (except on smartphones, see above). It is an elegant solution if you exist within Cupertino’s walled garden. But USB-C is far more versatile and has the advantage of general acceptance. 

It handles both power and faster data speeds, it can mimic Thunderbolt, PCie, HDMI and Display Port standards. Furthermore, it is extendable to future standards. It is non-orientation specific (a big deal when fumbling in the dark) and universal (or close to that ideal). But there are provisos — see the next section.

On the debit side, high-power USB-C cables tend to be expensive, but this is something that will right itself as the standard becomes more popular. My wobble problem, mentioned above, seems to be more the fault of Apple’s USB-sockets of the time rather than a valid criticism of the standard. 

Thanks to USB-C, we can now travel with one cable which can power computers, tablets, phones, and cameras. And, if we forget that cable, a new one can be purchased easily in anywhere in the world. USB-C is a pretty good effort at creating the world connector. It may not be perfect, but it does its job.

This article gives a good overview of the USB-C standard and Apple Lightning, the two standards which I am most familiar with. 

The nitty-gritty

There are some provisos, as PCWorld points out in this excellent overview of what it calls “The confusing world of USB-C charging”.

Not every USB-C power supply is suitable for every device. Not all Type-C ports can be used to charge devices quickly or at all. And not every Type-C cable ensures reliable power transmission. This guide will give you an overview of the technical possibilities of Type-C charging and recommends suitable power supply units for all devices. If you’d like to avoid all the background and simply know which cords as worth your hard-earned money, be sure to check out our round up of the best USB-C cables. We perform hands-on tests that go far deeper than most other sources on the Web.

Thomas Rau, PCWorld

In-camera charging

With the universal adoption of internal charging via USB-C, camera manufacturers have taken the (predicable) further step of no longer supplying a charging pod with new cameras. In most cases, however, they continue to supply a PSU (power supply unit) and cable. 

Now, you either use direct charging in the camera, or you buy an external battery charging pod powered by the supplied power-supply unit supplied with the camera. Many are cheap third-party battery holders which do the job well, but need care in selection. If you wish to err on the safe side, an authorised charger pod supplied by the camera manufacturer could be worth the extra cost for peace of mind.

Leica has just deleted the charging pod from the SL3 box and now offers a dual-battery charger for a hefty £135. Bear in mind that this is just a battery connector; the power is supplied by the same PSU that you use for in-camera charging. Cheaper ones are available, such as the Nitecore ULM10 Pro at £69.95.

This removal of the ability to charge a battery outside the camera is not universally popular. Yet, I have always been a firm fan of in-camera charging, so I have no beef with the manufacturers. 

I travel happily with more than one camera and a single cable which I can plug into a charger of choice. It is usually the Apple unit I use for my phone, tablet, and MacBook Air. But I can see the problem faced by professionals who like to keep several batteries to hand during a day’s shooting. Having to charge them individually in the camera overnight is a chore, even if practical. But, I believe, such users will not mind paying for an external single or double-slot charger pod.

Battery packs

One of the pleasant by-products of universal in-camera charging is the ability to use a power bank, such as those employed to top up phones and other devices, to charge the camera. A typical small power bank has a storage capacity of 10000 mAh and stores around 35 Wh of energy. The Leica SL3/Q3 battery, which is hefty by camera standards, has a capacity of 2200 mAh and stores 16 Wh of energy.

In theory, this means that the power bank will top up the Leica battery twice on a single charge, although regard it as good for one full charge. On the other hand, the tiny battery of my Ricoh GRIII (900 mAh and storage of 3.3 Wh of energy) can be charged several times during the day (and it needs it).

I now keep the battery pack in my camera bag and routinely plug in the camera during coffee breaks and meals. This way, I can normally manage without carrying backup batteries.  For the best camera-charging experience, look for a battery back with a voltage of around 7.5. [Note that battery packs can get warm when transferring energy and, also, you need to ensure that the USB plugs or sockets are secure and cannot be damaged while in the bag. You should assess the risk and, if you are worried, do not leave the camera on charge inside a confined space. Thanks to reader David B for pointing this out]

The question of cost

When I purchased the Leica M11 two years ago, I made the very unusual decision not to buy a second battery. At the time, this saved me £150, although I now see prices as low as £110. But the M11 is very frugal with batteries, especially if you are not using the accessory EVF or the rear screen. I have never once felt the need for a second battery (or a top-up during the day, for that matter). 

In my view, then, in-battery charging is more convenient, it is cheaper (in avoiding the need for more spare batteries) and safer when travelling. In the old days, forgetting your proprietary Leica charger (the only way to replenish the battery) was an expensive business, even if you were lucky enough to find a convenient Leica store. Now, all the anxiety has gone. All you require is a cable (assuming you carry chargers for other equipment) and even this can be replaced easily. 

And the opportunities to top up equipment are multiplying all the time. USB sockets (admittedly USB-A in most cases) are proliferating on trains, buses, in cafés and many other public places. They are slow in most cases, of course, but not to be sniffed at if you just want to trickle charge the camera while enjoying a cappuccino or taking the bus across town.

In transition

One of the problems of adopting the new universal USB-C standard is that we still have to battle with older equipment. Various chargers and adaptors still use only USB-A or even older forms of USB such as the annoying micro socket which needs care in attaching. We are also left with a drawerful of out-dated cables. 

However, there is an effective way to cut down costs and use the old peripherals during the transition period: adaptors. These cheap and effective little connectors allow USB-A cables or Lightning cables to be connected to USB-C sockets. And there are other adaptors available for any cables or sockets you might encounter.

It’s good to make connections

I bought a matchboxful of these little devices, and I have found them ideal in transitioning from old to new. In particular, my current (rather old) external battery pack has one USB-C connector and two USB-A sockets. Since I am now mainly using USB-C to USB-C cables, the little connectors allow me to utilise the legacy USB-A ports. 

This is temporary, of course, When I need to replace the 10,000 mAh battery pack I will be able to buy one with three or more USB-C sockets and no legacy USB-A. Within a couple of years I will be able to say goodbye to the tiny adaptors but, meanwhile, they are worth having, especially when travelling. Currently, my old AirPods still use Lightning, and that is the only use I have left for the old standard. 

I will be happy to say a final goodbye to all older USB connectors. With these earlier efforts, plugs could be inserted in only one orientation, and invariably you first try the wrong way. This is Murphy’s Law of Connectors. 

Above: These little connectors are lifesavers when travelling. Carry just one cable and adapt it to your devices. I bought the USB-C to USB-A and USB-C to Lightning adapters from Amazon. Leica box not included.

Surprisingly, though, USB-A and its mini companions were once welcomed as game changers. They were a revelation after monster parallel and serial sockets and plugs. Those were the days. Now, almost everything can be channelled through one tiny ambidextrous port which, remarkably, is to be found anywhere in the world.

Conclusion

As you gather, I am a great fan of in-camera charging and I entirely forgive manufacturers for no longer supplying external battery pods,. For most people, charging in-camera, supplemented by a cheap, lightweight external battery pack, is perfectly feasible, even when travelling for long periods.

Anyone with extreme battery needs will not object to spending a few extra pounds on a charger cradle (preferably a dual charger). Above all, the fact that USB-C connectors are everywhere — and we all carry power-supply units for our phones, tablets, and computers — makes travel and general use so much simpler and cheaper. 

As for USB-C as a standard, it does the job well. And it is a credit to the industry and to government regulators that at last we have decided on The One Cable to Slay Them All. USB-A is on the way out, Apple’s Lightning is on the way out, and the other micro USB connectors are dead to all intents and purposes. At last, we have a standard we can rely on.

What’s your view?

Are you happy to rely on in-camera charging and forgive manufacturers for making it standard? Or do you think manufacturers should continue to supply a charging pod to enable a one or two extra batteries to be topped up simultaneously?


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23 COMMENTS

  1. While I see the advantages of in-device charging and even more so of a general standard for such interfaces, I have to admit that I‘m no fan of USB charging.

    It has the effect that the camera (or other device) is logged to cable during charging. With an external charger, only the battery is blocked, and you can continue shooting with your second battery. So, I suspect what the camera industry is doing right now has more to do with cost cutting and less with user friendliness.
    The next step might be that we only get built-in, non-removable batteries which often means that we can throw away our device once the battery is broken. A fantasy? Just think of you first mobile phone. I am almost sure it had a back user-detachable back cover and a removable battery behind it. And your new Samsung, iPhone, Xiaomi..?

    At any rate thanks, Mike, for your article, and of course of have a point in many respects, especially when it comes to travelling light. But in general, I disagree… JP

  2. My latest MacBook Air (M3, 15-inch model) comes with a MagSafe 3 port and 2 USB-C ports. Supposedly either can be used for charging but the cable in the box is for MagSafe 3 charging. Are there any advantages to MagSafe 3 charging over USB-C charging?

    • I have the same computer. MagSafe was brought back by popular demand because of the physical safety aspects preventing the computer being pulled off the desk if the cable gets snagged. I am not aware that it charges and faster than a normal USB-C cable. I never take the MagSafe cable out of the house and rely on charging via one of the two USB-C ports. When travelling I use a plug/in hub which occupies both USB-C ports and blocks the MagSafe port. This is mainly so I can use Ethernet and SD card. I Kirn the overall versatility.

      • Hi Mike, I enjoy mine very much. The only thing that slightly irritates me is that MagSafe 3 port. I would have preferred an additional USB-C port instead. Do you use yours mostly standalone or with a display? If with display are you using the Apple display? It seems very good and very overpriced at the same time. I might still go for it one day.

        • I use the MacBook Air mainly for travel. While an iPad can do most things these days, I feel easier with MacOS for running the blog, in particular in manipulating photos in articles. So I don’t use it either a monitor. However, I do have an office set up consisting if a Mac Studio M2 and two monitors. One is excellent Studio monitor and the other an LG 4K which I had left over from a I previous set up. These days, with cloud services, keeping two Macs in sync is seamless, so it all works well.

          • I have used my previous MacBook(s) also mainly for travel up till now. I do need to replace my 27-inch iMac as well and Apple only sells 24-inch iMacs nowadays. I don’t believe after 10 years I want to go back to a smaller screen. Also FWIW, the difference between a 13-inch and a 15-inch MacBook is bigger than I expected, or perhaps the screen on the 15-inch is just better, not sure.

          • I would strongly recommend a Mac Studio over an iMac if you do need a desk machine. I have always thought that the screen of an iMac is capable of outlasting the computer. So it makes sense to buy a good monitor (the Studio display is excellent, but expensive) and then change the Studio computer as necessary. For me, the Studio has all the ports I need, plus an SD card slot on the front. The iMac slot is behind the screen and very fiddly to access.

          • Or, of course, it’s also sensible to make the Air your main computer and equip it with monitor and peripherals. If you are happy with the performance, that’s a clear choice. Not everyone wants to maintain two separate computers, however good the sync. I’ve had this discussion with Jono Slack who prefers to use just one MacBook Pro for both desktop and travel.

  3. Brilliant article:
    When I first saw how Hasselblad implemented USB-C for both power and iOS Connectivity with USB – I began to wonder why other companies had not worked this out. Camera companies can’t seem to be bothered to pursue this USB-C connection comprehensively. Instead in their “wisdom” keep delivering FLAKY WiFi connections.
    The obvious question – if they persist with WiFo then make it robust or just go back to USB-C.
    The irony here is that Hasselblad has now decided to drop USB-C connections to iOS and are also favouring Wifi – what a bunch of jokers.

  4. In camera charging is lovely but you are tethered to a wall or charging socket in a vehicle or a LiIon brick. Please, please, please, folks keep the option to remove and replace batteries in the field and to continue to supply external charging bricks…shoot with one charge the other rather than charging all

  5. Thanks for this article Mike,

    I think the underlying fact is that we will be in transition for a few years yet until all our old equipment has been replaced by new versions that are USB-C only. If you visit places with public charging – airports, hotels etc. – many of their charging outlets are still USB-A, so you may need your adaptor widget plugs for a while.

    I have an old SB4 spare battery from my previous Q2 that I keep as a backup, but I’m happy to charge the SB6 in camera with the Q3 but also carry a Nitecore charger for that battery as a security blanket. Needless to say the Nitecore comes with a USB-A connector…

    But I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t have to carry spaghetti with me…

    • It won’t be USB-C forever. Perhaps not even a few years. My drawers are full of outdated cords, in spite of the fact I periodically go through them. We should know by now that electronic industry lives on life cycle, both of individual products, and even standards.

      I once asked the rhetorical question, Why does Microsoft keep changing Windows? My friend gave a non-rhetorical answer: Because Bill Gates does not have enough money yet.

  6. “In most cases, however, they continue to supply a PSU (power supply unit) and cable.”
    Well, the abreviation, PSU, reminded me instantly of my time in the military (duty service), where PSU stood for “Persoonlijke Standaard Uitrusting’ (Personal Standard Gear). Funny how this three letters have at least one thing in common: standardization.

  7. “.. A tip is to keep the plug in the camera when it’s in the bag..”

    Oooh, I’d worry about any little bump or knock possibly snapping or bending the connector on the cable or the camera’s own socket! Powerbanks often get warm while discharging ..that’s to say while charging other equipment.. and in a confined and insulated space such as a camera bag ..er, I’d rather not ..I wouldn’t want my camera bag to catch fire while charging ..especially not on a plane, or in the Channel tunnel ..or anywhere, for that matter.

    I’d take the camera and powerbank OUT of the bag during charging or topping up ..in a hotel room, for instance, or while waiting in an airport ..but NOT keeping them close together in a bag while charging in a confined space such as a car, train, plane. (I’d use the separate USB socket – often provided – in a car, train or plane if you have to charge during a journey.)

    • Good point, David. I agree entirely if this is a mains-supply charger, but a transfer from battery to battery or a feed from a low-power public USB socket could be less of a worry.

      • I took the train up to London the other day, and my iPad (to read on the journey) was rather low, so I plugged in one of the rechargeable pods which my son had given me for Christmas – or birthday – to charge the iPad en route.

        The charger – battery-to-battery – got so hot that I couldn’t touch it ..though the chargee (iPad) stayed cool (daddy-oh).

        My other – larger – powerbanks also warm up considerably when charging other batts (in microphones, recording devices, cameras, etc).

        I wouldn’t risk it! (..And I don’t want to be fried by the photographer in the seat behind me shoving her/his camera bag (with a PB charging their camera) under my airplane seat!)

  8. My first experience with USB-C was the 2015 12inch Macbook. I remember not being able to find any USB-C accessories for years after it’s release while other non-Apple manufacturers caught up. No problem with the connection on that Mac though.
    I think it’s a bit ridiculous in 2024 that we are still using USB-C to USB-A cables.It should be all USB-C to USB-C now.
    Personally I am not a fan of cameras like Leica SL3 and Nikon ZF not coming with a charger unit.I don’t travel with a laptop for instance, just spare batteries. I like to charge my camera batteries in my hotel overnight. Your powerbank idea is another option but still another heavy item to carry. It sometimes seems to me that camera battery technology lags way behind other tech features in modern cameras and yes, I still miss the days when I could use a film camera and go a whole year with a couple of silver oxide batteries and not have to be constantly charging things.Cameras today are still too power hungry for me with insufficient battery life for outdoor photography in more remote places.I can get 2-3 days use out of my phone on one charge but not the same from my Leica batteries which can be exhausted after a few hours use even with power saving features turned on and things i don’t need turned off.I suppose that’s the price you have to pay for a big bright EVF and an advantage an M rangefinder still has.

    • Thanks, Stephen. As I said in the article, everyone has their own preferences. As for external battery packs, it’s easy to get a pack that will charge a Q3/SL3 battery twice for about £20. That’s a big saving on the cost of spare batteries. However, all camera manufacturers appear to be deleting the single-battery charging pod, although many still supply a USB-C power unit. I suspect most users are happy with that, but a third-party double charger pod is a good alternative for those who like to have several batteries powered up at one time.

      Mike

      • Good point about the cost-saving with the battery packs Mike,Those batteries are certainly not cheap so it probably makes good economic sense!

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