What are the best AA batteries for photography?

This is another guest post from Dan on the best AA batteries for photography. You can read also his previous Fuji X100 and Olympus ZX1 reviews. You can follow Dan on twitter @ZDP189.

What Are the Best AA Batteries for Photography?

I seem burn through batteries at an alarming rate.  I have lots of devices that take AA batteries and none more so than my Speedlites.  The Canon 580 EX II is a beast of an external flash and it drinks energy like a dehydrated camel knee deep in Lucozade.  For some reason Canon still haven’t moved onto Lithium battery packs and so I have to keep dropping in AA batteries.  There is a bewildering array of batteries available.  Here’s my story; it’s a typical consumer tale of woe, but there’s hope.


I started out buying AA (LR6) batteries at the grocery store.  Today, these cost about ten dollars for a bumper pack of 20 batteries.  That would last my family anything between a couple of days and a couple of weeks, but usually the battery drawer would be empty when I needed to grab a handful to shoot with.  I started stashing batteries.  I think we all did.  We’d have our own little hoards, so when the new batteries came in with the shopping they’d all be gone in a flash.

Nickel Cadmium

As a kid and young adult, started using NiCd rechargeables for high drain motorised applications like remote controlled cars and Airsoft guns.  I still use them on most of my cordless power tools.  NiCd batteries can deliver very high current and therefore promise fast recycle times.  In fact, some flashes and electronic devices can’t use NiCds as the high current can damage circuitry.  Most external flashes that I have checked are OK with NiCd though.  However, I never liked NiCd.  I found these batteries finicky and short lived.  The capacity doesn’t give enough shots and it gets worse when batteries start getting the ‘memory effect’ and other kinds of abuse that are normal consumer behaviour.


After flirting with NiCd rechargeables on an off I changed to NiMH when that technology matured, but the situation wasn’t much better than with alkalines.  First, I found that I needed lots of them.  I needed enough for three sets of flashes at four batteries apiece, plus some back-up sets, then enough for various other devices and a dozen or so to be left charging while I was out.  Then I’d forget to use a set for months and it’d lose its charge and wouldn’t work again.  I had lots more rechargeable NiMH batteries on hand than I ever did alkalines and an unknown number of them became duds.  Performance suffered when the duds got mixed in with good batteries.  In retrospect, I probably needed a sophisticated battery conditioner/ condition monitor and a regime for proper battery care, but to sum up, they were a hassle, they didn’t hold a charge, they were unreliable and I didn’t enjoy any economy over store bought alkalines and returned to using those.

Back to Alkalines

Over the years I discovered that there’s not a whole lot of difference between different brands, notwithstanding special grades and premium chemistries.  Recently, I also found out that I could buy alkaline batteries wholesale as long as I was willing to buy hundreds at a go.  For about the price of 60 Duracell Coppertops in a store, I could get a tray of some 400 GP brand batteries at something like 6.5 cents apiece.  They all seem to work well.  Anyway, anyone should be able to find a deal in the same price range locally or online.  This discovery totally changed the game for me.  They have several years of shelf life, don’t require any special effort on my part, and as long as they’re not costing me much then I should be satisfied.  What bothers me is that all my research shows that NiMH should be a lot better.  I am at a crossroads.

Should I go back to NiMH?

Alkalines work best at low working currents, such as 100mA.  At low currents, an alkaline battery has a similar capacity to a full and well conditioned NiMH rechargeable.  When the current drain rises, the battery drains faster and you won’t get as much energy as the rated capacity states[1].  At 500mA, capacity drops by about a third, and at 2A, capacity is typically about half the rating.  A Canon Speedlite, or almost any high guide number external flash will drain current as high as alkaline batteries are able to provide.  NiMH batteries are much less affected by current and can provide a higher current than any alkaline battery[2].  Indeed, NiMH batteries have a lower internal resistance than alkaline batteries and can deliver higher current, making for faster cycling times.  While memories of poor past experiences haunt me, I am told that NiMH has evolved.  There are now Ultra Low Self Discharge (ULSD) batteries such as the Sanyo eneloop brand that can hold a charge for months, even years.  I should look into it again.

Forward to rechargeable Lithium Ion, Lithium Polymer and LiFePO4?

As a ‘flashlight freak’ with many friends in the industry, I am aware of Li-ion and Li-Po batteries and I have seen how they have revolutionised high power LED torches.  It seems obvious that these may hold a lot of promise for flashes.  Most of my devices already run on Lithium rechargeables, so it’s mostly the Speedlites that I need AA batteries for these days.  They have higher potential discharge current, are less affected by cold and have a higher capacity.  On the other hand, if used improperly, they could damage the equipment, explode, be over-discharged and pragmatically speaking, I don’t know of any AA-sized batteries that are 1.5V, only 3.7V like almost all lithium batteries.  The only product I can think of is the RCR-V3m, which is a rechargeable lithium battery in a double AA pack in a reversed side by side configuration.  Maybe that might fit into a Speedlite?  Unfortunately I heard that these don’t deliver the performance I’d have expected them to[3].  They have substantially less real-world capacity than NiMH.  RCR-V3 batteries like most rechargeable lithium batteries take 7 hours to recharge, unlike NiMH, which recharge in two hours or less and are a heck of a lot cheaper.

LiFePO4 is another lithium technology that can be fast-charged and holds promise, but I’ve yet to hear of an AA-compatible implementation[4][5].

How about Nickel Zinc?

NiZn is an exciting development, but I’m cautious and I want to hear of other users’ experience first.  The only maker I have found is PowerGenix [6].  They are supposedly super fast, cycling a Speedlight SB-600 in under two seconds, which makes them faster than alkaline, NiMH and NiCd.[7]  They recharge in an hour and a half[6] too, much faster than Lithium rechargeables, although the tested capacity is less[7].  They’re expensive too and require a special charger.  The biggest worry is that while they were designed to replace AA alkalines in digital cameras, the rated voltage is a little higher than alkalines and there have been reports of Speedlites getting burned out[8], though whether this is due to their voltage or the high amount of full power flashes that they can allow the flash to discharge is debatable.

What about the other non-rechargeable technologies?

Some grades of non-rechargeable AA batteries last a lot longer than your common-or-garden alkaline.  Energizer Titanium and Energizer Lithium have been independently tested to outlast by approximately 2 and 4 times longer than regular alkaline batteries respectively [1].  According to batterydata.com[3], “These AA cells have a very long shelf life, a negligible self-discharge rate, excellent low-temperature performance, a flat voltage curve, and are capable of providing the high current needed for fast recycling of the camera flash.”  That makes them ideal for lightly used digital cameras or devices that need a long standby, such as a spare camera kept in the car or a cabin, but uneconomical for kids’ toys, digital cameras and flashes. That’d be great if they weren’t so expensive.

My Conclusions

It would seem that fast chargeable ULSD NiMH is still the best option for people that want the maximum in performance, coupled with convenience.  The downside is I need a maintenance regimen and careful recharging batch management.

Alkalines can be bought very cheaply, but I’d go through a lot of them.  Instead these (or non-rechargeable Energizer Lithium batteries) make good standby batteries in devices that sit idle most of the time and aren’t performance-critical, like my girl’s Yashica digital camera, her wall clock, or electronic piggy-bank.

I’m still undecided about rechargeable lithium and Nickel Zinc technologies.  They have great potential, but they also have their own technical drawbacks, economic disincentives and risks.

An alternative way of getting more capacity and a faster recycle time is to buy an external battery pack like a Canon CP-E4, Quantum Turbo 3, Lumedyne HV Megacycler, or a Chinese model like the Yongnuo SF-18 or Nissin Power Pack PS300.

Although sometimes I seem to spend more time charging batteries than actually enjoying my cameras, I make no claim to be a battery expert and I would very much like to hear your advice.  What do you use for camera equipment of all kinds that take generic AA batteries?  How do you cycle your flash and what experiences have you had?

[1] http://www.powerstream.com/AA-tests.htm
[2] http://batterydata.com/
[3] http://www.wrotniak.net/photo/c/rcr-v3.html
[4] http://forum.drc.su/cordless-power-tool-batteries-nicd-vs-NiMH-vs-liion-vt4187.html
[5] http://nordicgroup.us/battery/#Why_Dont_Li-Ion_Rechargeable_AA_Batteries_Exist
[6] http://www.powergenix.com/?q=products
[7] http://sportsphotoguy.com/nizn-batteries/
[8] http://photo.net/canon-eos-digital-camera-forum/00XfEP


Post Script: Caring for NiMh Batteries

In the course of researching, testing and writing this article I have learned a lot about NiMh batteries and how to get the best performance out of them.  A large part of my bad experience could well be due to poor practices.

Here’s what I’d do typically: Buy batteries.  Charge them in the charger (2 hours till the light goes off).  I would use them in the flashes up to 6-7 times normally then stick them in a drawer.  Months later, I’d try to charge them again, but they wouldn’t work.  At least I knew not to mix brands and capacities, but it’d be hard to remember what cycles each one had previously.  I have since spoken to some experts described my trouble and asked for advice.  It seems I was killing my batteries.  Here’s what I was told to do:  On advice, I bought only ULSD NiMh batteries.  Regular NiMh batteries are just as good if they are used frequently, but ULSD makes a lot more sense for my patchy usage regimen.  NiMh batteries drain themselves if not recharged and when they totally run out of juice, they are really hard to bring back to life.  The second generation of Sanyo eneloops are designed to hold 75% of the charge for up to 3 years, compared to a week or two for normal NiMh batteries.

In order to get the most out of my batteries, I picked up a tricked out battery analyser-conditioner.  I bought the Powerex MHC9000, a computer controlled device that offers customisable regimes for all the processes that I’d need and more besides.  I paid fifty dollars.  That sounds a lot for a charger, but it’s not much compared to most camera equipment.  I have not tried other models and I other devices may be just as good, so I am not recommending it per se, but I seem to be getting along with it quite well and the English instructions are clear and explain the theory well.

The first thing I did with the new batteries is to break them in, a process known as forming.  My Powerex has a special mode for this.  What it does is charge the battery for 16 hours at a low current equivalent to tenth of its rated capacity (250mA in the case of a 2500mAh battery; this is known as “0.1C”).  Then it rests the battery for an hour and discharges it at a rate of 0.2C and finally it recharges the battery at 0.1C again.  This whole process can take almost two days, so plan ahead if you have a shoot coming up.

Next, bear in mind that a battery may last 500 to 1500 cycles but only reaches its peak performance around three cycles after forming.  It’s not strictly necessary, but I am cycling the batteries twice more in the battery conditioner prior to use.  That means a full recharge-discharge-recharge-discharge-recharge on top of the forming cycle.

The NiMh maintenance cycle suggested by Powerex:

  • Brand-new – Break In
  • Charge if used frequently (every 2 weeks at most*) – Charge at 0.3C to 1.0C.
  • Charge if used infrequently (2 weeks-3 months*) – Refresh by double cycling
  • Charge if stored (more than 3 months*) – Break In
  • Charge if underperforming – Refresh one to three times, then if necessary break-in
  • Regardless of performance, refresh instead of charging every ten cycles
  • Regardless of performance, break-in instead of charging every thirty cycles

*This is for standard NiMh batteries.  All I will do to adjust for ULSD NiMh batteries ignore the storage times and presume that the batteries were ‘used frequently’.

I used to try to avoid mixing NiMh batteries.  I developed strange almost paranoid habits.  I would keep a set together and only use them at the same time in the same device.  If a device needed only one, two or three batteries out of a set of four, then tough luck, I’d use alkalines instead.  There is some truth in this.  If one or more batteries has a low voltage, low capacity, or high internal resistance, then as long as the batteries are in series, the device will only work as well as the weakest battery.

Luckily, I now no longer have to be quite so careful; I can use the analyser to figure out if one battery has become worse than the others.  The battery analyser-conditioner not only charges and conditions, but also reports the voltage and capacity of the battery.  Therefore, as long as I don’t mix brands and models, I believe that I will be able to mix and match to an extent by making sure the charged batteries have a roughly equivalent capacity.

While I have developed a lot more confidence in my understanding of rechargeables, my backups will remain alkaline.  If I have to fall back to a backup, I want the security of knowing they’ll be good to go.

Post Script: Flash Cycling Times

For reference, I timed how long it would take for various batteries to cycle an Olympus FL-36R at full power.  I cycled twice, then average the times for the next two cycles.

  • Sanyo eneloop 2nd generation 2000mAh:  6 seconds
  • Sanyo XX powered by eneloop 2500mAh: 7 seconds
  • Energizer Lithium CR-V3: 7 seconds
  • GP Alkalines: 8 seconds
  • Energizer Ultimate Advanced: 8 seconds
  • Energizer Ultimate Lithium: 10 seconds
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  • Lithium Ion batteries for flashes would be extremely expensive, considering that current batteries for cameras are around 80 bucks, and that you would probably need 4 or 5 of them to get through an entire event.

    • AP

      Not true. check out the prices from Dealextreme.com
      And you understand how large profit margins the battries like cameras own branded batteries have.

    • Lawliet

      You can buy a 18650 that holds about 2500mAh at 3,7V for about 5$.
      On top that are industry standard cells and not tied to a specific model or brand.

  • Terry Stick

    Stop wasting money on those AA batteries. I found a company that sell rechargeable sealed battery packs for those high end camera electronic flashes. For your Canon 580EX II flash, go to http://www.qtm.com, go to product menu, select by flash/camera and you will find turbo batteries for your Canon flash. In addition, you need to buy a flash cable to connect the battery pack to your flash. I am not a saleman but a long time user of a turbo battery for my nikon SB800 flash. I got hundreds of charges and no more AA batteries. It is expensive but worth it.

    • ZDP-189

      I think the best publicity for Powerex is that all their independent users come across as salesmen, myself included. It’s also amazing to see that so many of us all found our way to this brand. The same goes for Eneloops. In case you’re wondering, I don’t have any connection with any of the brands mentioned in this article.

      It’s quite something to say that I am sitting on a full case of 400 AA batteries that only cost me $25 for the lot (I can buy ‘industrial only not for resale’ stock) and I still choose to use Eneloops charged in a Powerex machine.

      • Terry Stick

        ZDP-189: Where do you buy 400 AA batteries for $ 25 dollars? I found a website that sell cheap batteries, emergency kits, etc. It is at: http://www.batterysavers.com/

        • That’s a good link. I’ve enjoyed browsing.

          Here’s what 50 slabs of 8 batteries looks like: http://www.l2i.org/photography/Sub_02/GPAlkalineIndustrial.jpg

          I paid HK$200 (US$25.70) Before anyone asks, sorry, I’m not offering them for sale and I won’t reveal my source as it’s a flashlight factory, not a retail battery seller.

          They are these industrial-not-for-resale batteries. Consumer are not supposed to have access to them, but practically speaking one can buy them on the grey market (e.g. Apliu Street in Hong Kong). If you know what they cost ex-distributor by the box of 400 and negotiate hard, you should be able to get close to this price.

  • Ken Elliott

    Bad chargers kill batteries. Most chargers are bad. I use the Powerex MH-C800S Eight Cell Smart Charger. I only buy Sanyo Eneloops. I group them in sets of four, and number them with a Sharpie marker. I use them together and charge them together. Easy.

    I’ve yet to hurt the Eneloops, even though some are several years old. I have about 80. All the other brands have died, except some Maxells. Those guys are dedicated to non-flash use (flashlights, etc.).

    • WT21

      I’ve only used Eneloops (they were recommended to me two years ago. Guess I lucked out into “the best”). I also number then with a sharpie, and use them in groups. I’ve not heard of this “break in ” period or this charger, though.

  • Axel

    I have also found Radio Shack batteries to be among the best you can buy, but especially the rechargables. The AA Alkaline batteries last about 75% longer than the Energizers I’ve used.

    I also read, I think on the Battery University website, that it is not a good idea to drain the battery nearly empty and then totally recharge it again. They said it was harder on the battery, and takes off the peak performance characteristics.

  • Craig

    After years of using and testing various brands of NiMH batteries, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Sanyo Eneloops are the best, period. And the only charger I use is the PowerEx MH-C9000 you mentioned in the article. Cheap chargers, as another poster said, are the fastest way to destroy NiMH batteries.

    I also mark on the calendar to run my unused sets through the PowerEx MH-C9000 twice a year to keep them charged for when I need them.

  • Thank you for the great info.

    how good is the Sanyo eneloop charger that comes with the battery kit?

    • It won’t blow up at least, but it’s a simple fast charger that recharges batteries in about two hours. Fast charging doesn’t get the full performance out of the batteries. Also, lacking break-in, discharge or a refresh mode, you won’t be able to form or refresh your batteries. I have today seen a Nikon Coolpix MH-71 slow charger with a refresh button that charges two batteries at a time on sale for $5 at Battery Collection in Hong Kong and there are sure to be similar deals available to you in the USA so proper NiMh battery care is within everyone’s reach.

      • NiknWontRepairMyGray

        Sanyo offers two type of charger for their eneloops. You can get the quick charger you’ve mention but there is another slower charger which take about 7-8 hours to charge. The latter is cheaper and won’t kill your eneloops as fast but both chargers are “dumb” (no timer or any maintenance features).

  • Andy

    Give up on lithium Ion rechargable AA’s ever appearing. The cell voltage is too high.

    I’ll put another hand up for eneloops. Don’t even bother with anything else, except improved eneloops.

  • AndrewC

    I think anyone that isn’t using an intelligent charger these days is way behind the times. Had a powerex here for 2 years and the same sets ( 8 sets by 4 batteries ) are still going strong following a regular maintenance program.

    Hey, if you want to be lazy and not get into the habit of looking after batteries then just keep buying throw away AA’s but I KNOW that the powerex charger and quality batteries have paid for themselves several times over here.

  • Camaman

    For light and long time in between usage I would go for the Eneloop type rechargable and for long lasting single shoot i would go for energiser lithium non rechargable.
    I experimented with those in Fuji HS10 and could pull out 1200 pictures from a set of 4.
    That is compared to <400 using Eneloops.
    Energisers can be found for cheap on ebay. I think I bought a pack of four for 6-8 bucks.

    I used NiZn but didn see any difference in that camera. I am still waiting for AAA 1.6v rechargables NiZn to put in my 200mW laser pointer and fry them chickens with it!:-):-)

  • kaze kaze

    I’ve been using set/s of eneloop 2000 mAh and duracell 2650mAh (both got MADE IN JAPAN printed on them) with an ultra fast charger (15 mins max per set of four AA’s, sadly I heard rumours it was banned for commercial selling a while after I bought two) on my nikon and vertical grip and two flashes. Still going strong after probably two years now and hundreds of recharge. I do agree sometimes it’s the charger that could have killed an otherwise perfectly fine set of batteries, so would not doing re-conditioning on them, most modern NiMH recommend you recharge them often and before draining them too much, read the instructions booklet that come with them.

  • Great post, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • c.d.embrey

    I use Energizer Lithium in everything. My Canon 580EX, my Nikon SB27 and my Nikon F100 camera. They may be expensive, but to me they are worth it. Life is too short to waste time with rechargeable batteries.

    • Camaman

      Actually You are absolutely right. If its worth to you to spend the extra cost to have less stress about batteries its the way to go.
      Seeing how many hours and time the OP has spent into his “hobby” makes me sad, cause all those batteries tested and still no perfect ones after all these years.
      But I am very gratefull for his insight he cleary has a good methodology and has put out VERY valuable info thet few would even consider doing. 🙂

  • Scales USA

    A little research will tell you why Li-On is not a good choice for high current rate usages. There are ways around Li-On high discharge limitations, and we may see a technology break-thru, but for many of those wanting to power a 580 EX II from their camera battery, it does not currently work. The very low power flashes can do this, but, if you need a fast recharge of a high powered flash, it will ruin a Li-On battery in short order.

    That puts the rest of the article into question, what is his battery expertise?

    • None. I’m hoping for yours.

      • Global

        +1 –> Info sharing as an industry from all sides is the way forward.

    • Skeptic

      Stop being a tool. He clearly stated he wasnt an expert, just an end user.

  • Janne

    After using Energizer Lithiums once there is no way back. No more NiMh or alkalines for me.

  • Harold Ellis

    i use LiPo for camera and external flashes. But needs a little soldering.
    Welcome 5400mAh yeeeeehaaaaaaw

    never needed to replace accu during wedding

  • Nathan

    I’ve found that whatever rechargeables I use, whether they’re LiPo, Li-Ion, NiZn, or NiCad, the self-heating of high discharge rates ruins them quickly, and my budget goes up. In spite of the unwanted disposable and landfill permanence of throwaway batteries, I find that they fit the bill. I use standard Energizers. The fact that I will use them only once and that they’re cheap in bulk means that by the time they begin to slow down or experience heat fatigue, they’re ready to be replaced anyway.

    I would love to use a commodity battery pack, but it would have to be something large-capacity. Sony lithium packs are pretty much standard in a production environment, and many pieces of non-sony equipment can accept Infolithium L, and it’s available in many different capacities, so you can prioritize weight or longevity.
    I’m thinking of building an adapter and sled for Infolithium for my AA flashes.

    • Just be careful that you don’t cook your flash. Running an external pack, the rate limiting factor is flash head cooling, rather than battery internal resistance.

  • i use duracell in my magazine backup

  • The best batteries I have used is the ‘Inca’ brand. I have the USB charger so that I can charge batteries in car, power point or laptop. We use two 580EXII with two chargers and 8 batteries. That will last a whole day no worries. Even if you are taking photos in -15 decgress cel. (but keep the batteries warm so that they don’t lose power. Also buy new batteries after 3-4 years. The number 1 mistake is to leave batteries in the camera flash charged. If you come back in a week the batteries will be dead and deader. Make sure that you charge them straight after a photo shoot and leave them out of the flash and in a plastic bag to stop metal connection. Do a quick charge the night before a shoot for small added benefit. All the best! 🙂

  • Hi,
    I tested many batteries for my flashes, including the white Eneloops (so called second generation). While these eneloops are fantastic for many devices – for my flash (nikon SB900) which needs lots of juice, and also for a portable photography LED lamp – it was a real disaster. They are rated 1.2V but I expect they may run a bit lower. what happened was that power was so low that my flash did SHOOT DOWN every few minutes – like batteries were finished. I had to turn manual power switch off and then on – and all was ok for next few minutes – only to see flash running out of power again. I have several sets, and tested them all – with the same result. Caused me lots of pain, as i was on a location, and just had to use what I had.
    In a continuous LED lamp, after 2 or 3 minutes of use the light went town, like dimmed, and kept going slowly darker and darker. Again – it couldn’t keep up with the need of device.
    Useless. Now i use eneloop only in wireless mouse and similar low-power-drain devices, and all is perfect. For flash – my best rechargable battery is one not mentioned above – Sony CycleEnergy. it is a decent 2700mAh, and goes strong for a long time. It never failed me. They can get really hot, but supply all the power needed, shot asfter shot, and also in continous LED light. Best of the lot – I tried maybe 10 brands or more. I am a pro pghotographer, and i simply need to know how reliable my gear is.
    Hope it helps. Cheers!

    • I’ve been using Eneloop for 2 years now with sb900’s and 910 lately and I’m more than happy. I’ve never experienced those habits on my flashes. Don’t use external power anymore since working with Sanyo.

      I end up finishing a full reception with only 4 batt/p/flash at 1/4 power in most cases.

  • Thank you for this article – I need to buy new batteries and wanted to know more about my options. Thanks also for helping me to understand why NiMhs did not work for me. Based on my lifestyle and usage of my Canon PowerShot I will be sticking with Alkalines for the time being. Just a note: when my Canon is done with the batteries, the batteries still have enough juice for use in my TV/video remotes and my wireless mouse.

  • Lubos

    how about nuke based batteries?

  • Auto Motive

    My old faithful HP525 eats batteries like a good desert. Switching over to the AA Lithiums got me triple the shots. They cost more but have a huge benefit of not changing the batteries after 100 shots. I use this camera for my macro shots of projects around my classic car and the pictures are excellent.

  • if you are looking to buying rechargeable batteries and chargers for your digital cameras you can try on CAMELION branded Items.

  • Ashlee Copper

    I always get the Maxell ones on Amazon…they are the cheapest I can usually find and seem to last fairly long…

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