As a boy who grew up playing in the nearby woods and fields, it should come as no surprise that I became a Boy Scout. The one thing about scouting that really was a fit for me was captured in one of their mottos… “always be prepared”. It is nearly a half century later, and I still try to live by that motto. However, as a photographer who has managed to accumulate several bodies, many lenses, tripods and a long list of accessories, this philosophy has led me to an aching back on many trips.
In April I trekked around the spectacular American Southwest taking photos. One memorable day was spent at Zion National Park where we chose to venture up to Angels Landing. This is a 1500′ vertical climb in about 2.5 miles. As usual I had my LowePro Vertex 200 photo backpack and tripod. WHAT WAS I THINKING? I definitely did not need my 100-400 or the flash head. With a half mile behind us one of the twenty something members of the group took pity on me and volunteered to carry my pack. “Well”, I said… “if you insist”. By the time we completed that climb up and back my 35 pound pack took most of the starch out of my young friend. “Better him than me”, I thought to myself… “he’ll recover in a few hours”. Ok… lesson learned… one can be OVERprepared.
I had a similar weight related problem checking bags at the airport on a different trip. I cut the margins too close and was over the 20 Kg limit. (I blame my old heavy tripod). The resulting stress of opening the bag to pick out a pound or two of whatever to get back under the limit along with the glares from other travelers waiting behind me was another ‘last straw’. “Never again”, I told myself. I bought a digital luggage scale from eBay for less than $20 (search “luggage scale” and take your pick). Now I weigh everything and know precisely what weights I am dealing with.
For those of you who will be joining me on the upcoming Pro-Ecuador – Safari Party Ecuador Photo tour, this is my way of backing into the subjects of, “what do I need for this trip without becoming a beast of burden?”. We can be prepared for nearly any photo situation and have the proper attire for weather and social situations by being smart about our choices to minimize weight and bulk. (Note: There are still a few openings left for this great photo adventure, go here or feel free to e-mail me directly and we can arrange to use that other great invention, the telephone.)
Since this is about preparing for a photo tour, let’s start with the photo gear.
There are really two aspects to the issue of how much to bring. One obvious limit is staying under the airline requirements for carry on. The other is deciding how much you can manage on an everyday basis while out shooting. An option here is to consider bringing a second smaller belt or shoulder bag (stuffed into your checked luggage) which you use to carry only what you need for any given outing. With the possible exception of your tripod and miscellaneous stuff, your camera and lenses must be with you at all times during the air travel phase so that means whatever bag you choose must fit in the overhead or under the seat in front of you. My well traveled LowePro Photo Trekker AW would fit in either location carrying a 20D or 5D and three lenses. Admittedly, this is a squeeze for under the seat, but doable. Now I am sporting the LowePro Vertex 200 as it can safely carry my laptop and is better able to handle the tall 1Ds body, BUT, it is an ‘overhead’ bag only. Under the seat is not an option. My second carry on is a soft bag that I use for the laptop after reaching my destination, and a bunch of the other miscellaneous stuff most of us take with us. Check manufacturer’s websites for dimensions and overhead compatibility.
Gear wise, this is what I consider “essential” for good photos in a variety of situations. (A quick note here… if you are shooting an advanced “point and shoot” or a digital with a non removable lens, much of what follows won’t apply… you can decide what is relevant).
If you haven’t bought one yet, spend as much as you can possibly afford, then spend a few bucks more. The lightest and strongest are carbon fiber. Get the best ball head you can manage as well. This link covers the subject quite well.
Good landscape exposures require a steady camera, which means a good tripod (see above) and not touching the camera during exposure. A cable release, (they were cables in the ‘old’ days, now they are essentially a switch on a long wire), means you don’t have to touch the camera to take the shot. This becomes super critical for long exposures. Some of the most exciting photography starts at sundown and goes well after dark. You need a cable release for these shots. They are cheap… check eBay for knock offs, though the factory units are usually better quality. If your camera doesn’t support an external release, learn how to use the timer virtually every camera has, or the wireless remote if your camera comes with one.
This is where the pounds and dollars can add up, although the new generation of wide range zooms is quite amazing both in value and size. The ideal is to cover the range of focal lengths from wide to telephoto with a minimum number of lenses. In 35mm film parlance, a focal length of 50mm is “normal”, (the perspective of your unaided eye), 16mm is “wide”, 100mm is a mild telephoto, 200-300 is telephoto, and so on. Personally, I am waiting for the 15-600mm F1.4 stabilized super lens. It is made of Unobtanium and costs infinite dollars. It will be released as soon as the laws of physics are revised a bit. Since most of you are shooting with sensors that are smaller than 35mm film you multiply the lens length by a ‘factor’, typically about 1.6, to get the ‘effective’ focal length. A good “walk around lens” for sub full frame sensor cameras is something like a 17-85mm or slightly longer, (24-105mm full frame). If landscapes excite you, then a wide angle is highly desirable. There are now 10-17mm that get the full frame equivalent of 17-24mm. This is a real ‘work horse’ focal length. For various wildlife shots a telephoto that can reach 200-300 is the ticket. If you want greater reach, consider a “tele-extender”. A 1.4X will cost you an F stop in exposure but add half again to your telephoto focal length. They are only about an inch and a half long and weigh very little. If you don’t want to miss possible macro shots, consider a set of “extension tubes”. These go between the camera and lens but have no active glass in them (as the tele-extenders do). A cheap set is less than $100 and will give very good results with your walk around or telephoto lens. In this scenario you might have three lenses which fully cover from wide angle to telephoto. You could easily get away with two lenses if you have one of the new generation wide range zooms, but none of these do justice to wide angle needs. If your budget is already strained and new lenses are not in the program, don’t worry about it. Bring what you have. If you come upon a scene that begs for the wide angle you don’t have yet, you may be able to ‘cheat’ and take a series of overlapping images that get stitched together in post processing. You won’t have the great depth of field wide angles are noted for, but you will get ‘the big picture’.
A lot of shooters now assume they can get whatever effect they want through the magic tricks in PhotoShop, and there surely is quite a lot of magic in there, but there are still things better (or only ) done at the camera. Two filters I use often are a circular polarizer and a neutral density (fixed or variable). Polarizers are often abused by way of “too much of a good thing”, but they are wonderful for dealing with reflective surfaces (water) and richening up a blue sky. Neutral density filters allow you to use long shutter exposures in full light. Want to make a waterfall look smooth and milky in broad daylight? You need a neutral density filter to do that. The best one is the Vari-ND by Singh… you can dial in the f stop reduction you want from about 1.5 to 8. Very cool, but it is also expensive. (They could use some competition). The fixed ND filters are more affordable. What ever you decide, when buying filters, size it to the largest lens you have and get reducer rings for a few bucks each to allow matching up to your smaller lenses.
You need at least one spare camera battery and don’t forget the charger. Electric power and outlets in Ecuador are the same as the US, so no problem there. If you are bringing a “bunch” of batteries and they happen to be Lithium-ion, check out one of my earlier blogs on that subject. The FAA has new rules regarding these, but in practical terms it is not an issue for most of us.
There is no one answer here that fits everyone, but cutting to the chase, here is the concept. Ideally you want to have three copies of every image when you are heading back home. One set goes in checked luggage, one set stays with your camera gear, and another set goes in a separate bag or is carried by a traveling companion. If three is too hard to pull off due to limitations in equipment, then at least two copies. Bad things can happen to good images. There are numerous strategies to pull this off. Not too long ago memory cards were expensive, so we downloaded our images to other media and recycled our cards. Times change, gas now costs a fortune, but memory is almost dirt cheap. One strategy is to buy enough memory so that you don’t have to reuse them during the course of the trip. How much memory is enough? How many images are you going to take? Do you shoot RAW or just jpg or both at the same time? Obviously it’s impossible to know for sure what you will need, but you can do some estimating. Put an empty card in your camera. Set it to max quality jpg and note the image counter. Set the camera to RAW and do the same thing. With my Canon 5D and a 2 gig card I can get 366 jpg or 121 RAW images. Big difference, but I shoot almost exclusively RAW so that is what I use for calculating. We won’t be shooting every second of every day, but based on my experience, it is easy (and ‘normal’) to shoot several hundred images a day on average. Most of them may never see the light of day again, but the idea is to take them and then decide what to keep back in front of your monitor at home. Again your mileage will vary based on your camera and shooting style, but having 20 gig of card memory is by no means overkill if you have a 10-12 mega pixel camera.
What is the best way to backup images? Again it depends. If you are traveling with a laptop, its hard drive will serve as one backup, assuming you have 30+ gigs of free space. The laptop then offers several other options. One is burning CDs or DVDs and the other is bringing a small (60 gig or larger) external hard drive. That actually gets you four copies if not recycling your cards and qualifies as overkill. I recycle my cards but use the laptop, DVDs and an external drive. If you are not traveling with a laptop, there are quite a number of small portable stand alone drives that have built-in card reader capability. Some like the Epson P3000, also have a built in high quality screen which allows reviewing or showing off your images. These are pricey, but very nice. The versions without screens are much more affordable. Having enough cards to last the trip and a card reading back up drive is the simplest approach to a two copy backup strategy.
Since I always travel with a laptop you may be thinking, “Maybe I can use Paul’s laptop to backup”? Well, nothing personal, but short of an emergency that is not an option. Given my limited storage, card read times, and the fact that my 1Ds creates humongous files, it simply isn’t practical. Then there is the responsibility of protecting the precious shots of someone else. Who needs the stress?
For those of you who don’t know me, my middle name should be “Gadget”. For travel work I like to “geotag” my images. Geotagging is adding the Lat – Long position data of the image location directly into the metadata of the file. I bring my Garmin 60CSx GPS to do that (and give me a track to retrace my steps if needed). Remember that all these electronic toys need batteries, chargers, cables, ad nausea. Don’t forget a good lens cleaning cloth and fluid. The best is ROR by V-Max Products. Put it in your checked luggage so you don’t get hassled at security. A small LED flashlight is essential for night photography. There are some cute ones out there that don’t use batteries… you crank the hell out of them and they provide good light for a surprising amount of time. Make a checklist now and review it several times before departure.
Clothes and Luggage
Some of you are probably experienced travelers, but perhaps this is your first out of country adventure. Trust me on this… you will hate yourself if you have more than one checked bag by the end of the trip. Schlepping multiple bags around airports and hotels gets real old, quick. A personal bag, your camera bag or pack, and one medium size bag on wheels is the ideal. You want to be able to manage all your stuff by yourself. Use the smallest bag that will fit your essentials, but it you are thinking about packing your tripod in it, make sure the body of the bag is long enough for it to fit. You might have to remove the ball head. One can normally manage a folded tripod as part of your carry on by removing it from the pack before stowing overhead, but I usually pack mine in checked luggage so I don’t have to deal with the added weight on the camera pack or the extra hassle of detaching and stowing while other travelers are boarding the aircraft.
After packing the tripod, battery chargers, cords, etc., is there any room left for clothes? Absolutely! Synthetics, or more specifically the various polypropylene blends that are now very popular. I resisted them for a long time, but now I am a true believer. Check out REI.com or LL Bean. There are now dozens of super lightweight, moisture wicking, quick drying and smart looking clothes for the adventure traveler. Pants with zippered legs can also serve as shorts. I stay with long sleeved shirts to deal with the sun. T shirts, undies, and socks, … all are available now in synthetics. . A quick rinse in the sink and they are dry in short order. Three of each are all you need. The reduction in weight and bulk is amazing. Any sporting goods store also carries a huge variety. With some careful shopping the extra cost is not very much. For the Ecuador itinerary virtually all meals and other social situations will be strictly casual. Nothing fancy required.
We will be doing some walking everyday so good comfortable footwear is in order, but even the hiking will be easy. Serious hiking boots are certainly not required and they take up a lot of room in your bag when you are not wearing them.
A rain jacket of some sort is advised even though we won’t be there in the rainy season. It can serve as a wind breaker and with a light sweater or fleece underneath you create the layers that work well for the possible cool evenings high in the Andes. There will be opportunities to swim or at least relax in the water, so a swim suit is a good idea.
As you can appreciate, I have only touched lightly on any one of the points mentioned here. By all means, e-mail me with questions, personal gear concerns or points you think I have over looked. There will be more posts from Sandy, Jason or myself before it is time to start packing, but start thinking about your gear now. Don’t wait until the last minute. “Be Prepared!”