Ahh, now that the "normal" people have left the blog, let's get right down to it! This trip is an experiment in lightening up my camera setup. My setup has evolved over the years. This is for a typical "big trip." A big trip entails a few hot, tropical countries (e.g. Malaysia, Thailand), some SCUBA diving, and a couple cool places (e.g. Japan, China). The duration ranges from 4 to 9 weeks. I get a big trip about once every 3 years, and I try to fit in a half-dozen places if I can, so I don't want to miss out on a photo shoot opportunity.
For a big trip, I need the following from my setup:
- All the valuable stuff must fit into one carryon bag. You can handle your bags carefully and they don't weigh carryon bags (yet).
- The total carryon should weigh no more than 60 lbs or so. This seems like a lot, but it adds up. You'll see.
- Canon lenses, so I don't have to carry two or more of the same lens. I hate losing a shot due to flare or poor focus, and "L" lenses weigh only a little more than the standard ones. So pretty much all of my glass is L. I'll skimp on a back, but not on lenses. Same for zooms. I never get more than 3x or 4x zoom range. I just hate seeing all that distortion on a heavy DSLR.
- Long telephoto focal, at least 300mm (35mm equivalent without extender), for wild animals and getting close to people. F 2.8 preferred, so a 1.4x extender bumps to 4.0.
- A single 1.4x extender.
- Normal focal, at least 28mm - 75mm (35mm equivalent), preferably 24mm - 100mm. I'd rather have a wider zoom range and F 4.0 than less range and F 2.8. I can't always move to where I need to get, in a short time, and most of my pics are Normal. The two options weigh the same.
- Two SLR backs. One is APS-C and has a Long telephoto on it, one is full frame and has a Normal range zoom on it. If I'm hiking around wildlife or crowds, then they both have to be out and active. Both must be able to shoot raw format.
- Low light lens, for night shots. F 1.4 at least.
- Ultra-wide zoom (at least 18mm equivalent) in case I luck out and get an amazing hotel room.
- Optional longer > 300mm telephoto for wild animals.
- Optional lighter telephoto for long hikes.
- Optional extra back (APS-C) for a friend, along with a Normal zoom for them.
- Ultra-light carbon-fiber tripod, for interior pics or self portraits. Really Right Stuff ball head and mounting plates.
- MRC UV filters bolted on all lenses, and they are cleaned before I screw them on. Basically, the requirement is I need to clean the lenses in the field with my T-shirt. Also, some lenses change length during zoom/focus, and can suck dust in through the front. The UV glass reduces this.
- Circular polarizers for the Normal and Long lenses. In humid places, the haze and glare will kill your shots otherwise.
- A compact point-and-shoot with at least F 2.8 and ISO 800 capability (for dinner pics, and also underwater pics).
- Underwater housing with flash diffuser for the point-and-shoot. Must be acrylic plastic and not aluminum for weight and bulk reasons. This is for SCUBA and skin diving pictures.
- Dry bags for at least the wet gear.
- Secondary storage for image files. This means a couple hard disks at least. These must be able to function without a computer, as that would add 6-11 lbs and I don't want to be distracted by the InterTubes.
- At least 2-3 chargers for each back (that's 3 backs if you're counting). They do blow up when power fluctuates!
- At least 4-6 batteries for each back. Some sub-trips I can't bring the charger setup, so I have to live for 3-4 days on one set of batteries.
- One light, lockable bag which can fit the gear. It must have backpack straps or wheels, and it must fit the narrow asian overhead compartments. I cannot be separated from my gear in transit for any reason. But sometimes I store bags with hotel porters. The bag locks must be TSA type.
- Electrical adapters and outlet-splitters for most of the above.
- Cleaning kit. Pads, sensor swabs, fluid, brush, air blower bulb.
I know that sounds gross, but photos and people and food are why I travel. The photo gear helps get those food and people memories flooding back. Here's what that list looked like, then and now...
Photo gear, circa 2006:
- Mountain Equipment Coop backpack with a detachable little day pack. They don't make mine anymore, but it kinda works like this. I detach the little one after stowing the big one above. The big one squishes very flat, even with gear in it, so it fits anywhere. I loaded the larger pack with over 80 lbs once. I've had to detach them to convince the TSA jerks that it's small enough.
- TSA 3-digit number combo locks. I use lots of these. Two for each of the small and larger pack above.
- Canon 5D mk1 and Canon Rebel XT (and later XTi) backs. These were (and I think they still are) the lightest full-frame and APS-C backs.
- 24mm-105mm F 4.o IS lens. This lives on the 5D.
- 70mm-200mm F 2.8 lens (old mk1 and no IS). This lives on the Rebel XT and is effectively 110mm-320mm F 2.8. Gorgeous.
- 1.4x extender mk2. Pretty good, and tiny.
- 35mm F 1.4. Mostly on the Rebel where it's about a 55mm.
- 17mm-40mm F 4.0. The 16mm-35mm (mk1) costs twice as much and has many focus/blur issues.
- Optional, for safari: 100mm-400mm F 4.5-5.6 IS lens. About the same weight as the 70mm-200mm. On an XT with 1.4x extender, a massive 225mm-900mm. You actually need this for birds in the wild, believe it or not.
- Optional, for hikes over 5-7 mi: 70mm-200mm F 4.0. This is quite tiny, and sharper at each focal length than each prime lens.
- Optional, for a friend: Rebel XT back and 17mm-55mm F 2.8 IS lens. This lens is a freak show. It exceeds the sensor resolution by a mile!
- Gitzo super-light carbon tripod. This now has loosened/fractured legs but still works great.
- Really Right Stuff ultra-light ball head (screw lock). Base plates.
- B+W UV filters (and circular polarizers). Indestructible. I've (accidentally) tried.
- Schneider Kreuznach low-profile UV filter and low-profile circular polarizer. At < 28mm I got vignetting with normal sized ones. Lens cap is horrible, but there's no choice.
- Canon G7 (later G8 and G9 after I killed each one). The reason I chose these is they use the same batteries/chargers as the Rebels! Cause of death: the delicate telescoping lens assembly will always fail after a 2-3 hard years.
- Canon underwater housing for the G7. Weighting set for the housing. Yes, that means packing weights. Ouch.
- Rocket bulb. Eclipse cleaning fluid. Pec pads. Sensor swabs. Wide brush. I've needed all of these and more to keep the gear clear.
- Epson P-5000 and P-6000 "photo bricks". These are 80GB hard drives with LCD displays and card readers on them. Very useful for backup and storage. These stay in the hotel safe and are carried on my person while in transit. My photo gear can be replaced. The images cannot.
- A pile of 8GB and 16GB compact flash cards, with some old 4GB ones in there.
- Chargers and electrical adapters. These form a sketchy-looking tree.
Gross, huh? After each trip, I account for how much use each lens got. Guess what? All of these got used and there were "Top 20" shots from each one. That's not to say that I didn't screw up the setup a bunch of times. Here are some examples...
What didn't work?
I'd pack a 10mm-22mm wide zoom for a friend, but they never used it. You only need one interior shoot.
The big white telephoto lenses come with collar mounts for tripods. They aren't heavy, but you're generally better off hand-holding. If it's something far away in low light, it had better be very still. So then just use towels, rope, your pack, whatever you have laying around.
In fact, this will probably be my last trip with a tripod. Mainly, I used the tripod for bracketed exposures, for HDR conversion later. I found that I never got around to the HDR part later. Instead, the middle exposure was usually "good enough". Several technical advances will obsolete my tripod. First, a 5D mk3 can shoot at much higher ISO's, and it can do HDR in the camera. Note this is at about 12 bits per channel instead of 8. I didn't believe it until I did an interior shoot for a friend, but you can handhold HDR interiors now. Also, Canon finally fixed their wretched 16mm-35mm F 2.8 lens with a mk2 version, and this works great.
I experimented with another kind of underwater housing, essentially an industrial-strength ziplock bag. For this I needed a 20mm F 2.8 lens. It was heavy (the bag needs more weights). Worse, the buoyancy was unstable with depth. Fail.
I bought generic batteries with almost 2x the capacity (mAh). I marked them with sharpies. That worked great. Inevitably, one out of five would be bad (I caught those before I left). However, after 2-3 years of abuse, another 1/3 were bad. I was too cheap and set in my ways. I should have just thrown all of them out after 3 years. :)
I had a big bag of adapters and chargers and stuff. They worked. But now there are many alternatives for chargers. You can get chargers which are much lighter. You still need 2-3 chargers per battery type. They literally smoke and crackle if there is a big enough line fade. Think Vietnam. Third party chargers, good and light. Just don't pack only one. The plug-splitters and adapters I had were too heavy and made too big a nest of wires. Fail. The new system is simpler and more compact. Also there are indicator lights so I can see if it's OK. Win.
The Canon G-series (G7, G8, G9 ...) are heavy bricks, with mediocre sensors and lenses. The reason I carried them is that they used Rebel-sized batteries. Newer G's use different batteries. All G's inherit Canon's dismal auto white balance. Finally, Olympus makes a camera that goes to F 1.8 (the XZ-1 which I use now) and Panasonic makes one that goes to F 1.4 (the Lumix LX7 which I got for my mom). These will make much better, and lighter, underwater cameras.
The 3-digit locks are fine, but it's not very many combinations, only 1,000. Now I use TSA "4-letter word locks". These have 10,000 combos instead of 1,000, so that buys some time. It is easier for a friend to remember my 4-letter combo (which is strong, not a word), so again, more secure.
Initially, my MEC backpack worked great. Then TSA dorks ruined air travel worldwide, as other airports adopted "security theater" to follow suit. Also, some newer airports have no luggage storage lockers, no carts, no shower/rest areas, and long, long walks. I'm looking at you Heathrow! This can be brutal with 50 lbs on my back and a 4 hour layover. Fail. Now I am experimenting with a small, wheeled Samsonite Cosmolite bag. This rocket-science rigid fabric bag is the future.
It's gross to carry 3 heavy DSLR backs. That's a fail. My wife has a full frame Canon, a 6D, so we should be able to consolidate. Before, we had a mix of full-frame and APS-C, mainly to cover the focal range wide to long tele. Canon updated their extenders to mk3, and we tested them during a lens micro adjustment session before we left. A 2x extender is tolerable now, and better yet, we didn't need any adjustments (our deltas were zero or plus one, which is negligible). In theory, one of us can carry a telephoto and the other a normal/wide and we can swap. Bolting a 2x to the 100mm-400mm lens results in a 800mm F 11 instead of the 900mm F 8 which I enjoyed before. Canon is also making their APS-C backs heavier and heavier, and they are putting too many pixels on the sensor. It may be time to ditch Canon APS-C backs altogether, and I'm trying a Fuji XE-1 with an 18mm-55mm F 2.8-4.0 lens (27mm-83mm equivalent) instead. As a bonus, it's mirrorless, so the back is smaller and lighter, and the lenses are small and lighter too. So for example, for safari, I can carry the Fuji for normal shots, and the 100mm-400mm on the 5D for telephoto.
On a related note, I used to miss some photos because I didn't want to lug my 5D + 24-105mm lens, which was my normal walking camera solution. Or I'd bring my G7 and it just couldn't take good photos in certain conditions. Fail and fail. Now with the Fuji XE-1, I can get most interesting shots with great quality and color. It is light enough that there is not excuse not to carry it along. Win!
I used to pack a camera bag. I also used Calumet film bags (for medium and large format film) which are slightly padded, to transport my cameras in a knapsack. The latter is preferred, as it is lighter and more stealthy. However it looks ghetto when you go into a fine restaurant. I'll take that tradeoff. Unfortunately, newer 5D and 6D cameras are bigger and they don't fit well in the film bags. Now I am trying fuzzy-lined stuff sacks...so far, a win.
The Epson photo bricks worked great, even viewing and editing RAW's. But at 80GB each, I was running out of space. The same was true of the 8GB and 16GB compact flash cards. After 4-6 weeks, I'd have filled the photo bricks and would then start rationing compact flash cards. It worked. Barely. To go bigger you need a computer. So I tried a netbook and a 1TB drive. The drive was defective and mercifully failed early on a trip to India, so I only lost a few pictures. That's a few too many. Fail. Now we have a Mac Air (so we can blog too!), and multiple 512GB server SSD's which we will mirror using a python system I am writing. We use only 64GB and 128GB SD cards now, and I use a 128GB compact flash card as a mirror/backup inside the 5D. In fact, the entire compact flash card concept is a fail. The teeny tiny pins on the reader will eventually bend or break. They are crazy-expensive. Just say no. I have a few 128GB compact flash cards for this trip, but I hope to eventually get that down to 2. One is for backup in the camera for whatever 128GB SD is in there. And the other is in case that first one fails, or I need to mirror a second SD. I'm looking forward to a (nearly) CF-free future...
Photo gear, 2013:
Here's the setup now:
- Samsonite Cosmolite 20" roller bag with built-in TSA lock. I added foam padding from some computer packing materials.
- Canon 5D mk3 and 6D backs.
- 24mm-105mm F 4.0 IS lens.
- 50mm F 2.5 macro lens (dinner/food and light normal lens)
- 70mm-200mm F 2.8 IS lens.
- 70mm-200mm F 4.0 IS lens. The F 2.8 is simply too heavy for my wife's neck.
- 2 each of 1.4x and 2x extenders (the mk3 versions). We will only bring 2x's in the future?
- 100mm-400mm F 4.5-5.6 IS lens.
- 16mm-35mm F 2.8 lens.
- Fuji XE-1 APS-C back.
- Fuji 18mm-55mm F 2.8-4.0 IS lens.
- Fuji 35mm F 1.4 lens. Very light.
- Old, fractured, Gitzo super-light carbon tripod.
- Ultra-light ball head. Base plate for 5D only.
- B+W UV filters and circular polarizers.
- Schneider Kreuznach low-profile UV filter and low-profile circular polarizer.
- Olympus XZ-1 point and shoot.
- Underwater housing for the Olympus XZ-1.
- Macbook Air.
- 4 x 512GB SSD's in aluminum enclosures, color-coded and labelled as 2 x 512GB mirrored.
- Rocket bulb. Eclipse cleaning fluid. Pec pads. Sensor swabs. Wide brush. I've needed all of these and more to keep the gear clear.
- 2 x 1TB of 128GB SD cards (2 sets of 8). Each set is in a plastic Pelican case. The cases are kind of a fail. The foam inside is not very durable.
- CF / SD card readers. Hopefully, these will not be needed on this trip, or in the future. The Air has an SD reader. CF will be used for emergency mirror recovery only.
- Simplified, lighter charging set.
Much better, huh? I can tell you it is a lot lighter! And it will get lighter in the future. Also, my wife can carry a couple items, as they are not super heavy. So the amount I carry feels like half, even though it is probably only 30% less. More importantly, the photos are better protected and we have more control over the flow. Finally, the little Fuji is great for walking around, so I'll miss fewer opportunities.