A significant trip like this (I’ll be away from home for over a month and a half, and it’s to exotic locations) deserves careful selection of equipment. I need to ensure that I’ve got the right equipment, and that it travels safely with me for the entire journey. Luckily I’ve been doing things like this for a while, and the work involved for this trip was just to review and refine the existing plan. In this post I’ll talk about the equipment I’ll be using: I’ll talk about the travel issues in a later post.
David on Easter Island
Lumix LX-1 (A2_018493)
Actually when I describe Norway as an “exotic location”, I’m sure it’s not as exotic for Norwegians as it is for the rest of us! But in the context of this article, it’s definitely exotic (“a far away place”).
Now before I go on, I’ll admit that this is going to be a big list! But it is a big trip. I need to make sure I’ve got the gear I need with me, and not sitting on a shelf on the other side of the globe (well, to be accurate the antipodal point from my home is in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, but you get the idea). All this gear (along with clothes and other essential supplies) fits into my luggage, but I’m going to skip the packing issues for this post.
On significant trips I usually work primarily with two SLR cameras. This gives me flexibility to mount different lenses and switch between them without having to change lenses in the field. It also provides a backup in case one of the bodies fails. In Antarctica I used the EOS 5DmkII and 40D bodies. The 40D gave me extra telephoto reach and a higher frame rate, while the 5DmkII gave me great high-ISO performance and huge images. I never really felt handicapped in my choice of camera for any shot based on the number of pixels though: the 21 Mpixels of the 5DmkII are great, but I’ve been able to get enough out of the 40D files (10 Mpixels) that it hasn’t mattered much.
Having said that though, on this trip I’ll be using the EOS 5DmkII and EOS 7D bodies. The 7D’s new AF system and frame rate are great for wildlife, although I don’t expect to be doing a lot of that work on the Norwegian legs of this trip (possibly some in the UK, and definitely more when I get back to Australia). With 18 Mp, the 7D has narrowed the gap to the 5DmkII’s 21 Mp files, but in the Arctic twilight I expect the 5DmkII to remain king of the low-light photography work. One other advantage of the 7D is that it uses the same battery as the 5DmkII. That means fewer batteries and chargers cluttering up my luggage! The 7D’s video abilities also mean that I won’t have to think too much about which camera is in my hand when a video opportunity presents itself. Video is something I will be doing more of on this trip than before.
The 5DmkII has a Really Right Stuff L-bracket on it for tripod mounting. The L-bracket for the new 7D might not yet be available when I leave, so it will probably instead still have the generic Wimberley P-5 plate on its base.
Ahu Nau Nau
Anakena, Easter Island
5DmkII, 24-105mm (A2_018864)
I’ll be packing my standard zoom kit: the Canon EF 17-40mm/4 L USM, EF 24-105mm/4 L IS USM, and the EF 100-400mm/4.5-5.6 L IS USM. Usually these lenses suffice for 99% of my work, but in the long twilight (and in search of good pictures of the Aurora Borealis from a floating platform) I think I’ll also benefit from some faster lenses.
I usually throw an EF 50mm/1.8 into the bag as a light and useful low-light lens, but this time I’m also taking the EF 85mm/1.8 USM and EF 24mm/1.4L USM lenses. Of course I’m taking the hoods for all the above lenses.
We’ll see which lenses get the most use, but at least I feel prepared for all eventualities! I’m also planning to take a Nikon 50mm/1.8 AFD lens (the only Nikon lens I own) to help demonstrate to workshop participants the advantages of fast glass.
As well as the DSLRs (or rather, sometimes instead of) I usually work with a compact camera (see my notes on the Canon G9). It won’t get me the same image quality as the bigger cameras, but if it shoots RAW I know I can still get useful images from it, and as Chase Jarvis says: “The best camera is the one you’ve got with you.”
At this point though it’s unclear exactly which camera will be in my pocket when I leave: the G9 or something else. Also I’m not expecting an IR-sensitive camera to be useful on this trip, although I’m still debating that issue with myself.
Ana Te Pahu, Easter Island
5DmkII, 24-105mm (A2_021427)
In January I took my big Gitzo GT3541XLS tripod, and while it got lots of use in Argentina and Easter Island, and I took it ashore every time in Antarctica, when I get back to Antarctica I expect I will just take something like my small Feisol CT-3402 carbon fibre tripod with a Giottos MH1302-622 ballhead. It’s easier to pack for travel, can be dropped inside a waterproof dufflebag (commonly used to transport gear in Zodiac boats), and all-round seems a reasonable compromise.
However on this trip I think I’ve decided to take the big tripod again. The leg locks are much simpler to operate with gloves on, and in the polar winter I expect to use the tripod a lot more than I did in the polar summer. The tripod is topped off with a Manfrotto 438 levelling head and a Really Right Stuff BH55 LR ballhead. I will also be taking an RRS MPR-CL plate which can go between the camera and the ballhead to allow the camera to rotate around the “nodal point” for seamless one-row panorama stitching. A “double-bubble” spirit level for the cameras’ hotshoe and a cable release complete the tripod gear.
I carry a mixture of CompactFlash and SD/SDHC cards, ranging from 1GB up to 16GB cards. I try to always have enough cards with me to cope with everything until I get back to the computer for downloads. I carry the cards in several Gepe CardSafe Extreme carriers of various colours.
Laptop and software
I will be taking my workhorse 15″ MacBook Pro loaded up with my usual software:
- Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 will manage the thousands of RAW files from my cameras.
- My own PteroFile software downloads files from all my devices (splitting things like video files into separate folders from the photos that Lightroom will process) and manages the backups.
- Microsoft Expression Media will catalog and manage the video and audio files from my cameras and audio recorder (an Edirol R09HR with external microphone).
- I don’t plan to do much video or audio editing in the field, but photo editing, HDR processing, and panorama stitching will be done with a combination of Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop CS4 Extended, Photomatix Pro, and PtGui Pro.
- Boinx’s FotoMagico software will be used at times to produce standalone slideshows. I usually prototype slideshows using Collections and the Slideshow module in Lightroom, then export a set of JPEG files for FotoMagico to process.
- I also have PhotoRescue installed in case any memory card develops errors and/or I need to recover deleted photos. It’s a rare event for me to need this, but better safe than frustrated!
It’s hard to predict how many gigabytes of storage I will need for this trip. My basic plan is to take two lots of 500GB (in multiple drives) so that I’ll always have at least two copies of every file. The backup copies are regularly synchronised using PteroFile. A partition on one of the external drives serves as the Time Machine backup volume for the MacBook Pro, with a bootable copy of the OS X install media on the same partition. All the drives have SATA interfaces (even if that’s hidden inside a USB/Firewire enclosure) so they could be swapped around (including into the MacBook Pro) to cope with a disaster. One of the external drives is a Nexto ND2700 which has a card reader to act as a backup in the event that my Lexar UDMA dual-slot USB reader was to fail or get lost.
Hopefully 500GB will be enough! In January I came back from 4 weeks in Argentina, Antarctica, and Easter Island with just over 300GB. This will be a longer trip, and the 7D files are almost twice as large as the 40D’s files were, but hopefully it will suffice.
I’ve written in the past about geotagging photos, and I’m still using that Garmin eTrex Legend HCx. I’ll also have my SPOT Messenger with me. It uses an internal GPS to determine its location, and can transmit several types of message back to base via the GlobalStar satellites. Hopefully I won’t need to send any “Emergency: send rescue services immediately” messages, but the “I’m OK” messages will be used to update my family and this website with my location.
White balance tools
For quite a few years I’ve carried a WhiBal white balance reference, and as the lighting conditions change include it in the occasional photo to allow me to set the right white balance for all the photos taken in the same lighting. This tweaking of white balance is done in Lightroom and all I have to do while photographing is remember to shoot the WhiBal card occasionally. Several sizes of WhiBal are available, and while I started off with the credit-card-sized model on a neckstrap, today I have the tiny “Keychain” version clipped to my camera’s straps so it’s always with me.
Setting the precise white balance during processing works great for RAW images, but for video it’s important to get it spot on before shooting (setting a custom white balance in-camera). To do this on most cameras requires a larger grey target than the white balance tool in Lightroom/ACR does, so the larger WhiBal card will probably still get some use. Something like an ExpoDisc filter could be useful here, but rather than adding lots of different (and fragile) gadgets, I need to use robust gear that I won’t have accidentally left behind in my cabin…
As usual I’ll be taking a Canon 580EX flash and a CP-E3 external battery pack. With a Better Beamer fresnel attachment I’ll be set for wildlife fill-flash opportunities in the UK, but on the Norwegian legs of my trip I expect the flash may just get used for some off-camera lighting. As yet I’m undecided whether to throw a ST-E2 remote controller into the bag (the EOS 7D can control the remote flash by itself, but the 5DmkII needs a separate controller).
The 580EX and CP-E3 both use AA batteries (most of which are Imedion or Eneloop low-discharge NiMH types).
Camera cleaning equipment
A Giottos Rocket blower is my second line of defence against sensor dust (with the cameras’ internal vibrating filters being the first). An Arctic Butterfly (such an appropriate name!) from Visible Dust is my next phase of cleaning, with a Sensor Loupe to make the cleaning/testing process faster. A couple of microfibre cloths and a LensPen will help me keep the outside of my gear clean.
Tongariki, Easter Island
5DmkII, 24-105mm (A2_018812)
Most of my lenses use 77mm filter mounts, and I’ll have a circular polariser and clear (“UV”/”Protect”) filters with me. At this point I’m not expecting to get much use out of the polariser in Norway, but I’ll have it with me just in case. These days I try to leave the UV filters off, but if working in rain sometimes the filter is needed to complete the weather-sealing (e.g. for the 17-40mm/4) so I’ll have one with me.
Speaking of rain, I’ll have a Kata E702/704 cover with me so at least one camera can be protected from the elements while I’m shooting. I really have no idea what range of weather conditions I’ll be shooting in.
My iPhone contains lots of tools that help me organise my days. iPod, calendar, sunrise/sunset calculator, Twitter client, currency converter, Fire Eagle updater, tide tables, PDF reader (with copies of camera and flash manuals), web browser, email, even Google Earth. Oh, and it’s a telephone and SMS device too! I have quite a few other apps on there also, but many of them rely too much on permanent Internet connectivity to be useful for much of the trip.
At home my phone’s on a plan where for a fixed price I get lots of included calls and 500 MB of data per month (which I never use all of). I’ve travelled overseas with a mobile phone before, so I’ve always had a good idea of how expensive roaming mobile calls (both incoming and outgoing) can be. But this will be my first foray outside Australia with my iPhone, and it was scary to see how much data will cost outside Australia. The phone company would like to say it’s only AU$0.02 per kB, but that means that my usual monthly data use could easily cost me $2000! So I’ll be careful to disable the data roaming, and only use the network at WiFi hotspots (when I can find them).
Just as when travelling in other remote locations, this also means that iPhone apps which assume they have permanent access to the Internet are of limited value. It’s an interesting exercise to see which apps survive having no network.
Tahai, Easter Island
5DmkII, 17-40mm (A2_018641)
Most of that gear needs power, so the stack of Li-Ion and AA batteries need several chargers. All of these are “multi-voltage”, able to cope with 100-240V and 50-60Hz AC supplies. A simple 4-way power board and a Type C and a Type G adaptor (for Norway and the UK respectively) complete the picture. Note that because the power board is designed for standard Australian 240V power it will work internationally: US 110V power boards could fail in dramatic (and dangerous) ways!
Phew! I think that’s mostly it. I may refine the details of this list closer to departure, but the basics are there. All of this is essentially the same configuration as I took on my last major trip. As you can see there are backups for most components: it could be described as a belt-and-suspenders approach. That’s fine with me: better safe than sorry! None of it needs new or unusual procedures for me, so I have a lot of confidence in the system.
I’ll be back soon to talk about how I intend to carry all this gear. Both for travel between locations and when on location.