I am often asked what I use to get the job done. In this page I will go in to some detail on not only the photography gear that I use, but also my travel kit as a whole – everything from cameras to backpacks to underwear!
Philosophy – Photo Gear
When it comes to photography gear my philosophy is simple. Invest in top-of-the-line, professional equipment from the start, and avoid constantly paying for upgrades and the hassle of reselling old gear. If a compromise must be made between camera body or camera lens, I favor heavier investment in the lens – faster, pro glass will capture better photos regardless of whether it is attached to a $6,000 camera body or a $600 camera body. While the difference between camera bodies is noticeable, the difference in having pro glass is much more so. Lenses with constant apertures of f/2.8 and faster are essential to maximize a situation. It is a terrible feeling to have an amazing shot in front of you without having the capability to capture it. This philosophy is front-end heavy in $$$ but requires few upgrades in the long run. Furthermore, professional grade lenses hold their value very well, and can sometimes be sold for more than the purchase cost if you are lucky. This does not hold true with camera bodies, as they are outdated relatively quickly by newer models.
Support – Tripod & Ballhead
Great images start with a great, steady foundation. For stellar landscapes and especially night-time photography, a tripod is essential. However, a tripod can be heavy and cumbersome – we must compromise when traveling. A tripod provides not only the benefit of steadiness and sharp images, but it also serves to slow you down and improve your ratio of outstanding images to throwaways. Setting up a tripod for a shot can be meditative, forcing the photographer to consider the scene before him and address all composition and exposure issues before clicking the shutter. This way, every shot is deliberate and meaningful.
I use one of Gitzo’s traveler series 4-section carbon fiber tripods. Weighing in at only two pounds and at less than a 1.5′ closed length, this tripod is light and compact and still provides a very sturdy foundation. When considering a tripod, it is also important that the legs can move independently of each other at any angle, which allows for adaptability to any situation. Furthermore, Gitzo has great customer service if you do manage to snap a carbon fiber leg off (unfortunate accident involving a waterfall).
A professional tripod such as this requires an attachment called a ballhead, which is what the camera actually attaches to. The ballhead allows the camera to be positioned at any possible angle, and also incorporates and a horizontal panning feature make panoramas easieabuse use the Acratech Ultimate Ballhead which provides a strong, durable design that is also lightweight – we don’t want to negate the blessing of our lightweight tripod, do we?
The final piece of the foundation equation is the quick release plate thaAli’s screwed to the bottom of the camera so that it can easily attach to the ballhead. I recommend and use an L-plate style, which allows the camera to be easily and quickly mounted in both horizontal and vertical formats.
I shoot most of my images on a Canon 5D Mark II camera body. Here is some insight into my thoughts on camera bodies…
When I think of camera bodies, I consider 3 factors – low light and ISO , processor, and crop factor – in that order. Features such as frames per second, megapixels, video capability, etc all come second. My reasoning is that the aforementioned 3 factors have the greatest impact on my images. First, low light and ISO capabilitiy allows the photographer access to situatons in which they would not otherwise be able to shoot. I am specifically referring to the ability of a camera to operate in low light situations with a relatively high ISO while maintaining an acceptable amount of noise in the image. The processor on a given camera body is highly dependent on its release as this component is constantly updated by manufacturers as they research and develop newer better technology. A newer processor means better rendition of color, contrast, and highlights, as well as an improved dynaMic range. Essentially, the newer your camera, the newer your processor. Finally, amateur consumer camera bodies have crop factors, meaning the sensor is actually smaller than the standard 35mm film. Because of this, a 200mm lens would project the same image on a 1. 6x crop factor camera as a 320mm lens would on a 35mm image sensor. Essentially, a camera body with a crop factor adds a zoom to all lenses. This can be beneficial when shooting in situations which require larger focal lengths. However, this is harmful when attempting to capture a wide focal length landscapes because a “wide” 16mm lens now becomes a “less wide” 26mm lens.
I also shoot some images on an IR-converted Canon Rebel XT. This camera is one I use to playfully explore the artistic possibilities of infrared photography, generally creating interesting highcontracts black and white landscapes.
Here are my lenses, listed in order of greatest frequency of use. They are all Canon.
24-70mm f/2.8 L : My most versatile lens. This is my “go-to” glass, whether I am shooting a landscape or a portrait. This is a fantastic walk-around lens and stays on my camera most of the time, especially when I am abroad. Not much to say here…this lens is awesome.
50mm f/1.2 L: I can walk down a street at midnight and quickly snap a shot, handheld, with this lens on my camera. The focal length gives a very realistic “human eye” view of a scene, and the wide aperture does wonders for bokeh. Finally, because it is a prime, this lens is lighter than most, which is nice if you are shooting all day in the streets. Of course the prime does mean you will be “zooming” with your feet. There are many images that I simply would not have been able to shoot without a lens with this low-light capability. And did I mention it does a great job during the daytime too?
16-35mm f/2.8 L I: When I need to get wide, I grab this lens out of the bag. Combined with the full frame sensor of the 5DmkII, this lens fits a lot into one frame. In fact, it is so wide that if your scene is not really stunning and frame-filling, you will have a lot of empty, useless space in your photo.
70-200mm f/2.8 L IS I: This one is great for sports, fast action scenes, and portraits. This lens is also very heavy, which means it never makes it into my travel kit. But if I have my car nearby, you can bet I’ll have this one around.
75-300mm f/4-5.6 III: I do not recommend this lens; I purchased it while in Africa, because when you need a telephoto it is better to have a low-end telephoto than no telephoto at all. In fact, I would like to sell mine. Not a very good salesman, am I?
My thoughts on lenses? Acquire the fastest (widest aperture) glass as soon as possible. Slower, variable aperture lenses will only limit the photographer at some point in the future – they will be outgrown, or they will break from shoddy construction. Furthermore, purchase focal lengths that make sense for your style of photography. I used to own the Canon MP-E65mm macro lens, which is where my super-close macro images come from. Despite how amazing that lens is, I found myself shooting with it less and less. Because it is a top-of-the-line lens, I was actually able to sell it for more than I paid for it. Sports shooters will need telephotos most of all, and landscape photographers will likely want wider focal lengths. Portraits are somewhere in the middle. Regardless of what type of shooter you are, I maintain the viewpoint that when it comes to equipment, a low-end lens (and not a camera) will be the first thing to limit a photographer.
When I am traveling light I minimize the gear I take with me, and minimize my camera bag as well. This is where the Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AW comes in handy. Generally this bag will have the 50mm lens in the bottom, and then the 24-70mm with camera attached placed on top. The pouches and pockets have plenty of room to hold ND-grad filters, a polarizer, remote release cable, batteries, cards, etc. I often sling my tripod with ballhead attached through the loop on the side, making this a complete on-the-go kit. The bag is All-Weather (AW) rated, and has beefy zippers and a rain-cover that stows away within the bag. This has been useful on more than one occasion.
The rest of the time, when I am bringing the majority of my gear along, I use a Lowepro Photo Trekker AWII. This backpack really can hold everything I have, with a little bit of room to spare. This bag is beefy and has the requisite hip straps for such a heavy load, but ultimately the suspension doesn’t come anywhere near the quality of a dedicated backpacking pack. Notable features are an integrated, self-stowable rain cover, beefy weatherproof zippers, multiple configurations for tripod, and small enough to be a carry on in most airplanes. I am eager to find and try a backpack made by a backpacking company, like Osprey for example, that is designed with a photographer in mind. Until then, I will stick to my lightweight Toploader solution and use the Pro Trekker for short distances.
Filters are an important stepping stone to better images. While there are alternatives, I have gravitated towards the Singh-Ray brand. Their LB (Lighter Brighter) ColorCombo Polarizer gives really fantastic results. I use the polarizer not just for bluer skies, but in fact commonly to reduce glare in any situation – perhaps a light is reflecting on a tabletop causing glare – remove the glare and with a polarizer and the rich texture and tones of the wood of the table is revealed. The ColorCombo refers to the fact that it is also a warming filter, which will enhance saturation and color balance.
Even more important than a polarizer are graduated neutral density filters (ND-grads). This are neutral in color tone and vary from clear to dark. Placed in front of the camera, these filters can darken a bright sky while maintaining normal exposure in the foreground of a scene. These filters are crucial to bringing challenging scenes into the dynamic range that our cameras are capable of recording. I specifically use a 3 stop soft grad, a 3 stop hard grad, and a 3 stop reverse grad. I use the 4×6 size and while I do have a holder attachment, I prefer to just hold the filter in front of the lens with my hand.
Other Important Gear
Remote Release: I use the Canon TC-80N3, a sophisticated electronic remote release mechanism. The trigger serves several purposes. When shooting stills, a remote release will remove the possibility of introducing camera shake by pressing the shutter button when mounted on a tripod. This is a basic function. This unit really shines in bulb mode. With this trigger, the photographer can set 1) Self Timer: Time until first shutter release 2) Long Exposure: Exposure time of each image 3) Interval Timer: Time between each image 4) Exposure Count: Total number of exposures. This is especially useful if doing time lapse photography or in my case, star trail and night time landscapes. This trigger easily automates the process of multiple exposures allowing the photographer to devote attention to something else – or get some much needed rest.
Arctic Butterfly: Dust and dirt is inevitably going to make its way onto the image sensor and despite the advances in self-cleaning sensors, the dust will accumulate at some point. This process is accelerated in harsh environments with dirt and particulates in the air – safaris for example. The issue is exacerbated when changing a lens in these harsh environment as the sensor is completely exposed. To solve this problem, I use the VisibleDust Artic Butterfly. This sensor cleaning brush spins to build up static electricity that helps to collect the dust as the brush is passed over the sensor. The addition of bright LEDs illuminates the camera body interior, which is helpful.
Memory: I have accumulated over 100GB in Compact Flash memory – mostly 8 GB and 16 GB cards. To make this acquisition more affordable, I watched for rebate specials on the Sandisk Extreme 3 cards. However, on long trips abroad, 100GB is not enough to store all of the images, especially when they are RAW files at 22 megapixels. I use the Digital Foci Photo Safe II to store my images. This is a portable hard drive that doesn’t require a computer. Simply insert the memory card and press a button and the drive will copy the contents into a new folder. This solution is quick, easy, and lighter than bringing a laptop.
When it comes to gear, my travel philosophy is light and mobile. I carefully weigh the benefit of each item that goes into my pack against its physical weight. I gravitate towards lightweight gear when possible, and I dispense with many comforts to save space and weight. This means at the end of the day I am less weary from carrying gear. It also means I can breeze through airports without checking any bags, which saves time and avoids the headache of a lost bag in a foreign country.
When traveling both abroad and when backpacking in the United States I use the Osprey Exos 58 Backpack. This back is durable, useful, and incredibly light – only 2.6 lbs. My friends and I fondly refer to it as my “elven” pack. While the pack is lightweight, it also has a maximum comfortable load capacity of about 30 lbs – forcing the user to be conscious of weight decisions. I used this pack for Machu Picchu and also for Kilimanjaro, amongst other countless excursions. By placing the Lowepro Toploader in through the top, and my tripod in the side pocket, I effectively use this as a camera/camping backpack. Furthermore, when packed correctly this bag will pass as a carry-on in an airplane. That is a BIG deal folks. I cannot stress enough how pleased I am with this piece of equipment. Osprey has done a fantastic job.
I travel with minimal clothing. How minimal is minimal? I bring two shirts, two zip-off hiking pants (only one set of bottoms though), two pair of underwear, and two pairs of socks. This means that my clothing barely takes up any space and weight; I wear one set, and only have to pack one shirt, one shorts, one underwear, and a pair of socks! This approach works for trips of any length, from a weekend to as long as two months, or longer! The idea here is that while I wear one set of clothes, I can wash the other set in a sink and hang them to dry overnight. Then the next night I can wash the other set – and repeat. Yes, every once in a while you may have an unpleasant odor, and yes, every once in a while you may have to wear some wet clothes for a while. But that is alright, because the fastest way to dry a set of clothes is to wear them and dry them with your body heat. An interesting side effect of this approach is that I am wearing 1 of 2 shirts in almost every photo taken of me during my travels. Here is some detail on exactly which threads make it into my pack on a trip:
Shirts: I favor lightweight, quick-dry, long-sleeve shirts. The long sleeves are important to minimize need of a jacket and for sun protection. Vents and sleeve-roll-ups are important for hot weather. I use the REI Sahara Tech. I have two of them, and they have yet to disappoint. Did I mention they make you look like you are going on a safari?
Pants: Once again, lightweight and quick-dry is the name of the game. I use the Columbia Silver Ridge Convertible Pants. These guys have multiple pockets with zippers, which helps prevent against pick-pocketing. Having the option to zip the bottoms on is important for situations such as cold weather, mosquitoes, and for cultures sensitive to exposed skin.
Underwear: I travel with two pairs of ExOfficio Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs. These are actually what inspired my clothing philosophy, one of their advertisements described someone who had traveled 17 countries with only two pair. They’ve got an anti-microbial treatment that helps with odor causing bacteria – so you don’t stink (as much) – and they are super quick drying. The boxer brief cut is the best option for engaging in activities from walking the city streets to climbing mountains – nobody likes chaffing!
Socks: The two important issues here are quick-dry and blister control. I really like the Teko EVAPOR8 – it dries super fast and is actually made from 100% recycled materials like plastic bottles. I also advocate the WrightSock Cool Mesh II, a lightweight runners sock that has anti-blister tech. This sock is super thin, and dries super fast.
Shoes: I am on my feet most of the day while traveling, which means I want to wear quality footwear. One of the benefits of a lightweight philosophy is that huge, heavy, clunky hiking boots are replaced by lightweight trail shoes. I use the Merrell Moab as my trail shoe. Their best feature is a breathable GORE-TEX lining. Gotta love the GORE-TEX!
Other Clothing: What you’ve read above is it. That is all I bring with me. Any and all other clothing, like the occasional jacket, thermals, gloves, etc that may be required for colder weather can be purchased in country for a very low cost. I grab knock-offs from street markets in whatever country I’m in, and then when I no longer need the item I can donate it to someone more needy than I – this makes me feel warm and fuzzy and also frees up much needed space and weight. Improvise with clothing and articles to make the most out of what you carry. I bring along a twin-sized bed sheet for staying in hostels. This doubles as a light jacket when tied correctly around the body.
Water Purification: Staying healthy while traveling is important. A huge factor is sanitary water. I use the SteriPEN Adventurer to purify water quickly while in both the backcountry or in a city with no drinkable tap water. The process is so easy – press a button and swirl the UV light in a water bottle for about two minutes and your water is purified. This might seem crazy to some, but really folks…it is science.
Parachute cord: A little bit of parachute cord goes a long way when traveling. Used for everything from setting up a tarp, a clothesline, or to secure items to my pack.
Spork: The ultimate eating utensil. Not a lot to say here. It will keep you from eating with your hands. A spork is better than carrying a fork, knife, and spoon.
Origami Bowl: A bowl that goes from a flat sheet of plastic to a usable bowl. Why? The flattened bowl will pack away easier. And it is easier to lick a flat piece of plastic clean – that reduces the amount of water you need to clean your dishes.
Cheap Watch: I don’t bring a nice watch when I travel. I go to Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest digital watch I can find with an alarm, indiglo, and a degree of water resistance.
Headlamp: Flashlights have been outdated by the more practical headlamp. Useful around camp, and very useful when taking night landscape photos. Can double as a light-painting source for long exposures. I use the Black Diamond Spot, which has several different settings from super bright to red LEDs.
That is literally all of the gear I take with my when traveling abroad. If I am backpacking abroad I rent sleeping bags, pads, tents, etc. When backpacking in the United States I have a slew of ultralight gear that reduces my pack weight, including photo gear, water, and food for 2.5 days to 25 lbs. If you have any questions about my gear, don’t hesitate to contact me.