What Worked – What Didn't
Canon 1Ds with 70-300mm f/5.5 DO IS Lens at ISO 400
A major two-week-long photographic shoot on the other side of the world presents the photographer with some tough decisions. What lenses to bring? What about backup cameras? How to carry it all? What about accessories, storage, computer, card space, batteries and the like? What about safety, ones own, as well as that of the gear?
I wrote about some of this prior to leaving for Bangladesh in the last few days of December, 2004, in an essay titled Bangladesh – What in the Bag? If the topic interests you, and you haven't yet read it, you want want to do so prior to continuing here. And, for those not interested in photographic equipment, this new article contains a number of photographs from the trip which you may find of interest.
On this page I will look back at what equipment I used, what I didn't; what worked, and what didn't? It's always informative to do this type of post-mortem on a major shoot because it's through the experience gained on location, rather than from magazine articles and daydreaming, that one really learns how to properly equip oneself for field work. There's little joy in finding yourself in a remote locale in a foreign country, having run out of either film or storage capacity, and no pleasure in lacking the ability to get certain types of shots because you've brought the wrong gear. And finally, every pound carried unnecessarily is one more backache when moving though airports, and in and out of buses, trains and boats.
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS Lens at ISO 100
Our 13 days shooting in Bangladesh saw us taking three separate internal flights, a four day boat trip, and numerous lengthy bus and minivan rides. We also did some hiking (though not as much as I would have liked), and found ourselves in and out of different hotel rooms every other day. It's a relatively small country, but very densely populated, and without much in the way of modern transportation infrastructure. A drive between cities that would take two hours in Europe or North America, takes eight hours in Bangladesh on small traffic choked roads. Flights on Biman, the county's airline, can best be described as "interesting", with lots of suspense as to when you, not to mention your luggage, will arrive at your destination.( I write when, not if, because actually Biman has a pretty good safety record.)
What I mean to say, without the digressions, is that we covered a lot of ground and saw both a lot of the country, and a cross-section of the variety of landscape and culture that Bangladesh has to offer, from the adventure of the cities – Dhaka and Chittagong – to the pristine beauty of the Sundarbans forest reserve on the Bay of Bengal. We also visited the north of the country, close to the Indian border, and a stone's throw from Tibet.
During the two weeks in-country I shot some 5,000 frames, primarily with the Canon 1Ds Mark II, but also with the Canon 20D. Five thousand frames over 13 days averages out to about 400 a day. Looking at my file directories I see that there were days when I shot about 1,000 frames, and others when I shot just 250, so the average makes sense. Don't imagine though that I shot 5,000 separate "subjects" or scenes. Of course not. But, in many instances, for example a candid street portrait, or a small fishing boat passing us on the river, anywhere from 10 to 30 frames would be shot so as to capture either the right expression, or the moment when the boat and the fisherman were in just the right position.
These images added up to about 75 Gigabytes of storage, (double that with field backup), and a bit further on I'll discuss the practicality as well as the logistics of dealing with this much data in the field, as well as when returning home.
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS Lens at ISO 400
After six days of intensive work with the files from this trip, selecting the ones that will appear on this site, in my March gallery exhibit in Toronto, and also in a collector's portfolio, I have identified 75 images. Some may consider the 5,000 frames shot and point out that 75 is just 1.5%. That's a pretty small success ratio. Someone else might say – amazing, that's a remarkably high success ratio for just two weeks work. It's all a matter of perspective. (My sucess ratio is usually about 1%, so I'd call this shoot a great success).
For example, the shot above titled Cauliflowers– Dinjapur was taken early one morning on a road in front of our hotel, not long after breakfast, and while I was waiting for our vehicles to be loaded. I shot a couple of dozen frames just standing by the side of the road, watching the local traffic go by. I knew that the fog, combined with the colourful dress of the people would have potential, but there was no wow moment, just the pleasure of shooting the exotic. (To them it was just another day on the way to work).
But reviewing the frames at home a week later this one stood out. It tells a story, and it does so in a subtle and respectful way. Our time in Bangladesh was filled with moments like this. Sometimes snapshots become images.
Flying & Bags
Canon 1Ds with 70-300mm f/5.5 DO IS Lens at ISO 400
One of my major concerns when traveling by air is whether or not I'll be hassled about the size and weight of my camera gear. Since the tragedy of 9/11 the rules and regulations on carry-on luggage have become tighter, and in the US at least, luggage can no longer be locked. Of course pilferage of and from bags is always a problem, especially in third-world airports.
Moose Peterson's MP-1 camera backpack worked out very well for me. This was my second major shoot with it, and other than the skimpy backpack harness, I have little to complain about. Over the two weeks I was on at least 4 different aircraft; everything from a Boeing 777 jumbo to a Dash 8 commuter, and it fit easily into the overhead bins. I flew Air Canada, British Airways, GMG and Biman on 7 different flights without hassle. Though the loaded bag was well overweight for carry-on, no one every questioned it, though I was prepared to take the 1Ds MKII and 300mm f/2.8 lens out and put them over my shoulder if needs be.
Though the bag is lightly padded (to save weight), I never felt that the contents were in any danger. It was slung in and out of vehicles, had other bags dumped on top of it, and at the end of 20,000 miles of travel nothing was the worse for wear. I was, but the bag and its contents wern't.
Canon 1Ds with 70-300mm f/5.5 DO IS Lens at ISO 400
I used the Canon 1Ds Mark II for 90% of my shooting on this trip. Though I brought the 20D primarily as backup I also used it from time to time when I wanted to have a second lens of a different focal length quickly at hand, to avoid changing lenses.
In some ways this was a mistake, because compared with the MKII images, those from the 20D simply can't compete. Not that there's anything wrong with them. They are very nice. But there is a tangible difference that is not only seen in final print quality but also in ability to crop. MKII images can be cropped significantly and still produce large display prints. Those from the 20D much less so.
I also found switching bodies to be problematic because of the huge difference in controls. Though I've used every Canon DSLR made in the past 5 years, and their film cameras for years before that, I find that when my fingers are tuned to a 1 Series body, and when I then pick up a body such as the 20D, I stumble with the settings. If I'm working with just one or the other, there's no problem. But frankly, this is the last time that I'll do a major shoot mixing and matching body types.
Both cameras performed flawlessly, though with one exception. I found an incompatibility between the Canon 1Ds MKII and Hitachi 4GB Microdrives.
Canon 1Ds with 70-300mm f/5.5 DO IS Lens at ISO 800
The Microdrive Problem
I have been using Microdrives since they first appeared several years ago. At the time they offered relatively high capacity storage for the money. Indeed they were at the time a much better value than solid state cards. Until the latest generation of 40X and 80X solid state cards they were also fairly fast.
But, they were controversial. Some people claimed that they were more delicate, and therefore less reliable than solid state cards. My experience, until the Bangladesh trip, was the opposite. I have owned a total of 6 Microdrives; four of them original IBM devices, and for the past 16 months two of the more recent Hitachi versions. The IBMs included a 512MB and three 1GB models. The Hitachis were the latest 4GB models.
Over the years I never had a failure or even a lost frame in the field, and I have taken many tens of thousands of images on them with a succession of cameras, including the Canon D30, D60, 10D, 20D, 1Ds, 1Ds MKII, Kodak DCS Pro Back 645, and Phase One P25 back. In addition I have used them when testing literally dozens of other cameras and backs from others manufacturers.
In truth, I did have one failure about two years ago. One of the 1GB IBM cards failed one day when I went to format it before use. No images were lost, but the ticking sounds told me that the miniature drive had crashed. But from the -30C in the mountains of northern Quebec to +40C in the Arizona desert – from below sea level in Death Valley to 13,000 feet in the Sierra, they otherwise never let me down in the field – until the Bangladesh trip.
There were three of us shooting with 1Ds Mark II bodies along with 4GB Hitachi cards. We all had the same experience during the trip with this combination, namely, lost frames. What would happen is that the camera would report Error 2 and lock up, requiring rebooting by removing the battery. The camera and card would then work fine for a while, but one or more frames would be lost. What we also saw was that sometimes the card access light on the camera would stay on for several seconds before the error report, and when that happened, in at least one instance I lost close to 30 frames, fortunately none of them critical.
After reboot the camera would show the files as there, displaying the thumbnails, but when inserted into a card reader on a Mac Powerbook all files on the card were shown as not there, though the disk space was taken – the usual sign of a corrupted FAT. When tried on a Windows XP machine most of the files on the card could be retrieved, but much of the card’s file directory was full of garbage characters. A file recovery program was tried, but the 30 or so files could not be retrieved. (Two of the members of the trip make their living as professional programmers, and though there was a lot of expertise available, as well as data recovery tools, nothing worked).
As we tried to recover the files we found that I was not alone. Two others photographers on the trip were also shooting with Canon 1Ds MKII bodies, and 4GB Hitachi Microdrives, and each of them was also reporting intermittent Error 2 lock-ups and lost images (though none as bad as what I had experienced). Needless to say, I stopped using the card in question, and also as a precaution the second one.
At first we thought that it might be attributable to the firmware update that Canon had released just prior to our departure, but then we found that one of us hadn't done the upgrade but was still experiencing the problem. We also noted that the problem did not show up when the cards were used in either a 1D MK II or a 20D, only in our three new 1Ds Mk II.
So about halfway through our 13 day shoot we stopped using the 4GB Microdrives, as we felt that the combination of these cards together with the 1Ds Mark II was clearly problematic, especially since all three of us who were shooting with this combination were experiencing the same problem.
Upon returning home and reviewing the roughly 3,000 files shot with this card and camera combination (in my case using two different Hitachi 4GB cards) in addition to the loss of those 30 files, I also could see about a dozen other corrupted files from various days, some unreadable, some showing only partial data.
At this point the actual cause of the problem is unclear. The Hitachi 4GB cards appear to work fine in other camera bodies that I own and use, and the 1Ds Mark II displays no problem when using a variety of solid state cards from Lexar and Sandisk. I am reporting the issue to both Canon and Hitachi’s technical departments with the hope of finding out what’s going on, and when and if I learn anything from them I’ll report it here, but in the meantime I am retiring my Microdrives.
The irony though is that just prior to the Bangladesh shoot I was asked by a major Hitachi distributor for permission to use several of my photographs for display and promotional purposes, which I did on a gratis basis. As their way of thanking me for this they sent me a complimentary 4GB Microdrive, which I found in my mail pile when I got home from the trip. So, for the time-being, instead of two, I now have three Hitachi Microdrives in retirement.
I had enough smaller cards, and the Epson P2000, to get me through the rest of the trip. But when I returned home the first thing I did was to order four 2 GB Sandisk Extreeme III CF cards. The Microdrives are now on the shelf until I can discover the nature of the problem.
Update: January 28, 2005
It appears that the problem isn't with Hitachi 4GB Microdrives, but possibly with any and all 4GB cards. It may even be a problem with any cards over 2GB. There is a long thread on this on the Galbraith Forums, and it seems that people from all over the world are now experiencing this problem with the 1Ds MK II, and some as well with the 1D Mk II.
Canon has been advised of the problem. It's now a matter of waiting until they do something about it. In my experience, Canon won't say a thing until it's fixed, and a firmware update is available. Till then, I would avoid the use of any 4GB cards with these cameras.
Canon 20D with 300mm f/2.8L IS and 1.4X extender at ISO 200
The biggest surprise for me was which lens saw the most use. Just one lens was used for at least 70% of all the shooting done on this trip. It was the Canon 70-300mm DO IS, and I found myself using it at or near the 300mm end of its range much of the time.
Given that I had also taken along the 300mm f/2.8L IS and the 70-200mm f/2.8L it takes a bit of explanation to understand why this was the case.
We spent a lot of time on a small ship touring the rivers and the Sundarbans area (a Mangrove forest reserve on the Bay of Bengal). The rivers are teaming with life. Villages along the banks, fisherman, other boats by the thousands, and in a few cases wildlife, including crocodile and deer. (The Bengal Tigers were either in hiding or on strike, though we did see some day-old tracks on one hike).
The 70-200 proved to be too short most of the time for shooting from the boat. The 300mm f/2.8 was the ideal focal length, but for use hour-after-hour it was far too heavy for hand-holding. The 70-300mm was therefore ideal. It had the range and versatility, and also the light weight. Though at f/5.6 it's slow, I used it much of the time at f8 or f/11 for optimum image quality, and simply changed the ISO to whatever was needed to keep a high enough shutter speed. Because the lens has IS, I was comfortable shooting at 1/125 sec even from the moving boat at full focal length.
No, the 70-300mm DO is not as high quality as either of the other two lenses. Close, but not as sharp or as contrasty. But, it had the reach and the light weight that made it ideal for this aspect of the trip, and I'll always take practicality over that last iota of image quality any day. It comes down to a simple matter – getting the shot.
I also found it to be the ideal lens for urban shooting, espcially in Dhaka. The 70-200mm f/2.8 is simply too big and white to allow any type of discrete people photography. The 70-300mm is as small as a medium focal length prime lens when zoomed closed, and I used it extensively for street shooting as well for this reason.
The 24-70mm f/2.8L was the next used lens, probably for about 20% of the time. It was the walk-about lens for when we were in tight quarters, such as ruins and temples. The 300mm f/2.8, which I'd expected to use for wildlife, was largely unused. The 16-35mm wide zoom was similarly largely unused, and the one time that I could have used the 50mm f/1.4, a nighttime ceremony in a village, I forgot it in the car, several hundred meters from where we ended up. Oh well.
Canon 1Ds with 70-300mm f/5.5 DO IS Lens at ISO 400
I shot about 5,000 frames over 13 days. Because the 1Ds MKII produces roughly 15 MB raw files, this means that I ended up with around 75 GB of files by the end of the trip. And, since I always back everything up in the field, this means that I needed to have some 150 GB of storage with me. (The idea of having just one copy of once-in-a-lifetime shots is too scary. I always make field backups. After the card has been downloaded to a hard drive, I then make sure that it's copied to a second hard drive before I go to bed at night, and that this second drive is stored and transported separately the whole time).
I had about 50 GB free on my 12" Powerbook, a 60 GB external Lacie Firewire drive, 40 GB on the Epson 2000P, and 40 GB on my Ipod. This meant that I had 190 GB of available storage that all fit comfortably in my briefcase and camera bag. Imagine if I'd been shooting film. It would have taken some 140 rolls, and a cost of several thousand in stock and processing. not to mention an extra suitcase to carry it all.
Each 4GB Hitachi Microdrive holds about 260 frames from the 1Ds MKII. So with two of them, and a couple of smaller (2GB) cards, I still found myself running out of card space on very busy shooting days. Then, when the Microdrives went south, as described above, I really would have been in trouble if it weren't for the Epson P-2000.
It sat in my vest pocket, and as I finished a card I'd pop it into the P2000's card slot and start copying. The Epson then went back in my pocket, and I continued shooting. By the time I needed the old card it would have long finished copying, and could be erased and reused. Also, when time permitted, back in the vehicles, at a roadside stop, or on the boat, it was always informative to be able to review the files on the unit's large screen. In the evening I would connect it to my laptop and transfer the files, either to it, or to one of the other outboard drives, freeing up whatever space was needed for the next day's field work.
I gave the 2000P a very positive review when it first appeared, and this trip was it's first major field application. My opinion hasn't changed. It's rugged, totally reliable, fast enough, and the screen is a total pleasure to use. There are a few things I'd improve, but as it stands this is currently (Jan 2005), the device of choice for field storage. Three thumbs up.
When I got home it was simply a matter of using Firewire to transfer the files from one of the sets of backups to an outboard drive. Only once I had then backed these up to a second outboard drive did I erase the files on the laptop, portable Lacie drive, P2000 and Ipod.
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS Lens at ISO 400
Several people have written since I got back to ask about safety in Bangladesh, both personal and of equipment.
I felt no concern at all about personal safety. I was likely safer there then on the streets of New York or Berlin.
As a westerner you couldn't stand out more if you were painted fluorescent yellow. I always tend to wear subdued basic clothing, jeans and a plain shirt and work boots when shooting in urban locales, on the theory that it'll make me stand out less. But, one of our group decided to wear a loud print shirt on a couple of occasions and frankly, it seemed to make no difference.
The only thing we were advised by those who were experienced in the country was not to leave cash lying around in our hotel rooms. Who leaves cash laying around in the hotel rooms? We were told that equipment would be quite safe, and so it was. No one lost a thing.
During the days our drivers were very conscientious about locking and guarding the vehicles, so that meant that once we'd chosen what would be around our necks and in our pockets everything else could be forgotten.
My advice to anyone wanting to visit Bangladesh is to hire a car with driver and guide (don't even think of driving there yourself), and then go wherever you want in confidence. The driver stays with the car and guards things, and the guide will run interference for you with locals, whose most aggressive attentions are to ask you where you're from, your wife's name, how many kids you have, how much you make, and what you think of Bangladesh. That's the biggest danger for most tourists.
Canon 1Ds with 70-300mm f/5.5 DO IS Lens at ISO 200
This was the dry season in Bangladesh. The roads were dusty and the fields had just seen a harvest. I had expected to have sensor dust problems, and had brought along a full cleaning kit. Surprisingly, I had almost no dust problems whatsoever. I checked my files every evening and hardly saw a thing.
I ended up cleaning the 1Ds MKII once, when one of the workshop members who had never cleaned his sensor, and who was nervous about it, asked if I would show how it was done. To demonstrate I did so on my own camera before doing his.
My reasoning is that though it was dusty, it was also humid. The humidity wasn't an issue personally, because the temperatures were on the low side (10 to 25 Celsius), but there were morning fogs almost every day, and the smog was bad much of the time.
So here's the solution for camera makers who need to solve the sensor dust problem, but who are having trouble getting around Olympus' sensor shake patents – build a humidifier into the camera's mirror chamber. The only problem that I see with this proposal is that the AC extension cord to power it would get tangled all the time. :-)
Batteries were simply a non-issue. I didn't use the 20D enough to even use one battery during the entire two weeks. With the 1Ds MKII I found myself getting somewhere between 1100 and 1300 frames per charge, so even on the heaviest shooting days, with close to a thousand frames, I never needed a second battery. Of course the temperatures were moderate, but I was using IS lenses almost all the time. Great battery life.
Of course almost all devices now have universal voltage power adaptors, and so all that's needed is a plug adaptor. Bangladesh is interesting in that you'll encounter a mix of both U. K. and European plug types.
The best solution is a new multi-adaptor that was initially called a Swissadaptor when it first appeared about a year ago, and which has now been OEMed by Fuji. It has every receptacle made on one side, and has slide-out prongs for every type found in the world on the other, and is small enough to fit in one hand. No more lost plugs. BA and several other airlines sell them onboard their international flights, and I've seen them at many airports in Europe, though not yet in stores in the US.
Canon 1Ds Mark II with 24-70mm f/2.8L lens at ISO 400
Surprisingly, the tripod turned out to be largely redundant. I used it a few time, especially for some architectural work in temples and ruins, but I used it much less that I had expected. Similarly the polarizer saw little use. Though the sun was shining almost every day, the air is so smoggy that there was very little polarization to work with.
I brought a couple of small soft shoulder bags for hiking, but we didn't do as much as I'd expected, and most of the time I simply walked around with a couple of lenses in my shooting vest's pockets.
If I were to do this trip over again tomorrow I would lighten my photographic equipment load considerably. I would take just the two bodies and two lenses, the 70-300mm DO IS and the 24-70mm f/2.8L. With these two lenses I would be able to cover 95% of all opportunities, and save my back a lot of grief. Laptop and storage would be pretty much as was used on this trip.
Next time. Hmm. Monsoon season?