What's in the Bag – And Why?
Artwork for the Workshop's T-Shirt
(You can't have a workshop without a T-Shirt)
For 13 days in early January, 2005 I will be leading a photographic expedition / workshop in Bangladesh. Together with about a dozen other photographers we will be exploring this little-known but fascinating country – by boat, road and on foot. This workshop has been planned for more than half a year, and though my colleague Pierre Claquin has lived, worked and photographed there for some dozen years, and has provided everyone with equipment advice, actually deciding what to bring (as well as what's possible to bring) is an interesting challenge.
I thought that I'd share the thought process with you, as it is one that all photographers go through when heading off on a shooting trip. There are so many factors involved, from intended as well as potential subject matter, to flying restrictions, to weight and bulk concerns.
Here then, after quite a bit of pondering, is what I'm bringing and why. This almost certainly won't match your own equipment choices and needs, or shooting requirements, but maybe the considerations that went into my choices will prove of interest.
Choosing what gear to bring on a major shoot always entails compromises. In the best of all possible worlds we'd own and bring along every lens and camera that interests us, and have an assistant alongside at all time to hand over the tool of choice – "Fred, pass me the 600mm f/4, would you? That's a good fellow".
But this isn't the Masi Mara in 1932, and I'm not Ernest Hemingway. Instead one needs to think clearly about what the needs of the situation might be, and the realities of the limitations imposed both by outside forces, and ones own limitations. The foremost of the imposed limitations is flying, especially when travelling internationally.
The bane of every photographer's existence in this post-911 world are the restrictions on what one can bring along when flying. I used to take a large Pelican case with just about everything that I needed, and would padlock it and check it as luggage. But now, with the inability of locking luggage securely (a twist tie between a $6,000 lens and a sticky fingered baggage handler isn't a happy thought), has eliminated that option – at least for me. Since I've had gear stolen from unlocked luggage, especially when flying into third-world airports, and on their internal flight, I just won't take that chance.
There's also the issue of bags being lost or delayed. Most of my trips involve heading off into remote areas (in Bangladesh we'll be living on a boat for the first 4 days), and so while I can always pick up extra socks and underwear, replacing a delayed 1Ds MKII in Dhaka just ain't going to happen.
The bottom line is that I now fly with everything important in my carry-on luggage. I'll put tripods, flash units, cables and chargers in a checked bag, but otherwise everything that I need to be productive, and to stay productive for at least several days, has to be able to be with me in the airplane cabin as carry-on.
All airlines have restrictions on both size and weight of carry-on bags. On British Airways (which I'll be flying from London to Dhaka) you're allowed two bags onboard. A briefcase and a "medium bag". You can read the rules here. These varies from airline to airline, both in the detail and in the enforcement. Sometime they are sticklers on size, sometimes on weight, and sometimes both. It can even vary on the mood of the check-in agent.
Weight and Bulk
Even if you check your camera bags as luggage, there are still limitations on what you can comfortably carry on a shoot. What that limit is depends on your own size, age, health and stamina, as well as the type of shooting you'll be doing. Are you're hiking 3-4 miles a day, or walking city streets, or will you be shooting from a vehicle, or boat? On this almost two-week-long trip it'll be a bit of everything. So, it's necessary to be realistic about ones own limitations.
What Imelda Marcos is to shoes, I am to camera bags. They are a fetish of mine. I have them in all sizes and types, and believe it or not, I use them all from time to time. Some for flying, some for hiking, some have wheels, some are soft, and some are hard. Some are small, and others are large. No one bag can do it all for all types of shooting situations.
But there is one bag that I'll be using on this trip that is ideal for the limitations that the Bangladesh shoot will entail. It's Moose Peterson's MP-1 camera backpack. A couple of people on my Iceland Workshops in July, 2004 had them, and I was impressed. I subsequently bought one, and used it for the first time on a week-long shoot in Big-Bend National Park, Texas, in November. I found that it was an ideal travel bag in many respects. I'll have a full test report on it here early in 2005, but here are the reason's why it has become a favourite of mine, especially when flying.
Photo courtesy Wildlife Research Photography
The MP-1 is the largest bag that is legal carry-on on most of the world's airlines. It will even fit in the overhead compartment of small commuter aircraft. What makes it different from other bags of its size, is its weight. By itself it weighs under 5lbs. A wheeled Lowepro bag that is the same size, and that I often use, weighs more than 13 lbs, empty. With a weight restriction of just 20lbs per carry-on bag on many airlines (including BA), this means quite a bit of extra gear can be carried with an MP-1.
The way that the weight is saved is by reducing the amount of padding, and the bag's overall rigidity. This isn't a bag to be checked as luggage, even if you wanted to, or that can be thrown around. There's just enough internal padding to keep things safe from bumping into each other, but that's it.
This also isn't the world's greatest backpack. It has a harness, but it's minimal. OK for going a few hundred yards, or though an airport, but definitely not something that one would want to wear carrying 30 lbs of gear for more than a short while.
My other bag on all trips is a briefcase. I found one that has hidden wheels and a pull-up handle that telescopes. It stores an amazing amount of gear, which I'll detail in a moment
As for clothes, a wheeled duffle is the bag of choice. It's big enough to take tripods, chargers and other equipment, but also can carry two weeks worth of clothes, boots and the like. Wheels are a most though, for places where there are no luggage carts available.
Regular readers know that my main equipment now consists of Canon digital gear, and also a Contax 645 with a digital back. Because there will be a large landscape component to this trip I was very tempted to take the Contax and Phase One P25 back. But, in the end, I decided to go with the Canon gear for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we'll be doing a lot of street and cultural photography, and medium format doesn't lend itself that well to this type of hand-held shooting. The second reason is that we'll be shooting from boats a great deal; a small passenger ship on which we'll be spending 4 days going down-river to the Bay of Bengal, and then on various small boats in the mangrove forests looking for wildlife. This means that stabilized lenses will really come in handy, all of which precluded the use of my Contax/Phase One gear.
Here then is what's in the main bag, the MP-1.
– Canon 1Ds Mark II body: This will be the main camera for most shooting.
– Canon 20D: This is along as back-up, and also for use when doing discrete urban shooting.
– Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS: Though it's bulky and heavy, this is one of the finest lenses I've ever owned, and I expect that it will see a lot of use on this trip.
– Canon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS: Though is might seem redundant given that I'm also taking the 70-200 and 300, it is so small that it is ideal for urban shooting, which the other two are not.
– Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS: Usually my most used lens. Superb image quality.
– Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L: A great lens,and one that I use often.
– Canon 50mm f/1.4: Simply indispensable for low light work. At a full two stops faster than anything else in the bag, and together with ISO 1600, with this lens if there's enough light that you can see it, you can shoot it. Also small and light enough to never be left behind.
– Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L: My standard wide-angle lens.
– Canon 17-85mm f/4-5.6 E-FS IS: This lens will only work on the 20D, not the 1Ds MKII. It is the equivalent of a 28-135mm lens on full frame. It is so small, light, and of such high quality that it, together with the 20D, are the ideal combo for much urban shooting, where the larger 1 Series camera and faster lenses would be too heavy and too "obvious". The IS capability goes a long way toward compensating for the slow aperture.
– Canon 1.4X extender. Together with the superb 300mm f/2.8 this gives me the equivalent of a 420mm f/4 for wildlife when needed, and image quality is still very acceptable.
– Canon 580 EX Flash: Of course; primarily for wildlife when used with a Better Beamer flash extender.
Also in the MP-1 bag are smaller items like a card wallet. I'm taking two 4GB Microdrives, a 2GB card, and three 1GB cards; enough for even the busiest day's shooting. A Lexar Firewire card reader is my choice, because of its small size and high speed. Timer cable release TC-80N3, and polarizers and UV filters for all lenses. (I usually don't use UV filters, but they're vital for protecting the front lens element against salt spray).
The briefcase carries the rest of my critical photographic gear, as well as the usual valuable travel items, such as passport, wallet, money, Ipod and The Economist.
– Apple 12" Powerbook with 1.5GB of RAM, 60GB hard disk, and DVD burner. Though I've been using both PC and Mac platforms for the past two decades, I switched to 95% Mac usage this year. The stability and elegant design of OSX, along with the never-ending succession of viruses and security holes in Windows XP, was the final straw. No religious debates please – it's just that OSX is so good, and Mac hardware so beautifully designed, that there was no good reason for me not to make the switch. The 12" Powerbook is as small as one can use, ion terms of keyboard and screen. It's heavier than some comparable Windows sub-notebooks, but I can live with that.
The Powerbook will be my main file storage, with about 40GB free, even with all my usual programs, web site, and music files onboard. I also have a rubberized and very rugged Lacie 60GB Firewire drive, which I will use as secondary storage if needed.
– The Epson P-2000 digital wallet. While it's a bit redundant on this trip, as I'll have the Powerbook along, it will serve as card transfer and storage on days when we are in the field and away from the computer, as well as backup storage. Finally, my 40GB Ipod can also be used as a Firewire hard disk, and though about 10GB are currently devoted to music, I can always delete this and simply use it as a storage device, restoring the music when I get home. So in all, I'll have nearly 200GB of disk storage with me. Should be enough. :-)
– Miscellaneous: A pair of Canon 8X25 IS binoculars will be invaluable, especially when working from boats. I also always carry a small GPS – a Garmin eTrex, and also a GSM mobile phone, a Trio 600. A pocket digital audio recorder for making field notes is the final gadget to be brought along.
– In my duffle bag are a tripod, a Gitzo 1349 with leveling base, and a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead. For the 300mm f/2.8 I've also included a Wimberly Sidekick gimbal mount. I likely won't need it, but there's room in the duffle, so why not?
– Also in the duffle bag are a couple of small cases containing all of the power supplies, cables and foreign plug adaptors, as well as a 150 watt DC-AC inverter for possible use in charging batteries while we're on the road.
– In the duffle as well is an Iridium Satellite phone. While GSM cell service is almost universal around the world, when away from urban centers, as we'll be for much of this trip, it's nice to have a means of staying in touch with the family, as well as for emergencies. I've been using one on my remote travels for about a year now, and wouldn't venture to an isolated place without one any longer. Expensive, but worth it.
– Finally, there are the myriad small items like tools, a pocket knife, gaffer tape, lens and sensor cleaning kit, and a couple of Motorola Talkabout radios. And clothes. Don't forget clothes.
Since the MP-1 bag isn't suitable for walk-around shooting I have stowed two small canvas bags in my duffle. One is a Lowepro daypack. This is ideal for carrying a body and a couple of lenses and accessories when hiking. The other is a small canvas shoulder bag, the kind that kids use for their schoolbooks. This is my urban camera bag, because it doesn't draw attention to itself, and because it can be carried bandolier style, with the main pouch at the front of the body, so that it is less open to pick-pockets. Neither of these take up any real space when empty.
In all, my photographic gear will come to about 70 lbs, spread over three seperate bags, two of them carry-ons. Part of the reason for schlepping so much equipment is the length and diversity of the trip. We'll be shooting for 12 full days, and covering a range of locales; from urban in Dhaka and a couple of other cities, to wildlife, to landscapes; from ships, to hikes, and from boats. I only have a sense of what we'll encounter, and so I want to be prepared for as many eventualities as possible.
A logical question to ask is, if I could, what else would I reasonably bring. While several additional prime lenses would have been nice, the answer is, just one lens – the 24mm T/S. The Tilt / Shift might have come in handy doing some architectural work at temples, and for panoramas. It's almost always in my bag. But ultimately, there is a limit, and there simply wasn't room for it. You have to draw the line somewhere.
I can hear the purists now though asking the second question – why not just go with an M Leica, three lenses, and 20 rolls of film. That's a good question, and some photographers might very well approach a shoot like this with such a basic kit. But, in the end, I think that it would be too limiting, at least for the type of shooting that I anticipate doing. Yes, it would be an ideal set-up for urban and cultural shooting. But a basic kit like this, as attractive as it might be, would fall far short when faced with the need to do the wide range of shooting, including wildlife, that I anticipate encountering on this trip.
In the second half of January I'll be able to report on what worked, what didn't, and what I might do differently the next time.