• Adventure Photography 101 – My Equipment

    Many travelers set out on their adventure hoping to share their experience with family and friends. Others want to share more broadly with the world. A few smart ones don’t care much about Instawhatever and barely remember to charge their phone.

     

    Whichever bucket you fall in to, it all starts with equipment so I will stick top what I used in this write-up. I will post an “Adventure Photography 201” article soon enough to dive a little deeper into basic photography techniques and basic digital editing on the road.

    Equipment Overview

    If there is one rule in photography it is this: the best camera is the one you have in your hand. You can bring along a point-and-click, a camera phone, or an expensive DSLR, but it you have them locked in you bags they are all equally useless. I struggled mightily on what type of photography equipment to bring on my 2-year road trip. On the one extreme, you can just bring that camera phone. You will likely carry a phone anyway, and if you invest in a current model the camera sensor and processing software is 95% of what you need. Just remember to back up your data and you are good to go. I had a personal desire to treat photography as more that a flip of the phone hobby, so I invested in a Sony A7R II M2 Digital Full Frame Mirrorless Camera, which these days runs a little under $2,000 USD. So, that approach would probably be considered the opposite extreme. There are a lot of implications to that which I will break down a little later. But my end message should be that if you really apply yourself, just about any camera on the spectrum will capture wonderful details from your adventure.

    I get that some people like to see what is in someone’s equipment bag so here is mine (missing just iPhone, laptop and power adapter/universal plugs). Some of these items I used frequently on my trip, some infrequently. Underneath is a little breakdown.

    1. ZEISS Batis 25mm f/2 Lens (2103-750) – This was the first lens for my full frame camera (which does not include a dedicated lens, for those new to photography). It is a great lens for everyday photography and considered a wide angle “walk around” piece, in that it is light enough to walk around with and you hardly notice the weight. After I invested in the Sony 24-70mm F2.8 GM Zoom lens I rarely needed this lens. And if it had existed at the start of my trip, I really would have wanted to skip the Batis and instead purchase a FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM Zoom lens (SEL1635GM) to round out my bag. That would have definitely stepped up my night sky photography, but that model did not come out until 2017 so I made do with what I had.
    2. ZEISS Batis 85mm f/1.8 Lens (2103-751) – This was my second lens and is still my favorite. It is considered a portrait lens, great for people photography. And since I did not have space in my bag for a telephoto lens, I would occasionally use this lens with the crop factor APS-C mode on my Sony to zero in on my subject as much as I could. In any case, I would only break this lens out of the bag for certain photos since my Sony 24-70mm F2.8 GM Zoom lens fit the bill most of the time. However the bokeh effect can be outstanding with this unit.
    3. Lithium-Ion Batteries (NP-FW50) & Plug-in Adapter – I found having 3 batteries (on in the unit, two spare) was occasionally insufficient on the road, when charging opportunities sometime lack. Five batteries seemed to cover all of the bases. You can plug my camera into the wall socket to charge it directly, but that would be ill-advised on two notes: you can have power surges in the developing world that will fry sensitive electronics, and you just do not want to leave a very expensive camera plugged into a hotel or hostel wall socket while you are off and about. No one ever steals the battery charger.
    4. 1TB back-up hard drive #1
    5. 1TB back-up hard drive #2 – I never had any electronics stolen during my trip, but in one simple moment you can lose your laptop and all of the data. Many people love to tell you to back things up to the cloud. That does not work in the real world. I had an unlimited cloud account and honestly the upload speeds were so slow in 95% of the world that I could never count on uploading more than 3 RAW files without an error message. Let alone 1GB video files. And if you are at a hostel or someplace with shared space, you just do not want to leave your laptop plugged in overnight for sticky fingers to possibly grab. Bring a couple hard drives. Try to be organized with your data so it simplifies the process of shuffling new files onto each drive. Then keep one in your camera bag and a second in locked storage. I suggest spending the money on password protected drives.
    6. Blackrapid Camera Strap – This one goes by your personal preference. There are hand straps, neck straps, street straps, grip cases. I just went went this simple shoulder strap and it was fine. The main consideration should be that if you are walking around with a camera strap in the developing world, you are a target. It doesn’t matter if it is a tough strap – thieves have figured that out. I used a strap for those rare times when I was in a museum or hiking in a park. For city activity, I kept the camera tightly secure in an anonymous black backpack.
    7. Lowepro Fastpack 250 DSLR Camera Backpack – My anonymous black backpack was not this one. Another lesson for the developing world is that you do not carry a big thick backpack clearly marked for expensive photography equipment. However, this Lowepro is a great all around backpack with specialized storage areas. So it housed my entire camera kit, basically what you see in my detail shot. And it just so happened to neatly fit into my side pannier. So I had an easy way to pull out my gear when I stopped for the night so that it was not left in my bike. Other than that it was just convenient to carry the entire kit into cafes to use accessories, etc.
    8. Rode ROVMPK VideoMic Pro Compact Shotgun Mic with a deadcat wind muff – A nice compact accessory when filming 4K video with the Sony camera to capture crystal clear audio.
    9. Sony External Flash (HVL-F32M) – This was surprisingly useful the more I got to understand photography. I still failed to use to 90% of the time since often I had to reactively grab my camera and shoot. But if you are really setting up for a good photograph anytime around dust or nightfall, a flash can be essential to light up the subject just right. Digital editing does not do justice to the RAW image. There are tricks to its use since it can blind the sensor to the background. At night I occasionally just used a small flashlight to ghost a subject to avoid a flash effect (I will hit on night photography in a separate post).
    10. Tamrac Goblin Lens Pouch – A good on-the-road solution to keeping the lens protected in a soft pouch rather than bouncing around the camera bag. I bought two, whilst I kept my third lens mounted at all times.
    11. Cables – You will have many of these. Which is why I purchased a small REI travel case to carry these, the cleaning items, dongles, and memory cards.
    12. ZEISS Lens Cleaning Wipes – One of my favorite accessory purchased. Easy to carry and essential to maintaining a clean kit.
    13. Foto&Tech IR Wireless Remote Control – A nice compact remote, but I found it unreliable at distance. So often I just set my camera timer and jumped into the scene for a photo.
    14. Sony 24-70mm F2.8 GM Zoom lens (SEL2470GM) – One of the most beautiful lenses on the market for my full frame camera. While it is sharp with great focus, there is always compromises. Some are the cost and weight, and some nits to get used to. But for pure functionality I have this mounted to my camera almost constantly.
    15. Sony Alpha a7R II Mirrorless Digital Camera – This full frame camera is now one generation behind the latest tech, but I still would not hesitate to take it on an adventure trip. It generally withstood the constant motorcycle pounding that destroys weaker electronics. The sensor did get knocked out of alignment eventually, which is a well-complained about problem (online) for this model, if you take it to some of the bumpier places in the world. It had purchased the extended warranty so I was fortunate to have a free fix. If you find a used unit at the right price which has been completely refurbished by a Sony authorized center, it would make an awesome camera to take on a long trip. But remember, the lenses are what make a photo happen. Never buy an expensive camera without being prepared to spend the extra money needed to get appropriately comparable lenses. As an aside – I also purchased an Expert Shield Screen Protector to cover the LCD screen on the back. You don’t want to skip this for an expensive camera and it is only $10.
    16. MagicFiber Microfiber Cleaning Cloths – Unbelievably essential to keeping the lenses clean. I had these shoved in almost every bag just to have them on hand when necessary.
    17. REI Travel Case – This can obviously be replaced by any generic case, but the size of this one just worked out nicely for me.
    18. DJI Spark Drone – Not quite as good as the latest Mavic drones, but it was a nice complement to my kit. Easy to launch, easy to control. I never did get to use it enough since sometimes the moment is not right. But its compact size makes it a really great adventure travel accessory.
    19. Giottos AA1910 Medium Rocket Air Blaster – An essential digital photography tool. You will find that dust quickly sneaks in to digital full frame cameras, one of the main reasons I usually just kept one zoom lens mounted on my camera rather than swapping out.
    20. D-SLR Sensor Cleaning Brush – Once again, an essential digital photography tool. The best way to gently loosen that one spec of dust on the sensor destroying the pretty photos.
    21. Hoya 82mm Polarizing Filter – A great way to reduce haze, improve color, and and sharpen photos. I keep one mounted on my lens constantly. Which means I am usually too lazy to rotate it to perfect an image – there are just way too many other things you are trying to manually control and often you only have a minute for a shot;
    22. SD Card Adapter – I have had this little piece for over a decade and it always reproves its usefulness. Even when you think you will not need some internet café in the middle of Zambia, occasionally you do.
    23. Thumb drive – just like the SD Adapter, little items like this never stop being useful.
    24. Samsung Gear 360 – This started with an awesome idea, which proved to be less awesome when I figured out that without a Samsung phone it is not so useful as a digital accessory. The iPhone was not given a good app to access the device (Samsung-Apple wars) and although PCs do have softward, I owned a Macbook which again fell into the Samsung-Apple wars. 360 photos for a time seemed to be the “it” thing to shoot. Also platforms like Instagram stopped adequately supporting them so after a while I mainly just focused on DSLR or video shots for a scene. You can only do so much in a moment.
    25. MeFoto Backpackers Tripod – I found this unit to be the ideal balance of size and functionality. It nicely lasted two years of constant use through rain, sand, and wind. There are bigger tripods and more expensive ones, but this hit the sweet spot.
    26. Digital memory cards – Throughout my trip, I only used a top line SDXC memory card - Lexar Professional 1000x SDXC UHS-II/U3. Another item that hits the sweet spot in terms of high quality, great reliability, and specs. The price does reflect that, and I was told by one camera shop that Lexar will unfortunately stop marketing the cards soon.
    27. GoPro Hero4 Silver – This GoPro edition has held up well with age, compared to some other models. The latest models are certainly superior and would be what I would want today, but I never had a huge complaint about this one which was new in 2016. My biggest grief was that it took me a long time to figure out the right video quality and mounting set-up with my own trial and error, and I have countless hours of low-to-mediocre quality video during my travels, files that I may as well delete.

    Other items I kind of wish I had:

    • Sony cover case – I considered this, but I just did not want the extra bulk, and I was not that hung up on scratching my unit on the road. It’s just a thing, and even if it is an expensive thing, why get hung up if some door jam scratches the black plastic by accident when you are carrying it on a strap.
    • Neutral Density (ND) filters – these would have been great for bright sunlight shots.
    • Handheld Gimbal – if I had the space this would have been nice. What held me back on the purchase was that I noticed any device like this slowly rattled apart in my top case so buying an expensive high quality gimbal would have been an iffy bet.
    • Sena helmet camera – Many riders use this or a similar unit to record video and audio when they ride. I hesitated. If you every watch YouTube videos from those riders, often the audio still sucks and what make them serviceable is channeling in a nice soundtrack on top. Plus I already had a GoPro and move equipment meant more batteries and memory cards.
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