Recently back from photographing the wonders of Patagonia, it seems appropriate to write about the gear I'm using. What works, what doesn't, and how come I've chosen what I have. I've approached my entire kit with the philosophy of ultralight backpacking. Every item is weighed to the ounce and has to earn its way into my kit - if I can do without it, it stays behind. Of course the whole point is to be able to make good photographs and too much compromise isn't an option. In that case I might as well leave the whole kit behind and use a 5 ounce point and shoot.
My kit needs to provide the tools generally required by an experienced hobbiest or semi-pro photographer shooting landscapes and other outdoor situations. Additionally, a traditional 35mm backpacking kit would weigh 5-7 pounds and shooting digital shouldn't add significant weight to that.
Shooting digital on an extended trip presents two challenges that were much simpler with film; Power and Storage. For this particular trip my requirements were that i had to be able to go unsupported for up to 10 days and be able to shoot up to 200 pictures per day. I'll discuss my solutions for power and storage below, along with every other piece of gear.
Without spending several grand the choices for a DSLR have been pretty much the 350D or the 20D. The 350D added many of the critical features missing from the 300D and is lighter and more compact than the 20D. I have no regrets with this choice based on current options, although the upcoming Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 sure looks attractive.
Canon EF-S 10-22mm
Effectively 16-35mm, this is the lens for landscape photography on a 1.6 body. Utilizing Canon's "L" quality glass it's a pretty sharp lens. There is some barrel distortion at 10mm and it is somewhat susceptible to flare, but both are common problems in a lens this wide. I just picked up a lens hood, which should help with the flare. It's incredibly fun to shoot with and produces some amazing results. This lens stays on my camera most of the time. Thank you Linette!
Canon EF 50mm 1.8 mk II
Fast, light, and an amazing value, the venerable 50 1.8 is an ideal second lens. Considered to have competitive sharpness with lenses costing $1000, at $75 its a steal. Focusing is slow and non USM, and the lens feels cheap (entirely made of plastic) but that makes it light weight and practically disposable if something happened to it.
Gitzo G0027 carbon fiber tripod
This is one tiny tripod. Usable height is only about 2 feet or less, but it folds down to 11 inches and weighs in under a pound. This was the first I've really put it to the test and I actually enjoyed using it. I found it to be quite adequate - sitting on the ground in the backcountry usually works just fine and if not, setting up on a boulder does the trick. Gitzo's twist-lock legs aren't popular with everyone, and I wasn't sure about them in the store. However now that I've gotten used to it, I find it to be faster than messing with levers.
Really Right Stuff BH-25 Pro ball head
with Quick Release L-Plate for Rebel XT
A lighter option can be found with the Velbon magnesium ballheads, but RRS quality and the L-Plate advantage make this system worth every penny and the few extra ounces. The L-Plate is of particular importance on such light legs.
Mountainsmith Aurora II
I had a hard time justifying over a pound of weight here. I've often simply wrapped my camera in a shirt and stashed it in my pack. However, stopping to take off a full pack and get out the camera gets old pretty fast, and soon you're passing up most shots and lugging a heavy camera for no reason. Keeping the camera around your neck/shoulder is another possibility but it tends to cause neck and shoulder pain and isn't really practical all day every day. You need somewhere to keep all the rest of this gear organized anyways, and daytrips require some way to carry stuff, so a dedicated camera bag really is the best option.
I looked at a lot of camera bags before choosing one. Most bags, like Lowepro and Crumpler are insanely heavy. It came down to several Tamrac bags, which are light, well made, and have some slick features, or the Mountainsmith. the Mountainsmith had the features I wanted (like a hipbelt), was just the right size to fit everything, and had the best space to weight ratio. The biggest weakness with this bag is weather protection. After a snowstorm the bag was soaked thru and all my gear got wet. An extra small silnylon pack cover would probably do the trick to keep out moisture.
I find that i actually just carry the bag by the handle most of the time. Even on 14 mile days it didn't bother me that much. On rare occasions it gets strapped to the top of my pack but that ads a lot of weight to my back. The other method I've found is to connect the bag to my pack at the load lifters or frame, carrying the bag on my chest. This pulls the pack forward against the back offsetting the load and is quite comfortable. I'm going to make some kind of strap system for quick attachment in this configuration. I also used the hipbelt fastened around me to keep the bag from bouncing. I'm also modifying this so I don't have a buckle digging into my back.
There are actually a number of options for power and the best one is going to depend on the length and type of trip. My requirements again were little chance of recharging for up to 10 days and the ability to shoot up to 200 pictures per day for autonomous usage of 2000 shots. One battery in the 350D lasts 600 shots. These are the options I evaluated:
- A Solar charger. There are a number of portable solar chargers available but I didn't really research them because it was immediately apparent that it would require a much longer trip to make a solar charger worthwhile. Minimum weight is going to be at least a pound, direct sunlight is required, and it's going to be a hassle in the field.
- Battery Grip with AA batteries. The grip itself weighs 8 oz and requires 6 AA batteries (6 oz). The camera gets 300 shots on 6 Alkalines. It would be interesting to know how much improvement lithium AA's would make, but those aren't readily available. Even with the assumption that batteries may be available along the way (there are small stores in Torres del Paine) this option is still heavy.
- Carry enough fully charged lithium ion batteries to last the trip. Four lithium ion batteries conservatively estimated at 500 shots = 2000 photos and weighs 6 oz. Add the battery charger with a South America outlet adapter for charging before and after the wilderness at 3 oz. My three extra batteries came from eBay. Disconcertingly, they show a drop in power on the battery indicator after only 100-150 shots, although they continue to run the camera. I didn't record how many shots I was getting on the generic batteries but it's not as many as with the Canon battery.
Fortunately the digital storage problem has been pretty much been solved. A few years ago about the only option was to lug around a notebook computer - but now memory cards come in high capacity sizes and portable storage devices (PSD's) are common. The two storage options I evaluated were:
- Carry enough memory card capacity for the whole trip. My requirements called for a minimum of 16GB of space. Compact Flash cards currently run about $100 per GB which translates to $1600 - not an option.
- A PSD is the logical choice but there are dozens to choose from. A little research on the dpreview forums narrowed that down quickly. I didn't want a screen for viewing images, which eats battery power, and there are two products that rule the market in that category. The HyperDrive HD80 (also distributed as the Compact Drive PD70X) and the Nexto CF. Both devices have a reputation for being reliable and both are way faster than competing products. I choose the HD80 because it uses AA batteries and accepts multiple card types. It also downloads up to 60 GB on one set of batteries, which meant I didn't have to figure out power for another device.
B+W 77mm Circular polarizer slim
A polarizer is a must, and for the kind of shooting I do, I leave it on my lens most of the time unless I need more light - I use it that much. A slim filter is generally required for such a wide angle lens and the B+W slim filters do not have threads on the front. I'd prefer a Hoya Pro 1 which is a slim filter with front threads. I've been unable to find proof whether a P Series holder screwed onto a Polarizer would cause vignetting but it my work stopped down. I've had no problems holding it on the front. The front threads would allow me to use the snap on lens cap which I greatly prefer over the push-on type required by this filter. One thing to note, on a super wide angle lens a polarizer will only make part of the sky dark, but I've found it to work well if you don't rotate it for maximum effect.
Singh-Ray 3-stop soft graduated ND filter
With digital a graduated ND filter isn't quite as critical a necessity as it is with film for landscape work. I get excellent results in photoshop converting the RAW file twice. However I still prefer to have a good image straight out of the camera when possible. The 3-stop soft ND is pretty versatile. The most important thing about an ND filter is that it's color neutral, which is why I chose the Galen Rowel filters (the Cokin filters are notoriously bad). However with the exception of Tiffen, all the available graduated ND filters now are made of resin and the Singh-Rays are pretty expensive for a piece of plastic. They come with a nice case but if you get a speck of grit in there, you'll scratch the crap out of your filter sliding it in and out of its case - at least that's what seems to have happened to mine. I've read good things about the Hitech filters and will be trying those next in hard and soft, as they are about 40% of the cost.
Cokin P holder, sawed off to one slot
They actually make wide angle P holders with one slot.
It's important to have some kind of backup in case your camera dies and Linette carried both her 35mm Contax and the Panasonic DMC-FX7 - A camera I highly recommend the newer version of if you're looking for a pocket digital. Fortunately I didn't have any problems with any equipment.
Total weight 6 lbs 13 oz
Here's a sneak preview of some images from our trip.