Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

February 2009

Let’s start with a sure and certain premise, and try to not let it be a deal-breaker. You will always want some piece of your photo gear that you decided not to bring along, and if you are as obsessive as I’m sure that a lot of you are, this will nag at you, as in: “That would have been a lifetime shot if I’d only had my…………….” You know what I mean.

But remember that everything has a degree of compromise, no matter how much time, effort, and money you spend on it. Buy a GT3 if it’s right for you, but it won’t be as fast as a GT3RS on the one side or as comfortable as a “plain” 911 on the other.

Travel with cameras is a lot simpler than it was a few years ago; I used to get into a cold sweat thinking about getting bricks of film through security checkpoints. There were workarounds, like the never-used roll of ISO 3200 film in the bag with the stuff I really used, which was a decoy to explain to security that even a flashlight beam—let alone their x-ray--might ruin my career; this actually worked. There was the time I had unexposed film developed in a faraway city to make sure the x-ray hadn’t fogged it. And the time, in another country, when I realized that I didn’t want to argue any more with the man in the uniform who had just moved his hand to his 9mm Browning.

The good news is that neither x-ray nor the electronic screen you walk through will faze either your digital cameras or your memory cards. Officially, there is a limit to the lithium battery power you can carry on, but it’s generous enough that I’ve never had a problem with it. The real problem now is how much weight and bulk you and the airlines are willing to put up with.

Here’s where the compromise comes in. I’ve seen a guy at Sebring on the hairpin with a 4 X 5 Speed Graphic, and one of my Japanese colleagues once showed up in Germany with a 300mm f2.8 for a new car introduction. Both of those people probably got something I didn’t get; there’s a time and a place for doing a job with unusual tools, but that’s for another column. We’re talking about getting the job done—well—without any extra burden or the loss of speed, which can come from having so many tools available that the wrong one is in hand when the time comes. And since fatigue and loss of handling speed are two common causes for missing the shot, this is pretty important.

Consider making a checklist of what you will need for a given project. Basics first: camera body, at least two batteries, and memory cards (don’t skimp here; they’re small, light, and relatively cheap, and you will need more than you think). What lens selection? Do you need several, or can your purposes be served by a utility-outfielder type zoom?

What works for me on the low end of things is to have two kits, a light and an ultra-light.

The light kit lives in an over the shoulder bag that can expand to carry a laptop and about as much weight as I want to deal with these days. It will swallow a small digital body with a body cap on the side, a large body with a wide-range zoom 18-200 mounted and facing lens down in the bag so that it is easily reachable without having to put anything down, a wide angle zoom, and a strobe. A wide to medium wide zoom sits on the other side of the bag, and a tiny fisheye lives in a space under the big camera. Add a remote cord for the strobe, an electronic shutter release for the big camera, the requisite batteries and cards, a polarizer or two, and that’s pretty much it.

The ultralight is just the little digital body and the 18-200, the strobe, and the fisheye, in a very small bag. You could even leave off the last two items, but they add a lot of versatility and fit into the sides of the little bag well.

A small lightweight tripod or a monopod may go into my regular rollaboard suitcase with wheels as well as the battery chargers, and the camera bag can sit on top. Sweet.

Be guided by what you anticipate shooting during your trip, whether or not you’ll be on an airplane, what you might need (like the second camera body) in case of unanticipated problems and what you can comfortably carry when you’re working. And at the end of each shoot, think about what you didn’t use; there just may be some way to lighten your load in the future.

What’s right for me won’t necessarily be right for you, but you might want to use this template to think about your own needs. Think about it, let me hear from you with any questions of comments, and until next time, keep shooting and let me hear from you at:

Photo by Marv Ross