gear for travel and documentary work

Tajikistan mountains.jpg

I squatted in the thick valley grass surrounded by a few hundred yaks, getting my composition and settings dialed in.  I was looking down the broad valley, the river winding just perfectly through the frame, a few yaks in the foreground to anchor the shot while the mountains provided a strong line leading the eye off into the distant end of the valley.  I took my eye away from the viewfinder to look at the sky, trying to find the dark little cloud that was in the top left corner of my frame.  It didn’t seem to be there, so I looked back through the viewfinder and sure enough there it was.  I moved the camera slightly but the cloud stayed in the same place.  Yup, I had a dust spot on my sensor!  I rummaged through my bag only to find that of all the things I left at home, my little rocket air blaster was nowhere to be found.  What to do…?

When you are miles from home (or your studio), it is not the time to find out that you left a key piece of kit.  I have only had this happen a few times and I vividly remember each one.  Once (and only once)  I arrived on location for an engagement shoot only to find that I had left every single memory card safely on my desk at home.  Yeah… not a good day.  I had everything else I needed for the shoot, cameras, strobes, reflectors, stands…  I just forgot that one little thing.  I ended up shooting  the entire sitting with my cell phone and a silver reflector.  I was totally impressed with the images we made that day but that is a story for another post.

Regarding gear for a documentary photography situation, I thought I would use a recent trip I made to central Asia as a case study.  I was working for an NGO, documenting the lives of the Kyrgyz yak herders living in the high mountains bordered by China, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. On this trip I had to fit everything (including my clothes and personal items) in my camera bag and one small carry on.  No check on bag was possible on this trip.  Keep in mind that I knew going into this trip that 95% of my work would be photography with only minor video work.  If the job would have been heavier on video I would have chosen a few things differently.

After a bit of deliberation I was pretty happy with what I chose to take with me.  I knew that my space would be at a premium so I really pared down what I put into my bag.  Let’s walk through the gear.

F-stop bag and sony cameras

My bag of choice for this trip was my F-Stop Tilopa which is still going strong after about 8 years.  If anything it gets better looking with age.  I love this bag for hauling lots of gear to distant places.  It is a mule and is quite comfortable even when loaded. I would not choose this bag for walking around town, street photography, or days where what you really need is just a camera and a few lenses.  When you have to work out of one bag for a week plus, carrying everything you need with you, this bag is top notch.

Strapped to the side of my Tilopa was my trusty carbon fiber tripod.  I have been using my Manfrotto 055cxpro4 with a Manfrotto ball-head on top.  This is a great tripod but a bit large for some of the travel that I have been doing, so I hope to trade this out for a lighter and smaller tripod.

Inside my bag I kept to two camera bodies and 4 lenses.  My two bodies are both Sony Alphas, the a6500 and the a7r2.  I love the size of these cameras, and the quality is hard to beat.  The lenses I chose for this trip were the 20mm Sony pancake lens, awesome for a low profile walk around lens.  In the market places of central Asia I can shoot and attract very little attention with this lens; it also focuses super fast and very accurate with almost no distortion.  My second lens was the 85mm Sony G-Master, a truly amazing portrait lens - compact, tack sharp and a pleasure to use.  I also brought two Canon lenses with me, the 16-35L f2.8 mk2  (arguably one of the best super-wide lenses ever made), and one of my all time favorite lenses, the 70-200L 2.8.  I almost left the 70-200 at home but was very glad that I had this one along.  When I put it on the Sony a6500 it gives me about a 300mm lens with a 24 megapixel sensor which delivers some stunning images. With the Canon lenses I used the Metabones mk4 adapter.  

Sony a7r2 with canon 16-35mm

One of the things that I brought along on this trip was my new filter kit.  I have always wanted to start using filters in my landscape photography and recently bought a filter kit from Nisi.  In researching filter kits I went with the Nisi largely because of the design of the filter holder and the circular polarizer that is build into the holder and that sits up close to the lens.  I love this design since it is so simple and I always have the polarizer there.  Often I would use only the polarizer but there were enough times that I would add a 3 stop gradient ND in the holder as well.  It allowed me to balance out the sky a bit better.

I decided to take a speedlight with me but I don’t think I used it on this trip.  I brought this Flashpoint speedlight.  The Flashpoint is a small and affordable flash that works well combined with the R2 trigger for Sony.

The last piece of kit that I will mention here was a life saver.  I was a bit worried about running out of power while out shooting for days on end without the chance to recharge my batteries.  I did have a total of five batteries for the two cameras but I was still not sure, so I brought a mid sized battery pack from Goal Zero.  I had the Venture 30 with the solar panel.  This thing was great! I kept it charged up either from the cigarette lighter in the car while we drove or from the solar panel I kept on the dash board.  Did I mention that these Sonys also allow the battery to be charged while in the camera via the micro USB port?  Super handy!  After a week on the road I never ran out of power for the cameras. I guess I did all that worrying for nothing…

Although this was my basic kit for this particular trip, every trip and every job is a bit different. Don’t take someone’s gear list and just copy it straight out.  Your needs will vary just as your environment does, so do your research.  While on that next adventure, make sure you take what you need, but you don’t take so much that it needlessly encumbers you to the point that you can’t enjoy the moments along the way.

Safe travels...