Photo Gear
 
How all the beautiful pictures? To be honest, we went a bit crazy on the camera gear. Read below to find out what we brought, what we found indispensable and what we might leave behind next time.


OK, when it comes to photo gear, I'm kind of like the stereotypical woman with shoes... a closet full is just about the right amount. Going 'round the world for a year poses some big trade-offs in selecting gear. I want zooms to pull in animals and people on the streets, I want wide angles for landscapes, I want fixed length primes for super crisp shots, I want fast lenses for night shooting and I want a nice stable tripod to make sure it's all nice and steady. Of course I want to take everything I own and this is where I would deserve my own “Mr. Just-in-case” nickname. Obviously I can't carry it all, especially with new airport security rules around the world. I’ve taken both still pictures and video on trips, and for me, I never seem to do anything with the video I shoot. So the video camera was first on the chopping block.

SLR or compact camera?
For me, because of the safaris and amazing landscapes we're seeing, there's no question that the SLR is a must. There are some amazing compact digital cameras out there today but for me, unless you're shooting close to medium range shots, the lenses aren't crisp enough, don't zoom enough and aren't fast enough.

SLR Body - Canon 5D: I switched to digital years ago and haven't looked back. Every year, equipment, software and storage improve at an alarming rate. I couldn't imagine shooting, storing and developing using film today. My only  big complaint has been digital cameras’ 1.6x crop factor. If you don’t know what this, be thankful and don’t research what I’m talking about. For me, I want full frame photos in digital but am not willing to drop $6k to buy a pro body. Luckily for me  Canon released their 5D body a few years ago. As soon as we decided on this trip, I picked one up and have simply loved it. It’s not much bigger or heavier than the 40/50D models but when I look through the viewfinder it looks as if somebody turned on the lights. The shots are amazing and they're beautifully full-frame. The only complaint I have is that it's a dust magnet. Changing lenses means dust gets on the sensor and you end up seeing little specks in your photos. I have a vacuum kit to clean it but it’s too big to carry on the road. So I’m constantly in Lightroom or Photoshop working the clone tool cleaning up dust spots. I love the 5D but can’t wait until Canon releases a version with sensor cleaning technology.

Backup Body - Rebel XTi: A few years ago I took an Africa trip and while there, my digital body broke down. At the time, I still shot primarily film so it was no big deal but it opened my eyes to the importance of a backup body. So just before this trip, we picked up Canon’s new Rebel XTi (400D) as a backup. It is much smaller and lighter (and cheaper) than the 20/30/40D line so it’s perfect as a second body and it fits all my current Canon lenses. The camera also has a cleaning mode where the camera shakes the dust off the sensor’s high pass filter. I’m sold on this technology. Susan generally shoots with the XTi while I shoot with the 5D and while her shots aren’t as wide as mine due to the XTi’s 1.6x crop issue, her pictures are spotless. The camera focuses very fast, produces excellent shots and is the perfect weight for Susan to carry around all day. If you have a limited budget, buy this body and spend your money on Canon's amazing L-series lenses.


For lenses, I obviously want the whole range. In the end, here’s what ended up in the kit in order of importance.


Everyday Lens - Canon 24-105 f/4 L: This is a very versatile lens and I’ve owned it for several years. The image stabilization works wonderfully and, despite hearing many concerns about reliability, I’ve had zero issues with it. The lens has been around the world several times by now, has bounced over countless potholed roads, been on beaches, over mountains and across the sea. It’s still going strong as ever. This was my main lens until I put it on my 5D. With the 5D, I have not been as happy with this lens. With the full frame camera, I get a lot of vignetting (dark corners) with this lens. It’s a bit like an old friend letting you down. Luckily, Susan’s XTi matches beautifully with this lens. There’s no vignetting with the XTi and this is now her favorite lens given its versatility. If we had room for just one lens in the kit, this would be the one simply because of it’s range.

Zoom Lens - Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L: Wildlife pictures are much better when they’re up close and personal. Oh what I’d give for a 300mm f/2 prime lens but the price is steep and the weight is unbearable given I’d have to lug the thing for a year. The 100-400 is a great lens given its size and weight. I get some great shots with it but do notice a lack of crispness in some images. The biggest reason for this is the 5.6 f/stop limitation at 400mm. This nearly always requires a tripod or some other very good camera stabilization. I solved this problem with a Kinesis photo bean-bag (described below). Nearly all the close up animal shots you see in our blog come from this lens. You just can't get these kinds of shots unless you're willing to fork out some money and haul the weight.

Wide Angle - Canon 17-40 f/4 L: This one I bought just before leaving. I tried out Canon’s 16-35 f/2.8 L and while the extra speed was great, I couldn’t see paying 2x the price so I bought the 17-40L. I have loved this lens from the start. On my full frame 5D with a low profile circular polarizing filter, I’ve seen very little vignetting on the lens which was a pleasant surprise compared with the 24-105 f/4 L. I do notice a little distortion when using the lens at 17mm and f/4 but knowing this is there, I can compensate by zooming a bit or stopping down slightly. The pictures are crisp throughout focal lengths and combined with my 5D. I get beautiful, wide landscapes and the color is spectacular. I love this lens and it’s now the one that is usually on the 5D. 

Portrait / Low Light - 50 f/1.4: Being an L series fan, I looked long and hard at Canon’s 50mm f/1.2L model but I couldn’t see paying 3x the price nor could I justify carrying 2x the weight for the difference. The 50 f/1.4 is a great solution for night time shooting or running around city streets shooting discretely. The images are crisp and the bokah (out of focus transition) is stunning when shooting down in the 1.4 to 2.8 f-stop range. And the lens is so small, I don’t even notice any extra weight. It’s almost like getting a free lens in the kit. In this shot, we were shopping in a local market so we didn't want to haul around much gear, one body and this tiny lens and as long as there's even a bit of light, we get great results. At around f/2, the depth of field produced is very short and your eye gets pulled straight to the center of focus.

Portrait - 135 f/2 L: I cannot say enough about this lens. My favorite portrait images almost invariably come from this lens. At f/2, it’s very fast and gets beautiful results even in low light situations. The optics on this lens are amazing with stunning clarity and sharpness at the focus point. The only drawback with this lens is the foot zoom (you know, walk forward or backward). But if I have  a bit of time with my subject, this lens is my favorite. The 135mm length also means you don't have to be right in the face of your subject to get good detail. And the prime lens means there are fewer moving parts so images are tack sharp. The lens is amazing but because of its limited versatility, it was last on my list of lenses to bring and would be the first I'd leave behind when weight became an issue.

After 12 months on the road, we've used every lens in the kit but if I were to do it over again, I'd probably leave the 50mm and 135mm primes at home. They're great lenses but we haven't used them nearly as much as the others.

Carrying it All: OK, So I went way overboard on the photo gear. Obviously, the biggest challenge is carrying it all along with my luggage. Remember, our rule was "you can bring whatever you like as long as you can carry it all. In Nepal, we do a 140 mile trek with a pass over 18,000 feet altitude. Whatever we’re carrying has to feel like it’s not even there. I’ve carried several different camera backpack systems and while my favorite are LowePro packs, lots of camera gear in any backpack can get uncomfortable very quickly. And with a pack, I always have to trade off camera gear for food and clothes as it's all got to fit.

I’d seen a few belt systems and figured I’d try one or two out as an alternative to my pack. These systems have a waist belt with separate bags for each item. With this type of system it’s easy to pick and choose the gear you’ll bring for a particular day trip and leave the rest behind locked in a suitcase.  LowePro has a belt system but the bags slide on and off the belt causing two drawbacks. First, to swap your kit you pretty much have to pull everything off. Second, because the bags slide on the belt, they have a tendency to shift around as you walk. OK for a short outing but not great for a long trek. Then I found the Kinesis belt system. Their individual bags clip onto the belt at specific points so they’re secure yet easily removable. They’re locked in place and don’t move around as you walk or try to access the contents. I’ve now used this system for 12 months, trekked hundreds of miles and have taken thousands of shots. I can’t imagine how to improve upon the system. Everything is right on my hips so I can pull out any gear, even with a backpack on. The belt hugs the waist so the camera weight is carried on your hips and is nearly unnoticeable. In fact, on the summit day on Annapurna, I climbed 500m before realizing I'd left my camera belt back at our lunch stop!

The system is also surprisingly easy to deal with in the rain. For light water, the bags are resistant enough and the zippers are designed such that water cannot easily penetrate them. For harder rain, I simply purchased a few 50 cent shower caps that fit right over each bag. We hiked the rainy Milford Track in NZ, kayaked Abel Tasman and trudged over Annapurna and I have yet to get anything wet (touch wood).

Tripod???  The last bit of Kinesis kit I picked up was their photo bean bag. One year and big treks were too much for a tripod so the bean bag seemed the best alternative. Kinesis’ bag has an easy access zipper to empty and fill the bag. We’d get into a new country and I’d pick up a few bags of beans from the local grocery and was set. The bag has rubberized panels on one side so it won’t slide off something slick like a car’s hood. The bag also has straps across both sides to allow for easy and stable placement over a half opened car window... perfect for our Africa safari!

After a year, I have been very happy with my Kinesis system and recommend it to anyone carrying gear over long distances. The bags are discrete so they’re not screaming “Expensive Camera Gear!” to everyone on the street, the individual bags pack up nicely into a suitcase or fabric carry bag and in action, the belt is so comfortable I barely notice it's there. I simply love it!