Filmmaker & Photographer David Wright Shows You How to Prep For a Photo Expedition:
As an expedition photographer and filmmaker, you often give up the hope to maintain personal hygiene for weeks at a time. This has certainly been the case on many Arctic trips I have done, where the only water available was for drinking and cooking. I have gone for weeks at a time without a thorough wash. I have one memory where the team eventually found some running water coming off a glacier. It was so cold that when I tried to wash my hair it froze on my head. That was the ultimate ice bucket challenge!
You can go for days without taking a shower, but you cannot skimp on the care and cleanliness of your camera gear—in this article, we will look at key things to consider when traveling with DSLR camera gear. Lenses and camera bodies need to be kept clean, dry, out of extremes in temperature and safe from anything that may cause physical damage or that may prevent you from shooting your best work.
I was lucky enough to find my way into the filmmaking and photography business straight out of college. As a result, I have been traveling the world for over 20 years, with assignments that may take me away from home for more than six months out of the year. In just the last 12 months I have shot in the Antarctic, Arctic Russia, Australia and have sailed down the entire East Coast of South America. Travel such as this can be demanding on both the equipment and the shooter. Just getting to a location seems to be even more challenging as travel rules and regulations continue to tighten. If I am setting out—whether it’s a simple family holiday or an extended assignment into the wilds on behalf of a client—planning for the safety and security of my gear starts way before I board the plane.
Why Travel Light?
It’s rare that I depart with just a single bag of gear. Most of the time I travel with a minimum of six bags, hard cases most of the time, which get secured using TSA-friendly locks. I also double up, using nylon cable ties to ensure that cases do not pop open in transit. The double lock-up also helps deter theft. I place an ID label to the outside of, as well as inside, of each case. And for added protection, even though I use the padded dividers offered by the case manufacturer, I still place delicate items inside a padded soft bag before placing it inside the case.
The stress of moving piles of cases in and out of airports, dealing with security and excess baggage charges only seems to increase. The chance of delayed or lost baggage also seems to be gaining. For that reason I always try to carry a basic expedition camera kit with me onto the plane. However, with smaller commuter jets, I am sometimes forced to gate check the case. It’s a nervous moment when I hand over my camera gear. To limit the risk of gear being damaged or lost, I will not fly with soft cases; I mainly rely on a Pelican 1510. That model case fits in most overhead luggage lockers, has wheels and will withstand almost any trauma. I use a tan colored case as black can get overheated in the sun.
Airline rules determine how much space I get for gear. Usually limited to just a single carry-on, here is what I include in my basic expedition kit:
- Nikon D810 body
- Nikon D610 body as a back-up
- AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens
- AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED lens
- Filters, including UV, polarizer and neutral density (ND) for all lenses
- Two wall chargers and spare batteries
- Spare SD cards to compliment the ones loaded in the cameras (I tend to use 32GB cards, class 10)
- Bean bag in lieu of tripod
- Pair of webbing straps to attach to hard case (for backpack conversion)
- A portable external hard drive for backing up data. I place a second drive in my computer bag—the other item I carry on the plane
- Silica gel packs. I use reusable packs that can be dried with heat and are available through most big camera stores
Then come the other items that can be lifesavers in the field:
- Media identification & Carnet if needed.
- Lens cloth, cleaning fluid and brush.
- A small plug adapter so I can charge multiple batteries at the same time if power outlets are limited.
- Zip-top plastic bags to use as waterproof covers and keep gear dry when shooting in the rain. I also bring several elastic bands to secure the bags onto the camera.
- Nylon cable ties—invaluable for securing gear when in precarious places, but also used for locking closed all my cases while in transit.
- A small flashlight/torch, preferably with a red filter option.
- Remote control cable/cable release to trigger cameras for long exposures.
What to Wear
Since I have a nature photography background, I favor natural fibers or at least soft clothing. This type of material usually makes much less noise than many manmade cloths. That benefit comes in handy when shooting video footage with a DSLR. The last thing you need is the rustling of a waterproof jacket when you are trying to capture good audio along with the video footage. I try to minimize my overall number of items, so I wear multi-functional clothing. I take a sleeveless multiple-pocket jacket (good for passports, telephone, etc.). This garment is also great for porting camera accessories once I’m in the field.
I also bring sunglasses that have a short neck cord. I can slip these off at a moment’s notice, thereby allowing me to quickly start shooting. A hat to protect from the sun is great too. Baseball caps are popular, but I avoid them. I find the peak gets in the way; a soft brim is more suitable.
Gate Check: Preparing for the Bag Snatchers
Once I step out of my front door I always hope for the best, but plan for the worst-case scenario. Should an attendant ask me to gate check my bag I am ready. To be on the safe side, I pack everything to withstand the bumps and bangs inevitable with airline travel.
Too many times recently my checked bags have been delayed en route. On a recent trip to the Kimberley region of Australia I went to collect my bags in Sydney to clear customs, then check onto a domestic flight to Darwin. Unfortunately my checked bags had not made it to Sydney. The gear had followed me from the East Coast of the U.S. to Chicago and then San Francisco, but the airline mistakenly sent the gear on to London. I arrived safely at Darwin and was scheduled to set out by ship the next day. Imagine my relief that at least I had my carry-on camera kit.
By a further quirk of fate, the Darwin airport where I was staying was forced to close due to volcanic ash from a nearby eruption in Indonesia. Luckily for me, my departure from that Darwin port was also delayed; by three days. During that time my luggage finally caught up to me—the camera cases arriving a mere two hours before my ship sailed for a month at sea. The airline baggage tags had somehow been ripped off, but my contact details on the cases allowed the airline to finally reconnect my possessions with me.
I travel continually and often count a minimum of six checked bags (the record is 30). I make it a point to take a quick photograph of all travel cases and bags before I leave home. Since each trip means a different selection of bags, it’s sometimes hard to remember which, and how many, I brought along. The photos provide a record of the number of items and what each looks like. The photos also provide visuals to show airline staff should a bag ever get lost.
Depending on how much other equipment I may be taking, especially for television documentary projects, I may also register gear with U.S. customs or carry a customs document known as a Carnet. As a general rule, if you only take one carry on case of equipment you probably won’t need to have a Carnet and can travel with a tourist designation. For me, approaching a customs agent with two luggage carts loaded with gear makes this a little hard to explain.
The cases I use are well travelled and look beaten up, but that is a good thing. For one, it means they attract less attention from over-zealous foreign customs agents, as well as potential thieves. I also choose cases that, when fully packed, come right to the maximum weight in baggage allowance. This way, when charged per piece of excess baggage, I have as few as possible since each piece is maxed-out in weight.
When it comes to bag count and weight, one of the problems I have run into when using rental gear on a trip is that each piece often comes in its own case. At airline baggage check-on you can expect to pay for each case—even if each only weighs a fraction of the per bag allowance. I suggest either repacking and consolidating rental gear into fewer cases, or throwing smaller cases into one large duffle. Also, know that some airlines still offer a media rate for excess bags. Check to see if you qualify. This may save you thousands of dollars. Be sure to carry proof of identity to prove that you’re a working professional.
Hitting the Ground Running
Although it may seem obvious, before I leave home I also take a few other preparations that will save time later/allow me to shoot the moment I arrive. I make sure my camera, lenses and filters are clean and that all batteries have been charged. I also start each trip with empty and reformatted memory cards. I prep my lenses with a strange piece of tape on the focus rings; the tape always seems to attract the attention of bemused colleagues. The tape marks the infinity point which, especially on zoom lenses, comes in handy when taking night shots. Having already marked the infinity point with the tape, I can quickly focus to a sharp point every time.
Another aid to have when on the road is an LED flashlight/torch. The LED is a great option as it’s small, powerful and lasts a long time. My LED has an option for bright white light. I use the bright light when navigating down a dark path, then can switch it to dim red light once I start shooting (red allows the eyes to more quickly adjust to the darkness). Red also assists me in framing-up shots more easily, plus it offers enough light to check camera settings.
I also pack the filters I use the most. The UV filters generally travel on the lens, and I place polarizers and neutral density filters in the case. Nikon is great about standardizing filter sizes, so a 77mm filter fits all lenses I most often use. I will carry other diameters for times when I know they will be needed. I like step-up rings (from 72mm to 77mm). This option allows the filters to be interchangeable for every lens in my case.
Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Snow
I often shoot in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet—challenged by cold, rain or dust—so reliable gear is essential since the remoteness of places I visit also means it’s not easy to replace anything once on location. These days I rely on the D810 as my primary camera, plus NIKKOR lenses. Although I tend to treat my gear as carefully as possible, it’s good to know that the weather sealing allows the camera to work anywhere, from a rainforest to the Arctic.
Despite Nikon’s safeguards, one thing that can stop you from shooting is condensation. Even the best made cameras cannot withstand dramatic temperature changes that fog up lenses or play tricks on electronics. Most trouble seems to happen in situations when going from a cold environment to a hot environment. Two examples are when returning from a wintery day to a warm cabin, or when heading outside into tropical heat from an air-conditioned room or car.
Plan ahead if you need to start shooting at a moment’s notice. Keep your cameras in a location where they won’t have to go through the extremes in temperature change. Or if you are returning to a warm place, leave your gear in its case for a while and allow it to gradually acclimatize.
Here’s a final thought about expedition shooting and minimizing the amount of gear you need to carry into the field: the D810, with its high resolution and full sized sensor, allows me to crop an image and still have a photograph of equal resolution to most other high-end cameras. This means that when space is limited I don’t need additional lenses, for example a 500mm lens, to get that extra reach. The 300mm will do the trick and I can crop to a close-up.
Enjoy your next expedition and I hope to see you out in the wilds.
Tips & Tricks
Here are a few tips & tricks to help make your next trip smoother:
- Pack both a main DSLR body and a spare if you can. Bad things can happen on location and you want to be able to keep shooting if a body is lost or damaged. I now use the D810 and D610.
- Pack spare batteries and memory cards so you can shoot all day without charging or downloading.
- Take lenses to cover all your needs. I prefer:
- A wide angle for landscapes, 17-35mm (AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED)
- Short telephoto for portraits, 85mm (AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G)
- A long lens for action/wildlife, 28-300mm (AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR)
- Travel light; keep key items of your kit in one case that can serve as a carry-on when flying. If you are flying, make sure this case can be gate checked and that the gear will be safe.
- Be prepared for inclement weather for both you and your gear. Take a camera cover or high quality plastic bags to keep your gear dry, plus dry clothing for yourself.
- If shooting in hot or dry places, don’t let the gear get too hot in a locked car and always guard yourself from too much sun or dehydration. The best camera in the world is no good unless you are also in good shape.
- Once at your location, a durable camera pack will go a long way. A waterproof backpack will ensure that gear stays safe out in the wilds.