Reprinted from Escape Magazine
By Nevada Wier
It's three am in an airport. I'm on my way to Dubai, Jordan and Lebanon on assignment for ESCAPE. One of my checked bags is missing and a delayed flight has run amok with my connections.
Since I'll be photographing in cities, on hikes and camel safaris -- rain and shine, hot and cold, I'm prepared for everything - including this missed connection and the dreaded possibility that my bag won't show up for the job. I'm not a happy traveler right now, but it's a good time to discuss packing strategies no photographer should leave home without.
The concept of traveling light is wistful thinking for serious photographers. It may be easier than ever to travel anywhere in the world, but nothing will ever be easy about shouldering pounds of high-tech equipment and film for the ride. Plus, new luggage regulations force us to be extra careful about how we pack our equipment. If my lost duffel does not make it, it will be a major hassle, but not a disaster. I packed my two carry-ons very deliberately, and with bag loss in mind.
One carry-on is my workhorse - a LowePro Magnum AW (all weather) shoulder camera bag with a detachable waist strap. It is jammed with all my crucial camera gear, including two Canon EOS1N bodies, 17-25mm f/2.8, 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS (Image Stabilization), 70-200mm f/2.8, 75-300 IS f/4-5.6, 100mm f/2.8 Macro, 540EZ flash, battery pack, flash bounce accessories and sync cords, two polarizers (for different lenses), two-and-three stop graduated density filters, model releases and cleaning accessories.
My second carryon, an Eagle Creek Cargo Switchback Expandable, has all my film - 120 rolls of Kodak E100SW, ten rolls of Agfa Scala (a B&W transparency film) and ten rolls of Kodak E200 color infrared film. I take a lot of film. I never want to think even for a second of running out. I estimate the minimum I'll need - then I double that. For compactness, I remove the rolls from their plastic containers and triple Zip-lock bag them - except for the very light-sensitive infrared film, which must be left in its original container. There's also room for my laptop computer, a 300mm f/4 IS lens, 1.4x tele-extender, spare contact lens, an engaging book, a jacket and a few other essentials.
My carry-ons are heavy, but regulation size (no more than 22x9x14). I choose airlines that allow two cabin bags - although this is becoming rarer. In the event that an airline suddenly insists on checking one of my carry-ons (British Airways is prone to this), I am prepared. I zip off the detachable daypack on the Eagle Creek Switchback, whisk in my film, book and whatever - and toss it on my back. I take out my laptop, too, and then hand the airline the offending roller bag. Don't try to fight airline regulations. But hold onto all your essentials.
With this gear, I can step off the plane and start photographing most situations. I have the most important equipment with me - the backup is all in the checked luggage.
A recent client on one of my photo tours learned this the hard way when we landed in Burma. He hand carried his camera and tripod but had packed his film and essential medication in his checked luggage - a mistake he'll never make again. Luckily, I had enough film for both of us. Since there isn't much a six-foot man can buy in Burma except socks and a shirt, my client made do with what he still had - mainly flexibility, perspective and a brilliant sense of humor. After all, it was only a photo tour; fashion wasn't important, but he had his camera equipment and that was all that mattered.
My checked luggage for this trip consists of two large Eagle Creek Expedition Duffels. I find duffels are the best bags for traveling - light, adjustable and easy to hoist on my back. I can fit a Pelican 1550 case (18 1/2L x 15 1/4W x 6 7/8D) inside them for extra photographic or fragile gear, packing clothes, shoes, and a couple of other camera bags around the cases for extra padding. No one would guess that there is expensive photographic gear in those beat-up duffels.
I use different camera bags for specialized purposes. On long, strenuous treks, the LowePro Orion AW fanny pack is my favorite - equipped with a waterproof cover that protects the bag from rain and dust storms. I've customized it to hold one camera body, an EZ450 flash, 17-25MM, 28-105mm IS, 70-300MM IS, and film. In the flat pocket on the top of the bag I carry model releases, a compass and flash bounces. In the outside pocket I carry filters, cable releases and flash cords. The two other small pockets hold batteries, a cleaning brush and cloth. I also wear a Domke Photo Vest with my Orion AW, which is great for carrying film, filters and small lenses. In the attachable Orion DayPack I carry water, outdoor gear, sometimes a longer lens, and a small tripod.
Although I think photo backpacks are great for landscape photographers, they aren't my first choice. I shoot more photo-journalistically; I need to be able to get to my camera and lenses quickly in order to catch fleeting moments. I usually trek with a camera around my neck and a lens or two in my vest. If necessary, I can "quick-draw" release the Orion's buckles, to swing the fanny pack around in front of me within seconds.
For times when I really want to go light, I take one camera (which has been recently cleaned and checked professionally), a 17-35mm f/2.8, the 70-300mm IS lens, my EX540 flash and a microfiber cleaning cloth. I carry the extra lens and flash in a LowePro Sideline Shooter that fits compactly against my waist. If I want more protection for the camera around my neck, I carry it in a Topload Zoom with a chest harness to keep it snug against my chest. This is a great combo for a short trek, run, horseback ride or ski trail.
Be thorough, but tailor your gear sensibly to your own needs. Most people (I hope) do not travel with three camera bodies, two flashes, seven lenses, two tripods and a plethora of filters, batteries and cans of Dust-Off as I do. Traveling light means compromising on gear, but when your camera bag is too heavy, your enthusiasm for photography wanes. Choose your camera bag carefully. There's no shortage of them on the market, and some work better for different body types and gear.
Camera and lens decisions run the gamut as well - and will require some concessions. If you want a f/2.8 lens, then expect it to be heavier and more expensive. Conversely, a lighter and more affordable lens is usually slower (f/4 to f/8) or sometimes not quite as sharp. Most photographers will be happiest with the lightest lens and widest zoom range within a given price category. Tamron makes a good 28-200mm f/3.8-5.6 lens. It isn't as sharp as my Canon f/2.8 lenses, but what a great range for travel.
In the checked duffel, which is currently in unknown air space, I have cold-weather clothes, an umbrella, a Gitzo Mountaineer carbon fiber tripod with a Bogen #3265 Grip Action Ball Head and a Pelican case packed with a 400mm lens, assorted filters, a bag of accessories (jewel screwdrivers, spare lens caps and batteries), a second flash, a Canon Sureshot point-and-shoot for when I really want to go lightweight and a third Canon camera body.
I'm praying this bags turns up, but if it doesn't, I'll still be in business. I've got three of the four bags I started out with - not a bad average.
Note:This article is not intended to be an advertisement for these companies. I love their equipment, gear and film but feel no obligation to peddle their names. By no means do I feel that they are perfect for everyone. Still, people are always asking me what I take on assignments - so now you know. For more information on my photo equipment, see Photo Stuff (By the way, my errant duffel was found and somehow arrived on the carousel in Dubai.)
Nevada Wier is author of Adventure Travel Photography.
© 1999 Nevada Wier and Escape Magazine