Packing Light for Central America

I am headed to the Arenal volcano area of Costa Rica, for a shoot at an ecological institute and for some fun with the family. I have been before, and am looking forward to dodging sticks thrown at us by the howler monkeys.

It is easy to pack when going on a trip just for fun -- a good point-and-shoot and maybe a slaved speedlight. Ditto packing for a straight shooting trip -- bring everything you think you might need.

But this trip is a hybrid of sorts, so I tried to get as much versatility as possible into a single small bag and shoulder sling. For my one-bag eco shoot I'll have five light sources, a stand/umbrella kit, a boom, and all of the light modifiers and grip gear I think I'll need -- plus backups on the critical items.

So, how much crap can you fit into a small bag? . . .

My Limit: One Domke F2 Bag

The Domke F2, seen above, is the standard news photographer bag. I have five of them, most of which are threadbare from many years of hard use. They are not huge, but will swallow up a decent amount of gear. My goal was to get everything into one Domke bag with the standard, 4-square divider -- except the stand kit which will go over the other shoulder. That was a bit of a challenge, as the gear would also include a laptop and storage for photos.

I'm no Chase Jarvis (holy crap!) so the only pack donkey I have to consider is myself. As always, the idea is not choosing what to bring but rather choosing what to leave at home.

So, here it is, unpacked. You can see a bigger version here.

Starting with the body and glass, I am bringing one D300 body (bottom left) which gets me 12 megapixels in a small package. Ditto the glass -- one lens. On the D300, a 24-70 gets me from moderately wide to portrait length. And the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 is scary sharp and far and away my favorite lens.

As a backup for the body and glass, I'll have a Canon G9 (bottom center). Not ideal, but it is only a backup. It also serves as an (extreme) macro and video in a pinch if I need it plus a voice recorder. The SC-17 TTL cord (upper left) can tie the G9 into a multi-light, off-camera setup very easily. If needed, it'll give me ultra high-speed synch, too.

At bottom left are three SB-800's, one of which is always used as a key light and keeps a 1/4 CTO warming gel permanently attached. You'll remember I said five lights -- that's three speedlights, the pop-up on the D300 (which make a great on-axis fill in a pinch) and whatever ambient is available for my photo. Always consider the ambient as a additional light source.

The last major item is a netbook -- a neat little Acer Aspire One which I picked up for $325 on Amazon. It has a (tiny) solid state hard drive, runs a very stable Linux, and has proven to be quite reliable.

I won't be using this for image processing. It is just for email, website upkeep and Skyping with the house sitter, etc. Speaking of that, I will only have limited net access on the road, so please hold off on all but the absolute most urgent messages until I return. I hope to moderate comments at least once a day, but we'll see how the net access goes.

Next to the netbook is a small 250GB hard drive, a card reader and about 40Gb worth of compact flash cards. I will use the netbook to move the complete shoots onto the portable HD, and keep a second copy of only the loose edit of the best stuff on the cards, erasing all of the crap as I go after offloading to the HD. There is no better way to conserve space than to erase crap as you go.

This gives me one copy of everything -- utter crap and loose edits -- and two copies of anything that has any potential at all. And the second copy of the edits (on the CF cards) is more stable than a second HD.

Starting at left and working right are various power and connector cords, and a set of earbuds for my iPhone and Skyping. My backup for net access is the iPhone, but let's hope it doesn't come to that. Hard to work down a pile of emails quickly with an iPhone. On the two AC cords (netbook and D300 charger) I used Honl speed straps as cable ties, getting me a little double duty there, too.

In the center up top is a Honl shorty and two spaghetti snoots. Dead center are Pocketwizards -- just two, as I can sync the other SB's with their built-in slaves.

Next door is a charger (and extra batt) for the G9, and a small barn door for the SB's. The G9 will take up zero space, as Susan will be carrying that as her camera. (Heh.) Tucked next to the PWs is a dual-point Sharpie, with 2 feet of gaffer's tape wrapped around it. I have no idea what I will use this for at this point, but experience tells me I will almost certainly use it.

The (strapped) stand kit includes a single shoot-thru umbrella, and is held together by two ball bungees, which I am sure will find several more uses during the trip. The stand will work on it's own, but I also expect to use it as a voice-activated boom. The whole thing is light, so all I need is a scrounged helper to save the weight and space of a real boom.

At top right are two more light mods -- a Ray Flash (because it is the smallest of the ring flash adapters) and a LumiQuest SB-III. Having second thoughts on the ring -- might leave that here. Between the snoots, umbrella and the SB-III, I can get a variety of looks while taking up very little space.

Last but not least are two Justin Clamps, which don't pack so well. But they are very useful, so hard not to include. I saved the space in the bag by clamping them onto the strap on the outside.

Advice From a Real Travel Photographer

... which would not be me.

I love to travel and shoot, but Bob Krist is the real deal. His first travel assignment for National Geographic was documenting the separation of Pangea into the five continents that we all recognize today.

Bob has shot travel professionally for the last 30 years, and wrote the book(s) on the subject. His latest is Travel Photography: Documenting the World's People & Places. If it were a college course would best be described as a Survey of Travel Photography.

It is a cover-the-bases book which takes a systematic look at travel photography, from what gear to pack to shooting advice to digital asset management on the road. It is aimed at amateurs, and not so technical when it comes to photographic technique. There is a chapter on light, and some material on off-camera flash, but its strength is that it allows you to be sure you are considering everything.

We sometimes bore down so far into our specific areas of interest that we miss the forest for the trees. The thrust of this book is that it will keep you from completely screwing up the photos from a big trip because of some dumb little thing you would fail to consider.

If you travel a lot and want a look into a long-time pro's approach to travel shooting, it is well worth a read. But I also have been using it as the answer to friends and family members who have asked me for photo advice before a big trip. Those are exactly the guys who are likely to miss something critical (like on-the-road image backups, for example) and Bob covers all of the bases.

If you are already a digital photography stud you might find this book a little basic. For those folks, I would steer them to an earlier book, Spirit of Place, which can be hard to find now. But even then, if you have a friend who is heading out on a big trip I can't think of a nicer thing to do for them than to point them to Bob.


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Anonymous Ed Z said...

Sounds great - I actually just got back from Costa Rica a few weeks ago - stayed in Arenal for a few days. Unfortunately it was rainy and cloudy most of the time, so we drove west to the pacific coast where the weather was *much* better (if you get the chance to check out Samarra on the Nicoya Penninsula it is an amazing little town with some incredible beaches.)

Definitely check out the Tabacon hot springs when you are in Arenal, they are a great way to unwind after a long day of shooting!

January 15, 2009 4:41 PM  
Blogger Will Graham said...

David, Arenal is wonderful. You may have already been but if not I thought I'd let you know that you should expect the Volcano to have a low cloud cover on it most of the time. If the wind picks up then it will clear. When I was there the volcano would spit lava out and it hardens in the air and then explodes as it hits the side of the mountain. Hopefully you will see this. If you are going to see the main waterfall take a car to the trail head, it's a long walk up the road from La Fortuna.Tabacon Hot Springs is amazing. Also if you have time it would be great to see a post about your netbook and how it preforms on your trip. Pura Vida!

January 15, 2009 4:46 PM  
Blogger Luis G. Godinez said...

wow, great post.
i'm thinking of doing a photo-roadtrip in the summer, i'll make sure to keep this post handy for future reference, kudos!

have fun on your trip:)

January 15, 2009 5:05 PM  
Blogger Hunter said...

Dave, I am jealous. The wife and I have been twice, but further south in Manuel Antonio. If you have a chance for a side trip, MA is great and so is Samara (as posted by another).

Your approach is different than mine. I went to C.R. with everything and the kitchen sink. Sure it was a pane to lug (35 Lbs in a LowePro backpack), but it was worth it.

For those that have not been, the local airlines in C.R. have a 25 Lbs weight limit per person. That includes ALL BAGGAGE! However, you can pay a nominal fee to take more stuff. I paid the fee when asked, which was rare.

One suggestion Dave, bring the big gun. Find a way to take a 70-200mm VR. First, you will need the reach to catch the animals. Second, the VR helps when only 10% of light reaches for the forest floor. Lastly, your trusty SB's will do a great job lighting the animals to separate them out from the forest backdrop. Trust me, you will kick yourself later if you don't bring the big glass.

Cheers and have a safe trip. Drink an Imperial and kaipirinia for me. Especially the kaipirinia!

January 15, 2009 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Paul Harrison said...

Howler monkeys throwing sticks? When we were in belize they chucked thier c**p at us!

January 15, 2009 5:34 PM  
Blogger Brittney said...

I was there around this time last year, and it was lovely. Have fun, and I can't wait to see the shots you bring back.

January 15, 2009 5:41 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Thanks for the post, I travel to Ecuador for family and am always looking for ideas to travel light. I generally use my Kata R-103 for gear, only drawback is the slower access, but it sure holds a lot of stuff.

January 15, 2009 6:20 PM  
Blogger Mario said...

Glad to hear you´re visiting! You´ll love Arenal... be sure to bring plenty of mem cards, I´m sure you´re gonna use them all up and still have stuff you want to photograph.

If you need anything, just holler =)

January 15, 2009 7:39 PM  
Anonymous Madelien said...

Where's the photo of the bag with everything in it? :)

I'm personally not a big fan myself of trying to cram everything in one bag. It may look nice when you prepare it the day before the shoot, but the problem is your scheme will invariably get messed up as you get further into the work, especially when in a hurry. This is why I prefer to have a bit more extra room, which may or may not be needed when packing up after the shoot. I'm always in a hurry packing up. My subjects generally don't like waiting.

My ideal on-the-road setup for editorial shoots would probably be: a ThinkTank trolley with all the flashes, gobos, batts, swivels, whatnot, a LowePro CompuTrekker with body and lenses (and jùst that) and a long bag for stands and umbrella's.

January 15, 2009 8:29 PM  
Anonymous Fred said...

Off-topic but I wasn't sure where else to ask you this - will you be photographing at the Inauguration next week?

January 15, 2009 8:57 PM  
Blogger David said...


Agreed -- it is a tight fit. But this is designed to travel easily, and keep everything valuable/fragile with me on the plane.

The computer/charger/cords will not be with me when I am shooting, and I will have the camera and lens over a shoulder.

With that gear missing, it repacks into a reasonably organized shoulder bag that I can work out of quickly.


Nope, not this time. Shot the last three, tho. I will miss the witnessing history part. But not the getting there, waiting forever, freezing my butt off, xmitting with no cell bandwidth because of crowds, and trying to get out part.


Ed Z -

Been to the area before, and Tabacon is pretty kewl.

Will -

Will definitely hike down to La Catarada again, too. It was chock full of toucans last I visited.

Hunter -

Just gonna take mental photos of the animals. Not gonna try to gear up that much. If I were gonna try that I would be taking a 300 2.8 at least, with a 1.4x, too. My planned shoot won't require anything longer than portrait length.

January 15, 2009 9:20 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

WOW! A pro is NOT taking a Mac book? I too used to Aspire for a trip to Thailand. I seen another photog with one while there too. It's compact and sufficient for standard email, browsing, and transferring images. However, I find the wireless connection very slow.

January 15, 2009 10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know the D300 comes with a sensor cleaner but I like to take my Giotto Rocket Blower on longer trips, just in case...

January 15, 2009 11:09 PM  
Blogger D.O.P. Images said...

Love looking at the gear you packed. I marvel at the "one lens" approach. I am always crazy about just taking one. . . Also, I am surprise that you aren't using a roller bag/case. Enjoy and blog the pics, of course.

January 16, 2009 12:50 AM  
Blogger fact30 said...

I m from Costa Rica, when are you coming around here??
if you need any help, or you are around san jose this is my email
Cheers Fabio

January 16, 2009 12:55 AM  
Blogger jeffpatch said...

Have fun David. I was in Arenal/La Fortuna last July and I am heading back to Costa Rica in a few weeks. If you get enough free time, take the hike to Cerro Chato which is beautiful and odd to swim in a lake with no inlet/outlet in the crater of a volcano. Don't ask how the fish got there. Nobody knows! :)

Pura Vida!

January 16, 2009 1:05 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

At the risk of being totally off-topic, let me be the first to congratulate you on driving the best online community and photo blog for 2008!!! Of course, here's to many more years of great photo and lighting info!

January 16, 2009 5:20 AM  
Blogger JimC said...

Dave, enjoy your trip to Costa Rica - I travel there a lot and if you are willing to get up at 4:30 - 5:00 am, and if you are lucky, you just may be able to photograph Arenal with lava at the summit. Last May we had one day when it cleared up. If you get up that early and no lava, you can always throw sticks back at the howlers!

January 16, 2009 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Mike Kelly said...

Given your on vacation, you may not have seen this yet: A Photo Editor: Nadav Kander And The NY Times Magazine- The Real Behind The Scenes, apparently I may be risking death by sharing the secret lighting setup with the Strobist.

January 16, 2009 9:56 AM  
Anonymous Fotografi said...

Have a nice time.
It's not easy to pack your gear for ligthenss...
I would like to have 2 cameras.

January 16, 2009 10:29 AM  
Blogger point357 said...

Will you be shooting RAW? If so, what do have installed on that sexy little netbook that'll let you view NEFs?

Have a wicked trip. Jealousdotcom.

January 16, 2009 11:38 AM  
Blogger aradilon said...

Isn't the 28-70mm lens equivilant 42-105mm, so the wideness isn't that great (as u said in your descripition about the lens)?

January 16, 2009 11:42 AM  
Anonymous mike_London said...

David, couldn't agree more with the call to take the big glass - I just passed through Arenal (currently in rainy Roatan, Honduras) and my shot of the trip so far is of a Spider Monkey (who, incidentally, came bearing gifts from his butt) taken with my 70-200 2.8 with added 2x teleconverter. Take a few less T-shirts if it worries you - there's plenty of laundry services in La Fortuna!

Have a blast, and Baldi springs are also good with a waterslide or two for the kids (and you) although it can get pricey with spring-side beers at almost $10 a pop...

January 16, 2009 1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't count on the net there David :/, at least last time I was there it was a PITA because of the slow speed...since the net is controlled by a national company it isn't anything near of a marvel -that was 2007 though-

Also you should consider reading this guide to Costa Rica's Beer :) =because finding beer like bud and the such can be expensive-

Have a safe trip!


January 16, 2009 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Nasir Hamid said...

David, when you get a sec please would you post some info on how you got Skype to install into Linux.

I'm currently on a trip using a DELL Mini 9 netbook that has Linux and it's perfect for what it's designed for but I'd like Skype instead of the DELL video chat app that is on here.

I too have a a D300 with 28-75mm for this trip and it's been working like a champ in snow and sub zero temps of -20C. I hope you have a great trip in more tropical temps.


January 16, 2009 2:59 PM  
Anonymous Beth said...

Great post! I'm going to be leaving in Oct. to travel around the world for a year. At first I thought I would just bring my camera and a tripod and keep it light but lately i've been thinking that is just too foolish. It's great to see what other people can't live without on the road.

P.S. I just bought that same computer (except the 160GB size). It's great!

January 16, 2009 3:00 PM  
Anonymous mizz maze said...

Bon Voyage!

Quick question, DH - I almost always get a shadow in the frame when I use the pop up flash on my D80 with the don't with the D300?

January 16, 2009 3:03 PM  
Blogger Luki said...

I'm a regular reader and a big fan from Costa Rica.
I'd love to meet you and perhaps grab dinner if you have a chance.
Let me know.


January 16, 2009 3:22 PM  
Blogger Bill Giles said...

I have "Secrets of Lighting on Location" and "Sense of Place" by Bob Krist and was privileged to attend one of his seminars a couple of years back. His books have always inspired me.

January 16, 2009 4:56 PM  
Blogger fnord said...

Well, I sincerely hope you will be staying in a place with enough power outlets.
On my trip through Scotland (and that's pretty civilized country :) - I'm not saying Costa Rica isn't) I managed to run my batteries dry, because I needed power for batteries for my camera, cell phones (mine and my girlfriend's), and we were staying in hostels where we shared one outlet with several other people.
I did not see any extension power cords on the gear pic. I sincerely hope you'll take one.
After that trip, I bought Eclipse Solar Gear backpack.

January 16, 2009 6:09 PM  
Blogger Patrick Smith said...

Thanks for the book link, DH! I am going to scoop that puppy up tonight!

Patrick Smith

January 16, 2009 6:40 PM  
Anonymous Cuki, UK said...

What about an underwater case for the G9?

January 16, 2009 11:44 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Another vote for the hot springs. They are a great way to relax. What ecological institute? And if you are going to the volcano itself and feel like being generous the rangers always need raincoats and rubber boots (they are really under funded.. at least 9 years ago when I went to my schools eco station down in the cloud forest).

And I assume you will take a fair number of silica packs. Depending on what time of year you are going it will be very humid. Man.. makes me want to go back again.

January 17, 2009 12:41 AM  
Anonymous northern virginia photographer said...

Since I never travel "geared" - just packing kids seems to be enough at the moment this is very interesting. I think I can manage it. Where's the spare clean undies?
Luis can awe all come to dinner?

January 17, 2009 12:58 AM  
Blogger Hub of Photography said...

Hi David,

I can pack lots of light modifiers of ours into that small bag as they are totally collapsible in nature ;-)

Have plenty of fun time in Costa Rica and wish to see the photos that comes along!



January 17, 2009 11:18 AM  
Anonymous Diego said...

Just to clarify, I believe the book is Spirit of Place not Sense of Place by Bob Krist.

January 17, 2009 1:09 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

If you get a break, you may want to stop by the Eco Termales hot springs. It's the least touristy one in the area, and I think the cheapest. I miss it every day. Just make sure to go at night.

Also, you should try the bus - boat - bus trip to Monteverde. Just take some dramamine!

January 17, 2009 3:17 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

I also travel with the Acer Aspire one however I use the windows version which has a 160 gb Hard Drive in it. This allows one copy on the Laptop and the second on an external Hard Drive. It also allows me to have Lightroom installed to handle all the backup and renaming/tagging chores.

HAve a great trip.

January 17, 2009 4:42 PM  
Blogger Matt Adcock said...

Sweet assignment Dave! I can't believe you stuffed all that jazz in that bag!

Sol & I did 3 weeks in Coasta Rica...our honeymoon vaca. Arenal was one of our spots... That area will blow your mind with beauty...

1.5 hrs away and a 2 hr hike is Rio Celeste... This place is hardcore bad A$$!

I made some amateur video of our experience... do check out the scenery and the adventure we discovered:

Cheers & Fun times ahead amigo!


January 17, 2009 7:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Bienvenido a mi país!

Hope you have a great time.


January 18, 2009 2:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, have a great trip! Why do you permanently use a 1/4 CTO gel on one SB800 key light?

January 18, 2009 9:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may already be planning to do this, but I'd recommend keeping the backups in separate travel bags. For example, if your keepers are stored in the memory cards and portable hard disk, keep the memory cards in one bag and your portable hard disk in another bag. That way if anything happens to one bag, hopefully the same thing won't happen to the other bag.

Have fun!

-- rpsip

January 19, 2009 12:11 PM  
Blogger Jakob said...

Arenal is cool (no actually warm) - when I visited some years ago there was onlæy limited lave comming from the cone. Looking forward too see the results of your journey.

January 21, 2009 5:11 AM  
Blogger Chima said...

I just ordered my strobist's complement of light stands, flashes, swivel adapters, umbrellas and such and waiting for it to arrive.

I'm looking for advice on a small *portable* background system (stands/seamless paper?/muslin) that will go along with the strobist way of thinking.

My main interest is in portrait and glamour photography and I'm wondering if the strobist way is really appropriate given my area of interest. Call it second thoughts or whatever, but as a beginner who wants to master portrait and fashion photography, I'm I better off with strobist gear or a low end monolight kit like the Calumet Genesis 200 w/s system?

I can understand David needing very portable equipment when going to shoot people on his various assignments and I can understand why he would shot his assignments using the "native" environment of his subjects.

But I'm not on assignment. I won't be taking my gear on jungle trips or industrial locations. I mostly intend to take "people pictures" in homes where flawless (soft) lighting and a good background will do more for me.

Someone please set me straight.

January 21, 2009 4:03 PM  
Blogger jphphotography said...

Anybody seen the "ball bungees" in Canada? I looked at Walmart and a few other places but have never came across them. If anybody knows please let me know.

I have however came across these except all in black at Dollarama in packs of 8. They're great for rapping around a flash head to secure a gel (assuming you've done the gaffer tape extensions)

January 21, 2009 8:10 PM  
Anonymous Chicago Photographer said...

Another vote here to always pack some silica gel packs in there for any humid climate. You can dry them out in your oven and reuse them again and again. Beats a spot of mold in the lens!

January 22, 2009 2:09 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I wouldn't use the iPhone for internet access. It doesn't compress data and the roaming charges can be huge. One two week trip to Europe cost me over $7,000 in data roaming.

I finally ditched the iPhone when I found out it doesn't work outside in any sort of wet conditions, including when I sweat on it!

January 29, 2009 3:54 PM  
Anonymous adam said...

Just in case this diy ring light isn't in your collection:

February 09, 2009 12:11 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

A long time ago (2002), Austin photographer Kirk Tuck recommended a couple books to me - Bob Krist's Secrets of Lighting On Location was one.

The other was Gary Gladstone's Corporate & Location Photography. Gladstone's book was published before minimalist lighting was popular, so he uses a heavy pack-and-head system for lighting.

I always figure ideas are useful, wherever they come from, and these two books have plenty.

Gladstone's book has solutions to many corporate location lighting scenarios. The photographs show how to light parts of large areas, photograph workers with equipment they can't get close to, and how to photograph CEOs and other impatient VIPs, among other things.

He also has tips for travelling with gear, admittedly in a pre-9/11 world, but still useful.

Krist's book has many diagrams of how he lit some very nice-looking shots. The book has tips on strobe-ambient-lit pictures, all the way to 1000-WS pack-and-head lighting, and how to pack and carry it - again, in a pre-9/11 world, but still useful.

Both books are good stuff.

Mark Bohrer
Mountain and Desert Photography

March 01, 2009 6:44 PM  
Blogger John said...

Took your advice (again), packed my Domke F-2 following your excellent example, had great fun on vacation (Mexico) taking time to experiment with off-camera flash like I've never done before; every time I follow your advice/instructions, I get great results, thank you!

April 06, 2009 2:17 PM  

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