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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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