1,000 Miles Across Alaska - My Photo Kit
Life is full of trade offs and the same applies to traveling with photography gear. Questions like do I go ultra light? What camera will give me the best image quality? How will I carry my gear in a safe and accessible manner? All of these questions are key elements in choosing what camera gear will accompany me on each of my trips. Once gear is chosen the questions of processing, sharing and backing up, not too mention power, need to be addressed. For my Alaska trip, everything became more complicated by the fact that I would be traveling by bike, in the middle of winter, across south central Alaska, with incredible photographic opportunities at hand.
I am now 4 years and more than 17,000 miles into this little adventure of mine and my entire photographic thought process continues to evolve. I have traveled with multiple DSLRs and a wide selection of lenses by kayak and gone uber light with nothing more than an NEX and two lenses on a bike. While the smaller cameras and their lenses are getting better every year I have still yet to find a small solution that matches the quality of my Nikon bodies and my Zeiss MF lenses (barring a $40K investment in a Leica M9 and Leica Glass, something I am happy to do should Leica wish to make a small donation…). At the end of each and every trip where I have opted to not bring my larger bodies and lenses, I have been disappointed with the overall IQ of what I captured.
With those memories in mind I opted to bring a large kit for this trip. I knew that I was going to experience some stunning locations and vistas, and I wanted to capture those scenes in as much detail as possible. I knew that I would be happy with nothing less than my best gear, even if it meant going heavy.
My camera kit included:
* Nikon D800e
* Zeiss 21 2,8
* Zeiss 50 1,4
* Zeiss 100 1,4
* NEX -7 with 50 1,8
* 2 Nikon batteries
* 4 NEX batteries
* Beat up Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with RRS ball head
I used the D800 for the majority of my shots with the NEX picking up the slack as a sort of quick draw camera for snapshots. The Zeiss glass, as you may know, is simply stunning. I have shot some of Nikons finest lenses and for me, there is a magic in the Zeiss glass that does not exist in most of Nikons lineup. The exception for me would be the stunning 200 2,0 but that is a beast of a lens with very specific application. The Zeiss lenses are simply works of art, fashioned out of medal with a smooth, almost buttery, focus throw. They are still adorned with good old fashion
f-stop and dof markings. The weight of these lenses balances very nicely with the medium weight of the D800, making the combination a very hand holdable kit.
An advantage to shooting the Zeiss glass is that the manual focus lenses draw no power from the camera. I remember when I first got the lenses being amazed at how long a single battery lasted. As you can imagine, in the winter of Alaska, power management is a huge issue. The Zeiss lenses did exactly as I hoped and the two batteries were only recharged once in two months of shooting.
One of the challenges with this setup is that I do not like to carry backpacks when riding a bike. This meant I had to figure out a way to carry a base camera weight (Nikon + Zeiss) of 6.6lbs, plus all the other photographic kit on a bike in a manner that would both protect the gear from the elements and provide me with quick access. I hate to say it, but this whole issue is still a work in progress for me as I found no real good solution.
I worked out a system that used a very old Arc'teryx hip pack strapped to my handlebars. This pack carried the D800 with one lens attached and one other lens stored in the bag. My third lens was stored in my frame bag. The little makeshift camera bag has waterproof fabric and zippers which provided a basic level of protection. I wrapped each lens in a zip lock bag and used a large turkey roasting bag to protect the camera. Those turkey bags are big, and very tough, not too mention cheap.
I stored the NEX, lens down, in the water bottle pockets on the side of the pack. It was always wrapped in some form of plastic bag. My favorite general purpose bag is the kind you get in the bulk food isle. They cost nothing, are large and are reasonably durable. When I needed to carry the camera off bike I used my favorite piece of UL kit, the Sea to Summit sil nylon backpack. It weighs 2 ounces and stuffs the size of two golf balls.
Now that I had sorted a way to carry my gear I had to find a way to process and share images. Typically I would carry my MacBook Air, but I did not want to do that on this trip. The elements were going to be extreme, and I was unclear of my route. I could not afford to have anything happen to that computer, so I opted to go the tablet route, choosing the basic ipad mini. Having never owned a tablet before, this would prove to be a very frustrating choice. While there a clearly lots of apps out there for photos, I was unable to find anything that solved all of my issues. Instead I was forced to cobble together a workflow that allowed me to import images, do basic adjustments, including black and white conversions, and then distribute the images to social media. Here was my basic workflow:
The D800 allows you to shoot to both a CF card an SD card. In addition, it allows you to shoot Raw to the CF card and jpegs of varying sizes to the SD card. This allowed me to keep one 16gb SD card in the camera the entire time as a sort of simple backup, while shooting to over 20 CF cards. I had no ability to backup anything other than the small jpegs I was shooting on the SD card which were dumped to the iPad mini on a selective basis.
When I had the opportunity to do some edits, I would remove the CF card from the camera and then connect the camera to the Ipad mini via the USB connection kit. I did this so that I was using the camera battery to power the USB connection instead of the opposite. Using the native photo app on the iPad, I selected specific images to import. Once the images were imported, the real challenges began. Because I had decided that Google Snapspeed app provided the best image editing capabilities I had to find a very simplistic way to do my 'selects'. Obviously what I wanted to do was go through images, choose the ones to edit, and then edit them. However, the choice of Snapspeed forced me to work in what I would call a very kludge way.
Basically, I would go into the photo app and begin looking at images. Once I found the one to edit I would switch back to Snapspeed and use their horrible image selection tool to find the image that I wanted to edit. i dont for the life of me understand why they have not changed this as it is clearly intended for a phone where their is minimal real estate on the screen. The size of the thumbnails is ridiculously small forcing me to switch back and forth in an effort to find the correct image. Once the image is selected I loved everything about the app. The adjustment tools, including selective adjustment, are fantastic and intuitive. The B&W conversions and one or two other filters provided me with all that I needed.
Working off of these small jpegs, adjustments were very quick. Once complete, Snapspeed saves the images to a Snapspeed album. I could find no way to change this, which forced me to then go back to the edited images, using the native photo app to create a separate album containing my edited collection. That felt like a huge run on sentence which fittingly highlights the difficulty in making this work. In the end I was able to cobble it all together. Once I had a selection of images processed I could use the native sharing feature of the photo app to get images to Facebook and Twitter. The new Flickr app handled my Flickr stream and the Squarespace app allowed me to upload images to my website. For additional backup I would FTP images to my Photoshelter account.
Import and Edit:
Connect Camera to Tablet -> Import Images using 'Photo' app -> Identify Image to Edit -> Switch to Snapspeed -> Find Image, Edit, Save -> Switch back to Photo App and repeat until edits are done
Once edits are done:
Open Photo App -> Select Edited Images in Snapspeed Album -> Create New Album -> Switch to New Album -> Share using Photo App, Squarespace App, Flickr App
Dearest Adobe, please introduce a tablet version of Lightroom!!
It was not pretty, but it worked and I accomplished my goals. Would I do things the same way again? Well I don't know. The weight of an 11" MacBook Air is really only marginally more than the tablet with tremendously more functionality. The bigger issue is the space it requires and the potential cost of replacement which must be weighed against the difficulty of stringing together a tablet based workflow. I look forward to doing some more app evaluations to see what I missed. With rumors of the new full size iPad having a significant reduction in weight and size, that could be the compromise solution, especially when paired with a lightweight keyboard. While that combination would approach the weight of a Air, the cost of damaging it is significantly less.
Cameras and the holy grail of size, weight and image quality:
If I won the lottery I would buy a Leica and 3 lenses and call it a day. Until that happens I will continue to search for ways to optimize carrying my D800 and the 3 Zeiss primes. This summer I am going to take some time and evaluate a number of new cameras, including the Fuji X line and the Sony RX1. I also believe that this year we will see a full frame NEX camera which I believe is going to really shake things up. The fact that Zeiss has committed to producing three new lenses for the E and X mounts is wonderful news. I loved the NEX 7 but was dissatisfied with the state of E mount lenses. If Zeiss really gets the new glass out and Sony and Fuji continue pushing the bounds of small bodies, one of those will very likely become my UL travel kit.
For now I will just keep exploring and sharing. If you have questions or suggestions please let me know.