From Here to There: How to Travel Safely and Efficiently with Your Equipment

Tenba Roadie II Univeral filled with my equipment

Like most photographers, I own a variety of shoulder strap camera bags and back and fanny packs that I use when I’m out shooting. But traveling to various locations with my equipment requires a different type of bag. Years ago I trudged through airports with my shoulder bag and backpack, a veritable photo mule carrying cameras and lenses that were too valuable to check as baggage on the plane. And when digital arrived, laptops, hard drives, and a lot of wires were added to my burden. The memories of switching planes in the middle of the night on international flights and walking miles through surreal, airport terminals carrying fifty pounds of equipment still haunt me. Enter the rolling bag. The wheel has changed my professional life. I was thinking about how something so simple could have so much impact, after I boarded the plane to Abu Dhabi to teach a workshop last month.
I had breezed through the airport with my rolling bag filled with cameras and lenses and a small back pack which held my laptop, some other digital equipment and back issues of photo magazines I hadn’t had time to read. I was even able to attach my shoulder bag to the top of the rolling bag. I was entirely unencumbered.

My first rolling bag was a small, Pelican case that I knew would really protect my gear. I used it for a couple of years but as my equipment load increased, I realized that although the Pelican was long on protection, it was short on space. While I was investigating more flexible, soft sided bags – Lowe Pro, Tamarac, and Thinktank, I met Peter Waisnor, a Tenba representative who was demonstrating one of the early Roadie cases. It was strong and really held a lot but it was too large to carry on a plane. Peter called a few weeks later to tell me that a smaller version, the Roadie Universal, was now available and that it would fit in an over head, airline bin.

The airlines have two standards for carry on sizes, US domestic and international. The US rules are 22 x 9 x 14 inches and the international rules are 20 x 8 x 14. I decided to try the Roadie Universal, 20 x 8 x 14 inches. I was able to fit two bodies, five to seven lenses and a small flash in this case. Of course the rules can be arbitrarily applied and an airline can tell you to gate check your carry on, which is always a nice time to start an argument. The only time I had trouble with the Roadie Universal as a carry on was when I traveled on smaller, propeller planes. In those situations, gate checking was the only solution. Although it made me a little nervous to leave my equipment, I knew that I could pick up the bag at the gate when I landed and it wouldn’t disappear like checked luggage into the bowels of the airport.

The Universal was a good case but I thought it could be improved upon. It needed better pockets for accessories like card holders, cords, flashlights and filters. I discussed these modifications with Peter who agreed and Tenba made the changes. In late January, 2011 the Roadie II series in three sizes hit the stores: a small version (too small for my use), the Universal version (20 x 8 x 14) that conforms to airline regulations, and a larger version approximately 22 x 9 x 14 that most domestic carriers should accept.

Peter sent me the new Universal version to test, since I do a lot of international traveling. Although the dimensions have not changed, this new version has more inside space, a user friendly, adjustable handle, wheels with less drag, and a more functional front pocket for carrying a laptop. I test packed it and was able to squeeze a third body (though probably not recommended), along with all of my other lenses and accessories into this bag. I even had room for all those magazines I had not read.

If you travel through airports, camera rolling bags are the way to go. Look at all the various brands and sizes to determine which case works best to hold your equipment. Size does matter – make sure your bag meets the guidelines of the airline you fly most frequently. I’m looking forward to taking my new Roadie Universal II to Florida next week on my next National Geographic assignment. I do not anticipate any arguments at the gate.

Compact System Cameras, Mirrorless DSLR, Next Generation Cameras – Pick a Name these cameras are making their mark

Although I love my Canon S90 point and shoot, I decided to purchase a mirrorless DSLR. This small size camera with its larger sensor will give me better quality images than my point and shoot. I did my research and narrowed my choice down to the 14 megapixel Sony NEX-5 or the 12 megapixel Panasonic Lumix GF-1. Both are very good cameras and both come with pros and cons.

Sony NEX-5

The Sony NEX-5 does better at higher ISO’s, does sweep panoramas, has a tilt out LCD screen and has as internal stabilization that works for all lenses. I plan on using a pancake lens with my system to keep the package small. Sony has a 16mm lens that’s equivalent to a 24mm on a full frame camera. It’s a good lens but it may be too wide for my everyday use. For me, the down side of the Sony is that it doesn’t have a hot shoe or a built in flash. I like having a hot shoe because I can slide an optical viewfinder on the camera. The optical finder helps me to compose in bright sunlight when the LCD screen is difficult to read. The finder also is a plus when shooting at slower shutter speeds. It allows me to press the camera against my face for added stability. Although the Sony has no built in flash, there is a small add on unit, but it is a bit awkward and changes the camera’s profile.

Panasonic Lumix GF-1

The Panasonic GF-1 does have a small built in flash and a hot shoe. However the sensor is a little smaller than the Sony and the image quality at higher ISOs isn’t as good. The GF-1 is larger than the Sony but it fits my hands better. I like the physical exposure mode dial and the drive selection lever on the GF-1 in contrast to the Sony’s exposure and drive functions, which are buried in a menu on the LCD screen and are not as user friendly. As far as pancake lenses go, the GF-1 comes with a 20mm lens that is the equivalent of a 40mm on a full frame camera. This lens is too long for me and I would prefer something wider. That problem has been addressed by Panasonic with the addition of a14mm lens, equivalent to a 28mm on a full frame. This focal length works well for my purposes.

Yesterday, still undecided on which camera to buy I stopped at Fotocare my camera store in New York. I had the opportunity to play around with the new Panasonic Lumix GF-2, which will be available next month. What I had read about this camera didn’t impress me: the physical exposure mode dial and the drive selection lever had been eliminated and installed into the touch screen menu in order to make the camera smaller and more competitive with the Sony. I thought these changes would be a deal breaker and would force me to look around for the soon to be discontinued GF-1 if I decided to go the Panasonic Lumix route. I was pleasantly surprised, however when I found that these functions were extremely easy to access and would not be an issue. The newer Lumix GF-2 also has the ability to shoot almost 3 frames per second, a rate fast enough to capture changes in people’s expressions. It also has a new processor which I hope will make better images at the higher ISOs. For video users, the camera shoots 1080 hi definition video a feature the Sony also has.

There are some other good, small pocket sized mirrorless DSLR cameras on the market; the Olympus Pen EP-2, or the Samsung NX10 are two of the more popular ones. And all these cameras have a lot more features than I mentioned. My choice is based on how and what I shoot. You can find more detailed reviews and information on the web, a good starting point is the bythom website. As of this posting, however the GF-2 looks like the camera that will work for me. I hope to have one in my hands in the next few weeks to use in a real world test. I will post the results on the blog.

The way the digital camera market is changing, Sony may come out with a new camera by the time I return from my current trip to Abu Dhabi. Nikon plans to enter the marketplace in the near future and I’m sure Canon won’t be far behind. One thing is certain -though you can’t keep a head of technology, you still can keep taking pictures with the equipment you have.

Back Up Your Camera

I know everyone is now backing up their digital images in many different places (at least I hope so), but what about camera backup? I’m leaving Antarctica, heading back to New York down one camera body, my fault for not respecting the limits of my equipment. A few days ago I was photographing penguins and icebergs in the rain, a mild rain. I kept on shooting until my Canon 5D Mark2 stopped working and came up with an Error 20 message. I had used this camera many times in the past in the rain and had encountered no real problems. And although I had a rain cover for it in my backpack, I did not bother to cover the camera. Was I being lazy or did I just have too much confidence in the camera’s weather resistance. And when is a photo worth losing a camera?
When I returned to the ship I took out the battery and CF card and left everything open. I put the camera in a plastic bag with desiccant, hoping it would dry out overnight but the camera still wouldn’t function the next morning. Fortunately I had a backup camera, a Canon7D. The 7D was out in the rain with me when the 5D died but it continued to function.
As I am headed out to Abu Dhabi a week after I return to New York, I sent Canon repair an email to ask if they could fix the camera and get it back to me asap. Their answer was yes. I decided to push the envelope a bit with Canon: as long as I was sending the disabled camera in for repair, I thought I’d send the 7D and another 5DMark2 to be checked. I also wanted Canon to install the new mode selector locking mechanism on all three bodies. When you’re working with gloves and heavy clothing, that dial seems to mysteriously turn from your original setting to one that you’ve never heard of. And even though I don’t anticipate wearing cold weather gear in the desert, I want to ensure that the mode selection dial doesn’t inadvertently move when I pull a camera out of my bag.
If you are going somewhere special, on holiday and especially on assignment, respect your equipment. If you don’t, be prepared with some backup.

Take Off That Polarizer

High shutter speed, and not a polarizer captured this Humpback Whale's tail

It never fails. Every time I teach a photo workshop, I notice that at least 25% of the participants have a polarizing filter on their lens and they never take it off. Here on board the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica I’ve been using the phrase “Just because we’re in a polar region, you do not need a polarizing filter!” This onslaught of polarizing filters must be a result of camera sales people trying to sell more gadgets to their customers with the promise of better images through polarization. Yes, polarizers do have their place in photography, but definitely a limited place.
I’ve always believed that putting a filter in front of your lens deteriorates the sharpness of your glass and since polarizers use two pieces of glass the results are worse. Also, the loss of 1.5 to 2 stops of light is quite significant; especially if you are trying to shoot penguins, seals and whales from a moving ship and need a high shutter speed.
What situations warrant the use of a polarizing filter? If you shoot a landscape with blue sky and puffy clouds and you want the sky to look dramatic, you can use your polarizer but keep in mind that it is only effective if the sun is 90 degrees off your subject. Even then, I think that this look is a bit old fashioned and should be used judiciously.
A polarizing filter will also eliminate the reflections that occur if you shoot through glass. Use one if you want to photograph the Christmas windows at a big department store. If you need to shoot copies of art work that have a high gloss finish you should also polarize your light source in addition to using a polarizing filter.
When you are shooting scenes that include a large body of water, a polarizing filter will eliminate the glare that can occur from the sunlight. Keep in mind however that sometimes glare can make the water look moody and more realistic. Some photographers use the polarizer when shooting fall leaves to help saturate color. However, if you want a reflection of trees and leaves in a lake, you will need to remove the filter or you will lose the reflection.
If you plan on buying a polarizer spend a little extra money and get a good one that won’t compromise your high quality optics. Always test the filter in the store with your widest lens to be certain that it won’t cause vignetting. The polarizer is a thick filter; if you anticipate using it with a wide lens look at the special, thin polarizers made for wider lenses. Never use a polarizer to protect the front element of your lens. Get a UV, haze or skylight filter for that purpose
I do carry a polarizer with me, but I only use it when I think it will help make a better image. In many instances the use of a polarizer is a subjective decision and is based on the type of image you like to shoot.
But if you need a good shutter speed to shoot something moving and the situation doesn’t warrant polarization, take the filter off and get a sharp picture. More equipment doesn’t always make a better photograph.

10 Basic Tips for Successful Travel Photos

Adelie Penguins Take a Plunge

I’m aboard the Linblad National Geographic Explorer cruising around Antarctica. My goal on this 140 passenger, adventure cruise is to help everyone go home with better photos of this incredible journey. There are many, different levels of photographers on the ship and from my discussions with them I’ve come up with ten tips to help you when you travel with your camera.
1. If you bought a new camera for your trip, familiarize yourself with it before you head out.
2. If you procrastinated about tip number 1, at least bring the instruction manual with you so that someone else, (like me) can help you understand your camera.
3. Bring extra batteries and extra memory cards; you always shoot more than you expect. On this trip we are witnessing thousands of penguins – swimming in the sea, diving from ice floes, sitting on their nests, and marching up and down the beaches. Shooting wildlife means shooting a lot of images. A good rule in this situation is: shoot first, edit the garbage later.
4. Look for images that you can shoot with the equipment that you have. Don’t be envious of a fellow traveler’s super telephoto lens. If you can’t get close to your subject then think of other types of photos you can do.
5. See like your camera. Our brains can look at a big scene and focus in on details – cameras do not have that ‘wide angle telephoto’ ability. If you shoot what your brain sees you will come home with a lot of wide scenes with teeny, tiny detail over a wide area. Keep something large in the foreground as an anchor to your images.
6. Bring a camera that you will take with you when you head out. A large camera left behind in your room is no match for a smaller camera you can easily carry. It’s always better to bring back a photo of lesser megapixels than no megapixels at all.
7. Don’t depend on your zoom lens – use your legs to zoom. By walking up to and around your subjects you can shoot from different angles and create unique images. If you just walk, stop and zoom, you will never discover your subjects’ full potential.
8. Research your destination before you leave home. If you are familiar with the culture and geography, you will be prepared to make more intelligent photos. Look at published travel books and online sites to find photos of your destinations. These images can serve as guides to what you may want to photograph.
9. The primary factors that will make your photos better are light, composition, and moment. Look at the light, watch the shadows, and see what angles make the best use of light to give your subject dimension. When you compose your photo, make use of all the space or real estate in your frame – do not put the focus bracket in the center of the viewfinder on your friend’s face and then shoot. You will end up with the top half of your photo filled with sky or unimportant background. After you focus on a face or object, lock in your focus and recompose to take advantage of the full frame. Look at all four corners of the finder and know what’s in the picture. The moment – whether it’s your friend laughing or an animal turning it’s head just the right way, can make an ordinary photo into a great photo.
10. Patience is a virtue– do not leave it at home. If you want to create images above the ordinary, there is no underestimating the importance of taking your time. Wait for the light to look great on your subject, wait for the moment. And in my case yesterday, wait for the crazy bunch of Adelie penguins to make up their minds to dive into the water.

A Remote for All Budgets

On a recent visit to Fotocare in NYC, I was fortunate to watch a representative from Hähnel demonstrate a cool, new product to the sales staff. The Inspire is a remote camera viewing system. This is how it works: its transmitter sits in the camera’s hot shoe and relays your scene (up to 240 feet away) to a receiver a bit larger than an I Phone. If your camera has live view, the Inspire shows you what the lens is seeing; if you don’t have live view the transmitter has its own CMOS sensor that will show you the scene. From the receiver you have the option to switch back and forth between the camera’s live view or the transmitter’s wider view. This is useful in sports and wildlife shooting where you may have composed a tight shot but you also need to know when the subject is moving into your frame. You can also focus your lens and fire the camera with the Inspire.
The receiver records and saves up to 99 images, which can be played back and deleted. If you’re really worried about missing a great remote shot and want to use multiple cameras, no problem. The Inspire can control up to four, remote cameras, each one on a different channel. Additionally it can control the video on your DSLR.
Okay, there are plenty of rigs like this on the market already but how many of them sell for three hundred dollars? At this price and the Inspire’s small size it’s something you can always carry with you. Obviously great for remote wildlife and sports photography, the Inspire is also a useful tool for wedding photographers or anyone else that needs to get a camera into a place that’s a little awkward. Of course after watching the demo, I wanted one immediately for my current trip to Antarctica. I imagined leaving my camera on the ice while I waited a couple of hundred feet away for penguins to approach my set up. But life is filled with disappointments. I’m writing this from a plane heading to Ushuia, Argentina where I pick up my ship to Antarctica but the Inspire isn’t available for another week. The penguins will have to wait for their close-up.

Life’s Little Surprises

Trooper John Christenberry in 1978

Ira Block and Wiliam Christenberry 2010

There is a strange synergy in the photo world. Last week I received an e-mail from Aperture Gallery announcing a book signing by the well known photographer and artist William Christenberry. His book, Kodachromes is a collection of photos shot in Hale County, Alabama between 1964–2007, on 35mm Kodachrome film. Although I was familiar with his work, his name struck another chord with me. Back in 1978 when I first started working for the National Geographic, I did a book called Backroads America. My friend Tom O’Neill was the writer and our assignment was to travel around the United States and document the lesser known parts of the nation. While I was in Alabama, I spent a couple of days photographing a state trooper, John Christenberry. John mentioned that he had a brother who was a photographer and I said I didn’t know of him. I was just starting my photographic career and the only photographers I was familiar with were other photojournalists.
It would be years later that I would learn about William Christenberry and his incredible body of work in the South. I admired the simplicity and stark reality of his images. His rural landscapes have a timeless quality that draw the viewer in. It took a while but I finally realized that William was the brother of Trooper John Christenberry.
When I received Aperture’s e-mail, I knew I had to meet William. Last night I wandered over to the Aperture Gallery in New York City, a few blocks from where I live. Not exactly sure of what I would say, I approached the desk where William Christenberry was signing his books. I introduced myself and handed him a copy of my book, Backroads America.
At first he was surprised (remember, this was his book signing event) and then I think he was really touched when I showed him the photo essay on his brother, who I learned is now retired and living in Texas. I asked if they spoke with each other and William said every week this time of year, usually to discuss the University of Alabama-Auburn football rivalry. It’s true that some things never change. Sometimes life works like that. A photo can lead to unexpected meetings, consequences or even life changing events. And now, my images of Trooper John Christenberry led me to meet the brother he had spoken of 32 years ago. It felt good.

Looking for a Point and Shoot for the Holidays?

Early Point and Shoot

Lately, the most asked question from my friends is the hardest to answer: “Which camera should I buy?” I can answer questions about pro DSLRs, but when it comes to point and shoot cameras the field is too crowded to come up with a definitive answer. Sony, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Samsung not only offer a great variety of cameras but also a wide price range. To complicate things even more, the era of mirrorless DSLRs has now entered the market place. These cameras have interchangeable lenses and bodies that are as small as many point and shoots. But keep in mind, their size does increase greatly when you add a zoom lens, which is often larger than the camera body itself. The main advantage over the point and shoot cameras is that these cameras have larger image sensors and therefore produce better quality files. Next week we’ll look at some of the choices available in mirrorless, DSLR cameras. But for now, I will discuss the point and shoots. Here’s what you should look for in a point and shoot:
Megapixels: For a while, camera manufacturers were promoting the concept that more megapixels meant a better image. However with sensors the size of a fingernail, too many tiny sensor sites create very noisy images, especially as you increase the ISO. Canon’s G10 camera had 14.7 megapixels, yet it’s successors, the G11 and G12 have only 10 megapixels. A camera with 8 to 10 megapixel sensors is optimum for a point and shoot.
Shutter Lag: This is the delay between when you ‘push the button’ and when the image is recorded. Sometimes the delay is caused by the autofocus or the camera calculating the correct exposure but whatever the cause, you miss the moment. Therefore you should look for a camera with minimal shutter lag.
Zoom Lens: Many people are looking for lenses that zoom into a really super telephoto. I rarely use the telephoto part of my point and shoot zoom; it’s usually not very sharp or crisp. My preference is for a zoom lens that starts wide angle and zooms to three to five times. I try to teach my students not to be lazy but to ‘zoom’ with their legs – walk up to your subject, walk around it and assess the best angle and light. If you must have a zoom lens that extends far, look at the optical zoom number instead of the digital zoom, which just crops into the sensor and makes the image noisy and fuzzy.
Camera Controls: Check out how easy or difficult it is to change the settings on the camera. Many cameras now use extensive menus on the LCD screen to make changes. As a result, you may have to spend a lot of time digging through submenus before you find what you need. And if you put your camera away and don’t use it until the next birthday party or vacation, you will have a lot of trouble remembering where various settings are hiding in the menu.
File Type: If you plan to work on your files in Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture or another program, you will need a camera that has the ability to shoot in the RAW format. If you typically just use JPEGs, this won’t be an issue.
Size: If you find a camera that you like but feel it’s too large, then go with something smaller. There are many cameras small enough to fit into your shirt pocket. Usually though, these smaller cameras don’t have as great a zoom and have less manual controls than the larger cameras. Many of the smaller cameras do not shoot in the RAW format and the files won’t look as good at the higher ISOs. That being said, I would rather have some kind of camera with me, whether large or small than a camera that is left behind in my home or hotel.
Video: Many of the point and shoots have a video mode built in. The type of camera you purchase should take into account the amount of video you plan on shooting along with the level of high definition you require.
I asked Robert French, an equipment specialist at FotoCare in New York City what advice he gives to customers concerning point and shoot cameras. According to Robert, the top end point and shoots are the Nikon P7000 and the Canon Powershot G12. It’s interesting that they not only look alike but also have 10 megapixel sensors. These cameras are full size point and shoot and will not fit in your shirt pocket. Robert told me the top end smaller camera is the Canon Powershot S95, which has the same sensor as the Canon G12. The G12 and P7000 are in the $500 price range and the S95 is about $400.
If you are looking to spend less money, Canon has the SD1400 and 4000. For his clients looking for a camera with a long zoom lens, Robert suggests the Powershot SX210, which has a 14x optical zoom and the Canon Powershot SD4500, which has a 10x optical zoom.
If you have decided to move out of point and shoot cameras and want to carry something around that has interchangeable lenses with a reflex viewfinder, the Nikon D7000 and the Canon Rebel T2i are the way to go. This time of year there are great rebates on many cameras, so it’s a good time to buy.
And what do I carry around with me when I’m not lugging my big professional cameras? I’ve had all the Canon G series cameras through the G11 and I used to carry them around for a week or two before finally coming to the realization that they were just too large for me. Now I have the Canon S90 (the predecessor to the S95), which fits in my pocket.
For those of you who want to take pictures but don’t want to carry anything extra you can always purchase a mobile phone with a decent built in camera. See what the New York Times recently said about point and shoot cameras versus cell phone cameras.

Willilam Albert Allard Five Decades

Bill Allard at the Kasher Gallery

My close buddy, Bill Allard had an opening tonight in New York City at the Kasher Gallery. The show coincides with his just released book William Albert Allard:Five Decades. A large group of friends from the National Geographic in Washington came up to see the show, along with Bill’s New York buddies.
You can read Dave Harvey’s interview with Bill on the NY Times Lens Blog
The show runs until January 8, 2011, so drop in if you get a chance, and buy a copy of the book, it’s terrific!