Traveling Light to the Himalayas

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The small metal clip doubles as a bottle opener.

The small metal clip doubles as a bottle opener.

There are many obvious perks to being a professional photographer. These include traveling, meeting new people, and experiencing incredible, life moments.
But there is another perk that most photographers don’t talk about – the joy of buying shiny new camera equipment along with the camera bags and back packs in which to carry them.

For whatever reason, camera equipment is considered sexier while bags have been relegated to the step-child of a photographer’s tools. However some photographers (including myself) will admit to being a bag addict while others will not come out of the bag closet. In fact, I have a closet in New York that is not only dedicated to bags and packs, but is also bursting at the seams with these wonderful necessities. Anytime I can find an excuse to to acquire a new bag, my day is brightened.

Currently, I am on my way to the Himalayas where I will be trekking through Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Traveling light is paramount to my trip. I surveyed my stash of bags and decided to take the Tenba Shootout backpack which worked so well for me while I was in Morocco last month. Rugged with good pockets, it fits my body well and It’s built in rain cover was perfect protection in the desert sandstorms.

Traveling light also means carrying lighter weight cameras. I chose the Sony A7 series, full frame cameras along with a minimal amount of lenses. These included three zooms: 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200. I also included the 55mm f/1.8 lens for low light situations, and a small flash. Everything fit into the Tenba pack and I still had enough room for various accessories and some snacks.

I own bigger packs which hold a lot of equipment but their weight requires a mule to carry them. I can comfortably carry the lighter pack myself and focus on the biggest perk of my profession – having fun taking pictures.

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Mongolia

In August I returned to Mongolia , a country I hadn’t visited in six years. My previous trip was to photograph dinosaur fossils as part of a lager story for the National Geographic Magazine. This time I led a group of twenty five photo enthusiasts on a National Geographic Expedition throughout the country. Mongolia is a great place to shoot pictures. The landscape is diverse: green and wet in the north and brown and dry desert in the south. Include the friendly, nomadic people and their Gers (Yurts) and you are in photographic heaven. In the short time I spent on this trip, I was still able to get enough interesting images to put up a gallery on my website.

The Milky Way rises over a Mongolian Ger in South Gobi Desert, Mongolia.

The Milky Way rises over a Mongolian Ger in South Gobi Desert, Mongolia.

Of course everyone brought their favorite gear and coincidently, two of my students were carrying my backpack of choice, the Tenba, Discovery Photo/Laptop Daypack Large. In the summer of 2012, I shot a project in southern Utah which involved a lot of climbing and hiking. I needed a light, daypack that could hold equipment, water and food. My friend Peter Waisnor from Tenba suggested the Discovery Photo/Laptop Daypack in a tan color. Normally I carry black bags and packs but in the searing desert sun, the light color really made a difference. The pack worked great in Utah and also did the job in Mongolia. I had to shoot this photo to send to Peter.

Two of my students at the Framing Cliffs with the Tenba packs.

Two of my students at the Framing Cliffs with their Tenba packs.

Missed Flights are Nothing Compared to What Else Can Happen at the Airport


Preparing for an assignment is always stressful. Research, logistics, contacts, equipment, gear and the proper clothing are just some of the areas I need to get under control. Finally arriving at the airport was always a time for me to relax and regroup before beginning to work. But lately, airport security and delays, coupled with jet lag have created a new kind of stress.

Recently, my friend Mike Yamashita called me from his hotel room in Mexico. He was frantic because his Mac computer, the one he needed for the lecture he was going to give, had been picked up by someone else going through security. Mike had retrieved a Mac identical to his own, as had another passenger.
Luckily, the person with Mike’s computer made contact and both computers were able to be exchanged within a few days.

Another colleague, while going through security in Doha, Qatar in the middle of the night, was so exhausted that he simply forgot to retrieve his computer. He didn’t realize it was missing until he arrived at Dulles International Airport. Again, he was lucky in that security in Doha was able to find his computer and send it to him.

Of course, I thought these were random incidents. There was no way that I would ever forget or lose any equipment, especially in an airport. But jet lag, airport confusion, and distractions can happen to anyone, even me.

I was hit hard with the potentially disastrous consequences of airport stress when I arrived in the Kathmandu airport, after traveling for over 30 hours. I was shooting a last minute assignment for the National Geographic magazine on Lumbini, Nepal, the birth place of The Buddha. The baggage area was total chaos; three planes had arrived at this small airport around the same time. I had changed planes in Doha, Qatar and of course I was concerned whether my baggage would arrive with me in Kathmandu. I was tired, jetlagged and generally out of it, but was ecstatic to see my bags of lights, stands and cold weather gear on the conveyer belt. A colleague from the National Geographic was traveling with me. A local customs fixer from Kathmandu met us with the proper paperwork to get all of my equipment though Nepalese customs. I was carrying a bottle of duty free liquor in a plastic bag, a gift for one of the people I was going to be working with and I was concerned that in all of the confusion it might break. My shoulder bag held my laptop, books, a small camera and lens and reams of paperwork.

We slid through customs and headed out to the parking area which was even more chaotic than baggage claim and customs. My local helper and his assistants quickly loaded our bags into the back of the van and my colleague and I took a seat inside. As we proceeded through heavy traffic to our hotel, I was relieved to finally leave the airport. But my relief was short lived. When we got to the hotel, I stood at the back of the van and supervised the off loading of the equipment and luggage. Everything was there – except my Tenba rolling bag of cameras. It wasn’t in the van and it wasn’t with the hotel bellman. My first thought was that it must have been left at the airport. The last time I remembered seeing it was when I took it out of the overhead on the plane and wheeled it to the baggage area. I assumed one of my helpers had loaded it onto one of the carts and put it in the van with the other luggage.

Panic overtook my jetlag as we headed back to the airport, fighting our way through the traffic, knowing that every minute would be another opportunity for someone to walk off with the bag. I hoped that it was still in the baggage area, but if someone did take it they would be caught going through customs. As we raced through the back streets of Kathmandu, I asked the customs’ fixer to call someone, anyone at the airport to try to find my bag. I was in total shock as I came to grips with my stupidity in losing control of my cameras. Ten minutes from the airport one of the locals’ cell phones rang in the van and another Nepalese conversation ensued. When the call ended, my fixer looked at me and said the bag had been found. My next concern was whether someone might have grabbed something out of the bag, or that the black rolling bag that was found might not have been mine. Since I carried it on the plane, I had neglected to tag it with my identification.

When we arrived at the airport we were faced with another challenge – going backwards through customs into the secure bag area. We were denied permission. But my fixer called his friend inside customs who eventually came out and brought me into the luggage area. He took me to a small counter on the side of the baggage area where there were approximately fifty unclaimed bags. There, chained with a padlock was my Tenba. I showed the counter attendant my passport and boarding pass but since my name wasn’t on the outside of the bag there was nothing to connect me to it. The attendant asked me what was inside: “a lot of cameras and lenses, I hope”. We unzipped the bag and everything was there.

What would I have lost if the bag hadn’t been found?

2 Canon 5D Mark IIs
8 various Canon lenses
1 Canon Strobe
2 500 gb back up drives and cables
2 Battery charges
Many CF and SD cards
My sanity

I have no one to blame for this but myself. I have tried to make excuses in my head: jetlag, worrying about breaking the bottle of liquor and my local assistants taking charge of the luggage. But at the end of the day, it is my responsibility to ensure that I have all of my equipment to do the photos and to complete the assignment. This means making sure that everything I put through security, I retrieve. It means that every piece of luggage and equipment that I check is taken off the conveyor belt. The stress of preparation is for naught if you don’t have the gear to do the job. My colleagues and I were very lucky. These incidents could have ended differently.

Preparation is the Key to a Successful Shoot

What to take and how to pack it

Some of the followers of my recent blog on rolling camera cases were curious about the equipment I had packed into my Temba Universal, shown in the blog’s photograph. They wanted to know how I decide on what equipment I might need, how I organize my shoots and what kind of pre production is required before heading out.
Obviously, every assignment is different but my basic preparation is always the same. Research is essential, whether it’s the location, subject matter, availability of gear, or local customs and requirements. The following is typical of how I approach an assignment.

I happen to be on my way to the Florida Keys to do a portrait of a scientist for an upcoming National Geographic project. Although my subject lives in coastal California, I need to photograph him standing in the Atlantic Ocean. Florida is warmer than Long Island and the waters along the Keys are calm, with little surf and easy to access. Islamorada looked like a good location and it’s not too far from Miami. Besides, shooting in Florida gets me away from the frigid winter in New York.
From past experience, I knew that a permit is usually required by a park commission, county, state or city for photo shoots on beaches. A couple of weeks prior to leaving New York, I contacted the information officer with the Florida Film Commission who set me up with their film liaison person for the Florida Keys. She agreed that Islamorada had some nice beaches and quiet waters. Google gave me satellite views of a good looking, public beach controlled by the city of Islamorada and a private beach in front of the Islander Resort that also had potential. I talked with the people from the city and the hotel and explained that I needed to do a still photo that would include me, my lighting assistant and my subject. I told them that I would be setting up a couple of light stands and a tripod. There would be no need for a generator since my lights would be battery operated. I wanted to distinguish what I was doing from a large motion picture shoot, or a big fashion production with mobile homes, generators, stylists and large crews. Both the city and the resort needed a certificate of my insurance naming them as coinsured for the time I was shooting. This was an easy process, accomplished via email between me and my insurance carrier.
Once the location logistics were under control, I could focus on the equipment I would need to make the picture work. I decided to bring two Profoto 600B battery strobe units that put out 600 watt seconds of power and two flash heads. I also brought extra batteries, though I don’t anticipate needing them. My battery strobe units are very efficient, but it’s always better to be on the safe side. The lighting look I am going for requires a small Octabank and a small Chimera light box, both of which give a nice, broad soft source of light. Once I get to the location I’ll decide which one will be my main light source, as each has its own nuances. I don’t want a light bank that’s too large and will spread out on the water; I want the light focused on my subject. To further control the mood, I packed ‘eggcrates’, a grid that goes in front of the boxes to help focus my light. My other light will have a standard reflector or a Profoto sports reflector which produces a narrow beam of hard light. This head and reflector will be positioned right by the camera, and will control contrast from the light of the softbox which will be off to the side of the subject. The lights will be triggered using pocket wizards.

Since Miami has a lot of camera stores and rental houses, I don’t have to be as careful about what I bring as I would if I were going to a remote location. I plan on renting my light stands and some grip equipment. Carrying large C-stands on an airplane is a nightmare and expensive. I already told the rental house that since one of the stands may be in the water, I would rent one that was pretty beat up. Though I could probably rent everything I needed in Miami, I feel more comfortable using my own equipment whenever possible.
The strobes, heads, and extension cables fit nicely into a large, rolling Pellican case that weighs 60 pounds –the airlines aren’t so friendly with anything greater than 70 pounds. My extra batteries (which are heavy), reflectors, pocket wizards and some grip equipment fit into a medium sized Pelican case. My tripod, Octabank and Chimera, along with a boom pole that breaks down into three pieces fit nicely into the bottom of the duffle bag that holds my clothing. I was able to eliminate the need for an additional, lightstand type case and to pack everything into three checked cases – very efficient packing.
My cameras, of course are on the plane with me in the new Tenba rolling bag I discussed in the last blog. As I was going through security at La Guardia airport, I was asked to put my new rolling bag in the test template – it fit with room to spare.

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.