As you read in my previous post, I was concerned about the airline weight restrictions, so I was careful about what I took on this voyage, but I did not want to restrict my photographic capability. If I had to pay excess baggage charges to the airlines, I would just bite the bullet and do it.
Thom Hogan has some excellent advice on his website about taking a big trip and how to prepare for it. It is a must read before going on a voyage like this.
I purchased the ThinkTank Airport Ultralight V2.5 Backpack which turned out to be an excellent bag and it held more than I thought it would. So you ask, “What did I take with me in this bag?”
The Equipment List
Here is the list of items and why I brought them with me:
Total weight including the Ultralight V2.5: 13kg. We’ll see what the airlines have to say.
A couple photographers suggested I take a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 or the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lenses for extra “reach”. I decided not to in order to save weight and additional bulk. Also, I understand that you can get reasonably close to the wildlife in the Antarctic (and South Georgia), thus the 70-200mm should work well. And when it wasn’t enough, I had the 70-300mm and 2.0x teleconverter with me.
You will read in the days to come how each piece of equipment performed on this trip. I will, however, give you a brief summary of what worked, what didn’t and what I would do differently next time.
The Nikon D3 is a fantastic camera and I am glad that I had them with me. I could track flying birds with ease, shoot in dark conditions, shoot in wet conditions such as light snow and ergonomically, it is simply wonderful to use. The camera feels like an extension of my hand and any images that I missed (or that were out of focus) are due to operator error. It is one of the best DSLR’s on the planet (along with the Nikon D3s, D3x and Canon 1D Mark IV).
The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S and Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR II AF-S zoom lens zoom lenses worked exceptionally well and I did not miss the 36mm to 69mm gap that I had in focal lengths. I used the telephoto the most (about 80% of my shots) and it performed perfectly. The Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR AF-S zoom lens backup lens never came out of my bag.
The Nikon TC-20E III AF-S 2x Teleconverter surprised me with how good it was… looking at my final images, there was very little loss of image quality and the bokeh was surprisingly good. It gives you two times the reach and there is minimal loss of sharpness. Impressive. It is worth the 6 cm of space it takes up in my camera bag. You do, however, lose 2 stops of light making an f/2.8 lens an f/5.6 lens. VR and AF still work with this teleconverter. At about $USD 600.00, it is an inexpensive way to double your focal length with the pro telephoto lenses.
Check out the next two shots taken with this teleconverter and the 70-200/2.8 zoom (400mm equivalent at f/7.1):
The biggest surprise for me on this trip was the Panasonic GF1 and the pancake lenses. I have a full m43 kit (including the GH2, 45mm Leica macro lens, Panasonic 7-14mm and 14-140mm zoom lenses), but I left the other m43 gear at home as I wanted this camera to be “pocketable”. Our parkas had very large outer pockets and the GF1 (with pancake lens) snugly fit in them – so I wanted to keep it in there for quick “grab shots”.
There were times when I had my 70-200/2.8 on my D3 and a penguin (or two) would come really close to me… too close in fact. I did not want to startle these curious little birds (they are so freakin’ cute) with sudden movements nor did I have time to change lenses. So I would slowly reach into my coat pocket, pull out the GF1 with a pancake, and voila! I have my shot. Inconceivable!
After spending some time on the Antarctic peninsula, we were returning to the ship in our zodiacs and we took a detour through some really choppy water around a few icebergs. They were beautiful, but my D3 and lenses were packed away in the wet bag as this was a last minute diversion (thanks, Katrina). I simply reached into my coat pocket, pulled out the GF1 with my Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 pancake lens, and I got this shot:
There was absolutely no way I could get my D3 out of the wet bag/backpack in time to take the shot. And if I could, there was no way to keep my D3+lens dry (unless I wanted to fiddle for several minutes with the Hydrophobia unit while bobbing up and down in the water laden zodiac). Micro four thirds (and other mirrorless cameras) have a place in a photographers kit and I am glad I had mine with me. Bravo Panasonic!
A couple passengers brought waterproof point and shoot cameras which I thought was a really good idea. I am glad, however, that I had my m43 gear as the larger sensor size (vs. a point and shoot camera) increases the image quality substantially.
My Hydrophobia 70-200 Rain Cover did come in handy. It snowed a couple of times and even though my Nikon gear is weather sealed, it is best to keep excess moisture off of it. Also, when we were cruising around the zodiacs in calm water, I was confident that my gear inside the rain cover would remain dry.
Finally, the ThinkTank Airport Ultralight V2.5 Backpack was the perfect camera bag (for me) on this trip. I am really glad I bought it as I had no problems with its size, padding, accessibility of items inside or its durability. It is an excellent bag.
Salt Water, Cold Weather, Condensation and Cameras
The airtight “wet” bag (see yesterday’s post) proved to be more useful than I thought. When camera gear used in cold temperatures is suddenly exposed to moist, warm environments (such as our cabin on the ship), condensation forms on outside and inside your equipment. That is not good… and you will also get some annoying spots on your camera sensor (which will show up in your images) which you must wet clean.
When returning to the ship, I would place the sealed wet bag in the shower to rinse it off to remove the external salt residue. I would then wait 60-90 minutes (or longer, depending on how cold it was outside). During this period, the exterior of the wet bag would dry off whilst the interior (the camera backpack and gear) had enough time to warm up in the airtight bag. Moisture does not enter an airtight wet bag when it is sealed and prevents condensation from forming on the interior. I would then take my camera backpack out of the wet bag and there was no condensation on my equipment.
Condensation problem solved. Residual salt gone.
A number of the expedition staff also commented on how practical my SealLine Boundary Pack (70L wet bag) was – which is quite the endorsement as they see many types of bags on these expeditions, so they know what works and what doesn’t.
I didn’t list this, but I also brought some large and small Ziploc bags with me. I put the GF1 inside a Ziploc bag, sealed it, then I placed it in my outside coat pocket. That way, if I did get splashed with water and my coat pocket was open, the camera and lens would stay nice and dry. Also, when we returned to the ship, I left the GF1 in the sealed Ziploc bag for an hour or so, let it warm up and then took it out. That way, I did not have to worry about condensation on/in the GF1.
Think of a Ziploc as a miniature wet bag.
Some other photographers who did not have proper wet bags placed their lenses, bodies, etc., in Ziploc bags and then placed them in their photo backpacks. In the event that water got into their camera bag, at least their gear had some level of protection.
What Didn’t Work?
I have learned that if you expect the worst and plan for it, it usually doesn’t happen.
To my (pleasant) surprise, just about everything I bought with me worked out quite well and I had no mishaps – from the various bags/accessories to all of the camera bodies and lenses. I thought about this kit (and how to handle it) for a long time before we left on this voyage and I am glad I did my homework.
I did forget that I had a CPL with me, so obviously I didn’t really need it.
The only thing that did not work as well as I had planned was my iPad. Read on…
What Would I Do Differently Next Time?
Don’t get me wrong, I *love* my iPad. I use it all of the time and my Macbook Pro feels pretty lonely since I bought it last year.
I brought the iPad with me as I felt I did not need to back up my files onto a computer. My D3’s have 2 compact flash card slots which I have configured to write image files simultaneously to both cards in the camera. That way, when I take I shot, I have an instant backup. I did want to check Email (in hotels with WiFi), surf the web, read ebooks, and view the occasional photo … the things an iPad does really well. So in the interest of traveling light, I left the Macbook Pro at home and took the iPad.
During the trip, I would copy some RAW files (I always shoot RAW) onto my iPad (via the camera connection kit, USB cable and CF card reader), delete that ones I didn’t want, and just view the photos I liked. I kept all of the RAW files on the compact flash cards (i.e. I never erased any of them) and when I got home, I transferred the content of all of my cards onto my desktop Mac for processing in Lightroom.
The iPad was great for viewing images, but when there were about 1,000+ RAW files on it, it would start to do strange things and ran really slowly (I still had lots of free memory on it). It was running iOS V3, so maybe the newer iOS V4 might have solved some of my problems.
There were a few days when we were at sea where I had the time to sort/organize my images in Lightroom. That is when I wished I had a Macbook Pro (or a suitable notebook computer) with me. I normally travel with one, however, I figured that since I had automatic backups in camera I wouldn’t need it.
Truthfully, I didn’t need a computer. But I wanted one for those days we had a lot of down time. It would have made my post processing life a little easier back home if I had my images sorted and culled before I arrived back in Canada.
So, live and learn. The iPad is a fantastic device and it does many things well, especially if you are a casual photographer who shoots a small number images (< 1,000) on vacation. But for those of us with thousands of files (especially RAW) who need to sort and potentially process images, a notebook computer (with external storage for backup) is mandatory – at least for now given where the iPad is in its evolution.
Next time, I will also bring a tripod with me. I didn’t want to be “bogged” down schlepping lots of gear, so I left it at home. There were a few times, however, where I wanted to get several different exposures of the same high contrast scene so I could merge them into one to increase the dynamic range of the shot.
So there you have it. My Antarctica equipment schpeel. I will discuss various items further in future posts in the days to come.
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