Things have changed for the traveling photographer. The improvements in quality of mirrorless cameras and upgrade and invention of new technologies have created a new landscape for documentary and on-the-road photography. So much so that my camera bag today, in 2019, looks vastly different than it did just a few years ago. Even the bag itself looks different! Though, ironically, as it streamlines, I’m reminded of the earlier days of shooting on the road with a 35mm film camera.
As I write, I’m preparing for a three-week trip to document one of my clients as he goes on tour around the world. I’ll be on planes, in hotels, on red carpets, backstage and in cars with him, needing to document life as it happens. Here’s what I’m taking:
Then: A large travel case or big backpack used to be my go-to pack for a long job on the road. My big SLR demanded space for itself, an extra body, battery grip and some heavy duty lenses. If I was being very efficient, I brought a 14–24mm, 24–70mm and 70–200mm — all significant lenses. But very likely, I’d bring one or both a 35mm and 85mm prime. This alone required a large case, but with the laptop, hard drives and all the other gear, there was nearly no way to go low key. My go-to pack was a either a Pelican carry on or a ThinkTank Commuter backpack — both of which were small enough to fit into an overhead compartment on a plane (a must for me), but only barely. And then, of course, I needed a smaller bag for daily carrying, too (you can’t spend an entire day with those packs).
Now: Today, when I’m on the road, my set-up is much smaller, thanks to mirrorless camera systems and the quality they are able to deliver. With smaller equipment overall, I can now embrace the new breed of smaller packs which are efficiently designed, with dual main compartments and ingenious uses of space and access.
This trip, I’ll be using the Truckee Series backpack from LowePro for its smaller footprint and thought-through design, which can only be taken advantage of with a smaller system. It features a front area perfectly designed for camera and two or three lenses, a whole other for hard drives and cables. Then convenient pockets for the other things, most of which have also gotten smaller and fit snugly and perfectly into the provided locations. I think this series has been discontinued, which means you can get this one on the cheap. Mine was around $100 at Best Buy. There are plenty like it.
The Camera System
Then: The aforementioned Nikon set-up — my go-to brand since I started in photography many many years ago, with Nikkormat 35mm — a camera designed for just these kinds of photojournalism trips.
Today: I have three main camera systems, which I’ve written about extensively. If you’ve followed along, you already know that an on-the-road assignment like this is where I now choose a mirrorless system. In my case, the Fujifilm X-H1, which has a myriad of photography and video options. There are others of this size and capability, namely the Sony A Series, which is quite popular, as well.
I find the X-H1 to be the perfect crossover camera for both stills and video and I’ve shot everything from reportage photography to music videos on this camera. The only thing it lacks is a full frame sensor — but I won’t be shooting anything on the road here that necessitates that size image, or that kind of dynamic range. In fact, if I had my full frame camera with me, I’d likely be downsizing the files (smaller RAWs) to conserve space anyway.
My mirrorless camera has become my most-used professional camera system, which I often use for brand lifestyle images, video content, events and a lot more. After about four years using it, I’ve learned to trust it as a workhorse camera. A respect that I had only reserved for my Nikon system for decades. This is a huge shift for me and it makes me confident to select it for this kind of reportage shooting. The features on the mirrorless systems are outrageously plentiful and many of them become godsends on the road — including very good in-camera looks that create straight-out-of-the-camera client-ready images, WiFi and Bluetooth enabled connections with a push of a button, fun features like double exposure, interval shooting and panoramas and, as mentioned, a ton of options for video, including 4K, in-camera stabilization, sound inputs, touch screen controls, log video, slo-mo and the ability to dial in video-specific shutter speeds for optimal motion looks. While my work at home rarely needs all of that, the tonnage of options make it a perfect tool when away from home for three weeks.
I usually keep it simple with three lenses (10–24mm, 23mm, 56mm), three batteries and a charger. And 80% of the time, it’s just the 23mm on it, which is a 35mm equivalent. For this trip, I’ve decided to bring a 50mm M-mount lens and a converter. I’ve done this set-up before during my America At Work trip and it helped in situations that were very low light or where I wanted a very very shallow depth of field. Both situations are bound to come up on this trip, as well. To make it as efficient as possible, the 50mm will stay on my Leica M6 until I want to use it on the Fuji. Bringing along a film camera is a nice offset to the digital capturing mentality. Slowing down and getting some beautiful analog images as I go reminds me to love what I’m doing and be creative as well as productive.
Every trip is a little different. I’ve already been told that on this trip there are going to be situations where I’m going to need to get images in places where they may not allow a camera. And I also need to act as a third back-up for video, meaning there’s already a major production crew with us as well as a dedicated BTS videographer — but I need to be prepared to get video, too. Another situational issue here is that the content I create will need to be delivered daily. Knowing these things, I’m bringing the following things to be prepared:
2 x 2TB LaCie CoPilot Drives
4TB of storage will be plenty for three weeks of work. The LaCie drives are shock proof and water proof, both of which are important, but there are two other features of these drives which will make them extremely useful: for one, they have SD card slots built-in along with a single-push transfer button — that’s a huge time save, especially when you’re moving fast and need to offload images and keep shooting. And second, the CoPilot drive is directly accessible with my iPhone. I can plug it in and read everything on it through the app, as well as download and share anything on the drives, directly from my phone. I can also easily send things I capture on my iPhone to the drive. My client is active on social media, so accessing the content and sending to his phone and editors will be easy and quick.
DJI Osmo Pocket
This extremely cool little device is, essentially, a drone camera and gimbal on a stick. But its capabilities are truly astonishing. I’m almost hesitant to even mention this thing because, for the time being, it feels like my own little secret weapon.
Believe it or not, but this thing has a touch screen — though it also plugs directly into the iPhone and can be controlled from the app, too. The touch screen interface takes about five minutes to learn and suddenly a whole plethora of options become available: timelapse, motionlapse and hyperlapse are all easy on here. It shoots remarkably beautiful 4K footage that is incredibly stable, handheld. Its convenient form factor allows you to use it for BTS nearly completely unnoticed. And it has a “story mode,” which will edit together a video for you in any number of styles. But my favorite feature is the 3x3 stitched image (essentially a panorama done in a grid, sometimes called the Brenizer method) — a feature I’ve been wanting every one of my camera systems to figure out, forever. It creates very unique images. And, oh yeah, it gets very nice 12MP photos, too — so when I need to be stealth, I’ll leave the camera behind and use this gladly.
I also have ND filters for the Pocket, allowing me to get daytime video footage more easily.
I used to think I was beating the system by carrying around a MacBook Air. Today, I can get all my work done with an iPad Pro — and then some.
Aside from the ability to use Lightroom, Photoshop and other editing tools as necessary, the iPad Pro is my connection to family back home as well as my own private entertainment device, with downloaded movies and shows, games and the ability to sketch on it, if I have some downtime at a coffee shop. I can check email, Slack, work on documents, text, play music in the hotel room and any number of other things.
Cords and Cards
Again, thanks to new ways of organizing, this is no longer a jumble of stuff in various pockets. I love the dedicated carrying cases available for cords and cards, making connections much easier than it ever used to be. What’s more, I have converters in the cord case for any country.
The Osmo Pocket uses MicroSD cards, not SD cards, so I also have SD sleeves to be able to put that content into the SD card slot on the LaCie hardrive.
Besides the passport and itinerary, that’s basically it.
So, as I zip up and head off to Shanghai, with about 20 lbs shed from my travel weight, I reflect on the possibilities that new technology has enabled in this field. It’s tempting to be skeptical of new things and I’ve traditionally held onto what has worked for me without getting too caught up in what’s new — but I’m having a good appreciation for what I can get done today with a streamlined set of tools. In some ways, it’s more like how it was in the beginning — closer and closer to just being out on assignment with that Nikkormat. And as a photographer, it’s just that much closer to the joy of the medium, and why I got into it to begin with.
Thanks for reading. If you’d like to follow along on my adventures as I travel, find me at Instagram.com/JoshSRose