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Packing for a four-day workshop can be a heavy task, determining what lenses to bring and what to leave behind, what filters you might need, and, perhaps the biggest dilemma, what camera bag to use.

The following dispatch comes from Michael Mariant, our Director of Workshop Operations, who has just started a four-month (yes, not four days but four months!) journey along the Atlantic Rim with the Semester at Sea study abroad program. Michael will be teaching Storytelling & Travel Photography on his voyage, traveling to Ireland, England, Belgium, Paris, Spain, Portugal, Ghana, South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil (including sailing up the Amazon River), Dominica, before returning stateside in Florida in early December.

“Packing for a four-month trip can be quite daunting, especially when it comes down to what gear actually makes the cut and ends up in the camera bag … and what gets left behind in hope you don’t need it. I’ve been very fortunate to have been working with the Semester at Sea program for 10 years now, and have sailed several times with the program, including twice around the world, along with several other voyages and shorter 1- to 2-month trips. Each voyage is a little bit easier to plan and pack for as the knowledge of what you really need versus what would be nice becomes clearer and clearer.

The first time I sailed on a four-month voyage, I spent probably a full week or more planning, packing, unpacking, packing again, unpacking, and then adding more in the bags before I finally departed with way more than I needed to bring. Did I really need to bring the 4×5 camera and 20 film holders with me? No. Two field strobe lighting kits? No.

I remember about half-way through the voyage, looking at a pile of gear at the bottom of the closet in my cabin and wondering “what was I thinking???”

Now, I have the packing down to a science. So much so that I now am able to pack all my clothes and photo gear … on the day that I am leaving. A lot of that has come down to knowing what I need, knowing what I can get, and being organized in advance.

To start off explaining “What’s In The Bag”, I laid out all my camera gear, computer gear and miscellaneous little things out on the bed to snap a shot of the full pack.

Then I realized that the only camera that wasn’t on the bed was the iPhone, and so in really bad lighting I snapped the really bad pic below.

So working in a top-to-bottom, left-to-right order, here is what “Makes the Bag”:

1) 17″ MacBookPro: The 17″ laptop is considerably larger and heavier than my 15″ laptop, but I know I will be doing quite a bit video editing on Final Cut Pro, so the extra real estate on the screen can make a huge difference.

2) iPad w/stylus and keyboard case: The iPad (along with the iPhone) has become an indispensable tool in the field, allowing me quite often to not have to bring the laptop with me but rather the iPad for download and, if needed, a quick edit of photos. I purchased this 3G iPad in Canada a few years ago, which was ideal as the iPad isn’t locked (literally) into a service carrier for the 3G, instead you purchase pre-paid sim cards for the 3G service. This allows me to use the iPad pretty much in any country by simply purchasing the ever prevalent sim card and drop it in to the iPad for instant internet.

3) MacBookPro Power cord with extension

4) Ethernet Cable for MacBookPro

5) Cable Pouch #1 (green): This pouch contains power cords and connection cords for all the portable devices, including the iPad/iPhone and hard drives

6) Cable Pouch #2 (orange): This pouch contains A/V input/output connection cords for the laptop, iPad and iPhone, including laptop VGA and DVI-D dongles, remotes, an iPod/iPhone to VGA dongle, and the iPod/iPhone Connectivity Kit, which allows me to attach a camera via USB or slide an SD card into the device to download images and videos.

7) Throwdown Wallet: A never used but always ready fake wallet that contains a few bills of local currency, and old out-of-state drivers license, and several fake credit cards (the type that come in the mail with credit card offers). What’s the point of a throw down wallet? The unfortunate and unlikely event that one is mugged or attempted robbery. This gives the perception of real wallet, and many travelers have “lucked out” in only having their wallet taken and nothing else. A throw down wallet is not a solution to avoid being mugged; it simply can be a deterrent, as in one is being threatened and to “appease” them, you toss the wallet on the ground in hopes that’s all they take.

8) Hand Sanitizer & Carmex lip balm

9) Leatherman Wave Multi-Tool: Every travel photographer should have one in the bag.

10) Lexar Firewire 800 Compact Flash Card Reader: I don’t like to wait.

11) Seagate Free Agent GoFlex 500GB Portable Hard Drive w/separate Firewire 800 Cord: These drives are ultra-portable, very reliable and very compact. They come in sizes from 500GB (the thinnest model at roughly 1/2 inch thick) to 2TB and they are only a bit larger in size than an iPhone. The bonus selling point on these drives is that they come with a default USB 3.0 cord, which actually plugs into a removable adapter on the end of the drive. You can purchase additional cords/adapters for a variety of connection types/speeds, including Firewire 400, Firewire 800, E-SATA, and Thunderbolt. This means the drive can outlast the connectivity speed, so when the next “fastest” connection speed comes out, you don’t lose the drive, just the adapter and cable when you purchase the latest/fastest adapter and cable.

12) Seagate Free Agent GoFlex Wireless Media Drive: This drive serves dual purpose as a backup drive and streaming media drive. It is a 500GB Seagate drive, the same size as the rest of the drives in this line but a bit thicker to accommodate the wireless access point hardware. When the drive is turned on, it becomes it’s own wireless access point, allowing you to switch to its WiFi network and access/store/copy any content to the drive. It has full security measures, the same you would find on a wireless router. Plus, it has full media streaming capabilities of any multimedia content on the drive. The added bonus for this drive is that is works beautifully on any mobile device as well, including iPhone, iPad, iPod and Android devices. Seagate released a free app for iOS and Android that lets you see all the content from the drive on your mobile device and stream any movies wirelessly to your mobile device. Plus, up to five users can connect to the drive and stream up to five separate movie files simultaneously.

13) LCDVF: An LCD viewfinder hood, made by LCDVF, that attaches via magnets to a metal frame that has been attached to all my cameras. Shooting video without a viewfinder hood on the LCD is extremely difficult, and this light and compact viewfinder is easy to grab and throw on for quick video footage or for any long shoots.

14) LED headlamp

15) Domke F3-X Camera Bag: I’ll talk about bags at the end…

16) UNDEFINED Fish Bomb: I recently discovered this little neoprene pouch that can old up to four memory cards along with two filters or batteries or any other small items that you need quick and easy access. Both sides of the pouch have velcro closure and the integrated loop allows it be attached to anything, from a belt loop to a camera strap. I keep a polarizer filter, extra memory cards and camera batteries in mine. And they only run $5.00 each at B&H Photo.

17) Extension Cords & Power Adapter: Both cords are five feet in length and multiple outlets at the terminal, doubling as an power strip. The white one is for indoor use and the heavier thicker one is for outdoor use. This power adapter is a 110v to 220v adapter, based on the power fixtures in the countries on my trip. You can purchase single adapters that will work in pretty much any country, mating up to any plug. NOTE: These only adapt to the plug arraignment; they do NOT convert the voltage. If you plug it into a 220v outlet, the current will still be 220v!

18) Intervalometer: You just never know when you might find a location that screams Time Lapse. Or when you just need long exposure camera shutter control. They are small and light and easy to use. And in this case, I have a very large project I will be working on …

19) Fuji X-Pro 1 with 18mm and 35mm lenses: I’ve started using this camera and lens package in the past six months for more and more work and I’m finding it really is a perfect travel camera. Small. Unobtrusive. Good quality. Easy to use. The camera does have its quirks that can be frustrating, but I’ve found that these quirks actually force me to slow down and be a bit more thoughtful about the image I am trying to create.

20) Canon 7D with 10-22mm and 24-105 lenses: This camera package is my back-up package, which I won’t really use much at all for photos (except for time-lapse sequences) but will use if I need any video content that I would like better control of producing. While the Fuji X-Pro 1 can shoot video, it is far from ideal and does not have the manual controls necessary, of which the 7D does.

21) Waterproof Gepe Hard Safe Extreme Compact Flash Wallet: This little guy holds four 8GB compact flash cards in its really secure folding enclosure. These four cards plus the 8GB in the camera gives me 40GBs of shooting space. “Why only 8GB cards? Why not 32GB or 64GB cards?” I dump my cards often and don’t like having several days of content on one card. I do not want to put all my eggs in one basket. If something were to happen to the card, such as it breaks, craps out, theft, hostile confrontation with a subject demanding the card (it happens!), then I don’t lose EVERYTHING, just the last shots since the last card dump.

22) Domke F-803 Satchel Camera Bag: I’ll talk about bags at the end…

23) Manfrotto Modo Stabilizer: This was the last item to make the cut and get in the bag for the trip. Hence, it was also the one item that almost didn’t make it. I’m really on the fence if I will need this or use it, but it is small, lightweight, compact and multi-purpose, so I thought I would give it a chance for this trip. I’ve had the Modo Stabilizer for a couple years now but have never used it. It’s original design was to be a simple Stedi-Cam for small cameras, which allows you to shoot ‘jerk-free’ footage. It’s quite finicky and weight sensitive and never worked with even the lightest DSLR camera. However, when I go the Fuji X-Pro 1, I gave it a test run and it worked well. But the added bonus is the handle flares out into a table-top tripod, and the counter balance can then go out to any adjusted level/position to provide additional support. So instead of bringing a tripod or Gorilla Pod or similar, I’ll give the Modo a shot. Report to come at the end of the trip in December on how well it worked (if I used it).

24) Two-Way Radios: As those who have been in our workshops know, we outfit every participant with a two-way radio and they are highly effective.  If are traveling with others in your group, or with fellow photographers/videographers/producers, these are life-savers. However, check each country’s laws as some governments do not allow the use of two-way radios by the public, regardless if you brought them in and are a U.S. citizen. When you are in a foreign country, you must abide by their laws.

25) Camera Batteries & Chargers: One set of extra batteries for the Fuji and Canon cameras, along with the chargers. I store the extra batteries in the chargers themselves while traveling, then put them in the camera bags.

Which brings me to the camera bags topic…

I will be the first to admit that I have a camera bag weakness, with little restraint in trying (aka purchasing) a new/used camera bag. It’s the elusive hunt for the Perfect Camera Bag.

It took me many years and dozens of camera bags to realize that there is no one, perfect camera bag. Even with the latest variations and incarnations from the wide variety of manufactures, what I can share with you is that, just like selecting a camera, you select a bag for the job it needs to serve. And for as many camera bags out there, there are probably as many jobs they need to server (yes, you could take that as an excuse to buy more camera bags).

To put it simply, there is no camera bag (I believe) that can effectively and securely transport you camera gear from point A to point B while at the same time serve as an effective shooting bag to work from day to day, with ease and comfort, that doesn’t require ‘digging’ or taking on/off just to access your gear.

So the system I have done for my packing includes choosing a ‘shooting’ camera bag and a ‘travel’ camera bag. Yes, two camera bags for every trip. One bag is simply to transport the gear from point A to point B, regardless of travel by car or plane or train, while I also bring a shooting bag that the gear is transferred to upon arrival at my destination. While traveling from Point A to Point B, the shooting bag stows away inside my other luggage, stuffed with clothes or what not that will be packed anyways.

For this trip, I brought two ‘shooting bags’ as noted above: the Domke F3-X black canvas bag and the Domke F-803 satchel camera bag. I am a big fan of Domke bags (probably going back to my photojournalism roots) but they aren’t always my first bag of choice. I also have some Temba, Tamarac, Beseler and ThinkTank bags/sets, but for this trip I chose the two Domke bags simply because of their ease of use, both being shoulder bags that are great for travel photography, They are also somewhat discreet, not screaming “camera bag!”, which is very important when traveling with gear. The F3-X holds the Canon 7D and related gear, while the F-803 holds the Fuji X-Pro 1 and related gear.

[onethird_columns ] [/onethird_columns] [twothirds_columns_last ] What’s not in the above iPhone photo is the LowePro Stealth Photo Backpack, seen at left. This is my standard, go-to ‘travel’ camera bag that I use probably 95% of the time. Mine is the original black version of the backpack (not the shoulder bag!) that is well-worn at the this point, but incredibly functional. It can hold two camera bodies, three lenses, two flashes, a laptop (up to 15″), all battery chargers and cables, and one-day of clothing and toiletries. And it doesn’t look like a camera bag at all.

As an added bonus, when I get to airport security I simply unzip the bag and unfold it open into two parts for the x-ray machine. This allows security to clearly see all the gear inside with no overlap of any of the equipment, which makes the TSA agents very happy. I have only had my gear inspected once in the 10 years of travel I have used this camera bag. 

It is carry-on size and even fits comfortably in the overhead compartment on the smallest of regional jets. [/twothirds_columns_last]

Part of the reason I like this bag is simply because my gear is on me. It’s not sitting on the ground, in a roller, or in a shoulder bag that gets set down. If the bag isn’t stowed away, it is on my back. My gear is with me and I can’t lose it or have it accidentally (or intentionally) picked up in a brief moment of inattention.

Sadly, these backpacks aren’t on the market anymore. But you can find them on eBay.

While I would never think about using it as a ‘shooting’ bag, I would be hard pressed to travel without it nowadays. (I do like the ThinkTank Airport International rolling bags, along with the other Airport bag options, which are incredible ‘travel’ bags, and can easily be filled with more gear than I can put in my backpack. I would strongly encourage those of you looking for a ‘travel’ camera bag to explore the ThinkTank Airport line of rollers.)

Lastly, I’m often asked how do I figure out what I want to pack with me for each trip, and how I keep track of it. Several years ago, I developed a spreadsheet that contains every piece of camera, lighting and computer equipment that I have or could utilize. It also contains a list of specific travel clothing items as well as travel gear that I use often. The spreadsheet also includes serial numbers for each piece of equipment, just to have as a reference.

Before each trip, I print out the PDF of the spreadsheet and begin highlighting the items I want to bring for that trip. Then as I pack them into their respective bags, I check them off the list. Very effective for me and keeps me from forgetting the little items that you might overlook.

I always share the original spreadsheet file with my workshop attendees, and if you would like a copy of the this travel packing list spreadsheet in an Excel format that you can edit and update yourself, just send me a message via the contact form below and I will email the Excel spreadsheet to you.

I hope this lengthy post helps those of you photogs that have travel in your blood. Of course, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

Safe travels,

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Do you want a copy of Michael’s Travel Packing List in an editable Excel spreadsheet? Just send him a message via the contact form below and he will email a copy back to you.

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