I traveled a lot this year, much more than previous years. This is a quick list of what I would consider to be essential items for a photographer on the road.
1. Power Strips
If you’ve ever spent prolonged periods bouncing from one hotel to the next then you’ll know that the one thing they all have in common is a lack of power sockets. By the time you take into account a couple of camera battery chargers, a laptop, flash battery chargers, phone charger, iPod, point and shoot camera, audio recorder and video camera you can imagine how many things you might need to plug in a one time. A power strip is an absolute necessity! Make sure that you get one that is rated for both 110v and 240v or even up to 250v to take into account fluctuation voltages in some less developed areas. One of the best solutions I have found so far is the 3 Port + USB Outlets to Go model from Monster cable. It offers 3 power sockets and a USB charger all in one package, complete with a built in cable management system. The best part about the design is that the 3 sockets are spaced well apart, with one on the back and two on the front. This means that even with the biggest power brick, you can still get something into the socket next to it. It can be had from Amazon for less than $15 and at that price you just can’t complain! Make sure of course that the device you are plugging into the power strip can also handle 240 volts!
2. Plug adapters
You are going to need to adapt the plug on the end of your power strip to fit the local socket type so decent plug adapter is also a necessity. The Warrior Go!Con adapter is a crazy looking device but I have seen it recommended in a few places if you can get hold of it. They come from Japan and whilst you can order them from their website, they are not so cheap. You can also order them from this other Japanese website and pay in US$ this looks like it would be the easiest. It looks complex to arrange, but it does seem to have the biggest variety of plug adaptions that I have ever seen and the whole thing folds flat and fits in your pocket! Quite amazing if you can find one. If you want to find something a little closer to home then take a look at this universal adapter from the online travel store Magellans.
3. External Hard Drives
No matter where you go you should always be backing up your photos. When I’m on the road I use the LaCie Rugged line of drives which I have written about before. So far no problems with them at all and no failures. Prices have come down a bit now and the top of the line triple interface 500gb drive can be had for under $140. Keep an eye out for USB 3.0 drives in the near future though. Right now not many laptops support USB 3.0 but that will all change within the year so expect companies like LaCie to follow that up with new drives. There are drives that are physically smaller but the rubber bumper and internal rubber suspension gives me a little piece of mind. I tend to travel with 2 of these, one of which I format before each trip to use for photos, and the other one contains my music and movie collection. If you keep one set of photos on your laptop and one on your external drive, make sure you don’t have them in the same bag when you are traveling. That way you can’t lose all your shots if the bag gets lost or stolen.
4. Camera Insurance
If you are traveling with professional gear than more than likely the maximum value of gear you have will well exceed any travel insurance policy that you have. A lot of regular policies also won’t cover gear being used for business so you should think about getting everything insured by a specialist. Some people find that adding gear to an existing home insurance policy is an option but finding a company that specializes in camera insurance has a lot of advantages. There is a couple of ways you can insure things with most people, either a worldwide policy that insures your gear wherever you travel for a single rate, or have a policy that cover things when you are home and then add a rider to your policy for each trip that you take. Depending on how much you travel, one of these will work better for you. If you travel a lot then go for the full package and you have one less thing to organize before your trip.
Two important things to look for in the policy; does it cover your gear when it is locked in a car? And does it cover the rental cost of gear if your gear gets lost or stolen? The latter is extremely important. Make sure that if any of your gear gets lost by the airline, you are covered to rent gear to get the job done. Again, specialist companies will have this kind of thing in place already and they will have procedures for solving these problems. Also check with the company to make sure you can easily add more gear to your list as you buy more. Living in Canada I can’t really speak for insurers in other countries but my gear is insured by CG&B Group. Whilst its hard to track down on their site, they do have a specific policy for pro photographers and so far they have been great to deal with.
5. Rechargeable Batteries (NiMH)
It’s pretty fair to say that you will have something in you kit that needs AA batteries, most likely a flash. I much prefer using rechargeable batteries to save the hassle of having to find some in a hurry in an area that you do not know. Sanyo Eneloop batteries are particularly good for one main reason, they maintain their charge. Most rechargeable batteries loose their charge over time. If you have a lot of batteries then maybe there are some that dont get used so often.Â With my old Energizer NiMH batteries I would often find batteries in my bag that had lost their charge and that can be a bit frustrating if you have forgotten to top them all up. With the Eneloops though you can leave them for a whole year and they will still have maintained 85% of their charge. They also make a pretty neat little dual battery charger that will top up a pair of Eneloops via the USB port on your laptop or by using one of the above mentioned power strips that has a USB port. This is very handy if you are running low on power sockets in a hotel room.
6. Have your equipment registered by customs
This information will vary from country to country but I will cover Canad and the USA. I would assume that similar systems are in place in most countries so you might have to do a little research. Note that this is not eh same as the ATA Carnet program. For enormous amounts of equipment the Carnet would still be the way to go but for anything that one person can carry I have not found it necessary. Instead in Canada there is a simple procedure you can do at the airport to register your equipment with customs officials. Called the Y38 form (“Identification of Articles for Temporary Exportation”), all you have to do is show your equipment serial numbers to the customs agent in the departure terminal and they will record it on the form. It is then signed and stamped as proof that you did indeed have that equipment in Canada. One one piece of your equipment is listed the Y38 form is valid for life so you do not need to keep re-registering your gear. Just keep the forms in your travel bag for next time. Upon re-entering Canada if you are questioned about whether you purchased any of your gear while you are away, you can show them the forms to prove that you had it when you left. Note that you can still be asked for proof of purchase in Canada if they want, but I have never been asked. Generally they are just pleased that you were organized enough to get the forms filled out before you left!
In the USA there is a very similar system but the form is called the US Customs form 4457. The procedure is identical, simply find the customs office in the departure terminal and get the to record your serial numbers of your lenses and cameras. The forms are good for life so get them done and keep them safe.
7. Card Reader
You can plug a USB cable directly into a camera to retrieve you images but you will experience download speeds of anything up to 3 times slower than you will get if you use a dedicated card reader and a regular card. If you are using UDMA high speed memory cards then the difference will be even more pronounced. Even though I typically try to take as little gear as possible with me, a card reader is one of those things where I value the speed and time saving it gives me over the relatively small bulk+weight added to my bag. There are hundreds and hundreds of different readers out there but I like to keep it simple with a Compact Flash card reader only. None of this 78-in-1 reader business. All my main cameras shoot CF cards and whilst my Canon s90 point and shoot is SD card I shoot relatively few shots with that camera so it’s not a big deal. I use a Sandisk Cards and a Sandisk Extreme CF card reader. I know that a lot of micro four thirds and Canon Rebel series cameras do shoot SD card though so if you have one of those, or a combination of CF and SD cards then take a look at the Lexard Dual slot reader that is UDMA compatible, or the Hoodman USB 2.0 UDMA reader.
8. Laptop Computer
Lets face it, if you shoot digital then you need a laptop computer. There are far too many possibilities out there for me to run through them all. The type of laptop that is suitable will depend on what you need to do to your images while you are on the road. Some people just need something to download their memory cards and maybe upload shots to a server. In this case you could get away with a small cheaper netbook. Some people need to be able to edit their photos in Lightroom and Photoshop while they are away so something a little more powerful is necessary. By far the most popular choice for creative professionals is the Apple Macbook Pro though. I’m not sure what overall worldwide percentages is but in my industry I would say 90% of people travel with an Apple laptop. For myself I actually do very little editing while I am away but I do like to catalog in Lightroom and I also appreciate the 15″ screen on my macbook for watching movies and TV shows while I am on the plane or at the hotel.
9. At least one short prime lens
I would consider a short prime to be something in the 50mm -24mm range and however light I’m packing I always make sure there is at least one prime in my kit. Why ? Well if it were possible I would only have prime lenses due to their increases contrast and image sharpness. But a kit of primes is far heavier than a zoom + prime kit and due to the type of photography I do weight is a factor. Short prime lenses tend to have a much larger aperture though and having at least one lens with an aperture in the f1.8 -f1.4 range is very useful for nigh time photography in whatever city you find yourself in or photography inside buildings such as museums, cathedrals, restaurants. I often take my best photos when I go for a walk with just one prime lens because it really makes you focus on what you are shooting. On my 5dMKII I prefer a 35mm or 50mm lens but mostly I carry my 1dMKIV with a 24mm f1.4 II mounted on it. If it has to be really lightweight then a 50mm 1.8 on the 5dMKII will do just fine. And photos shot on primes with wider apertures have a very different look to typical shots from most zoom lenses so it really helps to bring some diversity to your shots from a particular trip.
10. Rocket blower sensor cleaner
Even though newer cameras have automatic micro-vibrating sensor cleaning functions, they don’t keep all the dust off. There are several similar products available but the Giottos products do a great job and are available in many different sizes. Due to their grenade-like appearance, expect to get some funny looks from airport security personnel though! Continually changing lenses outdoors means that you will get dust buildup around the mirror mechanism but a few squeezes with the blower and you will prevent that dust from ever getting to the lens. If you have more persistent particles check out the products from Visibledust. I use their wet cleaning fluids every few months and also their statically charged brushes if the blower can’t shift the dirt. Gitottos also do some kits that include blowers cloths and some lens cleaning solution that you can get from B&H
10.5 Local knowledge
I’ll call this 10.5 because this is a small thing and somewhat dependent on what the purpose of your travels are, but if I have been sent half way around the world on a commercial shoot then I always take the time to research local camera stores and equipment rental places. If my gear goes down and needs replacing in a hurry, or the airline loses my pelican case then I already know exactly who I’m going to call.