Since I arrived back home a couple of weeks ago, a few people have contacted me to ask me questions. I’ve therefore decided to answer these in my next blog posts. My answers will hopefully be helpful to many people.
Several questions were about the photographic gear I used. This also was a really tough problem for me to solve before leaving for my trip last year. Long term travel and good photographic equipment don’t go well together at all for a simple reason: weight. When traveling it is important to pack as lightly as possible. Unfortunately good photographic equipment tends to be very heavy! I’m very picky when it comes to photography and I didn’t want to compromise my image quality by going for a small compact camera. So here is what I decided to bring with me:
Nikon D700 camera with R-Strap
The D700 is a great DSLR that is particularly suitable for demanding travel photographers. It is relatively compact and lightweight (995 g or 2.2 pounds). Another amazing feature of the d700 is its fantastic capacities in low light situations thanks to its full frame sensor. This is great since I chose not to carry a flash with me. The battery of the D700 is also very impressive: I didn’t bring another battery and never missed it. I was able to use the same battery for two weeks in the jungle without charging it!
As you can see on the picture I followed the advice of a traveller I met on my trip and completely camouflaged my camera with tape. The goal is simply to make it look old and cheap and avoid embarrassing questions from locals on its price. I really don’t like to attract attention with my camera and this made a huge difference.
Before leaving I also chose to change the strap of my camera. First of all the Nikon straps are made to attract attention and I hated that. But also I love to wear the strap around me like a messenger bag, to avoid having the camera right on my belly where everyone can see it. The system offered by the R-strap allowed me to do so and not lose time when I wanted to take a picture. Check out their website for more information.
Nikon 20mm f/2.8D lens
A very compact ultra-wide lens. And I really mean ultra-wide, the results on full frame are impressively wide. It’s a great sharp little lens, very useful for dramatic landscape and architecture, but terrible for portraits. The only lens I had with auto-focus.
Voigtlander 40mm f/2.0 Ultron
This small adorable pancake lens might well be the ideal traveller’s lens. It’s extremely small and discrete, but always delivers great results. 40mm is also a great choice on a full frame as a walk-around lens.
Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 Nokton
For some reason, many of my favorite shots were taken with this very special lens. It has two great advantages that convinced me to keep it: it’s a very fast lens opening up to f/1.4, which is great in low light situations. It also has 9 blades which results in a lovely creamy bokeh (blur), which the 40mm ultron doesn’t have.
Nikon 105mm f/2.5AI
I chose to buy this 30 years old lens second hand for a couple of reasons. Firstly the modern Nikon 105mm f/2.8G prime lens is ridiculously big and heavy. Secondly, this old lens used to be a real icon back in the 70s. It is said for example that Steve Mc Curry’s used it for his famous green-eyed afghan girl photo. And I really fell in love with this lens. It is solid as a tank and has a lovely special character.
Giotto’s Rocket-air blower
The problem of course with all these prime lenses is the dust that comes on the sensor when changing them. It is a big problem and there is no real solution for it. To minimize the dust on the sensor I used this great air blower.
Finally to carry all this equipment around, I was using this handy backpack, with a special compartment at the bottom for the camera and lenses. I love this solution as it is much less obvious than a big photo bag when walking around.
Three last important questions had to be solved:
- Tripod or not?
Another very big dilemma that I thought I had solved by bringing a very compact Cullmann Magic II. But time proved me wrong and I had to leave it behind after two months to avoid that extra kilo in weight that was killing my back. I also realized that I wasn’t using it much anyways.
- Zooms or fixed (prime) lenses?
For a long time, fixed lenses have been known to provide better quality than the more convenient zooms. However, today zooms have evolved a lot and the quality of the best zooms is now said to be equivalent to some prime lenses. But guess what problem these zooms have? They are huge, and they are heavy. I decided I wouldn’t feel comfortable at all walking in some village with a huge zoom. And I wanted to avoid their weight, so I went for several small fixed lenses.
- No autofocus?
You might have noticed that only my 20mm lens has autofocus. All the other lenses have to be focused manually. I chose these lenses simply because they had the best picture quality with the smallest size. Having no autofocus ended up not being a problem at all though. On the big viewfinder of the D700, focusing is really easy. The only times where I really missed it where when my subjects were moving very fast. But by sacrificing the autofocus, I saved a lot of space and money, while keeping a great image quality.
Despite doing all I could to limit the weight, all this equipment ended up being… too heavy! So what I’d recommend is to take even less lenses along if possible. Other than that I am really satisfied with the results and think that this for me was really the ideal equipment to bring along on such a long trip.