Your photography trip

Planning stages

These are a few tips that I have often learned the hard way, hopefully they will save you some grief.

1) The right equipment

Everyone carries along items that seem great in theory but are useless in reality. Clothes probably rank top of the list followed by survival baubles that look cool but that you use once (and usually just to pull out to show people how cool it is) Eg. A swiss army knife with USB probably isn’t going to be too useful where you’re going, though it may look nice. So before you go, take a camping trip with all that you plan on going with and see how useful that item really is. Failing this keep your real survival items in your pocket for a day. If you use it, even in the city, then you know that it will probably be useful.

Write a list of all the things that you think you will need and find a tool(s) that meets that need, winnowing out all the extraneous functions. For myself I found indispensable a lighter, a knife, a can opener, pliers, a pen, scissors, tweezers, and a light. This takes most survival stuff out of my consideration.

First and foremost of consideration should be keeping your equipment dry. You’ve probably heard the remark that “there is no wet and dry season but rather wet and wetter season”. I can definitely attest to this as it is very possible to get several days of rain at the height of the so called dry season. This is of concern since all it takes is one good downpour to ruin things. Fortunately there are several solutions both budget and expensive.

i) The Pelican case: Essentially a tough box which comes in a large variety of shapes, and specifications. It is probably the most protective solution. It is water AND air tight. The latter is important when you consider that rainforest humidity is often 100%. They are made of a structural foam resin so that they won’t corrode, dent or crack and are completely submersible, though they float. They typically have cuttable foam inserts to conveniently organize your gear and a one way purge valve to equalize the pressure or if any water should get in then it will not flood your case. They also have micro pelicans which are great for cell phones, pocket cameras or Sony NEX type, money/passport, etc… Examples can be found at MEC.CA HERE.

ii) Dry bags: A great and cheaper alternative to the Pelican. The great advantage is the flexibility of these bags, literally. They are not the rigid, structured boxes of the Pelicans which can be a pain to carry. There are also models that have shoulder straps so that it can be carried as a backpack. A great though admittedly more expensive brand is Sealine, though cheaper knockoffs abound.

iii) Camera housing. This probably elicits thoughts of Ikelite and exorbitantly priced underwater camera accessories, though this need not be the case. This solution extends only to a single camera and lens but is great not only for keeping your electronics dry, but also enables you to take some shots underwater. Brands include Aquapac, DiCaPac and their ilk which can be found very reasonably priced on Ebay for about $30-40 used.

iv) Backpack raincovers, garbage bags, plastic bags… This may seem like an excellent idea at home, and a cheap solution but these are truly insufficient alternatives in the rainforest. Raincovers, the sturdiest of this rag-tag band are very quickly overwhelmed and are too permeable. There are also often micro-tears, just think about how fragile shopping bags are. You will often wind up tearing them at which point they are useless and you need a whole lot of them. If you do this, use at least 3 and nestle them one inside the other. An alternative would be something like a polyurethane or silicon-impregnated cover/tarp to ward off water. The former being cheap but heavy and the latter being expensive and light.

v) Consider a Scotchguard or Revivex type spray for your backpack. This is called DWR or Durable Water Resistant treatment. It is the same approach used to restore Gore-Tex and other water-shedding fabrics. A bottle sufficient to coat your bag will cost about $12 and can also be used to treat other fabrics you wish to make more weatherproof. They typically come as a two bottle set; 1 is used to clean the prepared surface, and the other soaks into and bonds with the fabric to create a hydrophobic barrier. However, it should be stated that this will not make your bag waterproof! It will make it more resistant so that you should be able to make it back to shelter without water ingress, but alone it is not a proper solution.

Water aside, here is some of my indispensable ‘pocket gear’ :

a) Flashlight (Fenix LD20):

People very often make the mistake of thinking that they will get back from a hike before night falls. Usually they do. But when they don’t they can be royally screwed. So insure that that doesn’t happen. Carry either a pocket flashlight on a keychain or a quality flashlight that will get you back safe.

b) Small swiss army knife (voyager)

This is my new best friend; what it’s got:

  • Large blade
  • Small blade
  • Corkscrew
  • Can opener
  • Small screwdriver (also for Phillips Screws)
  • Bottle opener
  • Large screwdriver
  • Wire stripper
  • Reamer with sewing eye
  • Key ring
  • Tweezers
  • Toothpick
  • Scissors
  • Mini screwdriver
  • Multi-purpose hook (parcel carrier)
  • Nail File
  • Digital Clock
  • Alarm
  • Timer
  • Pressurized Ball Point Pen
  • Straight pin
  • Patented Mini-screwdriver
  • LED White Light
  • Phillips Screwdriver

Now there are a couple functions like the screwdrivers which I don’t find particularly useful, but overall, and for the size this met my needs very well. The pen, clock and light are functions that you might not find on other multitools which I have found particularly useful. Small LED light is great as an emergency light should either the batteries run out on your flashlight, or if you need to find your larger flashlight in the dark.

c) Lighter (the million match):

I have not seen any reviews of this guy so I will include one in my gear reviews section when I have the time. Basically it is a stainless steel, waterproof casing that you use as a flint. However the the metal strike surface is screwed into a small reservoir of diesel or gas so that when you strike the ‘metal match’ it will ignite. Since it uses a very small amount of oil it can be used for prolonged periods of time, it can be refilled, the container is waterproof and it is very small. The longer metal rod that acts as the match stick is also great for lighting a portable stove and not burning yourself like a regular lighter. When it gets wet it doesn’t matter, shatter proof, etc…The simpler the design, the better and this is pretty damn simple. What will it cost you? About $1 on eBay…yes, $1… God bless the Chinese and their lead based manufacturing processes!!!

d) Leatherman (Skeletool):

A nifty pocket sized multitool. I picked this one up because I wanted a larger, locking blade than my swiss army provided. It also has a clip (semi-carabiner style), pliers, screw drivers, bottle opener and wire cutters/strippers. Fortunately the latter functions which I don’t really use are unobtrusive and don’t take up any extra space. This can clip onto any loop that you have, making it super handy to have around while also allowing you to join any two objects with loops together. All stainless construction makes it durable as well. Beauty is that you can pick these up used on eBay for about $20.

e) Keep a snack or energy in your pocket (not chocolate as this will just end up as goo). Useful for quick energy should you get lost, makes for a nice extra snack. Can use the foil inside to reflect and signal and any other use you can make of foil.

Advice on other essentials to come

2) Camera Considerations

a) Assume WHEN, not IF your camera will fail. It will either be stolen or fail due to the humidity. Best laid plans and all… What to do then:

Carry a spare!!!

Okay, not feasible for everyone but if you can this will save you a lot of hassle! What I carried on my last trip to Ecuador: (2) 5D mark II’s, (1) 7D, (1) Panasonic Lumix LX3. “Is that 4 cameras, what are you going to do with 4 cameras??!!!” I am often asked.

Allow me to explain:

-My first 5D II got held up in the Ecuadorian postal system for the final 2 months of my trip. This one didn’t even make it out of the starting gate. Scratch 1 off the list.

-Second 5D II failed from water damage…and then stolen

-7D functioned as my go-to camera, got many great photos…until it was stolen.

-Panasonic LX3 great for city and from the hip shots…stolen

And then there were none…

You see where I’m going with this right?

For the normal and not overly unlucky traveler I would suggest a DSLR and a pocket camera. The latter is best for city shots but also for hiking shots. Allow me to elaborate on the second point. When you are hiking/trekking you may be carrying all your gear, navigating difficult spots on the trail, sweating, being attacked by mosquitoes or all of the above. Do you really want to get out your nice camera, set it up and organize a shot under these conditions…I didn’t think so. A quick snapshot is great though, pull it out from your pocket, click, put it back and keep on hiking. I particularly like the LX3 for its good image quality and manual mode which is not often available in point and shoots.

Creek crossing. So I just crossed a creek, I’m soaking wet in sweat and water, mosquitoes abuzz around me. Do I really feel like digging through my bag looking for my camera right now? Probably not, but I would like to capture this moment of my friend/guide making his way across the creek. Solution is the point and shoot.

You sometimes see something that transfixes you while you’re hiking. It is just a moment before you continue on. You don’t have the time for anything else but point and shoot.

b) Microfibre cloths

I couldn’t get enough of these super convenient items. Pick up a 10 pack from your ‘local’ overseas chinese merchant and you’re off to the races. Lint free, quick drying, lightweight, highly portable solution. Put ‘em out in the sun and they dry in about 10 minutes. I always keep a couple in my pocket, another 2 in my camera holster and several backups in my backpack.

Many people say to use silica in the jungle to absorb moisture so that you don’t get lens fog. I have found this solution impractical in terms of portability, weight and sustainability. Once these get wet or saturated they need to be baked to get them to work again, sometimes not possible. The sun can work wonders, but what about in the rainy season? You need quite a few of these to throw in with a camera and all your lenses. My solution? Keep a few silica packs in with your microfibre cloths in a ziplock to keep them dry. Then you will always have a dry cloth to wipe the fog and moisture from your camera and lenses which will get foggy no matter what precautions you take (remember the humidity in some jungles is 100%).

c) Cheap spare lens solutions

So one of your lenses has bit the dust, it has been stolen, damaged, etc…What do you do? I try and conscript another lens into doing double duty by using an adapter. If you’re a wide angle photographer and you’re primary wide angle is no longer functioning bring along a good adapter for one of your other lens.

My macro specific solution. My mpe-65mm lens had faulty electronic couplings making the aperture stuck at f/2.8. The most useless aperture as luck would have it. I shoot 90% of the time at f/11, so I took it in to a Canon authorized dealer. Price of fixing it was essentially the cost of a full replacement. So I asked them to open it up and manually set the aperture to f/11. It will not be able to be changed from this aperture, though it will at least still be functional and not a salvage lens. Go figure they take apart the lens but the alignment is off and they are unable to put it back together, the threads just won’t align. Not their fault since Canon South America has been given the short end of the stick and don’t have most of the spare parts or equipment that their North American counterparts have (keep this in mind should you have camera trouble). So what replaces an mpe?

Fortunately I still had my 100mm macro (pre-stolen that is). I had also carried along a Raynox MSN-202 adapter. This is a 4X adapter, getting me all the way up to 5X with my 100mm! This will still not give you the quality of your primary, but it is an excellent backup that can at times give you results that are almost indistinguishable! So, just what can you do with this adapter? Let’s see…

A golden mosquito taken in Ecuador at about 2-3x magnification with Raynox MSN-202 adapter on Canon 100mm USM f/2.8 lens.

Stick insect headshot composed of a 7 image stack. Taken with Raynox MSN-202 and Canon 100mm.

Drawbacks to this system are the noise produced, decreased resolution and difficulty of used compared to the primary lens.

Noise- The depth of field is even more minuscule than using the mpe-65. Therefore to achieve the same results of f/11 with mpe one needs to use ~f/22 with the Raynox. Such a high f-stop produces a lot more diffraction and hence noise. This can be smoothed out in post production with noise removal software but this may leave undesirable artefacts in your image, best to avoid it in the first place if you can.

Resolution- It is very good for an adapter, as you can see at this web based size it appears very sharp. However, with a high resolving camera like the 5D II which has 21.1 MP and especially if you want to blow the picture up to poster size, the resolution and pixelation of the image will become readily apparent.

Ease of use- The Mpe is designed to be convenient with its telescoping helicoid, it goes seamlessly from 1x-5x in small increments. The Raynox may jump between magnifications more based on the turn throw of your lens (Ie. the canon 100mm requires relatively few turns to go from infinity focus to 1:1. On the other hand Zeiss and Leica among others may require 2 full turns of the barrel to achieve the same thing. This makes for a much more incremental and smooth transition between focus slices.). Where this adapter shines though is that you can simply take it off, put it in your pocket and once again you can go from 1:1 to infinity unlike the Mpe.

Finally, you can get these new for about $90 or else used for even cheaper.

d) Scratched glass?

Are you finding that your adapters, lenses and filters are getting scratched? A practical solution is to take felt, velvet or microfibre cloth and sew it into a coat or pant pocket or use it as a liner. In my pants I have a microfibre pocket. It has velcro on the outside to attach either inside the pocket or wherever I choose. I can take it out if I’m doing more strenuous activities or leave it out when I’m doing photography. This way I can just pop the filter/glass element into my pocket, bag holster, whatever and not have to worry about it getting scratched.

3) Fake currency

This is a problem in most developing countries, especially prevalent if you go to South America. I will start posting side along comparisons in this section of real and fake currencies to help you distinguish. A few pointers though: Always check for a watermark, it is not considered rude to look at every bill with scrutiny, the merchants do it, and you should too. Look for hard to forge features like embedded fibres, holograms, paper type, microprint or under UV light. If you are unsure of a bill take it to the bank, a money changer or a casino. Don’t accept large denominations, if someone is insistent on paying you with $100 ask for two $50′s instead, lessens the chance of getting screwed. Yes, coins are also falsely minted. The peruvian sol has been so widely forged that these false coins have pretty much been accepted by most people. Once looking through my money I found 1 in 4 were false. Some places are still sticklers though. So most falsities are on the crest. The lama might be missing one leg, or the tree, one branch. They are small distinguishing features and much less likely to be picked up when someone is passing you a whole roll of coins. These are best used for baksheesh/tips.

Using fake currency to your advantage:

Most people have heard of using a fake wallet. I don’t like the extra weight and filling it with money means you still lose money. Therefore I will collect any fake bills or else I will go to a money changer and pay them $5-10 and ask for any fake bills that they have got. I will then put these in my sock and should you get held up, you very obviously and painstakingly go to your shoe, money-belt, whatever looks convincing pull out the fake bills and hand them over. Make a show of it, try haggling, saying that it’s your only money, etc…. This is like a magic trick and involves misdirection. I have never seen a thief do anything but count the money, none are expecting to be given a packet of false bills. My real bills might be kept either right below the fakes in my shoe or else under the sole in my shoe in a waterproof baggie, a false pocket, what-have-you.

Stay tuned for more advice

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