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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Big Trip

See how National Geographic photographer and Outdoor Photographer columnist Frans Lanting gears up for an expedition. You probably won’t ever need as much equipment with you, but there’s a lot to learn from his approach.

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As one of the top nature photographers in the world and a famous member of the National Geographic photo staff, Frans Lanting travels extensively. His global odysseys frequently take him to corners of the planet where facilities are few and far between. He needs to be sure he has all of the gear necessary for the job and that he has backups of everything. You may not need the multitudes of equipment that a National Geographic photographer needs, but there’s a lot to be gleaned from Lanting’s packing regimen.
When Lanting knows that he’s going to leave the pavement behind, he fills up a photo backpack that he either brings into a plane cabin, or he checks it inside a rolling studio soft case, both made by Tamrac. “Soft cases can’t stand the same abuse as a hard case such as the ones made by Pelican,” he says, “but they’re a lot less dead weight to check at the airline counter, and with excess baggage charges now kicking in at 50 pounds instead of 70 pounds, that can make a difference on a tight budget. If I end up checking a soft case,” he adds, “I will often add protective layers inside and around the backpack for extra protection, such as clothing and tarps. Less vulnerable gear like Lumiflex reflectors, black velvet background fabric for photographing subjects in the field or in museums, a BushHawk shoulder stock for tracking birds in flight, a portable wildlife blind and many other gizmos go into duffels padded with clothing and hiking boots.”

For the kind of major international expeditions that have yielded some of Lanting’s most famous images, more specialized gear comes off the shelves. “When I leave for a serious field trip that can be two months or longer,” he explains, “Pelican’s hard cases are great because they’re bomb-proof, watertight and they have also served over the years as flotation devices, camping tables and convenient places to clean fish. As long as you keep the O-rings intact, the air inside can keep the cases afloat, even with cameras inside. The downside of Pelicans,” he cautions, “is that they can weigh up to 22 pounds even when empty, so I take out all the interior dividers and instead load them up with photo packs. It rapidly adds up to 50 or 70 pounds, so I pad out the rest of the cases with sleeping bags, clothing and other lightweight gear.” And what about security? “To reduce the risk of loss or theft,” he advises, “I spread critical equipment across different cases. I hedge my bets. I never use metal cases; they stand out too much and say ‘steal me.’ Besides, in the Arctic, a metal case would be really painful to handle at 30 below.”

Under really frigid conditions, Lanting has resorted to powering his Nikon cameras with external battery packs kept close to his body. “At the other extreme, when I have to go off the grid, I pack folding solar panels made by Brunton, but they recharge slowly,” he says and recommends that it’s better to take along extra camera batteries. The Nikon MB-D10 battery pack for his D3 also has the capability to be powered with AA batteries.

On major expeditions, Lanting will take several Nikon camera bodies along, including Nikon’s high-end D3 or D3X, which he swaps out for a more compact Nikon D300 or D700 when he has to cover a lot of ground on foot. His lens arsenal includes several zoom lenses, which deliver more range for less weight. They range from a 12-24mm ƒ/4 to a 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 and a 200-400mm ƒ/4 supplemented by critical single focal-length lenses such as a 500mm ƒ/4 for serious wildlife work. Of course, Lanting travels with his MacBook Pro laptop wherever he goes and uses it to offload his images, which then get backed up on portable WiebeTech hard drives. “But,” he says, “when I have to go into a wilderness area, I’ll leave my Mac behind and take an Epson P-5000 viewable hard drive along.

“When I take off on a big trip, I may show up at the airport with six to eight pieces of luggage,” explains Lanting. To make the most of airline baggage allowances, he travels with a compact luggage scale made by Travelon that enables him to fine-tune each piece to within a pound of the maximum allowance. Lanting tapes plastic luggage lock straps to the inside of his checked pieces with a friendly note to security officials to please use those if necessary. He has often found that TSA-approved locks get snipped off by harried security officials, and the plastic lock straps enable them to resecure his bags.


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