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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What gear to pack? What to leave at home? If you don’t have it, you can’t use it, balanced with the fact that too much equipment can slow you down and you miss the opportunity to put yourself in a position to get the shot in the first place. This never-ending balancing act has to be addressed before hitting the road for a photography assignment, whether it’s to another part of the country or halfway around the globe. Few photographers have had to fill in the blanks correctly to these questions that can make or break an assignment more often or for a greater variety of destinations than Frans Lanting.

“Every trip is different,” Lanting explains, “but they tend to fall into a few categories, ranging from a casual trip in which photography isn’t the primary focus, to a domestic shooting trip, or a compact overseas assignment and, finally, a serious expedition with all the bells and whistles. I adjust what I bring according to climate requirements and logistical problems and, of course, photographic needs. Obviously, going to Antarctica requires a different solution than when you’re going to the tropics.”

Lanting’s massive and well-organized multi-shelved equipment storage space in his studio in Santa Cruz, Calif., is stocked with every conceivable piece of well-tested camera and expedition gear. It includes a large array of camera bags, photo backpacks and rolling cases. “I threw my back out in Borneo the day I turned 40 from carrying too many heavy tripods and long lenses around the jungle,” says Lanting. “That’s when I swore off shoulder bags. They contort your spine. Now I only carry backpacks, chest pouches and waist belts, and I transport my equipment in rolling cases as much as possible.”

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Lanting’s most basic kit consists of a Nikon D90 camera body with a Nikkor 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 VR lens in a Tamrac pouch or daypack for casual outings, and he’ll bring along a small Gitzo GT1540 tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-25 ballhead if he feels he needs it. Both items fit easily into a single piece of carry-on luggage or get checked in a suitcase at the airport.

For a short domestic assignment, Lanting will fill up a Tamrac or Think Tank rolling case that he can bring into a commercial plane as a carry-on. It gets loaded with one or two camera bodies. His current workhorse is a Nikon D700 with 17-35mm ƒ/2.8 and 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 Nikkor lenses, a set of two tele-extenders (a TC-14 and a TC-20), one or two Nikon SB-900 Speedlight strobes with SC-17 cords for off-camera use, compact Lumiflex softboxes and a bunch of other peripherals. His Gitzo GT2540 tripod with a heavier Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead gets checked in a duffel or a Tamrac 6060 rolling studio soft case, as is his preferred lens for working with wildlife, a Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ/4. With that lens, he often uses a projected flash device made by Visual Echoes that extends the reach of his strobe. A versatile Really Right Stuff flash bracket connects that projected strobe rig to all his telephoto lenses. Since he went digital, Lanting has far fewer filters in his bag because of white balance options on his camera and the ability to correct things later in Photoshop. But he still packs a set of graduated neutral-density filters made by Singh-Ray, which also produces the warm circular polarizers he considers essential items for any photographer.


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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.”

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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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When he has to leave on a big trip with new gear, Lanting will take his complete equipment kit to the U.S. Customs office at a nearby international airport the day before. He brings along an itemized equipment list with serial numbers printed on multiple copies of his studio stationery along with appropriate customs forms. U.S. Customs agents will check off his gear and verify his equipment lists with official stamps. He has found those official lists to be essential pieces of paper for both entering other countries, as well as for reentering the U.S., and a much easier solution than dealing with complicated and expensive carnet requirements.

lantingIn The Field With Frans Lanting

Getting everything set for a major expedition is no trivial matter, but after the stacks of cases arrive at the destination, a photographer needs to have the appropriate bags to carry the day’s equipment into the field. Here, Lanting uses the Tamrac Extreme Series Backpack, Model 787. The chest pouch is the Tamrac Compact Zoom Pack, Model 515, worn using the Tamrac chest harness, Model S-500. With this system, Lanting can carry his gear for the day.

For nature photography, a durable, well-designed, well-made backpack with protection from jostling and the elements is mandatory equipment. Notice, in particular, that Lanting has a compact tripod strapped to the Tamrac Extreme Series backpack. Many photographers are too quick to dismiss a tripod as an inconvenience, but pros like Lanting think of them as essential equipment. Many of the best photo backpacks have special attachment systems to secure the tripod, making it easy to carry and always at the ready.

For more information, contact: Tamrac, www.tamrac.com.

Lanting says that being prepared to travel greatly increases the odds of a successful mission. “It’s one thing to forget a piece of equipment when you’re traveling along a highway in the United States,” he adds. “It’s quite another when the final destination is a jungle camp in the Congo Basin or an island in the Antarctic, where there aren’t any camera stores or FedEx deliveries around the corner.”

To see more of Frans Lanting’s photography, visit www.lanting.com.

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