I’ve Been Downsized

Thinning out your gear makes travel photography a whole lot easier

This Article Features Photo Zoom

photo traveler
Making do with smaller lenses doesn’t mean giving up quality. The 70-300mm filled the frame for a gorilla close-up.

Despite what we read in the headlines, downsizing isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, in terms of travel photography, it may be something to which you should aspire. Airlines are getting stricter with baggage weight limits and per-piece charges. Many adventure-travel destinations require travel on small airplanes, trains, dugout canoes and bicycles, all with stringent luggage allowances.

Then, there’s you yourself. Can you really carry around a 30-pound camera bag all day anymore? (If you’re under 30, you don’t have to answer that last question. If you’re over 30, you’re beginning to get the idea. And if you’re over 50, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

Use It Or Lose It.
I remember reading years ago about a solo adventurer, famous for scaling Everest alone without oxygen and other superhuman feats, who was so fanatical about saving weight and space on his treks that he cut the handle off his toothbrush and shaved most of the sole off his hiking boots to save a few ounces. His theory was that the ounces he shaved off wherever he could would add up eventually to pounds less that he’d be required to carry.

Planning for two recent assignments brought up memories of that interview I read a long time ago. One would involve flying on bush planes in Africa—total weight allowance on these small aircraft was 24 pounds per person. That’s everything, including clothes, cameras and computer gear. The trip to Peru involved taking the train to Machu Picchu with a recommended per-passenger load of one bag of 14 pounds or so!

Truthfully, I had been looking to lighten my load even before these assignments, but they provided the perfect impetus to get it done. So here’s what I came up with.

Cameras & Lenses. I’ve been a DX-format guy since the beginning of digital (yes, I’m sorely tempted by the excellent high-ISO/low-noise performance of the FX-format D3, D3X and D700, but not by the size of these superb cameras), and the D300 has become the digital equivalent of my all-time favorite Nikon film camera, the F100. Both cameras are rugged and do everything I need them to do and nothing I don’t. But even the D300 is a tad hefty when we’re talking about the severe weight restrictions I’d be facing. Enter the D90—similar size sensor, SD instead of CF cards and a good bit lighter, smaller and cheaper. Yes, it’s not as rugged or as full-featured, but I was willing to make that compromise. I had one body (I’m intrigued by the HD D-Movie function and will write about that in a future column), so I added another and decided to leave the D300s at home.

Lens-wise, I passed over my usual trio of a 12-24mm ƒ/4, 17-55mm ƒ/2.8 and 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 VR—all excellent and stalwart optical performers—and instead took the 16-85mm VR and 70-300mm VR Nikkors. These are smaller, lighter variable-aperture lenses, and I carry them occasionally as spares or backups to my main glass.

I’ve had a long-standing dislike of variable-aperture lenses, but these new VR lenses have helped me overcome my old prejudice. Their ability to allow handholdable shots with lower shutter speeds, along with the excellent high-ISO performance of the D90 and D300, have softened me on their usefulness. Still, I do like to shoot in low light, so I supplemented them with the excellent new 35mm ƒ/1.8 Nikkor and my old trusty 85mm ƒ/1.8 Nikkor, two very small, lightweight primes. As a backup (in case one of my lenses was dropped or stolen), I threw in the excellent, lightweight, all-purpose 18-200mm VR. All told, my bag was about half its usual weight.

What I gave up with this solution, besides size and weight, was also the 12-15mm wide-angle range. I was worried about that, and had the lens been an 18-85mm instead of a 16mm (with wide-angle lenses in this range, every millimeter counts), I probably would have brought it along. But the 16mm is just that much wider, and I found I didn’t miss the wider range much.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

photo traveler
The 16-85mm was perfect for fast-moving dance action.

Notebook Or Netbook. Both assignments would involve downloading, backing up, captioning and renaming my files along the way, and sending previews to editors when possible, so I’d need a computer. I’m a fan of using an Epson P5000 or P7000 for a laptop-less travel job, but while these units are great for storing, viewing and backing up images on the road, it’s still tough to rename and impossible to caption. So my first line of defense for lightweight travel wasn’t going to work for me this time.

Now, I’ve been a Mac guy since the ’80s, when I tried to write a document on my wife’s PC. It was a nightmare. I went across the street to a neighbor who had an early Mac and did it effortlessly. From that moment on, I was sold on Macs; I still am—with one small exception.

So far, Apple hasn’t delved into the sub-notebook, or netbook, category of laptops. Sure, they made the MacBook Air, an elegant fashion statement that one photographer described as the “best $3,000 second laptop you’ll ever own.” That’s my impression—it’s thin, but the footprint is still large, the hard drive options are too small, and don’t even get me started on the lack of ports.

That’s why I was intrigued by netbooks—little, no-frill units with eight-inch screens, respectable 160 GB drives, built-in SD card readers, tons of ports, wireless Internet, a two-pound weight and, best of all, they’re only about $400. They come in Windows or Linux versions, and even though I’ve had some run-ins with the Windows operating system, my USB cellular modem requires Apple or PC operating systems, so I went with the PC version of an Acer Aspire.

What a little gem this computer is! Yes, the screen is sketchy, quality-wise, and almost impossible to profile; the need for constant virus scans by the pricey protection software is annoying; and the Windows OS is, well, let’s just say it ain’t OS X. But the size and weight, or lack thereof, is its crowning achievement. Right away, I’m down to half the weight and size of my usual (and much beloved) 13-inch black MacBook.

Totally inspired by this little find, I looked for other ways to lighten up. Over the years, I must have accumulated 15 or so bus-driven, 2.5-inch auxiliary hard drives. They’re small and they work well as backups to the laptop, but the smaller netbooks don’t put out enough power through their USB ports to run them, so I’d have to take along separate power sources for the drives. There goes the size/weight advantage. But maybe, I thought, there’s something smaller. Enter the 1.8-inch hard drives.

These mini-drives are becoming more popular, and I found a couple of 120 GB USB drives that drew enough from the Acer’s USB port to run. They’re tiny—about half the size and weight of a typical 2.5-inch drive. My computer bag is now half its usual size and weight.

Clothes Don’t Make The Man. With my camera and computer bags at half size, it was time to look at my wardrobe. Thanks to microfibers, Supplex nylon and other high-tech fabrics, I lightened my clothing load years ago. I can take a few pair each of easy-wash, quick-drying pants, underwear, shirts and a photo vest and be gone for months, just washing them out in the sink or shower every other night and having them dry in the morning. My entire outfit can fit into a two-gallon Ziploc® bag and my toiletries into a one-gallon bag! So there’s nothing much I can do to go much lighter.

The Final Frontier. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to give up my ƒ/2.8 Nikkors, D300s and MacBooks anytime soon. They’re still the “first string,” the starting five, the go-to guys in my little photo arsenal. But having the smaller stuff as a backup for those times when every ounce counts—and those times seem to be coming up more and more lately—is a great comfort.

Of course, there’s one other way I could lighten my load. Even a cursory look in the mirror tells me that dropping 20 or 30 pounds of me would be another great idea. But that’s going to be a long, hard-fought battle and a column for another day!

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops, visit www.bobkrist.com.