Equipment for Cambodia

Foreword

My forthcoming trip to Cambodia will be my fifth ever. On each previous trip, I have used a different range of equipment, making mental notes on what is necessary, what is unnecessary, what works, and what doesn’t work. My equipment choices for this trip have been based on past experiences, as well as preferences I’ve come to have in the four years since I was last there.

The main foci of my equipment selection include, but are not limited to: size and weight; reliability; speed and ease of use; image quality; and fitness for purpose. While pontificating on whether or not a piece of equipment would find a place in my travel kit, I questioned how well it fitted within these criteria; the equipment which fulfilled the most criteria, and fulfilled them the best, found a place on my packing list.

Since this will be a verbose, text-driven post, it has been split into sections covering accessories, computer equipment, digital equipment, film equipment, and the bags in which they will be carried. While each section stands on its own, they all combine to create, what I feel, is an effective travel kit that should foster some good photography (if I’m doing my bit properly). In juxtaposition to these sections is the final section of this post, which will cover my previous choices, and why I’m avoiding them this time.

This foreword goes forward no further; the content cometh.

Accessories

To verify in-camera meters, or determine exposures where in-camera meters are utterly perplexed, I will be carrying my Sekonic L-358 FlashMaster. The meter is a splash- and dust-proof unit, light in weight and reasonably compact in dimension, with a backlit screen for use in all lighting conditions. While I have only owned the meter for a couple of years, it has an excellent reputation for reliability, is rapid in use, and has features such as dual ISO readout, contrast and averaging functions, to make it a worthy addition to my kit.

I will only be taking one flashgun: the Metz 54 MZ-3. While I prefer the Metz 76 MZ-5, I have settled on the 54 as it is smaller and lighter, without being unduly compromised in terms of features or power. The 54 boasts AA battery power (rather than a proprietary power pack that is impossible to replace on short notice), and high-speed sync (which is a handy option to have in the bright conditions I will be encountering). I will not be taking any light modifiers (i.e. softbox and bounce diffuser), as these occupy bag space that could be put to better use. Reliability is above reproach (hence keeping it in use for seven years), and, should setting changes be called upon, the control dial is quicker and simpler to use than the push buttons on the 76. With the addition of two SCA adapters, and an off-camera cable for Micro Four Thirds, this flashgun is fit for all my needs.

Long exposures will be facilitated by four pieces of equipment: the Benro Travel Angel tripod JJC JM-E wireless remote, a generic cable release and an LED head torch.

Of all my tripods, the Travel Angel is the smallest and lightest, but still sturdy enough to support the camera gear I am taking. The screw lock legs are a slight issue in speed terms, but not to the extent that they become a rate limiting factor. The legs are also sealed against dust and moisture, and readily disassembled for field repairs, alleviating any reliability issues. To add to field serviceability, I am taking an allen wrench for making adjustments to leg fixtures, and a stubby blade screwdriver, for use with the camera quick-release plate (of which I only have one).

The JM-E remote is a relatively new addition to my kit, but has performed flawlessly thus far. My main attractions to it were the short cable (I broke the long cable on my last remote release) between the camera and transmitter, excellent remote range, and visual confirmation by coloured LEDs on both the remote and the transmitter, which remove the guesswork from operation. There is no perceptible lag to slow proceedings, and the system is quick to both pack and unpack. It’s counterpart, the generic cable release, is there for the film camera, should I be inclined to do any film long exposures.

My head torch isn’t anything too spectacular: it’s an Energizer hard case, with two output levels, and an option of red or green lighting. I normally use it on full power to find my way to a site for the tripod, then switch to red to maintain good night vision for surveying the scene, while being able to adjust controls on the camera. It is light, tough, and has excellent battery life.

For planned black and white work, and situations where the ambient light is simply too bright or glare-ridden, I have 52 mm screw-in filters, with step-down adapters to cover use on all bar one of the lenses I will be taking. To save time, these can be left on a lens, but if not, they are quick to change. Reliability is assured by the companies who produced them: Hoya, B+W and Tiffen, who are all long established and widely regarded as quality manufacturers. These may or may not be used, but are light, packed in compact pouches, and will always be better in terms of quality and effectiveness than post-processing in a computer.

To keep everything clean, I carry a small blower brush, which I only ever need to use should there be more dust than lens visible.

These accessories combine to expand my creative scope, and in some cases, are imperative to success under certain (or all) shooting conditions.

Computer Equipment

As with most of my other trips, my beloved black MacBook (known affectionately as the DonkeyBook, for its workaholic nature and utter dependability since I got it in 2006) will be accompanying me. Since DonkeyBook is incompatible with OS X Mavericks,  I cannot share my Aperture 3 library with my iMac. As a result, I will be using Olympus Viewer 3 to edit photos on the move, then DropWaterMark to watermark photos for upload to this blog.

Since DonkeyBook is in its autumn years, I have invested in a Deep Cool N1 cooling pad, to prevent the catastrophic side-effects of overheating, which is an all too common occurrence while editing RAW files. The N1 is slender and easily packed, meaning I won’t have an excuse to leave it behind. This will become more important, as I am going to be responsible for handling the photos off somebody else’s camera as well as those off mine.

To preserve camera battery power, I will be using a Silicon Power USB 2.0 card reader to transfer files from SD cards to the computer. I chose this reader for its compact form, and total compatibility with all computers that I have access to.

In addition to the 128 GB solid state drive fitted to DonkeyBook (since I threw it on the floor earlier this year; long story…), I will be carrying a 1 TB USB hard drive, partitioned into two halves (one for each photographer being handled by DonkeyBook), to back-up all photos, should DonkeyBook finally retire from this world. The hard drive will also be used to transfer photos to Aperture 3 on my return to New Zealand.

DonkeyBook, with the external drive and cooling pad, give me a reasonably compact overall system, with proven reliability, and enough safeguards to prevent any untoward occurrences…

Digital Equipment

This is quite predictable: I’m taking the OM-D EM-5 and the PEN Mini E-PM1.

The OM-D will be outfitted with the full battery grip, grip strap and neck strap. This allows me to leave it hanging around my neck when switching lenses, or when using another camera. The PEN Mini will not be used with a strap, as this would be likely to tangle in my waist pack, and the camera is light enough to hand hold without fatigue, anyway. The PEN Mini will, however, be fitted with the VF-1 optical viewfinder, so that photos may actually be composed in the bright sunlit conditions to be encountered.

Due to having completely forgotten about needing spare batteries until typing this, the PEN Mini will only have one battery, and the OM-D two. These will be kept topped up as much as possible to minimise the likelihood of failure in the field. To accomplish this, I am taking both chargers, and two short leads for the chargers. In my experience with the system so far, the battery life is more than adequate for a day’s shooting, provided one is sensible and doesn’t leave the camera switched on whilst it’s in a bag or simply not being used.

I am only taking three lenses between the two cameras: the 17 mm f/2.8, 25 mm f/1.4 and 60 mm f/2.8. These represent the three best (of five) Micro Four Thirds lenses in my collection. Of this trio, the 17 mm is the weak link (in relative terms), so that will be permanently fitted to the PEN Mini, where the lower resolution of the camera’s sensor won’t stress it as much. The 25 mm and 60 mm will be used exclusively on the OM-D, where the higher resolution sensor is able to make the most of the higher resolution and sharpness attainable with these lenses. I will primarily be using the 25 mm on the OM-D, as I find it to be a better walking-around focal length than the 60 mm.

To handle the pictures, I will be using two 8 GB, one 4 GB and one 2 GB card. I normally put an 8 GB card in the OM-D, and the 4 GB in the PEN Mini. The spare 8 GB and 2 GB cards are in case of a card failure, or filling one or more cards when it is impractical to download to the computer. Being SD cards, they are all very compact, and do not take up any meaningful amount of space.

In all the use I’ve given them, these cameras and lenses have posed no reliability issues. Save for the 25 mm lens (equivalent of the 50 mm on the OM-2n), there is no overlap between my film and digital kit.

Film Equipment

This is again quite predictable: I’m taking the OM-2n. The OM-2n is a part of the most complete film camera system I currently have. In addition to this, it is the smallest interchangeable lens camera, one of the lightest, and built to cope with the conditions it will be facing in Cambodia. Plus, since it works out to be the cheapest and most readily replaceable film camera I have, should it fail, it isn’t as catastrophic as it could be otherwise.

My lens selection again encompasses three quite capable optics: the Tokina 17 mm f/3.5, Olympus 28 mm f/3.5 and Olympus 50 mm f/1.8. I have had each of these for more than a year, and they have all been excellent in terms of sharpness, colour and contrast. They are also very lightweight and compact, meaning that they are a doddle to carry, and very easy to handle. Another key feature of the lenses is that the release button is on the lens barrel, making one-handed lens changes quicker, easier, and less prone to tear-jerking droppages. Sadly, due to space constraints, I cannot use lens hood on any of them. However, in my experience, they are not especially flare prone, so this should not be a major issue.

I will be taking ten rolls of Kodak film with me: five will be BW400CN black and white negative, and five Ektar 100 colour negative. I am very familiar with these films, and have always like the photographs I can produce with them. Both are processed via the ubiquitous C-41 process, which means they are readily developed at my camera shop of choice in Phnom Penh. To make sure I don’t bungle anything in the field, I will also be taking Kodak’s technical sheets, so that I may fully apprise myself of their technical characteristics whenever necessary.

This kit is a reliable and compact one, which doesn’t overlap with my digital kit, save for the 50 mm lens (equivalent of the 25 mm on the OM-D).

Bags

I will have three bags and cases on me: a Billingham Stowaway Pola, Lowepro CompuTrekker AW, and Benro tripod case.

The Billingham Stowaway Pola was bought specifically to be my waist pack for this trip. I have selected the khaki canvas with tan leather, as this will keep the internal temperature lower, which is safer for what it will be carrying. There was no provision for dividers inside the bag, so I have added two velcro strips, which accommodate one vertical and two horizontal dividers from my larger Billingham Hadley Pro. The bag holds the full film camera kit, the PEN Mini, at least four rolls of film, and the various paraphernalia that one accumulates while travelling. The construction is sound, and it is comfortable to wear. My only concern is how it will affect my belt, but this can be rectified quickly by use of a secondary belt and some belt keepers.

The Lowepro CompuTrekker AW has been my main photo backpack since 2007. It’s slightly uncomfortable to wear, as it’s smaller size tends to put all of the weight on my lower back. However, since I am carrying a lighter kit than ever before, this issue shouldn’t present itself this time. This pack carries my laptop and cooling pad, head torch, filters and remote releases, the OM-D (when it isn’t around my neck), spare lens for the OM-D, SD cards and reader, chargers, filters and adapter rings, light meter and flashgun with adapters. I also carry at least one bottle of water, and any spare clothing I may require. The bag has proven itself time and again under all manner of conditions. Past comfort issues aside, this was a choice that made itself.

The Benro Travel Angel will likely live in its case (certainly the case *ahem* while in transit) for much of the trip. The case holds the tripod with screwdriver and allen wrench, and is small enough to be kept in a suitcase when not required. Where such a storage option isn’t available, it will fold up and fit into the CompuTrekker AW, while the tripod is strapped to the outside of the pack.

DonkeyBook on the cooling pad, in from the of the Lowepro CompuTrekker AW, flanked by the Billingham Stowaway Pola, and Benro Travel Angel in its case.
DonkeyBook on the cooling pad, in from the of the Lowepro CompuTrekker AW, flanked by the Billingham Stowaway Pola, and Benro Travel Angel in its case.

Previous Choices: Critique

This trip, I have been careful to select the best quality equipment from my collection, which is likely to be used, or has the potential to be of use. Previously, I wasn’t so smart: I used to throw in as much as I could, often not thinking about the practical ramifications this would have both on shooting (and on my back, which still isn’t the same after the last load of gear I lugged about in Cambodia).

On all trips, I carried my Panasonic Lumix LS-1. It didn’t get that much use on the last few trips, but was always a good camera to walk around with, and always punched well above its weight in terms of image quality. While I still own it, largely for sentimental reasons (it’s my first digital camera), it won’t be going this time, as it’s not much smaller or lighter than the significantly more capable PEN Mini in practice.

My last interchangeable lens digital kit was a Pentax K10D and battery grip, with 18-55 and 50-200 mm lenses. This camera is one I regret selling, as it was a competent all rounder, and never let me down in the three years I owned it. The photos I took with it on my last trip still hold their own against my more recent work, and are testament to how good a photographic tool that camera was. However, once you factor in a Metz 76 with two smaller batteries and a waist-mount battery pack, a Pentax 100 mm f/2.8, Sigma 150-500 mm, and a Sigma 17-70 mm you bought on a whim, the whole system become slow, clunky, and confusing to use. I often found myself spending more time choosing a lens, rather than taking photos. To add insult to probable back injury, even with most of my collection (at that time) sitting on my back, I still thought I didn’t have enough gear with me. This is why I’ve gone for a lighter kit, and limited my gear selection, so that I won’t get confused or second guess my choices. Sure, I may miss having a zoom, or want another focal length, but in those cases, it’s my fault for not being creative enough to work with what I’ve got to make something beautiful.

The last film kit, in a shoulder bag carried at the same time as the backpack (yeah, I really didn’t think that one through), was a Pentax Z-1 with AF220 flash, Pentax 20-35 mm and Pentax 35-80 mm. It was a sound camera, make no doubt, but much heavier than the OM-2n and three lenses, while having a smaller viewfinder, and overlapping heavily with the digital kit. As a result, I hardly used it. That begs the question: why did I even take it?

Previous to the Z-1, each on separate trips, were a Ricoh 35 EFS, Pentax MZ-5n and Leica R4. Of these, the only one still in my possession is the Ricoh, simply because it belonged to my late grandmother and carries a lot of sentimental value. That was (and still is) a halfway decent camera, though it’s age is showing, as the plastic body started to crack in the heat on its one and only trip there. The MZ-5n was plagued with the tiny viewfinder issue of the Z-1, and mated to the 28-80 mm Pentax lens, was disappointing in terms of image quality. It was a nice and compact unit, but I ultimately gave it away in search of something a bit meatier. That something meatier was the Leica R4, which was mated to 50 and 135 mm Leica lenses and a 2x Leica teleconverter. This turned out some good pictures and was quick to use on the two trips I carried it. However, for such a small camera, it weighed a ridiculous amount: after an hour of having it around my neck, I found myself stooping forwards in agony. I don’t get an agonising stoop with the OM-2n, which also happens to be comparable optically (to my eyes at least) and has a much nicer viewfinder, all while costing me less than 1/6 what the (smaller) Leica kit did. The Leica was sold in favour of the Z-1, such is the folly of youthful exuberance.

Conclusions

Equipment selection is imperative to success in any photographic endeavour: it forms the workbench upon which you can assemble your vision into something truly remarkable.

Besides establishing that critical thought on equipment requirements is something I’ve only recently developed, I have discussed my choices for this trip, and the reasons I have made them. Compared to previous trips, I will be carrying a smaller, lighter, and potentially more capable kit, with minimal overlaps between equipment, and more likelihood of actually handling everything I take beyond packing it when I leave and unpacking it when I return. As an added bonus, I probably won’t be swearing about back pain when I return, either.

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