Photography, Technical Stuff

Wilderness Photography Kit

8 Sep , 2014  

Camera kit doing its job during a downpour.

Camera kit doing its job during a downpour.

I mentioned in an earlier post that my main reason for investing in the Fuji X-T1 was related to an upcoming trip I was taking.  Well, I’m back from that trip and thought it might be interesting to review what went right and wrong, along with thoughts for better planning for the next trip.

The task was to allow me to do some photography during a 5-day canoe/camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (located on the border between Minnesota and Canada).  We were to be paddling on several lakes and portaging between them.  A rough total of 30 miles.   When you have to haul your gear / food / boats up a 1/4 mile long, 600 foot rise (one of the portages) you look for conservation of weight and space.   The kit also has to handle getting getting wet (up to and including immersion).

Faced with this task, my Canon gear was not going to make this trip — this is how my gear travelled:

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Two items: the MeFOTO tripod (and other support items) and a dry bag with the cameras, etc. (the boards are 5.5 inches apart if you want a size reference).  The tripod and whatnot weighed in at 4.6 lbs, and the camera gear topped the scales at 9 lbs. even, a total of 13.6 lbs.

The first level unpacking of the dry bag is here:

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l-r: dry bag, 14 watt solar power and storage, GoPro Hero 3, X100S, 10-24mm lens, 18-55mm lens, X-T1, LowePro utility bag, lens bag, iPhone (not shown).

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The Brunton SolarRoll-14 comes in a tube.  I think the newer models have more of a fold-out book form factor.  I took advantage of this setup to the fullest.  You’ll note on the outside of the tube was several feet of gaffer’s tape, which always comes in handy.  And the hollow center of the tube was stuffed to the gills…

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Inside the tube was a busy place too: 14 watt solar array, 55-200mm lens, cables, Watson AC/DC charger for the X-T1 batteries, 2 polarizing filters, spare batteries and SD cards, lens cloths:

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The Watson charger can charge the X-T1’s W126 batteries and has a USB port so it can be used to charge the GoPro and iPhone.  I opted to carry a spare battery for the X100S instead of trying to find/bring a separate charger.  This turned out well as the X100S sips power compared to the X-T1 (especially if you keep EVF use to a minimum) and after a week of use I barely touched the first battery’s capacity.

The tripod bag was fully utilized as well:

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MeFOTO tripod, Ultrapod 2 tripod, GoPro head mount.

The result was a compact, relatively lightweight kit that was suitable for travel, landscape and limited wildlife photography:

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So, how did it all perform.   Generally speaking, very well.  Everything that needed to stay dry, stayed dry – despite some rather hazardous conditions.  No malfunctions.  Given my relative inexperience working completely cut off from the world, I felt that the kit could have worked for a month or more before I would have exhausted the cards (I had 4x32GB SD cards for the Fuji cameras, plus 32GB in the GoPro.)  Adding additional cards really doesn’t cost much in terms of space or weight, so it’s a budget and planning issue only to stay “off the grid”.

That said, I learned a lot on the trip which will make future trips of this type much better.   It should be noted that this was not a photography trip.  This was a paddling and camping trip on which I brought my cameras.  The other people in my group were not photographers and, quite frankly, taking photographs came second to safely and successfully completing the trip.   (If you’d like to read about the trip itself, and see the photographs I did manage to take, I wrote a travelogue on my “personal” blog.  Click here.)

Everything sealed up, but readily accessible.

Everything sealed up, but readily accessible.

Charging the batteries (hiding from the sun under the PFD) Note the gaffing tape holding solar array to the boat.

Charging the batteries (hiding from the sun under the PFD) Note the gaffing tape holding solar array to the boat.

Thoughts/tips for future trips:

  • I have a lot of experience shooting from my kayak, but for this trip I was sentenced to paddle a canoe. 🙂  My lack of confidence with that boat made me much more conservative about when gear would come out of the dry bag.   All of the gear just fit into the dry bag.  Critically it was not possible to have a lens on the X-T1 and have the bag close.  This was an error.  I could have used a larger dry bag (although that has other issues), but I think the better answer was a separate, small lightweight “dry sack” that I could pop the two cameras into when underway.
  • It can be cloudy for a number of days and it takes hours to recharge the batteries.  All this means is that just because you have a solar power charging ability conditions and trip timing doesn’t mean that you can burn through your batteries.  I was extremely conservative with my battery use on the X-T1.  I would plan out my images, turn the camera on, take my shots, and turn the camera off.  I had envisioned being able to charge while paddling, and this may be possible in the right conditions and with a confident paddler.  I’d have no problems figuring this out in my kayak, but it never came to be on this trip.  This meant that charging was limited to sunny, non-paddling time in a spot with no trees overhead — a rare confluence.
  • The X100S is an awesome travel camera.  I really should get a strap for it.
  • If you are charging the battery in the GoPro, you aren’t using it for photography.  GoPros eat batteries.  Do the math.   (Not sure exactly what the right answer is here: separate charger or bring lots of batteries…)
  • Don’t be lazy sealing up the dry bag – you never know when things are going to turn ugly.
  • I damaged the MeFOTO tripod when it was asked to be part of my “survival” gear instead of photographic equipment.  If you read my travelogue you will see that I had a bit of a run in with some heavy wind and surf and, long story short, I was trying to do a bit of bushwhacking.  The MeFOTO tripod has this cool feature where you can remove one leg to use as a monopod.  I used it as a walking stick.  It’s a good tripod but not suitable for supporting me bumbling around and I bent the thinnest extension.   I was able to bend it back a bit and recovered most of the use of the tripod.  Kudos to the MeFOTO team for making such a flexible product.   I’m still drying it out…
  • While the MeFOTO tripod worked well as a survival tool, I need to rig a level for it.  The ball head clamp has a small bubble level, but frankly nowadays that’s not where I need one.  My camera has a level built into it – what I need is a level base so I can do panoramas.  I wish they had witness marks on the ball itself when the plate is parallel to the base.  (I think I can see how I can jury rig a bottle cap and level to fit over the ball head.)
  • When conditions go to hell, the GoPro is a pretty handy camera.  I should get a strap for it as well.
  • My long experience shooting from the kayak made me over-confident.  I should have done some more extensive tests with the full kit while still at home.  This would have highlighted a few of the issues when I had time/resources to fix them.
  • The bulb mode on the X-T1 is pretty cool.
  • The iPhone is still pretty darn useful even when it’s not a phone.   I occasionally used it for GPS, clock, timer, compass, sun path planner, constellation viewer, etc.  Kept it off the rest of the time.  Still had 90% of the battery available after 4 days and topped it off via the solar panel in short order.

Well, that about sums it up.  If you have any questions or comments, please let me know and I’ll do my best to reply to them.

 

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