Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Photography and Long-term Travel

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Branches, Capilano Suspension Bridge Park; Vancouver, Canada

The demands and challenges of photography on a long trip are fairly different from a vacation-length trip.  Primarily, the difference is in the volume of pictures, but there are other surprises too.  This is a collection of ideas, tips, and lessons learned while taking pictures for a year on the road.  Some of them may also be helpful for vacations, or even general use as well.


Storage

The number of pictures you’ll take while traveling is one of the most obvious challenges, but focusing only on storage will leave you blindsided with a mess if you don’t anticipate, and plan accordingly for organizing those pictures.

The question of storage is relatively simple, though it revolves around some hard choices of weight and expense.  How many pictures will you take, and how much gear will you carry?  If you are planning to take a laptop, you have the flexibility for a huge number of pictures, especially with the addition of a lightweight external drive or two.  If you are unwilling to carry a laptop, you will either need to invest a large amount of money in memory cards, or severely limit your shutter finger.  You may be able to carry just an external hard drive, and use public computers to offload images to it, but you will be at the mercy of available computers, functioning/accessible USB ports, and you will be at risk for picking up malware on your drive.

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Butchart Gardens; Victoria, Canada

Some additional, practical considerations in favor of taking a laptop:  It is very useful for researching travel plans, and for booking transit and accommodation.  Lana attempted to use a tablet for both, and found that it was unreliable.  Some sites simply were not designed to work with a tablet, and she had to use the laptop regularly.  The tablet was great for light-weight browsing of major, popular sites, but when the website for the one hostel, bus, or train that fits your needs was designed for IE 6 (no, we’re not kidding, and it was not that unusual), and nothing else, it’s really nice to have a laptop.  It is also perfect if you are planning to post blog updates as you travel.  For long-term travel, a trustworthy (non-public) computer is also essential for arranging payments, and scheduling any funds transfers with online banking—you don’t have to worry about a key-logger recording the credit card numbers, or the password/URL combinations you type.

Keywording

After you’ve dealt with storing all of your pictures, a less obvious challenge to taking lots of photos is managing them.  At the end of your trip, when you have thousands of pictures (we had 34,000), how are you going to use them?  When you want to show someone that picture of you riding  <some animal> at <some location>, how are you going to find it?  If you don’t plan for this, it will be like finding a needle in a haystack.  We found that using the laptop to offload our images helped us with the volume of pictures in two different ways.  First, we were able to add keywords to images as we imported them, usually the same day we took them, when the details of who/what/where in those images was still fresh in our minds.  Second, we were able to rate our images as we reviewed them, reducing the number of pictures we'd be coming back to look at in the future substantially (roughly 10% were of a quality we'd choose to post).  Later yet, as we had time, we would apply post-processing to the best ones, while we were still traveling, so we didn’t have a looming stack of 34,000 pictures to deal with when we got home.  Instead, we had a very manageable, searchable library, and about half of it was already post-processed and ready to share or post.  The remaining half was already rated, so we only had roughly 1,800 pictures to finish with post-processing.

We used Adobe’s Lightroom to import, process, and manage our image library.  We can’t say enough positive things about it.  It’s much cheaper than Photoshop, and much, much easier to use.  Despite all that, it’s very powerful—arguably, it’s more powerful for photography than Photoshop is.  While David has been using it for six years, Lana only started using it on this trip.  She found it easy to navigate, and was soon very comfortable using it.

It may sound tedious, but it only takes a few minutes to add keywords to your images while you are reviewing them.  Keywording create a searchable index of your pictures; it will allow you to display just the pictures containing specific people, for example.  We were generally interested in seeing the day’s pictures each evening, as we were winding down, so adding keywords fit in very easily with importing them to the laptop, and then reviewing them.  A side-benefit of importing and reviewing frequently—on a large screen—is that you can spot any issues with your camera before you take more pictures: a smudge on the lens, dust on the sensor, or simply a camera setting that’s out of whack (prior to this trip, David had shot an entire day in ISO 6400, but thanks to reviewing, never two days in a row).

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Glacier National Park

We would start by adding broad keywords (country, for example) to all of the new pictures from that day as part of the import process, in Lightroom.  Then we’d add keywords to subsets of pictures, or individual pictures as we browsed through them.  You will develop a sense of what keywords to use as you go, but it’s worth thinking about before you leave, so that you start out with reasonably consistent keywords.  Place names, countries, cities, and peoples’ names are a good start.  We also added the names of hotels and restaurants, which really helped when David fell behind in keeping his journal up to date.  We also added keywords for things we knew we’d want to find later, for a blog post, slideshow, etc.  Things like funny signs, dogs (and cats) around the world, pretty spider webs, etc.  There is definitely a balance between too much and too little keywording, but consider as you review your pictures if something is striking, how you will find that picture again later.  For us, adding a keyword was usually the simplest solution.

If you are using Lightroom, you may also want to plan out keyword hierarchies in advance, though you can always add them later, as it makes sense.  For example, we added country keywords to all of our images, and grouped them by continent.  Now we can select the entire South America keyword group, to see all the pictures shot there, or we can expand that, and select just Peru.  Once you have the parent keyword group created, you can add subsequent pictures to a child member of that by typing the keyword as “parent > child” (or in our case, "South America > Peru", but without the quotes).  Since Lightroom auto-completes existing keywords as you type, this is very fast and easy to do.

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Acadia National Park

Memory Cards

Regardless of your storage strategy, when it comes to memory cards, we’d recommend overestimating how much card space you will need.  Ideally, you would have two or more cards for each camera, and rotate them out of the camera as they fill up.  That balances the wear on the cards (each memory site has a finite number of write operations before it fails, at which point your card capacity starts to shrink), and depending on your backup method, it also gives you an extra layer of recovery.  It also helps if one of your cards fails (we had two SD cards fail).  We’d also highly recommend you never delete images directly from the camera; plan to have enough card space that you won’t ever need to.  Deleting from the camera will eventually end badly—it is so easy to mistakenly delete the wrong image (despite the are-you-sure prompt), and it is very difficult to reliably compare the focus and quality of two similar-looking images on the small LCD, which often only displays a low-resolution thumbnail representation, even when you zoom into the image.  If you’re taking snapshots and don’t care if you delete the sharp focused version(s) out of a set of images, then you stopped reading several paragraphs back.  If you’re still reading, you care about your pictures.  Take it from someone who has learned the painful way; just download everything to a computer, and delete the crummy version later, when you can tell which one is the crummy version, on a large display, with the full-sized original, not the miniature thumbnail.

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Galapagos, Ecuador

Backups

Again, if you’ve read this far, you care about your pictures.  It’s vital that you have a backup method that is stress-free, and works for you so that you still have all of your images when you get home.  David wrote about his backup strategy in detail in this post, but very briefly, he used Lightroom to make a backup copy to a second drive while he was importing images.  Then, before moving to the next hotel, he would make secondary backups to two additional external drives, via scripts, and then store each drive in a separate piece of luggage in case any bag was lost.  The easier your backup method is to run, the more likely you are to run it frequently, so if you have a choice between tedious and simple strategies, bias towards the simple one.  A bullet-proof scheme that you rarely run is not as useful as the slightly vulnerable one you run a few times a week (within limits, of course).

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Galapagos, Ecuador

Photo Series

Before you travel, spend some time thinking about series of pictures or themes you might want to capture along the way.  Do you want pictures of all of your meals?  Signs with country or city names on them?  Photos of tickets for museums and attractions with the attraction in the background? Pictures of all your guides, or of all the travelers you meet along the way?  Knowing what you want in advance makes a big difference, compared to thinking of how great it would have been to take a picture of all things X, when you’re already halfway through your trip.  You’ll certainly think of some of those late anyway, but some forethought can really help you to start on the right foot.  Also, make sure you think of the keywords you will use to find those pictures, and remember to add them as you review your pictures.

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Camera Hand Off

Camera Tricks

We shared all three cameras we took.  To keep track of who shot what, whenever we were both shooting with one of the cameras on the same day, David would take a picture of his hand with his palm away when Lana started shooting with that camera, and another picture of his hand palm up when he started shooting with it.  That way, after importing the pictures, it was easy to update the metadata with the correct author.

On days when we were shooting at multiple locations, we would try to remember to take a picture of a sign, just to delineate the two, and remind us to change the keywords while reviewing the pictures later.  Lana took pictures of our plane, train and bus tickets to post on Google+ each time we moved to a new country, and those ended up being very handy visual cues for correctly keywording the country names for the images in that import.

We also took pictures of restaurant names, and sometimes menus, to help us remember details (or foreign spelling) for both journaling and our meals slideshows.  Several times, we snapped a picture of an area map at an attraction or tourist information center, so we could refer to it again while walking around.  Beyond taking pretty pictures, a digital camera can be a very handy record keeper for mundane things.

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Parrot; Buenos Aires, Argentina

Time Zones

You’ll be crossing time zones regularly, and it’s really useful to have a time stamp on your images that is accurate to the local time, especially when you get more than a few zones away from home, and start running into date shifts in the evening or morning.  Find something to act as a trigger or reminder to update all your cameras.  If you’re traveling by plane/train/bus, there will usually be an announcement of what the time is at your destination, and David would either change the cameras then, or set a alarm to remind him to do it at a more convenient time and location.  He also took pictures of each new hotel room, to help us remember where we had been, and he used that as a trigger to update the time as needed (for example, when we’d driven across time zones, and there was no external reminder).  Many cameras have a world travel time setting, so you can simply change the time zone, without having to change the actual clock time, which is fast and convenient.  One thing to keep in mind, however, is that some cameras (Canon, for sure) write that modified time zone in the metadata; video files typically do not carry metadata, so you may find that your images all have the local time, but your videos show the time from your home time zone, and will display out of order when you review your images.  Lightroom makes this easy to correct: from the Metadata menu, choose Update Capture Time… and select the ‘Shift by set number of hours’ option, and then the difference between home and local time.  You can select all of your video files (from a day, or from multiple days in the same time zone) and apply this change to all of them at once.  Alternatively, you could simply disregard the ‘travel’ time setting, and just change the ‘home’ time zone.

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Perrito Moreno Glacier, calving; Argentina

Batteries and Chargers

Take at least one spare battery for each camera, and keep that spare in a place that you will take with you when you take your camera, so you always have a backup if you run your camera battery down in the middle of the day.  Always rotate the batteries when recharging, to spread the wear of charge/discharge evenly among them.  One of the lessons David learned the hard way was keeping his camera’s battery charger in his carry-on bag, along with his camera.  Fortunately, he had three spare batteries, and they lasted through 5 days of intensive shooting in Madagascar, when both of our checked bag were left in Kenya, and had to catch up as we kept moving each day.  It’s more weight and space in your carry on, and David would remove the charger for any day trips, to lighten his pack, but it’s worth the sacrifice.  We were able to purchase spare clothes in Madagascar—but there’s no way we would have found replacement battery chargers if the bag had been completely lost.

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Ultima Esperanza Fjord Forest; Puerto Natales, Chile

Alternate Camera

An alternate camera can be a backup in case your main camera is damaged or lost; it can also give you flexibility for different kinds of travel and photography.  We ended up taking three cameras, with the middle-sized one being an alternate for either one of us.  For David, it was a great light-weight alternative to the DSLR; for Lana, it was a good option for days or scenes with lighting that challenged her pocket camera (especially low light, or high-contrast light, mid-day).  Make sure your alternate is one that you enjoy using, and which produces images that you are happy with—that will increase the chances you will take it along when you want a lighter camera (or a heavier one, depending on your primary).

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Puerto Varas, Chile

Security

We certainly don’t want to advocate traveling in a state of fear or worry, but theft and accidental damage are valid concerns.  We feel like you can mitigate those risks with some moderately conservative practices.  The simplest is probably one of the most effective, but it’s also easier said than done.  A constant awareness of your surroundings, and where your camera equipment is, will go a long way to ensuring you and your gear are not the easiest target for a thief.  It’s easy to become distracted when you’re surrounded by beautiful scenery, or digging into a delicious meal; to safeguard your gear, yet remain relaxed and enjoy yourself, cultivate a habit of putting your camera away when you’re not actively taking pictures.  We talked to a couple of different travelers whose pocket cameras (and all their images) had been snatched from their tables while eating at a restaurant.  For larger cameras, remember to sling your neck strap across your chest, with the strap on one shoulder, making it a more difficult target for snatching away from you (this also relieves pressure on your neck, a more likely threat).  Scanning crowds and making eye contact can be quite fun as a traveler; it can also help you identify people who aren’t smiling at you, or staring at you as an oddity, but are scoping the crowd for targets—and if you make eye contact, they’re likely to seek out more oblivious tourists.

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Wellington, New Zealand

A practical bag can also help.  A boring satchel or a generic backpack stands out less than a dedicated camera bag.  David found that he could hide either the mid-sized camera or the DSLR behind his satchel, with both camera and satchel slung cross-body (the satchel was draped over the camera body), yet still be able to quickly grab the camera when needed.  Since generic bags don’t have great padding like camera bags, consider a padded insert (Crumpler’s Haven, for example) to cushion your gear.  Extra lenses can be well protected using a neoprene insulator for a water bottle, as the diameters are usually similar—take your lenses to a camping supply store, and try the fit in their neoprene bottle section.  For pocket cameras, always use the wrist strap—it’s annoying, but not as annoying as a broken camera.  We’d also recommend a light case for pocket cameras that’s very easy to use.  Speaking from experience, we have three different small cameras with lenses that were scratched when some sharp object in a purse pushed aside the sliding shutters that are supposed to protect the lens, and then gouged into the lens coating.  If we’d always put those cameras in cases (*cough*Lana*cough*), they’d still be pristine—and creating images without blemishes.

Depending on where you are staying, you may not want to leave your camera bag in your hotel room when you’re away.  We stayed in many hotels that didn’t have a room safe, and a few that didn’t have a locking door.  Where a safe was available, we would store the large camera and the primary backup drive in that; where it wasn’t, David carried both with him in a backpack or satchel when we left for dinner.

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Dunes, north of Perth, Australia

On the more paranoid side of the spectrum, you can also tape over the brand and model information on your cameras and lenses, so they stand out a little less, or just so you’re not a walking brand advertisement.  Low-tack gaffers tape is a good option.  David applied tape to both the mid-size and DSLR cameras, and it held up the entire year without peeling off.  Obviously this will be a waste if you don’t also replace the stock camera strap, which usually features the brand name in large, bright letters.  Even if you’re not that paranoid, a third party camera strap is often an improvement (in both comfort and durability) over the lackluster ones that come with even mid-range DSLRs.  We really liked straps from both Op/Tech and UPstrap.

Cleaning

We used a Lens Pen and microfiber cloth for cleaning our lenses, which they needed pretty regularly.  We’ve had very good experience using the lens pen on previous cameras, and there’s no concern with liquid cleaning solution and airline travel.  We also used a rocket blower regularly to keep dust off the DSLR's sensor, and also to clear dust from the camera bodies.  David took care not to change lenses in dusty or windy environments, and that, combined with the blower, kept any noticeable dust spots from accumulating on the sensor for the entire year.

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Hong Kong Flowers

Enjoy

It’s easy to get stuck behind your camera, or enslaved to lugging it with you everywhere; don’t forget to set the camera aside and enjoy yourself.  Having a light camera you trust can also be a great way to change things up, and spend a day lugging less gear, but still getting good images.  Some people find less gear means less stress—try to figure out if that’s you in advance, and then pare down to the minimum.  Conversely, it’s good to know in advance if you’ll spend a little time each day regretting that you left a certain piece of gear at home.  Everyone has a different just-right balance.  David thought he knew what his balance was, but after six weeks on the road trip, he discovered he was wrong, and he left two lenses behind in the US, and never looked back on the international leg.  Lana was generally happy with just a pocket camera, and the occasional use of the mid-sized camera.

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Hanoi, Vietnam

Gear Recommendations

If you’re interested in the specific photography gear that worked well for us, we’ll list it here—all of this info is scattered in other posts, but until now, it hasn't all been in one spot.  For what it’s worth, we have not set up any kind of link monetization on this blog—the links here are just for your convenience.

Our laptop is a Lenovo Thinkpad X220, configured with a core i7 processor (which configuration also allows USB 3.0), the IPS display option, and 8GB of memory.  That horsepower was very useful for processing large, RAW images.  At the time we bought it, the largest drive Lenovo offered was a 340GB, and they were not yet shipping it with the mSATA drive option.  David replaced the internal drive with a 500GB before we left, and took the stock drive along as an emergency spare.  If the mSATA had been available, he would have definitely gotten that, and used it for the OS, keeping the large, magnetic drive for images.

The primary external drive is a 2.5” Silicon Power A80, with a 1TB disk.  It is impact- and water-proof, and uses USB 3.0, which in David’s tests, ran as fast as the laptop’s internal SATA disk.

The secondary backup drive is a 2.5” Western Digital SE 1TB USB 2.0 (no link--it is old enough that it’s no longer available).  The tertiary backup drives (which were shipped home roughly every 3 months to circumvent data loss in case we lost all of our bags) were bare, 2.5” 320GB SATA drives, which were housed in simple plastic cases and connected to the computer with a USB-SATA cable (that bundle includes both the cable and the cases, but they can be bought separately too).

Our main card reader is an old Kingston that is very well reviewed, and has held up for many years.  We also carried a spare card reader, in case of failure; it is a newer Kingston, but we used the old one because the integrated cable was easier to use.

David’s primary camera is a Canon 7D.  It is weather sealed, and we confidently shot with it in mist and light rain, and used a disposable rain sleeve as a precaution in heavy rain.  The two lenses we traveled with were a wide-angle 17-55 EFS f/2.8, and a 70-200 EF f/4 IS.  We carried a circular polarizer for occasional (but indispensible) use on the wide-angle lens, and kept a UV filter permanently mounted on the 70-200, to complete it’s weather sealing.  We used a rotation of four 16GB SanDisk CF cards; two Extreme (60Mb/s) and two Ultra (30Mb/s).  All of this was cushioned in a large-sized Crumpler Haven, which in turn was carried in an Osprey Quasar backpack.

Lana’s primary camera is a Canon 310HS.  We only had one 16GB SD memory card for it.  We went through a couple of inexpensive neoprene cases during the trip.

Our shared camera is a Canon G12.  We started out with three 8GB SanDisk SD cards; two of them failed during the trip, and we replaced them with a single additional 8GB SanDisk card, so that we had one spare to be used for either of the smaller cameras.  We used the G12 in an underwater housing when snorkeling, kayaking, or anywhere we expected to get wet.

We carried a LensPen, a generic microfiber cleaning cloth, and a small rocket blower (stored in a zipper bag, to keep dust from getting inside it).

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Leaves on Boat Wake; Mekong River, Vietnam

There you have it. Although it sounds like we had this all figured out, we spent the whole year coming up with systems that worked for us, and they were always evolving. We wish we'd come across a post like this before we left.  Hopefully this will help someone get a head start in thinking about a system that works for their goals, whether it is for everyday photography, a two week vacation, or a crazy idea to travel for a whole year.