How To Optimize Your Photo Gear

My wife and I spent a year exploring the world by motorcycle (one bike, 2-up). We both carried Canon digital SLRs & lenses and digital point-n-pray pocket sized cameras.

My photo gear strategy was to invest in the best glass I could afford. The digital SLR bodies are just computers we hang on the back of the lenses and will continue to have half-lives similar to our computer CPUs until the development curve slows down a little (maybe 2-3 years out).

I started with a Canon 10D digital SLR, 16-35mm F2.8 L, 24-70mm F2.8 L & 35-350mm L. I took a 100mm F 2.8 Macro to Africa instead of the 24-70. You can see the entire photo gear list here.

I upgraded to a Canon 1D MkII digital SLR and a 28-300mm L IS as soon as they were available.

Based on my experience I'd recommend the 16-35mm F2.8 L, 28-300mm L IS and the 1D Mk2 as a baseline digital SLR package. It's a heavy package, but built to take the abuse of the road and has the autofocus and frame rate performance you will need to bring back the imaging goods.

If you can't afford both lenses, just get the Mk2 and the 28-300. You really won't use the 16-35 as much as you think you will.

Put extra padding in your tank bag and keep the body & 28-300 there. You will miss a lot of shots if you have to stop and dig the stuff out of your pannier box, and especially if you need to swap the lenses every time you want to shoot.

My wife carried a Canon 10D digital SLR, 28-135mm IS and 75-300mm IS and had very good luck with them. They made it the entire year, so they are OK from the reliability standpoint.

You will need to have the digital SLR sensor cleaned a few times during your travels, so either take some swabs & solution or make arrangements to get some sent to you while you're on the road.

The zooms will get dust pumped into them internally. By the end of the year you'll end up shooting between wide open and about F11. Anything smaller and you'll spend a lot of time editing dust spots in your images. Send them to Canon for cleaning when you get home.

Use top quality UV filters on all of your lenses. The front element of my 28-300 was saved from destruction by my Hoya filter in China. More surfaces to clean, but much cheaper to replace than a front element.

I went from the 10D to the 1D Mk2 for the following reasons:

- Superior autofocus speed and number of AF locations (less of an issue with 20D)

- Superior exposure control system

- Much better dynamic range

- Vastly better high ISO performance

- Frame rate (slow rate of the 10D hurt me in Africa) (less of an issue with the 20D)

- Weatherproofing (allowed me to shoot in the rain, such as snow monkeys in Japan, and in heavy dust, such as a dust storm in Jordan)

- Increased resolution

Of these, the AF system difference will probably be the biggest issue for you in travel shooting. Unlike pros who pay for models and take days to set up a shot, travelers like us who are shooting are presented with a rapidly evolving and random reality that we need to capture quickly.

The 1DMk2 has better battery life than the 10/20D, but the battery charger is HUGE. 10D/20Ds use the same battery as the Z series Canon camcorders, so you can save an entire power system if you use those two (we left our Sony camcorder at home and took the Canon for this reason). If you go with the 20D, get the battery grip and carry at least six batteries.

Take along a small point-n-pray in your riding jacket pocket. There will be times when a small, unobtrusive camera will be required. I started with a Nikon 3100 and moved to a Canon S500 when the Nikon failed twice.

We standardized on Lexar CF memory for all four cameras we carried. For the SLR I carried three 4 gig cards. I carried two 2 gig cards for the S500.

I also carried an 80 gig backup unit (Kangaru) and a laptop (Fujitsu Lifebook P5000 with a DVD burner). Never have only one copy of your files on a winchester hard drive. My goal was three copies: laptop (grouped by camera), Kangaru (card image), DVD (in the mail to home). I often also made a DVD backup that we carried with us.  

Take blank DVDs pre-addressed in mailers to mail backup copies of your files home as you travel. Every one of the 50+ DVDs I mailed home made it from locations all over the world. Don't use your return address on the mailers, use a friend or relative (double duplicate addressed items go to dead letter office if they are short postage).

After Africa, I left the tripod at home. I couldn't justify the space & weight on the bike. I carried an 8" tabletop tripod that we used for self portraits with the S500 a few times.

Whatever you buy, read the manual enough times to know the equipment inside and out. Practice with every piece of equipment. Take a few warm up trips with all of the systems to ensure everything is working smoothly. Only add one new system to your rig at a time, i.e. new bag, new body, etc.

Keep your files organized and edit as you go. Even after editing all the way through for a year, I still spent almost two solid weeks doing file management and backup when we got home. If you wait to edit until the trips are over, it can become an overwhelming task. Just ask my wife...