Africa Prep

by Steve Simon

It has been a mad scramble as usual to pack for my trip to Africa. I always fantasize about being a James-Bond-like-traveler; relaxed, in a tux with martini in hand, bored and checking my watch to see if it's time to leave yet.

Of course the reality is more from the "chicken-without-a head" school, never enough time to do the 134 things to do on the list, high stress levels and very little sleep. That's just the way it seems to work out mostly.

But now, the moment of Zen--the plane is in the air and I am tapping on these keys blogging for Inside Aperture from the crammed middle seat on a seven-hour flight to Zurich, en route to Rwanda. Whatever I didn't get done doesn't matter; I turn my attention to the assignment at hand.

I'm working as a stills photographer for a documentary team focusing on Dr. James Orbinski, the former head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF in 1999. We are going back with him, retracing his steps and seeing how things have changed.

We will be gone for about three weeks and I get to test out Aperture on the road for the first time. I like to travel light, but in the end, I never travel as light as I would like. Here's my equipment list:

Camera and lenses: Nikon D2x Camera with 17-55mm 2.8 lens- my main combo. I love this lens and use it for the majority of my work. I like to be close to my subjects, which let's me capture more intimate moments I wouldn't get otherwise.

The Nikon D200 Body with 18-200mm VR lens is my backup. I love the smaller size of the D200 body. It's important for me to have a back up lens, in case my 17-55 ever drops or goes away. Though I prefer not to shoot long; it is nice to have the "long lensability" in a short lens package. The 18-200mm has an incredible range and though this is the first time I will try it, I have heard great things. Extra camera batteries, the correct electric-plug converters and chargers all are in the bag.

I have learned to use flash less frequently, preferring to take advantage of the wonderful low light capture of DSLR sensors. I try not to raise my ISO above 400 generally--but when light is low and uneven, there are times when flash is the best compromise.

I have a Nikon SB 800 flash that I use off camera connected with a SC-29 cord, which allows me to use TTL flash in a much more natural way. I bought one of the Gary Fong light diffusers for it, and though it's a bit big and clunky, it does a very nice job of softening the light--and when it's in the backpack I can store extra batteries inside it.

Heroines and Heroes.jpg

I'm a firm believer in shooting after the sun goes down, capturing mood and atmosphere in the landscape. For this trip, I decided to try out the "Gorilla Pod", a small, light bendable tripod that should prove to be a good anchor for longer exposures.

I fit it all into a smallish backpack. I vowed after turning 40, that all my shoes would be slip-ons and all my cases would have wheels, but I make exceptions when traveling to Africa. I don't want to check my equipment as baggage so I make sure my backpack is small enough to fit under the seat, if it's too big for the overhead compartments of a small plane. True to my shoe philosophy however, my Blundstone boots are comfy, slip on, look fancy enough for upscale occasions and are rugged and dry in the mud and the grass. I have a Kata raincover that lets me shoot in the pouring rain while keeping the camera dry.

This trip is taking us to Rwanda, Kenya and maybe Somalia and Belgrade--and there may not always be access to electricity. So having a Lexar 8GB 133xcard and two 4GB cards will allow me to shoot lots of raw images to bring into Aperture, without having to download as often. I have three 2GB 80X cards from my last trip, which I also brought.

I know the argument against putting all your eggs in one basket with larger cards, but I have had such great experience with the Lexar cards, that I'm ready to take a leap of faith with the larger ones. The last time I used my Epson P2000 Viewer for downloading in the field was my last trip to Africa, so we'll see if I bring it into service this trip. It's comforting to know that if the computer is out of power or something goes wrong, there's still a way to clear the cards safely.

I have always taken a recorder of sorts with me on long shooting trips, but this time I have gotten serious. The last trip to Africa, the D2X memo feature, which allows you 60-second recordings and download as .wav files, came in handy for interviews, notes and collecting sound and music from the field. This time I will try out an Edirol R09 Recorder for gathering field audio and two Lexar 133x 1 GB SD cards to capture it all. From all I've read, this one is the photographer's choice.

I had my camera's sensors cleaned before the trip, and though I've never cleaned a sensor myself (I shouldn't be afraid, but I am)--I have never had trouble with dust on the sensors, leaving my lenses fixed on the bodies all the time. But I did bring the sensor cleaning swabs and liquid in case of emergency.

A pocket USB Drive on a keychain can come in handy also to keep scans of my passport and vital information in case papers are lost. 32 Duracell Ultra Digital AA Batteries should be enough to power the flash and Edirol recorder.

North American cell phones can cost a fortune when used overseas, but the Motorola Razor V3 Phone can be used worldwide. Picking up a SIM card in many African countries means cheap cell phone rates and people back home can reach you on their dime.

I hope to have more on my computer set-up and using Aperture in Africa in my next couple of blogs, time and Internet connections permitting.

Strong Work

A powerful and riveting look at the war-torn African Republic of Congo, by Marcus Bleasdale.


2007-02-01 09:21:47
Seems like you have it all planned.

I recently spent time working inside the townships back home in South Africa and decided that my Canon 1dmkII and 16-35mm lens was by far the best combo (ok the leica m6 ill be buying soon would have given it a run for the money imho)

I mainly use Lexar cards now, as you said, they are DAMN reliable.
Mine worked at -28 in Chernobyl and then in the dust and rain of South Africa this december and I didn't have any issues.

look forward to seeing the images and also how you feel Aperture holds up on such a trip

2007-02-01 09:39:34
I'am really interested to know which notebook you are using, as I am about to buy one and can't decide wether I should choose the portability of a Macbook (non pro) or prefer the larger screen of a Macbook Pro 15". What do you think? Is Aperture usable on a 13" screen? What about the color rendering accuracy of the different Macbooks?
Jan Steinman
2007-02-01 11:33:51
Did the photo in this article come through Aperture? It looks over-sharpened.
Greg Furry
2007-02-01 12:20:43
What type of backback do you use?
Mark K.
2007-02-01 17:38:03
Will you be off the power grid for extended periods of time? What sort of power solution are you using ot charge batteries and such?

2007-02-01 20:01:12

I've used the 13" mac book, 15" and now the 17" and found the 17" works far better for image usage than any of the others. I know people say that the 15" is great for being portable, but the 17" isn't that bigger, honestly

As for colour, i ensure my screen is correctly profiled and haven't had any issues yet.

Allan W.
2007-02-01 22:29:20
Re: The image: I don't think it's over-sharpened, but I do think theres been waaay too much highlight/shadow recovery applied. Sorry, I know this is sorta OT, but it was bugging me this morning.

Which reminds me: I really wish Aperture had some way of simulating a grad ND filter, or selective color correction. I find I need that so often, and have to hit Photoshop to do it right. A simple vignette filter would be nice, too.

Allan W.
2007-02-01 22:37:24
I can't see the integrated graphics of the 13" MB letting Aperture run that efficiently. I'd go for a 15"MBP.

I use a 17" MBP at work, and while the screen is nice, it is definitely too big for a real mobile setup.

I took a 28-200mm Sigma to Uganda (some pix here), and it was heavy but great. Next time, though, I'd for sure get a faster, lighter lens. The one I took couldn't focus inside 1.5m. or so.

Unless I was on a paying photo gig over there, I'd have a simple backup (portable HD or media drive) and focus my energy on experiencing the moment. There'll be plenty of time later to sort all your shots (long ride home).

I like some of the comments about using a smaller, shorter focal-length lens. Get close, get involved, you won't regret it.

jace rivers
2007-02-03 14:23:06
Great blog on traveling with gear. Everyone has got their favorite stuff. While I'm HUGE Apple fan, I find that bringing along a Sony VAIO TX series notebook is so much easier. It's got an 11" screen and weighs nothing. It's barely larger than a standard hard back novel (and thinner too). Once I'm back home everything goes into Aperture via my 15" MacBook Pro. I would absolutely love it if Apple reintroduced their 12" laptop again. I'd chuck the Sony, but for now nothing beats it's size and weight while traveling.

As a side note, I've had a lot of trouble with my Epson P-2000 in the field and once lost about 150 shots! Not to mention the fact that it renames your files with Epson's naming convention (I like my shots named in sequential order). Granted, I haven't tried the new P-5000 but I think I'll stick with my VAIO for a field notebook. Not to mention that you can call home on it!

Also, I've tried bringing along my cellphone to Asian countries (I've got a RAZR V3 as well) but buying and using up SIMM cards is sort of a hassle and not as cheap as you think. I use Skype, an internet based phone software. You can pop into any internet cafe, download it (if it's not already installed) and be calling friends and family in seconds. I think $10 gets you about 7 hours of talk time. You can also get a voicemail number where people can call and leave messages for you.

On my last trip to Southeast Asia I brought my Canon 5D, a 16-35mm f2.8, a 24-70mm f2.8, and a 70-200mm f2.8 (with a 2x extender). I found that my 24-70 stayed on my 5D 95% of the time and the 70-200, while a great lens with beautiful results, was a lot of weight to lug around for that occasional long distance landscape shot.

On my next trip I'm planning to replace it with a Canon 135mm f2.0 prime.

Rick Negus
2007-02-07 20:28:30
Your article is very timely for me as I am off to India for 24 days in a weeks time. Your choices confirm many of mine which I will share.
Camera is a Nikon 2DH with a Tamron 17-35mm 2.8 lens and a Tamron 24-200 3.8 and like you the 17-35 will be my main lens. I always carry two batteries for the Nikon. Flash is a Nikon SB600 with rechargable batteries.
My camera case is the Think Tank Speed Racer, it has a shoulder strap and waist belt like a fanny pack, the case can be moved around to the stomach and opens away from the body for access to everything.
A standard tripod being unmanagable I am taking the Ultrapod, small and compact.
Having aG5 workstation at home I just bought a MacBook with 2 GB of ram and 160 GB harddrive, I am running Aperture on it. Will load Skype before I go and hope to find some hot zones in the cities. For backup and download of images at any time I have my iPod 60 GB which shall hold plenty of images plus I shall have my favorite tunes with me for the long flight. I have an Xtreme micromemo microphone for the iPod to record notes, cultural sounds or whatever.
Travelling light with one carry on bag, the Think Tank will fit under the seat, light weigh hiking boots and a great attitude.
Steve Simon
2007-02-14 04:53:20
I was only off the power grid for max two day periods, which wer managable with back up batteries. Yes the photo is oversharpenned, something i often do (for better or worse) with small photos on for the web. Jeff, I use a MacBook Pro 15inch. I haven't experienced Aperture with the smaller MacBook, so maybe others who have can comment. Rick have a great trip!