Vietnam: What worked and what didn't

Compared to the hassles that I had with camera gear in Jamaica, this trip was a breeze.  Virtually everything worked flawlessly and I owe a debt of gratitude to the people that loaned me stuff I didn't have. (My wishlist just got a little bigger...)  Every trip I take I learn a little more and it's starting to pay off in terms of lower stress levels, fewer missed moments, and better results. For this trip I kept in mind everything I learned in Jamaica - the importance of weight and the importance of everything being fast.  Since I'm carrying all this stuff in a hot climate, weight is important to the point that I'd rather carry lighter gear than carry the absolute best gear.  (See notes about the 70-200 lens below)  As for speed, two things made a difference this time:  The Think Tank Photo belt was WAY more convenient than the old photo backpack, and adding a small quick release head to my Slik tripod made that WAY more usable.

Here's what I took: (Some of it mine and some of it borrowed)

  • Think Tank Photo belt pack and holster.  I'm listing this first because it made the largest single difference on my photography in Vietnam.  This modular beltpack thing was awesome and being able to switch lenses on the fly without anyone's help opens up a whole new level of freedom.   The digital holster 20 is the best thing I've ever seen in camera bags, and it totally rocked on this trip.  The photo backpack was a total pain in the ass in Jamaica because when you needed something, it was tightly locked away on your back.

    I usually had the Holster 20 right in front and the lens changer 25 on the side, sometimes with the added Whip It Out for the 70-200 and sometimes with the flash holder in the evenings.  Changing lenses was fast and secure and didn't require help from anyone else, which I'm sure Erin appreciated.

    The real shining moment for the Think Tank was the afternoon where we took a moto ride through the countryside for a couple hours.  It was totally easy to sit on the back of a motorbike with everything held in place and shoot whatever I wanted, changing lenses with total confidence that everything had a place and everything was right at hand.

  • Canon 40-D camera. Got it a month before the trip, and I love it.  LiveView saved me a couple times.  The sensor cleaning seems to work since I see no dust and I changed lenses A LOT.  It rocks.  I would prefer to take a full-frame camera but that wasn't an option for this trip.
  • 17-85mm IS lens. This lens is small and light with a good focal range for the smaller EF-S sensor and IS for low light.  I got lots of usable 1/10 sec. shots with this lens!  I bought this on Craigslist specifically for this trip and I love it.  (Edit: looking back 9 months later I still use this lens a lot.)  This is way better than the 3 pound 24-70 monster I took to Jamaica.  Giving up speed for weight and IS was a good choice, and the wider focal length meant less less changing.  Let's face it - the 24-70 isn't a good "all around" range of focal lengths for the EF-S cameras.

    The fact that it's a smaller lens helps a lot too since it doesn't scare as many people away.

  • 10-22mm lens. I love wide angle shots and I used this lens a lot.  There are plenty of shots that were taken all the way out at 10mm, which means I'd probably take an even wider lens if I could.  If you like wide angle shots and have an EF-S camera, you don't really have any options besides this lens.
  • 70-200mm f/4 IS. I borrowed this lens for the trip since I wasn't going to carry around the f/2.8 monster from Jamaica again.  This lens rocks.  I didn't use it too much because everything in Vietnam is so close or so big, but I carried it a lot and didn't mind the weight.
  • Speedlight 420 EX.  This was great as well and the most important feature is the tilt/swivel head that lets you bounce off a wall or the ceiling and soften the light.  I don't use flash a lot for street photography because I don't want to attract attention but it worked really well for group shots, caves, museums, etc. [Edit: I've since bought the 580EXII and I like it too.]
  • 50mm f/1.4 lens. Didn't use this one much, and should have left it at home. I did a ton of low light stuff where a fast prime would be good but 50mm on my camera is too narrow.  A 28mm would have seen more use but I'm still convinced that the three zooms would have been enough.
  • Slik Sprint Pro tripod with Manfrotto 484RC2 head. This was great. I didn't carry it very often but when I did it worked well. The head that comes with the Slik sucks so I put the 484 on it.  The 484 is still lightweight and has quickrelease too.

    Here's the thing: if your tripod head is a screw-on type, it's hard to use and you'll end up giving up on it and missing out on shots.  When you're wandering around caves, temples, and tree-covered forests you want to move from place to place quickly and being able to snap the camera on and off in an instant means the system doesn't get in your way.

  • Compact Flash: A ton of it.  With the price of memory so cheap I plan to carry enough Compact Flash to hold all the pictures I take so I never have to clear out a card.  Deleting a card is stressful since you're just hoping that the copy went well.  Compact Flash is actually a really dense storage medium in terms of grams-per-Gigabyte, and pretty damn durable too.

    I happen to use Sandisk Extreme III right now, but I'm not sure how much difference there is between different brands.  Once your memory is faster than your camera can write the benefits of spending more money drop off.  Extreme III is the balance of price and reputation that works well for me.

  • (borrowed) Wolverine digital wallet thing for backing up photos, just in case.  As I mentioned above, I'd rather not have to ever delete a card on the road again - The hard drive is just to make a backup for safety.  (What if I lose a CF card?  What if they get stolen?)  I'd really prefer to have a laptop with me so I could transfer the images and sort through them in the downtime in the evenings but I'm not willing to carry the weight and bulk of a laptop around with me.  [Edit: I had high hopes for the Mac Book Air, but it's so big when it's closed!]

    I store the hard drive separate from my camera gear to reduce the chances of the same disaster affecting both, but you never know.

    One thing I learned: The UI on the backup device and having a screen to view the photos themselves are essential.  Before I reformat that CF card, I really want to know that this thing has copied my images correctly.  Also, proprietary batteries totally suck - why can't these things use AA's?   Proprietary means one more charger to carry with me and I can buy AA's ANYWHERE in a pick, including in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle.

Obviously the gear will evolve and much of this will be replaced by something newer, smaller, faster, etc.  I just like to document what worked and what didn't work - both for myself and for anyone else out there reading.

In retrospect, the largest thing missing from the trip was a GPS.  There's no way I'm going to figure out where half these photos were taken, especially since most of the time we had no idea where we were at all.  (at the mercy of the tour guide.)   Even though the state of the art in geotagging is not very good right now, it would have been nice to collect the raw data.  Sometime in the future the tools will be better...