Think Tank

Quick trip to Florida with the ThinkTank Airport Takeoff bag

This weekend was my first cross-country trip for a photoshoot and it went very well.  I've done long trips with photography before but this was the first trip where the whole point was to fly cross-country just to shoot an event and then turn around and come back home.   It was also my first event with a Canon 5-D mkII, and my second event with the Think Tank Airport Takeoff combination roller/backpack.   I want to pass on my thoughts on the trip as well as review the Think Tank roller/backpack. They say to never do a job with new equipment but in this case it was unavoidable.   Due to the last minute booking of my services for the event, the new camera was shipped to Florida to meet me there.  I unboxed the camera for the first time when I checked into my hotel room at 2:00 am Friday night.  (For a Saturday night event.)

Everything with the camera went flawlessly.  It works almost identically to the 40-D so there was zero learning curve.   While editing the shoot at the airport, I could tell that everything looked pretty good.   The depth of field on the full-frame camera is a lot narrower than I'm used to and it's a whole new creative element that I look forward to exploring.

There's a big travel component this trip since Orlando, Florida is a long way away from Santa Clara and there aren't any direct flights out of SJC.  That means a plane change in Denver or LA and it all adds up to a day spent in each direction.  My return flight gets in at midnight so tomorrow might be a bit rough.  I was starting to adjust to Florida time which makes Sunday's arrival feel more like 3:00 am. Monday morning.

The upside to the travel is how well my new Think Tank Airport Takeoff bag is working out.   The size is pretty much perfect - it's international carry-on size which really means that it's a good size for domestic carry-on.  Any larger than this and the flight attendants are liable to make you gate-check the bag through to your final destination and that's not something I want to do with this much valuable equipment.

There are only three downsides I've found to this bag: First, the four-section telescoping handle you use when you roll the bag seems loose and a little flimsy.   This is the only "delicate" thing about the bag.  As soon as you extend the handles you realize there's a lot of play in the sections and a lot of flex.  It seems a little sloppy compared to the precision and durability in every other aspect of the Think Tank products I have.   After loading the bag to capacity and then putting the straps of my other carry-on over the handle (the way the smart travelers make their roller do double-duty by carrying their small duffel) the strain started to worry me.   Time will tell if it can handle to strain or not.

Secondly, the straps are really padded and comfortable which means they kill almost an inch of depth that could otherwise be dedicated to gear.   I don't plan to use the straps very often so they're more of an emergency-use thing for me.  (There was that hotel room in Vietnam that was 7 stories up with no elevator…)  I actually wish the straps were thinner so they would take less space.

Finally, I couldn't figure out for the life of me how to use the rain cover for the bag.  All Think Tank products come with a great custom-fit rain cover and I've had to use them in the past.  This bag comes with a cover but I can't quite tell how it's supposed to go on.   I'm not sure if it's supposed to cover it while it's lying down or standing up but either way it seems to be cut a little too short.

Regardless of those downsides, this bag is carrying a lot.  Two camera bodies, five lenses, a flash, two lens hoods, a laptop, 4 chargers (laptop, new camera, old camera, AA), a card reader, USB cables, ethernet cable, Garmin GPS, and other assorted supplies.   It's a mobile office that let me touch down, arrive on scene, and set up a small office, offloading and processing images throughout the evening.  It even had a space between the dividers that seemed custom-made for a PB&J sandwich The Wife made for me before heading out.

Even with all of that there are a few things that were left behind on this trip so I could get by without checking any bags.   I would have preferred to bring my Think Tank belt system to carry more on my person, and if I had been here any more than two nights I would need to bring more clothes.   The goal of this trip was to be light and quick though, and it worked out OK.

The home computer is cranking away on hundreds of huge files from this weekend and doing a backup run, and I've gotta run myself.  The trip was a huge success and I'll be doing a small review of the 5-D mkII at some point in the future.

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...