I’ve just spent the last couple weeks completing one the biggest photo projects I’ve ever done. 20 architects, in 20 days, all around Australia. It’s for a book that is due to be released later this year by Uro Media and will tell the story of these amazing people. Having a chance to sit down with each architect was inspiring to say the least and we managed to get about 20 video interviews included as part of the photography brief. All that excitement aside, this post isn’t about the book, it’s about some of the travel lessons I learnt from two weeks of intense and ever moving photography. Plus I had a few unexpected obstacles thrown at me, which is where you learn the real meaning of contingency.
1. Take lots of extra memory cards
So I normally have about 4 memory cards in my standard day kit, which is more than enough for a days shoot. At the end of each day I upload the photos, video and audio to my raid drive and then those cards are ready for the next day. Now in theory I should be able do a similar process on the road with a laptop and an external drive, but here’s the catch, if for any reason your laptop goes down, even if it just goes flat and you can’t recharge it, then you’re left with a just the memory cards you have on hand. This is a real capacity issue, not to mention a backup issue. This happened to me when Apple delayed my new Macbook Air and despite their promises to get it to me by “tomorrow” the days wore on and I ended up having to buy a lot of extra memory cards on the fly and at retail store prices. And it’s amazing how this little shopping journey at the end of each day becomes a real stress point when time is short, so the lesson learnt here is get lots of big memory cards in advance of any super large job like this.
2. Format one external hard drive as Fat 32 (only relevant if you’re using a mac)
So following on from the previous issue, the second problem is getting a backup copy of all data collected. Again this should be as simple as plugging in an external drive into someone else’s computer and copying across your days photos. Crash and burn again. Why? Because my hardrive was formatted on a Mac, and even though I did choose the PC friendly Fat 32 option, it turns out that the mac version of Fat32 can’t be read on Windows XP. So all those crappy hotel computers aren’t going to be any help. So what’s the solution? I ended up buying a pre-formatted PC friendly external drive and the lesson is to always have one of these drives on hand, just in case everything goes wrong. The good news is that about 4 days later my lovely new Macbook Air did arrived and everything nows works as it should. What’s important here though is planning for the worst case scenario and finding those weak links in the process.
3. Checking in extra luggage isn’t that expensive
I’ve checked in the odd piece of extra luggage before, but I didn’t realise how cheap it actually is. On every flight I took the fee was a consistent upgrade price of $30. It didn’t matter if I was doing a 1hr flight, or a 5 hr leg. And what this means is that for almost all of my projects it’s cheaper to take the extra bag than to hire gear in another city.
4. Use bullet proof luggage
Ok, I learnt this one the hard way. I ended up getting a new lighting bag for this trip because my normal bag is a military style rifle bag and weighs in at least 40kg when fully loaded. So I got a smaller bag that is not a hard case, but very well padded. It did a great job of protecting the contents, but things like the handles and rubber protectors on the base didn’t stand up well. One protector was completely ripped off, and the main handles stitching is going to have to be resown. I now know why the bag got so beaten up, because while i was sitting on several flights waiting for takeoff I saw my lighting bag being loaded, and despite the big fragile tag on it, I saw it hurled through the air, left in the rain and generally not looked after at all. I even contacted the airline after they left stickers on my bag showing the damage they had caused, but their page long reply basically said they don’t look after baggage and the traveler has to expect it to go through hell along the way. Hence why hard shell, water proof cases are used by so many professionals. They cost a fortune, but it’s the only way I can see of protecting expensive gear in transit.
5. Stick with one airline, one rental car company and hotels you like
On this trip I wanted to make the whole flight / rental car / hotel process as efficient as possible. Normally what I would do is check all the airlines for their best rate and then compare flight times and then do the same with rental car companies and yet again with accommodation. Every leg took at least an hour. So this time round I decided to stick with specific companies. For example I choose one airline, one rental company, and where possible hotels that I had stayed in before. Sounds like a small tip, but it made the whole process so much simpler. I also choose companies that had simple bookings systems without a lot of addons. Airlines that charge you extra taxes, or fees for standard seats make everything convoluted. It’s also difficult to make accurate travel budgets with these types of companies because you don’t actually know what the final price will be until you actually make the booking.
7. Batteries in your luggage
When you check in a large piece of extra luggage is normal that you’re going to get asked, “so what’s in the big bag.” When I said photography gear it was like a red flag was raised and the immediate response was, “do you have any batteries in your carry on luggage?” mmm… Like more batteries then most people will own in their lifetime. It turns out that airlines don’t like you packing lithium batteries in your checked luggage. You can pack your carry on bag full of batteries, but for some reason they don’t want them below deck. No idea why, but after unpacking my bags I managed to get them on board because all my batteries were packed in plastic cases and considered well sealed. (I didn’t mention the huge Paul Buff brick of a battery I use for my strobes)
6. Don’t expect to do full edits on laptops
I was really looking forward to giving my new Macbook Air a good trial on this project. What I was looking for was a super light laptop that had incredible battery life that I could edit photos with while in transit. And in most part the air did very well. With 8 gig of ram it dealt with Lightroom adequately (not super fast, but it got the job done), but there was one really big problem. The screen was just too small for me to do real edits. I could do first selections and rate photos, but it wasn’t until I got back to my 27″ Mac that I was able to really see the image well enough to do edits I was happy with.
So lesson learnt, a 13″ laptop is a great tool for managing / transferring data (especially with USB 3 and Thunderbolt connections), but it’s not going to allow for full quality edits on the run.