CARRYING AND TRANSPORTING PHOTOGRAPHIC GEAR IN THE WILDERNESS – PART ONE

GURA GEAR AND THE XTRA-HAND PHOTO VEST

I will endeavour to never again make the comment to my wife that she owns too many handbags for the simple reason (as she so eloquently pointed out to me; while I was busy pointing the finger) that I own more camera bags than she does handbags. That was quite a head scratching moment for me – just how did I end up with so many photography bags?

The answer is a combination of trial and error and horses for courses. Over the years I have purchased different camera bags for different applications and uses. They all seemed a good idea and ‘must-have’ accessory at the time; but oh, for the benefit of hindsight! All of them have been used at one stage or another and some more than others and as of the last twelve months one more than any.

When I got back from my expedition to Iceland a year ago (where has the time gone…) I decided I was ultimately fed up with my current and then bag of choice the Lowe Pro Nature Trekker II. For a multitude of reasons it was no longer fulfilling my needs. After reading some reviews I went ahead and purchased the Gura Gear Kiboko camera bag and subsequently commented on how happy I was with it in my ‘Iceland – What worked and What Didn’t‘ article. Now, nearly a year on from the purchase and many photographic trips later (both local and international) it seems a good time to reflect on my travels with the Kiboko. And on my latest acquisition; which I hope will be the perfect photographic shooting partner to the Kiboko – the XtraHand Photo Vest from Vested Interest.

Kiboko on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island

My Kiboko is as fantastic today as the day I purchased it and I cannot imagine my life now as a landscape and nature photographer without it. For storing and transporting my photographic gear, getting in and out of vehicles, through airports, negotiating international travel and shooting out of the boot of the car or relatively close by  there is nothing that works better in my experience for my style of shooting. ‘My style’ for what its worth is to cart as much of my photographic kit as I can physically manage to my destination. I just don’t like to leave anything at home in case I might need it. The Kiboko is the ideal camera bag for me in that it comfortably holds all of my photographic equipment that I like to take with me on a landscape and wilderness shoot. But this is a double edged sword…Because the problem with the Kiboko for me is that it holds ALL of my photographic equipment (except my laptop); which means that it is heavy; really heavy. Fully loaded and ready to depart on a dedicated landscape and nature shoot my Kiboko weighs in at over 28 kilograms and that makes it just too heavy for any serious wilderness trekking. Even with the Kiboko’s excellent backpack harness system I can hike for no more than a few hours over steep terrain before I am pretty trashed. But, the Kiboko is the best means of getting all that gear to the start of the hike or for any type of shooting for that matter that does not involve extensive hiking. So what is one to do?

I have tried taking a 2nd smaller backpack with me and just repacking what I want for a given hike into that; but this approach causes more problems than it solves. For starters it necessitates packing a 2nd pack; which takes up a significant amount of space when flying or travelling and I am already juggling another laptop bag, my tripod and a suitcase (assistants really should be mandatory for nature photographers!). The other problem I seem to constantly run into is that when I finally get to the position I want to shoot from there is frequently no where to put down my bag that isn’t either soaking wet, muddy or otherwise less than ideal to plonk an expensive bag full of expensive cameras and lenses. Hanging the bag from a hook underneath the tripod is not a suitable solution as it makes accessing the bag problematic. Plus if shooting in the mud or snow or at the beach the extra weight often causes the tripod to slowly sink into the soft ground causing blur. Even when I do find somewhere to put my bag down I frequently wander afar in my search of subject and composition necessitating the need to occasionally jog back to my bag for a filter or alternate lens. Or, as happened in New Zealand’s South Island a couple of weeks ago to rescue my bag from the incoming tide.

I have also tried and used my Domke photography vest over the years with mixed success. Whilst it somewhat alleviates the requirement for carrying a camera bag into the field it is extremely limited in its carrying capacity and to be totally honest isn’t that great at carrying those items it can hold. Lenses in the large lower pockets tend to dangle low below the waist and bang into objects. Its made of cotton so the moment it rains it acts like a sponge soaking up the water and adding weight. And when loaded up with a few lenses its uncomfortable for any length of time and gives me no end of neck discomfort. It might be fine for a photojournalist walking the city streets with some small Leica lenses, a mobile phone, passport and wallet; but its not much use to me in the inclement weather of the wilderness with big heavy equipment. I recently replaced my Domke with a similar style of vest that is not quite so overtly ‘photographer in nature’ for international flying and believe this is firmly the best use for this style of vest. They have no place in the wilderness.

I could of course half empty my Kiboko bag into the boot of my car before embarking on a trek; and I have done so on numerous occasions. This approach is relatively successful most of the time as it lightens the bag significantly to the point where I can comfortably hike for most of the day. It does not solve the problem of where to put the bag when I am shooting however or of being caught short a lens I left in the boot of the car. I like to shoot with Prime Lenses so I am almost always changing lenses. Nor is it an ideal solution when shooting in foreign countries as there is frequently no safe place to leave gear behind.

Enter the Xtra-Hand photo Vest from Vested Interest. Now right off the bat let me be clear that you dont really want to walk into the local cafe at the end of a days shoot wearing this vest. It is about as ‘tactical’ as a Navy Seal and about as subtle as a house brick. Wearing this vest in a public place is going to get you a lot of unwanted attention. However, when I am standing in a swamp trying to set up a shot with no where to put my bag; well.. it ‘aint a fashion contest out there’. It took me a long time to finally get around to ordering one of these vests.  I just didn’t think I needed something that appeared so overtly Rambo. I needed to mentally get over the ‘look’ of the vest and focus on its function.

Custom Vested Interest Khumbu Model

Now that I have finally ordered and received my Xtra-Hand vest I feel somewhat silly for having waited so long to purchase one. Or possibly, I just needed to go right through the suite of options out there before I finally got to it. Irrespective I now own one and am very happy with it – even though I have only been on a couple of shoots with it. I headed up to the mountains and snow this weekend past for a couple of days shooting and put the vest through its paces in the field. I did several quite arduous hikes to remote locations that saw this vest put to the stress test. But for now as Part One of this article I want to further elaborate on the vest itself as well as the extensive modifications I had done to it and why. Part two of this article will follow on in the next week or so once I have had more of a chance to consider my impressions after using it in the field.

After much pondering I finally decided on the Khumbu model from Vested Interest as the base for my ideal vest. I chose this model for the extra large pocket that is included on the back of the vest to enable me to carry a large telephoto lens like my Canon 300mm F2.8L IS or my Gitzo Carbon fibre tripod, or even a thermos or food. I also liked the addition of the two sewn on side pockets for both by 70-200 F2.8L IS lens and a small coffee thermos I like to carry in the field. I frequently find myself scrambling over rocks needing both hands to keep my balance so a large pocket that can hold my tripod is a very welcome addition. I hope this pocket will also serve as a great place to store my tripod when shooting from zodiacs in Antarctica later this year before we go ashore (where I will want and need my tripod).

In order to ensure a custom vest is properly fitted you need to provide Vested Interest with your measurements. There is a downloadable and printable order form on their website to complete with all of the required details. Even though measurements are important to ensure the vest is properly sized the side straps on the vest provide a huge amount of adjustability meaning this vest can be worn over a t-shirt in hot weather or over multiple layers in colder weather. There is a choice of colour including Tan, Camouflage, Black, Navy, Grey, Green, Desert Camouflage and Digital Camouflage. I went with the very non descript grey and I feel it was the right choice to minimise unwanted attention. Wildlife photographers may want to consider a Camouflage if photographing skittish subjects or shooting from a hide.

A few other brief points – The Xtra-Hand vest is predominantly made of nylon; which means its pretty much waterproof and does not absorb water. This is a very important consideration for me as I often find myself shooting in the rain or snow. As I have stated above, cotton and non waterproof materials just don’t work for me. The vest itself is designed to carry a huge amount of equipment into the field and to spread the weight strategically for long term comfort. The shoulders and neck are extensively padded to ensure that when loaded up with heavy cameras and lenses discomfort is kept to a minimum.

There are some standard options available when ordering any of the Vested Interest models and I chose to include some of them; the first of which was the Padded Hip Belt. The padded hip belt is simply an additional waist belt that is designed to help get some of the weight off the shoulders. It is both adjustable and removable. I would encourage anyone considering acquiring one of these vests to include this option. It is relatively inexpensive at $40.00 US and provides a greater level of comfort. I also included the optional shoulder pads at $20.00 US and again would consider these mandatory to avoid discomfort on long hikes.

I cannot take credit for the following modification to the vest that was first devised and implemented by Art Morris who runs the website Birds as Art. Art also has an extensive article on is website that is well worth a read. Although Art chose to use the Magnum as the base for his vest (I used the Khumbu) the alterations applied are the same. The first of these modifications is the inclusion of a bright orange handle so that I know where to safely grab the vest to lift it up and put it on when its full of camera gear. The handle is stitched into the actual frame of the vest to hold the full weight and is the safest place to pick up a fully loaded vest. Something I have not yet mentioned is that Vested Interest who make these vests are actually a division of a parachute manufacturing company so as you would expect the quality of construction and stitching is absolutely first class. The only other place I have seen stitching of this standard and quality is on rock climbing harnesses and slings.

Custom Grab Handle

I had both the front large bottom pockets sized the same as those on the Magnum vest as these are a size that comfortably  holds a Canon 1DS MKIII or MKIV with a Really Right Stuff L Bracket attached. The Khumbu normally comes with one front pocket that is even larger and I had no requirement for a pocket this size.

Both the top pockets were modified to have zips in lieu of velcro as I often store my mobile phone, wallet and keys in my top vest pockets and didnt want there being a chance of anything falling out accidentally. Zippered top pockets added around $20.00 to the overall total.

A very welcome addition is the inclusion of a detachable ground cloth. When shooting in the snow, mud or wet there is often either nowhere to sit down for a few minutes or nowhere clean and dry to place objects. The detachable and waterproof ground cloth gives me somewhere clean and dry to sit or place equipment. I also included the optional camera straps.

In part two of this article I am going to report on how this vest performed in the field and on long hikes. I spent last weekend up at Mount Buffalo photographing out into the wilderness with my new vest and have some strong initial impressions. More to come soon.

Shooting Hoar Frost at Mount Buffalo with the Xtra-Hand Photo Vest


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