Iceland is a country well known for its waterfalls. One of its most famous is Selfoss; a waterfall I made several repeat visits to during my 2010 trip. What makes Selfoss so unique and other worldly is the way it cascades down both sides of a deep rocky canyon. I have not seen such a geological feature anywhere else in the world and as far as I know it is unique to Selfoss and Iceland. The light was very different on my second visit to Selfoss and on this occasion a storm was building and dark storm clouds were racing across the arctic sky as I set up my tripod to take this photograph. The water has an almost chocolate colour as it is glacial and full of sediment from melting glaciers upstream. Not long after I made this exposure it began to rain heavily and I was forced to abandon any further shooting; but it didn’t matter as I had the photograph I wanted and an image I have titled ‘Selfoss before Storm’. A higher resolution version of this photograph can be seen on my primary portfolio website at www.jholko.com under Iceland. Limited Edition Fine Art Pigment on Paper prints are available of this photograph through Source Photographica in Brighton.
Last year I schlepped my 17″ Macbook Pro, power pack and accessories all the way from Australia to Iceland (along with 25+ kilograms of camera equipment). I learnt an important lesson from this exercise: I should not have purchased a 17″ laptop for field work (international or otherwise); a 15″ would have been more than sufficient and saved considerable weight and space. I will not make the same mistake again of selecting such a large laptop. I was seduced by the increased real estate of a 17″ screen and the proposition that I could actually do some image processing in the field. The reality however, is that laptop screens are a very poor substitute for my wide gamut 26″ professsional image editing monitor in my studio. Even calibrated with a high end colorimeter the colour on laptop screens just sucks – period.
Given the price of a fully loaded 17″ Macbook Pro with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 256 Gigabyte Solid State Drive is a dime or two more than chump change I am resigned to living it with until it reaches the end of its useful life and is subsequently replaced with a 15″ (or smaller) model. Unfortunately, (or forutnately for my bank manager) my 17″ MacBook Pro is going to still be well within its useable life cycle when I leave for Antarctica in November this year and I cant justify ditching it early just to save a bit of travel discomfort.
Unlike Iceland, New Zealand or Tasmania (or pretty much any of the other trips I have done) this time I will be based on a ship with only short zodiac excursions and the occasional shore landing. This means that once housed in my ship quarters I can pretty much set-up the laptop and leave it that way for the duration of the trip – a very appealing proposition instead of carting it from location to location. Yes, I am going to have to haul it all the way from Melbourne Australia to Ushuaia South America; through quite a few airports with lots of security checks with all the annoyances that comes with the pleasures of airline travel these days. But, at least on boarding of the ship it will become a static operation.
So, armed with my 17″ laptop for the trip I will have several advantages over small back-up devices such as the Hyper Drive. Firstly, a much larger screen for reviewing files and second the power to run Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop on location. Since space is really not an issue on this trip there is little to no advantage to additional and somewhat expensive devices such as Hyper Drives. These kind of devices are really space and weight saving options and are ideal for hikes or trips where its just totally impractical to carry a full size laptop. I can do all of my key-wording in Lightroom on location at the end of each days shooting on my laptop and even some initial image selection (should I find enough time). I won’t be doing any actual processing of my RAW files since as I mentioned above I find the quality of the screen not up to scratch for this purpose.
In terms of back-up I plan to take a couple of Lacie external rugged firewire drives; which I will use to back up my files on a daily basis. One drive lives permanently in my laptop bag and the second drive will stay with my person for the duration of the trip. In the unfortunate event (touch wood) that I loose one drive I still have the second back up plus my laptop. Its the belt, suspenders and a piece of string mentality.
I will be taking a large number of 8, 16 and 32 gigabyte compact flash and mini SD cards with me – more than enough for a couple of day’s heavy shooting (and I am envisaging major giggage on this trip!); and after backing up the cards at the end of each day will erase and re-use them. I don’t advocate taking enough cards to never have to erase and re-use; since I want to import and key-word my files at the end of the day in Lightroom anyway and back them up to multiple hard drives. Plus I find it too easy to forget which cards have been used and which have not.
This approach and methodology has worked well for me over the last few years. The only real downside is the size and weight of my 17″ Macbook Pro – a situation I will remedy when my laptop next comes up for refresh sometime next year. In the meantime, if anyone wants a pre loved, fully loaded 17″ Macbook Pro at a discount please drop me a line!
I’ve been away up at Mount Buller for some skiing and snow play with my kids over the last few days and I was very pleased to learn on my return to Melbourne last night that one of my photographs has been selected as a semi-finalist in the Windland Smith Rice International Awards. There were more than 21,000 photographs submitted this year to this award; which is run by Natures Best Photography and I thrilled to have one of my photographs selected to go through in to the semi-finals. At this stage I need to supply additional ‘exif’ information and a higher resolution file for further judging. I cannot as yet disclose which photograph has been selected as the next round of judging has not yet been completed; but will do so as soon as possible.
In Part One of this article I talked about the problem of wildnerness photography in relation to how to comfortably carry equipment into the field on extended hikes and some of the problems I have encountered over the years. I also talked some more about the Gura Gear Kiboko camera bag now that I have been using one for a year in the field. At the risk of repetition the Gura Gear Kiboko is I believe the best camera bag on the market that I have tried for my style of photography.
In Part Two of this article I am going to talk about how the custom Khumbu Xtra-Hand Vest performed for me in the field over a couple of days shooting up at Mount Buffalo in Victoria in the middle of winter. I was very keen to get out into the wilderness with my new vest from Vested Interest to see if it would live up to my hopes and expectations. I was relatively fortunate with the weather over the weekend as it was mostly fine; although a little overcast on Sunday. It was quite cold up at Buffalo with temperatures well below zero for the sunrise shoots and hovering around zero during most of the day before plummeting again at sunset. It did not rain or snow over the weekend although the occasional wind blasts were very cold and quite damp.
I did several long hikes with the vest including a single hike of approximately ten kilometres through quite deep snow loaded up with a Canon EOS 1DS MKIII with a Really Right Stuff L Bracket, a 70-200mm F2.8L IS lens, a 24mm F1.4L MKII lens, a 17mm F4 TSE lens, a Canon S90 Point and Shoot, my Lee Filter Pack and Filter Holders, Polarising filters, spare battery, spare memory case and cable release, my full size Gitzo Tripod and Really Right Stuff Ballhead and of course my small thermos of coffee as well as all the normal personal items like car keys, mobile phone etc.. This is not an inconsiderable amount of equipment and although I did not weigh it I would estimate it to be in excess of ten kilograms and possibly quite a bit more. I wore a marino wool long sleeve thermal top, my 66 North Eldja mid layer jacket with a 66 North Glymur waterproof jacket over the top. The Xtra-Hand vest went over the top of all this without issue. Because the side straps of the vest are adjustable it is very easy to wear this vest in both the height of summer and dead of winter. I would rate this adjustability among the vests strongest attributes as it means this is an all year accessory; and not season specific. Synching the vest up is a snap with the side straps and its very quick and easy to make adjustments.
A few thoughts on how this vest performed in the field: I can easily reach my hand over my shoulder and pull out my tripod from the large back pocket to set up a take a photograph without having to remove the vest. This is very convenient when one needs to work quickly. It means I can stop anywhere and access everything I need without having to take off the vest. Putting the tripod back is difficult without taking off the vest and really requires either removing the vest (which only takes a moment) or having an assistant or nearby photographer drop it back in the pocket. I should stress that I use a full size Gitzo GT3530 LSV Carbon Fibre Tripod. This is a very large 3-section tripod and it is a testament to the excellent design of this vest that it can be carried on the back securely, without flopping around and lifted out without the need to remove the vest. Every back pack that I have ever tried that claims it can carry a tripod on side straps fails to adequately support the large Gitzo. Incidentally, I made comment in Part One of this article that I can fit my 300mm F2.8L IS lens in the back pocket of this vest. In point of fact, the pocket is actually large enough to store up to a 600mm F4L lens with the lens hood reversed mounted to Canon 1D MKIV. That should go a long way toward giving you and idea of the storage capacity of this pocket. Of course, there is no way you could remove a 600mm lens and attached camera without first removing the vest. The pocket has a velcro lid and also a drain hole should water get in – another solid plus in the design.
I found the side pockets of the vest a great location for storing lenses up to the size of the Canon 70-200mm F2.8L IS. I can reach around and take a lens in and out of these pockets with relative ease without having to remove the vest. The 70-200mm F2.8L IS lens is somewhat of a tight fit in these pockets and if I was ordering this vest again would have the circumference of one of the pockets increased slightly to more easily accommodate this lens. As it stands its acceptable with the 70-200 F2.8L IS and easy with anything smaller. The ability to retrieve and stow a lens or thermos in the side pocket is a real boon as I found it very convenient when I wanted a cup of coffee on a hike or wanted to access a lens quickly.
The padded hip belt was I feel a significant factor in the comfort this vest provided over long hikes. During a three and a half hour hike through relatively deep snow I never felt any back or neck discomfort. I only removed the vest once during a snack break and only then to climb a nearby boulder more freely for a better view of the surroundings. The vest does an outstanding job of spreading the weight of the equipment much better than a traditional back-pack that loads the shoulders and tends to make you somewhat unbalanced. By loading up the front pockets of the vest as a counterweight to the large rear pocket weight is more evenly distributed and makes hiking much easier. The padded hip belt just helps spread the weight and transfer some of it to the waist. Because of the nature of this product being a vest everything is easily accessible in pockets; which is extremely convenient and makes working in the field with a backpack seem very primitive.
Overall I am very impressed with how this vest performed in its first field test. It has met my expectations and actually proved more comfortable on long hikes than I had envisaged it would be. As I mentioned in Part One, these vests are custom made for the photographer. They are about function and convenience and not style and looks. I am certainly not going to win any fashion awards in the field with this accessory; but it is going to make my hikes more comfortable and my equipment more accessible and that makes it a well designed product in my book.
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.
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.
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.
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.