The longer my trip has gone on, the more stuff I have managed to dispose of – or at least swap for smaller or lighter alternatives. I have progressively ‘slimmed down’ my kit. Well, that was until I went to the States a couple of months ago….
I blame Austin Vince and my good friend Johnny Fenn. They may be responsible for me taking better photos and producing better videos, but they’ve also burnt a hole in my wallet as well as forcing me to find more space to pack my kit.
I started the trip with nothing more than a small Canon point-and-shoot (the SX260, an excellent camera), which took up next to no space in my kit. A Go Pro Hero 3+ later joined the line-up. After a year or so, the Canon was swapped for a slightly bigger but much more capable Olympus Stylus 1. And then I went to Austin’s Adventure Travel Film Festival (ATFF) and also undertook a two-day photography course with Johnny when I was back in UK.
That’s when it all got a bit out of hand.
Attending the ATFF, you have broadly two choices – kick back and enjoy two and a half days of travel films and barbeques; or go back to school and attend some of the video workshops being run by a group of pros from the video industry. I did the latter, attending all seven workshops, covering planning, narrative, interviewing, camera work, directing, sound and editing. It was a crash course in travel documentary making, a steal at £140 (twenty quid a workshop), and in my opinion a superb introduction to the craft of videography.
A week earlier, I spent two days with Johnny Fenn – former Army officer and now professional photographer. Johnny runs one-to-one bespoke photography courses and I took the the opportunity to brush up on my skills, spending a couple of days with him at his home in Somerset. ‘Painting with light’ is an expression he likes to use, which I never really got until we ran through a series of exercises shooting with off-camera flash, even in bright sunshine, and with the camera on manual. Even with my little Olympus I surprised myself with the images I took. Then came a session on post-production with Adobe Lightroom – the art of turning average snap into something quite striking. We concluded the course shooting with a model – pretending to be an old lady sitting in a Bolivian market!
The outcome of all this? A bagful of quality photo / video kit and what may be the optimum traveller’s rig.
So what’s in my bag?
My setup is built around the Panasonic Lumix GH4. All the research I did about DSLR videography led me to this camera; many people are raving about it. Whilst also taking beautiful photos, it is designed and configured primarily for video. But what makes it a winner for a motoquero wanting a serious camera (in addition to it’s performance) is it’s size and weight. Being mirrorless and incorporating the ‘Micro Four-Thirds’ chip designed jointly by Panasonic and Olympus, it’s so much smaller and lighter than a full-frame DSLR. And that carries over to the lenses too. Even the long zooms can fit unobtrusively in your pocket. The camera body and at least two of the available lenses are also weather sealed – a major plus for shooting on the road, or more importantly off the road; as is the impressive battery life.
So turning to lenses, I am carrying four – two zooms and two primes. My general purpose lens is the Lumix GX Vario 12-35mm (24-70mm equivalent for 35mm) with a fixed f2.8 aperture. Image stabilised and weather sealed, it’s a beauty – though not cheap. I also have an incredibly light and compact Olympus M Zuiko 40-150mm (80-300mm equivalent) f4-5.6; not image stabilised and thus absurdly cheap (USD200). I originally choose this lens because I felt I couldn’t spend the money on the more expensive, image stabilised Panasonic version, or better still the Panny 35-100mm f2.8 which comes in at a cool USD1500! I bought it intending to upgrade to one of these two lenses in due course, but it’s so small and light I think I’ll keep it. My two primes are: an Olympus M Zuiko 17mm f1.8 which is tiny and has a killer manual focus ring with hard stops (for video work); and arguably the nicest lens of them all, the Panasonic Leica Summilux 25mm f1.4. Ideally I should only be carrying the 17mm – the Leica is an unnecessary luxury, taking up valuable space.
Being firmly in the amateur camp when it comes to video, the biggest lesson I took away from the ATFF workshops was the importance of getting your sound right. So I have three bits of kit in my bag for this: a Rode Video Mic Pro to mount on to the camera, which records sound directly on to the SD card; the very lightweight and compact Zoom H1 digital recorder which, being designed specifically for recording sound (most cameras have sub-optimal hardware and software to do this), captures far superior audio; and a Giant Squid lavelier mic with a three metre extension cable, for recording voice. This kit doesn’t take up much room but will improve your audio dramatically.
This is the heart of the system. So what else do I now have?
The advantage of shooting video on DSLRs is that you can create beautiful images my capitalising on the narrow depths of field achieved with wide apertures. I quickly learnt the problem with this technique – with wide apertures and necessarily slow shutter speeds, way too much light hits the sensor when shooting in sunlight. The solution is to use Neutral Density (ND) filters – effectively sunglasses for a camera. After reading a lot of reviews, I treated myself to a Tiffen Variable ND filter, which allows you a fourth mechanism by which to control your exposure (along with shutter speed, aperture and ISO). With a step-down ring I can use this on all my lenses, despite them having different lens diameters.
The GH4 shoots very high resolution video (up to 4K at 60fps at 200Mbps) so it needs a lot of memory, and fast cards. I have six Transcend SDXC Class 3 64GB cards in a robust case, giving me about 7-8 hours shooting at 24fps / 1080p / 100Mbs. They are surprisingly cheap at Amazon, HERE.
I have bought a relatively cheap but perfectly good tripod – a Magnus VT-300. It’s a pain to carry on the back of the bike, but it’s essential to my mind. I also have a much smaller Gorillapod. In case that’s not enough to carry, I’m also experimenting with a Manfrotto compact monopod. A lot of videographers use them for so-called ‘run and gun’ video work, so I wanted to try it out. I feel I should give one up to save space, but it’s a tough call – each has a valuable role to play.
But that’s not all! I have one last little gem living in my tank bag. Still wanting access to a small ‘take anywhere’ compact camera, and having well and truly caught the Panny Micro Four Thirds bug, I lost control and bought myself a Lumix GM1. Smaller than most point-and-shoot compacts, it boasts a Micro Four Thirds sensor and a removable, tiny 12-32mm (24-64mm equivalent) zoom lens; this means I can use any of my other lenses on it. Unfortunately is only shoots 24fps video in AVCHD (no .MOV), but these files can be easily converted to other formats on a laptop: I thus have a credible second camera for video. She’s a beauty. As one canny commentator pointed out on a Lumix forum, the only problem with the GM1 is, because it is so good, you problem won’t bother using the GH4!
You will inevitably find some photographers who will insist you need a full frame camera. For me, the Micro Four Thirds sensor is perfectly good enough – I think the images it captures are stunning. But more importantly, if you are a motoquero wanting a high-quality camera rig, a full frame camera and its associated lenses will take up half a pannier. On the other hand, the GH4 with a zoom lens, and in a neoprene case, takes up less than half of my small tank bag – literally – with the 17mm prime almost unnoticed beside it. So for me, it’s the way to go if you want quality, compact and lightweight gear.
But you can make up your own mind when you check out the photos in my posts over the next couple of months.
If you want to raise your game behind the viewfinder and find yourself with a couple of free days in the South West of England, check out Johnny Fenn at johnnyfenn.co.uk. He makes a mean cappuccino too.
And if you are interested in the GH4 for video work, check out Sol Marchsssault’s great blog, Suggestion of Motion.