Peru Trip – A photographer’s note

Canon-EF-Lens-Collection

What is the ideal camera kit for a vacation? Depending on who you are, the answers might vary from a simple smartphone camera to what you see above.

Of course, the nature of your vacation would also drive the kind of gear you would want to carry. Some vacations are so chilled out, one has time for tripods, multiple lenses and a zillion different filters. But some other vacations involve a lot of activities forcing minimal amount of equipment. We had planned for primarily two outdoor activities during our trip – the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and a 6-day visit to the Amazon rainforest in Manu National Park, Peru. So, we certainly had to travel light. I am certainly not so camera-nerdy to carry around stuff like in the picture above. But, as a photography enthusiast, I had to plan a little bit so that we had the right ingredients to ensure good photographs without having to look like bazooka-wielding Terminators.

We already had a decent DSLR in Canon EOS 550D (Rebel T2i). But, we only had the basic kit lenses, one wide-angle and one telephoto. In our previous vacations, we used to juggle between these two. The context-switching was, at times, so annoying I have even skipped taking some pictures just to avoid a lens switch. The camera battery is more than sufficient for a day’s worth of pictures and we always carry around the charger to juice it up at the end of every day. I am usually comfortable just carrying around the camera in hand, and when I am not using it, it either hangs around my neck or resides inside my backpack.

This vacation changed all of that. Our routine wasn’t going to work this time around, due to the following unique things which the Peru vacation threw at us:

1. We were going to be outdoors, walking, sometimes over steep uphill and precipitous downhill stretches, for long periods of time. So, switching lenses was completely out of question.
2. As we weren’t pictures of perfect fitness, just finishing our trek carrying our day packs sounded daunting enough. I wasn’t keen on having the camera hanging around my neck, pulling my torso forward and bouncing on my chest. Also, I knew it would be impractical to have the camera inside the day pack when a good photographic moment often showed itself on a split-second notice.
3. The Inca trail was a 4-day camping trek, with no electricity whatsoever during the whole trip. The Amazon visit was almost the same for 6 days, except for sporadic availability of power during couple of days. So, no overnight battery charges.
4. We weren’t exactly ‘Speedy Gonzaleses‘ and we knew that very well. We suspected that we would spend most of the time just playing catch-up with the trek group. This meant that there was little to no time for switching batteries during the treks, if the juice ran out.
5. No electricity also meant no laptops to copy over photographs from the SD card at the end of every day.
6. Our Grand Canyon trip taught us the need for some filters usage. So many of our pictures came washed out, had dull colors etc. That was an area where I had absolutely no idea.

The rest of this note is just going to explain my decisions/purchases to tackle the above issues. Being a novice photographer, I might have very well made some naive decisions. So, please feel free to point out anything odd that you note here. I just went with the best options based on my limited understanding. I made all my purchases in the amazing B&H Superstore in NYC. Luckily for me, they had sales going on many items and their friendly return policy always came to my rescue when I made some questionable decisions.

So, first, the lens: If you had seen our Inca trail picture locations, you would immediately realize that there was no way I could have compromised on landscape photography. I needed to go as much wide-angle as possible. On the other hand, some ruins and details needed a good deal of zoom, and the Amazon trip demanded a LOT of zoom for distant wildlife. What I needed was a single carry-around lens that would double up as both our wide-angle and telephoto lens. I ended up deciding on a range of 18-200mm (with the help of my friend Srini). Already committed to an expensive trip, there was no way I could afford the expensive Canon 18-200. So, I ended up getting the Sigma 18-200, which proved to be more than adequate, though a bit on the slower, stiffer side.

Then came the decision which ate up most of my time: a good way to carry the camera around. After dumping the standard issue neck strap, I went fishing for some budget-priced side straps that were similar to the BlackRapid straps, but priced at around $20. I immediately regretted my decision as they were made of questionable material and had a lot of bounce around my side. I returned the one I bought and tried the BlackRapid strap itself in the store. Again, too much bounce and I never felt like the camera was secure. Time to up the ante and consider something a bit more innovative.

One one side, a lot of online reviews pointed to a new Kickstarter product called Capture, which functioned like a very sleek kind of belt buckle that would hold the camera in place. On the other side, we had bulkier options like Spider Pro and Cotton Carrier. Afraid of being branded a dork, I went with the sleeker solution first and bought the Capture systems product. It was amazingly small and it looked very promising until I actually tried it out. May be my belt was too thin or may be my day pack strap was too weak, but I never experienced the convenience promised in the pictures below:

For me, the camera sagged fully from the belt or the backpack strap and made it cumbersome to use in practice. I was quite disappointed. There was much hype over that product which in my opinion is pretty limited in usage. So, I had no other choice other than to look into the bulky options. I went over to B&H again and asked for a sample of both Spider Pro and Cotton Carrier. Both of them provide a belt and hip holster setup to seat the camera. I took one look at the Cotton Carrier and decided I can never wear it and not look like a supreme dork. So, I decided to try out the Spider Pro.

It turned out to be a great purchase. I was initially apprehensive of the contraption that actually holds the camera in place. If you look at the picture below, you would understand immediately. But, my fears were baseless. The holster served me extremely well across 4-days of rough terrain hiking and 6-days of traveling through the jungle in trails and boats, always providing me instant access to the camera. The belt has a pad-and-clip mechanism that sits flush on your side. The camera would be fitted with a base plate that has a super strong pin protruding out. When you want to put the camera aside, you just slide the pin inside the clip and it clicks through a security lever. The lever holds the camera securely in the clip. You have to push the lever to get the camera out again. One would think that this setup would lead to a lot of swing in the camera, but in practice, that is not the case. The camera sits nicely and doesn’t move much as you walk. The belt buckle also has an additional safety button that you have to push, so that you don’t accidentally unbuckle the belt. The entire setup can be seen in the picture below:

The holster became quite popular among the people I met during the trip. Everyone was fascinated by its ease of use and the fact that I was always pulling out my camera like a gun out of its holster :) I know that I can never wear something like this during a normal vacation but on demanding situations like this, the holster is perfect!

The next challenge was the battery – simple to handle really. My empirical (!) studies suggested that a single battery charge lasted roughly two days of active camera usage (minimal videos). So, I just purchased two additional batteries to ensure that it can last the 6 days in Amazon. Pearstone batteries are well-reviewed and are much cheaper compared to the Canon ones. I still had to avoid switching batteries if I could and so I went with the Canon battery grip, which helps in three ways:
a. supports two batteries at a time
b. provides superlative grip, shape and balance to the camera
c. provides a switchable compartment where you can put 6 AA batteries if you completely ran out of juice at any point

My age-old SD card was not going to hold up 6 days worth of manic clicking and RAW pictures. So, I decided to get a 32GB card to gobble it all up.

Finally, the filters: as I said, I had no idea what to do and decided to just listen to advice from more experienced pros like Srini. I ended up getting a circular polarizer filter and a graduated neutral density filter, both of which I used once in a while during the trip. I believe they made details and colors like evening clouds stand out in sunset scenarios and helped in filtering out excess brightness from the sunny tropical skies, but that’s just me theorizing.

Overall, this trip made us rethink our camera inventory and add some very valuable equipment that made our trip that much more comfortable and enjoyable. Hopefully, they would also turn out to be good investments in the long run!

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