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Kampala, Uganda; Oct 17, 2004

gear: technology

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We wanted to travel light, but we wanted to make sure that we had the proper gear to record our journey, both for making this site and for our long-term memories. Be forewarned, this section is pretty geeky…

-Digital SLR camera
Nikon D70. This is a relatively new model and is a great value. It’s also good for the prosumer/hobbyist/novice combo like us. Grace used to do a fair amount of photography with film cameras, but is only getting back into it seriously for this trip. And Susan, who usually takes more photographs in everyday life, likes having point-and-shoot options for when she doesn’t feel like mucking about with a bunch of dials. [Note that we originally bought (and later returned) a Fuji S2, a somewhat older model, but very popular among picky photographers for its great color. This camera is less forgiving for the novice, and is bigger and heavier than the D70. It also requires more batteries and costs about twice as much.
-Lenses for the SLR
Deciding on the lenses was a long process. We bought and returned quite a few. After considerable experimentation, we decided on the following:
Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR – This is our everyday lens. It has a good zoom range, nice optics, and the nifty VR (vibration reduction) feature.
Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G ED-IF AF-S DX – This is a wide-angle zoom. It’s good for taking pictures of buildings or landscapes. It’s also good for when you’re trying to take a picture indoors and there’s no more room to step backward.
Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED AF VR – This is our safari lens. There are better quality lenses, but this one’s great in terms of price, weight, and size. It’s not small, but it’s a lot smaller than it could be. And the VR (vibration reduction) technology actually allows us to shoot at 400mm without a tripod – pretty cool.
Nikkor 10.5mm f2.8G ED-IF AF DX – Fisheye, fisheye, roley-poley fisheye. Ok, so it makes everything look wacky around the edges, but sometimes it’s cool getting an 180-degree view. And hey, you can fix it in Photoshop later if you want to.
Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D AF – This is a super fast, super small lens, useful for when there’s not very much light, things are moving quickly, or just for looking less conspicuous with your camera gear. It’s fixed length, so it’s not as flexible, but the optics are high quality.
-Other paraphernalia for the SLR camera
A few filters (mostly UV protective types, but also a polarizer and a half-gray jobbie for dealing with bright sky horizon shots), some adapter rings so most of the lenses can use the same filters, SB-600 flash unit, an extremely portable Bogen Manfrotto tripod, five 500MB high-speed CompactFlash cards, extra camera battery.
-Small digital camera
Canon Powershot S230 Digital Elph. There are better ones out now, but we took old faithful. It’s often very nice to have a small camera. There are a few reasons for this: 1) people not used to cameras sometimes kinda’ freak out when you pull out a big SLR camera, and that’s never good for getting interesting photos, 2) a small camera doesn’t scream “tourist!” and doesn’t make you look like you’re begging to get mugged, 3) carrying it is considerably easier when you’re going to the beach or having a casual dinner with friends, etc, and 4) since there are two of us, sometimes it’s nice for both of us to have a camera at the same time.
-Underwater housing for small camera
Taking pictures underwater is pretty nifty if you can get a better camera than those horrid disposables. Putting the camera into the housing is pretty neat; you get to lock it into its own little water-tight spacesuit – high geek factor enjoyment – synchronize watches lockdown delta tango. Um… over and out.
-Portable card-reader/hard drive
MindStor PSS-1820. Unfortunately, they don’t make these anymore (company went out of business), but you can still buy ‘em on eBay, and there are alternative brands around, too. This doo-hickey reads flash cards (usually packed with photos) and stores them on a little (20GB) hard drive. It’s a bit bigger than a Palm Pilot in size. It allows us to go for long periods without the laptop (in Uganda and Tanzania, for example, we left the laptop locked up in the airport). It costs about as much as 1GB worth of flash cards and holds 20 times as much, so it’s a cheaper (albeit larger) alternative to carrying around a boatload of cards.
-Digital camcorder
Sony DCR PC-330. This uses miniDV tapes, has a nice lens, and is fairly small (though not tiny). It’s not the newest model, but we got it cheap on eBay after reading a zillion reviews that indicated that it’s better than some of the current models in the same category. We’re happy with it so far, but the real test will be when we finally tackle video editing.
-Laptop computer
Gateway 450XL. Now THIS was a tough call. We used to have a tiny little Dell, but it didn’t seem sturdy enough for traveling the world (heck, it wasn’t even sturdy enough to NOT travel the world). Then, in preparation for the trip, we bought a little-known beast called a Panasonic Toughbook (the W2 model). These are amazing (and hard to find if you don’t know where to look – we got ours used on eBay). They weigh less than 3 lbs. and they’ll take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. It’s a scaled down version of what the military uses, just to give you an idea of its sturdiness. Its downsides, unfortunately, were that it didn’t have dedicated video RAM (very useful for video work) and it couldn’t be outfitted with an internal DVD-burner (meaning we’d have to carry another piece of gear). So, because we wanted to be able to view and edit pictures (and play high res video games) we finally decided on the Gateway. It isn’t an ultralight; its fairly normal sized (which is good for somebody that has a bit of carpal tunnel) and given the amount of things that we use it for, exchanging a little extra weight for performance is okay with us.
-Latop-related doodads
Mouse, foldable headphones/microphone headset for making cheap (or free) long-distance phone calls with our laptop using Skype (very cool, and when we say cheap, we mean it: $.02/minute to the States from anywhere), CompactFlash adapter card so it’s easy to transfer photos without connecting the cameras, USB flash drive, Firefly USB hard drive (20GB) for backups (super light and super small), blank CD’s and DVD’s for burning archives to send home.
We have the usual suspects, plus some less well known apps: Microsoft Office, Macromedia Studio MX (Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash, etc.), Adobe Photoshop CS, Phase One C1 Pro (RAW file editor for photos), Adobe Premier Pro, QuickTime Pro, Adobe Acrobat, Skype (see above), a variety of browsers for beta-testing this site, and too many other culprits to list.
-MPEG music player
Apple iPod 20GB. Yes, there are others, but there’s nothing quite like an iPod. Besides, we were given one for our wedding, as well as a portable set of speakers and a headphone splitter. We didn’t bring the speakers (too big in the end, though it was tempting), but the headphone splitter is a godsend. We sometimes wish we had the speakers, but hey, Susan also wishes she had another 3 pairs of shoes. At 20MB it’s not the biggest, but it’s plenty for a boatload of songs and some books on tape. Books on tape – what a great idea – and we can download more while on the road.
-Audio recorder
Griffen iTalk. Hey Frankie, since the iPod’s main purpose in life is storing audio, wouldn’t it be cool if you could record onto it, too? Why yes, John, it would! That’s why the nifty folks at Griffen invented the iTalk. It has a microphone built in, and also allows you to attach your own. (To be fair, Belkin also makes a couple similar products.)
-Lavalier microphone
Sound Professionals SP-LAV-2. An inconspicuous, quality microphone that can be attached to the above mentioned iTalk when we want better audio quality than the built-in mic.
Eagle Optics Ranger Platinum Class (one 10x42 and one 8x42). We love these things (lightweight, crystal clear, and rugged) and everybody else who tries ‘em loves ‘em, too. It is certainly possible to buy better binocs, but they get pretty expensive and these are great value for the money (though they’re more than we originally planned to spend).

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© 2004-2012 susan & grace, all rights reserved

-- comments from readers --


Would you recommend the Nikon D-200?

--Charly (Chicago, Illinois, USA); Feb 9, 2006

A few people have asked this question now. The Nikon D200 was not available, when we left on our trip, but if it was, we might have purchased one. That said, on a limited budget, spending more on a camera body only makes sense to us after figuring out your lens situation. If we had to choose between having the fish-eye, for example, and having the D200 instead of the D70, we'd probably choose the fish-eye.

--Grace; Feb 14, 2006


Are you happy with the quality of the pictures from your camera, vs. what they would be if you used a film slr camera? I have been debating whether to buy a digital slr, but have not been happy with the general quality of digital pictures I have seen my friends take (albeit not with a digital slr); plus nearly everyone has experienced a camera breakdown--not what you want on your trip of a lifetime. We are planning several trips over the next few years to NZ, South America, and Africa and I want to have great pictures. I can easily handle film since we won't be gone for more than a month, but digital would be more convenient. Would welcome your thoughts. I love your website and have bookmarked it. What a wonderful trip!

--Susan G. (New Jersey, USA); Nov 8, 2005

Well... that is a tough question. I used to shoot film, but stopped doing photography for a long time. When I picked it up again (for this trip), I decided to go digital. I personally prefer digital for many reasons:
-instant preview
-easy to store and review (and discard) large numbers of photos
-I can "develop" them myself on the computer (while still traveling)
-I can tweak things when necessary
-easy to post on the web
-I am a computer person anyway

Certainly, there are ways to do all these things with film, but they are harder.

Regarding quality, there will probably always be people that prefer film. For me, I'm very pleased with the quality of our digital photos. Personally, I think the reason you see so many not-so-great-quality digital photos is that digital cameras have made photography so accessible. So there are tons of hobbyist photographers publishing their digital photos. I have nothing against that, more power to them, but I do think that it dilutes the general technical quality level of digital photos that we see. In contrast, I think most people that are still using film are more concerned about taking technically good pictures. Getting good content, of course, is a completely different issue.

Regarding breakdowns, I haven't experienced any problems with mine, and I didn't realize that digital breakdowns were a trend, so I can't really comment on that.

All told, it's a very personal choice. Good luck, and I hope this helps a little bit!

--Grace; Nov 10, 2005


Great site, you have inspired us. Can you tell me how you update your site (Do you plug you laptop into an internet cafe? this ever an issue). Also, who is your site host service. Thanks for the great site.

--Philip S. (Japan); Oct 10, 2005

We simply plug our laptop in at an internet café or at a hostel or guesthouse or sneak a free wi-fi connection whenever we want to do an update. Once in a while, this is a nuisance since some places don't like for you to connect your own laptop, but usually it's no problem.

Our host service is Speakeasy.

--Grace; Oct 20, 2005


I think you have the best travel website I have ever seen. I wonder do you use a content management system or just Dreamweaver?

--Sven L. (London, UK); Sep 30, 2005

Thanks for the kind words! We just use Dreamweaver, but we both have a fair amount of web experience, which certainly helps a bit.

--Grace; Oct 5, 2005


I have really enjoyed your world tour. We are going to South Africa soon. Have you used your big lens on your digital much? Keep up the good work.

--Bob W. (Phoenix, AZ, USA); Jul 14, 2005

While in Tanzania (on safari), we used the big zoom a *lot*! After that, we only used it infrequently. So when we stopped through San Francisco briefly in the middle of the trip, we decided to leave it at home since it's so heavy. But for safari, it was just the ticket! (See the tanzania safari gallery.)

Best of luck on your upcoming trip to SA! Take care!

--Grace; Jul 16, 2005


What insurance company are you insured under? I'm asking this question mostly in regards to your equipment but certainly for health insurance too. We're taking very similar gear on our 6-month trip but haven't found a good insurance plan that will cover our equipment. What would you suggest?

--Michael & Rebecca K. (Washington, DC, USA); Jul 14, 2005

After some extensive research, we decided on World Nomads. We liked their prices, they have rec'd good feedback, and they deal with a range of coverage that we found best for us. Good luck planning everything and enjoy your trip!

--Grace; Jul 18, 2005


[This is a partial copy of another comment/question - we pasted it here since several people have asked similar questions.]

How are you doing traveling with so much stuff? How do you deal with having things like laptops and technology with you? We usually travel pretty light, but for 6 month trip we really want a laptop and other goodies with us. I worry about carting it all around or having to watch it every minute. Any thoughts appreciated!

--Mary (Berkeley, California, USA); May 7, 2005

We really haven't been overly worried about the equipment. If we leave things in our room, we usually lock them in one of the large backpacks. This means that for someone to steal it, they'd have to take the whole backpack. Of course, this is certainly possible, but hopefully it won't happen. Otherwise, we just don't flaunt it (e.g., we put the laptop in a backpack when we go to an internet café). And in general, we're not staying in the dodgiest of places, so that helps, too.

--Grace & Susan; May 18, 2005


Would you recommend a digital SLR format camera over a film SLR?

--Tom V. (Santa Monica, California, USA); Mar 7, 2005

Though there are some good arguments for staying with film, we much prefer using digital since carrying/buying/storing film is a such a hassle. Obviously, with digital, you need a place to store photos, too, but we were going to take a laptop anyway, so it was no problem for us to use that as a photo repository. If you aren't planning on taking a laptop and you'd like to go digital, then there are some devices (like our MindStor) that could do the trick for you. Also, digital stuff is much easier to fix later if you have a photo that is not quite good enough without a little loving care. Hope this helps!

--Grace; Mar 8, 2005


I am enjoying your photographs very much. As a semi-frustrated picture taker (for more years than I want to admit to), I know that it's not easy getting good shots. I also thought your choice of equipment (camera, lenses) was perfect (although I am a Canon fan) for the amount of traveling you're doing.
Keep up the fine work...

--Dave K. (California, USA); Feb 20, 2005


I am planning a RTW trip for next year. Your website is fantastic! Your choice of countries overlap some which are on my "wish list" so I will enjoy following your heroic adventure as it unfolds onto my blank canvas.

I also have a D70 and will have to make a decision as to what lenses (perhaps 3 only) to take with me. Is it possible to place an (*) with your pic's with lens mm information, etc.? It would be wonderful to know which lenses were used with your pics. Is your 80-400mm, for example, fast enough to take those Uganda pis without flash? I am about to purchase two VR's.

Is there a whole list of things you didn't need? Is there another list of things you should have taken (doubt it)? Are you happy with your backpacks on wheels? As i will be a "group of one" my packing list will be determined to the power of ONE!

It is just GREAT that you are on the road sharing with others. HOW DO YOU FIND TIME? I want to be able to take my W2 AND D70 and take lots of pics and keep a website however I just don't want these things to weigh me down or keep me from enjoying the good vibe around. But none of my previous trips have been "high-tech"; now I am planning a trip that must eliminate weight in order to make room for cords, wires, batteries, digital wallets, and lenses. I'm wondering about just ONE change of clothes and a toothbrush! AMEN! World without end!

--Robert P. (California, USA); Feb 20, 2005

Lots of questions, so I'll do my best to answer as many as possible.

We thought about tagging the photos with the lens used, but we decided it was just too much work in the end, and that only a few people would care. Unfortunately, for the ones that do care (like you), it's a bummer. Sorry!

But nonetheless, I can still answer a few of your questions and hopefully it will help. The gorilla pix were taken using the 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR exclusively. We got close enough that we didn't need the big zoom (though I did drag it through the jungle and up the mountain on the first day - fortunately, I learned my lesson and didn't bring it on the second day). And we didn't use any flash on the gorillas - it disturbs them. There were, of course, times when it might have improved the picture since they are frequently backlit, but it's simply not an option.

For safari, however, we used the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED AF VR a lot. Almost all the animal shots are taken with it. (Obviously, the landscape shots are not.) The 80-400 is not the fastest lens, but it worked out fine for us. Nikon makes a 80-200 VR that has better quality optics, but it was too pricey for us. Also, it didn't have the reach of the 80-400, so we would have had to bring a teleconverter (more money, more weight, and frankly, at that point, the lens woulda' been huge - at least for a traveler, but probably not for a professional photographer).

We're really glad we bought the VR lenses. We almost never use a tripod so having the VR really helps the clarity. I'm able to shoot at 400mm without a tripod, which is pretty cool.

Things we brought that we didn't need... hmm... there are a few, but not many. In terms of gear, I haven't been using the SB-600 flash, but maybe that's just coincidence so far. After the safari, I haven't needed the MindStor, but I used it a ton while in Africa since we didn't carry around the laptop. And I haven't used the 50mm f/1.8D AF much, but it weighs almost nothing so it's no big deal to carry.

Yes, we like our backpacks. It turns out that we can usually roll them, which is a whole lot easier than carrying them. But when we need to carry them, that works, too!

You're right; finding the time to work on the site is a bit of a trick, but since we're not on the go all the time it's been okay so far. We both enjoy working on the site, so it's a labor of love.

By W2, I assume that you mean a Panasonic Toughbook. We almost brought that instead of the Gateway. I think you'll be happy bringing it. It's so incredibly light and it's built like a tank. The only drawback for us is that editing video and/or heavy photo processing is pretty slow since it doesn't have a dedicated video processor.

By "one change of clothes," I'm assuming that you mean one change in addition to the one you're wearing. :) I think that would work, but there will be times when you'll be quite dirty. We probably have about 3 and a half sets of clothes, but we had to be ready for a variety of weather. We're still pretty dirty sometimes, and we've thrown a few things away as we've worn them out or no longer needed them for weather reasons.

I hope all this helps and good luck with your planning!

--Grace; Feb 23, 2005