Last Updated: December 2017
My photography equipment has to travel around the world with me. As I work in remote areas, it needs to be totally reliable. Preferably small and light, too. Also, inexpensive is good.
I don’t ask for much, right?
Anyway, I’ve just arrived back in New Zealand after a three-month stint of fieldwork in South America and Africa. I really tried to pare down my gear to the bare essentials for that trip… though your idea of essential (ALL THE CAMERAS) may differ from mine. While that experience is fresh in my mind, I thought it would be an opportune time to revisit and update this post with my latest packing list and some mini-reviews.
Since it’s the end of the year, it’s also a good excuse to post a few of my favourite photos from 2017.
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My underwater and travel camera: Olympus OM-D E-M1
I actually have two of these, although one of them seems to be dying (see below). The Olympus OM-D E-M1, released in 2013, has been my primary underwater and travel camera since I bought one in early 2015. It’s relatively small, has good image quality, a fast frame rate (10 fps), and a large buffer to make that frame rate usable. The battery life is decent, but you’ll want at least one spare BLN-1 battery if you’re planning to make a day of it. I normally change batteries between each dive if I’ve been taking a lot of photos, particularly using flash. (I’ve tried a few of the third-party battery brands, but the real Olympus batteries are much better.)
Reef manta ray at night in Ari Atoll, Maldives, with Indigo Safaris.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found this camera to be all that reliable. My first camera body had issues with the rear dial not working (a common fault, judging by comments in online forums) and the mode dial fell off. Then the shutter stopped working properly. I bought a second-hand body as a replacement and had the first one repaired, but one of them (haven’t checked which one) is now sporadically refusing to turn on. Unhelpful.
The updated E-M1 mkII was released in late 2016. It’s a significant improvement. It’s even faster, with better battery life, more megapixels (20 mp, vs 16), and the video has been dramatically upgraded (to high bit-rate 4k). I haven’t heard of any similar mechanical issues with this body.
Whale shark at Talisayan, Indonesia, with David McCann and Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.
The Panasonic G9, a direct competitor to the E-M1 mkII, comes out in January 2018. Based on the specs I’ve seen, it looks like it will be similar to the E-M1 mk II as a stills camera, but it’ll probably have better video. I’ll be interested to read user reviews once the G9 is out.
Both of these cameras can use the same lenses, as Panasonic and Olympus share the same mount. That’s a huge strength of the micro 4/3 system; the lens selection is superb (see below for my recommendations).
I use Nauticam housings (currently the NA-EM1) for underwater photography, and I suggest you do too. They’re brilliant. Get a vacuum system too, you’ll thank me later. I also use dual Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes with Panasonic Eneloop batteries, Nauticam fibre optic cables, and Ultralight arms with a few floats to make the system neutrally buoyant.
My underwater and travel lenses:
Packing for this last trip, I realised I have three clear favourite lenses for the E-M1. I have two lenses that I always travel with if I’ll be diving:
- The Panasonic 8 mm fisheye. I actually have the Olympus 8 mm PRO fisheye too, which is supposedly a superior lens, but I find that the Panasonic focuses faster, it’s smaller, and I can’t see any noticeable optical differences between photos taken with the two lenses. So the Panny it is. It’s cheaper, too. I use it with the 100 mm Zen optical glass dome port. I don’t see much difference between that (expensive) port and my older (cheaper) Nauticam acrylic mini dome port when it comes to optics, so I’d probably just go for the Nauticam port if I was starting fresh. Acrylic domes are also easier to look after, although they are much more prone to accumulating scratches. I never seem to dry the glass properly on my dome, and it stains (permanently), which is annoying – and expensive, if the glass does need to be replaced. As an aside, Reef Photo can organise that.
Here (above, and below) are some of my favourite photos taken with the Panasonic 8 mm fisheye this year:
Reef manta ray at Nusa Penida, Indonesia, with Big Fish Diving.
Whale shark in the Galapagos with Alexandra Watts and the Galapagos Whale Shark Project.
Hawksbill turtle at Maratua Island, Indonesia, with Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.
Whale shark at Mafia Island, Tanzania, with The Whale Safari and Marine Megafauna Foundation.
Just as an aside, I also really like using the Panasonic fisheye for wildlife if the subjects are amenable:
Marine iguanas at Isabela Island, Galapagos.
Wandering albatross at Kaikoura, New Zealand, with Albatross Encounter.
Gecko at Lokobe National Park, Nosy Be, Madagascar, with Aqua-Firma.
I also use the Panasonic 7-14 mm wide angle lens. It’s excellent, but it does require an additional (larger) port so I didn’t take it on my last trip. I prefer the fisheye for whale sharks, but the 7-14 mm is a great option for general wide angle (reefscapes etc). The 7-14 mm and Olympus 8 mm fisheye will both fit in the Zen 170 mm port (with an extension ring), which is pretty cool.
Here are some of my favourite photos taken with the Panasonic 7-14 mm wide angle lens this year:
Dusky and common dolphins at Kaikoura, New Zealand, with Dolphin Encounter.
Hawksbill turtle (top) and reef manta ray (below) at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, Philippines, with LAMAVE.
Reef fish (top), giant trevally (middle), and Gonzalo Araujo with whale shark (below) at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, Philippines, with LAMAVE and the Philippines Siren.
Giant petrol off Kaikoura, New Zealand, with Albatross Encounter.
2. The Olympus 60 mm PRO macro lens. I really enjoy macro photography, and this lens is great. I use it with a Nauticam flat port.
I haven’t done too many macro photography dives this year, but here are are few recent photos from the Olympus 60 mm lens:
An orange seahorse (above) and frogfish (below) in Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania, with Aqua-Firma and Mafia Diving.
Nudibranch (top) and hairy squat lobster (above) at Scuba Junkie Komodo, Indonesia.
3. For wildlife, I use the Olympus 40-150 mm PRO lens, adding the 1.4x teleconverter for extra reach occasionally. This is an excellent, sharp lens with a highly useful zoom range. It’s expensive, but it rocks.
It focuses much closer than most other telephoto lenses too, which means you can also use it as a makeshift macro lens:
Southern bell frog in Tawharanui Regional Park, Auckland, New Zealand.
Chameleon (top) and tiny frog (above) at Lokobe National Park, Nosy Be, Madagascar.
I love having that flexibility. Here are some more photos taken with the Olympus 40-150 mm PRO lens this year:
Common dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand, taken with Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari.
A sperm whale (top) and dusky dolphins (below) off Kaikoura, New Zealand, taken from a whale watching flight with Wings Over Whales.
Hoo are you? A small owl in Lokobe National Park, Nosy Be, Madagascar.
My wildlife camera: Nikon D7200
I’m a big fan of mirrorless cameras for underwater and travel photography, but my Nikon D7200 is the better camera for my style of wildlife photography. I wasn’t planning for any hard-core wildlife missions over the past few months (sadly), so the DSLR and big lens stayed at home to save weight and space in my bag, but it’ll get plenty of use over this summer in NZ.
My Tamron 150-600 mm lens lives on this camera.
I’m not convinced by monkeys. But the Bornean primates were alright. Kinabatangan River in Sabah with Osman’s Homestay.
Yellow-eyed penguin in Otago, New Zealand.
Tui at Orokonui Ecosanctuary, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Bornean elephant at the Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia, with Osman’s Homestay.
Remote camera: GoPro Hero 4 Black
I’ve stuck with the Hero 4 Black, rather than go for the latest GoPro (the Hero 6) as I like to use an external battery pack when I’m leaving the GoPro out as a remote camera to maximise recording time. The newer models have an LCD, so there’s no way to add battery life. No matter, as the Hero 4 Black is pretty decent.
I mount the GoPro on a dive weight to get footage like this:
I didn’t get much use out of this system in 2017, but it can be good to have around.
Drone: DJI Phantom 4 Pro
I’ve had a couple of drones before this, the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ (it drowned; RIP) and the Phantom 3 Pro (that cliff came out of nowhere; RIP), and this Phantom 4 Pro is a really major upgrade in both still and video quality. It’s got a much larger camera sensor (almost four times the size of the DJI Mavic Pro), which makes a big difference, and the battery life has dramatically improved from earlier models. It’s much easier to get smooth video, too.
That being said, I would still point most people to the Mavic Pro (fly more bundle) as the better option for them. It’s much, much smaller, and the quality is still excellent. I’m really happy with my 4 Pro though.
I was annoyed on my first few flights, as the DJI Go app kept crashing on my Nexus 6 phone. It would overheat and drain the battery, too. Putting the phone into flight mode (funnily enough) did improve things, but I’d kind of wanted an iPad Mini 4 for reading anyway, so I got a refurbished iPad which works much better with the drone too.
Sunset over Komodo National Park, Indonesia, with Scuba Junkie Komodo.
Sangalaki Island, Indonesia, with Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.
Maratua Island, Indonesia, with Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.
Camera bag: Think Tank Airport Accelerator
This bag fits my drone – with the Think Tank dividers – as well as my dome ports, cameras, and lenses. It’s a beast. It obviously doesn’t look too conspicuous though, as I’ve never once had to weigh it. #winning
If you have a drone, but not lots of other stuff, there’s a specialist Think Tank drone backpack too.
Underwater drone: Trident mini ROV
This should be arriving in about March 2018. Stay tuned :).
You’ll want a bunch of memory cards. Don’t cheap out on these, they’re an important part of the system so it’s worth getting decent ones. I use Sandisk Extreme Pro 64 gb cards.
I always travel with a lenspen to keep my lens clean.
I bought various filters and a torch from Fire Dive Gear to try out fluorescence photography. I haven’t really worked out how to use this gear yet, but I did a fun couple of dives in Madagascar.
Fluoro diving at Nosy Sakatia, Madagascar, with Aqua-Firma and Sakatia Lodge.
Is it worth travelling with a compact camera? Probably not (for me).
I managed to drown my Sony RX100 mkIII compact during heavy rain in Borneo. Oops. I’m still trying to decide if I’ll replace it. My phone seems to be dying, so I’m tempted to just buy a new phone that has a really good camera (likely a Pixel 2, so I can keep using my Project Fi sim card). I’ve normally got my phone with me, so it’d be convenient.
However, the Olympus TG5 is also a neat tough camera (with awesome macro) that would be useful for taking photos on wet boats, which I do spend a lot of time on. Hmmm.
If someone would put out a large-sensor waterproof compact, I’d be throwing my wallet at the screen right now.
Photography software: Adobe Lightroom Classic CC
I use Adobe Lightroom Classic CC for organising and editing my photos. It comes as a monthly subscription with Photoshop, which I’ll learn to use… eventually. As an aside, if you don’t know how to use Lightroom yet, I found the Stuck in Customs video tutorial series really useful.
If you’re not already shooting in raw and editing your photos, you should learn – it can dramatically improve your output.
Laptop computer: MacBook Pro 13′ (2015)
My travel (and office) computer is a 2015 MacBook Pro with a 13′ screen. I’ve got the 512 gb hard drive, 8 gb RAM configuration. It’s a couple of years old now, but still going strong.
Apple put out an updated version in 2016, but I’m not in any hurry to upgrade.
External hard drive: Seagate Backup Plus 5TB
I’ve got a couple of these. I want ALL THE STORAGE.
Travel insurance: World Nomads
After a fair bit of research, World Nomads is the best insurance option for me at this stage. They cover normal travel stuff, health things, diving and other activities, and at least partially cover my gear.
That’s it for camera gear!
Hope that’s helpful and / or interesting. It was fun going back through some of my photos from the year anyway.
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