Packing: The Secret Weapon to Success on Assignment

Posted on Jan 19, 2017 in Uncategorized

With a bit of creativity, all of this fits into one bag.

This month, with another assignment looming, I once again pulled out my gear and began the familiar inventory rundown. Do I have all my chargers? Batteries? Are all my memory cards downloaded and backed up? I’m always grateful to be able to pause before plunging into the inevitable chaos of a shoot – it’s a far cry from the moment’s notice one is given as a war or breaking news photographer.

Sitting there on my studio’s cold tile floor in front of a collection of lenses, cameras and whatnot, it occurred to me that I’ve spent more time on the road than at home over the past year. Or at least that what it felt like. So, I inventoried my trips. This year’s projects for National Geographic and Too Young to Wed took me to Sierra Leone (2x), India (2x), Tanzania, and Nigeria (2x) and Nepal. I also traveled to Kenya to lead a workshop for child marriage survivors and to London for a National Geographic speaking engagement. Maybe not as prolific as some photographers, but, whew.

At some point during probably every one of these trips I had the experience we’ve all had at one time or another when I rifled through my bags to find a piece of equipment only to find I hadn’t packed it for whatever reason. Not having a particular item won’t be fatal to a shoot, and sometimes my workarounds are even better than my original idea, but nothing beats having the right tool for the job.

When living out of a suitcase, however temporary, the goal is to walk the difficult line between traveling lightly and toting what amounts to a portable photo studio. As I only stand five feet two inches, lugging even a modest collection of cameras and lenses for long periods of time can be challenging. As a result, I’ve found it immensely helpful to just maintain a consistent core set up and keep assignment-specific add-ons to a minimum, excising them altogether when you can. That way, all you really need to switch out is assignment-appropriate clothing. (In addition to my core photo gear, I always carry a basic first aid kit and a small pharmacy’s worth of medicines in preparation for most common illnesses; and because I am a female, modest clothes that cover my arms and backside are a must.)

So exactly what gear do I pack?

I use a reinforced Pelican case with wheels and a TSA-approved lock to travel and a Newswear fanny pack while shooting. Some photographers prefer to use a backpack, but I prefer to have my gear to be solidly protected should I be forced to check it due to size constraints. I then use a backpack to carry my laptop, hard drives and small Canon EOS M5, in case I run across interesting frames in transit. Using a hard case also protects the gear when traveling on bumpy roads. In fact, just this summer I was in a car zooming down a very bumpy “road” in rural Sierra Leone when the driver hit a large pothole. The trunk popped open… with my bag in the back! My fixer managed to grab the bag before it fell out, but if it had, the cameras would have most likely survived because of the case.

My core kit, all Canon:

EF 35mm f/1.4L USM Lens
EF 50mm f/1.2L USM Lens
EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens
EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Lens (mainly for video)
EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens

I then have a pile of memory cards, a small LED light and a reflector for making use of whatever light I can. Almost all of it fits together into one bag (with a bit of creativity).

I hope you’ve found this little look behind the scenes helpful! Until next time, follow me on Instagram @stephsinclairpix to see my photographs from the road.