Photography was always going to be an important part of my Grand Tour, both as a record of the trip and to try to capture some images that might stand on their own. And, of course, because it's what I do. So a lot of thought went into the camera equipment and all the supporting paraphernalia that's required these days. This page is a summary of what I carried and how well it worked.
For a brief moment before I left home, as I felt my suitcase and camera bag growing heavier by the day, I began to think that I might make a perfectly good record of my musical destinations with just a good compact camera, saving both weight and technical worries all the way down the chain. I'd be able to wander round the cities with just a small shoulder bag carrying the camera and my lunch, rather like Michael Palin on his travels [OK, he carries a Billingham photographers' bag, but I bet there's nothing in it :‑) ]. In the end I came to my senses, and I hope some of the results have made it worth the extra effort.
Main Camera: Nikon D300. The D300 performed brilliantly, especially in low-light situations, of which there were many...
Lenses: Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens, Nikkor 12-24mm lens, Nikkor 24mm lens. The 18-200 is an ideal travel lens and I used it nearly all the time. But as it covers every regular focal length, and more – equivalent to 27-300 on 35mm – it does tend to make you (me, anyway) a bit lazy; I should have switched to the 12-24 more than I did, especially for interiors. The 12-24 lacks VR, of course, but it's a bit sharper than the 18-200 and some more wide would have been useful. I carried the 24mm prime lens really in case I needed something physically smaller, but I didn't use it.
Compact Camera: Nikon Coolpix P5000, plus the Nikon WC-E67 wide converter: for unobtrusive photos; for situations needing smaller and/or lighter equipment; and for recording train travel and hotels. I left it set to 3:2 format, instead of the normal 4:3, to match the format of the D300 images when they're mixed together. I continue to be amazed at what this camera can achieve in terms of picture quality. The reviews have criticised it for slow focusing – and for inaccurate focusing in poor light – but in fact used carefully it works extremely well under a wide range of conditions.
Tripod: for night shots of the opera house in Dresden, which I did; for a possible timelapse over Prague, which I didn't; and for some night shots of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, which I couldn't (although I did take some handheld shots).
The very compact Nikon SB-400 flash, which works [proper metering] with both the Nikon D300 and the Coolpix P5000.
Wireless remote control for Nikon D300, which I didn't use.
Spare CF and SD memory cards.
Spare batteries for both cameras.
Battery chargers for both cameras [plus 4 other chargers: for Epson P2000, mobile phone, Palm PDA, Mac PowerBook].
Before I left home I treated the D300 to an 8GB Compact Flash card. I'd been monitoring the price of the Sandisk Extreme IV card for a while on Amazon – the reviews were giving Sandisk a somewhat faster Read speed than the equivalent product from my hitherto favourite of Lexar. Both companies do UDMA-enabled FireWire 800 card readers – ideal for my Mac PowerBook G4 – which should transfer 8GB of images in a few minutes, far better on tour than waiting an hour or so for a conventional reader.
The 8GB CF card price had been falling slowly, but stuck at around £76 (still remarkable considering I paid nearly £200 for my first 1GB card, three years ago). It might have fallen farther during the summer [it didn't] but I didn't want to wait too long before buying because I needed time to use it a bit and be sure of reliability. Also I wanted to test the card on its own, using the PCMCIA slot in the PowerBook, before buying the high-speed card reader.
As backup and additional storage I carried a 4GB Extreme IV card, but didn't need to use it. The most I shot in any one day was about 5.5GB; to my mind this justified the cost of the 8GB card as it meant I never needed to swap cards during the day, with the slight danger of losing one or forgetting to copy its images.
How Much? On an earlier trip, using a Nikon D100, I'd carrried four 1GB Compact Flash (CF) cards, using the excellent Epson P2000 for storing and check-viewing images. The P2000's usable capacity is 37MB, more than twice the space I needed for the 1,400 RAW images (9.6MB each) that I shot on that trip. But for the Grand Tour I knew I'd need a lot more space. My average shooting rate on other trips has been about 120 images per day – some days many more, other times very few due to being on the road (certainly more than I would have shot on film!). On that basis I would shoot 4,200 images in this five-week tour. [In the event I shot 4,934 on the D300, and 745 on the Coolpix 5000].
The other factor is that the Nikon D300 image files are much larger than the D100's. Its native RAW file is 19.4MB, although its lossless RAW compression, which also makes the file faster to write to the card, brings this down to 13.6MB. The D300 has far better in-camera processing than the D100 and there was a good chance that I could shoot Fine-quality JPEG, with a typical size of 5.8MB, for average subjects, using RAW or RAW+JPEG (the camera storing both a RAW file and a JPEG) only when necessary. In the event I decided to shoot RAW+JPEG all the time, so the total nominal memory per shot was 13.6 + 5.8 = 19.4MB.
So, the total storage requirement for my predicted 4,200 images would be 19.4 x 4,200 = 81.4GB. I might shoot more (or less) of course, so I was thinking in terms of 100GB minimum. That clearly ruled out the Epson P2000 for main storage. The obvious solution was to carry my laptop. This would also give me the opportunity to quickly check images on a good size screen, although I didn't want to get involved in any image processing or even to spend much time on the computer except when essential. It would be easier to maintain my diary, plus I'd have the chance of an internet connection for email. I'd never travelled with it (on a photo trip) before, partly through not needing to, but also because it's (a) heavy and (b) valuable; these things would be less of a problem when travelling by train.
This is how it worked out:
Main Storage: My Mac PowerBook G4 had just over 50GB spare on the disk once I'd cleared away much of the redundant stuff, but that still didn't match the 80GB+ estimated requirement. In any case I though it was wiser to use it as an interface to a compact external drive storing all the RAW and JPEG files, which for security I could keep with me in the camera bag all the time, with the PowerBook in main luggage.
The Porsche-design Mobile Hard Drive by LaCie (my favourite HDD supplier) looked ideal for the external drive – I have two other drives in the same style already – and I prefer its metal case to their newer Sam Hecht-designed plastic-bodied Little Disk, despite this having a convenient built-in USB cable (and FireWire is faster and more robust than USB 2.0; plus I discovered later that the PowerBook won't provide enough power on its USB ports to power the drives). I had a hunch, early in 2008, that LaCie were about to drop the Porsche-design drives (they did), so I snapped up a 160GB drive quickly.
Backup Storage: Additional image backup was desirable if not essential, as I would be spending such a long time on the road, and for that I used the 50GB of space on the PowerBook's internal drive to store just the JPEGs; if the external drive failed or was lost or was damaged, I would have lost some or all of the RAW files, but the JPEGs from the D300 ought to be pretty good.
Card Reader: For transferring images from the memory card to disk I chose the Sandisk FireWire 800 UDMA-enabled CF card reader, which is light, robust and very well made; perfect for travel. The Mac PowerBook has a FireWire 800 interface and the two made an ideal combination, transferring from the card to either the internal or external drive at a rate of about 1GB per minute (slightly faster to the internal drive): a typical day's shooting in about five minutes. My tests showed that the same number of images would take nearly an hour to copy using the PowerBook's PCMCIA slot, not good news if I'm waiting to go out and eat! This was my main reason for choosing the high-speed card and the matching card reader. My concern was not the speed of writing to the card in the camera – often promoted as the main benefit of UDMA but actually only of interest to news and sports photogs – because I never shoot fast enough for it to become an issue.
On return to the hotel:
Locate zipped bag of cables, power supplies and card reader.
Retrieve PowerBook from locked suitcase, connect to mains power and wake from Sleep.
Retrieve LaCie disk from camera bag and connect to PowerBook with FireWire 400 cable.
Connect Sandisk card reader to PowerBook with FireWire 800 cable.
Remove CF card from camera and insert in card reader.
Select all images on CF card and drag to a new folder on LaCie drive.
When copied, name new folder with start and end image numbers for the day, plus the city name.
Select all JPEG images on CF card (list by Kind or by Size) and drag to JPEG folder on PowerBook.
Look at some of today's images on the LaCie using Nikon's ViewNX to check they copied properly.
Unmount card reader and LaCie drive, disconnect everything, return LaCie to camera bag.
Return CF card to D300, delete images from card ready for tomorrow.
Return reader and cables to their proper places in the zipped bag so I can find them again.
Shower, change and eat!
Observant readers may have noticed that the problem with the above daily routine is that if the laptop had failed for any reason, the whole strategy would have fallen apart. So I also carried the Epson P2000 – with 37GB available space on the hard drive, CF and SD card slots, 3.8-inch screen for checking images, and an almost everlasting battery. It wouldn't have had enough space to store the RAW images, but bringing home all the JPGs would be better than bringing home nothing. In the event, everything worked well and I didn't need to use it. About an extra pound of weight in the case.
...or, as they're known in the trade, cock-ups. There were two, really – apart from the everyday mistakes in exposing individual pictures. The first was on Day 1, almost before I'd taken a single image on foreign soil. For a few minutes I thought the photography for the whole trip was doomed.
Arriving in Cologne, I made straight for the huge cathedral, just next to the train station. I was eager to get my first images on the card, and I lifted the D300 from the camera bag. I noticed in passing that it felt a little warm, but assumed the bag had been near a heater on the train. But lifting it to my eye I saw that the view in the viewfinder was dull grey, and... there was no autofocus movement. Then, the LCD on the top panel was blank – normally it shows the number of images remaining even when the camera is switched off. I realised it had been switched on while it was in the camera bag, though this is never normally a problem: the camera powers down after a few seconds and can be left on literally for weeks on end with almost no battery drain.
What had happened was that I'd left the VR (Vibration Reduction) of the Nikon 18-200mm VR lens switched on (again, this is not normally a problem), and the shutter release button must have been held down by some pressure on the camera bag while I was in the train, flattening the battery completely – the VR motor in the lens turns on while the release is depressed. The viewfinder appeared grey because it includes an LCD for displaying the grid lines and AF areas, which defaults to grey in the absence of power. With luck a charged battery would fix everything, but my fear was that I'd done some permanent damage, either to the lens or to the viewfinder LCD.
Replacing the battery did fix it, and there didn't seem to be any damage. And the flattened battery later charged OK with no apparent problems. Phew! To be honest I'm surprised there isn't a timeout in the camera and/or in the VR lens to guard against sustained operation – perhaps there is, and my release button was pressed multiple times.
The second episode was pure operator error, and came almost at the end of the trip. By that time I was feeling pretty confident about changing camera settings without looking at the camera, in particular flipping the ISO up to 1600 on entering a church, say, and back again when coming out. At the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin I grabbed some pics of the guys dressed as East German soldiers, and of some lads breakdancing.
Then I realised that in changing the ISO while crossing a road I'd actually switched the D300 to shoot lowest quality JPEG – instead of my normal RAW plus top quality JPEG – by pressing the QUAL button instead of the ISO button (the buttons are next to each other), while rotating the main command dial; if you do this the switch from highest quality to lowest quality is only one dial click away! In fact Nikon's lowest quality JPG on the D300 is still pretty good, and I think I've got away with it as the subjects weren't too challenging. At least I hadn't changed the image size...
We learn from experience. I hope.
Naturally Nikon want to promote their brand. And being exclusively a Nikon SLR user for over 35 years I'm happy to sing their praises. But that broad, yellow-on-black neck strap, shouting "Nikon D300" in 2cm high letters, seems like something of an invitation to villains, especially when away from tourist areas [as well as being a poor fashion choice. Ed.]. I like the broad strap for relieving neck pain, but I couldn't find a plain black one before I left – I'm not even sure that Nikon still sell one, and the independents always seem to have a collection of shiny metal bits. So my quick-fix is just to turn the strap over as I hang the camera round my neck. There are still some thin yellow lines on display, but they're not as prominent as the lettering, and are partly covered by the rubberised shoulder patch.
Apart from that, I have a rule about putting the D300 away in the camera case before getting on public transport or going into public toilets. And the case strap goes across my body, not just on one shoulder (except briefly in safe areas, such as restaurants).