© JIMMY CHIN ON MT. MERU
Creating photographs in remote locations also involves packing and transporting delicate photography gear. We spoke to three pros, Michael “Nick” Nichols, Jimmy Chin and Gabe Rogel to find out how they manage their equipment in order to get the heart-stopping shots they’re known for.
Professional outdoor and adventure photographers go to extremes to capture breathtaking images. Climbing sheer rock face, trekking through jungles or braving snow and ice covered slopes are situations that would leave most of us white-knuckled with fear, but for these professionals, it’s all just part of the job.
Michael “Nick” Nichols’ 30-year career has taken him to isolated pockets of the world including deep into rainforests and the jungles of Africa. Often on location for months at a time, Nichols works intensively to bring back amazing wildlife and cultural images and may travel with as many as 20 cases packed with equipment. To prepare for the possibility of lost gear, he advises that redundancy is key. That applies to cameras, food, clothing and even shoes. Nichols brings duplicates of the camera bodies and lenses that he can’t live without and packs complete set-ups in separate Pelican cases. He always keeps his CompactFlash cards with him, but the cases are checked when flying. The savvy traveler says he has learned to, “live with the fact that I turn them loose” to often careless baggage handlers and security personnel. With so much equipment, organization is critical. His cases are color-coded and lists of all of his equipment—including serial numbers—are generated to easily locate individual pieces of gear.
Journeying on foot, in canoes, or over rugged roads requires a different approach and Nichols reminds us simply that, “If you can’t carry it easily, that’s a problem.” Nichols, Chin and Rogel all transfer equipment to smaller packs once they reach their destinations whenever possible. For Nichols, if the extra protection of a Pelican case is required once he’s traveling on foot he’ll use a special backpack frame to which a case can be clipped. One such shoot where this type of packing was used was when he photographed a 300-foot, 1,500 year-old tree in the Redwood Forest of California a couple of years ago. To create an image of the enormous tree in its entirety Nichols made a series of images, which were later stitched together. Three Canon 1Ds Mark III cameras with 35mm f/1.4 lenses were tethered to a computer on the ground and hooked up to a rope and pulley system that allowed the cameras to be lowered down the side of the tree. Photos were taken at three-foot increments and in the end, 84 exposures were combined to form the final, awe-inspiring image. The terrain was rugged and the team experienced rainy weather but Nichols’ gear stayed safe and dry due to the backpack-mounted Pelican cases the photographer used.
A North Face athlete and professional adventure photographer, Jimmy Chin counts Outside magazine, National Geographic, The North Face and others among his clients. With expeditions to Mount Everest, Pakistan, and Mali, Chin has built his career on, as he puts it, “Bringing back photos that people have never seen before.” When traveling, Chin’s approach is vastly different from Nichols’—he prefers to pack 90 percent of his gear in carry-on bags. Chin uses a North Face roller bag and a shoulder bag to carry his laptop and a stack of hard drives. The roller bag usually contains quite a bit of expensive, fragile gear including two Nikon D700 bodies and his key NIKKOR lenses: 70-200mm, 24-70mm, and 14-24mm. He also travels with a Nikon D300s and NIKKOR 18-200mm lens, 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 prime lenses and just in case he needs it, he’ll also bring a 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. That’s one bag you don’t want to let out of your sight. To keep things organized in his North Face roller bag, Chin uses a compartmentalized insert—an F-Stop brand Internal Camera Unit (ICU). In addition, spare lenses and bodies are placed in checked luggage, which may include as many as eight 70-pound duffel bags containing climbing gear, and clothes. During his travels Chin may perform technical mountain climbs, grueling snowy treks, or sweltering desert explorations. When preparing for a difficult mountain climb Chin says he “weighs food down to the ounce,” and carries only the bare minimum: the compact Nikon D300s with an 18-200mm zoom lens. Says the adventurous photographer, “When you’re clipped to an anchor on a wall, you can’t move too much so your focal length is providing the diversity. Goal Zero solar panels provide a charging station when batteries are depleted.
Chin is also assigned to shoot environmental portraits, landscapes, and lifestyle shots while on expedition and will use a variety of gear to capture those shots. When he has the luxury of two feet on the ground, he sometimes uses a tripod, one of two Nikon SB900 Speedlights and an Aurora Firefly umbrella with his Nikon D700.
For more than a decade Gabe Rogel has provided images for editorial and commercial clients including National Geographic Adventure, Time, Marmot, Patagonia and Ski-Doo. He has traveled to the Himalayas, Thailand, Greenland, Ethiopia and many other distant locations. To capture his stunning outdoor adventure images he too, can be found mountain climbing, skiing and hiking. A busy traveler, the Pelican 1510 case is Rogel’s staple for carry-on luggage as it is the largest legal carry-on size and has a handle and wheels. In it he’ll pack a Canon 1D Mark III, a Canon 7D with a vertical grip, lenses, accessories and hard drives. Some of his favorite glass includes the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6, a 15mm fisheye and 70-200mm, 18-200mm and 10-22mm lenses, which are packed in his carry-on as well. Battery chargers, backpacks, climbing and skiing gear all go into checked luggage. Once he’s on location Rogel’s favorite pack is the Clik Elite Contrejour 35. Says Rogel, “It’s all about weight and keeping it manageable.” For steep or narrow climbs, he’ll attach his camera to a Zing Sling so his arms remain free.
Like Nichols, Rogel also has experience with larger productions. He recently traveled to Canada to photograph the 2012 line of Ski-Doo snowmobiles. For the shoot Rogel, pro athletes, a marketing director, two assistants, and guides—a total of 10 people, were all on set and each person traveled on their own snowmobile. Rogel loaded a toboggan with Pelican cases to hold the photo and lighting gear, including an Elinchrome Ranger with two heads and a power pack. Although the case’s foam started to shred from the rough ride, Rogel’s gear survived the trip and the shoot was a success.
Sitting back and flipping through magazines or outdoor adventure catalogues admiring photographs of stunning landscapes and climbers scaling sheer rock face it’s easy to be so awestruck by the images that we forget the challenges and obstacles photographers like Nichols, Chin and Rogel faced on their travels. We need to keep in mind that not only have they overcome the difficulties of getting to remote and sometimes dangerous locations, regardless of weather and dangers, but that they have managed to overcome the physical challenges to share with us some of the amazing sights that they have seen. And for that, we are grateful.