Preparing for a multimedia reporting trip abroad is akin to planning a military special ops mission. Long before I depart, I imagine everything that might go wrong. In some cases I will not be able to get help from anyone if my equipment breaks down. (Even when there is help available, I’d rather not waste time finding it.)
I have reported from many out-of-the-way places, including the Greenland Ice Sheet, rainforest research camps in Madagascar and Ecuador, the bottom of a crater in the Australian Outback and research cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic. If a microphone cable breaks, a battery dies or a hard drive crashes on trips like these, my mission could be compromised. All of these mishaps, among many others, have happened to me. I have also hit one camera with an ice axe and dropped another in a river. Yet I have always been able to keep up my work. My experience comes from traveling to exotic and out of the way places. But the principles that I adhere to are just as important when your farthest destination is the other side of town. If you’re not ready for inevitable breakdowns of equipment you’re bound to experience embarrassment, wasted time and missed opportunities.
The French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said “He who would travel happily must travel light.” I disagree. I learned everything I need to know about packing in third grade, when I was taught the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.
I began my journalism career as a print reporter. Portable computers had barely been introduced. All I took on my first assignments were writing materials and spare clothes. Over the years my bags have grown bigger and much heavier. Now I carry at least 50 pounds of electronic gear and accessories. I now tote devices for writing notes, taking pictures and recording audio and video.
Before every expedition I plot out which of my equipment I should bring. I try to imagine every possible way that my equipment could fail. I’ve discovered that the fundamental principle for overcoming failures is redundancy. Generally I try to carry two of every kind of equipment I’ll need.
For instance, I always take a spare audio recorder. My primary recorder is a Sound Devices 702 . This rugged, expensive solidstate recorder is a fabulous machine, but it was a splurge. In retrospect it is probably a better recorder than I need. My spare is an Olympus LS-10 . This small recorder works great, costs $250, and would suffice for most situations. There are others of similar quality in this price range .
Since I began carrying two recorders, I have discovered that sometimes I like running them both at once. There are many reasons why you might want simultaneous recordings of the same event. When somebody is giving me a tour of a factory, laboratory or research site, I can both record the person’s voice with a directional (shotgun) microphone plugged into one recorder, and the ambience with a stereo microphone plugged into the other recorder. Later, in the studio, I have the option of using either or both of the two recordings, depending on the effect I want. Sometimes the mix I produce switches back and forth between the shotgun recording—which gives intelligible sound even in a noisy environment—and the stereo microphone—which places the interviewee in the scene. Here’s an example (move Real Player window slider to 7:58 ) from my documentary Heat of the Moment .)
It might be hard to picture how I operate two recorders at once. I use various configurations of equipment depending on the situation and my mood. Sometimes I put my little Olympus recorder in a shirt, jacket or vest pocket. I sling the bigger Sound Devices over a shoulder (saving another shoulder for a camera). I plug my shotgun mic into the Olympus. Plugged into the Sound Devices I have a stereo microphone mounted on a hair band that I put on my head. It looks pretty weird, but I’ve had great results.
I carry two sets of headphones. Headphones are absolutely necessary to monitor recordings sessions, and to spot check results after. If you only monitor the LCD display without listening, you could miss a serious problem. There could be interference from a radio station or somebody’s cell phone. You might have accidently changed a setting, causing distortion. The mic cable could have a short, causing crackling. I have used the same pair of Sony MDR 7506 headphones for twenty years. They fold up and are completely reliable. But, just in case, I also carry a set of in ear headphones (not the same as earbuds like those that come with iPods; in ear headphones block external noise). These headphones have the advantage of being small and light, though they are not comfortable for me to wear for long stretches. Unlike my old Sonys they are inconspicuous, which can be helpful when I record in public places.
I bring several microphones when I travel. I record ambience in stereo and interviews in mono. Often I bring two stereo microphones and two mono microphones, since I want to be able to record in both modes even if one mic of either type breaks. If I expect to shoot video, I also take a lavaliere mic, which is the best way to get record an interview if the camera is on a tripod. Having so many microphones might sound like a luxury, as mics can be expensive. But there are inexpensive, sturdy mics, like the classic Electro-Voice 635A that you can get as a backup. Wind screens are essential when recording anytime you record outside. They seem expensive for pieces of foam, but you’ll regret it if you don’t have one when one is required. It’s not a bad idea to a carry.
Cables are notoriously unreliable, since they are delicate and suffer a lot of stress. I take care of my cables by coiling them neatly carefully after each use. I carry a spare of every cable.
My preferred camera is my Nikon digital SLR (mine is no longer made; its successor is the D90 ). It’s big and relatively heavy, but it takes great pictures. DSLR cameras, in contrast to smaller digital cameras, can use interchangeable lenses. On many trips, I take more than one lens, though I try to be selective since lenses are heavy and take up space. If I am going to photograph people in offices or other close quarters, I take a wide angle lens. If I’m going to photograph furtive wildlife, like lemurs of Madagascar , I carry a telephoto. When I expect to shoot closeups, like photos of insects of Madagascar , I take a macro lens. In case my Nikon fails me, I have a small point and shoot camera (mine is no longer made; one successor is the Cannon SD1300 ). It is inferior by far to SLR, but it is light and relatively cheap. It would do in a pinch. Also, it is good when I want to be inconspicuous.
I always bring video gear along. I have a high definition “prosumer” camera that records to a hard drive. I have used it to make short movies for alternative TV networks and for web distribution. I also usually produce short video clips to go with blog entries or other web material I’m producing. I use a Sony HDR-SR1, which was Sony’s first high definition video camera to record to a hard drive. Sony and other video camera makers have since released other prosumer cameras that record in high definition, such as the Sony HDR-CX350V (which uses a memory stick instead of a hard drive). In case my video camera breaks I have a tiny Flip camera that could bail me out. My tripod is one of the few things I bring with no backup. I also have fluid head for it, with which I make smooth pans and tilts. This is the heaviest item I carry. If you want to shoot video of things that don’t move (like a landscape), there is no alternative to a sturdy tripod.
I worry that digital media, such as Compact Flash cards will get corrupted, lost or stolen. Therefore, I make backups on one or two external hard drives. I try to backup daily. I keep the extra drives in separate bags from the original media for safety, in the event that one case disappears. I’ve found no perfect option for storing to a backup drive. If I’m carrying a laptop, I can use it to transfer data to a small external hard drive. However, if the laptop breaks down (which happened to me), I’ll be thwarted. For this reason, I often use a digital storage device that has a card reader and a small screen that displays commands and storage statistics. It has an internal battery, and is designed to be operated without a computer. However, since it can’t play back recordings or displace pictures, it can’t be checked in the field (without a computer). So far it has been reliable. The most inexpensive model available today has 160 GB, which ought to be plenty unless you are shooting a lot of digital video.
I carry my equipment in waterproof, shock-resistant plastic cases. (I use Pelican cases, which are available in many sizes. There are tons of them for sale on Ebay and—since they are indestructible and have a lifetime warranty—a used one is just as good as a new one.) These cases are much heavier and bulkier than padded nylon camera bags, but they protect my equipment from harsh conditions. I can throw them in the back of an SUV or strap them to a horse and know that my gear will be safe. (I use cloth bags filled with silica gel I buy in bulk to keep the air in the cases dry.)
Air Travel and Customs
I never send any of my valuable or expensive equipment in checked bags. If I must check some gear, I try to divide it up so that even if a bag is lost or stolen, I will have the minimal necessary equipment in carry-on. (For instance, I might put a spare set of cables in a checked bag but keep a complete set in carry-on bags.) In the past, airlines permitted passengers to bring aboard one carry-on bag (the black bag in the picture of the porter) and one “personal item.” A personal item is meant to be a purse or laptop bag. Its size is not always defined. I interpret the personal bag allowance to mean a plastic case one size down from my full-size carry-on case (the grey bag in the picture of the porter). I’ve only been prevented from bringing both cases on board once, in New Zealand. Anticipating this eventuality, I also carried a very light unpadded nylon bag. I dumped all of my equipment into the nylon bag and carried it aboard as my personal item. I checked the plastic case, empty.
Technically, if you bring equipment into the US after traveling abroad you must pay duty on it unless you can prove the equipment was yours when you departed. To prove prior ownership requires going to a customs office in advance with a complete list and your equipment. I have yet to go through this process . I may be walking on thin ice though. On more than one occasion customs officials have advised me that I should obtain a certified list.
I use rechargeable batteries for all of my equipment. Some items, such as my cameras and one of my audio recorders, use proprietary lithium ion batteries. These are expensive, but reliable. I carry at least three of each kind, assuming that I may use one of them up in a recording session and the second may not work properly.
Other equipment, such as my Olympus recorder and my external camera flash, use AA cells. Disposable batteries are expensive and bad for the environment. I have experimented with many kinds of rechargeables. Most are either unreliable, don’t hold enough charge or are complicated to keep charged properly. However, I have that Imedion Nickel Metal Hydride cells are highly reliable, long lasting, powerful and easy to use.
I carry two ways of charging each kind of battery. In some cases a device comes with its own charger, which I bring. I also carry an external charger for each battery style. This way I can charge more batteries at once, and I won’t be hampered if a charger breaks down. All of my chargers work on both 110 and 220, the two standards used around the world. Not all equipment is rated for both standards, so you should always check before plugging anything into the wall. Although voltage is not a problem for me, I do need adapters to plug equipment into foreign outlets. There are many guides for choosing a correct adapter. I made a short extension cord for my travels to help me charge many devices at once. I plug it into the wall outlet with an adapter. Then I plug my chargers (with their standard US plugs) into the cord’s multiple sockets at the other end. For long car expeditions, I take a power inverter that creates standard 110 AC in the car.
I never let my equipment cases out of my sight. So far, I have never been ripped off. Sometimes when I don’t want to carry my equipment (say when I’m going out to dinner) and I’m pretty comfortable with the security of my room, I’ll leave the bigger case. I’ll usually take along the smaller case, packed with the lighter versions of all of my equipment and a drive containing backups of my media. I lock my plastic cases whenever I have any questions about their security. I carry a ten foot length of 1/8 inch aircraft cable with loops on both ends. Often I’ll lock a bag that I leave in my room to a heavy object like a radiator. Such efforts offer limited protection, but in my experience they have prevented cases full of equipment from simply “walking off “.
Money, Phone and Insurance
I carry a simple old fashioned “dumb phone.” Most cell phones in the US use the CDMA standard, but some carriers, such as T-Mobile, employ the GSM standard, which is what most of the rest of the world uses. My phone is a GSM phone. When I get to a foreign country I get cheap local service by replacing my US SIMM card with a local card. Most guidebooks tell you how to buy a SIMM card. Any cell phone user (i.e. just about anybody) can also direct you to a SIMM-card dealer. In some cases foreigners have to register before then can purchase one. It is a good idea to check at the airport as soon as you arrive, as that may be the best place to handle such paperwork.
I once used travelers checks. But they cost money and are sometimes difficult (or impossible) to cash. I charge as much as I can to a credit card (I bring an extra, in case my account is suspended—as has happened to me—or the magnetic strip stops working). For cash, I use an ATM card. Before I leave, I inform my bank and my credit card company where I am going, to avoid suspicion that somebody has stolen my identity.
On occasion I have insured my equipment for theft, loss and damage. The only place I am aware of that sells such insurance for a reasonable fee is Fractured Atlas , a non-profit organization that provides services to support all varieties of artists. You have to join, for a nominal fee. You can insure $10,000 worth of equipment (with a deductible of $1000) for about $400 a year.