As a photographer who organises wildlife safaris fairly often, the biggest elephant in the room I usually have to deal with is transporting my camera gear on airplanes between cities in South Africa. The issue is that if you are flying on a domestic airline within South Africa the rule for carry on luggage is that it can't exceed a certain dimension or weight. This happens to be either 7 or 8kgs, depending on which flavour airline you're on. Not a hell of a lot, is it? Put a couple of pro cameras with big lenses and a laptop into the mix and you'll be over the limit very quickly. The domestic airlines here also restrict you to one piece of checked luggage that cannot exceed 20kgs. On my last safari to Namibia I think my camera bag was pretty close to 20kgs on its own. I'll elaborate a bit more on what was in it later in this article.
The volume side of the carry-on restrictions is not usually a problem, provided the bag you're using fits into the little aluminium scaffolding apparatus they use to determine maximum proportions at the check-in counter. Smaller planes don't always have overhead stowage so your bag has to fit under the seat in front of you which is not always a possibility, especially if it's a really small plane and also if you find yourself sitting next to an emergency exit.
When you are at the check in counter at South African airports that are run by ACSA (Airports Company South Africa) you will also notice that there are signs behind the attendants clearly indicating that you are prohibited from checking in any valuable electronics, including cameras, computers, etc. So, it's a conundrum alright. How do you get yourself and your equipment from one city to the next without going through the stress of possibly being charged additional luggage fees for being overweight, or perhaps being forced to check your equipment in with your regular luggage and running the risk of it being stolen or damaged by the handlers? The answer is simple: you don't. The stress is just something you have to deal with. Fortunately there are a few strategies you can employ to minimise the issue.
1) You can wear your equipment using one of those photographer vests with numerous and large pockets. These work quite well, but you will attract the attention of airport security as well as raise the anxiety levels of nervous flyers who may mistake you for a terrorist. You're also not going to have the most comfortable flight if you're thinking of wearing it in your seat.
2) You can upgrade your ticket to Business Class which allows you more hand luggage, but this is not always available, especially not on regional routes. I haven't seen any business class on any flight to the Kruger Park.
3) You can choose the right bag, one that is unobtrusive, versatile and in the worst case scenario where you have to check it in, will provide your gear with adequate protection. You may also need to be a little devious in this regard.
The ThinkTank Airport roller series are such bags (or cases if you're a stickler for details). On the two safaris I have led this year I evaluated two different types of Airport rollers, namely the Airport International V2.0 and the Airport Security V2.0. This article is about the smaller one, the Airport International V2.0 which I used on our Big 5 Safari. I will write a separate article about the Airport Security, which is the one I used on our Namibian safari shortly after the Big 5 trip.
So, at the beginning of August this year we did our annual Ultimate Big 5 Safari to the Sabi Sands which is a private game reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park. I had to fly from Durban to Johannesburg and then once we had all our guests with us we flew from Johannesburg to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMIA). I decided to use the Airport International roller because the Security, while only slightly bigger than the International, does appear a lot bigger than it on the outside. When I first received the Security I thought there is no ways that thing is going to be allowed as a carry on - it looks more like a suitcase than anything else, so I got the International just to be safe.
We normally fly on SAA to KMIA from Jo'burg and they use a 4 engine jet plane (can't remember the name, so I have a photo of it below this paragraph). This plane has adequate overhead stowage capacity, but sometimes they might change the plane depending on the number of passengers booked on the flight, so prudence is advisable when going to KMIA on SAA. For this trip I had to fly back to Durban on Kulula from Johannesburg and I hadn't flown with them before, so I had to be extra prudent in the light of not knowing how strict they were with hand luggage, or the type of plane they operated.
I had managed to keep the weight of the Airport International V2.0 down to about 15kgs. Inside I had my Nikon D700 with MB-D10 grip, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 OS, a couple of teleconverters, a Nikon D3100, Olympus OM-D E-M5, Olympus 75mm f/1.8, Samyang 7.5mm fisheye, Panasonic 14-45mm, 45-175mm and Olympus 9-18mm lenses, MacBook Pro 13", iPad Mini. A fair amount of kit for a week in the bush! I was also using the low dividers set for this case which is an absolute must in my opinion. This lets you put your laptop inside the case for extra protection. There is a sleeve on the outside of the roller you could put one into, but it's not advisable. When you open the lid of the roller the laptop will slide out of the sleeve. Trust me, I've done this - it's the making of a movie with a very sad ending.
Getting to Jo'burg from Durban on SAA was easy. I have never been asked to weigh my carry-on luggage by SAA and this time was no different. I checked in my main suitcase and they didn't even ask about the ThinkTank roller which I had strategically positioned directly in front of the check in desk so that the attendant didn't really see it. I also draped my jacket over the top of it to camouflage its dimensions a little. No questions were asked. I went through security and on the other side I found the gate I needed to be at, making sure I was the first in line to board. This is important as it assures you of a space in the overhead bin - the last thing you want to have happen if you can't find any space in those overhead bins is for the flight attendants to have to place your bag for you, because the weight will be a major concern and then they will most likely gate check it if they haven't already compressed their vertebrae trying to hoist it somewhere themselves. Get on the plane first and secure a space in the overhead bin.
Going back the other way from this year's Big 5 safari required me to make two flights; one from KMIA to Johannesburg, and then from Johannesburg back to Durban. In the past I have flown directly back to Durban from KMIA, but this is where I encountered the small plane problems that I knew I would not be able to take a big carry-on like the ThinkTank rollers onboard. On that flight there was no overhead bin and there was very little space under the seat, so I decided to fly back via Johannesburg this time. Longer and more expensive, but I'd rather pay more for the flights and get all my gear home safely than check it at the gate and possibly lose everything.
One of our guests on this safari had brought his gear over from the US in the bigger ThinkTank Airport Security V2.0 roller. While we were waiting to board the plane back to JHB from KMIA after the safari we were both approached by a ground personnel individual and asked to gate check the rollers as we walked out to the plane from the gate. She seemed a little unassertive, so we both refused, citing the contents as being too valuable to check. She relented easily enough and we boarded the aircraft with our rollers ahead of everyone else, found our seats, stowed them above us and sat down to enjoy the flight. I also had no problem getting the roller onboard the Kulula flight back to my home city, Durban. Job done. Thank you ThinkTank!
If you're thinking about getting this case, I can highly recommend it. You'll fit a decent amount of kit into it and it has some pretty neat features, including a raincoat, lockable zippers, external pockets and also a system for attaching your monopod or tripod to the outside of it. There's also a combination lock you can use to secure your case to a pole or something immovable if you need to be away from it for a short while. I can see this coming in handy when shooting on location. The build quality is also top notch.
If I can offer some criticism of the case it's that I found some of the dividers a little too stiff to configure nicely. I think if they could make them a bit more flexible it would be a whole lot more awesome as a solution for your camera travels. Also, the telescopic handle of this model seems very thin and flimsy compared to its bigger brother's handle. Speaking of handles, ThinkTank have placed one on three of the cases edges, which makes it very easy to hoist from any angle. That's clever design.
The inside also zips out completely so you can wash it out thoroughly, especially if you're in the habit of dragging your roller into dusty locations, which we tend to do a lot on safari! My associate Pepe is now using this roller permanently and I have opted to use the larger one, the Airport Security V2.0 which I will discuss in my next article.
If you are in the USA you can buy this bag directly from ThinkTank and get a free gift when you use this link.
Note: unfortunately the images for this article were lost in a software upgrade.
The genre of photography that excites me the most these days is landscapes. I can’t think of anything I enjoy shooting more than a drama filled natural landscape. I feel at peace doing this type of photography, truly content. In preparing for our recent photo safari to Namibia I was looking at getting a filter system to help me make the most of the landscape photo opportunities that we were going to encounter.
So why use filters when a lot of the effects they offer can be replicated in post production software like Photoshop or Lightroom? Well, firstly I don’t like to do things in post when they can be done in the camera. If there’s a recipe for making me fed up it involves me sitting behind a computer screen for hours tweaking pixels with masks and layers in software that requires a great deal of expertise to get the best results from (besides, I’m not playing the Adobe rent-a-shop game these days). Secondly, the sensors on digital cameras these days have pretty good dynamic range, but if you want to make the most of the digital information captured on those sensors, it’s probably best to avoid working with the extremes of DR. If you’re on the edge of blowing out the sky while lifting the foreground, why not just play it safe and protect the sky with a neutral density graduated filter?
Neutral density filters that block light in the same way that sunglasses do have long been used by photographers to slow down exposure times when using wider apertures in bright outdoor conditions, or to selectively reduce glare in parts of the frame. Doing this not only helps to minimise depth of field in situations where your shutter speed is hitting the limits of your camera’s ability, but it also helps to create drama in skies with moving clouds, or to give moving water the dreamy silk-like effect that we see so often in seascapes and photos of rivers and waterfalls. You can’t replicate those effects easily in Photoshop or any other image manipulation software.
So, now that I have convinced you to use filters to enhance your landscape photography, you have a couple of options if, like me, you are chasing down exciting landscape photography:
1) you can buy filters that screw onto your lens, which gets expensive if you have quite a few lenses with different filter thread sizes, or…
2) you can buy into a system of filters that can be used on any lens with an adapter.
I decided to look into the latter and the LEE filters Seven5 filter system that has been designed specifically for smaller mirrorless cameras like micro four thirds popped up on my radar.
The Lee Seven5 system is much like their well known bigger system of resin based rectangular filters that can be slotted into a holder, which is then attached to a lens by means of a lens adapter. The only real difference is that the Seven5 filters are smaller (they are 75mm wide whereas the bigger filters used on DSLR’s are 100mm wide). Assuming you are using a ND grad, once the filter is in position you can easily rotate the holder around your lens to darken certain parts of the frame. You can also slide the filter up or down inside the holder to adjust the part of the frame you need to darken. This can’t be done with a traditional screw-in filter.
I got a LEE Seven5 filter system that comprised the following bits:
LEE Seven5 filter holder (dual slots for filters)
46mm, 52mm & 58mm adapter rings
0.3, 0.6 & 0.9 ND hard grad filters
0.9 ND filter
The filter numbers indicate the number of stops of light that they cut out. For example, 0.3 is 1 stop and 0.9 is 3 stops.
These hand made filters come in handy micro-fibre pockets that can double as cleaning cloths, but they are also wrapped in a fine tissue like paper that I have often used to clean lenses with in the past. Unfortunately the tissue paper didn't make it out of the desert intact...
The adapter rings are made of a black anodised metal and the filter holder simply snaps onto these, allowing you to easily rotate the holder with the filters in place. It’s a very neat, uncomplicated system.
So how does it work in the field?
Prior to this Namibian safari I had never used filters like this, so you could call me a complete filter system newbie. Fortunately there is a lot of information on the LEE Filters website, as well as guides on how to use their products, so before I went on the trip I spent some time reading up how to use them and it seemed to be a fairly straight forward process.
The first time I tried to use them was at Bloubergstrand in Cape Town where you get some amazing sunsets over the ocean. Initially I found it a little difficult to figure out where exactly the ND grad line was appearing on the Olympus E-M5 because even if you press the depth of field preview, the EVF automatically brightens itself. This is a setting somewhere that I simply didn’t have the time to go looking for, so I guessed where to place the filter. The results were interesting, but as I was still learning how to use the system, I needed to experiment a bit more.
click to enlarge
Above is a shot showing the sun setting over Robin Island with a bit of the shoreline in the frame. If I remember correctly I was using the 0.6 ND graduated filter here, but I might be wrong. The overall exposure between land, sea and sky seems to be nicely balanced, but there is a spot of flare from the sun in the frame. This is not a train smash as you can always clone it out, but because you’re using what is essentially an external element to your lens, the quality of the filter will affect the severity of flare if you have the sun in the frame, so keep this in mind if you get the notion of buying cheaper filters.
The next time I got to use the filters was a couple of weeks later when we found ourselves photographing landscapes inside the Sossussvlei, which is a spectacular dune reserve in the south western part of Namibia. This is a place where landscape photographers die and go to heaven. Wherever you turn there is majestic landscape waiting for you to capture it. On our second day in the area we stayed inside the reserve in one of the exclusive Namibia Wildlife Resorts which enabled us to stay in the reserve at the most important photographic times of the day, sunrise and sunset. We made the most of this and did a session near dune 42 in the fading light of late afternoon and then again the next morning before sunrise at the Deadvlei, which is about 60km from the lodge, right at the end of the asphalt road that runs through the reserve.
The afternoon session gave me some much needed time to play around with the ND grads using my Olympus OM-D E-M5 and 9-18mm lens. While our group were mostly photographing the massive dune in front of us, I turned around and looked at the landscape behind us. The sun was setting and the light was amazing, so I found some foreground interest and proceeded to experiment with the LEE Seven5 ND grad filters, trying them all, before finally finding my stride with the 0.6.
The next morning three of us arose before the dawn and headed for a sunrise at the Deadvlei. This gave me yet more opportunities to try out the ND grads. Again the results were great!
click to enlarge
The next time I got to try out the filters was in Swakopmund, but the sky was very washed out there and there weren’t any clouds, so for this particular shot I went with the 0.3 ND grad and positioned it just below the horizon to give some more definition to the tops of the dunes.
click to enlarge
I think that this little system of filters is indispensable to landscape photography. It’s been downsized for use with the smaller mirrorless systems, such as micro four thirds and Fuji X-trans, so it’s easy to carry around in a camera bag. I managed to find a $20 slimline Lowepro GPS case that fits the filters and adapter rings I have perfectly. The filter holder comes with a drawstring pouch that fits nicely into the side of my ThinkTank Retrospective 5 bag, which means I can bring along my entire m43 kit and a filter set without having to resort to a bigger bag.
There are quite a few filter options available for the Seven5 system, ranging from sunset, B&W, tobacco, chocolate and sepia grads to polarisers and even a lens hood to help minimise the flaring from light hitting the filters at oblique angles. All in all it’s fairly comprehensive as a system and should keep landscape shooters using smaller systems quite well prepared for many eventualities.
Price wise it’s not cheap, but it should be remembered that each filter is hand made, so you're getting the very best it can be. For the set of 3 ND grads, a single 0.9 ND filter, holder and 3 adapter rings you’re looking at approximately US$396 excluding shipping. There are now also Singh-Ray filters that will fit the LEE Seven5 holder, but those cost even more than the LEE filters.
In my opinion if you’re into outdoor photography, especially if you want to keep weight down by using a small mirrorless system, you can’t beat this Seven5 system for convenience. Go get it if you can, it's a worthwhile investment in your photography.
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