Preparing to Travel

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Ceiling and chandelier, Jama Masjid, Delhi

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I adapted this post from an article I recently wrote for the Canberra Photographic Society. It draws on my travel experiences over the last few years and includes some monochrome versions of my images from India.  The main focus is travel with photography in mind.

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Ceiling, Humayan’s Tomb

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Of course what I’m talking about is what I have found useful for myself. Others will no doubt have different experiences, opinions and preferences.

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Children on the street in Vrindavan

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What to read beforehand

Since this was a pre-organised tour we didn’t have to arrange our own accommodation or transport inside India. For my first time in India this was a great advantage.  I purchased a couple of guide books and took them with me, however I found them largely a waste of time because we didn’t need to worry about the logistics of travel and the information they provided I found generally too superficial.  Sometime previously I had read a History of India and that’s what I should have taken with me. It would have helped me understand the significance of places we visited and enabled me to ask intelligent questions of our guides.  I also purchased a book Culture Shock! India that proved a very useful introduction to the perils and opportunities of travel in India.

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From the bus, near Vrindavan

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If you’re organising your own accommodation, Trip Advisor is a good place to start (the link comes up at Deo Bagh by way of example). You can learn quite a lot by reading the traveller reviews.  Also, there is always a map you can click on and you can explore in that to find other places nearby with optimal locations. Always check the web sites of places you might be interested in.

I tend to use SkyScanner for booking flights though it’s not the only choice. If you use the wrong search engine you can end up paying much more. Make sure you book the correct dates and leave enough time between flights and make sure your flight times match the logistics of travel inside the countries you visit.  In some cases you may want to arrive in a country a day or two early in case a delayed flight can make you miss a critical connection.  You may prefer to use a travel agent which may be safer but will probably cost you more.

It’s also wise to have reserve funds because problems are always possible.

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Photographing and being photographed, near Vrindavan

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It’s important to find out what the weather is likely to be so you can consider in advance how the weather might affect your photographic opportunities, or even what activities you undertake, and so you can know what clothes to bring. There are lots of online sites that show weather in a location for the next ten days or so and most guide books will give you an indication of what weather conditions will be like by month or by season. For both Japan and Iceland I found detailed time series data online for various locations, which was very useful. However, in these days of global warming, there is always the chance that you will encounter atypical weather conditions.

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Making sugar, near Vrindavan

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Visas and Vaccinations

Visas and vaccinations are essential for a place like India and you need to ensure you do them well in advance since you have to surrender your passport for some weeks.

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Early morning in Vrindavan

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Clothing

You obviously need suitable clothing and the trick is to take what you’re going to need, especially to keep you warm and dry, without discovering you have lots of stuff you haven’t used. A pair of good hiking boots is likely to be essential and I always bring a second pair of footwear just in case.

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Open-air food markets, Vrindavan

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Camera Gear

There’s a huge variety in what you might take as camera equipment and much of this is personal choice.  Roger Clark has a useful article: Does gear matter in photography? .

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Taj Mahal from nearby mosque

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For the most minimal system, you might go for a single camera such as a Sony RX100, a Fujifilm X100s or a mirrorless or DSLR camera with just one zoom. In that case how you carry it and carry-on weights are not major issues. Alternatively, a camera like this might be a secondary camera, especially for walking around in cities.  A Nikon 1 AW might also be an option as the only genuinely waterproof camera system.

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Motorcycle repair shop, Agra

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However, most people will probably carry a mirrorless or DSLR system, having negotiated trade-offs for weight, image quality, low light capability and autofocus speed. Whatever you take, you should have a backup camera because you can never eliminate the possibility of camera loss or failure.

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Laxminarayan Temple from Orchha Fort, Orchha

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If it’s going to be wet or a desert (potential for wind-borne sand), you might consider a rain cover for your camera. If I am travelling with a full-frame Nikon system I take ThinkTank Hydrophobias, which are admittedly expensive. There are now a few options for smaller cameras such as those from Kata or Manfrotto and the cheapest option is probably the Op Tech Rainsleeve.

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Street scene in front of Laxminarayan Temple, Orchha

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Checked Luggage

Organisation of luggage is always a task and when I travel overseas I use a spreadsheet to list and check off items to make sure I take everything I need. In my partner Jools’ case for our trip to India, her strategy included taking as little as possible so she could bring as much as possible back. Allowable limits can vary by airline so finding the best option may require a bit of research.

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View from Hotel Fatehgarh, Udaipur

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Carry-on Luggage

If you have a full DSLR camera system, carry-on limits can be a challenge. You don’t want to have your camera gear go in the hold because it’s more vulnerable and not insured. Usually they don’t check weights (though they can) and may be more concerned about size, especially small regional airlines that may have small lockers. If necessary, you can put a camera round your neck and take out items to put in your pockets.  On my North Atlantic trip last year, I flew British Airways where possible because they don’t have carry-on weight limits; you just have to be able to lift your bag into the overhead locker.

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City Palace, Udaipur

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You may need a dedicated carrying unit for your camera gear. I took a Lowe-Pro Inverse belt pack with me to India (for a Fujifilm system) but many choose a photographic backpack (and I have a couple of these that I may use with a full-frame Nikon system). Among the better choices, if not cheap, are the Gura Gear packs such as the Gura Gear Bataflae (various sizes). Be wary of Tamrac packs, though. They look good and I got one and immediately returned it because it put strain on my back even with a light load. Thom Hogan reported the same thing in one of his reviews.

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Common Langur reflecting the bus in his eyes, near Ranakpur

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Until recently, you may have had a problem if you wanted to go bushwalking (or tramping or hiking) for many days, or even on a long day trip walking many kilometres in variable weather conditions.  This is because there were no suitable packs available to let you carry food, clothing and other equipment, as well as your photographic gear. In the last year or two, modular packs for this purpose have become available.

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View from fort, Sardargarh

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My next trip includes walks of many hours in the south-west US canyonlands. For that I have purchased a MindShift Rotation 180 Pro.  This is a modular pack that includes a beltpack that you can swivel out without removing the backpack, or that you can wear separately.  It has a variety of ways of carrying a tripod and seems to have a very comfortable harness system.  There is also a variety of options for carrying clothes, food and other items.

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Travellers hanging out of moving train, between Sardargarh and Phulad

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Another modular option is the Gura Gear Uinta, which allows you to access your camera gear from the front or the back of the pack. It has a feature where you slip out of the shoulder straps, rotate the whole pack around your waist on its base, and take out cameras and lenses from the back without removing the pack. The Mindshift pack can do this too (at least for the top part of the pack), but in either case this doesn’t sound very practical with a very heavy pack.

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Hermit/ holy man, Sardargarh

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A third option is the Aarn Featherlite Freedom, or similar Aarn models that distribute the weight on the front as well as the back and have photographic modules that hang off the shoulder straps on the front. It must be very ergonomic and as a New Zealand pack would be waterproof but is probably more suitable for a small compact system.

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Dancing in the desert, Manvar Desert Camp

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Planning a Shoot

When you’re looking at the locations you want to photograph, the Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a very useful utility. It can tell you when the sun or moon rises and sets, directions and even shadows cast by mountains. You need an internet connection to use it.

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Near Manvar Desrt Camp (infrared)

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Some of my trips I have also preplanned on a car GPS (including accommodation and photo stops). For my North Atlantic trip I would ask the car GPS “OK, where do I want to go next?” and it would set me on my way. The only problem was sometimes working out why I had wanted to go there. I also found it useful for off-road sites such as brochs (though an all-terrain one would be better for more extensive use) and I found it useful on foot in Kyoto where street signs are in Japanese.  A smart phone can also offer you useful maps but won’t extend to route planning.

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In a laneway, Jaisalmer

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Backing up your images

I guess another form of trip preparation is working out how to select and process your images when you come back and what your forms of output will be. To end up with images to process, you need to either take lots of cards or a laptop and external drives. You should always have two backups of your images and ideally store them in separate places while travelling, just in case.

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Young woman and child, from the horse and cart, Jodhpur

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To my mind taking the images is largely intuitive. You make your choices, you understand your equipment, you find the right light and you let the photographs take themselves. You can get into things like rule of thirds for composition but for me the important thing is simply to see the final result as you are making the exposure. It’s important to shoot RAW because otherwise you are only storing a fraction of the colours and tones that the camera can see.  You can always improve images in post-processing even if your objective is “realism”.

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Seller of scarves at entrance to Jodhpur Fort

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Feel free to comment on how your experiences and attitudes may differ, or if you think I have left anything out.

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Photographic Equipment used in “From Dusk to Dawn”

Normally the image is what’s important so I don’t comment on the equipment I use.  Having good equipment does matter but not so much compared to vision, technique, testing, hard work, aesthetics, intuition and thinking.  But this is different.  I’m showing an historic project made using historic equipment.  Film is all but dead now and not many readers will know much about large format cameras.  These are essentially the same as the cameras used during the nineteenth century except that the medium is film rather than glass plates.  Hence this post.

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View through the ground class of Arca-Swiss Monorail camera

This is the view you see on the ground glass screen at the back of a large format camera, specifically a random view in the rain from my front door in inner city Canberra.   The view on the ground glass is 5×4 inches because that is the sheet film size.  By contrast, 35mm is over 13 times smaller at 1×1.5 inches.   To focus, you use a focusing magnifier on the ground glass with your head under a large piece of black cloth called a dark cloth.  If you want a vertical image, you take off the back of the camera and put it back on in portrait orientation.

The image you see is upside-down and back-to-front.  This can be confusing with fine framing adjustments yet is actually beneficial as you see compositions in abstract terms.  When you are finished focusing and composing and the camera is locked in position, you slide a film holder in under the ground glass screen.  Usually this would be a double dark slide, which holds two sheets, one on each side.  I was using Graflex backs, which hold six sheets and rotate as you take each exposure.  I also had a 6×7 roll film back.

Whatever back you use, the film is protected from inadvertent exposure to light by an aluminium plate called a dark slide.  To take an exposure you first have to measure the light using a hand-held exposure meter.  I usually used my meter in incident mode which measures the light by pointing at the light source rather than the object.  Then you set the shutter speed and exposure on the lens. Next you pull out the dark slide and trigger the shutter using a cable release.  Having made the exposure, you then push the dark slide back in.

Next, you rotate to the next film holder (Graflex back) or advance to the next exposure (roll film back).  You need to do all these things in correct order or disaster ensues.

This is a whole different kind of photography than blazing away with a digital camera.  You are not going to take many exposures in the course of a day.  You need to know what you want to take before you set up the camera.  There are many technical things to get right in the correct sequence but then when you come to compose and take the exposure, it becomes a meditative process.

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Arca-Swiss Monorail camera with Linhof Schneider Symmar 150mm lens

This is the camera from the other side and you can see the 150mm Linhof Schneider lens.  There are many adjustment possibilities here.  The front and the back standards of the camera can both slide along the rail and you adjust this to focus the camera.  The camera is here focused on the trees in the front yard as we saw in the previous image and the standards are fairly close together.  Full bellows extension would be for a macro shot.

The squarish black knobs on the side of the standards let you lower or raise the front or back of the camera to correct for converging or diverging verticals due to the camera viewpoint, for example in photographing buildings.  This is called rise and fall.  The grey knob just below the lens lets you move the front standard sideways for the same purpose.  There’s also a similar knob for the back standard.  This is called shift.

The black levers below each standard allow you to change the angle of the front and back of the camera.  This leads to tilt (vertical angles) and swing (horizontal angles).  Without tilt and swing (and for most other cameras), an image will be in focus only at a particular distance; this means you are focusing around a plane parallel to the camera.  When using a view camera you have other choices.  Let’s say you tilt the rear standard back and the front standard forwards.  If you extend the angles of the standards, they will meet at some point.  You can now focus on any plane that runs through that point.  For example, if you have a field in front of you, you can adjust the angles of the front and rear standards so that you are focusing on the whole surface of the field instead of just to a distance in it.  This is called the Scheimpflug Effect.

I used large format cameras because they can deliver optimal image quality for printed reproduction.  Usually I did not use movements.  Sometimes I used rise and fall and shift but I did not use tilt and swing in this project.

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Arca-Swiss Monorail camera on Manfrotto 058B tripod

Here is the Arca-Swiss monorail camera on the Manfrotto 058B tripod I mainly used. Together they weigh eleven kilos and the tripod is as solid as a rock.  It is shown here unextended and it goes much higher.  You may notice the locking nuts on the stays to ensure rigidity.  It has a centre column that you can crank up using a winder and it is the rare case of a tripod where you can use a centre column without compromising the rigidity of the tripod.  You can see two small red levers near the centre of the tripod.  There are six of these, two for each leg so you can access them in different ways.  If you hold the tripod in the air where you want it and push a set of three levers in, the legs fall out onto the ground and you can lock them there in place.

Actually, I started out with a different tripod, an ancient Sampson wooden tripod.  Coming back from one journey, it left Perth in one piece and arrived in Canberra in two.  Consequently, Ansett (an airline that no longer exists) bought me a new tripod.  Since their policy was to replace with a new item from the same maker and new Sampson tripods were prohibitively expensive, I got to choose the tripod I wanted and even rent one while they made up their mind.  Over 25 years later, the 058B is still a current Manfrotto model.

The Arca-Swiss monorail camera lives in a large leather box of some antiquity.  I had an aluminium base made for it to fit in so I could wheel it around in a golf trundler (aka buggy).  The tripod I could strap to the top of the box.

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Nagaoka Field Camera, expanded with Linhof Schneider 90mm Angulon lens

This is the Nagaoka Field Camera that I used when I was off walking somewhere, clambering down cliffs for a dawn shot or even bushwalking for the right view.  It is a much lighter and more compact camera than the Arca Swiss with less movements but still capable of fine image quality.

I bought the Nagaoka new and it would only have been a year or two old in 1987.  In contrast, the Arca-Swiss and the lenses date back to the 1960s though change is very slow for that sort of camera and lenses.

The lever at the top of the lens cocks the shutter and the lever at the bottom fires the shutter if you are not using a cable release.  The lever that cocks the shutter operates in a slot that leads down to the innards of the lens.  There is no weather sealing at all.  If operating such lenses in the rain, an umbrella is an essential accessory, for the lenses not for you.  I was lucky I encountered very little rain in my travels for this project.

Two of the three lenses I used are Linhof Schneiders rather than just Schneiders.   This is because they were tested and selected from new lenses at the Schneider factory for use on Linhof cameras (I don’t own any Linhof cameras, though).

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Nagaoka Field Camera, folded up without lens

And the camera is very compact when folded up.

When I went bushwalking in the 1980s, I had a large shoulder bag for my camera equipment that fitted in the bottom of my pack and there was a zip in the pack down there so I could take out the camera bag without disturbing anything else.  I also had a light though reasonably stable tripod on the side of my pack.  My standard pack would weigh about 25 kilos (55 pounds) including 15 kilos of camera equipment. I had two days of bushwalking in this project to take images of Tasman Island from Cape Pillar in Tasmania and probably carried my “standard pack”.

I am somewhat bemused when I read on the web of people who are disconcerted that they may have to carry a few kilos of camera equipment.  Sometimes travelling very light makes sense; in other circumstances I suspect that it shows they are not very interested in photographic quality.

These days I probably prefer not to carry more than 15 kilos.  Of course, if you’re smaller than me you will be able to carry less and if you have a back problem that will seriously compromise you.  Either way, the most important thing is to have a good quality pack that is well adjusted for you.  Cheap or inferior packs can be disasters.

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Accessories for 5×4

Here are some of the accessories I used with the 5×4 cameras.  In front is a Graflex back that holds six sheets of 5×4 sheet film.  On top of it at middle right is a Nikon focusing magnifier which I probably used for the Lighthouse project.  On top of it at rear left is a Quantum Calculite XP exposure meter which can meter about three stops below the light of a full moon.

To the right is a roll-film back which records exposures in 6×7 format (that’s 6×7 centimetres as compared to 5×4 inches, so smaller than 5×4).  In the centre rear is a Pentax spot meter.  I had one and it got stolen and I replaced it some years later.  I’m not sure whether I had one at that time.  If I didn’t, the Quantum has a spot attachment that gave a rough equivalent.  In the rear is a spare recessed lens board for use with the 65mm Schneider on the Arca-Swiss monorail camera.  Wide angle lenses needed recessed lens boards or else the front standard would be too far away from the film for them to focus at infinity.

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1937 Rolleiflex Automat TLR and waterproof case

Initially I used the Department’s Mamiya 645 for quicker images. When that broke down I started using my 1937 Rolleiflex.  To my surprise, the image quality was far superior to the Mamiya although in some circumstances I had to be careful about flare with its uncoated lenses.  It is now over 75 years old and was 50 years old even then.

You will notice it has two lenses.  It is a twin-lens reflex.  You look down on the top of the camera through a ground glass screen and the top lens and there is a magnifier that pops out if required.  As with the 5×4 cameras, you see the image upside down and back-to-front.  You take the picture through the bottom lens.  They were popular cameras in the 1950s and 1960s because they are almost completely quiet and since you don’t hold the camera up to your eye, you can be quite unobtrusive.

Behind it is a waterproof aluminium case that I suspect is much rarer than the camera.  I picked it up separately to the camera but from the emblem on top it appears to be of similar vintage.

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Nikon FE with Nikkor 16mm f3.5 fisheye plus Vivitar Series 1 28mm f1.9

This is the Nikon FE with the 16mm f3.5 fisheye and the Vivitar Series 1 28mm f1.9 lenses.  I mainly used the Nikon for the 16mm fisheye lens which was not available to me in larger formats.  I also used the Vivitar Series 1 28mm for one image taken from the air, so I have included that as well.

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5×4, 120 and 35mm film

Here is a selection of films showing the difference in sizes.  At the bottom is a couple of boxes of 10 5×4 sheets of Fujichrome 50 that I used at the time.  The other films are more recent but included for size comparison.  For the 120 films I would have used Fuji 50 rather than Velvia and one of the rolls of Velvia is out of the box, unopened.  I did use some Fujichrome 400 but it would have been of a different generation to the box at the back.  The 35mm roll is Agfachrome 1000 RS whereas I would only have used Fuji 50 in 35mm.

Slide film could produce fine images but has much less exposure latitude than current digital SLRs.  Before the digital era there was no capacity to combine multiple images to extend the tonal range.

The prints for the exhibition I printed myself in my chemical darkroom as a matter of principle as much as anything else, though my printing skills were OK.  Unless you take control of all stages of the photographic process that involve aesthetic judgements, the work is not really your own.  In the chemical era, this did not apply to processing the film which was a mechanised process that you could not expect to improve upon by doing it yourself.

Most of the images I will show in following posts were scanned with a Microtek 1800F scanner and a few with my Canon 9950F scanner.  I scanned most of the images in probably 2005 or 2006 but did little processing at the time because the computer technology of the time made processing very slow.

Certainly the files are huge.  Most of the scans start out over 300MB and with a few layers in Photoshop they can easily get over 1TB.  There is also an unfortunate byproduct of the scanning.  The Microtek scanner had a system where you put the film in a drawer inside the scanner so the scanner glass didn’t degrade the image.  The trouble with that was that the inside of the scanner filled up with dust over time, dust reduction was not available with the scans and each image requires a long painstaking process of manual dust removal.  Probably just as well there are less than 100 5×4 images.  Each image is likely to take some teasing out.

Summary of Equipment:

  • Cameras
      • Arca-Swiss Monorail camera (5×4)
      • Nagaoka Field camera (5×4)
      • Rolleiflex Automat Twin Lens Reflex (1937) with 75mm Zeiss Tessar f3.5  (6×6)
      • Mamiya 645 with 80mm Mamiya-Sekor f2.8 (6×4.5)
      • Nikon FE (35mm)
  • Lenses (for the 5×4 cameras)
      • Schneider Super Angulon 65mm f4.5 lens
          • (35mm equivalent: 20mm)
      • Linhof Schneider Angulon 90mm f6.8 lens
          • (35mm equivalent: 28mm)
      • Linhof Schneider Technika Symmar f5.6 150mm lens
          • (35mm equivalent:  50mm)
  • Lenses (for 35mm)
      • Nikkor f3.5 16mm fisheye lens
      • Vivitar Series 1 28mm f1.9 lens
  • Accessories
      • 2x Graflex backs (for 5×4 cameras)
      • Fidelity 6×7 rollfilm back (for 5×4)
      • Quantum Calculite XP exposure meter
      • Dark cloth and focusing magnifier (for 5×4 cameras)
  • Tripods
      • Manfrotto 058B tripod and 3-way head
      • Small Slik tripod
  • Film
      • Fujichrome 50, 64 Tungsten, 100, 400
          • (Velvia was not yet released)
  • Darkroom
      • Cibacrome CAP-40 processing machine
      • Omega Chromega D2 or D5 (?) with Schneider Componon 135mm f5.6
  • Scanner
      • Microtek 1800F scanner using Silverfast