What Does It Take To Be an NGO Photographer? – An Equipment Checklist
Photojournalism and documentary photography are fields that most of the time are developed gradually while gaining more experience, building up a quality portfolio, and mastering the art of telling a story with a small series of images. Your knowledge and skills are honed with the passing of the years working with the equipment that one could afford at that time. The logical step of development is upgrading your equipment when the current gear isn’t enough, or simply does not live up to the final expectations of the work to be achieved. The truth is that there is no written book to tell which is the superlative photography equipment to have so we’re left to often figure it out as we go along.
As a professional, I have traveled to over 50 countries photographing people in their natural environment; translating through the camera the subtle threads of daily life that are shared across cultures, borders, and races. I have had a special interest in collaborating with NGOs to document their impact on the society and the reality of the people they intend to help. Throughout this article, it is my intention to share with you some tips and the checklist of equipment I use during those assignments.
Get Two Camera Bodies
If you’re seriously thinking about breaking into photojournalism, it is indispensable to have two camera bodies. Working in an unfamiliar field under precarious circumstances, and in an isolated place, means that anything could happen. What would you do if your only camera breaks and you can’t replace it immediately? That fear grows by knowing that an NGO invested money in you to be there and like with any other client, they deserve to receive the promised results on time. That’s why I carry with me the new Canon EOS R and my old trusted, an EOS 6D.
This year I found myself moving from a DSLR system to mirrorless. I got very close to jumping ship to another brand, but finally, Canon joined this market and I decided to stay with them due to the investment I have done on EF glasses and the promises from this camera. The EOS R outcomes excellent results while being 15% smaller and 14% lighter. This offers a competitive edge as a photojournalist and travel photographer.
Invest In Good Glass
Get the best lenses you can afford. Having the newest camera model doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a trustworthy objective to place in front of it. Otherwise, the whole quality will be compromised. There is an infinite discussion about prime vs zoom lenses, or first-party vs third-party manufacturers.
I love prime lenses because I get to use a wider aperture, such as f/1.4 and the images are exceptionally sharp with beautiful bokeh. However, zoom lenses allow me to shoot at a variety of focal lengths to quickly change perspective and add variety to the shots within a second, something that can’t be overstated. For the traveling photographer, carrying around five or six different lenses is somewhat of a burden. If you like to pack light and are prepared to compromise slightly on the image quality and the ability to shoot a wide aperture, then a zoom lens is an ideal choice for you.
When the battle is waged between first and third-party lenses, the first-party lenses have the advantage on two fronts: bringing a superb quality and guaranteeing full electronic compatibility between the camera and the objective. Not to be left out of the game, third party lenses such as Samyang come with some advantages of their own: third-party companies are able to step in and fill the gaps of focal lengths not covered by camera manufacturers. Also, on many occasions, the quality of these glasses is equally good and much more affordable.
I have a quite good collection of lenses but that doesn’t mean that I always carry with me everything. It all depends on the type of work I will do, the location, and the style of photos I will produce. Here is a list of lenses with an explanation of use in a nutshell:
- Samyang XP MF 10mm / 3,5 EF – for shooting artistic perspectives with extreme wide angles.
- Samyang AF 14mm / 2,8 RF – for capturing dramatic shots with the feeling of being up close and intimate with the subject.
- Tamron 45mm / 1,8 Di VC USD G2 – for still life images, street photography, and portraits.
- Samyang AF 85mm / 1,4 EF – for portraiture, creating just the right perspective for both the subject and the background.
- Tamron 17-35mm / 2,8-4 Di OSD G2 – for open landscapes, wide establishing shots, or any shot in a tight room.
- Tamron SP 24-70mm / 2,8 Di VC USD G2 – for covering wide-angle and zoom shots, becoming a daily walk-around lens.
- Tamron 70-210mm F/4 Di VC USD G2 – for having everything I should need on the telephoto end that doesn’t require something more specialized.
Bring Some Light With You
Shooting outdoors doesn’t mean that you can’t take full advantage of the creativity brought by speedlights and flashes. Using them for an outdoor daytime portrait allows us to fill in some of the shadows when shooting outdoors. To best fill in those shadows, it is needed to modify the light in order to soften it. Some other key elements are reflectors to bounce the flash or a diffuser to widen the flash source for more flattering lighting.
I use the Mecablitz 64 AF-1 as it offers something that is not seen on some popular flash brands: a built-in sub-flash. Situated directly below the main flash head, the stationary secondary flash tube (secondary reflector or sub-reflector, as Metz refers to it) can be activated as a fill light when the main head is raised or swiveled, for bounce applications. As a more compact option, the Mecablitz M400 suits very well with mirrorless cameras and still with wireless TTL metering, full manual control, and a built-in video lamp.
A Tripod Is Like Having An Ace Under The Sleeve
Most of the people would think that documentary photography doesn´t require having a tripod in comparison to landscape photography, where it becomes almost mandatory to capture long exposures. However, this asseveration is far to be true. For instance, taking photos of small objects close-up can require a lot of skill, and minor movements will be crucial to a sharp image. Using a tripod will noticeably reduce unwanted movement of the camera, especially during low light conditions. Instead of thinking about the extra weight, consider that using a tripod in photography forces you to take your time when setting up a shot and subsequently gives you more time to compose your image. The additional time spent on getting your tripod ready can be an investment as it helps you to focus more on your image-taking. This can, in turn, result in better pictures.
The market is full of different options for different specializations, and different price tags. As a personal selection, I always go with a trustworthy brand, such as Manfrotto to guarantee the safety of my camera. To minimize weight without compromising stabilization, I bring to my assignments the BeFree Advanced GT Carbon and as a secondary complement, the BeFree Carbon. Both options are able to hold a load capacity of 10kg while weighing only 1.5kg, something to consider for traveling and jumping from location to location.
Memory Cards: Shoot Fast, Shoot Safe
On an assignment that lasts 1-2 weeks, I shoot an average of 10,000 pictures or more. This means that I have an increasing need for having quality memory cards to store a big amount of information in a safe way. After all, the last thing that I need at the time of working in the field is losing all that content due to corrupted cards. That’s probably the worst nightmare of any photographer. The important factor for SD cards is writing speed. How fast your camera can take photos is a factor of both your camera and your SD card. Whichever one is slower will limit your how fast photos can be taken during a burst and how long you can sustain that burst.
Most of the cameras support nowadays UHS-II format, the latest adaptation of SD card standards which, through the addition of another row of contact points, allows for increased bandwidth over older SD cards. In this regard, I always go with Lexar Professional 2000x, an SDXC UHS-II storage device that is capable of reading speeds of up to 300MB/s. I have two sets of 128GB, 64GB, and 32GB each.
After photographing and as soon as I can, I always do a minimum of two backups of all the images I have taken in external hard drives that I keep in separately places to minimize the risk of losing them at once. In LaCie I have found the perfect balance between spiffy-looking, pocket-size mega-storage, and extreme-robust portable drives. All these points are for me a priority considering the working conditions in remote places where I am during assignments such as being in the jungle of Borneo, the highlands of northeast India, or a tiny village in Bosnia. The drive must withstand even the toughest of beatings. In this regard, I always bring with me the -always reliable- LaCie Rugged Mini 4TB USB-C and most recently, the LaCie Rugged SSD Pro. This last addition has been a game-changer in the industry. The small size of 9.6cm and 100g which is 100% water and dustproof makes it great storage for the adventurer. As soon as I come back home, I do a third backup with the LaCie Mobile Drive 5TB, an option that dishes up to 540MB/s for high-res transfers and keeps up to 500k high-resolution photos.
Once I´m back home, I tend to do a third backup at my desk and in order to keep a good organization between the three drives, I have found LaCie´s Toolkit very handy. This easy-to-use software includes backup, restore, and mirroring utilities. It allows me to either back up manually or just set-and-forget, in the latter case so that my content is constantly being backed up whenever anything changes. The Mirror function, not surprisingly, let me sync files in a folder on my computer with a folder on the drive. Whatever I place in (or remove from) a mirrored folder will show up on (or be removed from) the other folder.
Get A Good Bag With Room To Grow
Where and how to pack all these bulky devices and still being capable of moving from one place to another? Is it really important to have a good quality camera bag? The protection of expensive gear comes first when traveling. A camera bag must not only look good and fit nicely around the shoulders, but it should also give easy access to the camera and protect everything you are carrying.
The Manfrotto Pro Light Switch-55 is a trolley case that I use very often when I have to take a flight when working abroad. I can have it with me as carry-on luggage and it has the capacity to load two DSLR bodies, up to 4/5 lenses, a 17″ laptop, and other additaments. Aside from the photography equipment. I´m a big fan of the Deuter Helion 80 and Deuter Helion 60 to bring my personal belongings while carrying my photography equipment. I have noticed that these trolleys complement each other efficiently.
Once I arrive at the location and install myself in the place where I will be working, I transfer the equipment that I will be using during that day from the trolley to my backpack, leaving the rest stored. For instance, I never carry with me my computer when photographing, it stays at the accommodation until I come back to start working on the editing.
After many years of trying different backpacks, now I am particularly attached to the Lowepro ProTactic 450 AW II due to its rugged versatility and armored protection. One of the features that I appreciate the most is having multiple access points for camera bodies, lenses or a drone. This is a pinpoint to never miss a critical moment.
Back To Business
I spend 50% of my time behind the camera and the other half behind the computer working on the photos as a freelancer. Here I also use gadgets that make the workflow easier and faster. Despite the fact of being a Mac or Windows user, I always recommend having a good monitor to work on the editing process. I use a BenQ SW271 for having a 4K resolution, 14-bit 3D-Lut, factory calibration, 99% AdobeRGB / 100% sRGB gamut coverage. In order to have an extra punch in color accuracy, I also work with a color calibrator such as the X-Rite i1 Display Pro. These tools are extremely useful when planning ahead which images I´m going to print in any format. If you are thinking to exhibit your images, I highly recommend not overestimating the importance of color accuracy.
Image editing is the phase of selecting a series of images that will be used as part of a photography project. This essential step makes it possible to isolate photos that will tell a story. Editing is not a task that the photographer will do in one sitting. Normally, it is a process that is done through different steps. From the elimination of the technically bad pictures to choosing the photos that are more visually pleasing, to the final selection of the images that are most adequate for the project. In the same regard, one can spend a couple of minutes editing a single photo or entirely days working on the same picture. It all depends on how detailed you want to be.
There are many software programs available for any budget and level of knowledge. As most of the photographers, I used Lightroom as my main choice for many years. Although, since I discovered Luminar I´m fully editing my work through this program. The reasoning is based on their sky tuning tools, polarizing filters, and AI adjustments among many other improvements.
As an additional complement, I recommend using Tourbox. This startup recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a new, innovative controller for creative professionals to more easily edit photos and videos. The idea is simple; it eliminates as many of those keystrokes and mouse clicks as possible, so you can create the same beautiful artwork as ever in a fraction of the time. In order to connect all these peripherals, I use Elgato Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock. The dock’s overarching purpose is to offer as many useful ports and connectors as possible. It drives two monitors at 4K60 via the dedicated DisplayPort connector and over the second Thunderbolt 3, or a single 5K screen while offering up 170W (20V, 8.5A) of power. It has become the heart of my working station. Part of the set from this brand also includes a Thunderbolt 3 Mini Dock when traveling, a Stream Deck for having shortcuts and additional controls as well as a Key Light for controlling the working environment.
Working on international assignments gives me the opportunity to travel to remote places. Many times, I take the chance to combine work with other photography passions such as photographing landscapes. For that, I use a complete set of squared 100mm filters by Cokin. Such filters include diverse ND, GND, RGND, and CGND. The Nuances Extreme series is made of strong tempered optical glass with superior reflection control, uniform density, color consistency, and IR suppression resulting in a stunning neutrality. Nevertheless, I recommend bringing with you at least some screw-on round filters such as Circular Polarizers and Neutral Density.
There’s a lot more to breaking into NGO photography or photojournalism than just having the right gear, and even if you do everything right there are no guarantees that you will succeed. It all depends on your capacities and experience as a photographer. But at least investing in appropriate equipment will put you on the right track.