Chicago: Preparations

The Long Version: I really like the idea of road trips. There's a long tradition of photographers getting into cars and driving all over America just to see what they could see. There's Robert Frank, Steven Shore, and William Eggleston, to name just a few. But I'm a working photographer - at a day job, like the vast majority of us - and I can't just head down the road to places unknown for as long as it takes me to get there. And even if I could wander for months, I have a family that I'm not willing to leave; there's also the practical matter of my never learning how to drive.

So instead I take the bus, and go for the weekend.

Last fall, I did a 24-hour round trip to Ottawa, which is about six hours away from Toronto. That was a test run, like doing a 5K before attempting a marathon, and now I'm using what I've learned to prepare for my next endeavor. This weekend will be the true challenge: sixteen hours to Chicago, incoporating a 4 hour layover in beautiful late-night Detroit, nineteen hours in the city, and then back on the bus for twelve hours to get home. While I'm there, I want to ride the "L", take an architectural tour or two, and visit the Rothko painting and William Eggleston exhibition at the Art Institute. And, needless to say, I want to take a lot of photos, capture some video, and record enough audio to create a couple of A/V works from my time there.

Hit the ground running way too early in the morning after a lousy night spent barely sleeping in a cramped and uncomfortable seat. Spend the day trying to make the best use of my time without having a clear objective or knowing enough to make informed choices. Plunge into a situation where I need to perform without knowing what tools I'll really need, and having to carry everything with me all the time. What's not to like?

I've been debating and deciding what to bring for at least two months, so here's the list:

• Camera: Panasonic GH1, 7-14, 14-140, and 20mm lenses. Several extra batteries and 32GB of memory cards. A 46mm ND filter for the 20mm lens. Manfrotto 345 tripod, Colorchecker Passport.
• Audio: Sony PCM-D50, Rode windscreen. Giant Squid powered omnidirectional stereo microphone. RM-PCM1 wired remote.
• Extras: Leatherman S2 flashlight, Blackberry, iPod Classic, Fuelcell booster battery, and earphones that will also be used with the audio recorder. Maps printed on 4x6 photo paper with interesting addresses on the reverse. My skinny new Mighty Wallet. Peanut M&Ms, and 8oz Stanley flask for water.
• All of this will fit in my Billingham Hadley Pro, which is small enough that it won't need to be checked at the art gallery.

So that's where I stand right now, thirty-eight hours before I leave - or eighty-five hours before I'm back. Ten of my named items have already been written up; I'll be using four different things that I expect to write reviews for. Chicago will be the proving ground for my Panasonic 7-14mm lens, like Ottawa was for my Nikon 105VR, and I'm also hoping to review some of what I see while I'm there. And as soon as the travel trauma wears off, I'll be writing a 'what worked' recap of my trip to give a general overview of what I discovered about the concept and execution of the entire weekend.

See you next week.


  1. I've tried to pick apart your packing list, but I can't crack it. The tripod seemed a likely thing to leave behind, till I saw the size of it.


  2. Anthony, I'm glad you think that the list is good. If anyone's going to be able to pare down an equipment list, it'll be a photographer who tours on a motorcycle. I'm just glad that I don't have your environmental challenges to deal with - I know everything will be dry, clean, and I don't have to plan for different weather.

    I was still tempted to not bring the tripod, but there's going to be a couple hours of available dark, and I'll need it to get my audio recorder off of the ground. (I'm not bringing the extension for it, since it's just an extra thing that's too much trouble to actually use on the run.) I've even considered leaving the 14-140 lens behind, or skipping the extra microphones - not because I can't fit them, but because I'm not convinced that I'd miss them if they were gone. We'll see what I decided tomorrow when I do my final repack.

    As my Ottawa trip was a test for Chicago, my visit to Chicago will help me decide what I really need for New York. Life's a journey, right?

  3. I lugged my heavy Manfrotto tripod around for seven months. It was rarely used, but there are some favourite shots that would have been impossible without.

    I wish I had brought an audio recorder along on my trip! Music, city sounds, conversation, howler monkeys...
    Having that extra bit of media from your Chicago trip will make for a richer story.

    I used to have a minidisc recorder with a stereo mic. Loved playing with it and working the sounds into music.

    Are the audio recorders these days recording WAV to compact flash/SD? How much editing can you do on the recorder itself?

  4. I hear you on the tripod. I'm just taking a break from editing some of my night shots, and there are some there that I would have missed being able to take. I haven't gotten to the video yet, so I don't know if it's anything significant, but it also would have been impossible without it.

    I'm torn. The 345 tripod isn't big or heavy, but I need to fight my tendency to want to be able to do everything instead of concentrating on my core interests and abilities. Slow-water fountain photos aren't really that important in my body of work, and I don't take them when I'm in my home city. So why was it important for me to do it this time? They're pretty, but I could have spent a dollar on the postcard and gotten a better image for my troubles. (And then taken a photograph of the postcard lying on a bench in front of the fountain, which would be more my thing.)

    What I should be doing is using a monopod, but carrying around something that looks like a 22" long black pipe brings its own set of problems, especially downtown in a foreign city at night.

    There's a huge range of field audio recorders out there. They're all flash memory, either built-in or removable, typically with SD cards. These days I might look at the little Olympus LS11; but what I use is the bigger Sony PCM-D50. None of them allow editing onboard, as far as I know, but I've been really pleased with Audacity (free, open-sourced audio editor) for doing almost everything I need. I'll typically trim and normalize my audio with it before I bring it into Final Cut for mixing into a soundtrack. I've only had a quick listen to some of the audio files from my trip, but I might have something useful in there. But even if it doesn't come to anything, I'm still glad to have caught the sound of the "L" train running between the buildings.


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