Chicago: What Worked

The Long Version: In my last post - now updated with a camera bag contents photo - I was looking at my preparations for a weekend trip to Chicago. I'm writing this in the assumption that people have already seen the post below this one, which is a quirk of the blog format; click back if you haven't seen it already.

In a way it's too soon to do a full retrospective on the trip, since I haven't had time to really look at the results or hear the audio, let alone actually create something out of it. But getting a finished A/V work will take many weeks, and having proper perspective on the photos will take months or even longer. Who has time for that these days? The internet is all about immediate gratification.

So I've been trying to answer one simple question: if I was to do it all again next weekend, what would I change?

Chicago is my kind of town.

The first shortcoming to leap out at me was a lack of reading material. I knew I'd face a four-hour layover in night-time Detroit, but my preoccupation with weight and minimalism left me with nothing to do. Normally if I find myself bookless I would surf or play games on my Blackberry, but I was trying to conserve battery power, so that wasn't a great option. I should have brought something slim to read that I could jettison once I reached Chicago. To keep me lightly entertained, it should be something full of technical details, equipment talk, and field reports, with lots of pretty but unchallenging photos - perhaps a Golfing magazine, if anyone publishes such a thing.

Equipment-wise, the biggest thing that I had to learn should have been obvious: I'm not going to do anything different just because I'm somewhere else. I've used my Sony D50 audio recorder before, of course, but this time I thought I'd attach a couple of small microphones to my bag and use the wired remote to start and stop the recorder. My goal was partly stealth, but mostly spontaneity: it would keep me ready to catch interesting events thanks to the five-second pre-roll buffer. (For the record, capturing intelligible words in field recordings is a problem, not a goal, for reasons both legal and artistic.) But like Barrett Tillman said, "You won't rise to the occasion, you'll default to your level of training." My setup turned out to be too complicated and not particularly practical. I'm also not nearly good enough to be able to mix the sound from different capture devices seamlessly. Keeping it simple would have saved three-quarters of a pound and not changed my results.

And while I was at it, I should have let my audio recorder run longer for each take. I had some pressure to keep moving, but it always seems like the take ends just when something interesting is about to happen.

I brought out my little Manfrotto 345 tripod only a couple of times. Once was for recording audio, and the other was for some video clips. Next time I probably wouldn't bring a tripod at all, and just make do with impromptu supports whenever possible. I'm not convinced that I'll ever be good enough to capture stills, footage, and audio in a single day, since each has a different language and needs a different mental space. Even combining stills and audio have conflicting-enough requirements that I've never managed to do both well at the same time; I'd love to hear Keith's thoughts on this.

Incorporating Newman's "The Beginning".

I used my Colorchecker a few times while I was wandering around the city, but since the profiling software doesn't work with the GH1's distortion-correcting DNG files (lenses via adapters create profiles with no difficulty), it was strictly a white-balance reference. I could have used a smaller piece of my cardboard grey card, but the legitimate opportunity to take a photo of a Rothko painting demanded the most reliable colour balance I could get. While I wish I could have used my heavy iron, the GH1 with the bright 20mm f/1.7 did quite well, letting me accomplish a major goal for the trip.

Another of my goals for Chicago was to take photos for reviews of the Panasonic 7-14 and 20/1.7, so I was making an effort to use those two lenses. Even still, I was surprised at how rarely I used the 14-140, and it contributed only about 10% of the total images. While a few of its photos used the middle of the zoom range, most were either at the long end of its reach - where it's weakest - or were reasonably close to 14mm or 20mm. I was ambivalent about bringing it with me, and if I was to do it again next weekend, I'm still not sure if I'd tuck it in my bag. At one point I wished that I had my PC-Nikkor 35/2.8 shift lens, which would make an interesting substitution for the superzoom. Perhaps that's what I'll do next time.

Over the course of the trip, I used three batteries for the GH1. I exhausted the first one, and then switched the second prematurely, which is the opposite of how I usually work. I had marked my fresh batteries with a strip of electrical tape over the contacts, with a flap folded over for easy removal. One set of batteries was ample for my audio recorder, which was what I expected, and I even used my ND filter on the 20/1.7 for some photos and video. So while there are a few things that I could have done without, I did use everything I brought with the exception of a few spare SD cards. Not too shabby.

Departing the Toronto Terminal.

At just 9.5 pounds, my camera bag wasn't my enemy. Leaving out the easy stuff - microphone, tripod - would bring it down even more. The Hadley Pro bag itself was as flawless as its slightly overstuffed condition would let it be, and I finally came to appreciate the zippered back pocket for holding my passport, tickets, and maps. It's a good traveling companion, and since I always keep my camera bag with me, its compactness and discreetness was a real strength. It's going to be great for carrying around New York this fall.

Overall, I have to say that the trip was a huge success. Almost everything went the way I expected it to, and the Chicago excursion was a much more positive experience than my trip to Ottawa even though it lasted twice as long. I nearly filled a 16GB card, and captured almost a gigabyte of audio recordings as well. Even allowing for my vanishingly low 'keeper' rate, there's almost certainly something decent in there. None of the equipment failed or ran out of power, nothing limited my shooting, and my travel itinerary worked well. In fact, the only negative from the whole weekend was that someone stole my hat when I was in Detroit. I was using it to mark my place in line, and the Windsor-Toronto route boards from the gate next to the payphones. I can't say I was surprised - it was a nice hat - but since I bought it for the trip I suppose it's fitting that it remained behind.

I'm still going to buy another one, though.


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