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Monday, July 14, 2014

About Chris' Travel and Photo Tips (updated Aug. 5, 2014)

Wildlife photography has it's share of challenges; i.e., being in the right place at the right time with the right lighting.  Plus, one needs to be armed with the right tools, positive vibes, and best shooting techniques on auto-pilot.  And in my opinion, it's better to be overly prepared than mildly handicapped.  If not, the mental game is compromised.  And when the mental game is off, the fastest camera in the world can't deliver home runs.

When I prep for wildlife safaris and photo trips, there are a zillion things that I do in order to insure success with the least amount of hassles.  I'm a list junkie and this started out as the typical what to bring pack list on my first African safari with Andy Biggs back in 2004.  As you will see, the list kept growing because the "whys and how" are just as important as the "whats". 

After 30+ safari/photo trips, I painstakingly documented what worked and didn't; ranging from travel weight, logistics and clothing to shooting techniques, tools, workflow, and pre-trip action items. That's because:
  • Reducing travel weight continues to be a major challenge and sneaking 55 lbs. of camera/laptop gear in carry-on is a never ending melodrama.
  • Reducing travel stress is always top of mind.  So I strive to make travel workflow as efficient and comfortable as possible aka "no gotchas" when traveling an average of 40 hours door:door; and,
  • I want good value from the tools that I invest in and decisions are made ounce by ounce.  I have no affiliations with any of the vendors mentioned in this blog.  

Since I often receive requests for advice, I'm sharing some of my action items in "this living document".  Check back frequently as I'm always updating:  1) Chris' Packing, Travel and Image Storage Tactics which includes extensive Extreme Cold Weather tips (updated Aug. 5th), 2) How to Shoot from a Safari Land Rover, Safari Prep and Image Workflow plus Packing List (updated Aug. 5th, and 3) Avoiding International Air Travel Grief (updated June 30th).  For non-photographers too, the Hack the Hackers and ID Thieves checklist should be a valuable resource (updated June 30th) as well as Don't Leave Money on the Table - Travel Wear and Stuff (updated Dec. 22nd).  Yes, it's a ton to do and think through; but, no pain, no gain.  



Chris
www.wildliferhythms.com

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Favorite Galleries

I just posted my latest story gallery called Cheetahs II: Meet Sparky about an adorable energetic 2 -3 week old cheetah baby, the youngest cub that I've ever seen.



I always wanted to see 2 - 3 month old cheetah cubs after watching little Toto in BBC's Big Cat Diaries and more so after seeing the adorable shivering cub in the movie African Cats.  After a dozen plus trips to Africa, my prayers were finally answered in Feb. 2014.  See the Cheetahs I: Magical Moments story gallery at www.wildliferhythms.com.



In February 2013, I was mesmerized by the rare experience of witnessing a leopard mom moving her 2 week old leopard twins  from den to den.  Check out Leopards VI: Moving Day.  


My other favorite African gallery is called Leopards V: Most Adorable Blue Eyed Babies from July 2012. 

Lastly in March 2013, I photographed the most animated polar bear babies that I've seen out of six denning seasons.  Even though it was my coldest Arctic trip ever - minus 55 - 60 with wind chill - I smiled the entire 10 days as the cubs played in snow just like kids.  See Polar Bear Babies V: Romp and Roll.  




Tuesday, March 25, 2014

How to See Cute Polar Bear Cubs in the Wild


  • From the comfort of your warm, cozy chair if you're practical.  A reality check: review this "behind the scenes" video made by ABC Nightline News which was filmed while we were in Churchill, Manitoba in March 2011.  
  • But, if you can handle the craziness of minus 50 temps with Arctic wind blowing in your face, wearing 22 lbs. of expedition clothing/boots/gloves/mitts, driving for hours on extremely bumpy tundra, staring at tiny den openings from 100 yards away, and praying for happy faces to pop out and smile at your camera, then trek on up to Manitoba near the Arctic Circle.  Although freezing your fingers off isn't fun, the experience is truly magical. 
  • You can see why I got hooked on these cuties at www.wildliferhythms.com under the Wild Reality section, Polar Bear Babies I - V galleries.
  • The only place to see dens/families is at Wapusk National Park in Manitoba, Canada (south of Churchill near Hudson Bay); and, the only lodge/operator is Wat'chee Lodge.  Wat'chee means high spot in Cree; and, the lodge sits on a ridge dotted with spruce trees, often with Northern lights dancing in the sky at this time of year.
  • In the past, Wat'chee Lodge was a closely guarded secret among pro and serious photographers.  But, now that the cat is out of the bag, it's safe to open up the kimono without getting slammed by fellow shooters.  
  • This rustic lodge is open from mid-February to mid-March and there are only 21 co-ed bunk beds available, mostly 4 to a room.  With this very short season and limited number of beds, the wait list is always several years long. 
  • If you contact Wat'chee directly, you'll be placed on the wait list for the following season after next.  Typically, you won't hear back from Wat'chee until your name comes up.  If you don't hear anything by Sept., then you're probably on the wait list.  If you're able to go on last minute trips, you could get called as late as 2 weeks prior to an opening. 
  • Now is not the time to skimp on proper clothing as it could put you at risk.  In order to stay warm, the initial investment for a Canada Goose Snow Mantra expedition parka, Canada Goose Rocky Mountain bibs and Cabela's Trans-Alaskan III Pac boots is obscene (in other words, a multi-year commitment) not to mention investments in adequate wool/polypropylene base/mid layers, hats, gloves/mitts and a heavy tripod/gimbal.  When available, you can rent Canada Goose parkas from the lodge.
  • There's no guarantee that you will see anything for days on end  as mama bear/baby activity can be earlier or later than your given lodge nights.  The train to the lodge to/from Churchill runs 3 times a week.  You should request at least 6 shooting days to increase your chances of seeing polar bear babies, along with your preference of coming during week 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5.  The owners do their very best to fit everyone in; and, they especially take special care of their repeat guests.  
  • The Wat'chee operation is a labor of love and running the lodge for only a month a year in these extreme weather conditions requires a herculean hands-on effort and investment - more than you can ever imagine.  Mike and Morris Spence - brothers who own and built out the lodge - truly want to share this special experience of seeing polar bear families in/near the dens, while preserving the natural habitat as they remember it from their youth.  
  • Mike and Morris have the most hands-on knowledge on the planet and share knowledge with various polar bear organizations and researchers.  Mike runs guest operations; and, Morris plus good friend Amak, are the best and heartiest polar bear baby trackers in the universe. The rest of the year, Mike, Morris and small staff of 5 have other full time jobs and responsibilities; i.e., Mike has been the mayor of Churchill for over 20 years.  
  • The denning area, which became part of Wapusk National Park in 1996, is where the Spence brothers - Mike, Morris, James and Frankie - fished and hunted using traditional traplines with their parents when they were kids, with added knowledge handed down from their grandparents. The property is a refurbished World War II Navy communications base and is located 40 minutes south of Churchill.  All essential supplies - food, water, wood, gas, building and auto parts, etc. - have to be brought in by train and driven to/from the remote drop off point on snow mobiles. During the lodge's 5 weeks of operation during the height of the denning season, guests are driven in vans modified to operate on the harsh (aka hard/bumpy) tundra.  Running this operation for such a short window is a herculean logistic challenge given that once the snow melts, the surrounding area becomes a huge marsh with no access except by helicopter.
  • Every resource is precious and the operation is extremely well run.  Keeping Wat'chee vehicles running (and warm) in these harsh conditions is a feat in itself.  Most impressive is the hearty food that Daryl, the sole cook, is able to prepare for a hungry group of 18 - 21 guests plus staff.  The lodge is kept remarkably warm with only 2 wood burning stoves for heat; and, guests conserve at the no running water, co-ed facilities by bringing their own packets of no rinse bathing wipes and personal sundries, etc.
  • There is no best week to visit Wat'chee Lodge as the season could start early (when families leave earth dens and head to the Bay so that moms can feed on seals) - or late.  After emerging from earth dens, families hang around for a few days (out in the open or next to snow banks referred to as day dens) before starting the 40 mile trek to the Bay.  Since there are over 200 re-usable earth dens in the area, success means being in the right place at the right time.  
  • Researchers say that Hudson Bay's late freezing/early thawing has had consequences on the number of  bears in the area.  Less ice and fewer seal meals equates to fewer females strong enough to go into heat.  I truly believe that this is a reality. 
  • I always approach Wat'chee with the expectation that one good sighting per trip would be a win; and, that 3 days of good shooting out of 10 is a home run.  But with wildlife photography, we don't always win on every trip.  So, I'm always braced for goose eggs because it does happen.  If you're not ready for these odds, perhaps Wat'chee is not meant to be because standing outdoors in minus 40 - 50 degree temps will already test your sanity.  
  • Seeing triplets may be the brass ring; but, seeing playful cubs (twins or triplets) in nice lighting is the holy grail.  I was blessed with triplets during my first 3 visits, but missed them by a few days on 2 of the last 3.  Even seeing one baby with mom - as long the cub is an animated poser - is special.
  • Wat'chee attracts experienced, diehard photographers with great attitudes (no whiners); and it's a great place for exchanging travel knowledge, making new International friends, and seeing Northern lights.  It's estimated that only 500 or so folks in the world have had the opportunity to see moms with newborn cubs in the wild, so finding/watching them is pretty incredible. I want to stress that building a polar bear portfolio should be a multi-year commitment as the right expedition clothing (base/mid layers, parka/bibbs, Pac boots, gloves/mitts, etc.) is expensive aka >$2,000, you need a sturdy tripod/gimbal, the learning curve is steep, and there are up/down years.
  • The ability to get sharp images continues to be a huge challenge, especially when winds are blowing 30 - 60 knots (35 - 70 miles per hour).  Lenses shake, viewfinders and LCDs frost up, batteries drop 50% in minutes, cheeks/fingers hurt, autofocus gets sluggish, tripod/gimbal joints get loose, and rigs blow over when you're not looking; not to mention that it's difficult to operate camera buttons and latches.  Even without the wind, it's a challenge to get low contrast subjects in flat lighting tack sharp; especially, when there are snow flurries and atmospheric shimmers between you and your target 100 yards away.  Being blessed with nice lighting can make all the difference in the world; and, it helps to stay calm when LCDs start to look like snow cones.   
  • It goes without saying that it's critical to be fit and healthy; and, you must monitor and listen to your body to avoid frostbite and other serious injuries.  It's not the time to man up or prove a thing as there's no access to nearby medical facilities; i.e., the train back to Churchill only runs 3 times a week. 
  • It takes a high level of commitment, patience and good karma to make this trip a success.   
  • Being bear-wise is important too.  It's very easy to be engrossed in your viewfinder and not hear the Wat'chee staff telling people to stick together, be still, not to slam doors, be quiet or pull back.  When Mike says to pull back, you pull back - period!  It's for the safety of the entire group as a polar bear can cover 100 yards in 9 seconds flat.  
  •  If you're still serious about wanting to see these endearing, endangered babies in the wild, then get on the Wat'chee wait list or find a tour group that has available slots for the 2015 or 2016 season.  You also need to get a Wapusk Park Photography Permit before your visit which the the lodge will provide.
  • This is a seasonal business and the very small team works miracles in these harsh conditions (while giving up their normal jobs for this labor or love), so tips in the range of $40 - $50/day are appreciated. 
  • Before visiting Wat'chee, be sure to review my Baby, It's Cold Outside section below as there's lots of prep work involved; especially, if you want to stay warm and comfortable.  Hopefully, I've taken at lot of the guesswork out of clothing and shooting tactics.   If I can do it, so can you!  
  • To get to Wat'chee, take the morning Calm Air flight from Winnipeg to Churchill.  If traveling long distances, reserve a day room to catch up on zzzz's. The train that takes you to the nearest stop near Wat'chee departs around 7P (when on schedule).  The train ride is about 2+ hours and the Wat'chee staff will pick you up in the middle of no where.  After your luggage and lodge supplies are loaded on vans, you'll arrive at the lodge about an hour later (between 10:30P - 1:30A).  Since most guests are already asleep upon arrival, I always pack my lens/day bags back in Churchill so that I'm quiet.  Because cancelled flights/trains and lost luggage are a big risk on this route, don't make your connections too tight; i.e., some folks arrive a day or two early.  We start each day around 8:30A (after the trackers access our best den target) and we get back to the lodge 7 - 9P depending on the commute.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Avoiding International Air Travel Grief (Updated June 30, 2014)

Traveling internationally with a ton of gear is a total hassle.  It takes a lot of thought and preparation as every airline and airport has it's own rules and nuances.   Here are some of my lessons learned.  Also, learn more under Chris' Packing, Travel and Image Storage Tactics by scrolling to the bottom of this document.

Checking In and Boarding:
  • Avoid lost luggage issues by double checking your luggage tags - the final destination -  before agents move your bags to the belt.  Once it disappears - in a blink of an eye - it's tough to correct tags with certainty.  Also, checking in on small planes is an art - i.e., on Calm Air in Winnipeg - and you can find some of my tactics under Putting Travel Bags on a Diet. 
  • Some airline liability terms do not cover cameras, jewelry or computers if lost/stolen in checked luggage.  So, make sure that expensive items like camera chargers and high end tripods are insured.
  • Your ticket may state that you need to be at the gate 30 minutes before; but, some lines queue up 60 minutes before.  Delta Gold SkyMiles and United Platinum cards will help to get you in the first boarding group.

U.S. Global Entry and TSA Preê:
  • If you're a speed/comfort freak like me, run - don't walk - and apply for TSA Pre√.  Once approved, you don't have to remove jackets, shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and watches before going through security.  Participating TSA Pre√ airlines include Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, SouthWest, United, US Airways and Virgin.  If you're a frequent flyer, contact each airline and provide them with your Global Entry number.
  • U.S. Global Entry is a stellar program for international travelers.  It cost $100 to apply, lasts for 5 years, and allows you to bypass the long customs lines when arriving back in the U.S.  Priceless.  
  • Note: some TSA scanners are sensitive to hand lotions and sunscreen (i.e., false readings) and you may have to get scrubbed for explosives if you go overboard.  Conversely, international flights can dry out hands and Global Entry scanners can have trouble reading fingerprints.  Net:net: clean hands before going through TSA and moisturize fingers before using Global Entry scanners.
  • Also, register for the Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP) .  This replaces the U.S. embassy registration process which enables U.S. Embassies to contact you in an emergency while you are traveling abroad and/or the State Dept. to send you important Travelers' Alerts. 

RFID Credit Card and Passport Protection
  • My US Customs Global Entry cards came with a RFID sleeve along with important instructions.  This got me thinking that I need to take RFID risks more seriously.  If you want to see something scary, check out this youtube video  and Consumer Report.  Dollars to donuts, you'll think that you need to buy a protective RFID wallet and passport cover.  But if you already have favorite wallets/purses, you can use RFID credit card shieldspassport shields and Scanner Guard Cards instead.  Worse case, you can line wallets with foil/duct tape to save on expense.  Note: These solutions are not 100% foolproof and some reviews report that stacking RFID cards together can confuse some readers, or require thieves to get closer to the source.  Take precautions on how you dispose of credit cards as well; i.e., smash the chip with a hammer, cut them up, and toss pieces on different trash pick up days. 

Smaller Aisles and Rows Mean More Liquid Hazards
  • With smaller aisles and space between rows, getting splashed by water, soda, wine or salad dressing - i.e., by flight attendants and passengers - is the new norm, especially when sitting in the aisle seat.  If your electronics are splashed, they can die days after the occurrence from moisture slowly seeping inside.  If this happens to you, turn electronics off immediately and try to draw any moisture out with desiccants or rice after landing, etc.  
  • For me, slip in laptop sleeves are faster to use than zippered cases.  If you typically set your laptop down when letting middle/window passengers out, place it vertically against the back of your seat.  Not only will this prevent liquid splatter, it will prevent damage to your laptop (or earbuds, etc.) when folks loose their balance and fall into your seat.  Best case is to hold on to them, of course.

Airline, Airport and Bush Plane Tidbits
  • Boarding times have slowly been getting earlier on United/Lufthansa - i.e., an hour before departure (probably to compensate for stricter checked luggage rules and behavior).  If flying KLM via Amsterdam, boarding time is 1 hour and 45 minutes before departure.  That's because security screening takes place after entering the boarding gate area.  On the other hand, some of the Lufthansa boarding gates in Frankfurt now have scanners which allow passengers to self-scan, reducing boarding times back to 30 - 40 minutes before departure (good news if you have a short layover).  
  • Lightweight, see-through mesh pouches - are great for keeping things organized and reducing weight.  Plus, they make it easier for TSA inspectors to see what you're carrying without messing up your packing system.  I use color coded meshes - i.e., red, teal and lime green sets from Barnes and Noble - and several favorites from Walker Bags My favorite mesh sizes are the 4 x 9" and 3.5 x 7" which maximizes utilization of space inside backpacks when stood on their ends; and, because the flat profile keeps cords and personal items condensed.  They also make perfect passport, travel docs, receipts and travel cards organizers.  Other favorites include the 2 x 7" for keeping thumb drives, adapter/cords and secondary batteries/memory cards organized; and, the 3 x 4" for business cards and tips, etc. 
  • Lighter packing cubes and checked luggage tactics: most seasoned travelers use packing cubes to keep things organized; i.e., the original Eagle Creek cube and knockoffs.  In 2013, I converted to Eagle Creek's 1 oz. Ultra-Light Specter cubes plus a few 1 oz. REI Expandable Mesh Packing Cubes.  The Specters are opaque, so good at hiding items that I don't care to lose; (i.e., flashlights, headlamps, Swiss Army knives and technical clothing, etc.).  And, double layering makes it harder for inquiring eyes and probing/sticky fingers to work their magic.  For expensive items like monopod heads, gimbals, camera chargers and flashes, I prefer to lock them inside my dayback (ThinkTank Glass Taxi) and then cover it with an ultra light dry sack secured with a strap in hopes that lazy security agents or baggage thieves won't bother.  The Glass Taxi also protects breakables and makes it faster to pack/find things.  
  • Re-verify carry on specs and baggage weight rules before departing.  Specifically, read the fine print of your actual ticket.  If you're returning via different airlines (i.e., operated by or an alliance partner), luggage rules can/will be different.  Here are Lufthansa's latest baggage rules.  
  • Last Minute One Bag Carry-on Rule:  Some of United's Star Alliance Partners can be ridiculously callous re: last minute one bag carry on policies even if you're carrying expensive photo gear; i.e., my experience with Asiana's strict enforcement in San Franciso, Delhi and Seoul; and, Lufthansa semi-enforcement in Frankfurt and Munich.  Note: At Lufthansa, the trick is to dress nice and monochromatic, have a Star Alliance Gold card out, and to minimize the size of your bags so that they don't notice you/bags (i.e., I wear and carry bags in charcoal gray).  Also, domestic flights in foreign countries are always at higher risk for the one bag rule. When checking in at Lufthansa in Germany/Italy, friends were surprised to find that their carry ons were weighed; and, Icelandic Air seems to have the same practice.  So, always have a back-up plan.
  • Boarding Area/Carry on Tactics Rule #1: Look compact, nibble and lightweight.  This is easier said than done if you're height challenged like me as pro camera gear/bags look smaller proportionally on a tall person.  As a result, when selecting backpacks which count as my briefcase/ handbag, I look for bags that are narrower than my body so that when I sit in the boarding area, agents don't notice the bag on my back.  My camera backpack is on a luggage cart (which allows me to walk tall and light on my feet), the profile is kept slim aka outer pockets are empty; and, I dress so that my outerwear blends in with my bags aka monochromatic.  It goes without saying that I never wear a loaded vest which is guaranteed to make me stand out from the rest of the crowd (and not wise given airport security concerns).  Also, looking overloaded or wearing light colored clothing will make you stand out when standing at the front of boarding areas (aka more risk for a gate security check).  Lastly, I avoid standing next to folks with oversized bags or lots of stuff because that tends to put gate agents and/or flight attendants on alert, often resulting in foul moods and boarding problems.   All of my bags are listed in the section below "Putting Travel Bags on a Diet - Ounce by Ounce."
  • Boarding: If you have a Star Alliance Gold/Platinum card, keep it handy to get into the better airport lounges and/or to board with the first group.  The Delta SkyMiles Gold AMEX card gives you early boarding as well (but not necessary lounge access).
  • Connecting Flights (Especially When Small Planes are Involved - Int'l or domestic): always plan extra travel days in case of bad weather flight cancellations or for luggage delays.  That's because Alaskan/African/Indian commuter flights and tundra trains aren't always scheduled on a daily basis.  And when it rains, it pours.
  • Protect your overhead space/gear: early boarding is great for getting overhead space by your seat.  But, beware of rude folks who try to jam heavy items on top of your camera bag and/or try to move things around if you're not paying attention.
  • Germany: Allow for extra time getting through the large airport terminal and multiple security screenings; i.e., upon arrival and departure even if connecting.  In Frankfurt, it takes about 45 minutes to get from Gate B airport lounges to Gates A/Z check-in lines and vice versa.  If you arrive in the Gate A area from the US, you don't have to go through security upon arrival when connecting.  If you depart in the Gate Z area (same pier, different levels), I recommend staying in that pier even though restaurant options are still slim.  If you want to go to the main restaurant/shopping arcade in the center of the terminal, you need to allow time to go through two securities; i.e., to enter the Gate B/arcade area and again when re-entering the Gates A/Z area. Geez.  If you arrive in Gates A/Z from South Africa, you go through security upon arrival no matter what.  The worse is, if you arrive in an A gate and depart in a Z gate, they route you through this bizarre bogus detour which takes you to the very end of the security line (thereby giving priority to those going to B/C gates).  Net:net: if you're first off of the plane, you just wasted 40 minutes.  My last arrival in a C gate also required going through security right off the plane; and, then again to enter the B gates.  And if you are flying SAA, passengers line up at the gate 30 minutes or more before boarding time.  In the Frankfurt Lufthansa Senator lounge, many of the floor plugs by the comfy leather chairs are broken, so carry an extender in case you need to share with other passengers.  Also, if you're flying coach and thinking about boarding from a 2nd level Senator lounge, don't do it as you'll be entering from the back of the aircraft aka against the flow of traffic. 
  • South Africa: Arriving in Johannesburg: Airport/hotel porters and van drivers are happy with dollar bills; and many bush camps accept U.S dollars/credit cards.  So, check before leaving home.  If you only need a small amount of rand (i.e., 60 rand per checked bag for shrink wrapping when you leave the country, refreshments and server tips), the ATM's are located in the Domestic terminal on the left hand side (on the opposite side of the main lobby).  If you need more rand, the currency exchange kiosks are located in the baggage area and to the left before you enter the main lobby.  The minimum exchange fee was $25 the last I checked in 2012 which is why I use the Bank of Barclay ATM.  Note: I've always tipped game drive rangers in U.S. dollars using a mix of $50/20/10/5 new'ish bills.  Avoid carrying $100 bills to 3rd world countries because they're more concerned with counterfeit issues; especially at hotels.  If you forgot sundry items or needs adapters, the stores are located in the Domestic terminal (a short walking distance).  nice and reasonably priced hotel near the airport is the Protea Hotel.  The Sun Inter-Continental is excellent and right across the street; but, the rates are now 3x more.  Catch the Protea shuttle across the street from Terminal A which is where International flights arrive.  Walk down the pathway between the the parking garage and the Sun Inter-Continental Hotel and head towards the back.  Shuttles leave every half hour.  Vat refunds leaving Johannesburg on international flights: You can only get a VAT refund if you show an official your purchases on the first level of the airport.  This means that you need to get a form stamped before you get your luggage shrink-wrapped and before you check-in your luggage with your airlines.  After going through security on the 2nd level, you then have to process the refund voucher.  Next, you go to a nearby bank kiosk to get your cash.  Note that refunds are in rand.  Flying on South African Airlines: check in for flights is in Terminal B.  Then, take the elevator one level up to get through security (laptops out, not liquids).  At the gates, there are no orderly coach/business class lines or any orderly process at the boarding gate.  Once it's time to board, it's a no holds bar stampede.  So, be ready.  Pay attention to flight announcements so that you hear them, especially the one that says to cover your face/nose before flight attendants walk down the isle and spray the cabin with bug spray.   Flying on smaller bush planes (i.e., Federal Air)  means dealing with extremely strict weight limits of 44 lbs. for total bag weight. So, bite the bullet and purchase a 2nd seat to avoid travel grief.  The price/per seat each way is approx. $300  which you can mitigate if traveling with a buddy or two.  Note: With the extra seat, you still need to get permission in advance to carry your gear into the cabin.  The Federal Air kiosk is located between the parking garage structure and the Sun Intercontinental Hotel, in the back (across from Terminal A).   Arrive an hour before departure as flight times change on a dime's notice.  If you are departing on Lufthansa or United, the check-in counter is #101 and all the way to the left side of the cavernous multi-airlines check in counters.  Of course, they always drop you off at counter #1.  Once through security, Lufthansa/United co-share lounges with South African Airlines and the Senator lounge is very nice. Note for the ladies: there are only 3 stalls for the entire large Senator lounge which means that the queue can get long right before boarding times.  So if you need more timing for changing clothes, etc., don't wait to the last minute.  In addition, Lufthansa lets you check-in several hours before departure (i.e., 5 hours plus) as opposed to South African Airlines.  If you need more than a bowl of soup/light sandwich in the SAA lounge, have lunch at the fairly new Italian restaurant across from the check-in counters in Terminal A before checking in (handy when you're still lugging around checked baggage).  Otherwise, there's a couple of small eateries on the other side of security for both Terminal A/B.  
  • Reduce lost luggage risks by allowing at least 3 hours or more for connections.   Whenever someone tells me lost luggage stories, the connections were too tight 90% of the time. If your luggage isn't with you at the start of a safari, it might not show up for days, if at all.
  • Botswana:  I've learned (the hard way) to check-in early when leaving Johannesburg for Maun on Air Botswana.  That's because luggage doesn't always get on board.  And, because camp:camp bush planes aren't daily, you may have to charter a plane to deliver your bags before you leave for another camp aka expensive.  If not, there's a real risk that your luggage won't catch up with you until the end of a safari.   Also, pay attention to the muffled flight announcements and cover your face/nose before the flight attendants walk down the aisles spraying nasty pesticides!
  • African bush planes: some planes are only 4 seaters, which means that the cargo hold is proportionately small.  If you don't heed by the rules of using soft duffels, your luggage or long lens case may not fit in the cargo bay.  Since weight limits are very lean/strict at 20kg or 44 lbs. - and everything is weighed for safety purposes -  now is the time to radically pare down; i.e., see my Putting Gear on a Diet - Ounce by Ounce below.  Don't make the assumption that because you're petite that you can get away with more luggage. That's because weight is averaged out (and the "planning average" is less than the "actual average" of most Americans).  Plus, planes are typically loaded with bush supplies and/or luggage catching up from earlier flights.  Don't take the risk of missed luggage because it's a headache.  As mentioned, I always buy an extra seat, use my lightest weight duffel - Kinesis @ 2.2 lbs. or Eagle Creek No Matter What rolling duffel @ 3.4 lbs. (not stuffed so that it crushes down), a pared down photo backpack @ 3.7 lbs, and a no frills tote/brief/backpack to and from the int'l airport and in between camps.  
  • Canada:  Flying from Winnipeg to Churchill on Calm Air is always a risk for checked bag #2, unless you're willing to pay an excessive fee for "guaranteed freight".  At minimum, fly in at least 1 to 2 flights earlier than needed so that missing bags can catch up with you.  And, if you want to reduce the major stress of having to check or valet check your gear, read the carry on rules and luggage weight limits carefully.  Some of the agents follow these rules to a tee albeit they seem to be more lenient with Canadians.  Wear a jacket with large pockets to hide some of the weight; but, don't look overstuffed or else agents will ask to weigh your jacket.  Personally, I only put small, dense items in my jacket, like batteries, portable drives and camcorders, etc. along with eyeglasses and other flat items.  On this flight leg, I pare down to the absolute minimum as described in more details under Small Plane Tactics  under the Putting Photo Gear on a Diet section below.  Depending on your total weight (carry on plus checked luggage), overweight fees can range from $25 - $300, and hundreds more if checked as guaranteed freight.  
  • Adapters: Use seatguru to see if your airplane has A/C (if so, carry the appropriate cord/plug).  Also, carry euro airplane jacks for your earbuds along with the correct layover or destination country adapters.  Since earbud cords are fragile around the jack plug, also carry a spare. 
  • Airport lounges: check online airport maps before departing to identify the most convenient lounges as airport personnel don't always give you the right advice.  And since floor outlets near comfy lounge chairs don't always work or are occupied, carry a plug extender in case you need to share with other passengers.

Be Ready for the Next, Next Leg and 3rd World Tactics
  • Going on international photo trips means lots of changing or tweaking; i.e., for airlines with different carry on rules, planes with different storage space, airports with different security measures, lodges and camps with different amenities; and vehicles (bush planes, buses, trains and jeeps) with different configurations. Good grief!
  • The goal is to be as efficient as possible without any hiccups along the way; i.e., walking away from valuables or losing one's sanity when things go haywire.  
  • It's a major effort to pack in an organized manner so that it's easy to shift gears; i.e., when you have to switch camera bags along the way without leaving things in the wrong pocket.  My tactic is to work with a Packing and Workflow list that's tailored by trip.  I mentally walk through how I'm going to carry things on the next travel leg, identify where things need to go, and make reminders for important action items (i.e., getting local cash, checking luggage status, and swapping out adapters, etc.)  That's because using sleeping aids on international flights can fog the brain for a day.  Important sundry items/adapters are redundant so that there's no need to move items between bags (carry on, day bags and toileties) I also pre-pack items in separate mesh pouches so that I can utilize a pick & pack approach; i.e., the travel home outfit, rain kit and game drive kit, etc.  And, all important travel docs/references are stored in my laptop and iphone - plus, a notebook.  
  • My approach use to be: get ready for the next leg at each step of the way -  i.e., switching between international and domestic flights, to smaller planes or trains, and between hotels and camps/lodges, etc.  But now, it's pack and be ready for the next, next leg.  This minimizes stress when flights/luggage are delayed or when there's no time in-between flights.  
  • When traveling to 3rd world countries, there's a much higher risk of travel interruptions and it's easier to fix problems if you're prepared; i.e., having all local telephone #'s handy (airlines, hotels, credit cards/banks and embassies) for each country that you're visiting.  Since cell service may not be available and/or wireless is often slow, have important travel resources bookmarked and copied into an Emergency Contacts file (i.e., how to get a hold of AMEX Globla Assist).  You'd be surprised as to how hard it is to hunt for customer service numbers when you need it.  When things are written down, you're also more efficient when using a public computer.  And since companies are always enhancing security measures,  know your answers to security questions.  Researching hotel options and airline lounge hours for emergencies is also valuable, as well as carrying a few extra passport photos.  Lastly, I always pack a few tees/undies, a shower kit and a mini sundry/cosmetic/first aid kit in carry on in case of major luggage delays or longer than expected airport layovers. 


Tips for First Timers to India: 
  • If you're traveling out of the Delhi International Airport or flying domestically within India, radically prune your carry-on bags down to the bare minimum before entering the security line.  If not, security will examine every inch of the bag with a fine tooth comb and it could take 30 minutes or more for every pocket and pouch to be opened and/or emptied out.  Make certain that every tool, including simple L wrenches, and non critical items are banned to checked luggage.  Even though I follow my mantra, I've still had to remove everything from my camera bag - i.e., cameras, lenses, teleconverter, CF card wallets and firewire reader/one cord - and put them into a flimsy plastic bin for re-X-raying.  Good grief!  And, make sure that everyone in the group is on the same page because one delay is a delay for all. 
  • Re-think what you pack. At domestic airports, they also do a pre-screening X-rays scan for checked luggage, just like when departing the state of Hawaii.  So, only pack your must-haves.  On my last visit, my Gitzo monopod was scrutinized (not because of any metal but because of the rubber grip); and, my rubber air blower (used to blow off dust from cameras/lenses) was 99% rejected until a friend came to the rescue.  Very aggravating.
  • Re-think how you pack.  I had a dust blower on one trip (very dusty riding in open jeeps); and unfortunately, mine was buried at the bottom of my duffel inside a ThinkTank Glass Taxi.  As a result, my entire duffel was emptied out in front of a zillion passengers entering the domestic airport - gasp!  Now, I always put the blower inside a baggie at the top of my duffel with a friendly note/photo explaining it's purpose.  And to add insult to injury, I was using the dirty/messy clothes on top tactic - not my normal dirty clothes compressed in space bags routine - which made it difficult to get everything back inside the duffel.  Lesson learned.
  • Don't use rolling camera bags for carry-on unless you're willing to risk your bag getting snatched away as checked luggage.  Also, be careful when selecting airlines if your carry-on is overweight as foreign airlines can be very rigid.  On my last visit, I used a small ThinkTank Acceleration backpack with a removable Samsonite luggage cart (same carry on as the previous year, same airline, same route).  I never had trouble with Asiana before.  But on this trip, I got serious grief departing and returning - in Biz Class!  A supervisor physically yanked the camera bag out of my hands and placed it onto the conveyor belt as I gasped in disbelief.  The fact that my gear was fragile and cost a small fortune did not faze him.  I managed to keep my bag by a quarter of a thread; but, my travel buddies did not fare as well.  So, be warned.
  • Make a pack with buddies to watch over each other's gear before/ after the security X-ray machine.  With everyone having their own security hurtles and hassles, it's easy for things to fall between the cracks.  Unlike the U.S./Canada, you are not allowed to hang back and watch your (or your friends') valuables disappear into the X-ray machine.  Plus, people routinely cut in line.  So, your bags/purse can sit exposed for a while and it feels like a scam waiting to happen (aka very stressful!)  To add insult to injury, females are segregated and moved to another line - up to 3 lanes away - in order to get pat down in a closed curtain booth (while you pray that one of your buddies is watching your valuables).  In the meantime, more folks are cutting into the X-ay line.  So by the time you get back to your belongings, items are separated and/or buried under a pile of other travelers' stuff.  So, plan accordingly and be on top of your mental game.  
  • Remove all tools and extra stuff including lipsticks: A friend who just returned from another wildlife trip inadvertently left a small pair of personal scissors in a pouch.  Even though they were readily found, every other pouch had to be opened up and examined as well.  Ditto for a guy friend with a small L wrench; and; searches can take over 30 minutes - per person!  Also, it's not fun having to run to the boarding gate while carrying heavy backpacks in hot weather.  
  • Think twice before checking lenses in baggage:  If you're a risk taker and check your lenses internationally, be warned that you might not be able to get your long telephoto lenses into the country.  A buddy had his 400/2.8 lens detained by Indian customs.  His only saving grace was that the lens was registered with the U.S. Customs Dept. and he had his original U.S. Customs stamped paperwork on his possession (plus some cash).  But, it still took over 4 hours of multiple meetings and tons of paperwork to get it released.  Other photographers have reported the same Customs hassle as well - but, with carry on, not just checked.  
  • When traveling to India, you are not allowed to take rupees in or out of the country. And because the use of credit cards can be an ID theft gold mine and finding a working/secure ATM machine can be your worst nightmare - not to mentioned hotels being lean on rupees for exchanging dollars - it's advisable to exchange your currency at the airport upon arrival for all service/game drive tips, laundry, drinks/water, luggage fees, spending moneyand emergency cash.  Be prepared to lose a whooping 8% of your U.S. dollars - the exchange cost in both directions as of 2011.  Shop around for the best rate and then negotiate a matching rate at Thomas Cook.  Remember to save your USD to rupees receipt that you will need for changing currency back when leaving the country.  
  • Ask for smaller bills from the get-go:  It's difficult to find and change larger 1,000 rupees for smaller 100 and 50 rupees which you will need for tips and miscellaneous purchases.   Thomas Cook typically pays out in 1,000 denominations and doesn't stock 50s.  Hotels don't keep a small bill inventory either, especially during the weekend.  So, your best bet is buy $100 packs of 100 and/or 500 rupees when exchanging your money upon arrival at the airport.
  • Best way to carry a wad:  $20 U.S. dollars equals 1,000 rupees.  So, a wad of 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 rupees for a 3 week visit will be heavy and several inches thick.  It's not easy to be discreet or comfortable carrying this much cash.  I found that the most comfortable way of carrying a wad of rupees is to use 1 - 2 lightweight nylon ankle/calf wallets (voila - no chest lumps, bulging tummy or neck strain).  My favorite REI calf wallet has been discontinued, but Eagle Creek has something similar called the UnderCover Leg Wallet.
  • Traveling to India isn't for everyone.  You have to like the culture, people, food (yum), noise, aromas and challenges.  For me, India is mesmerizing with so much history and emotion.  And, endangered Bengal tigers are magical to see in the wild.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How to Shoot From a Safari Land Rover, Safari Prep and Image Workflow (Updated Oct13, 2014)

Friends are always asking me how I keep my camera and long lens steady when shooting from open land rovers and jeeps.  As my friends and family know, a simple answer just isn't in my DNA.  And since I can't handhold a super-telephoto lenses, like some of my taller and stronger photo buddies, my response typically goes like this: 

Cameras, Lenses, and Support Techniques
  • I tweak my tactics depending on airline rules, type of planes, the camp terrain, type of vehicle, distance of subjects, lens focal length, and number of folks on the vehicle.
  • I always define priorities before selecting what gear to bring because there will always be trade-offs.  If priorities are solid, then shots missed because I didn't have the right focal length may bug me in the short term; but, become unimportant in the overall scheme of things.  My priorities are always feline (and polar bear) babies and I'm always on a mission to find young animated families in good lighting.  So with increasing airline weight hassles, I know that I have to sacrifice other "nice to have" images.  But, I make peace with this by knowing that I'm prepared for my top priorities; and, that I'll have nice memories from other special wildlife moments.
  • I primarily shoot with a 500mm f/4 IS lens on the Canon 1Dx body and the 70-200 f/2.8 II plus 1.4x III teleconverter on the 1D Mark IV (equivalent to 127 - 364mm).  If I anticipate the possibility of cheetahs jumping on the vehicle, I man up and pack a 24-105 IS as well.  Reducing travel weight is always a major issue and I'd love to get the 500mm f/4 IS II to save another 1.5 lbs.  But in reality, it's all my other stuff that adds weight to my total load. And although the extra reach of the 600mm f/4 IS II would be awesome for my style of shooting, I don't want the hassle of lugging a larger camera bag around the world (plus, I already have the 800mm).  
  • Gear decisions are always tough and trying to figure out what not to bring is the most stressful aspect of safari packing. If scenics, landscapes and animal-scapes are important to you, then consider traveling with smaller bodies to allow room for additional shorter lenses.  See more tips under Putting Camera Gear on a Diet - Ounce by Ounce under the Chris' Packing/Travel Tactics section below.  Also keep in mind that every camp/terrain/vehicle is different and you'll never have everything that you want.  Just do the best with what you have and be creative.  For me, carrying fewer lenses means less fiddling around and I limit myself to 3.  Note: On private camps in Botswana and South Africa, you can travel off road more often than not, so subjects tend to be closer.  
  • I'm comfortable traveling to South Africa and Botswana with 70mm as my widest lens.  That's because I know that I've never had time to change lenses - or choose not to because of the dust - even when I did have a shorter lens in the bag.  Plus, I don't like moving around when others are shooting (vehicle vibrations) in hopes that the respect is reciprocal.  Also, if subjects are close, it means shooting down which isn't desirable unless the subject is looking up.  This elephant grouping was shot with the 70-200mm and the 1.4x attached on a full frame.  Since I was focused on repetitive patterns, there wasn't time to take my eye off of the viewfinder and remove the extender aka I could've gone wider.  

  • I use to carry a point & shoot for memory shots and video; i.e., the Canon S95 or Pany LX5.  But, I've come to grips with the fact that what I treasure the most are the video files.  And since I've never been thrilled with P&S still files, I finally stopped buying a new one every year in hopes of a better performer.  Now, I use a small camcorder - the Sony GW77V with 10x optical zoom (same footprint as the TG1 that I use to carry) plus my iphone 5.  That's because I recently had one of those once in a lifetime video ops and the S95 didn't do it justice.  That was a ache that never went away.
  • For those without a 500mm or longer lens, I should note that I've successfully used the 300mm f/2.8 as my primary safari lens on a full frame body on several trips.  This works if you're not a birder; and, more so in Botswana as opposed to Kenya or Tanzania.  The extra stop of light and pop from this lens is really a stunner.  
  • In Botswana and South Africa, I always book an extra bush plane seat because of strict weight and safety limits. This enables me to carry gear inside the cabin and mitigates the risk of my checked luggage getting bumped onto a later flight. This does happen and when it does, it could take days/weeks for luggage to catch up.  In Tanzania, I drive to and from my destination to avoid bush plane weight constraints.
  • For camera support, my "no brainer” method is to use the SkimmerSack molar type beanbag on the roll bar (made by Kinesis Gear).  I pack the SkimmerSack empty and it's filled with seed or rice once I get to the first safari camp/lodge.  The exception is in Tanzania where I stop in Karatu (near the Crater) to pick up 12 kg. of beans.  The SkimmerSack is fast, easy, and allows me to get my timing down on the first couple of game drives.  I also use a smaller custom-made 8 x 10" ultra suede beanbag to stack on top of the SkimmerSack when more height is needed.  This stacking system is very versatile.  Plus, the 2nd beanbag serves as a leg cushion when carrying gear on my lap (aka more comfy when driving over bumps/potholes in the road); and, it serves as a quick second means of support for the back roll bar (i.e., when a subject moves behind the vehicle).  Note: beans can stress the SkimmerSack's seams and I reinforce with gaffers tape as needed.
  • Other beanbags that I've used are the smaller WildlifeImaging beanbag (don't launder it as it shrinks) and the classic SafariSack.  Note: Request rice, seeds or beans upfront when making your camp reservations; and, return this valuable staple back to the camp staff at the end of your visit.  In the bush, nothing should be wasted.  If you prefer a lighter weight fill, bring your own buckwheat hulls -  i.e., from www.save-on-crafts - or purchase the beanbag already filled from Kinesis Gear. 
    • M"get it sharper” method is to use a collapsed monopod set directly on the seat.  I lean the monopod against the beanbag and sit forward with one knee pressed into the back of the forward seat (aka a triangle). My left elbow is draped over the roll bar or against it.  As needed, I do the same in reverse using the back seat as the anchor point.  
    • Shooting with my beanbag-monopod system gives me the most speed and flexibility for shifting side: side, forward:back  and pointing upwards for subjects in trees or rocks.  Before the vehicle stops, I'm already in position to get the cleanest shot shooting through thick foliage, i.e., when photographing tiny 5 week old leopard cubs peeking out of their den.  Being able to move my body just a tad also helps to wrap the light more effectively; and, ranger/drivers don't have to guess at when to stop the vehicle because they've already gotten the message.



    • If something or someone is blocking my view, I have no choice but to lean back and work with a monopod on the floor.  To keep it steady, I wrap my left foot around the lower leg; and, the mid-section pressed against the outer thigh/inside calf).
    • Using a monopod also allows me to adjust the viewfinder height, so there's less strain on my neck, shoulders and spine; especially, when working with subjects for hours on end.  And, it adds another anchor or stabilization point for added sharpness.
    • For my monopod, I use the beefy, compact and travel friendly Gitzo GM5561T along with a Gitzo Big Foot All Terrain shoe.  
    • Note: RRS's knob version clamps are more versatile if using lens plates from various vendors; but, I prefer their lever version clamps because they're faster to install/de-install throughout the day.  And since I'm always adjusting the leveler knob, there's less risk of grabbing a monopod head knob by mistake.  If you want to save weight and money, Acratech's 8 oz. leveler works too albeit it only has 10 degrees of movement versus 15.  My first leveler, the Manfrotto 438 compact model @ 10 degrees has never left the house because it weighs 1.4 lbs.  Note:  always remember to tighten screws and pack the right wrenches.  
    • Mongoose vs. RRS monopod head/leveler: Both solutions weigh about the same and it's always debate about which one to pack.  The RRS rig is easier to hold on my lap; i.e, when sitting next to the driver; whereas, the Mongoose rig is more stable when leaned against molar beanbags (more surface contact) or laid on the seat (less rotation).  The Mongoose's L shape is nice for holding while shooting (aka less stress on the lens); whereas, the RRS rig is easier to use when shooting on a roll bar and the subject is perpendicular to the vehicle.  The RRS rig also takes less packing space. 
    • I also use Hoodman HoodEye eyecups on my cameras because they anchor the cameras against my face.  Because the HoodEye comfortably molds against my eye, there's less pivoting or wiggle room than using the standard camera eyecup.  In addition, it cushions the eye from the weight of the camera/lens when shooting up into koppies (rock formations).  Note: they will tear after a year or so from wear and traveling between snug bags dividers.  So, always have a spare handy.
    • Beanbag + Monopod 101: It's important to lock down solid - monopod, face, elbows, knees and feet; and, to relax the upper body.  Whatever set up you use, always keep a hand on your gear to avoid long lenses from bopping someone's head, or whizzing out the window.  If you're changing batteries, cards or a teleconverter, at least have the camera strap wrapped around you wrist for good measure.  
    • Before the vehicle stops at the next shooting location, have your monopod legs set up at the right length and your beanbag positioned where you'll need it on the roll bar.  It's also important to communicate with the ranger/driver so that he knows where you want to be positioned and at what angle for the best background and lighting - for every subject that you approach.  When folding up and collapsing your rig, be careful not to pinch your fingers or knuckles unless you want a major ouch. 
    • When shooting, my left hand is pressed against the Mongoose/RRS and not on top of the lens barrel which reduces stress on the lens and camera mounts.  If not, lens mount screws can crack (been there) and one wouldn't know it until the camera starts having errors. 
      • Noise and fast motion are your worse enemies, especially if you want to relax subjects; such as, young cubs, birds or skittish elephant and impala.  Remove all jackets, dry sacks and rain covers before reaching subjects (i.e. 50 - 100 yards away) as noise from fabrics can disturb animals, especially non-relaxed cats and very young cubs.  Also, finish unzipping/zipping up bags as well and refrain from sliding around on the vinyl seats.  Note: Wax your bag/jacket zippers before trips for smoother/faster operation.  If you can turn off the shutter sound on your camera body, do that as well.  
      • Important: Talking should be minimized, so use hand signals with your driver/ranger for clarity and speed.  It always amazes me how much people talk in the bush given that sound carries such a great distance, even to the human ear.  Stealth cats from Africa and India to the Pantanal are notorious for going off road and hiding in the bush until noisy vehicles pass on by.  Also, find your own subjects to avoid being in the presence of other vehicles filled with noisy passengers; i.e., moms and babies will be more relaxed in your presence.  I also believe that cats evade negative vibes as well, so be positive and leave the chatterboxes at home.
      • If using the 300/2.8 on a 2nd body, try using a makeshift mini-shoulder brace - i.e., a Leica tabletop tripod plus a small ballhead (1.1 lb. Giotto MH-1203 655 QR ballhead) - for sharper grab shots.  
      •  To enhance beanbag stability and ease of micro-movements, add a quasi shoulder brace/panning lever.  When needed, I attach a Wimberly macro arm (just the elbow joint piece from the F2 macro flash bracket) to the camera via a 4th Generation  bi-directional plate.  I also like using Wimberly M-1's on the 70-200/1D4 combo.
      • For "shooting low directly off of the seat", the Naturescapes Skimmer Ground Pod II with risers reduces neck/shoulder strain.  The Skimmer also enhances panning from a beanbag; i.e., when tracking cheetahs hunting.


      • For "shooting directly off of the floor", the SkimmerSack beanbag works great as a lens/elbow rest with a smaller beanbag tucked under knees.  An angle finder is a nice to have too; but, I never bring mine because of the low percentage of need and because it's easy to get knock off in these conditions.
      • For "shooting subjects in trees", the 4th Generation Designs Monopod Companion with Clamp Post works great.  The companion is attached to the roll bar and locks down the monopod.  The biggest benefit is that you can extend the monopod and shoot straight up without craning your neck for longer periods of time while being stable.  The Companion only weighs 15 oz. and takes minimal packing space.  
      • Try using a monocular instead of binoculars which allows you to keep a firm, one handed grip on rigs while accessing the quality of potential shots.  I use the compact Zeiss 8x20 T monocular which only weighs 2.7 oz.  
      • Tripod 101: bring the lightest legs appropriate for your longest lens, discounted by the amount of anticipated usage and the amount/difficulty of walking.  Net:net, I never bring a tripod on safaris given my shooting priorities.  See more specifics below under Putting Photo Gear on a Diet - Ounce by Ounce.

      Positioning the Vehicle, Be Ready to Shoot in < 5 Seconds
      • The faster you can stop, the quicker you can shoot.  If your driver needs to back up, fiddle with positioning the vehicle or hesitates in turning off the motor, your subjects have either skittered away or relaxed their curious body posture - and, you've just lost direct, wide open eye contact.  And, if you're not ready to rock and roll, you just missed the shot as well.  A minute before the vehicle stops, remove noisy dry bags and have your monopod/bean bags adjusted to the right height and position.  Temporarily cover/protect your camera/lens from dust with a throw over instead.  Also, re-check/decide on your metering.  Be prepared to shoot in 5 seconds or less without swinging your big lens up in a way that startles subjects.  Also have your short lens ready for action.  A male leopard fight lasts 25 seconds or less.  If the driver is fiddling to move you to the perfect position, you just lost some great shots.  So, agree on the best case car position/nose direction in advance - even if you could get closer - and, commit so that you can start shooting ASAP with the motor turned off.  
      • There's never a perfect position when subjects are moving among shrubs or playing erratically, so think strategically and look for clear openings up ahead. Then, have your driver get 30 yards ahead in order to photograph subjects coming towards you.  If not, you'll only have seconds to shoot before it's time to move the vehicle again (bad for you and stressful for subjects).  Also have a mental plan on how you're going to shoot in multiple directions without having to move the vehicle; i.e., move your body and/or have beanbags set up on both sides of the vehicle.
      •  If subjects are nestled inside shrubs/bushes, look for potential clear openings before the driver stops the vehicle which saves precious shooting time. A bit of grass in the way?  Just shoot and use it for framing.  Then, try other positions after you're gotten some worse case shots; i.e., it's better to crop than not get the shot at all. 
      • Preferably, I like to shoot to the left, with the vehicle angled 30 degrees to the left as well (10P position) when shooting off of roll bars.  This is more comfortable on the neck/shoulders, great for left eye dominant shooters, and it avoids hitting the driver in the head with long lenses. 
      • With skittish subjects - like mothers with babies and zebras - I always start further away and slowly move closer as appropriate.  
      • With shy subjects - like near distance birds and certain antelope (kudu, nyala, klipspringer and steemboks) - I ask for the vehicle to be stopped immediately and angled 20 degrees to the left or right (since there's no time to fiddle with re-positioning the vehicle or turning it around).  
      • With subjects high up in trees - leopards, birds and monkey/baboons - shooting straight ahead (at 12 o'clock) is fine because shooters can shoot over one another; and, it's more comfortable on the back.
      • Ranger/drivers can't read your mind or predict your real-time shooting objective.  So, communicate clearly and politely before you reach your subject/s.  Hand signals - i.e., cut the motor - are more effective when there's a noisy motor or loud wind.  Be a teammate - aka don't act like a boss - as genuine respect goes a long way.  In addition, drivers respond much faster when you learn key phrases in their local language.
        • It's not a shot unless it's sharp.  And, it's not sharp unless you can print it large.  So, if it takes longer than you'd like to get set up and locked down solid, stick with the basic beanbag (the easiest) and practice with the more complex monopod combo when appropriate; i.e., while waiting around for sleeping lions to liven up.  Know that you'll get more efficient the more you practice. You don't want to be fiddling around when others are ready and trying to shoot; or, risk missing that critical magic moment.
        • Work just as hard in spotting subjects as you have a broader and higher 300 degree line of sight; whereas, ranger/drivers are concentrating on avoiding elephant/anteater pot holes, hidden rocks/logs and thorny trees branches in addition to driving smoothly on bumpy roads while trying to spot for subjects.  
        • Take turns with your buddy on scouting to the right or to the left to increase overall results.  Develop a rhythm for checking near:far and high:low.  Don't get complacent and try to be the first vehicle at a sighting.  Train your eyes to spot subjects in trees and behind bushes as you whiz on down the road (aka easy for drivers to miss). 
        • Key to success: If you have the perfect subject/s but no activity or eye contact, don't drive away.  A bird in the hand is worth it's weight in gold.  Instead, wait for a herd of elephants, baboons, giraffes, impala or hyenas to pass by - preferably behind the vehicle - which is guaranteed to give you great a photo op.  Without these distractions, you'll end up with more ho-hums.  In the meantime, chill out and pray for these attention getters.  Remain quiet so that subjects can hear their next meal and/or potential threats.  I also believe in staying at one camp versus hopping camps, visiting camps at the right time of year (i.e., weather, migration and reproduction cycle centric), learning subjects' hunting/eating/resting behavior along with their respective territories, and doing repeat visits in order to learn the terrain and roads.  Mapping out sightings and using a compass also helps to locate favorite subjects more quickly; i.e., once you learn that mother cheetahs can move  tiny cubs 3 - 5 miles in a day, you can start to anticipate their whereabouts.

        Canon 1D Mark IV:

        Getting great images isn't just about what camera and what settings.  But, since I'm always seeing forum posts about "what settings should I use?", here are my custom function settings (1Ds/1D Mark III were similar):  

        Group  I/II are all at default except I-7-1. Group III =
        • 1-0
        • 2-1  Moderately Fast  
        • 3-0  Exception: Change to Drive priority for erratic jumping/panning shots
        • 4-1  Always set in case I switch 8-0 to 8-1
        • 5-0  Exception: Change to 5-1 if hunting
        • 6-4
        • 7-0
        • 8-0  Change to 8-1 as needed for low light/low contrast
        • 9-1
        • 10-0
        • 11-2
        • 12 thru 17 = 0
        • 18    High = 10 and Low = 8
        • 19-0
        Group IV are all at default except =
        •  1-2  Switches autofocus to a back button
        •  2-1  Switches auto focus to the "*" button
        •  8-1  Settings displayed on LCD
        •  14-1 Reduces shutter lag

        One Shot Versus AI Servo
        • With the 1D Mark IV, I shoot in One Shot 90% of the time.  That's because AI Servo only kicks in at a certain speed threshold.  As a result, it's more reliable for birds in flight or running subjects than it is for slow moving subjects; especially, when shooting wide open or at narrow depths of field.  Plus for me, it never worked with low contrast, low light subjects (i.e, polar bears) and/or distant subjects that are small in the frame.  The other main reason is that auto focus locks on faster in One Shot.  And, each time I re-focus - aka pumping the "*" button in back - I know exactly what I'm focusing on; i.e., it gives me more control over depth of field and composition decisions.  Re-focusing is immediate because I have my C.fn III-2 set to Moderately Fast. 
        • So, how do I eliminate another 1 second image stabilizer delay on the lens each time that I re-focus in One Shot?  I use an unpublished trick that Chuck Westfall shared with me when the Mark III's were introduced. For those using the back "*" button, press the shutter halfway before re-pumping and this keeps IS activated.  This mitigates worrying about timing issues.  I also shorten my shutter lag to .036 seconds (from the default of .055 seconds).



        For Fast Action
        • For leopards climbing up/down trees and cheetahs running, etc., I obviously switch to AI Servo.


        • But, it's never a sure thing, so a little prayer always helps.


        1Dx Camera Settings (post 2.0.3 firmware upgrade)
        • Since getting the 1Dx, I can count on AI Servo to deliver good results; especially, because we can customize and fine-tune settings based on individual shooting preferences, skills, and subjects.  And, it's been a thrill to use AI Servo on subjects where it never worked before; i.e., on on the fur of low contrast polar bear babies in low light (when focal length/center point/composition prohibits focusing around the eye).  Plus, the ability to to see my selected AF point in AI Servo (when set to Display During Focus to Selected - Constant) makes a huge difference.  With AI Servo, I get better images than ever before albeit it's never 100% with subjects moving toward me. 
        • But, I still pump in One Shot whenever possible because I feel that I have more control (especially in low light); and, because I like that the AF indicator is more prominent. 
        • Firmware 2.0.3 promises better lowlight AI Servo focus tracking (when utilizing +2 setting under 2nd Image Focus Priority) and faster low light high speed shooting with subjects at consistent speeds (when utilizing -2 under Image Priority); but, I'm guessing that it still remains a trade off.  As a result, I only plan to use +2 Focus Priority if I have problems in low light with low contrast subjects (i.e., polar bear babies) as +1 works great for African subjects.  Since -1 speed priority always worked before the firmware update, I'm not going to tinker with what's not broke.
        • My normal default settings have been: AV, evaluative, Single Point and Case #1 with Tracking Sensitivity changed to +1, High fps, and EV +2/3.   Note: I prefer +1 Tracking Sensitivity for faster acquisition.  But, it also means faster to lose focus as well, so practice and see what works for you.  
        • In the new firmware, Accel/Decel Tracking has been tweaked to differentiate the degree of change; i.e., expect some change (+1) or expect radical change (+2).  I use 1, 0, 0 for playful cheetah and polar bear cubs; and, 1, 2, 1 for hunting cheetahs, etc.  Note: I find it easier to stay on Case #1 and re-configure characteristics manually (via My Menu shortcuts) because it's faster than switching menus with the Q button and then switching between Sports Themed Cases.
        • With the new ability to dial in EV bias in manual metering with Auto ISO, I look forward to using manual more often.  To adjust EV though, we need to program and use the SET button.  Preferably, I wish that we could program the +/- or WB button instead.
        • Post 2.0.3,  my * button is set to Start AF/metering in One Shot with my selected point (pressing Info during set-up allows you set One Shot or AI Servo, start with your selected or registered point and a Case #); and, my AF-On button is set to Start AF/metering in AI Servo with my selected point and no Case type.  This new capability is heaven sent for my style of shooting.  Note: whatever you set will supercede everything else; i.e., even if your camera is set to AI Servo, pressing the * button will focus in One Shot.  In addition, I have a Registered Set for the AF-On button which I can easily switch to as well for a 3rd scenario.  It's my Hail Chris-Mary setting: 4 pt. area, manual, 1600 - 2000 @ f/8.0, + 2/3 EV, Auto ISO, -1 2nd image priority (speed), +1 Tracking Sensitivity, +2 Accel/Decel and +1 Point Switching (i.e., for  cheetahs hunting).  This means that I can get to almost what I need in 1 step before tweaking. 
        • The DOF button is set to to Start IS when held.  This allows me to start/keep IS activated when I want to re-focus in One Shot or lock focus in AI Servo (minimizes the 1 second IS re-start delay).  Previously, the solution was to hold the shutter down halfway.  
        • The M-fn2 button is set to switch to my registered point. 
        • My Menu: I set Tracking Sensitivity, AF point switching and Acceleration/Deceleration Tracking as 3 of my 6 items so that I can change behavior on the fly for the currently selected Case without having to drill down under the Case menu. Once in the Case menu, you can quickly get to 2nd Image Priority as well.
        • Other My Menu items are: Format Card, Custom Controls, and Record Functions (for switching CF cards).  Note: Even though using the Q button is fast, I still wish that we had the ability to store a few more shortcuts under My Menu; i.e., I like things more centralized.  
        • My Multi-Controller is set for AF point direction (a press also gets us back to center), the Set button is still set to change ISO, and the M-fn button is set to AE lock.  
        • Also, I limit options to speed up on the fly changes; i.e., shooting modes are only AV, TV and M; Zone is disabled; and Low fps is set to 10 for lowlight. 
        • Obviously, I've set up the 1Dx for my objectives (minimal time away from the viewfinder) and favorite subjects, while being the most transparent when shooting along with the 1D Mark IV.  Yes, I could share more settings; but, then you'd never read or study your manual or AF Guide and Canon videos which are invaluable.  I highly recommend that you study, explore, practice, document - and, knock yourself out.  Plus, you'll learn tidbits like fps max out at 10 vs 12 when the battery is below 50%.   Here's a nice explanation of the new features in firmware 2.0.3.

        Focus Points 

        • On the Mark III/IV bodiesI never use AF expansion (C.fn III-8) except when photographing white polar bears in low light  or when panning subjects (left/right points only) for best accuracy.
        • On the 1D Mark IV, if subjects are erratic or harder to track - i.e., hawks zigzagging before diving into water or hippos flipping their heads back - I switch to Auto/45 in AI-Servo (initiating focus with the center point).  Whenever I sense that the camera might have lost focus - i.e., the subject's body moved outside of the ring of fire (focus point area) - then, I re-pump to be safe.  
        • On the1Dx, my default is Single Point and I rarely switch to Single Point-Spot or 4 Point Expansion (to big of an area).  Note: This camera sensor is more bullish in looking for detail and contrast.  So, whenever more than 1 point is selected, the sensor could/will lock on something in front of the intended focus point. Even though I haven't had the need to use Auto/61, the good news is that we can start focus with our selected point of choice.  If needed, my plan would be to start with Single Point when the subject is small in the frame, re-pump to assist the camera, and then switch to Auto/61 at the last moment (would reset the DOF button beforehand).  With the 2.0.3 firmware update, you can tell the camera to start from your user selected point, or the one that the camera was using before you switched over.

        Selectable AF Points
        • With all Canon cameras: I select my own focus point and try to use focus points that are cross hairs because they're more sensitive and accurate.  Note: on the 1Dx, you can set Selectable AF Point(s) to the 41 available cross hairs (AF #4) so that you no longer have to memorize or think about it.  Or, you can display all 61 points and select from the cross hairs while ignoring the blinking non-cross haired points.  In addition, there are several diagonal cross points which are activated when using lenses f/2.8 and faster. 
        • Note: alway try to focus directly on the imaginary cross hair - vertical or horizontal lines - that dissect a focus square.  And because vertical lines extend outside of focus squares, be aware that the sensor could focus on something with more contrast outside of the focus square.  
        • Net:net: when I see more than one square light up when I'm in Single point, that's a clue for me re-acquire focus.  I also know that if I focus on something with little to no contrast - i.e., polar bear babies with branches in the foreground - there's a high risk of the sensor focusing on the foreground even when I'm in Single point.   

        Metering and White Balance
        • I use AV + 2/3 -1 EV (more if everything is snow white) so that I expose all the way to the right.  That's because one stop of underexposure - i.e., the right column in your histogram - is equivalent to throwing away 1/2 of the available pixels for editing.  I then fix my exposure, tonality and mood in post processing which results in cleaner files.  This way, my subjects are less muddy, especially when they're in shade.  
        • If shooting subjects in trees with the sun behind them (aka in shade), I ignore highlight blinkies that come from areas that will be cropped out of the final image.  I also add a gentle touch of fill flash with a bounce card when possible. 
        • I always use Daylight white balance.  Previously, I used Shade because I prefer the warmer tones of cinema film.  However, I find that I get cleaner files if I shoot in Daylight, neutralize color balance with an eyedropper, warm up the tone, and then remove color casts as needed in Lightroom.  Also, Daylight gives me more post-processing consistency over Auto WB.   
        • I shoot in raw, of course.
        • Bracketing is set to 1/3 increments. And a quick HDR sans tripod technique is: One shot, LiveView, bracket = 5 and 2 second timer.  This eliminates mirror slap in between.

        ISO/Noise
        • I'm still happiest with my file quality when I shoot at ISO 400 or below, and that includes the 1Dx as well.  Even though I shoot to the right to eliminate as much noise in the shadows as possible, I'm still seeing too much noise with the 1Dx for my taste.  Since I normally must shoot at ISO 800 or higher (to keep shutter speeds up), minimizing noise takes more time and effort in post-processing.  
        • My high ISO noise issue:  When I shoot with a shallow depth of field, foliage gets mushy or painterly aka distracting.  If I shoot with more depth of field, dry grasses get crunchy when sharpened - i.e. halos.  Plus, files look more muddy (green color cast from foliage).  Note: As a result, I never sharpen in Lightroom and only do a small luminous noise adjustment; i.e., 3 - 4.  After I import into Photoshop, I use NoiseWare and then do import sharpening.  Then comes the tedious part: I never sharpen grass, foliage, the background or sky aka I mask them out hair by hair.  Note: sharpening foliage makes reflections hotter (brighter) which distracts in my opinion (unless it's part of the story).  Net:net: I shoot comfortably up to ISO 3200 with the 1Dx albeit I'm still bothered by luminous noise.  
        • It's alway a struggle between better file quality or getting the shot.  That's because whenever I push ISO to 3200, I grumble, whine and kick myself while editing.  I would've missed this rare Indian leopard if I didn't use ISO 3200 with the1D Mark IV.  The leopard was barely visible and my shutter speed was down to 1/15 at f/4 aka no man's land.  But, I lucked out with a few shots because the leopard wasn't moving.  With this leopard mom carrying her cub, it worked because there was filtered morning light.  And with the cheetah babies that I'm working on, it was ISO 3200 or no dice because they were so active.
        • Important: When buying a new camera, test it and learn it thoroughly before going out on safari as every model has it's nuances; such as, 1) some perform better at 1/3 ISO stops as opposed to whole stops which I use, 2) cross hairs vary, and 3) custom functions are different, etc.  Nothing is worse than leaving awesome photo ops on the table because settings weren't optimized, or having a camera that is plagued with error 99/80 or focus issues.  
        • 1Dx file quality:  I love this camera for shooting but don't feel that the files are as three dimensional as the 1Ds Mark.  Maybe it's because I've only had a chance to shoot in low contrast light and/or because of the smaller sensor size.  On the upside, I find that images rez up nicely, even over 100%. 

        To/From the Land Rover or Jeep:
        • To the vehicle, I carry the 500mm lens/body covered in a dry sack and the 70-200mm/2nd body in a ThinkTank Glass Taxi.  On the way back, I hand carry the 2nd rig too because I like to clean things up before putting gear away.
        • For rain protection on open vehicles, I use 35/55L Outdoor Research Durable Dry Sacks because they last the longest in terms of water/moisture seepage prevention.  They also have webbing on the side so that it's easy to anchor them to roll bars using straps.  They do, however, weigh 7 oz. and take longer to dry in heavier rain (waterlogged albeit moisture doesn't get inside).  
        • For dust protection, I've been using Outdoor Research's Ultralight DryPack Liners which weigh 3.0 - 3.6 oz.  I buy dry sacks oversized - aka 35/45/55L - because it's faster to whip cameras in and out, to fold them over several times in dust/rain, and to protect the Glass Taxi if it starts raining.  I've since upgraded to the lighter weight Ultralight Dry Sacks because they come in a more subtle gray color and weigh 2.5 - 2.9 oz.  The 45/55L also fits the 800mm/body/1.4x extender combo (with hood reversed); and, the 1.9 oz 15L graphic sack makes a nice companion day bag for storing clothing layers.  For 'tweeners - i.e., when not driving around - I switch to an REI backpack cover for even faster speed.  Note: I tried using the lightweight 3 oz. Sea to Summit PackCover which is like a giant shower cap that fits up to a 500mm/body plus 1.4x III.  But, I found that my system works faster.  After each trip, I fill dry sack/backpack covers with water in the tub - to check for water/moisture seepage - and replace them as needed.
        • For my day bag, I use the Glass Taxi which has an amazing capacity for a small, 2 lb. footprint.  With a Test Drive bag attached, it holds my 2nd body with 70-200 and 1.4x extender, spare batteries, a shorter lens, sun hat and bandana, flash, battery pack, diffuser, remote cables, map/compass, sunglasses, P&S or camcorder, StormJacket rain covers, straps, another dry sack, Zing neoprene pouches, rocket dust blower, dust brush, Q tips, AA batteries, headlamp, microfiber towel, fix-it tools, leatherman, nuts, water enhancer, sunscreen, SunX towelettes, BugX/Ben's Deet wipes, tissue/Wet Ones, first aid stuff, ginger chews, eye drops and an extra top layer; plus, gloves, hat and neck gator in winter months.  Tools and personal items are organized in a lightweight mesh.  I tried using a cheapo lightweight backpack but found that the Glass Taxi made it faster to organize and find things. The Glass Taxi also protects gear when checked in soft sided duffels.  I don't use my air travel camera bag - the GuraGear Bataflae 26L - for game drives because I like to keep it clean.
        • Note: If sunscreen or deet are getting on LCDs/camera grips from your nose or fingers, clean up often throughout the day with a microfiber towel to prevent damage.
        • Straps, straps and more straps: camera and lenses are tucked inside dry sacks or pack covers, and then anchored to the roll bar on the back of my seat with buckle straps.  The straps keep gear from crashing to the ground during sudden stops and/or bumping against each other Prior to anchoring down my gear, I struggled with holding cameras/lenses on my lap without dinging them, causing more tense shoulders, neck and arm strain.  Buy buckle straps at your local camping store or find a nice variety here at strapworks.  To buffer vibrations, I use a small beanbag under the hood of my long lens and camp blankets under the cameras. 
        • Triple rain protection: Having dry sacks and backpack covers on hand provide double protection when sitting in light rain.  For heavier downpours,  I also use Pro Storm Jacket Telephoto covers.
        • My comfy little strap secret: Typically, one holds onto to the roll bar for stability when drivers are speeding around like race car drivers.  For height constrained folks, this means that your shoulders are hunched slightly forward and are not braced against the back of the seat.  Instead, I prefer to hold onto a strap anchored to the roll bar behind me.  This way, my body and shoulders are planted to the seat and there's much less jarring when hitting potholes.  And, when I loop my arm completely through the strap (often modified with a 2nd short strap), I can lean forward and do side:side180 turns for more effective game spotting. 
        • I also strap 1-2 small Zing neoprene pouches to the roll bar for fast access to eyeglasses, a monocular and P&S camera/camcorder in lieu of wearing overstuffed vests.  For eyeglasses, I also use a lanyard flip top hard case which I wrap around the roll bar.   
        • Back on the home front: after returning home, everything is ceremoniously washed down in the bathtub - the Glass Taxi, dry sacks, pouches, beanbags, straps and Eagle Creek cubes et. al - as they are filthy with dust/dirt and potential hitchhikers, etc.  My worst fear is bringing home a batch of giant orb spider eggs (or ticks).

        Evening Routine on Auto-Pilot
        • Download compact flash cards to a laptop.  With the 11" Macbook Air, I use Hoodman USB 3.0 readers (plus carry a spare SanDisk FW800 reader and Thunderbolt:FW800 adapter just in case).   
        • Verify that folder sizes (bytes) match up 100% before copying to two portable drives. 
        • Do a quick image audit (see next topic).  
        • Top off batteries to avoid having to charge from empty and having potential conflicts with generator/travel schedules.
        • Format cards and re-set camera settings; i.e., back to card slot 1 on the 1Dx. 
        • To learn more about field back up tactics and archival strategy, go to Backing Up in the Trenches - My Workflow towards the bottom of this page.
        • Note: be aware that electrical currents from shared camp generators or overloaded lodge circuits may not be as strong as when testing laptops/devices at home; meaning that: a) it may take longer to charge your batteries and laptops, b) too many devices can blow out circuits, and c) you may not be able to complete your nightly back-ups as quickly as planned.  So, set priorities especially when two shooters are sharing a room.  For example, I make sure that everything is backed up before doing any importing in Lightroom; and, I always top off camera batteries nightly as opposed to waiting until they're drained.  This is even more important with the 1Dx as fps drop to 10 if the battery is less than 50%.  Also, I always unplug everything as soon as I'm done; including, the surge protector.  And, when there's an on/off switch, I remove Canon batteries from the charger before shutting off.  That's because AC interruptions will trigger the calibration lights which is a royal pain in the neck.
        • Remove dust from camera and lenses with a Giotto Q Ball Air blower, a small generic paint brush, and a Giotto Retractable Goat brush plus gray cloth for the lens front.  Then, wipe everything down with a damp towel Note: In India and at some U.S. airports, Giotto's Large Rocket Air blower could get confiscated when going through checked bag security because of it's shape.  Smaller rocket blowers don't work in dusty environments, so the Q ball is a good option.  My current tactic is to place the Q ball in a  baggie (tip bent over) and put it right on top inside a checked duffel.  Inside the baggie is a friendly note that says: "This is just an air blower to clean the front of my lenses and inside my cameras on African safaris where there's a ton of dust.  Please allow and thanks in advance".  I started this tactic in 2011 and since then, TSA stopped opening my checked bags.
        • In moderately dusty environments, blow out the inside of cameras with the Q blower to avoid having to do wet sensor cleanings in the field.  If there's dust on the sensor, inspect it with a Visible Dust Mini Quasar 7x sensor loupe and do a manual sensor clean with the blower only.  Note: I never travel with the loupe's original case (quite large).  Instead, I place the loupe in a small Hakuba CF case.
        • Verify that the All Terrain foot, HoodEyes, BlackRapid straps and other caps/screws/bolts are still on and screwed tight.  Do minor repairs as needed.  If there's moisture or rain, store cameras with Zorb-It packs in a baggie (or use rice in a pinch).  Note:  HoodEyes/Canon Eg eyecups are prone to tearing, so I always carry a back-up.  Also, Hoodman loupes tend to break from the lanyard.  As a result, I reinforce with a small plastic tie and threaded dental floss. 
        • Replenish supplies - AA batteries and sunscreen/bug/handy wipes, etc. - and make adjustments to what's carried out to the vehicles; i.e., rain covers, straps, clothing - or not.  I keep a simple checklist visible so that I don't forget important items; and, to help document my workflow for the next trip. 
        • Force myself to get into bed early as 11 - 12 hour days in the field can be draining.  Also, promise myself to drink more water the next day.
        • On the last eve, all the gear is wiped down with a damp towel and dry sacks are rinsed so that items are relatively clean upon return home.  Empty bean bags, dirty straps, dust covers and pouches are consolidated into one dry sack. 
        Quick Audit of Images:
        • My priority is to analyze what's working or not in terms of my technique; i.e., camera support tactics and sharpness, metering, depth of field decisions and camera settings.  I emphasize the word "quick" because if not, 2 -3 hours will blow on by; and, it'd be way past a decent bedtime for getting up at 5:30 - 6A in the morning.
        • Until late 2012, I used an inexpensive fast and simple drag/drop browser called Microsoft's Expression Media 2 (use to be iview Media Pro) because Lightroom takes so long to see 1:1 previews for judging critical sharpness in images.  After a quick look:see in Expression, I'd start importing raw folders into Lightroom for initial best of ratings and collections, etc.  
        • Now, I use Photo Mechanic 5 as my front end to Lightroom. Photo Mechanic 5 is wicked fast and it can be set up so that Previews (same as Loupe in LR) fill the entire screen (important when using a 11.6" Macbook Air).  The preview zooming size can be pre-set and then increased/decreased by simply hitting "z" and/or changed in increments with "option or z" plus the "+/-" keys.  A double/single click gets you back:forth between Previews and the Contact sheet (same as Grid in LR).  And, it's easy to learn assuming that you understand a bit about Lightroom file behavior.  Here's a quick intro tutorial and a more in depth tutorial on how to integrate Photo Mechanic with your Lightroom workflow.  
        • I strictly use Photo Mechanic for quick audits, separate from Lightroom.  The integrated method is to re-named raw folders during Photo Mechanic's import step (known as Ingest) which are then dragged into Lightroom (on the dock) for importing.  In Photo Mechanic, any captions, copyright info, keyboards or number/color ratings, if done, can be saved to .xmp files which are then stored in the raw folder.  Sport shooters and journalists love PM because the input window is much larger and easier to access/see than in LR.  If you set up colors and descriptions for numbers 6, 7 and 8 in PM to match LR, the color info will carry over during the LR import.  Ditto for 1 - 5 ratings (in PM, you need to press "fn" plus the number).  In Catalog, press "fn plus the up/down" arrows to scroll through pages. And unlike LR, Photo Mechanic will play your video files.  
        • If you make keyword corrections to files in LR (and your catalog setting is √'d to automatically write changes into .xmp), these changes -  i.e., key words - will show up in PM as well (learn how to via the Dan Cox tutorial linked above). 
        •  Note: you can get a 15% Photo Mechanic discount code from NAPP. 
        • I don't cull images with Photo Mechanic or Lightroom in the field because I can't really analyze critical focus points/ sharpness; or, assess the sharpness of hairs in areas that are most important on a small 11" notebook.  Unless it's an obvious user error, I wait until I'm cozy with a 30" monitor before making culling decisions.  If I tossed every unsharp image, I'd never know if it's a user error or a camera calibration problem that needs to be fixed.
        • Plus, an eyeball is not an eyeball until it's viewed on a large monitor.  The normal rule of thumb is that the 2nd or 3rd image in a burst will be the sharpest because releasing the shutter sometimes causes camera vibration.  However, this doesn't always coincide with the best gesture or when a subject's eyes are the most open or when the pupils are pointing in the most ideal direction.  And in my scorebook, it's all about the eyes.
        • I know my keeper rate and as focus points get soft, I send camera bodies/lenses in for servicing and calibration.  I prefer sending gear in via Canon's CPS Gold program, as opposed to doing user micro-adjustments, because wildlife subjects are never positioned at the same distance; and, one needs to assume a set distance when micro-adjustments are made for a given lens.  

        Packing List - All the Other Stuff (Tailored by Trip)
        Updated 8.25.14
        • Dust/Rain/Snow Gear Protection: Outdoor Research Ultralight dry sacks, Optec/LensCoat neoprene lens and body covers, Zing neoprene pouches, buckle straps, Storm Jackets for camera/lenses 1-2 sizes larger than recommended, ThinkTank/GuraGear rain covers, and trash bags, etc.
        • Gear Cleaning: microfiber towels (various sizes), Q tips, Giotto retractable goat brush, a small paint brush, Giotto Q Ball Air blower*, Arctic Butterfly II, Visible Dust mirror brush, RayVu/Formula MC Lens Cleaner, gray microfiber clothes, iKlear LCD/laptop/iphone cleaner packets, alcohol packets, Visible Dust 7x Mini Loupe, 30x jewelers' LED loupe, Barnes & Noble pull out magnifier light and eyeglass/iphone cleaning clothes. * Note: The Q Ball replaced my larger Rocket blower after I was stopped by security in India. It's less intimidating when the nozzle is bent over, I put it in a baggie with a TSA note, leave it on top of my duffel; and now, TSA never opens my checked luggage.
        • Travel Protection: ThinkTank Glass Taxi (also serves as a day bag), Tucano neoprene portable drive cases, SunCloud and plastic eyeglass cases for flash drives/adapters/cables, LensCoat neoprene Travel Coats, Giotto microfiber lens pouches, cardboard camera bag brace, ThinkTank flash pouch, mini Rimowa case (fits 3 portable drives or the Canon 1Dx charger), medium/large Zing neoprene pouches (protects RRS monopod head/leveler and Gitzo monopod for travel), Zorb-It dehumidifier packets), Fragile labels, and TSA note explaining the rocket blower (always packed on top)
        • Primary Shooting Tools: 500mm/4 IS lens, 70-200mm/2.8 V.2 IS lens, 1.4x III teleconverter, 640GB stash of CF cards, remote camera switch (2), HoodEyes (2) plus spare Canon eyepiece, LensCoat lens covers, molar beanbags (SkimmerSack/Wildlife Imaging and a smaller custom size), Wimberley M-1 (2), Wimberley M-4 macro arm (shoulder brace/panning handle), a Gitzo GT5541LS/GT3540 tripod or Gitzo GM-5561T monopod, RRS monopod head w/ RRS leveling base, 4th Generation Mongoose w/L plate or a Wimberly II, Zeiss 8 x 20 monocular, All Terrain Foot and spare Gitzo foot, spare Gitzo rubber caps, 4th Generation bi-directional camera plates, a local map and pocket compass, 580 flash, Demp flash reflector, Demp flash diffuser, CPE-2 battery pack, AA batteries, Hoodman loupe, spare 77mm lens cap, spare body cap, Nikon flash shoe covers, long/short buckle straps, shoe strings, carabiners, BlackRapid or UP straps, and my depth of field cheat sheet, etc.  
        • Camcorder or small camera: Sony GW77V camcorder, batteries (5), travel charger (1/3), micro-SDHC adapter (2) and 32GB microSDHC Class 10 cards (5); or, Pany LX5 or Canon S95, batteries (2), charger, and 16GB SDHC cards (3) and USB 3.0 reader (Hoodman readers also have SDHC slots).  Optional Pany accessories: 21mm Voigtlander optical viewfinder, FL200 flash or LitePanel. 
        • Packing Aids: Eagle Creek Specter packing cubes (labeled with yellow electrical tape), REI dry sacks for separating shoes/laundry, Eagle Creek compressor baggies for reducing space, colored see-through mesh zip pouches, large/medium baggies, and sandwich/pill baggies.
        • Image Back-up Tools: Hoodman USB 3.0 CF/SD card readers w/updated firmware and Hoodman cables (2), Verbatim 1TB USB 3.0/FW800 portable drives (2), Patriot SuperSonic Magnum flash drives (256GB x 3,128GB x 2), Patriot SuperSonic Rage (64GB for video) and  diagnostic/photo software (32GB flash). Also a HooToo 4 port USB 3.0 hub (HT-UH002) in case I need to transfer images from one thumb drive to another (4 oz, 34" cord, detachable A/C brick, and ports on 3 sides to accommodate space hogging Patriot drives) or the Satachi 4 port hub (3 oz, attached 12" cord, bus powered only).  Set of Verbatim cables and ultra thin, 12" USB 3.0 Monoprice cables for back-up.
        • Fix it Tools: Fenix PD22 (1) and E05 flashlights (2), Princeton/Black Diamond Spot headlamps (2), Barnes & Noble pull out magnifier for splinters, pointed tweezers, Squirt S4 Leatherman w/scissors, Sears Craftman 4 way keyring screwdriver, white eraser, small channel pliers, Canon 2.0mm and 2.5mm screwdrivers (Japanese blades), the correct L wrenches, a General multi screwdriver pen, spare RRS/4th Gen/Gitzo screws and bolts, ties/rubber bands, zipper wax, single use loctite/gum drop semi-permanent glue (2), single use crazy glue (2), rubber jar remover, a lens pen, alcohol packets, egrips, my Troubleshooting cheat sheet, and pre-cut reflective Kelty cord.  
        • Godsend Tape: mini roll of yellow electrical, pre-cut duct/gaffers/electrical tape strips spread out in various bags, a mini scotch tape, Nathan's neon tape and cloth tape to protect finger scrapes.
        • Electrical: EuroSurge 1,200 joule surge protector, Monster Outlets to Go 4 plug power strip, Int'l plug adapters (2 sets), a small North America plug extender for airport lounges and a PowerGen 12W/2.4A dual USB auto charger.
        • Apple Paraphernalia: 12W Apple charger plus the original iphone 5 charger/cable and ipad mini Retina10W charger/cable, a 6" lightning cable, lightning adapter, microfiber screen cleaners, thunderbolt:firewire adapter (2), thunderbolt:ethernet adapter; HooToo USB 3.0 4 port hub (allows using the Macbook Air as a bridge to transfer files from one wide Patriot drive to another while still being plugged in), Just Mobile Gum 6000 mAh 2.5A input/output battery pack with mini Belkin cables (2), NewTrent and no name stylus pens (3), Wacom Creative stylus, Ultimate Ear SuperFi 10/5 earphones (2) plus extras (Filo cable, Comfy tips and angled jack extender), Macbook Air chargers (2) with only one of the extenders, MagSafe adapter and euro headset jacks (3).  Note: the Apple 12W charging brick charges the iphone much faster than the A/C adapter that shipped with the iphone (a godsend for quick airport layovers).  
        • Note: all things new or altered - i.e., every cable, cord, hub, portable drive, flash drive, screws, caps/covers, adapters, batteries, chargers, memory cards, readers and plates, etc. - are tested in advance (used and connected as if in the field) to avoid Murphy's Law.
        • Battery Arsenal: camera bodies (4), camcorder (3), point and shoot (2), CamRanger wireless trigger (2), AA (Canon flash and power packs) plus RadioShack tester, AAA (clock), CR2025 (Canon and Visible Dust), CR2032 (head lamps), CR123 (Fenix flashlight) and LR41 (keychain lights).   
        • Security and Speed Aids: PacSafe TSA luggage straps (2), TSA luggage locks (2 spares), REI calf wallet (2), hidden address luggage tags plus spares, PacSafe retractable TSA Extender lock, large/small luggage ties, Samsonite luggage cart, zipper pulls (zipquix, niteize and Sargent knots), Streamlight nano/egear Pico keychain lights on lanyards or wrist straps (a bunch), carabiners, RFID passport and credit card sleeves, plastic sleeves in various sizes, mesh pouches in various sizes, and dry bags to hide valuables in checked luggage.  Note: rooms in safari camps are often dark and it's hard to see TSA lock numbers.  So, I like Brookstone's Big Digit locks because numbers are white on black aka much easier to see than silver on silver when using flashlights. 
        • Personal: Safari watch (tritium illuminated), Biobands for motion sickness (3), Cocoon travel pillow, travel clock, mini temperature gauge, several nail clippers, keychain flashlights (in every bag, on lanyards), scissors to cut ties/tags and keychain thermometer; eye glasses (lighter weight plastic cases, screwdriver, a lanyard case to wrap around a roll bar, cleaning packets and microfiber cloths); foldable travel tote (Flip & Tumble Lightweight Travel bag w/zippers); writing/tips: small moleskin notebooks, colored index cards, mini sticky pad, tip planners and envelops, mini metric and money charts, Sharpies, fat Sharpie, silver labeling pen and name/address labels, rubber bands and paper clips; cleaning: woolite soap packets, Dryall spot cleaning pen, mini sewing kit, velcro, a clothes line, rubber drain stopper and Mephisto shoe brush; bug/germ fighters: sanitizer gel and packets, Ben's deet spray and packets, non-deet spray, fly swatter, SeaSummit mosquito head net, shower flip flops, StingStop, AfterBite, emergency OTC and prescription meds, alcohol packets, peroxide, slant/pointed tweezers, topical staph antibiotic, Jarrow blister sealed probiotics (25 mil), SteriPEN Freedom UV water purifier, Nalgene bottle, Nalgene cup, rubber glove, mini pill organizers and spare ziplock/pill baggies); snacks: small KleanKanteen, Nalgrene bottle lanyard, nuts, turkey jerky, Detour/Kind protein bars, ginger chews and Starbucks coffee packets; dust/grime/harsh water fighters: extra shampoo and conditioner, facial cleansing towels and toners, extra eye drops for game drives, nail brush, microfiber hair towel and travel hair dryer; sun damage prevention: physical sunscreens with a high a % of zinc/titanium oxide (Elta MD/SunForgettable), SPF shirts w/side vents, wide sun hat, sun gloves and bandanas; and, stay comfy under the sun: dual alligator clip lanyards (handy for clipping a napkin to hats and much cooler than SPF gaiters) and strips of Frogg Togg cooling towel. Lastly: disposable toothbrushes, single packet floss, Afrin/Sudafed and ShowerPills for air travel days; and, kleenex packs, daily meds, eyeglasses, vitamins, sundries and cosmetics. 
        • Note: all packets are tested to insure that they're not dried out; and, all meds and personal products are replaced before expiration dates.
        • Sub-Zero Temps: rubber bumpers for shutter buttons, D rings sewn onto parkas and carabiners for hanging mitts, a generic tool to open battery/card compartments, hand warmer pouch sewed into a fleece cap to keep camera batteries warm, spare neoprene lens/camera covers (in case something drops in snow or blows away in gale winds), boxes of Super Hot Hand warmers plus insoles, extra fleece hoodies to double up as needed, a carabiner watch, and a dry sack tucked inside a L611 Kinesis Long Lens case. TBD: a squeegee for removing frost/ice from viewfinders (something better than Q-tips, fingertips or a pen cap). 
        • Other Shooting Tools (as needed): wide and macro lenses, CamRanger, polarizers, Lee filters, angle finder, lighting reflectors, 2x extender, 4th Generation Safari Companion, Naturescapes skimmer with extenders, Leica Tabletop tripod with small ballhead (quasi shoulder brace), kneelons and walking stool/stick, etc.

        Tips for working on a 11" Macbook Air (Mountain Lion/Mavericks):

        • Make friends with Apple keyboard shortcuts; especially, the fn + up/down arrow keys for scrolling pages.  
        • To zoom your screen in and out: 1) press Option/Command + 8, 2) Option/Command + =/- keys (as set up in System Preferences/Accessibility), 3) or pinch the trackpad out/in using 2 fingers.  Note: if you're using a Mighty Mouse, then go to systems preferences and set up Smart zoom which allows you to double-tap on the mouse with one finger. 
        • Increase the size of a window by clicking the expand arrows on the top right hand corner of a window; and press escape to get your menu, bookmarks and url input box back.  
        • Command + up/down arrows moves up or down one visible section at a time; whereas, fn + right/left arrows takes you to Home (top of the page) or the bottom of a page.  
        • In Lightoom, everything appears to work the same as in Snow Leopard; i.e., shift-tab hides all panels versus f5, f6 and f7 one at a time, full screen is the letter f, lights out is the letter l, option/command + 1 takes you to Library mode, d gets you to develop mode, g gets you to grid mode, and e gets you back to loupe view, yada, yada. 
        • With ML/Mavericks, you need to use Photoshop CS6 because the OS's new GateKeeper won't let CS5 install (unless you implement some workarounds).  Until the Air, I never really appreciated CS6's new panel layouts.
        • In Safari, go back or forward a page using command + [ or ] keys (unlike the delete key in Snow Leopard).  This is a good thing since it's too easy to delete items in other programs when not thinking clearly.  Or, you can press the trackpad with 2 fingers and select back or forward.
        • In Photo Mechanic, hide the Toolbar via View > Hide toolbar.  Also remember to purge your Disk and Memory cache under Preferences. Toggle from the Contact Sheet (same as Grid in LR) to Preview Mode (same as Loupe in LR) by clicking the trackpad.  Hide/regain panels with the f key and if needed, press r to get  panels back.  Press z to see your pre-set zoom size and increase/decrease the size with z (or option) + =/- keys.  Or, zoom within a thumbnail on the contact sheet by setting View > Cursor Mode > Loupe and then hitting the spacebar (or clicking) while on a thumbnail.  Command + k opens the keyword window.  Tag and remove tags on previews with t (or command plus +/- keys) and select all tags with command + t.  Command + m renames a file, and the rest is similar to Apple's shortcut (command + a equals select all, command+  i equals info, etc.
        • For USB 3.0 devices, use the cable that shipped with your device to avoid headaches.  Also, update firmware as available; i.e., for UDMA 7 cards.
        • Regarding the Air's battery life and other workflow tips, there's more info below under the Putting Computer Gear on a Diet section.

        The Count Down (One Month Before):

        • Update my Master Pack and Prep List. 
        • Make sure that camera bodies and lenses have been serviced as needed.  If cameras are serviced, re-check all settings as they're often changed.
        • Research firmware updates before installing. 
        • Obtain visas and insure that I have enough blank pages in my passport.
        • Verify that immune shots are current; i.e., flu shots yearly and a typhoid booster every 2 years.  Note: always complete at least 2 weeks before travel to avoid reactions.
        • Purchase any sundries, medications or photo tools that need replenishing.   Check all expiration dates as now is not the time that I want over the counter meds, emergency antibiotics, sanitizers and sunblocks, etc. to perform at less than 100%.
        • Look for more ways to downsize weight ounce by ounce; and more ways to increase workflow efficiency/speed while minimizing hiccups.
        • Start setting aside crisp/unmarked $1's, $5's and $10's for tips in countries where U.S. currency is accepted.
        • Start cleaning up desktop/laptop computers to make space for new image folders and trip edits.  Also, clear out old email. 
        • Clear the cache (in all browsers) and delete all unwanted cookies aka 95% of them.  If browsers are running slow, reset them as well.  
        • Order portable drives, flash drives and compact flash as needed for the trip; and, archival hard drives if more space is needed for backing-up upon return home.
        • Update all software including emergency tools; such as, DiskWarrior, PhotoRescue, DataRescue and Drive Genius.  Run Disk Utility's Repair Permissions before and after every install.  Note: if upgrading Photoshop or Lightroom, remember to re-check preferences and color settings because sometimes they get nuked.  To optimize Photoshop's performance, see Diglloyd's Mac Performance Guide/Photoshop CS5 along with his CS6 advice; such as, this one with regards to GPU enabled.  Also, E.J. Peiker wrote a nice tutorial on how to use PhotoRescue for CF/SD cards many moons ago.  His process gives you a general idea on how to avoid image recovery pitfalls when using other image recovery software as well.
        • Run Disk Utility's Verify Disk on the laptop and repair as needed.  It's also a good time to run a diagnostic program - like Onyx on travel and home computers - to insure that all are healthy and are void of hidden cache files which hog up space.
        • Maximize laptop space by clearing all images and LR libraries not related to the upcoming trip.  Worse case, delete 1:1 previews.
        • Update a dedicated flash drive with photo/diagnostics software.  I use an old 32GB USB 2.0 Patriot Rage drive which includes all software, manuals, troubleshooting notes and serial numbers.  To troubleshoot a Mac, disconnect all peripherals, check systems preferences, repair permissions, verify the disk, toss out suspect preferences and zap the pram. Worst case, un-install and reinstall suspect applications.  
        • Update a dedicated flash drive with my Documents, itunes and desktop folders.  I use a 128GB USB 3.0 Patriot Supersonic Magnum drive which allow me to remove these folders from the laptop in a nano-second when I need more space for images. 
        • Finalize all decisions on hardware/software upgrades and photography gear.  Test every new purchase for reliability and compatibility; and, add name labels. 
        • Make the time to read manuals and thoroughly learn new cameras and software, etc.

        Creative Goals and Depth of Field:
        • Make clear, specific goals for every trip aka be on a mission. Define and prioritize who and what you want to photograph. This helps in making difficult lens choices; i.e., the high priorities vs. the nice to have (seen a zillion times).  
        • Review depth of field charts - by camera, focal length, f-stop and shooting distance -  and do a mental dry run.  My belief is that everyone needs to build their own DOF cheat sheet because style is very personal and the process helps you to memorize DOF tradeoffsYou can get depth of field info at DOFMaster (tables, an online calculator or their iphone app) or at nikonians.org  (per Chuck Westfall, I use COC .023 for the 1D4 and .030 for the 1Ds3 aka full frame).
        • This prep step warms up the thinking cap - getting one to think about what worked and didn't work on previous trips.  It makes me go back and analyze exposure settings on favorite images and what went wrong on sub-par images aka learn from my mistakes.  This helps me to define what I want to do differently on the next trip.  
        • Which body on which lens can make a difference in end results, so yet another thing to think though.  As someone who doesn't like to switches bodies on game drives because of dust, I try to plan out my strategy beforehand.  For example, at 30 feet, DOF is 7 inches on a full frame body/500mm @ f/8 and only 4 inches with the 1D4.  But a 300mm hooked to a full frame is 9.6 inches @ f/4 and 14 inches at f/5.6 (so more forgiving)
        • Stop down - or not?  Many newbies are told to stop way down when using a telephoto at near minimum distance.  But in my view, depth of field gain is minimal while the shutter speed drop is dramatic.  For example, on a 1D4 and 500mm at 10 yards, the gain per stop is only one inch.  Besides, a narrow depth of field makes the eyes pop and provide more shutter speed without having to crank up the ISO.   But, that's just me. 

        • Group shots: It's difficult to capture a group of subjects when using super-telephoto lenses as physics is not in our favor unless subjects are all standing on the same plane at a distance.  So, focus on isolations or just enjoy the moment.
        • 500mm on a 1.3x body will have shallower DOF than on a full frame body when shot at the same distance (even less on a 1.6x body).  That's why full frame images look more 3 dimensional to me than 1D Mark IV images.  
        • Timing, timing, timing: When watching wildlife documentaries, movies or videos, mentally practice shutter release timing and adjusting camera settings so that everything is on auto-pilot.  In fact, you can learn a lot from most any movie that you watch in terms of lighting, framing, focal points, depth of field, color, tonality, style and mood.  Even going back through your point and shoot videos can help in setting up your SLR; i.e., watching the erratic movements of my babies leopards here.  
        • A cheetah will reach top speeds - 65 mph - in only 3 seconds.  If you're after that shot, make sure that you've memorized your "best case" camera settings and are ready for timing the shot at the right moment without hitting the buffer.  You can review a cheetah's stride here.  

        The Full-Court Press (5 Days Before Departure):
        Updated 10.13.14
        • Re-check all camera custom function settings. 
        • Check for last minute firmware and software updates.
        • Top off camera batteries and/or calibrate as indicated.
        • Re-format CF/SD cards, portable drives and flash drives. 
        • Clean lenses, drop down filters and camera sensors.
        • Identify the number of AA, AAA and miscellaneous batteries needed and test them before packing. 
        • Test screws and re-pack fix-it tools (see my Check Your Screws and Words of Wisdoms post).
        • Test prongs and pack 2 sets of international plug adapters (one set in carry on and one in checked luggage).
        • Drain/refresh batteries on the iphone and Mobile Gum batteries.  
        • Download Kindle books and Apple movies/TV series to the iphone and ipad mini Retina.
        • Figure out tips and cash requirements and get crisp/unmarked bills in the denominations needed from the bank.  Separate tips from emergency travel cash and pack in color coded mesh pouches. 
        • Figure out how much to convert to foreign currency upon arrival and in what bill denominations.  Note: hotels have minimal bill denominations on weekends and it's worse if arriving on a Sunday.  Pack more than one ATM card to avoid gotchas when networks don't work or when a card doesn't participate on the ATM's network.  Also print wallet sized currency converter charts (to avoid unnecessary AT&T roaming charges).
        • Review airport layouts for lounges and ATM locations; i.e., in Johannesburg, ATMs are only located in the Domestic terminal B, lower level.
        • Update my CJ Lists folder which includes all travel references; such as, hardware and software serial numbers, equipment replacement value, Canon custom functions settings, Canon lenses depth of field charts, shooting cheat sheet, equipment manuals, my Apple/Photo gear troubleshooting cheat sheet, keyboard shortcuts, purchase receipts, medications and prescriptions #'s, medical history, credit card customer service #'s (plus  bank customer service #'s for countries visited), air/hotel reservations #'s, travel insurance, travel notes and local contact #'s, gear/clothing inventory, etc.
        • Verify that my Documents folder, itunes apps, Music folder, Address book, bookmarks and travel related desktop folders are all up to date before copying from my desktop to the Macbook Air. 
        • Copy relevant lists, air/hotel reservations and travel insurance info to my Address book so that info is accessible from my iphone (when synched) in addition to my laptop computer.  
        • Note: Apple's Contacts app is a very powerful tool and I use it to store any/all information into a central repository - i.e., I "cut" useful info from hardware/software technical help and support forums, my emails, airline/hotel references, travel insurance policy, personal word/pdf docs, photo/computer troubleshooting tips, and keyboard shortcuts, etc. - and "paste" into a new or existing contact.  Then, I summarize paragraphs into bullet points to make it easier to scroll and read on an iphone/ipad.  When there's a lot of info on an important subject, I break it down into multiple contacts.  Net:net: any information that I might need for travel or troubleshooting is at my disposal on my iPhone/iPad/laptop without having to access the internet.  I learned my lesson the hard way when my Macbook Pro displayed the kiss of death (LCD went black) after a major power surge tripped it at a safari camp.  I tried all of the normal fix-it steps from memory but forgot to do the PRAM because my Apple troubleshooting notes were sitting on the computer.  And even if I did have access to the internet, it would take me longer to research answers then to browse my own troubleshooting list.  In the field, it's important to be self sufficient because travel buddies typically have their own issues to deal with and may not be helpful.   An easy way to start building your own troubleshooting cheat sheet - by product/software - is to cut/paste from forum suggestions, vendor FAQ's, how to articles/blogs and vendor databases/emails to Contacts as you read something useful.
        • Copy travel docs, personal word docs, pdf's and equipment manuals into the GoodReader iphone app via itunes.  A scanned copy of my passport and travel policy booklet are also transferred over.
        •  Make hard copies of my passport, medical prescriptions and travel/credit cards (with DOB and expiration dates blackened out).  Note: if you haven't done so already and travel abroad more than once a year, register with the U.S. Customs Global Entry program which allows you to skip the long customs lines at your port of entry.  All you have to do is scan your passport and fingers on a lightning fast, self servicing kiosk.  The program costs $100, is good for 5 years, and is awesome.  In San Francisco, the kiosk is on the left wall of the customs hall.  In addition, Global Entry members can get a Nexus card for $15 which allows you to go through Nexus lines (aka faster) at major airports in Canada and Mexico.  At some major airports, Global Entry members automatically quality for the TSA Pre-√ program.  Update your airline profiles with your Global Entry number and request TSA Pre-√.   Participating airlines include United, American, Delta, Alaska and U.S. Airways.  
        • Limit the number credit cards and provide respective companies with travel dates and the countries to be visited.  Note: I use separate credit cards for travel and when going overseas, I select cards with the lowest transaction fee.
        • Verify that debit cards work in the countries to be visited, and that pin numbers are valid.  
        • Order AT&T's 30 day Passport Plan (formerly known as Data Global Add-on) which cost $30 and gives you 120MG of data, unlimited messages sent, and Talk @ $1/minute.  As before, you still need to check for countries that qualify and whether you'll have cell service reception.  Note: Reset data usage on your iphone as soon as you land abroad in order to track usage.   In non-participating countries when not on free Wi-FI, only open important emails as a random 5 meg photo attachment can cost $40 a pop. While on topic, only view non-sensitive email and web pages when on public wireless networks.
        • Update the Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP) with your trip itinerary This replaces the former U.S. embassy registration process; and, enables embassies to contact you in case of emergency while abroad.
        • Pack clothes, sundries, medications, vitamins, travel folder, personal items, photo/computer gear, snacks, and spares of anything critical to travel comfort and shooting success.  See more specifics under Chris's Packing, etc. Tips below; and replace batteries on travel watches if due for a change.
        • Clothes and shoes are re-sprayed with permithrin (good for 30 days) or waterproofed as needed. 
        • Verify that every item has a label or ID.
        • Pre-pack field supplies for my day kit and make a "grab list" to make getting ready for the first game drive quick and efficient.  That's because when items are spread between bags and hidden in pouches, it's easy to forget things (out of sight, out of mind) especially when jet-lagged or sleep deprived.
        • If checking a small 2nd duffel, distribute clothes and camera support items in case one bag is late or missing in action. 
        • Review/update my Master pack list and weigh all bags. 
        • Then, the real fun (aka serious stress) begins; i.e., deciding what's a must have and pulling out the nice to haves  - i.e., snacks, emergency supplies and new tools to try out, etc. - aka the never ending struggle to reduce weight - ounce by ounce.  
        • Start a new trip notebook - includes reservation #'s, passport info, emergency contacts, important actions items and a mini currency conversion chart - which I keep handy in a cargo pocket for jotting down trip notes. 
        • Review international airport arrival and departure terminals/gates so that I can assess the amount of time I have to get from point A to point B.  On my recent layovers at Frankfurt airport, it took me 45 minutes to get from Terminal B to C (and vice versa), including rigorous security checks de-boarding and pre-boarding.  My goal is to be at the gate at least 30 minutes before check-in; and, longer in places like Bangkok where they do security checks at the gate as well.  I try to have at least a 3 hour layover when heading to a destination.
        • After all last minute items are packed, tuck itineraries into every bag, lock them with TSA locks/plastic ties, and snap photos on my iphone.

        The Evening Before (or Morning of Departure):
        • Print boarding passes if possible. 
        • Synch the iphone/ipad mini, close all apps (double-click the home button and swipe) and turn off all notifications/location services, Wi-Fi and bluetooth (drains the battery).  Note: When synching Contacts via itunes, I click on Advanced and Replace contacts (aka supercedes).  This avoids ending up with duplicate contacts/groups on my computer which can take hours to clean up.  Yes, this means that I collect new info and only add/update contact files on my primary computer. 
        • Before packing my laptop, turn off Airport wireless/bluetooth to save battery life and increase security. Also, verify that file sharing is off and firewall is on (under Systems Preferences).
        • Finally, it's game over and time to rock and roll. 
        • Upon arrival at the first international destination (i.e., a layover), turn off data roaming.  Also, reset usage which starts the clock for AT&T's month:month Global Data Add-on and Global Messaging plans; and, turn on Airplane mode to stop cellular towers from pinging the phone (drains the batteries).

        Back in the Saddle Again:
        • First things first - catch up on zzzz's.  The more I sleep on Day One (aka my lights out marathon), the faster it is to adjust to the 10 - 12 hour time zone difference.
        • Next up - back up all images 2x or more.  See "Backing Up for the Long Haul - My Workflow and Storage Devices" below for more info.  The ugly truth is that protecting images for the long term takes time and effort. 
        • Document travel related notes while they are still top of mind - what worked and what didn't, etc.
        • Inventory travel tools/sundries, clean gear, re-order/replenish must haves, and send gear out for repairs as needed.  If not, action items tend to get dragged out.
        • Catch up with family and friends - aka show appreciation to those who tolerate and support our obsession.
        • Store external drives/gear off site in secure, climate controlled facilities.
        • Now, the creative mind is clear to focus on images. 

        Lightroom Library:
        • Several friends asked me how I manage libraries - one per trip or one per year?  
        • I prefer to create a new Lightroom library for each trip and keep it together with the raw folders initially on my laptop, then the desktop while editing images, and then when they're moved with the raw files to external back-up drives.  
        • After editing out the losers, I make a collection of my "best ofs" from the trip.  This best of collection could be 200 - 500 strong, and I work off of standard previews.   
        • As much as I like to get things done and move on, never rush this process.  I'll look at images on the flight/s home to get a sense of my favorites by doing a quick & dirty collection.  But, the real ranking and decision making is after everything is unpacked and put away, after I'm caught up on emails and other tasks, and I'm in a rested state.  
        • Before I begin, I make sure that monitors are properly calibrated.  I use a Spyder 3 puck and ColorEyes software for this task. 
        • I also use Razer gaming mouses (Diamondback and DeathAdder) because they're fast for Lightroom/Photoshop editing along with a Wacom Intuos4 tablet and Apple Mighty Mouse to reduce repetitive motions.  I like the Mighty Mouse for fast/accelerated scrolling and the Razers for zipping around monitors.  Yes, I work two handed and the Apple mouse/tablet are left of my wireless keyboard.  Warning: Razers are blazing fast and you can tailor the x and y  axle speeds to your comfort level. 
        • In addition to tagging the Best of's, I'm developing the story that I want to tell and the images that will support it; i.e., I try to weave favorites with interesting animal behavior along with mother/cub emotions that always blow me away.  
        • My goal is to develop the best portfolio out there on my favorite subjects, and to have a consistent style that is unique to me. 
        • Next, I start making sub-collections for different purposes. At this stage, I work off of 1:1 previews to increase the speed of analyzing images.  I also crop and address white balance to insure that grouped images hang together properly.  
        • I routinely select all (Command + A on the Mac) and save metadata (Command +S) to the files along the way even though I already set my preferences to do so.  And, I back up my LR catalog each night.
        • With sub-collections, I can easily duplicate a WIP gallery and change the order of images to see which body of work is stronger.  If I need to fill in a storyboard, I just grab the appropriate image out of the master "best of" collection. 
        • As needed, I can import sub-collections from different trips for various projects. 
        • For me, having one huge library takes too much time to keep all of the links valid, i.e., they break as soon as you move raw folders from laptop to desktop to back-up drives, etc.  Plus, one huge library can get too unwieldy for wildlife photographers depending on the size of generated thumbnails.  Also, I feel that there's less risk of corruption when smaller libraries are upgraded to newer versions of LR and future operating systems.
        Lightroom Adjustments:
        • Unlike most, I use Lightroom 4/5 to prep images for editing in Photoshop as opposed to using the software to eliminate work in Photoshop.  I feel that Lightroom's strength is with global corrections; whereas, Photoshop does a better job with specific corrections.
        • I start by purify colors using the white balance dropper and then warm things up just a tad.
        • Next, I adjust the exposure, highlights, shadows and whites sliders.  My preference is to use tonality to separate subjects from the background as opposed to color balance aka it's more natural.  
        • I rarely use the masking brush because I prefer to use channel masks and curves in Photoshop which preserves the tonal gradations.  And since I always copy settings to other images (to keep a consistent look/feel within a gallery), I can't use the clone stamp.
        • Then, I do a gentle dose of clarity (< 10) to add mid-tone contrast, followed by a gentle tone curve (+5 lights -5 darks as a starting point) and a contrast adjustment.
        • Then, I fine-tune the black, white and shadow sliders.  Note:  clarity darkens the shadows in addition to mid-tones.  As a result, images tend to be more muddy and require more attention than before.
        • If I still have problems with hot spots, I adjust the highlight slider in curves.
        • I don't mess with colors except for a little vibrance ('tween 7-10) and saturation (-/+ 5).
        • Then, I stand down and evaluate. 
        • Before I export into Photoshop, I turn off sharpening and bump luminous noise to +2 or 3 for images shot over ISO 400.  That's because I prefer using selective input sharpening in Photoshop.  I also use NoiseWare in Photoshop. 
        •  Once I have the look that I want, I insure that all images in a given gallery have similar treatment for consistency.
        • If you want to read a quickie overview of how LR4 tonality sliders interact with each other, see this post from an Adobe forum.   Also, keep a copy of LR 4 even if you take advantage of the CS6 + LR 5 promo for photographers.  
        Photoshop Approach:
        • Basically, I use the creative seeing approach that Katrin Eismann taught me many moons ago and it's how my brain sees, analyzes and fixes only what's important.  This means optimizing the main focus and de-optimizing un-important areas along with other distractions.   I aim for a clean, natural, 3 dimensional and consistent look.  
        • 90% of my time goes to making a precise input sharpening mask which I modify/re-use for output sharpening as well.  I also re-use the mask for curves and color adjustment layers when needed.  Making masks for channel curves also takes time; i.e., when trying to fix a color cast on subjects situated in trees or shadow. 
        • I own all of the Nik filters but just haven't embraced them yet.
        • Editing for large prints take a lot more time because every little distraction shows up big time.  
        • Before I get too far along on a web project, I always evaluate images on different monitors and laptops - including, some that aren't calibrated aka the real world - which saves time in the long run.  You'd be surprised with the variances in warmness, white points and shadows (can look muddy).  In addition, I try not over-sharpening because to me, it's distracting.  I don't use retina displays for editing.  If I did, I'd most definitely would evaluate images on different displays.
        • For friends serious about improving Photoshop skills, I recommend that you join NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals).  As mentioned, the discounts from Apple, Adobe, B&H and Nik Software, etc. pay for the $99 annual cost by itself.  Plus, you get high quality "how to" Photoshop User magazines, and free access to a wide array of excellent online video tutorials, etc.  Also, NAPP sponsors the Annual Photoshop User conference where you have access to a wide array of learning workshops. You can join NAPP here.    
        Focus on the So-What's:
        • Like with photography (the camera versus creative vision), editing tools evolve and change (aka just tools) but your brain is what really matters.   
        • It's important to express what you are trying to communicate and how you're going to grab the viewer's attention and heart before touching any sliders or palettes.  If an image doesn't make your heart patter, why expect it with others? 
        • Before starting an edit, articulate what needs to be done and why?  This is the Katrin mantra is drilled into my head.  For example, not every image needs to be sharpened; especially globally.  I even turn off sharpening sharpening during raw conversion (even though there's a masking brush in Lightroom) because I want to be precise; and, I don't want to increase artifacts in subjects' eyes.  Note: if you want to emphasize something, consider de-emphasizing the inverse; i.e., desaturating the background as opposed to adjusting color balance or saturating on the subject. 
        • I don't do much cloning because for me, it takes character away from images.  Contrary to many, I actually like to use grass and foliage to frame subjects.  It's tricky though because it's hard to neutralize the green cast.  Instead of cloning, I prefer toning down blades of grass which are hot (too bright).  Note: If you don't want to fuss with a channel masks for a few blades, just paint the problem blades with a comparable color at low opacity. 
        • What rules for me is maximizing tonality.  That's what maintains that three dimensional presence; and, I prefer working with channels to accomplish this goal.  That's because when using a brush - to paint in dodging/burning, color balance, saturation, curves, sharpening or noise, etc., we are essentially painting with a flat instrument -  i.e., 10 - 100% (in Lightroom or Photoshop); whereas, light wraps around or falls off a subject.  Using channels in Photoshop helps to preserve this light fall off.  Studying black and white classics helps with developing tonality seeing abilities.  
        • There are many ways to tackle objectives - the 30 second, 3 minute, 30 minute or 3 hour approach (again ala Katrin) - and each approach has it's plus and minuses.  So, pick your battles and invest your time where it really counts.   For me, my effort is focused on making a good sharpening mask, and getting rid of color casts from foliage and rocks without ruining the mood of the lighting or flattening out three dimensional wrap around light that I worked so hard to achieve while shooting.  
        • If you learn things the hard way first, you'll be able to judge the effectiveness of easier methods (i.e., advancements in raw converters and plugs-in); and, you'll end up with more consistency in your work. That's why, I like to understand what's underneath the engine - exactly what the Photoshop tools and Lightroom sliders are doing (the so-what's) - so that I can minimize overlapping, conflicting and negating effects.  
        • Sharpening: only sharpen what's important.  Also, make sure that your eyeglasses, if needed, are dead-on accurate.  I can't comment on sharpening plug-ins because I never use them.
        • I find it invaluable to take my time when first working with new versions of Lightroom and Photoshop as often, the slider algorithms can change dramatically.  
        • The following folks are excellent at explaining what's important and how to tackle different objectives: 
        •  If you want to learn/understand what's happening underneath the engine while performing Lightroom/Photoshop tasks  - while avoiding the pitfalls like crunchy edges, halos and garish colors - then Tim Grey is the go-to guy.  If you can't get into a course workshop (i.e., sometimes in Sante Fe), then subscribe to his Ask Tim Grey newsletters and DDQ Quarterly (you can learn a ton from reading his Q&A format), and pick up some of Tim's books.
        • If you want to better understand retouching, masking, channels and creative seeing, pick up some Katrin Eismann DVDs or books, including her Creative Digital Darkroom (co written with Sean Duggan) or Real World Digital Photography co-written with Sean Duggan and Tim Grey.  I was fortunate to have spent 2 weeks learning from Katrin, before she became Chair of the Masters in Digital Photography Program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC.  9.3.12: Katrin updated her Photoshop Masking and Compositing book and it's now available in a Kindle version.  I thought that it would be more convenient but learned that I prefer hard copies of her books.
        • If you want to improve tonality skills - seeing, optimizing and printing fine art ala Ansel Adams - then sign up for a Charlie Cramer workshop.  Charlie studied under Ansel and teaches at the Ansel Gallery workshop in Yosemite.  He only shoots in flat lighting, yet his eye and curves technique can pull out the most subtle nuances in an image while still looking natural.  His prints are drop dead gorgeous and he can start you on your roadmap to beautiful prints as well.
        • Note: none of these skills are learned overnight, or even in a year.  Mastering these skills is a multi-year commitment and is no different than achieving excellence in your professional field or with other hobbies. 
        Don't Rush but Don't Get Backlogged 
        • Closing thoughts:  don't blast through selecting and editing images, only to conclude "what was I thinking?" down the road.  Handle these new assets with thought and care; and put your best foot forward at the get-go.  It not, you'll find yourself re-doing edits over and over because the brain knows when something is amiss.
        • Also, don't get too backlogged and leave images sitting trip after trip.  That's because some of the emotion and reasons that you took the images in the first place could get lost over time. Plus, it'll feel more like work as opposed to fun the longer you procrastinate.
        Ergonomics
        • I use a Razer gaming mouse on my right and a medium size Wacom4 tablet plus Mighty Mouse on the left.  For lightening fast scrolling in LR's grid view and web browsing, I prefer using the Mighty Mouse.  
        • For the Wacom, I swapped out the stock pen for the more comfortable Wacom Classic pen which feels more sensitive as well.  
        • I started using Razer gaming mice back in 2005 and my favorite was the Diamondback.  But, when my Diamondbacks kicked the dust, I tried using the wireless Razer Orochi.  Unfortunately, the wheel was too stiff for my preference.  So now, I use the DeathAdder even though it's wired.  Note: be sure to install the latest drivers in order to tailor x and y axis mouse speeds to your comfort level.
        • sit at my desk for too many hours a day to admit - i.e., doing  research, trip planning, documenting, editing, web/blog updating, and satisfying my inquiring mind - and my Aeron chair broke down after 9 years of use.  The good news is that Herman Miller made good on their 12 year chair warranty.  Net:net: always save your receipts.  I also like using a Webble ergonomic footrest (pricey but built like office furniture).  It prevents undue pressure on different parts of your lower body and encourages you to sit properly; thereby, reducing muscle knots and aches. 

        Chris