ON THE ROAD to Cairo, I traveled with two bags. One that held my clothes, first aid gear, and maps, and the other with stuff that was truly important. A Lowepro backpack with laptop, DSLR, camcorder, and notebooks. It would come out exploring with me each day, sit next to me on buses, and I’d spoon it jealously in the squalid beds of disreputable hostels. As long as I had that bag, I was a one-stop shop for taking notes, shooting video, and blogging about the journey as it progressed.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a living, breathing, unshaven example of what has begun to be called backpack journalism.
For those coming to travel writing from the starting point of travel blogging, approaching it as a form of journalism can offer novel opportunities to explore different ways of telling stories. Most obviously, as David Miller has already discussed, the journalism paradigm can offer a powerful nudge towards exploring the stories of others and the contexts in which they occur, rather than an overwhelming focus on introspection.
Where pure travel blogging can luxuriate in personal perceptions and the writer’s experience of a place — something which many travel writers pull off fantastically, mind — travel journalism insists that you focus on others. On collecting facts, quotes, and details from which the thread of a story can hang. And to the degree that travel is about discovering more about the world, the travel journalist is literally compelled by his or her work to dig into the strangeness of other places in order to make their stories interesting.
What a travel journalism perspective also makes possible is the opportunity to broaden storytelling beyond the written word. Travel writing suggests a focus on the act of writing in much the same way as being a travel photographer sets the emphasis on photography. Such specialisation is not necessarily bad — as the many examples of brilliant travel writing and photography out there make clear — but they are only two of many possible ways that stories can be told. For every travel writer, there is the potential travel podcaster. For every travel photographer, there is the possibility of a travel videographer.
Which is all a very roundabout way of gently suggesting that next time you travel, you consider talking along the tools necessary to publish a range of different types of content. Write when writing’s appropriate. But also capture the sound of rain intermingling with a muezzin, or the light of a sunset in new and perhaps richer ways.
In learning to pack the essentials for telling stories as a generalist, you are on your way to becoming a backpack journalist.
In a nutshell, the practice of backpack journalism depends on being able to efficiently fit into your pack the minimal set of gear needed to tell stories in video, audio, and writing to a publishable standard. There are certain basic categories of equipment you’ll need to consider:
- A laptop of some kind for writing and submitting stories, backing up data, and — in dire situations — charging some of your smaller toys.
- Photographic gear, such as, well…a camera.
- Video gear, which may or may not also be your camera (more on this later).
- Audio gear, such as a sound recorder and accompanying microphone.
- Assorted bobbles for everything else. Maybe a tripod. Memory cards. A fluffy deadcat thing for your mic. Stuff like that.
There different ways to fill your backpack within this template. A truly minimal setup might use a basic, non-SLR camera for both photo and video, and the sound recording features of a smartphone. With some practice, the results could easily be good enough for publishing to a blog or some online publications.
At the other extreme, your bag could carry a full HD camcorder, SLR with lenses, professional-quality voice recorder, shotgun mic, and almost the same weight again in accessories. You’d be able to produce broadcast-quality material, but it’d take a great deal more work to do so. And require the stamina of a Nepalese sherpa.
Between those two poles lies a massive spectrum of possibilities. What holds them in common is the idea of building a rounded set of equipment that can serve you well in a variety of creative projects. Want to shoot a video documentary? Photographic soundslides? A podcast or radio show? You’ve got the multimedia equivalent of a Swiss army knife to cope with it all.
Here are some specific tips to flesh out the list above.
Whatever material you’re creating, your laptop is where it gets mixed together into the stuff you finally get published. It needs to be strong enough to survive wherever you’re going, not break your back or your bank account, and have the horsepower to let you do your editing without watching an hourglass for, well…hours.
Almost all options involve some kind of tradeoff — most commonly between the weight of the device and its cost and processing power. Netbooks will win any competition for weight and space, but tend not to be particularly powerful for processing photographs and will die if subjected to rendering video footage. Ultralight laptops like the Macbook Air can give great performance for their weight and size, but you pay for the privilege. In big, tear-stained dollars.
What you choose will depend on the kind of material you’re intending to work with, and the limits of your packing and wallet. If you’re producing a lot of video, there’s no getting away with a netbook. But if you intend to work mostly with audio, text, and photography, you might be able to get by with a cheap netbook-sized computer, and deal with video editing (if you’re doing any) when you return home. For video editing on the road, a beefier processor, more RAM, and a graphic accelerator card will be pretty much essential.
Many swear by Macbooks since they offer decent specs all round, in a lightweight package. And that package is made from aluminium, which is less prone to nicks and bumps than the plastic chassis of your average laptop. But there are alternatives with equally sturdy construction and specs to rival or exceed Apple’s machines. Though I use a Mac nowadays, I worked for years off a Lenovo R61i. It weighed a ton, but it also cost a whole whack less and was as indestructible as any Macbook.
That said, there are some additional things that bear mentioning in the case of the backpack journalist. The first is to consider whether the camera you’re looking at can shoot video as well as still images. Most point-and-shoot cameras, and increasing numbers of DSLRs (particularly those from Canon) now offer the opportunity to record in beautiful high definition. Having the option to jump between stills and video can be a useful compromise that will save you the weight and cost of having to carry a separate video recorder.
On the other hand, the quality of the built-in audio on even top-end DSLRs ranges from terrible to acceptable-in-a-pinch. So if you’re using your SLR as a video camera, you’ll eventually want to consider recording sound on a separate, higher-quality microphone, or a sound recorder (see below). Using separate, external sound simply involves getting a solid mic (those from RØDE are the most popular by a mile), which connects to the audio-in port on your camera and replaces the audio from your inferior internal mic with the beautiful sounds of a device purpose-built for the job.
An HD camcorder can run you anything from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. Or many thousands. What you decide to buy will depend a great deal on the kinds of things you’re hoping to shoot, the level of control you want over your final image, and the usual constraints of space and needing to eat after you’ve made the purchase.
The first and most obvious question, then — given that we’ve just discussed how still cameras can work well for video — is why invest in a video camera at all.
Sometimes you don’t want to risk your DSLR to get shots that can be obtained far more safely on a video camera made for the purpose. The GoPro Hero 2, for example, is designed specifically for this kind of footage, and using it makes infinitely more sense than tying your SLR to the front of a bus.
Also, a dedicated video camera can give you far more control over the recording process than is possible on even high-end SLRs. For example, being able to smoothly open and close the iris on the camera during filming, rather than jumping instantly between aperture sizes, is impossible on SLRs. Continuous auto-focus, and being able to record for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch, are generally also only possible on a camcorder.
And then there’s ergonomics.
DLSRs are beastly things to try and hold steady if you’re filming without a tripod. Even with optical stabilization, trying to follow something on an SLR as it moves is an exercise in awkwardness. Taken together, many small, video-specific optimizations can make using a proper camcorder much more rewarding than using a DSLR.
All of this said, the quality of the video you’ll get right out of even a low-end DSLR with decent lenses can often vastly outclass what’s possible on cheap to moderate HD camcorders. Sure, there are the drawbacks mentioned above, but — for particular scenarios — if you want to produce gorgeous shots at an acceptable budget, any of Canon’s video-capable DSLRs with good glass can get you results that would once have taken eye-wateringly expensive camcorders to produce. There are good reasons that video-capable camcorders are rewriting the rules of indie filmmaking, and it’s worth stopping to make sure you really need the extras that a professional camcorder offers before paying up for one.
As is the case with stills cameras, the more serious you get, the more quickly things become expensive. If you’re producing short clips for the web, then a cheap HD camcorder, or even a webcam, can be ideal. Set it up on something steady, press record, and off you go. Moving up the feature scale, something like the Canon XF-100 or DSLRs with quality lenses can give you broadcast-quality output.
Sound recorders are probably the single most neglected piece of equipment in the traveler’s arsenal. A pity, since it’s probably the one component in your kit where the price of the tools doesn’t scale exponentially with quality. The Sony PCM-M10, for example, gives criminal levels of audio clarity for a couple hundred bucks, and is the size of a mobile phone.
A decent sound recorder makes all sorts of new types of storytelling possible. Photo essays can be overlaid with sound to make a story more engaging. Interviews and ambient sounds can be spliced together to create packages for publication as podcasts on the radio. Too few travelers exploit these opportunities.
What’s more, many folks are already carrying the gear for creating audio material without realising it. Your laptop or smartphone is likely already capable of doing a half-decent audio recording of an interview or presentation. So if you want to make a radio show, you need only find a quiet place to sit and get to work.
Finally, a decent-quality audio recorder can enhance the quality of your video recordings if you’re using a device, such as a DSLR, with terrible internal microphones. Placing the sound recorder near the subject will get you crystal audio, which can be synced with your video using software such as Singular Software’s DualEyes.
Go forth and journalize
When you look beyond the travel writer/photographer paradigm, there’s a world of interesting possibilities out there for mixed-media storytelling: soundslides, podcasts, even your own web-TV series, if you’re sufficiently motivated. What’s more, it’s an area that few people producing travel media have really even begun to explore.
So while writing and the still image will always be an important component of the stories that travelers tell, thinking a bit more broadly when packing your bags may open some fantastic new creative possibilities.
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Richard lives and works in South Africa, exploring as often as possible the strange and unknown places that his continent is so rich in. What stories of far flung places and mischief he is able to trap and bring home are mounted on his blog. Where the Road Goes.
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