Gearing up for Life on the Bike: Camera and Tech – Ryan Wilson Feb 28, 2017

Packing for an open-ended bike tour through remote areas of developing countries can be a bit intimidating. You don’t want to get there and realize you’re missing something crucial that you’re going to have trouble finding locally, but you don’t want to overpack and feel required to haul a bunch of stuff that you don’t really need.

With that in mind, I wanted to start a series of posts discussing my personal gear setup and some of the things I’ve learned in my first 7 months of living on the bike in South America. First up I’ll dive into my electronics setup and touch on the question I get asked most frequently… “what camera are you using?”

The Bag:
F-Stop Kenti backpack

First, the bag itself. I wanted something compact enough that I could mount it to my Pass and Stow front rack without turning the handling to total garbage. It had to be well padded with a laptop sleeve, and have a side-loading compartment big enough for my camera and primary lens with its hood on, so I could easily access the camera on the bike.

The F-Stop Kenti has worked out great for the first leg of the trip, with the only real area of concern being the zippers, which don’t always seem too happy about getting mud slung on them all the time. Otherwise, the bag does its job well as a place to store all of my most sensitive items and easily keep them on me at all times. As a side bonus, it’s great to throw on my back to lighten the bike up when hike-a-bikes are involved that require any significant amount of lifting. It’s a shame that F-Stop stopped making these!

The Camera:
Sony A7Rii full frame mirrorless camera
Sony 24-70 f/2.8 G-Master lens (primary)
Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 MF lens (specialty)
MeFoto Backpacker tripod (alloy)
3 or 4 spare camera batteries w/ compact USB charger
Sensor dust blower (+cleaner / swabs)
8 SD Cards in a hard case (various sizes/brands)
OP/Tech USA camera rain cover (x3)

I’ve been using the Sony A7Rii for over a year, and I really don’t have a ton of complaints at this point. Everyone has their preferences, but I am used to maneuvering around some of the downsides of Sony mirrorless.

For long-term touring, I definitely wanted a paired down lens setup that would require minimal on-the-trail lens swapping. Mirrorless camera sensors are prone to dust, and the Andes are prone to rain, so swapping lenses constantly was not something I was interested in doing, and that led me to selling the majority of my previous lenses in order to pick up the (pricey) Sony 24-70 f2.8 G-Master lens. This is what I use for 99% of my photos.

During rainy season, I’ve got an OP/Tech USA rain cover on the camera the majority of the time.

I also wanted a lens that was a bit smaller (more ultralight tripod friendly), with a slightly wider focal length, and great manual focus ergonomics for shooting long exposures. That search led me to the 21mm f2.8 Zeiss Loxia. It’s small enough to tuck away in the corner of the bag and doesn’t intimidate people if you point it in their direction like the 24-70 can.

This setup definitely wasn’t built overnight and is probably overkill for most (and underkill for others), but it handles the majority of what I do very well, with the biggest sacrifice being the lack of a true telephoto lens simply due to lack of space.

If you’re looking for something a little cheaper and more compact, I would recommend something like the OG Sony A7 (or A7ii) and the Sony 28mm f2 lens. That was my primary setup for a couple years and it can be had for under $1500.

The Computer:
2016 12” Retina MacBook w/Sea-to-Summit dry bag
Samsung T1 1TB SSD
PNY 480GB SSD
MyDigital SSD 512GB SSD
HooToo USB-C Hub

Bringing a laptop on a long tour isn’t for everyone, but it’s pretty much a requirement for me. Not only does it allow me to edit photos in Lightroom and type on a real keyboard, I can also research and map out route opportunities far easier than on a phone or tablet.

During the first leg of my South American trip I had a MacBook Pro along with a couple of large USB disk drives, a big power brick, etc. One of my primary goals during my two month “break” in the US was to downsize this part of the setup as much as possible. For that reason, I swapped the MacBook Pro for an über-compact 12” MacBook and changed the disk drives for solid state drives, dropping around 3-4 pounds total.

The 12” MacBook doesn’t have quite the power (or ports) of the Pro, but the diminutive size, total lack of moving parts, and ability to charge via a small USB power bank make it an ideal bike touring computer. A few optimization tweaks in Lightroom and it edits the large RAW A7Rii files just fine.

Storing the computer in a dry bag inside the backpack as a last line of defense.

The Other Stuff:
Generic Amazon cable organizer
InReach SE Satellite communicator
Black Diamond Iota USB-rechargeable headlamp
Imazing 10,000mAh power bank (w/USB-C)
iPhone 6 in Lifeproof waterproof case running GAIA GPS

Digging through a bag of tangled cables sucks (I know because I did that for the first 7 months!), so this time I’m ditching the ultralight setup and using a generic organizer to bring a little order to the chaos.

I’ve also got the standard USB power bank for keeping everything charged up between towns (that I keep topped up with a SON dynohub and SineWave cycles USB charger), a satellite communicator from InReach, as well as a bunch of cables and power adapters. For this upcoming leg of the trip I ditched a bulkier AAA battery headlamp for a tiny Black Diamond USB-rechargeable version.

If you’ve got any questions or suggestions feel free to leave them in the comments!

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Follow Ryan on Instagram and at his Tumblr.

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  • Thanks for this, Ryan! Can’t wait to see more from your travels. Enjoy those new levers too! ;-)

  • Daniel Halbe

    What sensor cleaner are you using? It is sad that Sony does not recommend vendors…

  • eric forsyth

    Great post! Always been curious about your photo gear setup. Keep up the goodness.

  • Knowing they’re no longer made, I will now hold on to my F-Stop Kenti even tighter. It’s really quite comfortable to ride in, though I pretty much stopped riding in it as soon as I got my Acre Hauser. Basketpacking with it, though, I am going to need to experiment with!

    • The Kenti is an amazing pack for sure!

      • Im not sure if i understood correctly, but you put yours foto backpack on the front rack, right? or do you tight it to the handlebar?

  • Julius

    Interesting post. On my South America trip, I decided against bringing a lot of electronics and did my blogging on my smartphone or on old PCs in the hostels I stayed in. I would definitely be very interested in more posts of this sort.

    Also, your pictures remind me a lot of the pre-tour shots I took of my equipment…https://lavueltasudamericana.wordpress.com/the-equipment/

  • Kristian Kruse

    Always amazing pictures and thanks for the sharing of setup. Would be interested in the LR optimization too…

    • I’m not an expert, but the biggest things that helped me were:
      1. Generating Smart Previews and 1:1 previews (and I typically set standard previews at a lower than default resolution and medium quality since I’m on a smaller screen). I work purely off of those and then just hook up the drive with the RAW files when it’s time to export.
      2. Sorting the keepers in Library view first (which loads way faster if you’ve got previews built)
      3. I constantly tweak my go-to preset to get it closer to what I end up with in the end on average, apply it to everything by default, and just tweak from there.
      4. Crank up the Camera Raw cache size as much as your setup allows.

      • Thanks for clarifying, that’s basically what I already do on my old MacBook Air, but generating smart previews and 1:1 previews takes sooo long! SSDs help for sure, but they cost a fortune, defly more then my 3TB from seagate.

        • Yeah, it takes a bit, but I think it makes a big difference. The first thing I do when I get to a town/hotel is set off the import. Then I go about the other stuff I need to do while that runs. When I come back to it, it’s ready to go.

      • Awesome, really appreciate that insight.

  • charlesojones

    Dang. And I grumble about carrying my iPhone. But I’m really glad you carry all this stuff so we can benefit from the sheer beauty of your awesome photos.

  • caliente

    Whats up with the selective use of electrical tape on some of the electronics?

    • Stealthmode. Keeps the locals from seeing an expensive brand name like “SONY”

      • I do this too. Electrical tape / sharpie over all my logos. “Nikon” in white catches your eye, but blacked out, it’s easier for people to gloss over and ignore it.

        It’s not so much about keeping it a secret, as it is preventing a second glance or lingering stare.

      • caliente

        Ah, gotcha. anything without the tape would likely not be used in public.

        • caliente

          I am gonna go black out my maxxis tires now. ;)

        • Yep, and the tape on the usb-hub is just to cover a stupid glowing logo that is like the surface of the sun at night.

  • Thanks for sharing this! Really useful.

    I was really, really close to going with the Macbook but I defaulted to an 11″ macbook air at the last minute for the price. These things go the distance. Mine’s been on four tours and three years of travel and it’s ticking along, with a couple of battle scars. I keep a hard drive velcroed on to store RAW data without using up the internal storage. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8a69c781cf7ee1472a72c8fb132b2bbe21dc9ffe4862264f8b10ac09abf5beb9.jpg

    Would love to see the rest of the stuff you’re carrying too!

    • We bought a new computer prior to our trip last year, was basically down to either the 11″ Air or the 13″ Retina MBP… turns out the total dimensions of the 13″ Pro were not much bigger than the Air, as the Air has a thicker bezel around the screen. But the real deal sealer was how much better the Retina screen looks.

      • Yeah, I feel that, I’m typing this from my 11″ right now and it’s pretty measly by comparison.

  • M T

    Are those old tubes on the backpack straps? I’m assuming it keeps the tag ends in place and makes them a little stiffer? I like that idea!

    • Yeah, I wanted something that would soften the blow of any friction/rubbing, so I don’t have a strap blow out. So far so good!

  • Probably underpowered for you, but I’ve been using a Panasonic GX85 with 12-35 f/2.8 lens due to the micro 4/3 lens setup’s diminutive size. GX8 isn’t much bigger and would give you the weather resistance as well.

    Only other recommendation I’d have is to check out retractable charge cables. I travel a fair bit and found these significantly help with organization and save time since they just recoil into a nice small package with a simple tug.