Backpacking in Borneo-6: Photography gear to carry

What photography equipment should I carry on my visit to Borneo?

Is the humidity there a problem for camera gear? Should I carry a tripod? Do I need to carry my laptop too? Air Asia has a 7 Kg limit for cabin baggage, right?

These are just few of the umpteen questions a traveler to Borneo would have.

Here’s my attempt at answering a few of those questions. I will split my answer into 4 parts.

  1. must carry list
  2. specialized gear for specific places (must carry for certain places and not of much use elsewhere)
  3. optional gear (nice to have, but can do without it)
  4. points to remember

Must carry list

  1. Camera body.
  2. Good quality camera bag with adequate space for everything you have. My recommendation is Lowepro or Thinktank. Expensive, but well worth it.
  3. Lenses – a macro lens is a must for almost every place in Borneo. A rain forest is a wonderful place for macro work. If you are a Nikon user, nothing better than the 105 VR Micro.
  4. Lenses – telephoto is an absolute must given the range of birds and animals in the region. VR / IS is a very nice feature to have.
  5. Lenses – wideangle if you want to shoot landscapes / cavescapes. Again for Nikon DX users, the 10-24 is a good choice.
  6. Flash. Absolute must for macro work. The ring flash works best.. but if you do not have one, a regular flash at the very least. I took my SB600.
  7. Flash diffuser / bouncer / etc to avoid harsh light.
  8. Atleast one spare battery
  9. Sufficient memory cards. For 9 days of active shooting, I used up 16GB and had to scrooge through towards the end even after having cleaned up quite a few pictures. However, if you carry your hard disk, you can backup your photos in one of the many cyber cafes in the cities. Most charge you around 3-5MYR for an hour.
  10. Portable hard disk to back up photos. (A laptop to me is part of optional gear.. for a backpacker, its too heavy to lug around).
  11. Memory card reader – not every cafe has it.
  12. Dry sack. Don’t ever imagine a trip to Borneo without it. If you get caught in the heavy downpour, which is often, you don’t want to risk ruining your equipment.
  13. Poncho. Same as above. Protects you and your backpack from getting wet.
  14. Rain sleeve for the backpack. Okay, am paranoid now. But, a dry sack for your camera bag, a rain sleeve for the backpack and poncho for you  – absolute must!
  15. Rain sleeve for the lens and body if you want to shoot in rain. Or atleast a shower cap at the worst.
  16. A good quality small sized flashlight. Fenix is my choice.
  17. A good quality head torch so that you can walk hands-free on your night trek. I use the one I got from Decathlon.
  18. A few plastic sheets, just in case. A garbage bag works best.
  19. Battery charger and cables.
  20. Also, do not forget to take the plug coverters. My recommendation is a comprehensive travel adaptor if you are a frequent traveler.
  21. A few pieces of cleaning cloth to wipe your sweat and to keep the camera body dry during a drizzle.
  22. Whistle and compass for your own safety.

Gear for specific places

  1. Inside caves
    1. lens with really wide apertures (35mm 1.4, 20mm 2.0, etc)
    2. a gorillapod (regular tripods are not allowed inside caves)
    3. flash, but your photos are not going to look natural
  2. Country side, Mt Kinabalu, etc
    1. Wide angle lens
    2. 2 and 3 stop GND filters (both soft and hard edge)
    3. adapter rings for each lens
    4. Polarizer
    5. tripod and ball head (yes, I carried them all the way upto the top of Mt Kinabalu)
    6. macro lens (I needed it for the pitcher plants on top of Mt Kinabalu)
  3. Night treks
    1. Tele / macro lens depending on your choice of work. (I used both extensively).
    2. Head torch
    3. flash / ring flash
    4. flash bouncer / diffuser
  4. Birding and safaris
    1. Telephoto lens
    2. Binocular

Optional equipment to carry

  1. Laptop – given that it weighs a good 2 kgs and you are going to be lugging along a lot of other equipment, a laptop is a luxury. You can replace it with a wifi phone (wifi is free at many places).
  2. Tripod and ball head. To me, tripod is a must as I do a lot of long exposures / night / low light photography. But if you don’t do much of  it, you can do away with it, especially if you use VR / IS lenses. Perhaps a monopod / gorillapod could be an alternative.
  3. 2nd camera body. You don’t want to be changing lenses in the humid forests in the open.
  4. portable camera for quick personal shots / record shots. (I used my Canon S90 to document the tour, even took a few videos).
  5. Tele-converter for additional reach. As a Nikon user, the TC1.7X is my choice.
  6. GND filters (you are not going to be using them much in Borneo unless you are doing landscape work)
  7. Polarizer
  8. Adapter filter rings (I use 77mm filters and step up rings for each lens)
  9. Remote trigger for self portraits, long exposures (bulb mode), etc.

Points to remember

  1. Humidity kills equipment. Remember, you will be shooting for hours / days in a humid rain forest! Do take sufficient care of your equipment. Lenses of fellow travelers just stopped focusing and camera bodies behaved wierdly due to humidity. This is exactly where quality equipment purchases help you.
  2. At the same time, don’t be paranoid and avoid using the gear. I used all of my equipment rather carelessly and faced no issues at all, touchwood!
  3. Always carry quick dry towels for you and your camera. Wipe the condensation on the equipment frequently. Whenever the equipment is free, try to place it in a dry, well ventilated, airy environment.
  4. Use silica gel in your camera bags.
  5. If you are flying from a not-so-humid place (like Mt Kinabalu) to a pretty humid place, check the build up of condensation inside the camera. If you notice condensation, let the camera sit just a while and you should be fine. It happened to me, I just waited for an hour or so and it went away on its own.
  6. Regular tripods are NOT allowed inside caves in Mulu. There goes your chance of getting crisp and sharp cave shots. Try to use the railings, supports, etc to brace your camera.
  7. Cyber cafes are plenty in the cities. If you are not carrying your laptop, back up your photos as soon as you get a chance to. Also remember to carry a memory card reader.
  8. Having a wifi phone will save you from internet expenses at a few places.
  9. It gets humid and hot. Carry a water bottle with you.
  10. Air Asia has a very strict 7Kg limit for cabin baggage. Try a few tricks like hanging a camera body on your neck along with a heavy lens. This should shave off a couple of Kgs.
  11. Avoid the huge camera backpacks if you can. The Lowepro micro/mini trekker should be just fine.

The entire Borneo backpacking series is listed below.

Backpacking in Borneo-7: Expenses & tips to keep it low

8 thoughts on “Backpacking in Borneo-6: Photography gear to carry

  1. Hi Prem,

    I am an admirer of Adarsh’s photography and now your’s. Was planing to buy a telephoto, I have a 70-300mm VR Nikkor but felt it was not enough for birding. The Nikkor lens are damn expensive for anything above 400mm. i have a D60, any suggestions.

    Thanks
    Mithun

    1. Thanks Mithun!

      Hmmm.. if you are looking for a longer tele and if Nikkor is out of your budget, perhaps the Sigma is one ‘stop-gap’ option. My own idea of owning a tele has changed a bit over time.

      For bird photography, even 600mm is not going to be sufficient at times. Sometimes, learning to approach birds would pay-off better I believe. Also, instead of thinking close-up shots, these days I mostly think habitat too. In that case, you can actually use your 70-300 at even 200mm.

      The 70-300 is very good upto 200mm and then image get softer towards 300. Also, it does much better stepped down a couple of stops than fully wide open. So I try to get my images at these settings by including habitat, etc.

      Of late, I have had this thought too. Whether to buy a longer tele or not. But I have decided not to and instead use my 70-300 more.

      And am not too happy owning a Sigma or other longer tele which today is just a compromise option. Either wait for these to come up with a real good long tele or just cough up money to buy Nikkor or… like me…. explore different ways of using your 70-300 until your cash coffers are full. 🙂

      I guess.. this answer is not what you wanted :-(.

  2. Prem- Thanks so much for the info. I’ll be going to Borneo in March and your blog gave me more insight and info than any guidebook I’ve read. Luckily, I don’t have to watch my costs as much, so will also go to Borneo Rainforest Lodge (would love to know more about your friend’s sta in the Danum Valley).

    Since our main reason to go is scuba diving, I think we’ll use the underwater housing in the rainforest, and voila, that’ll solve the humidity issue for the camcorder!

  3. Hey Prem, thanks for that input…i thought i saw a telephoto in ur gear…so you took all these amazing snaps with ur 70-300mm…if thats true i am not using mine to its fullest..

    1. Thanks Mithun.. till date the 70-300 has been my workhorse. Roughly 50% of my shots are with this.

      If you are talking abt my Borneo shots, yes, most of the shots are from the 70-300 and the 105vr micro.

  4. Prem-
    Another question. Did you set up some of your activities in advance, or was it easy make arrangements once you were already in a location. For instance, it seemed like you set up your guided tours in Mulu when you got there. I wasn’t sure how much advance notice is needed for day trips. How detailed were you in setting up stuff to do prior to the trip? BTW, I think people on Fodors.com would really like it if you did a link to your blog there on the Asia forum. Several people have been asking questions about Borneo.

  5. Susan,
    Advance notice is absolutely necessary for Mt Kinabalu.. we were lucky to get a slot just 1 week before we went. Same with Uncle Tans and Gunung Mulu, esp during the time coinciding with ‘tourist seasons’ – European and US holiday season. We had gone in early September when the European tourists were receding in numbers.

    We had called the Gunung Mulu national park people 1 week before and had booked a room there. The day activities can be setup once you reach there.

    But if you go during the off-season, you get the benefit smaller groups.. and the guides too find it easier to lead small groups. For eg, the Canopy walk I had in Gunung Mulu had just 4 people and the night jungle trek in Uncle Tan had just 2 people..

    Thanks for your suggestion. Will post it on Fodors.com

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