I finally embarked on my first field mission for the year, and last week I ran a poll in one of my Instagram stories asking if there was interest in seeing what went into field bag. The unanimous answer was ‘yes’ – so here is (almost) everything in my backpack that I used in the field in my most recent mission in Indonesia. Take this post as a packing list guide and inspiration for you to adapt to your needs, bearing in mind that your needs may be different to mine. Some of these links in this post are affiliate links – which means I may get a commission if you click on them and make a purchase, but at no extra cost to you.
This recent mission was a light survey – we spent several few day trips looking at already-discovered rock art sites and were not doing any detailed recordings or excavations. Photography and videography were the primary means of data collection; I have used digital photography extensively for all my rock art work, but in more recent years I have come to use videos as another way to record sites, particularly because it is so easy to capture video on cameras and mobile phones these days.
Backpack: Peak Design Everyday Backpack v2 20L
I like using photography backpacks because I’m always bringing a camera to the field. Peak Design has a great reputation for camera bags, and true to its name I use this backpack every day even when not in the field. The backpack can be accessed from the top or sides, and adjustable shelves can be configured according to your loadout. There are plenty of inside pockets, and sleeves for both a laptop and tablet . This bag also comes in a larger 30L version, but a smaller pack forces me to be more efficient with space, and more importantly it keeps everything lighter in the long run.
Cameras: Nikon Z fc + iPhone 11 + DJI Mavic Air
I used a Nikon DSLR for the last 15 years and recently made the switch to the mirrorless Nikon Z fc. Without a mechanical shutter mechanism, mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller and lighter than DSLRs but still offer the advantage of using interchangeable lenses. Sticking to Nikon means I can still use some of my old lenses but in this case I used a 18-140 zoom lens designed for the Z system which gives me flexibility and more importantly the need to carry only one lens to keeps things light. This camera uses an APS-C sensor, which photography purists will say is of poorer quality than a full-frame sensor. This is true, but the gap between full-frame and APS-C is narrowing, and because size and weight are my main considerations, the image quality with this setup is good enough – definitely more than adequate for recording rock art and for publications.
Until a few years ago, I also carried a second compact camera (a Nikon P7200) as a backup but I find that modern mobile phones are up to the task. I was recently convinced about the viability of my phone as a backup camera when a colleague who shot photos for National Geographic told me that he rarely took his camera with him because his mobile phone did a decent enough job (He was using an iPhone 10). Of course, newer phones will likely take better-quality photos than a phone with a few years on it. On the phone, I prefer to use the Adobe Lightroom app to take photographs as it allows me to adjust the settings as needed. However, the phone is used more to record videos and video documentation is increasingly becoming an important part of the fieldwork process.
The last camera is the drone, which is useful for aerial and landscape photography and in my case, for photographing rock art on cliff faces and other inaccessible areas. The DJI Mavic Air drone is a few years old now, but it folds up and doesn’t take up much space, even with the radio transmitter and spare batteries. That said, drones are specialised pieces of equipment and require some training to use. If you haven’t flown a drone before, be prepared expect to crash several times!
Camera Accessories: DJI Osmo OM 4 and Ulanzi MT-44 Tripod
Recording videos on my phone has become such a big part of my documentation process that I now always keep a gimbal in my bag. A gimbal stabilizes the phone and makes videos less jerky, while taking photos in low light conditions becomes much easier by hand. The Osmo OM 4 was the first version of their mobile phone gimbals which folded up into a smaller form, and the magnetic clamp makes it easy to attach and remove the phone without the hassle of setting up.
The tripod is another example of a device that folds into a smaller form, in this case a thin cylinder. The Ulanzi MT-44 is technically a monopod with a tripod base that extends to just over a metre. The innovative head has an integrated mobile phone clip, but it is also strong enough to hold the gimbal and the (now-lighter) camera.
Laptop: HP Envy x360
The HP Envy x360 is just slightly heavier than an iPad at 1.3 kg, but it can store all the photos (I usually shoot in RAW) and videos that I take, and also run the heavier applications like Lightroom, Photoshop and Premiere. While functionally a powerful laptop, the x360 also converts into a tablet so I have the best of both worlds. The only downside is that Windows 11 doesn’t have a dedicated tablet mode and so the interface is still clunky especially compared to iOS.
Power: Remax Powerbank 10,000 mA (wireless), Remax Powerbank 20,000 ma, Basike 65W USB C adapter + cords
The phone is the one device that gets used all the time, so I have two power banks within easy reach to keep it topped up. The smaller-capacity one has an added advantage of wireless (magnetic) charging. I probably have too many power banks at this stage since the Osmo can also function as a powerbank. Except for the drone, all the devices in the kit can be charged using USB-C or Lightning Cables. The Basike 65W adapter has a USB-C and a USB-A outlet so I can simultaneously charge the laptop/camera and phone at the same time. I’ll be glad that Apple is finally being forced to adopt USB-C which means one less cable to carry in the future.
Miscellaneous Items in the Tech Bag
I reused an airline toiletry bag to keep small miscellaneous items such as a travel adapter, a memory card holder, a memory card reader and a multi-headed USB charging cable. The most surprisingly useful device in this pouch is the Ulanzi mini LED light, which can be connected to the hotshoe of a camera . The small light is really bright and very useful for dark cave interiors and other low-light conditions. More light translate to less grainy videos and photos. If I only had one tool to recommend from this bag, it would be this mini LED light.
Other items (not pictured)
A few other items of note are not pictured. I always carry one or two archaeological scales, but they are usually in my wallet. There is also the wallet ninja, a card-size multitool that can be used as a bottle opener, a wrench or a screwdriver. Just make sure to get a non-bladed version if you plan to bring it on a plane. I also forgot to put in the picture my water bottle – I used something like this one that can be rolled up and doesn’t take space. In fact I forgot to put it in the picture because it was rolled up in one of the side pockets and hidden so well! And finally, a pen. It’s always handy to have one, trust me.
What do you think?
Now more so than ever, I’m focusing on keeping my backpack light(er) and favouring devices that can play multiple roles or fold into compact forms. Of course, this loadout is personalised to myself and how I use my gear in the field. What about you? If you conduct fieldwork, how does your kit differ to mine? Is there something in my kit that you think you would use, or do you think I’m missing something? Or maybe you have a question about a particular choice of device. I’d like to hear from you – leave a comment below. Perhaps this will be the first in a series of posts, since the kit changes according to mission requirements.
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