I recently made a trip to northern Iraq on a photographic assignment for the Sun Newspaper. The initial brief was to meet with and photograph Yazidi women who had escaped from Islamic State after being sold into slavery. The second part was to track down and meet with any foreigners fighting with the Kurdish forces against IS, preferably British. We also wished to do a story on the women who are fighting with the Female Peshmerga, something we wanted to do when we last visited the region 12 months ago but didn’t have time.
The age old dilemma of what to take is always the first thing any photographer thinks about before a trip. Like most photographers I know, I’m a bit of a gear junkie. If it takes batteries and has a few flashing lights then it must be something I need. However, space and weight is limited and sacrifices have to be made.
So what did I take? To start with there were a few things I was obligated to take, as the the paper insisted for insurance purposes, those being; body armour & helmet for personal protection should we find ourselves venturing near the front line, a tracker which is a small phone like device with in-built GPS (Global Positioning System), that sends our location via satellite to a security company back in the UK who monitor it, giving them a last known position should anything happen to us. Another device that I carry on these types of trips is a BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) which is basically a small satellite dish that allows me to connect to the internet pretty much anywhere in the world which is very important with todays 24hr news. It turned out that none of these devices or equipment were used on this trip apart from the tracker, but in a war zone you just never know. This lot made up the bulk of my check-in luggage and were also the heaviest items. I also added my first aid kit, which contains a tourniquet, a field dressing, some Celox Gauze & Granules which are dressings to control major haemorrhage including life-threatening bleeding from arterial injuries and the usual plasters and painkillers. Plus one very important drug, Imodium. I also packed a multi-plug power cable, wash kit, torch, camera sensor cleaning kit, flipflops, my 44 inch 5-in-1 reflector and my Giottos vgr 9255 Tripod. The only other things that went in my hold luggage were power cables, and chargers (not pictured) and clothes. I always take technical hiking clothes that weigh very little, pack down very small, are easy to wash and fast to dry. That way, you can wash them in a sink at night and they are dry in the morning. This all weighed in at 22kgs, which was 1kg under my allowance. The fact that this was to be a hotel based trip in a very hot climate meant that I didn’t need any bulky warm jackets or fleeces or the need to take camping gear, such as a sleeping bag & mat or bivi bag.
In my carry on luggage I carried all my camera gear, passport, money, phones and laptop. As long as I have these items I can work. Everything else is expendable. Just after Christmas this year, I switched camera systems from Canon to Fuji and I’ve never looked back. The size and weight of these little cameras, coupled with the fantastic image quality, makes them a no brainer when it comes to travel. I pretty much took my whole kit, only opting to leave my 55-200mm and 18-55mm at home. I like to work in close with my subjects on fast primes so they were a priority I packed 2 XT-1 bodies and my X-Pro1 body, 16mm, 23mm, 35mm, 56mm primes and 10-24mm in case I needed something really wide. I also packed the 50-140mm lens as, after all, I was shooting for a tabloid newspaper and longer lenses lend themselves to the style of photography they prefer. I got use out of all of these lenses but especially the 56mm. I also packed a Fuji EF-42 flash for fill in and my Canon 580EX Speedlite with power pack in case I needed extra power in the bright sun but in the end it wasn’t needed. Instead I used the 44 inch 5-in-1 reflector, which I almost didn’t pack, to bounce extra light into the dark tents in which I shot a lot of the portraits of Yazidi girls. I also packed a load of spare batteries, as you can never have too many on a trip like this, and an Eyelead sensor cleaning kit, which are great by the way, but the Fuji’s built in sensor cleaning function is so good I didn’t need to use it.
So how did the cameras hold up in the stifling heat. Fuji specify that operating temperatures for the X-T1 are -10°C – +40°C but I was working in an environment where the daytime temperature was around the 50°C mark and in direct sunlight, much hotter with my equipment exposed to heat well in excess of this. At times, the bodies with attached lenses got so hot I found them hard to handle as they burned my hands. This is obviously not good! So how did the X-T1 perform under these conditions? Well I have to say they performed pretty well, but I did have a few issues. The main problem I noticed was that the camera setup would change on its own. For instance, the face detection would suddenly enable itself or the auto focus wouldn’t work, this in itself not causing me too much problem but annoying all the same. I had an issue when shooting with the 50-140mm zoom lens where there appeared to be movement from camera shake in a couple of the frames I shot but on looking at the exif data the shutter speed was at 1/3200sec. I have no idea what could have caused this as it was definitely not heat shimmer.
©Andy Bush – what appears to be movement in this cropped image
The X-T1, however, never failed to take the picture when I pressed the shutter release. A fellow photographer working alongside me at one point wasn’t so lucky when one of his Nikons shut down completely leaving him with only one body to work with. Funnily enough, he had a Fuji X10 round his neck, which he also used and it never let him down.
I’m very happy with the performance of these superb little cameras in very testing conditions that they were never designed to work under. I tried to change lenses as little as possible favouring the 16mm 35mm and 56mm for most of my shots. This kept the sensors relatively dust free with the built in sensor cleaning mode easily able to cope with cleaning any dust that did stray in. I was surprised just how clean my images where and I don’t think I had to use the spot removal tool in post once.
I probably could have shaved a few extra pounds from my bags but to be honest I thought I packed well for the trip without too much wasted space or weight. One thing I’ve learned from doing quite a few of these trips to Afghanistan and Iraq is that you never know what’s going to happen while you’re there and you need to be prepared without being too weighed down with stuff you just don’t need. Always have a way to communicate i.e. a sat phone and always have plenty of memory cards and batteries, as once you walk out that hotel door or step off a helicopter on to a battlefield, you never know when you might get back.