Gadling Gear Review: This Year’s Favorite Gear

I’ve been reviewing gear for a few years now. I wrote for a snowshoeing magazine and a site focused on gear for travelers before I joined the Gadling crew. That means I’m kind of a tough sell when it comes to new outdoor and travel clothing, bags and accessories. And I test everything, I ride my bike in the rain to see if that jacket is really waterproof, I wrangle that roller bag into the overhead bin, I wear those noise-canceling headsets on a long-haul flight. I pay attention to what always makes it into the bag, to what gets used more than once, to what works. Here are six things that really worked from this year’s gear.

Birki’s Skipper Slides
: You could not have told me that a shoe from Birkenstock would become a (fair weather) travel favorite, but they’re great for long-haul flights, easy to get in and out of at the airport, they do double duty as slippers or flip-flops when you’re running down the hall to the ice machine and, though they may not suit your style – they’re very casual – I love these things and think they’re great if you’ve got room for a second pair of shoes in your bag.

Ozone Ultralight Roller from Osprey: Just about perfect as a weekender, at its smallest size, this super light bag holds everything you need for a three-day getaway. What’s causing it to miss the 100% mark? It needs a shoulder strap for when it’s not appropriate to roll it. That aside, this is an extremely well designed bag with lots of pockets in sensible places – there’s even a place for your netbook or tablet – and it looks cool.

Gregory’s Border Laptop Backpack
: Everyone’s got a system for getting you through the TSA checkpoint with your laptop pack; most of them are fine. They all seem to use the same open flat configuration, but that doesn’t mean they also make a great day pack. The Border pack is full of sensible pockets that are exactly the right size and shape for whatever it is you’re carrying. If you can’t find the right place for it in this pack, you don’t need to be carrying it. (Ok, one exception: it’s not built to carry a DSLR.) This is, hands down, the best laptop pack I’ve tested.Mophie Juice Pack Plus: Addicted to your phone for travel apps, podcasts, photography, etc.? Yeah, me too. Which means I’m always burning through the battery. The Mophie Juice Pack Plus doubles the life of your phone by wrapping it in a case with an integrated battery. Strategists can shut down some of those power sucking things like Wi-Fi or data to get even more time out of it. That’s a terrific extra for the mobile addict.

Panasonic Lumix: I’m a devoted photographer and at times I carry a big heavy DSLR with big heavy lenses. But I sprung for a new Lumix this year and I left my DSLR at home for two big trips. I’ve been so happy with what the Lumix offers me – excellent optics, works beautifully in low light, all kinds of customization settings for photo nerds, and it fits in my pocket. I love this thing. Love it.

SmartWool Anything: Lots of brands are making nice stuff out of merino wool these days and it’s good stuff. Icebreaker makes styling clothing and base layers, Nau makes cool pieces that pack well; it’s all great stuff. SmartWool has been around forever, though, and while they’re not the cheapest and don’t always have the edge on style, they’re stuff is consistently excellent and it lasts for a very long time. I have SmartWool gear that I purchased more than ten years ago and it’s still in great shape. Their gear fits, wears tough and lasts. Get whatever you like, but the midweight stuff that they came out with this year? Aces. It’s rare that I’ll endorse a specific brand so whole-heartedly, but I am never disappointed with their gear. Never.

[Image credit: Packing for NZ by herdingnerfs via Flickr - Creative Commons]

On Traveling Without The Big DSLR Camera


I own a Nikon D200 with some extra stuff, including a 28-300 telephoto lens that weighs a ton. I have a Panasonic Lumix (that’s what I used to shoot this picture of dusk in the Serengeti), and an iPhone. I have a video camera, too (the only thing on my list of gear that I did not pay for – I got the video camera in a promotional scheme two years ago). I’ve traveled with all of this stuff and used it all, though I’ll confess that I never did fall in love with the video camera.

I have some formal training in photography, some hardcore classroom time combined with some unofficial apprenticeship with an architectural photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am no stranger to the darkroom (oh, I just gave away my age). I used to shoot, develop and print my own work, though I don’t miss the darkroom. Digital photography has made me love the art even more, though I decried the clumsiness of my first 3-megapixel camera – the metering was bad, the battery life atrocious and the optics, second rate. Digital gear has eaten film now; the quality is just as good and the optics in my phone are 97 times better than that of my first digital camera.

And while I’m not sorry I hauled my full kit to Antarctica and the Serengeti, I am dead tired of carrying all that weight around. A day behind that heavy SLR with the telephoto, and my arm aches. I hate the hassle of carrying around a pack full of lenses, batteries, maybe a flash, a tripod, and whatever extras I’ve packed in preparation. Sometimes, a full pack of photo gear is what keeps me from traveling carryon only. And there’s the added concern about the value of all that gear – a need to keep it safe and under my watch.

I’ve been shooting with my iPhone 4s for about six months now, and with a Panasonic Lumix for maybe two years. When I headed overseas last month, I decided to make a leap of faith and leave behind the big guns and travel with gear that I could fit in my pockets or the little Swiss Army shoulder bag I like to carry when I travel.

%Gallery-160397%Did I miss having my DSLR? Not at all. I felt surprisingly light and taking pictures was easy – easier than on any trip I’ve ever taken. I split my use about 50/50 between my new Lumix and my iPhone, and the work I got was as good as on any trip that I took with my DSLR. Here are some of the reasons I loved shooting light:

  • Low light: I don’t own the lenses for my DSLR to shoot in low light without a tripod. Night shots – I could never get them right before. My phone and my pocket camera handle low light much better than my SLR.
  • Point-and-shoot: Good photography is about the eye, not about the gear, and my point-and-shoot lets me do just that, fast. Read a little Cartier-Bresson on the decisive moment, and you’ll see what I mean.
  • Super smart settings: Yes, you can tweak the settings like crazy, but you can also shoot in auto. Go ahead, call me lazy – whatever. I’m using the brain inside the camera to enable my eye. I like being able to do that.
  • Display over viewfinder: With my SLR, I was always stopping, steadying, framing – with a camera stuck to my face. It interrupts the conversation. Shooting from my solar plexus allows me to watch and listen and shoot at the same time.
  • Ease of access and use: My camera was always right there, not zipped away so it was padded and protected, so I simply shot more pictures. It fits in my back pocket; it’s about the same size as my wallet, so it’s easy to take anywhere.
  • Serious zoom: The 20x optical zoom on my Lumix is rated as equivalent to a 35-500 lens. That’s some range for optics that fit in a camera that’s the size of my wallet and weighs about the same.

The downside?

  • Bright light: It’s hard to see the viewfinder in brightly lit settings. At a few locations, I wished for a viewfinder and this camera does not have one.
  • The menus are insane: Sure, I’ll figure them out. But I know all the controls and what they do on my DSLR and I can tweak them fast. The navigation system viewfinder-based pocket cameras are basically a computer and you navigate through it as such. This is a learning curve issue that I’m sure I’ll master.

Lots of companies are making higher-end pocket cameras – my favorite is Lumix by Panasonic, but Olympus makes them, and Nikon and Canon too, as well as a number of other electronics brands. We’ve upgraded the Lumix three times at our house – not because it was broken, but because we wanted the improvements. I can’t speak to the other brands, I simply don’t know them, but I can say that yes, it is possible to get thoroughly satisfying shots with only a pocket camera. I loved traveling that much lighter, and what did I sacrifice? Not much. Not much at all.

The Sardine Can Camera from Lomography

La Sardina, camera, lomography, photographyWhen I first started taking photos, I used this stuff called “film.” You loaded it into your camera, fiddled with a bunch of settings and then pressed the shutter and prayed. You didn’t get to look at your pictures right away or tweet them to your friends or post them to your blog – oh ho ho no, you first had to take the film to a place that knew what to do with it. In the ’90s, you could get your pictures on a CD, making them a zillion times more portable, but before that, you got prints and negatives or maybe slides. Hey, I still have a box full of yellow envelopes stuffed with fading memories of trips past.

Now I shoot primarily with my iPhone 4s, a device to which I am enslaved for all kinds of reasons, though I also shoot a Pansonic Lumix, which is a tiny pocketful of awesome, and sometimes, a Nikon D200 if I’m feeling like I want a lot of control. I LOVE my digital kit, I think digital photography is nothing short of voodoo magic and if you’re addicted to over-processing and HDR, well, I’m not that into you but I get where you’re coming from.

La Sardina (The Sardine Can) Camera from Lomography takes all that away from you and puts you right back to 1979 when you weren’t at all sure what you were going to end up with, when you had a film safe bag for the X-ray machine and every now and then you posted those little black plastic canisters back home. Godspeed, little memories, I’ll see you when my Eurail pass expires.

I absolutely love the look of this little camera. It’s nothing short of adorable. It comes in a bunch of different patterns, there’s one that’s kind of steam punky and another with reptile scales and it’s cute as a bug. Everything that comes with it is designed to make your eyeballs happy – the big fold out instructions and the book that teaches (or re-teaches) you “lomography,” aka lo-fi photography. The packaging is gorgeous and the design work is inspired. I loved unpacking the camera; it was a joy.All that is grand, but that’s not what a camera is about for me. A camera is a tool for making pictures. I tossed the little sardine can camera and three rolls of film into my bag for a fall trip to Hawaii. I’ll experiment, I thought. After all, I already have a zillion pictures of the islands so what’s the risk?

I didn’t shoot a single photo. I was too attached to the results to give up the control that digital photography gives me. Oops.

A few months later, I tried the same thing. Only this time, I left my DSLR at home and opted for just my phone. I shot a roll of high color saturation film while on the Washington Coast. I used the camera wrong for about the first half of the roll, something I learned while rereading the instructions after a day of shooting at the beach. The second roll came out… well, I don’t know yet, do I? See, I haven’t taken the film in for development yet.

I’ll repeat something I said earlier: I LOVE photography. In college, I learned how to develop my own film and how to print my own pictures. I had a photography mentor – a cranky old architectural photographer who shot an 8×10 and let me use his immaculate home darkroom for my own projects. I have inhaled my share of toner while losing hours under the red lights. I have a box full of film camera gear in the basement and for a while, I had all the stuff to set up a home darkroom.

I am no less devoted to the weird combination of magic and science that happens when you substitute a camera for your eye. But I am content to leave the chemistry out of the process. I like the instant review, of knowing that an image sucks and I need to retake it. I’m addicted to the instantaneousness of modern digital photography and I don’t want to give it up. You can’t teach a new dog old tricks – or something like that.

I wanted to fall in love with film again. Everything about how the camera is presented is designed to make you do that, to fall in love with film and the process. It’s just so COOL (in all caps). The sample images look awesome and there are whole communities sharing their lomo work (in a digital environment, ironically). You might totally dig going lomo; people are doing great work with lomo gear. But it’s not for me. I don’t want to go back.

You should decide for yourself, though. La Sardina cameras start at about $59. Add a flash for $69, or get a kit that includes one for $109. For inspiration, check out the La Sardina galleries or those on Lomography.com.

Travel Smarter 2012: The best gear for your 2012 travels

Bad gear is dead weight, you might as well toss it right into that bin with the stuff that the TSA says you can’t take on the plane. A bag that has cheap zippers, clothing that doesn’t dry quickly when you’ve washed it in the hotel room sink, refillable bottles that don’t stay shut and ooze shampoo all over the shirt you packed especially for that client meeting… Packing smart is just, well, it’s smart. After a year of gear, I’ve got some ideas about what works well for me, but also, I polled friends and readers for the smartest in new gear. And some of it? Wow, smart stuff.

Bits and Pieces

TSA sized squeeze bottles: Essential and clever, good qualities in a travel companion. You can get the last of your favorite shampoo out because they’re squeezable. And refillable.

Solid shampoo: Lush Cosmetics makes a whole line of shampoos that you’ll be able to take on the plane without grief. There’s a solid conditioner too. Admittedly not new, but smart, indeed.

Gadgets

Kindle Fire
:
Readers love these things, and now that Amazon has updated the Kindle to include wifi, it’s a whole lot more than just a portable library. Browse the web, send email, watch movies, it’s a complete entertainment system that weighs about the same as a single paperback book.Morhpie Juice Pack Air: It’s a case and an extended battery. That means you don’t have to dig around in your bag to find the extra battery when your trying to Instragram your dinner and the phone dies.

Ear buds: Last year I got a pair of Senneheisser ear buds, iPhone compatible, and they almost made me give up my bulky noise cancelling headphones. They sound great and because they’ve got three sizes of pads for the buds, I was able to get a fit that isolates a surprising amount of noise. I’m sorely tempted by the Sennheisser IE 60, but the 250.00 price tag keeps me from pulling the trigger.

Panasonic Lumix :20x optical zoom in a pocket camera, HD video, a sophisticated range of settings, and great image quality, even in low light. A fantastic travel camera, I can’t recommend this thing enough. Panasonic keeps improving it, every year, and it’s been worth the upgrades. Stellar.

Shoes and Clothes

Wool, wool, wool: SmartWool and Icebreaker both make incredibly versatile lines of clothing — skirts in a very light knit that wash well and look great, sweaters that are stylish enough to wear out but perform extremely well in the outdoors… it’s expensive stuff, but I have pieces in my wardrobe that are over ten years old and still look great.

Barefoot style shoes: I’m a skeptic, but well traveled outdoors fitness types say they swear by Skeletoes from Fila. “Hiked in the mud, went to the beach, then went to dinner…” Okay, a casual dinner, to be sure.

Born Stowaway Flats
: Enough padding for serious sightseeing, and dressy enough for making it through the fancy dinner you hadn’t quite packed for. These flats pack down to tiny, so you can absolutely find room in your bag.

Luggage

Gregory Alpaca Rolling Duffel: No contest, this is my favorite new bag, the best thing I’ve seen in luggage in recent history. A duffel that’s a roller bag that you can actually carry as a backpack, and yes, it comes in carry on size.

Tom Bihn’s Brain Bag: All of Tom Bihn’s bags share an obsessive attention to detail, from the tie ons to the hardware to the compartments perfectly designed to hold just that one thing. The Brain Bag is for your laptop — and all that other electronica your dragging around. Configure it the way it works best for you.

Mission Workshop Vandal Backpack
: Sometimes, you just want a cool, stylish pack for day outings. The Vandal pack is weatherproof, expandable, and yeah, it fits your 15 inch MacBook. Plus, it comes in green. Sharp.

Osprey Transporter 60
: Not everything has to be a backpack. Osprey’s Transporter line comes with a harness so you can carry it as a backpack if you absolutely have to, but it’s also a top notch duffel. Weekends, road trips, short hops… a great all purpose duffel.

[flickr image via brewbooks]

Video of the Day – Mexican Holiday


Sometimes, choosing the right song to cut your travel videos to makes all the difference. Exhibit A – today’s Video of the Day, shot by Argentinian motion graphics designer Molokoso.

The footage was shot entirely on a pocket camera (Lumix TZ10) equipped with an underwater housing and edited to “Bombay” by Spanish musician El Guincho. The song lends it an irresistible upbeat tone which brings all of the fun & adventure that Mexico has to offer alive.

Did you capture any of your summer adventures on video? Edit them, pick a fun song, and share it with us – it could be our next Video of the Day!