180721 Toronto Islands OVN - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Occasionally I'll do a quick "what's in the bag" tweet to say what I'm carrying for an interesting outing, but I've actually gotten complaints that I'm not detailed enough about what I choose and why. Okay, one complaint. Still, I take feedback seriously. 

Here's everything that I took with me for an overnight photo walk in the Toronto Islands.

Every now and then I like to do these minor and slightly silly feats of endurance; this was my first one since last summer, and my first overnight on the islands. My total packed weight was just shy of twenty pounds, which I carried for about fifteen kilometres. My first and final photos were taken twelve hours and twenty-five minutes apart, with the total time out of the house closer to fourteen hours. I took just under four hundred photos, of which maybe forty are good and twenty are usable, which makes the trip an amazing success.

It was also the easiest overnight walk I've done, and getting the gear right was a huge part of that.

What's in the Lowepro Flipside 300AW II:

The Fujifilm XT2 and XF16 was my main setup for the night. The camera, XF16 lens, and tripod accounted for 40% of the weight I was carrying when I left home in the evening. Totally worth it – and exactly as intended. The top deck dials and flip-out screen make the camera ideal for night tripod work, which is why I never take the Really Right Stuff base plate off of it. For this occasion I went all out, and added the L-section of the RRS plate as well, which was useful for a few rare vertical compositions. 

The XF50 didn't get out much; if I was using a shoulder bag, and not on windy beaches or caught in intermittent drizzle, it might have seen more use. The X100F and its RRS plate was mostly a backup, which it did admirably by not being needed, along with the little plastic Ultrapod that I brought for it. It was nice to have for the times when the XT2 was doing multi-minute exposures, but next time I'll just do some standing meditations instead.

The lumberjack bag holds five extra batteries, of which I used three, and three emergency memory cards, which I never needed. The red drawstring bag holds my Theta, Joby Micro 800 tripod, ground spike, and extension adapter. And yes, for those keeping score, that's three different tripods. I'm nothing if not well-accessorized.

Smaller items are various ø67, ø49, ø46 ND and CPL filters that let me push into multi-minute daylight exposures, and add a bit of oomph for light trails at dusk as well. Once it was dark the yellow-and-glow Pelican 1960 LED light was clipped to my pack where it was immediately at hand; the red Nitecore TIP CRI flashlight, Pelican emergency flasher, and glow whistle went in various pants pockets. I do enjoy flashlights. The 1960 is my most reliable light, and the TIP is superb at very low power for checking dials and finding cable release sockets. 

The pocket in the front of the bag is holding a light wind shell jacket, fresh socks, and travel towel. I didn't really need any of those, but they're nice to have and don't take room away from the gear. I also brought a small bottle of bug spray, which I only applied after getting a half-dozen mosquito bites, and my Bad Elf GPS logger was running to tag my photos and keep track of my route.

Not to leave out the small details, the orange gear tie that holds the Canon RS60 cable release bundled up also serves to keep my camera strap wrapped to a tripod leg and out of the breeze. There's another gear tie, yellow with a carabiner on the free end, that I keep on the tripod to suspend the cable release when it's in use.

When I'm out at night things that are small, losable, and/or important all have something that glows or reflects attached to them, like the photoluminescent tape that's on my cable release. Each of the three lights I carried either glows in the dark or has something attached to it that does, there's a glow marker on my battery pouch, and my tripods and backpacks have reflective tape added to them to increase my visibility when I'm acting oddly in the dark.

Despite its size my Jobu Algonquin tripod isn't very heavy, being just under 2kg naked and about 2.5kg with the Arca Swiss P0 ball head attached. That makes it fairly manageable on a ten-mile walk, even though its full extension is so long that I kept scraping its steel spikes across the pavement. That's a spectacular sound at 4am. I kept those monsters concealed under their rubber foot caps while I was in transit, but carried another nylon pouch specifically to keep the caps unlost while they were in my pack.

(Fun fact: my tripod has never been outside of Toronto. The factory for Jobu Designs is in Etobicoke, having moved in from Mississauga a few years ago, so it was made in the city where I live. I picked it up in person from their showroom via the TTC.)

Sustenance for the trip was a sandwich, mixed nuts, and cut veggies. I was carrying just one plastic 'bike bottle' of water, unfortunately made by Cameback and bought before I knew of their connections to the assault rifle market. I wouldn't buy it again, but it's easy to fill and drink from, and that single bottle is the defining element of this trip.

It's almost too obvious to say, but the Toronto Islands are a large and intensively used city park. There are water fountains everywhere. That's why my single bottle was transformative: it meant being able to carry and refill just a small amount of water as I walked, instead of needing to leave the house with an entire night's worth. It let me use the smaller Flipside instead of my usual hiking pack, with more capacity for gear and a tripod harness for hands-free walking in deep sand and subway stations.

Rounding out the kit was my phone with its battery case, wallet, and keys. All of these were either leashed to the bag, secured inside a pocket that held nothing else, or both. Losing any of those would have deeply sucked.

I should also admit that I was indeed wearing cargo pants and hiking boots, both treated with tick repellent, and a cheap-but-legible backlit digital watch instead of one of my nicer analog models. While having all night seems like plenty of time, I need to keep an eye on the clock for the island airport curfews, dusk/dawn edges, moonset, sunrise, and even the hourly light shows that the CN Tower puts on, as seen below. Long exposures dictate a slower pace, but there's too much to do to linger too long, and playing the little-hand-says game takes way too much energy in the middle of the night.

I may not have become a better photographer over the past few years, but I'm way better at adversarial camera operation than I used to be.

My goal when packing for an overnight walk is to make it harder for me to make mistakes while making it easier to recover from the ones that inevitably happen. Fortunately on the island my errors were pretty minor; I shouldn't have gotten tomatoes on the sub I brought for lunch, but I didn't lose anything and the unexpected but intermittent rain was manageable. Next time I'll carry a shower cap for my camera instead of giving up my hat to cover its open cable release port door. No big deal.

The Lowepro Flipside did very well on its first outing. The only thing I've changed after using it was to add some of my beloved silver reflective tape to the black zipper pulls on the black zippers on the black bag. If you're guessing that this it to make it easier to see whether the bag is open or closed, you'd be right. The factory design isn't a major problem, but making sure that the pairs of mobile zippers were snugly together took scarce mental energy that didn't need to be spent. 

That conservation of mental energy, keeping the ancillary stuff as easy as possible, is the key to taking photos when it's dark out and I'm tired. It worked well this time, and I'm looking forward to doing it better next time as well. Always learning, and always changing, these long walks engage a process of refinement and invention that I really enjoy.


Added one week later:

Another overnight walk has given me another chance to test out my approach. As expected I did most things very much the same: no tomatoes on the sandwich, and a little less gear. I didn't bring the X100F, and swapped the XF50 for the 55-200 zoom lens. This kept the weight very similar, and the different lens was useful for a few specific shots. My next trip – tentatively planned for mid-September – will probably pair the XF16 with a different lens again. Maybe the 35/1.4. 

Another improvement was switching from the individual plastic filter cases to a nylon organizer wallet that fits in a pants pocket, which was easier to manage even though it also included a wider range of ND filters. And for the first time ever I used the plastic petal hood on the XF16 instead of the square metal one, because the metal hood won't fit over stacked filters. 

I also swapped the Pelican 1960 LED for a yellow Pelican 2300 light with an incandescent bulb for mild light painting, as much for my own amusement during four-minute exposures as for any practical effect. And I brought a small bottle of orange juice as a quick and easy way to recharge in the morning. It sounds silly, but in a dozen solid hours of photography, I never quite find the time to sit and take a break.


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