Isabelle Roughol – The J junkie

The tribulations of a young journalist and writer looking for work

My backpack journalism kit, or where you could find gift ideas for the journo tech geek on your list

with 9 comments

Something very exciting happened last night: I completed my backpack journalism kit. Ok, my quest for tech geek goodies will never be quite over, but I’ve now got enough to have some serious multimedia fun. Speaking of, the result of our multimedia training at the Missourian is now online. We bragged a little because ours was first online; but a few hours later, another group put up theirs, and I have to say their Flash presentation is very fun.

But back to my kit. I’ve talked with several people who’ve wondered what to buy, and since I’ve done hours of research on this, I’ll present my choices. If you’re not a tech geek, I won’t be offended if you don’t read past this line.

My main issue is that I wanted to get quality equipment with which I coud grow professionally without busting my limited student budget. Dirk Halstead suggested tons of equipment at the Platypus workshop but it would take me three lifetimes at my current pay to afford any of it. I’ve got all the stuff below over the past couple years thanks to cumulated Christmases and birthdays from a generous family, many hours at minimum wage in the newsroom and an attic full of old goodies at my parents’ house.

The key is to get equipment you can improve later with add-ons, and accessories that you’ll still be able to use when you change bodies. That’s why I find it a good idea to stick with the same brand, Canon in my case, so my lenses and accessories work on my film, digital and video cameras. Also know when the investment is worth it: I put $500 in my digital SLR, but I wouldn’t put more than $40 in a tripod. It’s a whole different story if you’re a professional photographer, but if you’re a wannabe one-woman team in the African bush like me, the stuff below suffices I think.

All of this fits in my padded shoulder bag.

  • Canon 20D SLR digital camera, last night’s glorious purchase. Canon doesn’t produce those anymore so you’d need to buy it used. For the same budget you can get a new Rebel SLR, you can get a used 20D. Personally, I prefer a used professional camera that has been well taken care of, to a brand new consumer product. The 20D is simple enough for an amateur like me but also should allow me to grow with it into a more sophisticated photographer. Its 8.2 megapixel resolution is all you’ll need for Web publishing and most prints you’ll do. It came with a 18-55 lens. Next buys are a longer telelens (I’m eyeing a 70-300 that should cover most of what I do as an amateur) and an external flash (you’ll notice the limitations of the pop-up real soon). Also in a perfect world where money is not an issue, I would get plenty more lenses, esp. wide angle and a fish eye for fun.
  • Canon Elura 100 DV video camera. This one, too, has been phased out by Canon; the market changes extremely quickly. This is a fine camera for the kind of Web video reporting that backpack journalists do. When buying this last year, I looked at the optics (I’m a Canon aficionado), the resolution, the optical zoom (much more important than the digital zoom, which only lowers resolution and increases shaking), and the possibility to go from quick, easy settings to a more personalized configuration. If you want to be able to grow your camera’s capabilities, choose one that can support an add-on wide angle lens and possibly an external lens. Eventually I want to move on to an HD camera, but it’ll be a while before I can afford it. It’s not necessary for Web site embedding but there are gorgeous HD podcasts out there. And I have dreams of making documentaries.
  • Audio Technica ATR25 stereo shotgun microphone. My only problem with my camera is that, if you use the internal mic in interview settings with very little background noise, you become painfully aware of the sound of the camera running. So I got this external microphone. It’s a basic model, cost me just 35 bucks. I quite honestly haven’t even used it yet. I’m still looking for a way to attach the mic to the top of the camera so I don’t need to grow a third arm. So far I’ve only found expensive L-brackets that hook up to a tripod. I’m working my way to a wireless Lavaliere mic, much less obtrusive once you’ve got your subject used to it.
  • XtremeMac Micromemo mic/speaker attachment for iPod. I use this as my voice recorder when doing print stories. But the quality of the audio is high enough for Web publication. The only downside is you need to have the mic very close to your subject. It’s a good idea to keep it running while shooting your video. Several teams at our training this week, including ours, learned the hard way that you can’t ever have too many backup plans when it comes to audio.
  • Canon EOS 650 SLR film camera. This is its French model name, but don’t bother looking for it anyway: this camera is 20 years old. It was my dad’s, and he’s the one who introduced me to Canon optics and photography in general. I adore this model because it is from the time when all internal workings were made in metal, not plastic. The camera is heavier, but it’s eternal. It and its lenses (a 28 mm and a 50mm) also have way more possibilities of aperture than the models sold today. This is only for when I feel artsy and want an excuse to hide away in a darkroom. No journalism is done on film these days, and thank goodness because it’s expensive.
  • Tripod of a brand I can’t remember right now. I again went with a basic $30 dollar model, bag included. I’m on a student budget here. It’s light and compact, has a bubble level, adjustable legs, a quick release system, a table tripod hidden in the handle and it moves in all the directions I want it to. It would probably fly off if I tried to shoot a snow storm, but it’s all I need to keep my camera steady and even. For serious film-making, I’d get a tripod where the panning is a bit smoother.
  • The usual array of tapes, film, connection cables, batteries and chargers. Always have extras. I’m working toward an extra Canon battery pack (I know, I’m working toward a lot of things).
  • Filters. I have a 4-star and 6-star for when I feel artsy. The only one that’s absolutely essential is a circular polarizer filter. I have a bunch of color filters, but in the age of Photoshop they’ve become moot and I don’t carry them around.
  • Sandisk 2 gig memory card
  • iPod video 60 gigs. For audio recording and for down time.
  • Earphones. Once again, we found out it’s important to be able to check your audio on the field. You could just use your iPod earphones, but I don’t find plastic bits in my ears very comfortable so I go with a full-on padded headset, another 15-year-old survivor of my geek family’s constant technology updates.
  • Cameras’ user guides. Just in case.
  • Press card. It’s crazy the effect a piece of plastic can have.
  • Notebook and pen. You didn’t think you could do without, did you?

I keep at home for editing time (and will take on the road one day).

  • My faithful Macbook 14”. I’ve edited on iMovie so far because I haven’t had time to sit down with Final Cut Express. That’s the plan for the holidays.
  • Cavalry 400 gigs external hard drive. Importing video takes an insane amount of space. I got a 3.5” drive, which means it’s a bit heavy and not self-powered. If you have a bigger budget, go for a 2.5” that’s powered via USB and the size of a paperback. It’s much easier on the road, or even just in your purse to get to the newsroom.
  • Sandisk Imagemate CF reader. Canon got a bit proprietary and decided it won’t let you import photos directly from camera to computer unless you use their software. If you’re more into iPhoto, get a card reader.
  • External USB mic to record voice-overs. 10 bucks will do.

Let me know what you went with or if you have other suggestions to improve my faithful bag.


Written by Isabelle Roughol

Friday, 7 December, 2007 at 08:03

9 Responses

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  1. Looks like you’re on the right path to making documentaries. The only problem I have with your setup is the tripod. I bought cheap as well. The first tripod I had the leg collapsed and whacked out my Minolta. The next tripod the release lever — which allows you to raise and lower the legs — broke making the tripod worthless. Today most tripods are mostly plastic — even name brands — and major stress points, such as hinges on release levers, are also plastic. They break easily. Eventually, I bought two tripods that are all metal and about 30 years old for $5.00 each at a thrift store. They’re heavy but like your Canon EOS, they’ll last forever and my equipment is safe. I’m studying to become a backpack journalist.


    Tuesday, 22 January, 2008 at 23:24

  2. Nice list. I’m still working on my backpack, so this is very helpful.

    I have a Canon Rebel XT with the 18-55 kit lens and a (long-term borrow) 70-300. For a tripod, I just took an old one from home that gets the job done. I recently bought an Olympus DS-30 audio recorder with a stereo mic and lav. A trip last Friday to the Everglades for a profile convinced me I definitely need a hand mic with a wind screen. For video, I switch between my old 3.2 mp Canon point-and-shoot, which can get 640×480, and the Flip video cameras we’re trying to survive with at The Hurricane. I have three 2 gig cards–two to switch off with for the SLR and one for the p-&-s.

    I did a little research on video cameras during winter break, but I didn’t buy. Definitely this summer.

    The biggest new element of my mojoness is my phone: an AT&T Tilt. The iPhone is sleek and sexy and can show full Web pages, which is great, but it’s not that functional. The Tilt is like a little laptop. It slides open (an tilts up) to reveal a full and comfortable qwerty keyboard) and has Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PPT viewer). And you can add programs. I bought a 6 GB mirco SD card to hold photos, videos, songs, etc. While I haven’t had a chance to use it to its fullest yet, I could file a quick story for online pretty easily.

    Greg Linch

    Wednesday, 23 January, 2008 at 16:22

  3. Thanks for your comment guys.

    Robert, I agree, cheap tripods are not ideal. But metal ones are too heavy for effective backpack journalism and sturdy, lightweight ones are in the $200-$300 range. The price of the external flash for my 20D that’s top of my purchase list. Then a 70-300 lens. Then a better audio system. Then a good tripod.

    Greg, for the video camera, I strongly suggest you save up and buy a basic, consumer HD cam rather than a regular DV. I got my DV just a year ago, before HD really exploded on the consumer market, and I’m regretting the choice already. Sure, HD doesn’t matter so much for Web streaming, given how much you end up compressing, but HD podcasts are getting really popular on iTunes. With an HD, you can even make your own low-budget documentary and share it with independent festivals. My DV, even though it’s a Canon and a good one, just doesn’t have the image quality for a long feature.


    Wednesday, 23 January, 2008 at 21:41

  4. Thanks, Isabelle. I didn’t plan to go with an HD, but I definitely see your point and agree.

    Greg Linch

    Saturday, 26 January, 2008 at 04:27

  5. Robert, I’m getting to change my opinion about tripods too. I was out yesterday afternoon shooting for a photo class assignment and my camera kept tilting forward or backward on the tripod, as though it was too heavy for it. No damage but a little heart attack for me every time.


    Friday, 1 February, 2008 at 05:57

  6. Isabelle –

    I love this list! I’d put a wireless mic closer to the top of your list, though. I’ve found out the hard way that they are absolutely invaluable for a lot of situations, and makes your subject much more at home.
    Also, I hate DV. Passionately. I want an HD camera kinda badly.
    For people who don’t want to spend too much on a DSLR but want the newest tech, I’d recommend Pentax’s K10/K20D or K100/K200D prosumer/professional DSLRs. I have the K100D and couldn’t love it more. It has its faults, but for the money, it’s a great starter camera and has really helped me out.

    Beth Carpenter

    Saturday, 2 February, 2008 at 01:12

  7. This is a little belated, but I’ve updated my backpack to include:

    -Canon HV20 with an extra battery and UV filter
    -Sunpack tripod (though not in the backpack
    -Mass quantities of mini-DV tapes

    Greg Linch

    Saturday, 12 April, 2008 at 21:10

  8. where does one get a press card/press pass from?


    Saturday, 17 January, 2009 at 09:56

  9. […] Isabel Roughel, “The J Junkie” had (at least in 2007) this backpack configuration. […]

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