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How to build a camera kit for adventure photography

Everything you’ll need when you hit the trails for the ‘gram

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Photo by Brent Rose for The Verge

For most of my life, nature has been my sanctuary. My job and life keep me hyper-connected to the technological world, like many of us are, but it’s only when I get out into the fresh air that I am able to slow down enough to make some sense of the cacophony in my head. For many years, photography had no place in that. I just wanted to be in the experience, not fiddling with gadgets and settings. Eventually, though, I found myself wanting to share these places and these experiences, and some of them have to be seen to be believed.

What began as a tentative relationship with outdoor photography has evolved into a full-on infatuation that’s fed by digging into the work of legends like Ansel Adams and Instagram’s most creative posters alike. Now, I find myself planning whole trips around something that I want to shoot. In fact, it motivates me to get out into the wilderness even more than I did before.

While I certainly don’t claim to be on the same level as the incredible pros out there, I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last few years doing obsessive research and piecing together my kit. Through a lot of trial and error, I believe I’ve put together a very respectable adventure photo kit, and it’s one that (probably) won’t require a second mortgage. Here is my recommended setup. (Remember: you don’t have to buy all of this at once.)

Cameras and lenses

This is the most expensive and contentious part of the whole shebang. Camera companies have their dyed-in-the-wool loyalists, as do lens brands and even sensor sizes. The truth is that cameras are ridiculously good right now, and I advise everyone to do their own research and see what is best aligned with their goals, preferences, and budget. Here’s what I use. (Please don’t yell at me.)

Primary camera

My current camera is the Sony A7R III, and, in general, I really love it. It’s a full-frame camera (meaning its image sensor is roughly the same size as 35mm film), which lets a lot of light in. That’s important to me because I do a lot of low-light shooting, including shots of the stars. It’s 42 megapixels, which I like because I can crop images and / or print out large copies and they still look great. For years, I was shooting with the much cheaper Sony A7S, and before that, Canon’s entry-level full-frame, the 6D, and I was able to get some of my very favorite photos with those. I’d recommend going full-frame if you can because you’ll be able to shoot wider, brighter photos with a shallower depth of field, but you can still achieve great results with cameras that have smaller sensors.

Lenses

Whichever camera you end up selecting, there will likely be dozens (if not hundreds) of lenses to choose from, some of which will cost as much as your car. How do you choose? Well, what are you most interested in shooting? Start with buying your lenses based on that. I knew I wanted to do a lot of landscape work and be able to show the Milky Way stretching out over the sky, so finding a good, fast, wide lens was essential for me. The best one I’ve ever tried is the Sigma 14mm f/1.8. It’s razor sharp and fast, which lets me take star shots with significantly less noise and blur. However, it’s $1,600, which isn’t exactly cheap. That said, the first wide lens I bought was the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. It was only about $250, and it’s a terrific lens that I still use all the time. If you don’t care about landscapes and just want to photograph small birds, you’ll probably want a stabilized telephoto lens. If you want to do a bit of everything, it’s nice to have a versatile, fast zoom lens. Sony’s new-ish 24-105mm f/4.0 is my current go-to, though I used the slightly cheaper 24-240mm f/3.5 – 6.3 for years and got a lot of good stuff.

Secondary camera

A lot of photographers carry multiple camera bodies with them. Good for you if you’ve got that kind of scratch! Personally, I just carry my main body, my phone (more on that in a sec), and an action camera, which is currently the GoPro Hero 7 Black. I try to have it in my pocket whenever I’m hiking. It’s ruggedized, it’s waterproof, and you can mount it on just about anything. It’s just extremely versatile. I used it recently while shimmying through a tight, flooded slot canyon in southern Utah. I’ve also used it snowboarding, mountain biking, diving, or doing other ill-advised things.

Drone

This one certainly isn’t mandatory. In fact, it’s frequently forbidden (in National Parks, for instance). That said, there’s a lot of wilderness out there where using a drone is perfectly legal and can give you perspectives that you just can’t get on the ground. For a while now, my go-to drone has been the DJI Mavic Air because it’s small enough to toss in a backpack (or a jacket pocket) and forget it’s there, yet it offers great image quality, bi-directional obstacle avoidance, and at $700, it won’t break the bank. That said, if image quality is your number one priority, get the DJI Mavic 2 Pro. It’s $1,500, and it’s a bit bigger than the Air. Not only does it have omnidirectional obstacle avoidance, but it features a Hasselblad camera with a 1-inch sensor that delivers unbelievably excellent images.

Carrying and mounting

Backpack

I’ve tried a lot of camera bags over the years, and the one I keep coming back to is the $250 Mountainsmith Borealis. The 2018 version is 35 liters (up from 25), so it fits everything I mention in this article (and then some), and it still manages to be comfortable to wear. Its configurable, padded compartment holds camera bodies and lenses securely, it has a laptop sleeve that doubles as a hydration compartment, it has a cavernous main compartment (for warm clothing, food, or even a sleeping bag), plenty of small pockets for organizing gear, and even a built-in rain cover. It’s also made of super strong 610d Cordura (also new for 2018), it stands up on its own (on a waterproof bottom), and it fits under the airplane seat in front of me… most of the time. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as anything I’ve found.

Tripod

For three-plus years I lugged around an old, heavy video tripod that I found in a closet. It was clunky, but it held my camera securely, and, ultimately, that’s its most important job. Recently, I decided I needed to upgrade, largely because I was taking more portrait-oriented shots and video tripods don’t tilt 90 degrees to facilitate that. The one that’s checked all of my boxes is the Sirui Ocean Runner Tripod Kit (W-2004K20). It extends to 71 inches, but it folds down to just over 20. It weighs only 4.6 pounds, it has a detachable monopod, and it’s waterproof. It adjusts quickly, it has a ton of bubble-levels, it has very smooth panning (important for video), and, last but not least, it uses an Arca-type plate (see next section). It’s available in aluminum for $320 and carbon fiber for $490. I went with aluminum. It had all of the same features, it was slightly more compact, and it weighed the exact same. I’ve been extremely happy with it.

Quick access mount

I was shocked that such a small thing could make such a big difference out in the field. When hiking, biking, or scrambling up rocks, it’s really annoying to use a neck strap. Not only does it chafe your neck, but the camera will be bouncing off your sternum all day (and / or scraping rocks). The $70 Peak Design Capture solves that. You attach the clip to the strap of your backpack and a small mounting plate to the tripod to screw in your camera. It clicks into place on your chest and doesn’t bounce around when you move. It takes just one hand to pop the camera in and out, and because the plate it uses is also Arca-type, that means you can pop it directly onto an Arca-type tripod, like the one I mentioned above. (There’s also an adapter for many Manfrotto tripods.) It’s fantastic.

Alternative tripod

When I hiked the Grand Canyon a couple of years ago, I packed very light. The only tripod I brought was this freaky-looking Joby GorillaPod. It can hold an 11-pound camera securely enough for very long exposures, it has 360-degree panning, 90-degree tilt for portraits, and it has flexible legs that let it cling to rocks and branches, but they are rigid enough for it to stand on its own. It uses Arca-type plates, so with my current system, I essentially never have to unscrew the plate from my camera. It’s also great for mounting a GoPro, a light, or even an audio recorder. Mine (in the photo) is the GorillaPod Focus with Ballhead X, but it’s since been replaced with the 5K Kit, which is essentially the same. At $180, it isn’t cheap, but I’ve gotten a ton of use out of mine over the years.

Photo Upgrades

UV filter

Congrats on your fancy new lens. Now let’s protect it and make it better. UV filters used to be necessary back in the days of film cameras because film was rather sensitive to UV light. That isn’t really an issue in the age of digital. However, a lot of photographers recommend using them anyway because they’re clear, and they protect your expensive lens from things like little scratches, dust, sand, and saltwater. UV filters are flat so they’re easier to clean than the domed surface of your lens, and if they get scratched, they’re a whole lot cheaper to replace than the front element. You might want to remove it before pointing directly at a light source, though, as it can cause a bit of extra lens flaring. That’s more of a problem with cheap filters. I really like filters from B+W. They’re extremely high quality and reasonably priced. Make sure you get the right size for your lens. I recently bought the B+W 77mm XS-Pro Clear MRC-Nano 007 filter for $50, and I haven’t seen any impact on image quality.

Circular polarizer

These are especially useful for shooting bright skies, bodies of water (even little streams), or really anything that has reflectivity. Just like your polarized sunglasses, these filters cut down on glare, and they can make a dramatic difference. Take a look at the above before and after. You can manually rotate the filter, to change the degree and look of the polarization. These do cost you a bit of light, so I don’t leave mine on all the time. But when it’s bright out, it really improves the look of my photos. Again, I went with the B+W 77mm Circular Polarizer MRC, which costs $83 for this size, and I’ve been impressed with its build quality and clarity.

Cleaning kit

File this one under absolutely mandatory. Get a cleaning kit. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. The two most essential items are a microfiber cloth and the little squeeze-ball puffer, for blowing dust off your lens or sensor. Further, I’d recommend that you carry more than one microfiber cloth because once they get oily (or pick up some sunblock from your fingers) they can make things worse. I spent a whopping $11 on this cleaning kit from CamKix, and it’s been great. I also try to keep a couple of these jumbo-sized Zeiss Microfiber Cleaning Cloths on hand.

Intervalometer / remote

If you want to get into some more advanced techniques like extra long exposures, star trails, or time lapses, you’re going to need an intervalometer. Nikon has a basic one built into the software of its cameras, which is a great feature that I really wish everyone else would steal. Fortunately, you can get an external intervalometer that does the job for cheap, just double-check that it works with your specific camera. I went with a JCC Timer for Sony off of Amazon for $22, and it’s been solid. That said, if you’re game to spend more, my friend Rachel Jones Ross likes the $100 Vello Wireless ShutterBoss III, which is a two-piece system that allows you to do all of the above as well as manually control your shutter from up to 250 feet away.

Quick lights

As I mentioned, I really love Milky Way photography, but sometimes it’s useful to add a bit of light to your foreground (a cool rock formation, a tree, etc.) so that some of its details stand out with the galaxy in the background. I don’t like using a big flash kit. Instead, I carry a couple of these little Lume Cubes. They’re small (1.5 cubic inches), waterproof, and rechargeable. They also have Bluetooth, so you can pair them with your phone, control them remotely, and adjust them by 1 percent at a time. For long exposures, I typically have them turned down to 1 or 2 percent, but they can get extremely bright and deliver flashes, too. They also have a tripod screw, so you can pop one onto a GorillaPod and get it angled just right.

ND filter kit

Neutral density filters allow you to reduce the amount of light that gets to your image sensor without impacting your aperture or shutter speed. They’re extremely useful when you’re wanting to capture the motion of water, such as a sunset over the ocean or a river roaring around some rocks. Neutral density filters allow you to shoot extremely long exposures without blowing out the photo, and they can also be useful for video work, too. The general consensus is that Lee Filters are the best around, but they cost a pretty penny, and if you’re just dipping your toes in, I would recommend starting with a cheaper kit so you can experiment and see which filters you’re likely to use the most. I went with this cheap Rangers 8-Piece ND Filter Kit for $26, and it’s allowed me to get some shots I really love.

Audio upgrade

Do you know how I know the mic on your camera sucks? Because they all do. If you’re going to be shooting video, and you want to capture some audio that is actually pleasing to the ear, you’re going to have to go external. I’ve been using the Zoom H6 digital audio recorder for nearly three years now, and it’s been great. It has swappable mics, four XLR inputs, audio out, and visual levels. At $370, it isn’t cheap, but as a journalist, I find it indispensable. Also, if you’re going to be doing a lot of interviews, it’s worth investing in a wireless lavalier kit. I like the Sennheiser kits, though the new G4 system (includes a lav mic, transmitter, and receiver) are about $600. That said, yesteryear’s G3 kids are still great, and you can find them discounted these days.

Adventure Essentials

Headlamp

You might have just planned for a quick hike, but sunsets can be seductive. If you stay for those last few shots, you’re going to end up walking back in the dark. Just keep a headlamp in your pack at all times. I’ve tried a ton, and the one I keep coming back to is the Princeton Tec Sync. It’s bright (150 lumens), water resistant, has flood lights and spotlights, and it has a red light, so you don’t wreck your night vision. The thing that keeps me coming back is the dial that controls it all. It’s easy to find, even with thick gloves on, and you don’t have to memorize any complicated sequence of button presses just to get to the mode you want. Oh, and it’s cheap at $22.

Hydration bladder

I drink a lot of water when I hike, and so should you. Whenever I rely on a water bottle that’s stashed in a side pocket, I under-hydrate, simply because it’s inconvenient. That’s why I think a hydration bladder with a hose just inches from your face is essential. I keep coming back to the Platypus Big LP. It holds three liters (100 ounces), seals securely, is relatively easy to clean, and it has a valve that doesn’t leak. It also doesn’t take too much pressure to bite down. It fits nicely in the Mountainsmith Borealis pouch, too.

Water filter

For day hikes, I try to carry enough water so it’s not an issue, but I have run out before. I used to carry a Lifestraw, which was helpful in an emergency situation, but you’d have to get down on your belly in the mud by a stream, get your face close to the water, and suck like you were drinking the world’s coldest milkshake. The MSR Trailshot was a revelation for me. It’s a tiny little squeeze pump that’s small enough to fit in your pants pocket, requires zero sucking, and can even refill your water bottles and hydration bladder (something the straws could never do). You should be covered for anywhere in the US. But if you’re going to countries where waterborne viruses are a problem, you’ll need something bigger, like the MSR Guardian Purifier, which provides military-grade filtration (including viruses) and a high flow rate. That’s what I use for longer backpacking trips.

Multitool

Get the $100 Leatherman Wave. It’s a classic. Every other multitool I’ve used (even ones made by the same brand) have left me wanting. The Wave has a wide range of blades and tools, is dangerously sharp, but it folds down compactly in your pocket. I’ve used them from everything from repairing a tent to making dinner to digging a tick out of my thigh. I generally have one on me even for short day hikes.

GPS communicator / navigator

Think of this as a cheap insurance policy. The Garmin inReach Explorer Plus satellite communicator lets you send and receive texts with your family and friends, and it even lets them track your journey. It has offline topographic maps, and it’s simple to load routes and waypoints onto it, wirelessly, from your computer. There’s also an SOS button, which will call in search and rescue virtually anywhere on the globe. There’s a subscription fee for the texts and such, but it’s worth it. I recently had two camera setups spread a good distance apart in the desert at night. I used the inReach to leave a pin at each camera, and I was able to get back and forth between them. This thing has a permanent place in my adventure pack.

Portable USB charger

This is another permanent backpack fixture, whether I’m in urban environments or wilderness. Being able to recharge small gadgets while you’re out in the field is incredibly important. I’ve been using Anker’s portable USB chargers for years, and they hold up incredibly well. For most people, I’d recommend the $60 PowerCore II. As the name suggests, it packs in 20,000mAh of power into a very svelte little bar that fits into a jacket pocket. This new one has a port that can deliver charges at 18W, which is enough to quickly charge your phone or even give your full-frame mirrorless camera a boost.

Watch

Having a good outdoor watch is great for a lot of reasons. Personally, I’m using the Garmin Fenix 5S Plus. Not only is it a fitness tracker and rudimentary smartwatch (displays notifications, etc.), but it has built-in TOPO maps for the whole US. You can also use the GPS to track back if you’ve lost your trail, and it can even display weather and sunrise / sunset times. It looks good enough that I wear it all the time, even when I’m in the city. This watch’s predecessor actually got me to safety twice during a nasty, extended heatwave last year in the Southwest.

Bear spray

There are some things even a good multitool can’t do, like repel bears. If you’re going to be in bear country, get some bear spray and keep it on your hip at all times. You don’t want to end up like Leo in The Revenant.

In addition to the stuff in this category, I highly recommend carrying a compressible warm layer, a waterproof layer, a small first-aid kit, a means of making fire (storm-proof matches are a good choice), and a handful of bars or other calorie-dense foods to sustain you in case you get stuck out there.

Data Management

After you’ve taken your photos, you need to do something with them.

Laptop

Getting into a discussion about which laptop is best is liable to be as bloody as the argument over cameras. Personally, I used a 15-inch MacBook Pro for years. For photo work, I wouldn’t go with a screen any smaller than that. In recent years, though, I haven’t liked what Apple has done with the MacBook Pro. I didn’t like typing on the keyboard, and I didn’t like that I couldn’t get a 4K screen and that it only had one type of port (USB-C). So I jumped ship this summer and got a 15-inch HP Spectre x360. It has a 4K touchscreen (fantastic for photo editing), it has a wonderful keyboard, it has the latest Intel processor and a Radeon RX Vega M for graphics, and it has every port I want, including two Lightning-compatible USB-C, one legacy USB-A, a full-sized HDMI port, and an SD card slot. That effectively means I never have to carry any stupid adapters or dongles with me. Oh, and it cost roughly half the price of a less-powerful MacBook Pro. I’m not going to lie: I miss macOS a lot, but I don’t miss it that much.

External hard drive

Look at that little thing in my hand. That’s one terabyte. The SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD will disappear in your shirt pocket, but it’s also fast (550MB/s read speeds) and ruggedized to IP55, which means it’ll be okay in the rain or with small drops. Having had a spinning hard drive fail me this year when I bumped it ever so slightly, I can’t tell you how much that peace of mind is worth. This thing has fallen off of my desk onto the hard floor, and it didn’t even seem to notice. It comes in a number of capacities, but I think $210 for 1TB is a solid investment.

Wi-Fi hot spot

While cafés with internet are abundant, and many phones support tethering, I still prefer to have a dedicated Wi-Fi hot spot, as it seems that my speeds tend to be a bit faster than they are through my phone. (And using your phone as a hot spot kills the battery very quickly.) In the US, I’ve been using a Verizon Jetpack for nearly three and a half years as my go-to internet connection. I’ve also had a T-Mobile ZTE Falcon hot spot that I’ve relied on almost as much. Yes, you have to pay for data, but when your livelihood is dependent on you being able to get online, well, it pays off quickly.

For next year…

I hesitated to put this one in because it isn’t going to be available until early 2019, but I think it’s interesting enough that it’s worth mentioning. The original Gnarbox was a good idea. It was basically a portable hard drive with SD card slots and its own power source. As soon as you finished shooting, you could pop the card into it, and it would back everything up. You could even start editing the full-res files from your mobile phone, and the changes would be upheld when you get back to your home system. Like I said, it’s a great idea. But the first iteration didn’t quite live up. Gnarbox 2.0 looks a whole lot better. It uses SSD so transfer speeds will be extremely fast, and they’ll be checksum validated so you don’t have to worry if they’re really backed up. It also has a screen now, and the whole app is being overhauled. Again, it doesn’t exist yet, so I’m not recommending it, but I think it has a lot of potential, so watch that space.

Phone and Apps

Smartphone cameras have gotten really, really good. They’re still a far cry from a real full-frame camera, especially in low light, but some of my favorite photos are ones I snapped with my phone simply because I could grab it in time to catch the moment. My current phone is the Google Pixel 3 XL. The photos it pops out are the best I’ve ever seen from a phone. But there are other strong reasons to always have your phone with you, and many of those reasons are apps.

Google Maps

If you’re driving into the wilderness, its capability of downloading maps for offline use could literally save your life.

PhotoPills

Its interface isn’t fully intuitive (though it is compared to its competition), but PhotoPills (iOS, Android) is one of the most powerful apps for planning photos, especially if you’re trying to shoot a sunset, a lunar event, or the Milky Way. It even has AR so you can line up exactly where the Sun / Moon / Milky Way is going to be hours, days, or even months in advance. My night shoots have had a vastly improved success rate since I started using it.

Astrospheric

This is another one aimed primarily at night shooters. Astrospheric (iOS, Android) offers super detailed weather predictions for a couple of days in advance, but it goes beyond “it’s going to drizzle.” It looks at things like transparency, true “seeing,” Moon phases, and light pollution to give you real insight into exactly how much you’re going to be able to see.

Adobe Lightroom CC Mobile

For every photo I take with my phone, GoPro, or even those I quick-transfer from my big camera while still in the field, I run it through Lightroom CC Mobile (iOS, Android) before I post it. It gives you granular control over the way your photos look, and it really takes them up a level.

AllTrails

What Google Maps is for roads, AllTrails (iOS, Android) is for hiking trails. Not only does it help you find a good hike anywhere in the world, but you can download interactive topographic maps directly to your phone with the route clearly marked on them. You then use your phone’s GPS to keep you on track. If you’re in a true wilderness area where trails may be poorly marked (or nonexistent), this can easily make the difference between you getting to your intended destination or not. It’s a subscription service, but it’s very worth it.

And that’s my list. Is it all that you’ll ever need? No. Is some of it stuff that you’ll never need? Probably! Like I said, there’s no need to rush out and buy all of this at once. This is intended to be a list of things you may want to add over time or to point you in a direction if you’re looking to replace something from your own kit. This is all stuff that I’ve tested and has served me well. If you buy any of it, I hope it serves you well, too.

Brent Rose is a freelance writer and regular Verge contributor. He is currently traveling the US living in a high tech van, looking for stories to tell. Follow his adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and ConnectedStates.com.

Photography by Brent Rose for The Verge

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