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Prepping For a Tour — What’s In the Camera Bag

September 3, 2010
Elk Buffet With a View, Kootenay Plains

Elk Buffet With a View, Kootenay Plains

In prepping for workshops and photo tours that I’ve attended or led, some common questions come up. Many of them relate to what camera gear to bring, so I thought I’d talk about what’s in my photo kit when I’m getting ready for a tour… and a bit about what’s not.

In the Bag — Main Kit

Hey, it’s a photography event, camera gear is what it’s all about, right? Hard to argue that point. Here are the main pieces of kit in the bag on most any multi-day expedition, particularly ones where I’m not limited by the weight that will fit in airplane luggage or that I have to carry on my back the whole time.

  • At least two bodies. I have a few main workhorses, all Canon DSLR’s. I may carry a primary and a backup of the same type of camera, like the full frame 5D Mk II and my original 5D that I can trade off for landscape work. Or I may carry 2 bodies used for different purposes, like the 5D Mk II and 7D, using the latter for wildlife & action. I may take more than 2 bodies depending on where I’m going, how long I’ll be there, and how unique or costly the event is (in money or effort). If a camera dies and I’m unable to photograph with it, what’s the downside? If I’m not limited by weight or space, bodies are more useful with me than they are back home in a case.
  • Appropriate lenses — wide, mid-range and long. The topic of lenses is long enough that I’ll cover it separately, below.
  • Pocket camera. I have become a believer in the value of spontaneous photography. Just walking around, how many times would I say to myself “there’s a great photo” — yet be unable to capture it because I didn’t have a camera at hand, or it was too much hassle to deal with the big rig. Pocket cameras have their limitations, don’t get me wrong. But the highest quality camera in the world is no use if it isn’t with you; then the best one is the one in your pocket. There have been some contenders for serious, professional grade pocket cameras over the past 2 – 3 years. More are coming all the time as manufacturers cotton to the fact that serious photographers want convenience, control and image quality. My current pocket camera is the Panasonic Lumix LX5, replacing the earlier LX3 and the Canon PowerShot G10.

Note: Spaces are still available for the Fall 2010 Canadian Rockies Photo Tour. If your schedule has an opening for a trip at the end of September, there are few places better to be for fall photography!

  • Spare flash cards, and extra batteries (and chargers). Digital cameras can’t shoot if they have no juice, or the storage card is full. Flash cards are cheaper than ever, while batteries remain pricey, unfortunately. But I carry plenty of both in my pockets, and have had to use the spares many times when the images are flowing.
  • Filters — polarizer, ND. I’m not a big filter user for creative purposes in the camera, but there are cases where a filter has no realistic alternative in post-processing or otherwise. First is a good circular polarizer to blue up skies, punch the clouds, control reflections, and strip glare off damp foliage. My main polarizer is a Rodenstock. Second is one or more neutral density filters to block the light, allowing creative effects by slowing the shutter speed even in bright light. I’m having fun with the Singh-Ray Vari-ND, which can be dialled from about 2 to 8 stops of light reduction. Both are in 77mm diameter.
  • Tripods. For architecture, landscape and much of my “deliberately framed” work, plus wildlife shooting sessions with long, heavy lenses, a tripod is usually essential. I’m shooting multiple exposures, slow shutter speeds, or heavy optics, and simply need the support. Or I simply want to put my eye and mind into a slower-paced, creative zone that tripod-based photography affords. I currently use Velbon Sherpa Pro carbon fiber tripods. They are fairly light weight, and have proven durable over the past 5 years. Depending on the height and weight I want, I pull out a CF-740, CF-640 or CF-530.
  • Tripod heads. Tripod heads are equally crucial camera support elements, offering security and responsiveness underneath all that expensive electronics and glass. For light use I have the Really Right Stuff BH-40, while my go-to head for wide to mid-range lenses is the RRS BH-55. Underneath the ball head, I frequently mount an Acratech leveling base. This unit has a separate adjustment so I can level the base of the ball head above it, for flat panning when shooting stitched panoramas. For long lenses I use the original Wimberley gimbal head; I consider this type of head a must-have for anything over 300mm in focal length. A gimbal mount offers secure, balanced support — taking your hands off doesn’t send the rig crashing to the ground. And at the same time, the motion is smooth, and aiming is fluid & responsive while following the action.
  • Quick release plates. The final piece of the support puzzle is a set of quick release plates, in the Arca-Swiss style. These slot into the tripod heads and lock down, offering reliable mounting with quick swapping. My plates include RRS L-brackets on the camera bodies for horizontal or vertical mounting, plus a combination of RRS and Wimberley flat plates on mid-range and long lenses for clamping them to the heads.
  • Remote release cable. I do a lot of exposure bracketed sequences, long exposures, and various other kinds of image capture where I don’t want to be jiggling the camera by pressing the shutter release button. Or waiting for the self timer to fire. So a remote release cable is essential, allowing me to set up the shot, lock things down, and then take any number of exposures without laying a finger back on the rig.
  • Bubble level. A bubble level is another essential that I pull out frequently to check that my framing is on the straight & level.
  • LensPen. Lenses and filters get dirty, all the time. I used to use various cloths, wipes, micro-fiber and shirt corners for cleaning lenses. Now I keep a LensPen in my shirt pocket. These are handy little widgets for brushing off loose dust, or wiping clear even persistent smears. Just remember to brush first, then polish, or else risk grinding particles into the lens.
  • Pocket flashlight, headlamp. Often in doing landscape work, I’m out in low light. A small, bright LED flashlight that fits in the pocket is almost always with me. This is good for seeing the trail and surroundings while moving or setting up on location. Once the emphasis switches to camera handling, a headlamp usually is more convenient because it keeps both hands free.
Fall At the Crowsnest, Crowsnest Pass

Fall At the Crowsnest, Crowsnest Pass

Lenses

I confess — I’m a bit of a lens junkie. I understand the creative challenge of photographing for a month with only a standard 50mm prime lens, or the convenience and economic benefits of just owning a basic zoom or two. But for me, lenses are “the right tool for the right job”, and that job is all about getting light into the camera in a way that makes most sense for the type of photo I want to take. So I have a set of lenses that evolves over time as I try to find that elusive perfect mix that best covers what I like to photograph. Early on I went after zoom lenses because of the convenience and flexibility they offer, and I still have a solid group of zooms. As time has gone by, I have added some specific prime lenses into the mix for the special characteristics they have. Here’s the current go-to group.

Wide category

  • Canon 17mm TS-E f/4. Truly a superlens. An ultra-wide focal length with incredible image quality — and it’s a tilt-shift! How crazy is that? Great for wide vistas inside or out, with perspective control or stitching from the shift capability, and depth of field control from tilting. Only major downside? It can’t take any threaded filters. I can say this lens is specialized, but I reach for it fairly often. It’s unique, and I love it.
  • Canon 24mm TS-E f/3.5 II. Compared to the 17mm variant above, this second generation of Canon’s venerable 24mm tilt-shift lens is almost “normal”. But it’s hardly garden variety. It offers great image quality in a wide angle, all the capabilities of shifting & tilting, and can take 82mm threaded filters. The new on-the-fly relative positioning of the tilt and shift axes (shared with the 17mm design) is a great addition to the original 24mm TS-E design. An excellent initial tilt-shift lens for any landscape or architecture photographer.
  • Olympus Zuiko 21mm f/2. Wait a second — Olympus for a Canon camera user? That’s right. With one of several adapters on the market (I use the one from Stephen Gandy’s CameraQuest), old school manual focus Olympus OM system lenses can be successfully used on Canon bodies. This 21mm is a classic gem. Sharp, clear, fast, small and light, it’s a great lens when I want a wide prime focal length, no special features, and crisp results.
  • Olympus Zuiko 35mm f/3.5 Shift. Yep, another classic Olympus optic. Like its 21mm cousin, this one’s a small and light design, but with the added bonus of a shift mechanism. (No tilt.) Shifting is useful for perspective control and stitching, and the 35mm focal length is a useful one. Images are clean and crisp, with only moderate chromatic aberration when shifted out wide. The advantage of this shift design is that the mechanism can shift both horizontally and vertically — at the same time! I like the size and flexibility, and it’s a great option for double-row stitched panoramas.
  • Sigma 50mm f/1.4. 50mm is often thought of as the “standard” focal length on 35mm format cameras, and I had long been thinking about getting such a lens for my standard kit. Sigma released a new 50mm design with a fast f/1.4 aperture, and early reviews indicated that image quality was excellent even wide open. Of course photographing wide open is one of the big reasons to get an f/1.4 lens! I picked one up and have been pleased with the results when the light is low, or when I want very shallow depth of field.
  • Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8. What!? First Olympus, now Nikon — the dark side! I admit it, I have a lens embossed with the “N” word. Can’t be helped — this ultrawide zoom is truly another ground-breaking superlens design. Incredibly sharp from corner to corner and a fast f/2.8 aperture for use in challenging light or cutting back the depth of field, this is a nearly unique piece of glass. About the only thing that comes close is the Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 which is half the price but two stops slower not nearly as sharp. The Nikkor 14-24mm is an incredible piece of work, and thanks to Mark Welsh’s pioneering Nikon “G” lens adapter for Canon bodies, any Canon photographer can have the best of both worlds.
  • Canon 24-105mm f/4. I find it difficult to wax poetic about this lens, but what I can acknowledge is that it’s a solid workhorse. The focal range from 24mm – 28mm is poor, since the corners of the frame vignette significantly on a full frame body, but beyond that quality is reasonable. The f/4 aperture is reasonable, and image stabilization makes it a bit more reasonable for hand-held shooting and general use in various light conditions. Reasonable is the word — I don’t rave about this lens, but I use it a lot because it’s blue chip.

Mid-range category

  • Sigma 150mm f/2.8 Macro. I don’t do a huge amount of macro or close-up photography, but do dabble in it. This Sigma lens is a very sharp optic with a good general purpose focal length and aperture, for times when I need a genuine close-up capability rather than just trying to use a normal lens and trying to get close. Of course it can also be used for non-closeup work, as a medium range telephoto.
  • Canon 70-200mm f/4 (non-IS). The mid-range focal lengths offered by this light Canon zoom provide a good operating range for various wildlife and other types of work. But now I use it for landscapes as well. The lack of image stabilization is not an impediment for tripod use, and saves weight. The quality is excellent and the ability to create tight compositions or focus on intimate details adds a new and important dimension to landscape work. Something to consider for anyone who typically photographs landscapes with a wide angle. I’m reaching for this lens more and more often.

Long category

  • Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8. Another lens I originally got for its great utility in wildlife, birds, sports and other action photography, this Sigma is a virtually unique piece of glass. Sharp optics, a fast f/2.8 aperture and a flexible zoom range make it great in combination with full frame cameras or crop factor cameras. If I expect to encounter wildlife, this lens is with me, mounted to a dedicated body; wildlife won’t wait to swap lenses! If the lens is at hand when I’m photographing landscapes, I will occasionally reach for it if the Canon 70-200mm doesn’t give quite enough reach to frame a composition as tightly as I would like.
  • Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6. Certainly the heaviest and in some ways the most specialized lens I own, this Sigma is another zoom design that is unique on the market. This is almost entirely a bird and wildlife lens for me. Clean detail across the zoom range, a fixed aperture of f/5.6 and a flexible set of focal lengths for creating different compositions of animals without having to move — it all makes this a great lens for my style of work. But it’s heavy and unwieldy enough that I rarely lug it for great distances.

That Halloween Mood, Glenmore Reservoir

That Halloween Mood, Glenmore Reservoir

Bits

Whether with me or nearby in a bag or case in the vehicle, a few other bits & pieces are part of the essentials in the traveling kit.

  • Vest & belt pouch system, bag, and/or case. The gear all has to go in something, since I can’t juggle. Transporting it over the long haul (including air travel), is different than transporting for the short haul (hotel to location & back), which also differs a lot from carrying it the field. I use Pelican hard-sided cases for long-haul transport, and often for short-haul transport as well. I have a few soft-sided bags that I sometimes use, for example a Crumpler bag is good for walking around towns & cities. But for landscape and general outdoor work I typically use a combination of a vest and belt pouch system. Many photographers prefer a photo backpack. But I prefer to have things conveniently at hand in vest pockets or belt pouches, so I don’t have to constantly take a pack on & off, empty it, fill it, and dig through it. My vest is from a fishing store, since fishermen have interesting gear that’s often cheaper than stuff made specifically for photographers. My belt pouch system is from Think Tank Photo.
  • Teleconverters and extension tubes. I do have a couple of 1.4X teleconverters which are often mounted to the Sigma 120-300mm and 300-800mm, respectively. Photographing birds, wildlife, sports, etc. often requires some extra reach. I almost never use teleconverters for landscape or other types of photography. Extension tubes are useful in the opposite way — not for getting more reach for a distant subject, but for using a standard lens to focus on a subject much closer than normal. If I don’t have my Sigma 150mm Macro handy, or need a different sort of focal length for a composition, I use extension tubes on one of the other lenses such as the Canon 70-200mm. I use the Kenko set of 3 tubes (12mm, 20mm, 36mm).
  • Pec-Pads, Eclipse fluid, bulb blower and camera sensor cleaner. Camera gear will get dirty; lenses in particular need to be cleaned a lot. While a LensPen in the pocket can cover a lot of needs, sometimes the job calls for more. Pec-Pads are good for glass and wiping off other surfaces; the advantage on lens surfaces is that not reusing things like micro-fiber cloths means the wipes are less likely to have grit caught up in them which may scratch the lens. Eclipse fluid can be used for tricky stuff that won’t just wipe off a lens. The bulb blower can get non-sticky dust and grit off a sensitive surface without the risk of grinding it in and scratching something. Finally, numerous types of camera sensor cleaner can be handy to remove annoying dust or other junk that sticks persistently to the sensor, leading to dots and specks on every image. Be prepared to clean the sensor, don’t keep photographing through the whole trip with bad spots on every image!
  • Flash and flash accessories. Flash is not that relevant for most typical landscape work. Typically my Canon 580EX and flash accessories such as battery pack, mounting brackets and Better Beamer are used for birds and wildlife, or interior work. But an interesting thing flash can be used for in landscape work is illuminating foreground subjects in low light conditions, before dawn or after sundown. Flashlights are great for more flexible light painting as well, another good reason to have a flashlight along in low light conditions.
  • Rain covering, towel. Bad weather makes for good photography. I love bad weather, but I have to say active rain conditions are my least favorite. That’s because I don’t like to get soaked, myself, but also because rain doesn’t mix well with electronics and optics. Having said that, there can be a lot of photography opportunities in the rain as long as it isn’t a torrential sideways downpour in exposed settings! Carry a lightweight rain covering of some sort that can wrap the camera and lens so you can photograph in the wet. Also make sure your vest, backpack or other carrying system can offer good enough protection against rain or ground water. Keeping a towel in the vehicle is also a good plan; dry off any wet equipment as soon as you get back to the vehicle.
  • Piece of foam mat. Getting a different perspective can make for improved compositions. But kneeling or sitting on wet, cold or sharp surfaces can be a pain — figuratively and literally! Something I frequently bring along is a cut off piece of closed-cell foam sleeping mat. Not too big, just enough surface area that I can kneel or sit on it without immediately getting bashed by sharp rocks or getting soaked on wet or muddy ground.

Not In the Bag

If the point is to take photos, every piece of equipment should come along, right? Not necessarily. Here are a few things that usually don’t make the cut for me when I’m prepping for general photo trips.

  • Specialty equipment. For awhile I was investigating whether I liked using medium format lenses on my Canon cameras, such as the Pentax FA 645 35mm f/3.5 with the Zörk Panorama Shift Adapter. I like the concept and the lens is a good one, but I found the whole contraption too large and cumbersome for common use. I’m still trying to work out how or whether to work this type of gear into my photography style, but meanwhile it has not earned a place in my go-to set. Likewise I do a lot of panoramic photography, so I’m evaluating the Gigapan Epic Pro motorized panoramic head. This will probably work out, but mainly in the context of specific panoramic photography activities. Large, heavy,  and specialized, it’s not a part of my routine bag of tricks.
  • New gear that I’m not yet comfortable with. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m often pretty comfortable picking up something new and just rolling it right into my photography work. Every so often, though, I’ll hit something that I’m not quite on top of yet. When I go on a specific photo expedition, my goal normal is to make some great pictures, and so I tent not to use that sort of event as a way to experiment with something. I could end up wasting time that could be used more productively if I stay focused on working the settings with equipment that I know will produce results that work. I save my experimentation for situations where the consequences don’t matter… and the expenses are low. My first perspective control / tilt-shift lenses were just used around the house until I had figured out how to get the mechanism to do what I wanted, when I wanted.
  • Unreliable gear. If I have something that I can’t trust, I don’t bring it. Maybe it’s lens that doesn’t seem to be focusing right, or a camera body that is producing a lot of unexpected errors. Whatever the case, for me the point of a photo trip, as mentioned above, is to concentrate on creativity and taking great photos. I don’t want to be fighting with the gear or not able to trust it when I reach for it. If it has a problem, it stays behind until I can get it looked at and either fixed or replaced.
  • Uninsured gear. One final thing I do my best not to bring is any equipment for which I don’t have adequate insurance coverage. Hey, we all take the best care we can, and paying for insurance somehow doesn’t make it to the top of the list of things to do when prepping for an important trip. But accidents can happen, and unfortunately thieves are out there, too. Getting good insurance for my equipment gives me the piece of mind that a photo trip won’t suddenly turn into an expensive disaster if something goes wrong and takes out the gear.

Whew, that’s a long list! Could I add even more? Probably! How about a monopod… or a Plamp. Is there no end? And so far I’ve mainly talked about the camera gear, not all the other outdoor, travel, computer and logistics stuff that’s involved in a successful photo tour! That will be a subject for another post.

Feel free to chime in! I tend to travel heavy, but everyone’s style and preferences will be somewhat — or a lot — different. For a photo-focused tour, what’s on your essential camera equipment list?

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