Gary’s Gear Bag
Over time, as a photographer you build-up gear and accessories as you grow in skill or find something that will aid in the kind of photography you do. All of that gear has to go somewhere if you are going to take it with you as you go out to shoot. For me, it all goes in a series of bags created for camera gear for which each has a specific purpose – and that is to make it easier on me to go out and shoot. After all, if going out to shoot is a labor of labor and not a labor of love – then your trips are going to get fewer and further between.
I have three types of camera bags and they almost always all go with me. I’m going to go over the bags I use and why I use them – and what gear I carry in those bags depending upon the type of photography I’m doing for the day. Gear and accessories are really part of a learning experience as your experience in the field will tell you what you really need and don’t need to carry with you. So, let’s begin with the actual bags and I’ll cover the type of gear I take with me on trips. The first thing to cover is my main bag, which gets packed with all of the gear I’m planning on using for the type of photo outing I’m going on. It’s not really necessary to carry everything with you – but before you go you need to think about what gear meets the purpose for the shooting you will be doing and pack accordingly. For instance, why carry 5 battery packs for your DSLR if you know 2 will suffice for the time you will be shooting. My main pack, which I’ve nicknamed “The Beast” is a Tamrac Anvil pack designed to haul just about everything. It has segmented space for camera bodies, lenses, filters, memory cards and all the incidentals – plus a sleeve for a laptop. Once loaded up, it is truly a beast to hike with for long distances, but it does allow you to get a large amount of gear organized and ready for use. The real estate inside my pack can be reconfigured into almost any arrangement I like by moving velcro dividers around inside the pack to suit my needs. The main purpose of this bag is to give me options by having a place for all of my gear. Depending upon what I’m going out to shoot, the bag may be fully packed or it may contain just the items I need for a given shoot.
Any good camera bag should have pockets on the outside which allow you to get to things you need quickly like SDHC cards, micro-fiber cleaning cloths, filters and snacks. There are so many good camera bags by companies like Tamrac, Lowepro, PROTEC, Think Tank, Tenba and others that choosing one is really a matter of which ones features and look meets your needs the best. Bear in mind when looking for one that the weight of the bag itself and the sturdiness of the interior are both important factors. Hiking with a bag that is heavy to begin with or in which the interior sags as you hike is not likely to make your experience as pleasant as it should be.
To my great joy after hiking with The Beast everywhere in the mountains for several years, I came across a bag that allowed me to carry just the essentials on the trail that I thought I would need – a sling bag. Now I load The Beast in the SUV with me with everything in it, but with the sling bag I can take everything out of the big bag and carry just the items I think I’ll need with me on the trail. To me, the sling bag is a God-send allowing me to go further and longer with just the camera gear I need. This bag is again a Tamrac bag – and while I’m not sponsored by them or anything, I just find their bags work well for me.
With this bag I can put in a camera with a lens and a second lens, along with all of the cards, filters and other accessories I need on a hike. One of the great benefits of a sling bag is that it rests on your hip and you can easily access your camera to shoot without having to take it off like a backpack requires. The difference in weight is also a huge plus and it has allowed me to go much longer and still have energy left after a day of hiking and shooting. The first hike I took using the sling bag after having hiked with the backpack on for years was really a cause for great joy. Hiking with the sling bag took hiking from a labor of laboring to keep going to really enjoying being outdoors and shooting. It improved everything! This is the bag I use almost all of the time now whether I’m shooting urban scenes or backwoods landscapes.
There are times though that I can go even smaller. In those cases where all I need is something to carry just my camera body and a short lens, I’ll go with a small shoulder camera bag. At times, I’ll even attach this small bag to my sling bag as extra storage for either accessories or snacks.
Once you have the right bags for the shooting you’ll be doing, the next thing is to organize the interiors of your bags to fit your gear. So, what’s IN my bag and why do I carry what I do? Well, let’s dive in!
I shoot with Nikon cameras and lenses. My choice of Nikon is a fairly organic one – I first studied photography under Galen Rowell who used Nikon gear and just became acclimated to the Nikon brand of photography gear. My current primary camera is a 36 megapixel Nikon D800E and a number of Nikon lenses.
I think whether you are using Nikon or Canon or Sony …. or a number of other camera manufacturers systems you can create great images. So, don’t take my choice of camera as a recommendation of what is right for you. You are the one best suited for deciding what you can presently both afford and what features appeal to you most. Bear in mind that some of the most iconic images ever known have been made with cameras that had far fewer features than the cheapest DSLR cameras available today.
Every camera I own has the vertical|battery housing grip put on it. I love how all of the control you have at hand when shooting in landscape mode is there when you turn the camera to shoot verticals. In addition, the battery in the grip lasts longer than the one in the camera and who doesn’t want to keep shooting. That said, a second and third charged battery is always a good thing to take with you even on an afternoon shoot.
Filters are the accessories that do more to make a great image possible than almost any other aspect of photography outside your imagination. I carry three types of filters with me in my bag all of the time. Each has a special purpose and they can be used by themselves or in combination with my other filters.
Circular Polarizer Circular Neutral Density Graduated Neutral Density
One of the first filters to get when you start buying filters is the circular polarizer because it can give your skies the punch needed to bring out the blue in a washed out sky. A circular polarizer works by cutting out certain wavelengths of light when the lens is pointed 90 degrees away from the sun. More than that or less than that still impacts the color in the sky, but it diminishes as you move away from 90 degrees from the sun.
Circular Neutral Density Filter:
If you’re going to be shooting waterfalls, flowing rivers or any long exposure images then the circular neutral density filter is your best friend. The filter can be used to reduce light coming into your camera by up to 12 stops of light! So, when you have your shutter set to remain open to create a blurred effect from the movement of something, then this filter will allow you to get the correct exposure by withholding the proper amount of light. You can dial in the number of stops of light it will withhold and keep your shutter open from seconds to minutes when needed.
Graduated Neutral Density Filter:
These rectangular pieces of glass with one end partially tinted allow you to balance the amount of light between the foreground and background in an image. These filters are great for placing the tinted part of the filter over your lens and over the sky area in your image to bring the exposure of the sky down closer to the landscape underneath the sky. What happens in your camera is that the auto-exposure system will try to meter for a balance of light on a scene and give you an exposure reading that is neither ideal for the sky or the foreground. This is where a graduated neural density filter comes in handy because it can give balance to the scene and help you get a well exposed overall image. These graduated filters have differing gradations or transitions between the light and tinted areas. Each filter has a transition area that can be either a straight line across in which the tinting stops abruptly or is “feathered” across the line so it goes from tinted to un-tinted area smoothly. In my own bag I keep a three-stop hard and a two-stop soft neutral density filter to help compensate for light differences between land and sky.
I shoot primarily landscapes and architecture or urban scenes so my selection of lenses is based on shooting those kinds of images. If I were shooting wildlife I would include some super long lenses, like 500mm or more, but my interests in photography (and lack of patience) involve lenses of a shorter nature.
105mm macro lens:
For super closeups known as macro photography I use a Nikon 105mm macro lens to create images of flowers that have an almost Georgia O’Keefe like look of flowers of all types. It is a fixed focal length and can be used for landscapes also, but since you can’t zoom the lens in or out you have to use your feet to get closer or further away from your subject.
Next in line as a special use lens is my Nikon 50mm f1.4 lens which is a super lens for both portraiture and landscapes. With the ability to open the lens to a wide f1.4 opening you can get a shallow depth of field giving you the ability to blur out the background in a photograph to make your subject stand out. I love this lens for its sharpness and the ability to really choose a wide or super shallow depth of field. Like my 105mm lens it is a fixed focal length so no zooming in our out.
Nikon 80-400mm lens:
My biggest or “longest” lens is a go-to for bringing in far away subjects closer to where I’m standing. It is the heaviest lens in my bag and I carry it only when the type of shooting I plan on doing calls for it. It has all of the features you want in a long lens in that it has VR to stabilize hand-holding the lens and is tack sharp throughout most of it’s range. While it can be used for landscape shots, it can also serve as a wildlife lens although it is on the short end of the scale for that. For wildlife photography somewhere around 500mm to 800mm are more likely lens choices. However, with its wide zoom capability, the 80-400mm lens can cover a wide variety of photographic needs and is tripod mountable.
Nikon 18-35mm and 55-200mm zoom lenses:
Zoom lenses give you the option to shoot a landscape and change how much of the landscape you include in your shot. I use two zoom lenses in particular, a 18-35mm zoom lens and a 55-200mm zoom lens . Both, are indispensable! Now, there are a wide range of zoom lenses with different focal length ranges, but I find these two work for me – while you might like other ranges depending upon how you shoot. The thing about zoom lenses is that they allow you to alter your composition at will and give you creative options that include moving your focus as you take your picture to create an abstract image. While each zoom lens is sharpest at certain apertures throughout their range, almost all have good clarity throughout. Even with a zoom lens that has a fixed aperture throughout, there are still some minor aberrations.
GOING BIG! …… Creating the Panoramic Image:
I have long been a fan of the panoramic format in photography, even to the point of leasing a Fuji GX617 to shoot panoramics in my film days. Today, I make use of my Nikon D800E and a set of Really Right Stuff panoramic rails to shoot multi-row images that I can stitch together in post production to create large prints. One of my favorite photographers who follows this method is Stephen Oachs who has made prints up to 7 feet tall by 14 feet wide! To create panoramic images, you need a set of rails that allow you to shoot around the nodal point of your camera to eliminate parallax. It takes some practice and learning to find your nodal point with each of your lenses, but the opportunity to create large prints is well worth it. To use these rails requires an L-Bracket for your camera so taht you can attach it to your rails in either a portrait or landscape orientation (always portrait orientation for panoramics) and a ballhead strong enough to hold it all. I use both an L-Bracket custom made for my camera and the largest ballhead that Really Right Stuff makes for standard tripods.
Panoramic rails L-Bracket BH-55 Ballhead
I use a number of tripods, but the one I use most of the time is a carbon fiber Gitzo Mountaineer. Carbon Fiber because it is lighter than metal tripods and easier to hold on to in really hot or frigid weather as it doesn’t conduct temperature like metal tripods do. Whether you get one with three or four leg extensions should be based upon how high you need the tripod to extend to in order to be comfortable when you are looking through your camera’s viewfinder.
Actually a very important piece of gear I keep on my camera is a good strap. When looking for a good strap it needs to be wide enough to distribute the weight of your camera and lens and soft enough not to cut into your shoulder. I’ve had several straps and currently I’m using a MOD strap that is comfortable and doesn’t slip. The strap is rugged, stylish and comes in many designs and has a soft underside that keeps it from slipping off your shoulder easily. It’s important to look good even if you’re in the woods, right? 🙂