What's In My Bag: A Guide to Camera Gear (Part I)
I often get asked questions about what gear I am using to create my photographs or what to pack for a photography workshop. I must say first that for me the equipment are merely tools of the craft. When someone online sees a great photo they often immediately say "Oh you must have a great camera!" Or they just ask outright what camera I used, implying that the camera and not the photographer's skill is what matters most. With the technology nowadays, even a cell phone camera can take a decent image. The key to creating a great photograph is not the gear you used to create it, it is the content of the image. Being in the right place, at the right time of day and setting it all up to get the perfect shot is the key. Don't be afraid if your gear is older, "cheap" or "lacking" in some way. Having good gear is helpful for some situations/reasons but its your skill first that created the composition!
That being said, using the right supporting tools for the job will help you overcome certain obstacles that arise trying to create your dream photograph! For example, if you do not have a tripod you may not be able to get a long exposure photograph. Without weather sealing on your gear or a good rain cover for protection, if it rains you might have to miss great stormy photographs. Without the right filters, some photographs cannot even be created without heavy post processing of your RAW files. Really in my humble opinion, it is not about the camera. Actually it is the other supporting gear that gets you through the day.
Where You Can Buy Gear
Here are some places where I like to buy gear, some have physical stores where you can browse in person. I have spent a great many hours happily lost in B&H's huge multi level store like a kid in a candy shop.
Amazon.com - For shopping online (I've included easy affiliate links on this page to the exact gear I discuss)
Adorama - Has a store in NYC, USA and online
B&H Photo Video - Has a store in NYC, USA and online
Unique Photo - Has a store in NJ, USA and online
The Bag Itself
First off is selecting the right backpack. If you are a serious photographer out in the wilds then shoulder or messenger style bags are not the right choice. The uneven distribution of weight will have you switching the bag from one shoulder to another with all of the weight on one side hurting all day. Skip the hassle. If you can, go to a physical camera shop and lift the backpacks and try them on. A big mistake that photographers make is to only consider the weight of the gear and not that the bag itself. First lift the backpack empty, some are surprisingly heavy! I have been at B&H and lifted empty camera backpacks that weigh even more than my tripod (3.41lbs). In particular you will notice that weather proof bags with the coated zippers weigh considerably more than a standard bag. Yet the standard bags often come with a rain cover to protect them in case of inclement weather.
The second mistake people make is not really "trying" the pack on right. Bring your stuff! Put your gear in the prospective backpack at the store, and try it on loaded up as you would be using it. Not only can you check if your gear fits but if the bag fits you. Strap it up and do a lap around the aisle. How does it feel?
So what backpack do I use? I have a Lowepro Mini Trekkar AW. It is an older model bag that has served me well over the years. The important thing about this bag is that it is very light and yet it can fit my camera with my largest lens attached right in the center. Then it has space around that for my macro, two wide angle lenses, hoods and filter pouch. Plus all of the accessory pockets and the huge pocket in the front that I use to carry water bottles (in a zip lock), a baggie with my memory cards, battery, charger, snacks and an external hard drive in. It has extra straps on the outside so that I can attach my tripod to the bag when I am hiking. Plus it comes with the AW weather cover I was mentioning. All that and it only weighs 2.6 pounds empty!
My second choice would be the newer Lowepro Pro Runner BP 350 AW II. This bag offers the same perks as mine plus way more pockets for your accessories and laptop. The caveat is that it weighs in a bit more at 5.4 pounds. This is still lighter than most bags of this size. If you want a little larger bag Lowepro also has the Lowepro Pro Runner BP 450 AW II. Amazon has a chart on their page to compare the two, plus another new version of the 450 AW II that has wheels on the bottom.
So why do I recommend Lowepro bags? I have been using the same bag for about 15 years. It has been through airport security, smelly mucky swamps, the actual arctic, every condition you can imagine and has stood up to it all. I will tell you something else surprising. I have (empty of course!) put my camera backpack in the washer and dryer many times. Delicate cycle warm wash and low heat dryer. Do that at your own risk but I don't know of any other bag that can take what I dish and handle it. (Again, before you ask no Lowepro did not give me anything to say this! All of my gear I bought myself on Amazon or at the camera store.)
One of the biggest weight offenders in your kit will be your tripod. The trick is compromise. I could write a whole article on this but in short I will say to save up and just get a carbon fiber tripod. They are light, strong and stand up to weather. Save yourself the aggravation of purchasing tripods again and again as they break, rust, or you find they are too heavy or annoying. There are more brands and options than ever nowadays that offer amazing yet affordable carbon fiber tripod kits with a ball head.
I bought a Horus Bennu carbon fiber tripod kit with ball head in 2011. Been around the world and in the ocean and the thing is great. When you buy a decent tripod you can rely on it to last you many years. Check out my Horus Bennu tripod review for more details on the specific model I got if you would like to see why I chose that exact one or want grab one too. Mine is an older model of course but they have a few upgraded new options online. And before you ask, no not sponsored!
A few other brands that I recommend are Three Legged Thing, Really Right Stuff and Gitzo. In fact Gitzo's Traveler Series of tripod and head sets are very popular, however I have never used one myself. Here is one that I have seen many other travel photographers use: Gitzo GK2545T-82QD Series 2 Traveler Kit with GT2545T 4 Section Tripod & Head (Black). This tripod folds down to 17.5" for easy packing and weighs just 4lbs.
Overall get the best tripod that you can afford as it will be holding your precious camera and lens. A great tripod will last you years and years and the investment in quality is important especially for gear that can withstand travel and the elements.
Side note, one little easy trick for traveling by air with your tripod is to take off the head. Its a simple way to get the size down. By removing the head, I can easily fit my tripod in my carry-on bag. Then I just put the head in a lens slot of my camera bag.
There are four types of filters that I have in my kit. All of them do something different. It is a lot of info so bear with me.
A CP filter was used here to cut the water glare and boost the color of the stormy sky and glacier.
Circular Polarizer: If you only ever buy one filter get a circular polarizer. They are in my opinion a simple must have filter for every photographer that takes images outdoors. Why? These filters reduce glare, cut through reflections on water and glass, boost greens on foliage and dramatically cut haze for amazing vibrant skies. I pretty much leave my circular polarizer on my wide angle lens all the time.
Here is my all time favorite circular polarizer, currently on my lens:
B+W 77mm HTC Kaesemann Circular Polarizer with Multi-Resistant Coating - Don't forget to check the size to match your lens.
Quick CP Primer: An important thing to note with any filter is that you want to get a good quality one as some can add a strong color cast to your image. Even some of the best filters have a little color cast, that is the trade off to the amazing results they give.
The second thing to know is that these filters screw onto your lens so you need to select the correct size that matches your lens. Look on the rim of your lens edge and you'll see a number there with a geometric ø symbol next to it such as ø 67mm or ø 77mm, etc. That is the diameter size you should purchase for that lens.
You can then get what is called a step down ring which is an adapter to use that size on smaller lenses. For example: I bought the ø 77 mm for my Canon 10-22mm lens and the step down ring so that I can use the same filter on my Canon 70-200mm which is ø 67mm.
A ND filter with a long exposure was used here for the creamy waterfall effect.
Neutral Density: Next, a special type of filter that I use for creative images is a neutral density filter. I mainly use these to darken the scene so that I can do a long exposure. I teach this technique in all of my Iceland Photography Workshops. Long exposures add an amazing creamy effect to landscapes with water, especially waterfalls. You can also get a neat effect to skies, city lights, etc. Here is my go to ND filter:
B+W 65-073102 77mm Neutral Density 0.9-8x Filter 103 - I use these for long exposures. I have a few different ones of varying strength. For example, this one is lighter B+W 77mm ND 0.6-4X (102), etc.
A GND filter was used here to naturally balance the sky and foreground's dynamic range.
Graduated Neutral Density: Other than filters that screw onto your lens, I also use graduated neutral density filters when I am photographing landscapes. I consider a graduated neutral density filter to be one of the most important parts of a serious landscape kit.
I have two GND filter kits by the brand Formatt Hitech in my bag that I absolutely love.
85x110mm Graduate Kit 6 (3-Filter Neutral Density Graduate Soft Edge Kit) - I use these for most landscape photos, if it has a sky, I probably used it.
Quick GND primer: If you aren't familiar with them, a GND filter has one edge that looks darkened like sunglasses and fades to a clear edge. They are used to help correct the issue of having a too bright sky or too dark foreground. The filters are rectangular and go in a special holder that screws or clips onto the front of your lens. These filters also come in varying strengths and sizes.
A combo of the CP + ND + RGND on a long exposure were used to capture this vibrant sunrise and creamy waterfall.
Reverse Graduated Neutral Density: Graduated filters also come in a type called the reverse or RGND. These filters have the darkest part near the center fading up outward. They are best for sunrises or sunsets when the brightest part of the composition is at the horizon line.
85x110MM Graduated Kit 7 (3-Filter Neutral Density Reverse Graduated Kit) - These are the ones I use for sunrise and sunset
I hope that you enjoyed Part I of this guide. Part II is coming soon with tips and gear recommendations for lenses, rain protection, clothing and more.
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