As temperatures warm, trees begin to bud, and birds return, I start to think again about serious photography. Mostly, Winter is cold, dark and not very inviting, and so I do not find myself out in the field as much following the Fall color season until Spring arrives. Some, like my friend, Kent, thrive on winter and all it has to offer. Me – not so much. I am posting this under the category of “Tutorial.” While not truly a tutorial, it is “gear” related, and it may help some others think about an important part of the process of preparing for a successful outing. The approach of Spring seems a good time to do it.
Part of my process in early Spring is re-inventorying my gear, organizing and packing the vest and bag that I keep in my car with me most of the time. I continue to re-think “Whats In My Bag” when it comes to my photographic needs. More recently I have adopted a “less is more” approach.
More recently I have adopted a “less is more” approach.
One of the frequent areas of discussion about “gear” is how to carry it. Today, the backpack style photo bag seems to continue to dominate as the most popular. And the offerings continue to get better and better. I am one of a minority that still prefers to shoot from a vest. It isn’t a question of fashion or making a statement. It is purely a matter of preference. I like the fact that the weight of the gear I carry is distributed and I like the ability to be able to dig into the pockets without removing the vest and finding a spot to put it down. When I am in the field (against the advice of some pretty knowledgeable folks), I carry the camera on the tripod and the vest. I may use cargo pocketed shorts or pants for additional extras. I don’t carry a large, long lens and that would likely dictate a change in my approach. But currently, if I cannot carry it in the vest, I have come to the conclusion that I probably don’t need it in the field, anyway.
Part of the decision about how to carry your equipment has to be generated by what you are doing, and part by your shooting style. If you are going to travel by air or other form of public transportation, your choice of gear may be very different than if you are driving to your destination with your own vehicle. When I have my own car, I actually have a messenger style bag that can go on the floor on the back seat or the trunk of the car. That bag holds all my other gear, extras, tools, books, and things that I don’t carry in the field, but might use or need on an outing. It basically functions as portable storage.
We like to refer to bodies, lenses, and gadgets related to cameras as “gear.” 95% of my shooting now is done with the Nikon 28-300VR lens and my Nikon D700 DSLR body. I carry an inexpensive 17-35 for those infrequent occasions in which I need something wider, and a Nikkor 60mm “micro” lens for the ocassional “closeup” shot. I would love to carry the “pro” copies of Nikon’s lenses, but the budget just isn’t there—and the “pro” lenses are all larger and heavier—still a tradeoff for quality, but the gap is narrowing.
My only filters are, circular polarizers, and 2 and 4 stop Cokin style ND filters. I am not one of those who advocates the skylight or UV filter on the lens for “protection.” As a serious hobbyist with a limited budget, I cannot imagine not babying my equipment. I don’t understand paying that kind of money and not caring for them. By the same token, we are all human and accidents clearly happen. So I have all my significant equipment (body, lenses, tripod and speedlight) insured for replacement cost.
It makes little sense to me to pay extra dollars for the lens and then put a cheaper piece of glass in front of it.
From a technical standpoint, it also makes little sense to me to pay extra dollars for the brand name lens and then put a cheaper piece of glass in front of it. So my approach to filters is to use them as a tool—as needed. If I am near the ocean, for example, I want some spray and sand protection. But most often, I use the polarizer to enhance the quality of light rays entering the lens. Sometimes its also just too bright to obtain a slow shutter speed or wide open aperture I am trying to accomplish. That is when I use the ND filters. With digital post processing, I view the utility of the graduated ND filters now as marginal. I much prefer the control I can get by taking and blending multiple exposures.
Over the Winter I collected and traded some “idle” gear and upgraded. For example, I had not upgraded my speedlight to one of the newest “Nikon Creative” flash system lights. Back in the days of film, Nikon was noted for its very good “TTL” flash system which measured light from the film surface during the exposure. Digital presented a new series of challenges and it seems that it took them a couple iterations to get it “right.” I “upgraded” to the first digital “I-TTL” unit and just recently traded it for the SB600. This has been replaced by the SB700 which has more capabilities but is also more expensive. The SB600 can be found used on sites like KEH for about $100 less). I am not a huge flash user and its one of Nikon’s smaller and more “modest” units. The point is, have a dedicated flash unit for those times when you need flash. To me the Nikon SC-17 cord to get the flash off-camera is an absolutely essential element (my research indicates that this cord has been discontinued, but it is another item you should be able to find used on KEH or even eBay). I also have an inexpensive foldup, Velcro attached softbox. Don’t forget extra memory, and batteries for all peripherals.
A cord to get the flash off-camera is absolutely essential
Buy, Carry and Use a Tripod
A tripod, cable release, bubble level and small dedicated speedlight tops out my camera gear. All fits in the vest along with other important items. A tripod is an absolutely essential piece of photographic gear. There is no question that much of the time, your photography should be from a tripod and most of the time a tripod will make your photographs better. Clearly there are exceptions, and yes, the photograph taken without a tripod is still better than the one not taken at all. And be careful that doesn’t just become and excuse not to use the tripod. The Tripod will add at least two positive elements to your photography. First, it acts as a rigid support for your camera. Camera shake has the potential ruin an otherwise good photograph by rendering it unsharp. And that lack of critical sharpness may not show up until you want to use the image, for example, as a large print. Because this support is so important, you should not skimp and purchase a cheap tripod. The second thing it will do is a result of using it that may not be readily apparent. A tripod will slow you down. Most of the time, that is not a bad thing. It will also make you think more carefully about placement, composition, etc. That is a good thing.
I consider the L-bracket an essential, not a luxury.
I also consider two other support gear items “essential.” I use an “L-bracket” and since I started, have no clue why I didn’t get one sooner (I have been using it for a number of years now). An expensive item for what it is, but I consider it an essential, not a luxury. The two places where you can find these are Kirk and Really Right Stuff. Both are high quality and their pricing is not for the faint of heart. I also use one of the inexpensive bubble levels which mount on the camera hotshoe. I have been surprised how unreliable my own eyes are when it comes to level horizons.
Finally, it doesn’t make sense to me to go out and spend thousands of dollars on camera, lens and tripod and then activate the shutter release manually. That is akin to handholding braced on a solid object. Good if it’s the best you can do – but counterproductive to the whole idea of the tripod. The human body is a constantly moving thing. It just isn’t possible to eliminate shake with “hands on.” While many tout the use of the camera self-timer, there are just too many times that doesn’t make sense. If you are photographing something in which timing is critical the self-timer is going to be frustrating, if not essentially useless. There are a number of remote alternatives, depending on the body. I have a cable release that was under $50 that works just fine on my Nikon cameras (I also have the dedicated Nikon MC-30, which is $100, but is better). Recently, I bought a wireless remote that was marketed under the Vivitar name, on Amazon. It works great and even allows you to put yourself in the image!
Using your hand to activate the shutter on a tripod mounted camera is akin to handholding braced on a solid object. Good if it’s the best you can do – but counterproductive to the whole idea of a tripod.
Non Gear Essentials
I keep some other essential non-photographic gear in the vest, too. I carry a poncho and a rain hood for my camera/lens combo. For cooler days, I have hunter’s fingerless gloves. Finally, I bought one of those LED hiker’s headlamps, which can be invaluable for nighttime shooting. Insect repellant is also a good idea (cigars work too :-)). I always have a couple kitchen size and full size garbage bags in the bag. They make good makeshift ponchos, camera rain covers and ground cloths.
While not in-the-bag items, footwear can be an important item to consider. If, like me, you shoot in wet areas, you need to think about waterproof footwear. I also like to stand in the water in and around streams, ponds and lakeshores. Rubber boots in the car trunk can be a great aid for this. I spent a rainy morning during my October 2010 trip to Vermont standing in the middle of the Mad River, shooting. For Christmas, I got a pair of hip-high wading boots which will be in the car trunk all during the season. Raingear, hats, and warm weather items are also important considerations.
In my (vest) Bag:
- Nikon D700 DSLR
- Nikon 18-300 f3.5-5.6VR AF
- Nikon 60mm “Micro” f2.8 AF
- Tokina 17-35 f3.5-5.6AF
- Nikon SB600 speedlight with Nikon SC-17 cord
- Circular Polarizer Filters for all lenses
- Square ND filters (2 and 4 stop)
- Induro Carbon Fiber Tripod with HD ballhead and Arca Swiss style QR
- Kirk “L” Bracket
- Cable Release and bubble level
- Extra Film (just kidding!) 🙂