What’s in the bag in 2014?

What’s more expensive:  kids or a photography hobby?  I have both and I really don’t know.  Eating some serious coin isn’t all they have in common.  When going somewhere you want the least amount of fuss and aren’t afraid to pack too much to achieve it.  And you never know whether the destination is going to bring smiles or cries.  Let’s kick the kids off this metaphor because photography is about capturing the destination while kids are the destination.

Word of caution to my friends and family:  this article may bore you.  It is written for people who agonize about what photography equipment to use for what situation.

Before throwing your entire collection of cameras and glass into a bag, it helps to envision the kinds of shots you would like to get.  If you’re going to take photos of birds, then you only need to pack the longest lens you have.  If you’re hiking into the mountains then you might want to consider taking a range of lenses.  When I started doing destination photography I stuffed everything I could cram into my bag.  I realized, quickly, that I was not using half the gear in that bag.  As I grew out of this amateur phase it became more fun to be more creative with a limited amount of gear at the destination.

Some equipment is very specialized.  I have a Zenitar 16mm Fisheye that I might use a handful of times a year.  But I use the Canon 600mm f4L IS a lot!  I try to use that lens a few times a week.  The 600mm is a solo mission because it weighs nearly 12 lbs and is 2 feet long with the hood on. Then there is the Canon 300mm f2.8L IS that is very mobile.  I’ll carry that in one hand with a zoom telephoto hanging on another body off my shoulder.  Understanding your gear and knowing what you’re after should dictate how you pack.

Let’s look at some examples of how I set things up.  I’m dealing with a fairly large amount of choice and I fully assume your mileage will vary.  You can see my gear list here.

Landscapes

Grist Mill in Babcock State Park, West Virginia

Bag
If it just a few flat miles I’ll try to utilize the ThinkTank belt system or the ThinkTank Glass Taxi.  The most comfortable, and versatile, bag is the F-Stop Tilopa BC because it has removable camera compartments.  The F-Stop allows you to pack as much or as little as you like plus hiking gear!  

Support
The Gitzo GT3530S and Markins Q-Ball M20

Camera(s)
Canon 1Ds Mark III

Glass
Canon 24mm TS/E 3.5L Mark II
Canon 70-300mm f3.5-5.6L IS
Canon 17-40mm f4L (doesn’t get used all the time)
Canon 180mm f3.5L Macro (occasionally gets thrown in the bag just for fun)
Every filter I can cram in the bag

Goals
You don’t need fast glass or Image Stabilization to shoot landscapes.  Most of the time you’re using an aperture from f8 to f22 along with some sort of filter while perched atop a tripod.  So I go for lenses with the highest image quality and the most comfortable way to get on location (think of weight here).

Wildlife (hiking)

Blue-eyed Shag in mating plumage in Patagonia

Bag
Gura Gear Bataflae 32L, but much of the time I only carry 1 camera with 1 lens in this situation.  If a bag is used, it stays in the car.

Support
Gitzo GM5561T monopod and Sirui K-40X ballhead if I’m using the 500mm, but any other setup is handheld.  Vest Guy Large bean bag for shots from the car when traveling to a location.  Recently I started using a Black Rapid Yeti and will throw any extra accessories, or drinking water, onto the Think Tank belt.

Camera(s)
Canon 7D Mark II

Glass
Canon 500mm f4L IS + 1.4x teleconverter
Canon 400mm f4DO IS  + 1.4x teleconverter
Canon 100-400mm f4-5.6L IS Mark II

Goals
Hunt for shots.  Mobility and stealth are used to get as close to the animals as possible.

Wildlife (stationary)

Rock hopper penguins aren’t afraid of the big lenses in the Falkland Islands

Bag
Gura Gear Bataflae 32L or Pelican 1510

Support
Gitzo GT5542LS tripod and Wimberly WH-200 Gimbal II.  Vest Guy Large bean bag for shots from the car.

Camera(s)
Canon 7D Mark II or Canon 1Ds Mark III depending on if I want to shoot full frame or for speed

Glass
Canon 600mm f4L IS with or without 1.4x teleconverter

Goals
Handle the 600mm successfully.  That’s kind of a funny statement, but this lens is a handful!  This setup is used when you’re going to find a spot and wait for the animals to show up.  Phenomenal for birding.

Macro

Even mother nature celebrates the 4th of July

Bag
Usually don’t use one because macro is something mostly for around the house.  If I were to find a macro destination I guess I’d use the Think Tank Glass Taxi or pack a Macro + Landscape arsenal into the F-Stop Tilopa BC.

Support
The Gitzo GT3530S and Markins Q-Ball M20 is incredibly steady and can spread-out to get to less than 6 inches off the ground.  This would be for shooting vegetation as bugs move too quickly for getting a tripod in place.  The Novoflex focus rail comes in to assist with focus stacking situations and/or just assisting with the manual focusing typically employed in this kind of photography.

Camera(s)
Canon 1Ds Mark III

Glass
Canon 180mm f3.5L with a Wimberly F-2 Macro bracket, Canon 430ex flash with a Vello soft box equipped.  Another option is to use the 24mm TS/E f3.5L with extension tubes while shifting the lens to provide a consistent plane of focus at a wide aperture.

Goals
Perform magic on tiny things

No clue what I’m getting into (also known as “General“)

Amazing images can happen anywhere.

Bag
The Think Tank Urban Disguise 50 is an excellent shoulder bag for cramming plenty of gear and other things while not screaming “I am carrying a camera; please steal me.”  The Crumpler 7 Million Dollar Home is a really good one too.  And the Think Tank Glass Taxi is excellent when I want the bag on my back.

Support
None.  Usually.

Camera(s)
Canon 1Ds Mark III is my usual all around performer

Glass
Canon 24-105mm f4L IS
Canon 70-300mm f3.5-5.6L IS
Canon 430ex flash

Goals
Have enough focal range to capture almost any shot while being portable enough to want to carry the gear with me.

Travel situations vary greatly.

Sunset in Costa Rica.  Taken with a Point & Shoot.

I’ve traveled with as little as a Point & Shoot and as much as 40+ lbs of glass. It all depends on who you’re traveling with (some people have zero patience for photographers) and what you’re going to be doing.  One thing I try to do no matter where I’m traveling is shoot in RAW and that capability is a required feature within any camera I buy.  When trying to figure out what to bring on a trip think of these things:

  • Who:  travel companions significantly weigh on photographic opportunities
    What is there to shoot :  plan out the most interesting things you want to capture.
    When (how much time):  a cram-packed agenda limits how much you should take.
    Where:  duh.  Are you shooting lions or inside museums?
    Why:  because you can.

Flickr, Google image searches and 500px are incredible resources for getting perspective on what other photographers have done.  Just search the location you’re traveling to within any of those sites and enjoy the eye candy.

Another thing to consider is whether the mode of transportation has rules to limit your packing.  Small planes can kill your super telephoto plans with weight and size restrictions.  Boats can get a little cramped, so you may need a bag that folds down.  For example, a trek to the Galapagos absolutely requires a camera, but can get fairly restrictive on the gear.  If you’re on a small boat, you’ll want a bag that compresses.  If you’re not going with a photography-specific group, you’ll want to pack light camera gear that allows you to move quickly on land.  With all the snorkeling an underwater camera is a must.  But no matter how you trek the Galapagos the park restricts the use of a camera flash, so don’t pack your extra flashes and turn your camera off of AUTO mode.

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