This is one of the most common questions I get as a professional photographer. Before I go into that, I can tell you that one of the biggest things I have learned over my 20 years of doing photography is that the camera doesn’t really matter. I have shot great images with throw away film cameras, $20 Holgas, and do-it-yourself pinhole cameras. It has a lot more to do with the technique than the equipment. Patience is also crucial in photography, and unfortunately, I have very little. But that’s beside the point. I started my career shooting in the film era with a Nikon FM-10, which you can still buy to this day. It is a fully manual camera with none of the luxuries of the autofocus we have come to love. Once I felt comfortable (and saved a ton of money) I moved up to a Nikon N90s, which cost over $1500 at the time. Yes, there used to be a time when you would have to load film into a camera, shoot it, and then use what is called a darkroom to process and print it. Sarcasm aside, I tried to stay the course with film as long as I could, and there are still times when I miss shooting film. That was during a time when you couldn’t “chimp” your images, and it really made you work hard at not only shooting selectively, but processing by hand as well to be good. Speaking of that, here’s a challenge I encourage everyone with a digital camera to try: Put a sticky note or tape a piece of paper over the LCD screen and shoot completely in manual mode. Only then will you learn how to become a better photographer, and trust me it’s not easy. Although my mentor and prior photography instructor tried to talk me out of it, I eventually went digital before most other people out of sheer curiosity more than anything. Well that, and the fact that I’m a digital junkie. The first professional digital camera I ever used was the Nikon N90s with a Kodak NC2000 digital bottom that cost somewhere in the ballpark of $18K at the time…and although it was good enough for newspaper work, all you got in the end was a crummy 1.3 megapixel image. Most smartphones can do better than that now at a fraction of the cost. It wasn’t until 2004 that I fully made the leap over to digital for my personal work when I purchased a Nikon D70. This was one of the first digital SLR cameras that were realistically affordable for the average person. Since then, I have had many different camera bodies and lenses throughout the years. So, what’s in my camera bag you ask? The short answer is, it depends on what I’m shooting. I carry anything from a fully loaded backpack with just about every lens you would ever need on a typical shoot, to a sling bag with just enough to get by without breaking my back. To put it in context, here’s what I typically carry in my fully loaded backpack.
My main pack is the Think Tank Photo StreetWalker Hard Drive. It’s built like a tank, and has more than enough space and compartments to carry plenty of equipment to get the job done. It also has a padded, breathable lumbar support, which is good when carrying a heavy load. My quick grab-n-go bag is a Hazard 4 Photo-Recon tactical optics sling pack. Built for combat photography, this bag is slim line and covered with molle webbing. This is a great feature, because the molle allows for a fully modular bag with the addition of extra pouches on its exterior. Plus, it’s carry on approved so you don’t have to worry about baggage handlers destroying your expensive equipment. Nice…
The computer I use for a majority of my work is the late 2016 15” MacBook Pro w/Touchbar. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail on it, but it’s a great machine that can handle just about anything you can throw at it. The biggest drawback (and you’ll hear many complaints about it if you read the reviews), is that there are no USB 3.0 ports whatsoever. Instead, Apple decided to adopt the newer USB-C technology, which allows data and power transfer all in one cable. I don’t see this as much of an issue, since as a photographer I tend to carry all types of dongles, cables, and adapters for card readers and other devices anyways. It’s not nearly as powerful as a Mac Pro tower, but it allows me to be mobile. If I need to edit on-site and deliver images to a client on the spot I can do it, and when I have an extensive amount of editing to do at home I simply connect it to a 27” Dell 4K monitor for more screen real estate.
The two cameras I shoot presently are the Nikon D810 and a Nikon D3. When I need high-resolution, but can sacrifice the frame rate I grab the D810, since it shoots at over 36 megapixels. Unfortunately, it only delivers 6 frames per second at its highest setting, and under optimal conditions. On the other hand, when I can afford to sacrifice the high-resolution for speed I grab the D3. It clocks in at a whopping 11 frames per second, and was built with the photojournalist in mind. Don’t get me wrong, this camera is by no means a slouch, but nevertheless it shoots 12 effective megapixels. While I’m on the topic of megapixels, keep in mind that in most cases a camera’s megapixel count is just marketing fluff. I’m not saying that it isn’t important, but there are more important factors in a camera’s ability to deliver, such as pixel density, that really matter. In general, the denser the pixels, the better the overall resolution capability will be. I can print images from either of these cameras much larger than most people would ever need on a wall. Soon, I plan on adding medium format back into the mix by purchasing a Pentax 645Z, which yields 51.4 megapixels.
The lenses I currently have in my arsenal are the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G, Nikon 70-200 f/2.8G VR, Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VR, Nikon 60mm f/2.8G Micro, Nikon 85mm f/1.8G, Nikon 50mm f/1.8G, Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 UMC fisheye, and a Nikon TC-14E III teleconverter. My two main “go to” lenses are the 24-70mm f/2.8G and the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR. If I’m going for creative and/or distorted I use an ultra-wide angle, such as the 14-24mm f/2.8G or the Rokinon 12mm f/2.8 UMC fisheye. Even though the Rokinon fisheye is a fully manual focus lens, it is a really cool lens that gives a full 180-degree diagonal angle of view. For up close and personal, I use the 60mm f/2.8G Micro, and for portraits I grab the 85mm f/1.8G. When shooting sports (and sometimes the occasional long-distance portrait) I carry the 300mm f/2.8 VR, but I don’t carry it in my backpack because it is a beast of a lens. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to test out the new Nikon 105mm f/1.4G, and it may be my new favorite lens. Time to save up some money!
At any given time, I carry at least four each of the Lexar Professional 16GB and 32GB 1066x compact flash cards, and a couple of 64GB Lexar 1066x SD cards. I keep all of them in a Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket, which is a foldable card wallet that is sort of like a padded Rolodex for memory cards. For those of you not old enough to know what a Rolodex was, Google is your friend. Why so many you ask? Here’s why. There’s nothing like being in the middle of a shoot, only to have the dreaded “CARD ERR” message pop up on your camera’s LCD screen. In short, that means it can’t read the card, either because it’s not supported or it has become corrupted. If that happens, chances are you lost everything you just shot. All electronics are prone to failure, so I carry much more than I need just in case. Having a backup to the backup is essential when working with clients. The D3 has two CF slots, so I use two of the same card and write to both simultaneously for good measure. The same goes for the D810, with the exception that it has one CF slot and one SD slot. Look at it as a prepaid insurance policy.
The two flashes I typically use are the Nikon SB-900 and Nikon SB-910. These are two of the best hot shoe flashes Nikon offers, and although the SB-900 was replaced by the SB-910, it is still a great flash and works perfect. One word of advice I can give you all about using any hot shoe flash, no matter the brand, is to use a low discharge rechargeable battery, such as the Panasonic Eneloop. Here’s why. Regular off-the-shelf AA batteries can’t handle the heat dissipation like Eneloops, and can literally melt the flash head from repeated firing in a short time span. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen, although I’ve never managed to do it myself…yet.
I’m a gravitationally challenged guy with small hands, yet I prefer the bulk of a larger camera because it balances out better. So, I use a Nikon MB-D12 Battery Grip on the D810 to make it bigger, and as a bonus, it adds a vertical shutter release button to make the transition from portrait to landscape mode easy peasy. Spare camera batteries are an absolute must, so I carry 3-4 spares for each camera. If you’ve been paying attention without getting overly bored you already know why I carry the Eneloop batteries.
Odds & Ends:
Even when I’m shooting outdoors without flash or strobes I always carry a Sekonic LiteMaster Pro L-478D-U light meter, along with a 5-degree spot viewfinder. Most people think that light meters are just for studio work…wrong. They also work great to help adjust your exposure for the ambient light settings, since most of the time the in-camera metering is off one way or another. Plus, most of the time the camera’s histograms are completely worthless. Some other things I always have in my bag are various filters, a Leatheman multi-tool, business cards, a notebook, pens, rubber bands, dust blower, sensor cleaning tools, coffee filters (yes you read that right!), and a roll of gaffer tape (very important!). Why coffee filters and gaffer tape? Coffee filters, although an integral part of making that perfect cup of warm goodness, can also be used as a flash diffuser or white balancing tool in a pinch. Just wrap one around a flash head, secure it with a rubber band, and boom you have a cheap diffuser. Gaffer tape is one of the most important items in a photographer’s bag. This type of tape leaves no residue, and can be used for a multitude of things, such as securing a zoom ring on a lens so it doesn’t move, taping a flash to a wall, or taping down long cords. Tripping yourself or clients isn’t good. As a bonus, it also makes the perfect coffee holder. Can’t beat that!
Not in my bag, but carry on me:
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…wait wrong story. Let’s try again. A long time ago, I used to wear a shooting vest that had a million pockets for film, lenses, filters, etc. I had a system in place to keep track of what was where, but when you’re in a rush all that goes right out the window. Not only that, and even though I’m not a fashionista, I also felt it looked ridiculous. I just couldn’t help but to laugh at myself every time I put it on no matter how much I loved photography. Well that was then, and this is now. I’ve since one-upped the ridiculousness by using a Spider Dual Camera Holster. If you love old westerns, and always dreamed of playing the role of John Wayne, except as a photographer, then this is your ticket. It really does look like something straight out of the Wild Wild West, and since I’m in Nevada why not!? It allows me to carry a camera on each hip so I can quickly draw and fire. Doc Holliday would be proud! Does it look ridiculous? Absolutely! Does it really work? You betcha! When I don’t feel like playing the old west photo slinger, I grab my BlackRapid RS-Sport camera sling. It’s not as flashy as the holster, but it works. When I need a monopod support, I use the Induro Grand Stealth Series 3 Carbon Fiber monopod, with a TH2 tilt head. It can support up to 22lbs and weighs only 2lbs. It can also be used as a walking stick, a crutch, or a cane for all the back pain I endure from carrying such as heavy backpack.
So, as you can see, this is an enormous amount of equipment to carry all at once. And that’s just one bag! It’s heavy, bulky, and doesn’t fare well with long-distance treks. I adjust my bag as needed, depending on the shoot. Remember that the gear listed above only scratches the surface to the entire assortment of other gear I use on a regular basis. But we will save that for another time.
Feel free to leave any comments or feedback below. If there is something you want to learn about, let me know and I’ll do my best to write up something specific if there’s enough interest.