In The Bag
A common question, asked by readers and workshop members is — what's in your bag? The cameras and lenses that I use are well detailed in articles and reviews on this site. Which ones I bring on any given shoot very much depends on whether I'm primarily after wildlife, or landscapes. Also, whether I'm traveling by air or by car, or if I'll be doing a lot of hiking when I get there. But, in addition to my camera gear, what accessories, gadgets, gizmos and tools are needed for field work, and which ones are best?
These non-photographic items make doing ones work either safer, more convenient or more efficient. Below are the tools that I usually have with me on every field trip. The types and brands that I have chosen were based on research, availability at the time, or simply whim. Some are many years old. Some are fairly new.
Two of the primary characteristics that are found in most of these items is that they are small and light weight, and also of high quality. Life has taught me that buying inexpensive tools always costs more in the long run, and that when traveling, especially by air and when hiking, every ounce counts.
While photographers need light for their work, we usually start and end our days in the dark. The best photography is often done at the edges of light and weather. For this reason appropriate flashlights are a vital tool.
I usually have three flashlights with me. The most useful is the Petzel Zipca. This is a tiny headlamp that uses white LEDs. Headlamps are a must when setting up in the dark because they allow your hands to be free. Holding a flashlight in your mouth while you try and screw on a filter or when trying to find something in your camera bag just doesn't cut it.
I also carry with me a second small flashlight for hiking in the dark. Maglight makes a line of lightweight rugged metal flashlights in a variety of sizes. There are belt pouches available as well. The only problem is that they use traditional bulbs, and therefore aren't as bright as the newer-generation LED lamps. Several companies now make LED equipped flashlights (torches for our British friends) that are much brighter.
Finally, I always keep a tiny button-sized lamp on my keyring.
I usually work with another photographer when shooting in remote locations. I enjoy the company, the conversation and the sharing of ideas and insights. It also is safer. Heading off into the wilderness alone just isn't smart. Sure, lot's of people do it, but it's not for me. But I don't need to be tethered to my shooting partner, so two-way radios allow us to stay in touch while we each do our own thing.
Also, when I run my workshops we often are in two or three vehicles, and these radios allow us to stay in contact while caravanning.
During the past 3-4 years a line of "Family Radio Service" transceivers has become available. Motorola is one of the major manufacturers under the brand name TalkAbout. Prices have now dropped to the point that a pair of such radios can be had for under $40 at Radio Shack or Wal-Mart. Their limitation lies in their short range. Regardless of what it says on the packaging, they typically have a range of less than 100 — 200 meters. Over water or open ground a bit more, but they are nevertheless limited by their 0.5 Watt output.
Recently a new line of such radios has become available, and they are far superior, though more expensive. The ones I now use are the Motorola 7200. These feature 2 Watts of power, and I used them for the first time in Iceland in the summer of 2003. We did some tests and found that they had a real-world range of about a mile (1.6 km) over mixed terrain.
The 7200 model also has built-in weather band radio reception with emergency alert capability. This only works in the U.S. and Canada where government weather services use the same frequencies. Also, these radios may not be legal in all countries, so check your local regulations. They are priced at $130 each, but the considerable extra range and audio clarity makes them a must for serious applications.
By the way, when you travel by air remove the batteries and pack the radios in your checked bag. I have seen airport security confiscate such radios when they're in carry on, even though I know of no specific rule against them.
Knives & Tools
A good knife and / or multi-tool is virtually a must when shooting on location. From cutting tape to peeling an orange to fixing a broken tripod leg, a good multi-tool can be worth its weight in gold in the field. Leatherman is the leading manufacturer, and the Juice S2 is the model that I currently use.
Just remember to pack it in your checked luggage when you travel by air, or airport security will confiscate it.
GPS & Compass
Call me neurotic, but I own 3 GPS units. The first is one that's installed in my car. Handy for everyday travel. The second is a Garmin StreetPilot III. This is a somewhat bulky unit that sits on the dashboard of ones car and provides all of the functions of a built-in automobile GPS system, including voice directions. It is available in the U.S. and Canada with a CD containing detailed maps for all of North America, and in Europe with comprehensive European maps. These are downloaded to the unit as you need them. I use the StreetPilot when I travel by air and then in rental cars. It sure beats stopping at rural gas stations and asking directions.
The third unit that I have is also a Garmin, this time an eTtrex Legend. This is a tiny hand-held device weighing less than 6 oz, (150 g). When hiking in unfamiliar territory, recording a trail using the "breadcrumb" trace, and by registering Waypoints, getting lost becomes a lot more difficult. It's also a handy way of recording the exact location of places that you want to return to, to shoot at another time.
In addition to a GPS a basic, quality compass is also a must. A GPS can't tell you direction unless you're moving. Also, in the deep woods, or a narrow canyon without a view of the sky, a GPS is blind because it won't be able to get a fix on enough satellites. A compass will also come in handy for getting a quick orientation on the likely position of the rising sun or moon, based on either ephemeris tables or an appropriate PDA program. Also, in an emergency a compass won't run out of batteries.
I always travel with a pair of mini-binoculars. I currently use the Nikon Venturer LX 8X20. They are small, light weight and with excellent optics. They are also waterproof. Pocket binoculars like these are available from $50 — $1000, and as with most things, you get what you pay for.
They are handy for searching out wildlife and also scouting distant locations before starting a long hike.
I used to carry three types of filters, and one of them was rarely used. Now I only use two. The one I always have along but rarely use is a UV filter. It's purpose is to protect the front lens element from the elements — snow, rain and sand. But, unless I'm shooting in nasty conditions I leave them off. A lens shade provides more than enough physical protection and is a must for preventing flare in any event.
The filter that I use the most is a polarizer, and I have one for every lens that I own. Not only can this create more interesting skies but it also reduces glare on foliage, deepens colour saturation and makes water more transparent.
The filters that I no longer carry are split neutral density (grads). While these used to be de rigueur for landscape photographers, now that I am working 100% digitally they are no longer necessary since I simply shoot two or three bracketed frames and them merge their dynamic range in Photoshop.
I now work 100% digitally, and have sold almost all of my film gear. My cameras (Fall, 2003) include a Canon 1Ds, Canon 10D, Canon S50 and Contax 645AF with Kodak DCS Pro Back 645. Each of these uses CompactFlash cards for storage and I currently have a total of six 1GB cards for use between the 4 systems.
In the field downloading and backing up these cards is a must. There are several so-called "digital wallets" on the market, but after trying a couple I gave up on them. The main problem is that they are slow, have tiny image displays, and in my experience are not totally reliable. I also find that a sub-notebook computer is not all that much larger, and offers significant advantages.
My current field computer is a Fujitsu Lifebook P5000. This weighs 3.5 lbs and takes little space in a carry on. I equipped mine with an 80GB drive, which is enough storage for almost any length trip and amount of shooting. I can review my work each evening because of the reasonable-sized screen. I use a Lacie USB2 card reader for transfers, because it is much faster than the built-in CF card slot, or PC Card slot.
The LifeBook also features a built-in CD burner, handy for backups, and it doubles as a DVD player as well — useful not only for movies in motel rooms but also watching the Video Journal.
Whether you use a laptop computer or a PDA, it's really worthwhile to have along a program that provides information on sunrise / sunset, moonrise / moonset times. You may also find, as I do, that a pocket audio recorder is very worthwhile for making shooting and location notes.
Equipment gets dirty in the field. Lens cleaning is easily accomplished with a microfiber cloth, lens tissue and lens fluid. Sensor cleaning is another matter, and I've described my current tools and techniques in my tutorial titled Understanding Sensor Cleaning. None of these take up more than a few square inches of space in ones kit. I also always carry along a large clear lawn trash bag which provides protection when working in very dusty or sandy conditions.
Hats. No one really wears hats anymore, but for an outdoor photographer a hat is more than a hat — it's a lens shade. Just use a cable release or self timer, stand off to the side and and use your hat to shade the lens.
I have four favourites — a baseball hat for hot weather use, a ski toque for colder conditions, a canvas "safari" style hat for desert conditions, and a good old fashioned Stetson for every other occasion.
Shooting jacket. I have a Domke jacket that has about a million miles on the clock and it's still ticking (to mix a metaphor). Nothing beats having lots of pockets to hold all the stuff that's mentioned above.
A pair of leather gloves are always in my bag. It's remarkable how cold tripod legs become at 5am, even in the summer.
Boots. Top quality Gortex-treated hiking boots are a must. I prefer the Vasque brand, but there are many other good brands available. I wear one pair and put a second pair in my duffle bag. I rotate them daily, and this way they last much longer. Also, inevitably a pair is going to get wet and need a day to dry out, so the second pair will keep you mobile.
If you do a lot of wildlife shooting from vehicles, a beanbag is a worthwhile accessory. The one made by Kinesis is my choice and is what I'll be providing to members of my January, 2004 Photo Safari in Tanzania. Pack them empty and just buy a 5lb bag of rice or beans to fill it with when you arrive on location .
Between battery chargers, laptop computers and the like we have become very dependant on battery power. With enough batteries one can usually get though the day, but not always. A car inverter is therefore a very handy thing to have. These are available at any electronics retailer, and come in models from 50 Watts upward. A 150 Watt unit isn't too big or bulky and can handle multiple devices simultaneously, so two or three photographers traveling together in the same vehicle can share one.
Shooting a colour chart is the ideal way to ensure accurate colour under difficult conditions. The industry standard is the full-sized Macbeth colour chart. But there is also a mini version which is small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Just the thing for location work.
Camera should have built in bubble levels. But they don't. So the next best thing is the double bubble from Hamma. This is also reviewed in Issue #8 of The Video Journal.
The Bag Itself
Finally, there's the camera bag itself. I own and use several, depending on the type of shooting that I expect to be doing. If I'm going to be traveling by air a lot and / or expect to do a lot of hiking, then a LowePro MiniTrecker is my choice. This isn't a terribly large bag, and therefore won't hold all that much. It also is smaller than what's allowed as airline carry-on. But I'm finding that it's big enough for what's really needed, and I can hike with it all day if need's be. Larger bags permit me to be sloppy in deciding what to bring, and become a real hindrance to long range hiking.
If I'm going to be working primarily from the car I'll use a large wheeled rolling bag. This lets me cary a lot more gear, and is easy to get in and out of hotels and motels. I used to travel by air with such bags but since checked bags can no longer be locked I've tried to simplify my life with a smaller more manageable carry-on bag. If the roller is the bag that I'm using I then will transfer accessories and lenses to my shooting vest for when working away from the car.
I also carry a small shoulder bag. This contains my laptop computer, PDA and personal items like wallet, tickets, book, glasses, etc. Airlines allow one carry-on (the MiniTrecker) and one "personal item" — the shoulder bag.
Large super-telephoto lenses are a hassle to travel with my air, especially now that they can't be sent as checked baggage in a large locked padded case. I bought a LowePro 600AW for my 500mm f/4 lens, but it means that I can't also carry a MiniTrecker on board. What I now do instead is travel with the lens "naked". By this I mean that I simply put the lens over my shoulder on a strap. The reversed lens shade and leather "sock" provide all the physical protection needed and I've had no hassles from airlines about simply placing the lens in an overhead bin.
The lens though becomes a third item to carry onboard, and so what I'll do is ask a traveling companion to claim the shoulder bag as theirs until past check-in and security. There's no other way.