What's in my Bag?

February 24, 2018  •  2 Comments

I've gotten a number of questions on what gear I use, so I thought I'd share my favorite camera equipment!  As a traveling nature photographer, I need to have the right gear for the job.  That includes a great backpack, diverse lenses, a rugged camera, quality filters, and reliable camera insurance!

 

Camera Body


First up is the Nikon D750.  I've had this camera for almost 3 years now and it's fantastic!  With its weather sealed body, tilting rear screen, comfortable grip, and ISO-Invariant sensor, it can handle anything I want to photograph!  Whether I'm out in the mountains doing landscapes, in the desert photographing the night sky, or taking pictures of wildlife, the D750 hasn't let me down yet.

If you are using a crop-sensor body and considering the jump to full frame, do it!  I started on a Nikon D7100, a great camera, but the leap to full frame made a noticeable difference in my image quality!  As a side note, virtually every image on my website was taken with the Nikon D750. 

Milky Way over San SalvadorMilky Way over San SalvadorThe Milky Way shines above the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas Grinnell LakeGrinnell LakeGrinnell Lake landscape on a summer afternoon. Fox PortraitFox PortraitA red fox smiles at the camera BeeBee

 

 

Lenses


I currently have 6 lenses: Tokina 100mm Macro, Nikon 24-70mm (Non-VR), Nikon 14-24mm, Tamron 70-200mm G2, Tamron 150-600mm, and the Sigma 35mm Art.  This lens collection covers the full range from 14mm - 600mm!  If you are considering which new lens to purchase, I'd highly recommend either a 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm.  These are the "Holy Trinity" of lenses for a reason.  Each lens fills a crucial focal length for nature photography.

When I'm living on the road, the Nikon 24-70mm is my workhorse lens.  It's the perfect focal length for taking landscape shots while I'm out hiking.  This lens is super versatile, but it doesn't necessarily excel at any one thing.  When I'm setting up my tripod for a landscape photo, I almost always have the 24-70mm on my camera first.  If I want a little more zoom though, I'll actually use the Tamron 150-600mm!  My only real problem with the Nikon 24-70mm is the soft corners.  Regardless of my aperture value, the corners are always soft.  I've tested out different copies of this lens, and they all had the same issue.  I was also able to test the new Tamron 24-70mm G2, and found that the corners were actually sharp with that lens.  If I do decided to upgrade my 24-70mm at some point, the Tamron will likely be my next lens.

Schwabacher LandingSchwabacher LandingGrand Tetons reflecting in the Snake River at Schwabacher Landing

The Nikon 14-24mm is my favorite lens for nightscapes.  The extreme wide angle allows me to capture a beautiful foreground with the Milky Way overhead.  At f/2.8 I can focus on the stars, and the foreground will also be sharp.  This is due to the increased Depth of Field at such a wide focal length.  This lens is perfect for waterfall and long exposure photography too.  You'd be surprised by how often I find myself needing that 14mm when I'm out scouting for waterfalls.  If you have a 14-24mm, or the Tamron 15-30mm, you'll need to buy a special filter holder.  I recommend the Progrey G-150Z filter holder along with Haida 150mm filters.  I have used both for the past 7 months and they each do a fantastic job.  You can read my review of the Progrey system here.  I've also done a full review of the Haida system, which you can read here.

Grand Teton NightscapeGrand Teton NightscapeThe Milky Way begins to set over the Grand Tetons, as seen near the Paintbrush Canyon Trailhead

The Tamron 150-600mm is often found on my camera when I'm traveling through a National Park.  I never know when a wild animal will pop out, so I like to have my telephoto lens ready to go!  This lens was used to capture every wildlife photo I've taken.  Believe it or not, this lens also creates stunning landscape photos.  I love how I can isolate a subject and create a unique photo.  Telephoto Landscapes are some of my favorite to photograph.  More recently, I've used it for deep-space astrophotography!  The newer Tamron G2 version of the lens has built-in Arca-Swiss plate for the tripod collar, as well as a few other improvements.  If you need a new lens for wildlife, I would look into that one!

Great Horned OwlGreat Horned OwlA beautiful Great Horned Owl seen in Colorado Great Sand DunesGreat Sand Dunes

The Tokina 100mm is a great, cheap macro lens.  The auto-focus is really slow, so I wouldn't recommend it for insects.  The lens also suffers from pretty bad Chromatic Aberration.  The Tokina is very sharp though and I have a lot of fun shooting flowers with it in the spring time.  I've even used it for astrophotography!

If you are looking for a macro lens, you need to make sure it has a 1:1 ratio.  Some lenses claim they have "macro", but they don't achieve a true 1:1 ratio.  Another thing to consider is the focal length.  A 40mm macro lens requires you to be centimeters from the subject to achieve the life-sized magnification.  With a 100mm or 200mm macro lens, you can be much further back and still get a 1:1 magnification ratio.  

HorseflyHorsefly Morning Glory FlowerMorning Glory Flower Water dropletWater droplet The Galactic CoreThe Galactic CoreA detailed look at the Milky Way galaxy, the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula can be seen as well

 

 

Backpacks / Carrying Cases


I currently use 2 hard-cases, which hold most of my camera gear.  I have a Pelican 1510 case and an SkB ThinkTank Hard Case.  These are crucial to keeping my gear safe, organized, and clean while I travel across the country.  Plus, they are both the legal limit for carry-on items when flying.  Both cases are pretty much bomb-proof, but the SKB has a really nice organizing lid.  I can keep spare batteries, chargers, memory cards, business cards, and more up there.  It's also nice to have everything organized inside a hard-case.

My favorite photography backpack, by far, is the Mindshift Rotation 180 Professional.  This is the ultimate backpack for nature photographers!  The rotating system is truly a game-changer.  Imagine you're standing in the middle of a creek, setting up to do a long exposure photo.  You can quickly rotate the entire pack around and get quick access to your gear.  The pack will also lay flat so you essentially have a table to install your filters on.  This pack is also large enough to hold a 150-600mm lens in the main compartment, with plenty of room left to spare.  There's also a rotating beltpack where you can store lenses.  If you're out hiking, you can quickly rotate the belt pack in front of you, switch lenses, and then keep on hiking.  I'm so glad I had this pack for my 2017 roadtrip, it made a massive difference!  You can read my full review of the Mindshift here.

 

Filters


I originally invested a lot of money in the Lee 100mm Filter System.  That included their Big Stopper, Little Stopper, Landscape Polarizer, Soft Grad ND, and filter holder.  This system did an okay job, but I was always frustrated with the heavy blue cast of the ND filters.  Also, when stacking the Big Stopper and Little Stopper, my images were always underexposed.  It turns out, the Big Stopper was actually 10 & 2/3 Stops while the Little Stopper was 6 & 1/3 Stop.  Therefore, when stacked, the filters totaled 17 Stops, not 16.  This can have a major impact when you're doing long exposures  Plus, the heavy blue cast always made editing a pain.  You can read my tutorial to learn how to test your own filters.  Frankly, I don't think I could recommend Lee Filters at this point, there are too many cheaper and better performing alternatives available now.

Once I bought the Nikon 14-24mm I needed a new 150mm filter system, since that lens does not have a filter thread.  I currently use a combination of Haida and Progrey.  Haida makes fantastic filters for a reasonable cost.  These filters have a very slight warm color cast and they clean very nicely when they get wet in the field.  I highly recommend them!  As for the 150mm filter holder, I love the Progrey G-150Z.  This really is the best 150mm filter holder on the market.  I always had it in my Mindshift pack, since I never knew when I might need it.  Ultimately, this combination of Haida and Progrey is much better than my Lee setup.  The only downside is the increased weight and much bigger size.  The 100mm filters look tiny compared to the absolutely massive 150mm filters.

Lower Panther Creek FallsLower Panther Creek FallsAnother beautiful waterfall hidden in Washington's lush forests

 

 

Tripod / Ballhead


I purchased a Gitzo Series 1 Traveler tripod when I first got into photography.  I had read all about Gitzo, and the "buy it once and be done" motto.  Instead of buying multiple cheap tripods over the years, just buy one Gitzo and be set for life!  The Gitzo tripod was not great though, and I had a lot of problems with it. 

The first problem I had was a rubber foot falling off.  I tried contacting Gitzo multiple times, through email and facebook, for a replacement part.  I never heard back from their facebook page.  I did receive 1 reply, via email, from someone in their warehouse.  However, after responding with my tripod model number, I never heard back.  Ultimately, my tripod became unstable and damaged from the lack of a rubber foot and I eventually needed to replace the entire lower leg.  Thankfully, some random person on Reddit was able to point me to a parts store where I was finally able to purchase a replacement lower leg.

Gitzo's customer service is abysmal and insulting, especially considering how expensive their tripods are.  The only good thing I could say about the Gitzo tripod is that it was lightweight.  During my 2017 roadtrip, this tripod actually broke while I was doing long exposures in a river!  Thankfully I was holding my camera, still attached to the ballhead, when the tripod fell forward into the water.  I managed to keep the camera an inch above the water while I fell down and banged up my knees on the river bottom.  That was a terrifying experience!  One entire leg broke off of the tripod and floated downstream.  Due to the pathetic customer service and poor quality of the tripod, I vowed to never buy a Gitzo again.

This is the final photo I took with the Gitzo, right before the leg broke off.

Lower Lewis FallsLower Lewis FallsLower Lewis Falls glows in the afternoon sunlight, in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

After losing the Gitzo I purchased a Feisol CT-3441T tripod.  You can watch my YouTube review here.  I really love this tripod!!  First and foremost, it's tall!  With the Gitzo, I was always hunched over when I had to use the camera.  The Feisol raises up to eye-level, and I'm 6' 3"!  Even better, this tripod is able to reach that height without a center column.  No more sore back or knees when doing tripod work!  The Feisol is also surprisingly lightweight!  It's only slightly heavier than my old Gitzo, which weighed about 2lbs.  If you're doing any hiking, the CT-3441T is a great choice!  This tripod also has foam hand grips on the upper portion of the legs.  This helps to keep a good grip on the tripod, and will stay comfortable when working in the cold with bare hands.

My ballhead has stayed the same these past 4 years.  I use an Acratech GP Ballhead.  This thing can take a beating!  I've put it through hell over the years and it still works great!  Acratech also has some of the best customer service in the industry.

I was having some issues where a big lens would cause the ballhead to slip slightly.  It was pretty frustrating to frame everything perfectly, then watch the lens sag down a bit and ruin the composition.  I contacted Acratech via email and they replied within 20 minutes, offering a free repair.  Acratech has a 10 year warranty on their products, you just need to pay for shipping.  Once I sent out my ballhead, they completely overhauled it for free and even upgraded some of the parts with their latest tech.  While the upfront cost of Acratech's ballheads is pretty steep, the quality and customer service is well worth it.

Looking for a HearbeatLooking for a Hearbeat

 

 

Insurance


As a traveling nature photographer, camera insurance is a necessity!  There are so many hazards for wildlife and landscape photographers, especially when living on the road full-time.  A lot of insurance policies won't cover your gear in these scenarios.  After doing some research on reliable insurance providers, NANPA seemed to offer the best coverage for a reasonable price. 

For the past 2 years I've gotten my camera insurance through NANPA (North American Nature Photographers Association).  "The NANPA Photographers Equipment Insurance Program protects against breakage, fire, vandalism and theft (barring mysterious disappearance). It also includes extended warranty and maintenance contracts in loss assessments, and even optional blanket protection for unscheduled items under $500 in value."  You can read more about the plan here.

In my personal experience, the insurance reps are very helpful!  When I broke my tripod on the road, I contacted my insurance agent the same afternoon.  Within 2 days I was up and running with my new Feisol tripod!  It was nice to have someone in my corner during such a stressful time.  Once they verified my tripod was beyond repair, I was told to find a comparable tripod, valued at-or-below the original cost of the Gitzo, and order it.  Once I had the total cost of the new tripod, I received a check for that amount, minus the $250 deductible. 

If you don't have thousands of dollars worth of gear, this plan may be overkill for you.  It costs $350 per year, provided your total gear is valued at $15,000 or less.  If you have more than $15,000 worth of camera related gear, you will need to pay a higher annual fee.  The deductible is $250.

You will also need a NANPA membership to apply for the insurance.  A NANPA membership costs $100 per year.  There are plenty of other reasons to join NANPA including workshops, free webinars, discounts for photography related products, blogging / social media opportunities, and getting connected with fellow nature photographers.  You can see a full list of membership benefits here.

I would highly recommend a NANPA membership, along with the insurance policy, to any nature photographer!  

 

Laptop


Picking the right laptop was a huge headache.  There are so many options, and most of them really aren't geared towards photo editing.  I needed something with an IPS screen and a matte finish.  Most new laptops are touch screen and only have glossy screens, terrible for editing.  After a month of research I found the HP Envy, which I was able to customize on HP's website.  I chose a model with a matte IPS screen, SSD, i7 processor, and 16 GBs of RAM.  I was surprised just how well it worked, even when doing intensive tasks like creating Star Trail images.  If you are planning to customize your own editing laptop, an i7 processor with a fast SSD will make a big difference in performance!

I also needed to calibrate the screen to remove any color cast.  I opted for the Spyder 5 Pro.  This monitor calibrator is easy to use and did a great job.  My laptop screen had a noticeable blue color cast, which was corrected by the Spyder.  If you plan to do any serious photo editing or printing, I highly recommend getting a color calibrator.

 

Accessories


My favorite accessory right now is the iOptron Skytracker Pro.  This star tracker allows me to capture much higher quality nightscapes, and makes deep-space photography possible!  I can't wait to use this more in 2018, especially when I head to Utah for a month.  My main goal will be to photograph the night sky while I'm there.  I recommend all Milky Way photographers look into getting a star tracker, since they have a major impact on image quality!  You can read my star tracker tutorial here.

Unfortunately, my SkyTracker Pro died on me one night while attempting to photograph the stars.  I contacted iOptron and they responded very quickly.  Thankfully the repair was covered under their warranty, but I did have to pay for shipping both ways.  Moving forward, I will likely upgrade to a SkyGuider Pro, which can handle telephoto lenses. 

While my D750 does have a built-in intervalometer, I recently bought a Vello ShutterBoss Intervalometer.  This allows me to "set it and forget it!" when I'm using my star tracker.  In the past, I only had a wireless remote.  When I was doing tracked exposures longer than 30 seconds, I had to manually time the exposures using my smartphone.  Since I was stacking photos too, I had to stand around and time 20+ sixty second photos.  This was a major pain, especially on cold nights.  Now, I can program my desired shutter speed, even it it's 8 minutes long, and head back to my car or tent.  The Vello intervalometer does all the timing for me!  I can't wait to utilize this on my 2018 roadtrip.

I also have a Vello infrared remote, which allows me to take sharp photos on my D750.  Whenever I'm doing any long exposures, or sensitive tripod work, I can use my wireless remote to take a photo.  Using Mirror-Up Mode is critical too, this ensures that there is no camera shake at all.  When I was using my 150-600mm lens to photograph the Orion Nebula, the wired Vello ShutterBoss was causing blurry photos.  Once I used the wireless remote, in mirror-up mode, the photos were tack sharp.  If your camera supports infrared or bluetooth remotes, I'd highly recommend getting one!

Rho OphiuchiRho OphiuchiThe Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex

 

 

Looking Forward


The only other thing I would like to add to my kit is a drone.  I've seen so many stunning drone photos over the past year and I would love to begin capturing my own images.  There are a few things holding me back though.  First, the camera specs.  I love my 24 megapixel, ISO Invariant sensor.  I've become so used to that quality, I would hate to downgrade to a drone-sized sensor.  Another problem is the short battery life of drones.  Even the best drones can only fly for 30 minutes on one battery.  To make matters worse, I'll be living out of my Honda while on the road.  Which brings me to another problem: space.  My car is already jam packed, I don't know if I would even have room for a full drone setup. 


Comments

Shiv(non-registered)
Follow up to the previous question. Regarding filters, you say that you wouldn't recommend Lee Filters at this point. Which other filter system would you recommend which are reasonably priced and having top performance?
Shiv(non-registered)
Hi Peter, this is a great explanation as to what one may need to achieve a smooth workflow while photographing. I had one question regarding the milky way nebulosity pitcure (great picture btw!!) taken with the Tokina 100mm macro. Was there an advantage of using a macro lens in that particular case or would any zoom lens (ex: 70-200) help?
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