What’s in the Camera Bag?
It takes more than a great camera to make a great image. You need artistry, skill, and often a bit of luck. But having the right equipment is an important part of the equation. I get a lot of questions about my gear. Here’s a peek at what I carry when I’m out on assignment or shooting at events.
Like many photographers, I cut my teeth on old 35mm film cameras, first a Pentax MV-1 and then a much-loved Olympus OM-1. But over the past decade I’ve been wedded almost exlusively to Canon DSLRs. I’ve shot with a wide range of them, including the 20D and the classic 5D. My current cameras of choice are the 5D Mark III and the 6D.
Canon 5D Mark III. This is an extraordinary camera in almost every respect. It’s powerful, fast, intuitive and produces all-around gorgeous images. It also feels good in the hand. While it’s fairly big and heavy (especially with a battery grip attached), I’ve found that it’s almost perfect for the sort of photography I do. One of my favorite features is the silent shutter mode, which allows me to shoot in quiet venues without calling attention to myself. There are a few little issues that I hope Canon will address in the next version. I wish it had a higher sync-speed, for example, or that it could write equally fast to both CF and SD cards, or that the metering corresponded to the selected autofocus point, or that the images had a higher dynamic range. But even with these caveats, the 5D Mark III ranks as one of the finest DSLRs on the market, and certainly the best camera I’ve ever used.
Canon 6D. This is Canon’s newest full-frame DSLR, released in late 2012. It’s smaller and more user-friendly than the 5D Mark III, and it costs considerably less. But the image quality is about equal, perhaps even a little better. I bought the 6D to use as a second camera at events, but to my surprise I’ve found myself preferring it in many situations. The compact form factor and reduced weight make it a better choice for street photography, for example. It also travels very well and has the added benefit of GPS (a feature the 5D Mark III lacks). It also allows me to shoot using my iPhone as a wireless remote, which can be very useful. I’ve had some trouble getting used to the button layout on the back, which is not as good as the one on the 5D Mark III. It also skimps on some features, like sync speed, autofocus, and shutter speed. But those frustrations aside, I think the 6D represents the DSLR of the future. It’s compact, light, easy to use, and gives you astonishingly good image quality.
A great camera needs a great lens; the two go hand in hand. It’s taken me years to find a combination that really works in the field. Today it comes down to a handful of lenses that I consider critical to the work I do—photojournalism and event photography, in particular. I’d say that 95 percent of the time, I’m using one of the following four lenses.
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II. Wide-angle lenses are challenging to work with. They require a sophisticated understanding of composition compared to standard lenses. It has taken me time to learn how to shoot wide (and to develop the confidence to get really close to the action). But this lens is a joy to use and has produced some of my all-time best images. Of the four lenses listed here, it’s the softest and produces the highest degree of distortion, especially in the corners. Doesn’t matter. It’s the lens that consistently produces memorable captures—images that draw you in and seize the imagination.
Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II. Canon released this lens late last year, replacing the original 24-70mm f/2.8 L, which I had carried around in my bag for about 8 years. While that lens was incredibly rugged and dependable, it was never much fun to use. In fact, even though it was probably the lens I used the most, it was the one I loved the least. When Canon came out with the new version, I had mixed feelings. It cost a fortune, for one thing. How could I justify spending so much on a lens that seemed so, well, ordinary? But every review I read made it clear that the new 24-70mm was in a class of its own. And the image comparisons between the old and new versions made the choice obvious. I’ve now had the lens a few months and I can safely say that it’s the most versatile and optically superior piece of glass I own. It works for everything from product shots to press conferences to portrait shoots, producing rich, pleasing images that almost always impress with their clarity and detail.
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L. Just about every photojournalist worth his or her salt carries a 70-200mm telephoto lens. It’s just hard to manage an assignment without it. Over the past decade, this lens has gone with me almost everywhere. It’s heavy, weighing in at almost 3 pounds. But there’s no replacement when it comes to shooting concerts, lectures, plays, and other events where you need a close-up or a little extra reach. The power of the 200mm focal length is that it compresses distance, making it ideal for compositions that bring together multiple elements in the frame, making them appear closer to each other than they really are. Shot wide open, the 70-200mm can also help separate a subject from its background, making it perfectly suited for long portrait work. It has a very flattering effect on the human face and tends to produce beautiful, blurry backgrounds. It used to be my go-to portrait lens. But in recent years I’ve shifted toward shorter focal lengths which force you to get closer to your subject and therfore create more intimate images. The most common version of the lens has image stabilization, but I prefer the one without. I still have a steady hand and like the reduced weight of the non-stabilized version.
Canon 85mm f/1.2 L. I don’t know many photojournalists who carry this lens around in their bag. It’s heavy, slow to focus, and generally difficult to work with. But it’s useful for event and street photography and it really shines as a portrait lens. Its extremely shallow depth-of-field when shot wide open makes for dreamy photographs suffused with softness and light. Some of the portraits I’ve made with this lens have an ethereal quality that’s all but impossible to achieve with other lenses. At this point, I can’t really imagine life as a photographer without it. I love the lens more than any other piece of equipment I own. It’ll be the last one I part with come the revolution. It’s just that special.
In addition to these four, I have a handful of other lenses that serve a variety of special purposes, from a 15mm fisheye to a 50mm f/1.4 to a 100mm macro to a Lensbaby. (I have a special place in my heart for the 50mm and wrote a blog post about it: The 50mm, My First Love.) I also carry an EF 1.4x teleconverter with me, for those times when the 70-200mm isn’t quite long enough. Like many photographers, I fantasize about owning other lenses. But the reality is that I already have more gear than I can carry in most situations. And when I need something in particular—such as a 400mm f/2.8 to shoot, say, a concert—I simply rent it.
Let me briefly mention some favorite accessories, from flashes and light modifiers to tripods and camera straps. This is not an exhaustive list, but it includes some items that I’ve grown to love and depend on.
Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites. The latest generation of high-end flashes from Canon include radio transmitters for wireless operation. While many of us have relied on this feature for years, it has required the use of third-party triggers, like Pocket Wizards or RadioPoppers. I always thought the external trigger system was cumbersome and unreliable. For indoor wireless operation, I used to use a Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter, an infrared trigger, which worked reasonably well indoors. But, again, the system was not very reliable and you had to be careful to always keep the camera in view of the speedlite. Canon’s new flash system changes everything. Not only can you place your 600EX-RTs off-camera up to a distance of some 100 feet, but you can control the flashes directly from the camera. No more walking back and forth between the camera and the umbrella or softbox to change settings! The 600EX-RTs are expensive, but they’re super-dependable and a joy to use.
Canon TC-80N3 Timer Remote Controller. This little gizmo is an essential accessory for shooting with the camera mounted on a tripod, especially when using a super telephoto lens, making long exposures, bracketing, or shooting time-lapse sequences. But it’s also good for portraiture when you’re using tripod. It lets you get out from behind the camera and really interact with your subject during a shoot. I also like the option of triggering a second camera remotely during events.
Stroboframe QuickFlip 120. You need a flash bracket when you’re shooting vertical portraits with an on-camera flash. Without it, you get ugly shadows to one side. A bracket also helps prevent red-eye when you’re using a flash and a long lens. The Stroboframe is an elegant and inexpensive solution to an otherwise pesky problem.
B+W UV filters and circular polarizers. I have UV filters at the front of all my lenses. I’m not alone in swearing by B+W filters. They are optically superior, expertly designed, and I’ve never had a bad one. B+W also make excellent polarizers and neutral density filters—optional accessories that nevertheless can make a huge difference.
Induro C414 Tripod. Tripods are still a necessity for many kinds of photography, even though they’re a pain to carry around. Fortunately, the carbon fiber Induros are light, well-crafted and rock-solid. I have a nifty Slik pan/tilt pan head that I use most of the time with the C414. I actually prefer it over a ballhead, though it’s heavy and a little too bulky to travel with.
Induro AM-24 Monopod. This monopod is ideal for shooting indoors with a long lens, helping to reduce camera-shake and back strain. I love the look and feel of the Induros. Light, well-designed and super sturdy. I often use a ballhead with a quick-release plate with the AM-24 so I can quickly remove the camera without having to unscrew it. One thing I love about a monopod is that it allows me to get the camera up high above my head. It creates an interesting POV, especially in crowded places. For this I use a wide angle lens and the self-timer on the camera. I simply press the shutter and then hold the monopod with the camera high the air till the shutter is released.
Joby GorillaPod with Ballhead X. The GorillaPods are a brilliant technology—part clamp and part tripod. They work great for mounting cameras, obviously, but also other kinds of equipment, like flashes and microphones. And when I need an extra tripod head in a pinch, I use the excellent Ballhead X that came with one of the GorillaPods.
Joby SlingStrap. Another great product from Joby is the SlingStrap, a smartly designed solution for those of us who carry two cameras. The SlingStrap goes over the head—so it doesn’t slip off the shoulder or get ensnared in the other shoulder strap. The camera swings around when you need it, allowing you to shoot with the strap in place. I typically use Tamrac N-25 straps made from stretchy neoprene rubber. They act as shock-absorbers and really lighten the load. But as I say, having one camera on each shoulder can be a problem, especially when I’m moving around on foot. The SlingStrap solves the problem by putting one camera on my back until I need it—and when I do, it’s right there.
Calumet and Think Tank camera bags. I have a backpack and a roller for air travel, but I prefer to carry gear over my shoulder. These bags do the trick. They’re light, rugged, and extremely well-designed. I simply love them.