It's in the Bag

A peek inside my current traveling kit, with commentary.

This article was replaced by a broader look at bags that can be found here.

Articles showing what gear a pro is using are always popular with readers, but I've hesitating doing one on this site because my equipment since my switch to digital has been in an almost constant state of flux. With the appearance of the D2x, I find myself once again honing in on a more stable set of gear, so I've decided to let you take a look in the bag, complete with short explanations for many of the items I've chosen.

But first, a word of warning: the actual gear I carry does change even when my equipment choices are stabilized. When I'm headed to an area where macro is important, I may give up a big chunk of my "normal" equipment for macro support (which I list separately below). Flying overseas forces me to take some things out to keep weight and size from being a problem. What I'll describe here is my basic starting point. I'll add and subtract things from this basic kit as needed by the assignment or location. I'll try to give you a flavor for that as we proceed, but I can't possibly be exhaustive in that respect or we'd be here all day.

Let's start with the pack. Right now I'm playing with the new Tamrac packs. In particular, the Expedition 7 is my main workshop backpack for the moment. It's a reasonable compromise between size, weight, capacity, comfort, protection, and accessibility. It's better than previous Tamrac's I've used in a number of subtle but important ways. In the LowePro line, the Expedition 7 would match up against something like the NatureTrekker, which I've also used and like. The one thing I'll mention that I don't like about the Tamrac: the harness isn't height adjustable, meaning you can't adjust the fit so that the hip belt sits in exactly the right spot for weight carrying. The pack would be much better if it could be adjusted to back size. Fortunately, it comes quite close to correct for my back measurement, but if you're tall or short, be sure to try it and make sure you're comfortable with the way the load carries. And a word of warning: it won't fit into small overheads, especially if you've put significant items in the outside pockets. This is not the backpack you want if you travel on regional jets or smaller planes.

1. D2x
2. 85mm PC
3. SB-800 #1
4. SB-800 #2
5. SB-600
6. 70-200mm (under reflectors)
7. 17-55mm
8. TC-17E, Kenko tubes
9. Lens Baby, batteries
10. 10.5mm
11. 12-24mm
other items go in inside and outside pockets

Okay, time to pop open the lid and take a look inside:

  • D2x is the main camera body.
  • Rotating second camera body depends upon what I'm testing and what I'm shooting. If the assignment is on water, I'll take a D70 with an underwater housing. If the assignment is sports, I'll take a D2h. If I'm doing landscape work, my current choice is the S3 Pro, especially if I'm contemplating doing B&W work. For some travel, the F6 is the backup. Note, however, that having anything other than a D2x or D2h as the second body means carrying additional batteries and chargers. Yuck.
  • DR-4 right angle finder. Useful for ground and macro shots, precise focusing on still life setups.
  • MC-30 remote. You need at least one remote cable if you're going for absolutely rock steady shots (cable, self timer, and early mirror up on a rock steady tripod).
  • Extra battery(s). I usually only take two with the D2x/D2h, as I've never gone through more than that in a day's shooting.

So far we've just covered the camera bodies and their accessories. Now let's branch out into the other goodies:

  • 10.5mm DX. Just a fun lens for some situations, and it's small and light enough to consider always carrying.
  • 12-24mm DX + hood. I shoot landscapes. I need wide angle, high quality, and this is the best of the bunch right now.
  • 17-55m DX + hood. Basically my new "standard lens." It's not perfect, but it has enough quality and range and fits the focal lengths between the 12-24mm and 70-200mm reasonably.
  • 70-200mm VR + hood. The telephoto workhorse. There's nothing better in this range, though you do need to watch for flare issues. Substitution for wildlife: 200-400mm VR. My current "big" lens of choice, it's a good compromise and handles the TC's well. If I use this instead of the 70-200mm, it requires considerable shuffling inside the pack to accommodate, plus I usually have to give up some of the marginal stuff (85mm PC, etc.).
  • TC-17E. If I'm only carrying one TC, this is the usual choice. I don't find that a 1.4x is enough to really get excited about (that gives me a 100-280 zoom, only 80mm more than normal), while the 2x starts to show visible degradation. If I'm carrying the 200-400mm, I'll tend to carry all three TCs, but with the 70-200mm, just the 1.7x comes with me.
  • 85mm PC. My emergency macro solution, and a lens that gives me tilt-shift capability when I need it, though not necessarily at the focal length I want that at. An interesting choice for two-shot telephoto panoramas (one shot shifted one way, second shot shifted all the way to the other side).
  • Lens Baby. More fun, especially with portraits and close subjects. A bit cumbersome to use well, but worth spending time playing with if you're looking for something stylistically different.
  • 77mm filter stack. Caps on a stack that consists of IR, ND, polarizer, FLD, and Canon 500D CU filters. When the D2h is used, I add a hot mirror. Note that all the filterable lenses in the kit are all 77mm.
  • Singh-Ray Variable ND filter. I resisted getting this, but it really is handy around moving water, where you can essentially "dial in" the motion effect you want.
  • Singh-Ray Galen Rowell Graduated NDs. I usually carry 2SS, 2HS, and 3HS with me, but I also sometimes carry 1SS, 1HS, 3SS and 5HS if I think the situations will warrant it (that 5HS comes in handy in Volcanoes National Park, where you're trying to hold black lava against any kind of sky).
  • Modified Cokin holder and 77mm ring for the graduated NDs.

If that seems like a lot of optics, it is. Optics are one place where I will pare down considerably if I can. But when I travel to workshops, I need a wide range of flexible choices. Same with overseas or long trips.

Since I'm known for using flash extensively and creatively, you won't be surprised at the next set of things in my pack:

  • SB-800 (2) and SB-600 (1) + foot stands, diffusers, and color filtration set. This gives me the ability to light just about anything. If I'm doing wildlife shoots, I'll also carry a Better Beamer and maybe a flash bracket for the lens I'm using.
  • SC-17 cable for getting flash off camera.

Finally, we have a bunch of miscellaneous goodies to identify:

  • Bubble level for camera hot shoe.
  • Plenty of CompactFlash cards in four-to-a-box holders.
  • Plenty of extra AA's for the flashes.
  • Neck strap that clips into the pack straps.
  • Small pouch with ColorChecker, gray card, white card, and full set of WarmCards.
  • Several (usually) small fold up reflectors (gold, white, silver).
  • Nikon Coolwalker.
  • LensPen and microfiber cloth.

That's pretty much it for inside the pack. Many of these things will get transferred to a waist belt bag on the pack or to a vest for accessibility, but I just consider that an extension of the pack.

If I know that I'm going to be doing a lot of macro work, I'll usually replace the 70-200mm (and sometimes the 85mm) with:

  • 70-180mm Micro. A very flexible lens that works quite well for outdoor macro work. I like it better than the 200mm because it's easier to frame quickly (plus it substitutes for the 70-200mm for general use). Fast AF and maximum aperture aren't big issues for macro work. Note that the 70-180mm only goes to 1:2, so you absolutely need the 5T and 6T.
  • 62mm filter stack. Just like the 77mm stack, except this has a Nikon 5T and 6T in place of the Canon 300D for extending the close up range.
  • Kenko extension tubes. I usually only take the 12mm and 20mm, but I also have 25mm and 36mm tubes I sometimes carry.
  • Nikon Speedlight SB-29 instead of the SB-600. I've ordered a Sigma ring flash, which they claim is compatible with i-TTL, so the SB-29 may soon be replaced.
  • Even more small reflectors and cards.
  • A black velvet cloth for removing backgrounds.

For support, I carry either a Gitzo 1228 with the Acratech head, or a Gitzo 1325 with the RRS head, depending upon the type of photography I'll be doing (the latter is better for macro and telephoto shooting, the former perfectly fine for most landscape and wide angle work). All camera bodies and lenses have either Kirk or Really Right Stuff plates, and I carry a Really Right Stuff panorama set with me to do stitched shots with the lens at the nodal point. The tripod and head strap to the back of the pack, the rest goes in it. I'll sometimes carry a Kirk GroundPod with me, and my dad made me a pair of fantastic custom window pods that I use in the vehicle. For a few locales, I'll bring a Gitzo monopod.

If that seems like a lot of stuff, it is. But my kit isn't yet complete. To support all that, I need to have the following packed in my duffel:

  • Battery chargers (for D2x, backup body if different, AAs).
  • AC Adapter (for D2x cleaning).
  • Cleaning kit (both internal and external, various brushes, CO2 air canisters, cloths, Sensor Swabs and Eclipse solution).
  • Tool kit (Kirk tool kit with full set of wrenches and tools for everything I carry, including an eyeglass kit with small screws, tweezers, and small screwdrivers).
  • Cable and download kit (full set of USB and other cables, including AC cables for the adapters and chargers).
  • Laptop.
  • Paksafe (to keep electronics and spare gear more secure in hotel room).

Obviously, when I can I'll cut down the equipment I've listed above to just that which I know I need. But since I'm usually out for weeks at a time, I usually have to carry all of the above, since I'm not just shooting one specific type of assignment. If your back is hurting thinking about all that weight, well, join the club and welcome to the outdoor photographer support group...

Now for something completely different. Check out the June 2005 issue of Backpacker magazine for an article I wrote on recommended digital cameras and the hiker. But I thought I'd show you my true DSLR backcountry kit, which is a lot tighter and lighter (hey, you try carrying all this stuff and your camp equipment and food 50 miles on your back!):

  • D70 camera body.
  • 18-70mm kit lens and hood.
  • 70-300mm ED lens and hood.
  • 5T and 6T filters for macro.
  • SB-600 for extra flash work.
  • Singh-Ray 2SS, 2HS filters.
  • Polarizing filter.
  • Enough cards and batteries to last entire trip.

Most of the time that hiking kit goes into a LowePro chest pouch that straps into my main backpack system (for accessibility while hiking). But sometimes you can't have your downward visibility so blocked, in which case I resort to putting the extra lens in one of the pack's water bottle holders, the filters in a small bag that mounts onto the waistbelt, the flash goes in the pack, and the D70 is cinched to my chest or hanging from the shoulder straps.


Don't take the use of Tamrac Expedition 7 as an endorsement. [Ultimately, I decided that it doesn't carry well and I switched to other bags. 5/26/06]

Professionals go through bags on an almost constant basis, always looking for the "right one." Pro photographers are to camera bags as Imelda Marcos was to shoes. Indeed, some branch out and design their own "perfect bag," though it rarely turns out to be perfect for them, let alone others.

In my closet I've got Kenesis, LowePro, Tamrac, Tenba, and a few other brands of bags. I've got bags I've modified. I've got bags designed by other photographers. I've got big bags, small bags, medium bags, backpacks, waist bags, waist belts, vests, duffels, you name it. Not a single one is perfect for every application. Thus the search for the perfect bag goes on and on and...

What I'd Like in the Bag

Okay, so what would I change if I could wave my magic wand and make anything I want appear? Well:

  • A smaller, less expensive 12.2mp backup body. Think D120.
  • A 12mm f/2.8G DX prime. (Replaces the 12-24mm)
  • An 18mm f/2.8G DX PC.
  • An i-TTL macro ring flash.

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