Over the last couple of years my camera kit has shifted from my shooting 100% with Canon towards the Fuji mirrorless. Fuji took over my wide angle work — primarily landscape — in 2014 with the Fuji X-T1, and so for the last year or so I’ve only been using Canon for their telephoto lenses, since Fuji’s line stopped at 200mm.
Earlier in 2016 Fuji introduced their 200-400 lens and a set of 1.4x and 2.0x Teleconverters, and that effectively gets the mirrorless platform out into the extreme telephoto range that bird and nature photographers need. I started testing that lens and was really impressed, to the point where I retired all of my Canon gear except for my Big Bertha setup, the Canon 7DmkII with the Sigma 150-600.
As of today (September 2016) I’m about 95% shot with the Fuji. I’m keeping Big Bertha around for the winter wildlife refuge season but if I don’t find I’m using it a lot, I’ll likely retire it as well.
After a lot of tweaking and updating in the last few months, my camera gear has changed a lot, so I felt it was time for a new What’s in my Bag post listing what I have and explaining why I carry it.
One of the reasons I’ve been updating gear in my bag is simple: weight. My Big Bertha setup, typical for a Canon Wildlife lens, weighs about 8 pounds and gets me out to 600mm. With the Fuji 200-400 and a 1.4x teleconverter, I get effectively that same lens in a mirrorless setup, and the camera and lens combo weighs a bit over 3 pounds. Big Bertha can be handheld, kind of, but really needs to be on a tripod to be used well; the Fuji setup with the reduced weight gives me the same overall capability but in a package that can be reasonably hand held as well as put on a tripod, depending on need. It is similar in weight and size to the old birder classic: the Canon 100-400 lens.
What I’ve ended up with is two camera kits: my primary kit with my Fuji gear in it, and a second bag dedicated to that Canon Big Bertha setup, because of its size and weight.
I shoot primarily landscapes and wildlife/bird photography, with a bit of event and street work mixed in at random. My gear selections and bags reflect that, and here is a look at what’s inside my bags:
- My Primary Bag (Fuji)
- My Big Bertha Bag (Canon)
- My Tripods and Supports
- Other Bits and Pieces and Travel Gear
My Primary Bag
After years with my venerable Think Tank Airport Accelerator backpack, I finally opted for a new camera bag, a Lowepro Runner 450. I changed for one reason: the old bag was too big and had a lot of empty space in it. While I was tempted to buy more gear to fill it, I opted instead for a somewhat smaller bag instead (the Airport Accelerator is in good hands though, and now my wife’s primary bag). I like this bag; it’s comfortable to wear and it’s got good organization with inserts for a big lens and three pockets, and it carries my gear with a bit of extra room without feeling stuffed. The one thing it doesn’t have that the Think Tank did was a way to carry a laptop, but in practice, I never used that — when I travel, the computer travels in its own bag.
In the bag is where the magic happens
I carry two bodies, the just released Fuji X-T2 and my older Fuji X-T1. As I write this the Fuji X-T2 is brand new and I’ve just received my unit and haven’t had time to really evaluate it. I’ll update this once I do, but I expect it to become my go-to camera body moving forward, with the X-T1 acting as second body, so when I have the big lens on a tripod I can still shoot wider angle and video with the second unit.
What attracted me to the Fuji cameras? First and foremost, the sensor, which I find gives me great detail and very true colors; I always found the Canon sensors rendered images a bit too warm for my taste, so I was always pulling some yellow out in post. I don’t have that problem with the Fuji. It creates strong blues and gorgeous, pure greens that I love. The autofocus works well in most situations, the camera is a very low-noise unit into the higher ISOs, and I really like the feel and operability in the field.
What don’t I like about it? Battery life isn’t as good as the Canon, but it’s a smaller camera with smaller and lighter batteries. Think about it this way, though: in the field, do you want to carry a 3 pound camera with two spare batteries and expect to swap it once or twice during the day, or an 8 pound camera with a spare battery you probably won’t need (but you carry because you might?).
The answer is simple to me, but it does mean you have to plan for this, and if you are doing things like panoramas, heavy burst mode, long exposures or timelapses you need to plan for it. One thing on my long-term planning list it to explore either external batter power for timelapses and night photography or some kind of AC power setup for it. In the scope of the kind of work I do most of the time, it’s a small inconvenience.
Fujinon XF18-135mmF3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
The Fujinon 18-135 is my go-to wide angle lens. It looks like a kit lens, it’s almost priced like a kit lens, but if you take a closer look at it, it’s a really good lens. Sharp, fast autofocus, and Fuji has upgraded it’s weatherproofing to make it weather resistant (but not waterproof!). The zoom range is wide enough that I don’t need to carry two lenses — at one point I did, with the 18-55 and the 55-200, and while I liked the 18-55 a lot, the 55-200 felt slow and heavy and just didn’t impress me, and I’m a big fan of one lens instead of two when it makes sense.
It does make sense to me here; the X-T1 body with the 18-135 is a small and light package that covers most of my landscape needs nicely, and I’ve found it a great lans when doing event photography, where I really don’t want to have to worry about a second lens or carrying a bag through event crowds. Fast autofocus, sharp images, it’s a very solid performer that the more I use, the more I like it.
Weaknesses? There are times when I want to go wider, and so I’ve been tempted to add a 10-20mm lens to the mix, but those uses are fairly rare and instead I’ve been experimenting with stitched panorama the the camera vertical to get those images. So far, I’ve been really happy with those results.
Fujinon XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
The Fujinon 100-400 is the first mirrorless lens on any platform to extend out into the super-telephoto range. With it, this makes Fuji the first mirrorless camera maker to be able to support the sports, action, wildlife and bird photography groups.
I’ve been using this lens for a couple of months and I’ve been quite happy with it. Paired with a 1.4x teleconverter, it gives me effectively the same as a 600mm lens would on my 7DmkII but without the weight. It fully supports automation and autofocus in that configuration, and attached to an X-T1, autofocus works reliably and quickly.
That said, when you start moving into these super-telephoto lenses, technique and practice become key. When you zoom out to 600mm, getting a subject into the frame at all, much less centered, is tricky, and if it’s moving keeping it in the frame is a challenge. You can run into camera shake issues, which is one reason why you’ll still find yourself using a tripod when you can. I have, more than once, lost my subject from the act of pressing the shutter, which caused me to shift the camera enough to lose the framing. What this means is you have to really be careful how you operate the camera or the chaos introduced into the system along with the strong magnification is going to make you crazy. This is all true of any super telephoto, not just the Fuji, but this is one of the first systems light enough to routinely hand carry: but be aware doing so creates opportunities, but with technical challenges. I’ve found raising the ISO to make sure I get a shutter speed freezing action is key to minimizing shake blur, but without good technique, none of that will really help, even with stationary subjects. This is a lens you have to learn to use well, but once you do, you’ll love the results.
Fujinon XF60mmF2.4 R Macro
The third lens in my bag is the Fuji 60mm Macro. It’s relatively new to my bag and I haven’t used it very much, so I don’t have a strong opinion on it yet, but when I have gone and tested it, I’ve liked the possibilities. This is unfortunately the lens best aimed at the kind of photography I haven’t yet shot regularly, so for me it’s a work in progress.
Other Bag Essentials
Here’s the rest of what I carry in the bag on a regular basis:
When Fuji released the 1.4x tele with the 100-400, I grabbed it and it quickly became an almost permanent attachment to the lens. It gives me the equivalent of a 560mm lens with full automation, fast autofocus and sharp images. Later on, I bought the 2x teleconverter as well, but my results with it have been much less consistent, so it’s still very much in testing/practice mode for me. I’m starting to wonder if I got a bad unit, but I haven’t decided yet.
Think Tank Photo SD Pixel Pocket Rocket
Transcend SDXC Flash Memory Cards
Lexar SDXC Flash Memory Cards
I carry a bunch of cards, and I organize them with the Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket so they don’t get lost. Currently my go to brands are Lexar and Transcend, and I buy whichever is cheaper when I need one. I’ve generally bought 32 Gig cards, but they’re now harder to find because the 64 Gig cards have come down in price, so in the future, my cards will be 64 Gigs.
Think Tank Photo DSLR Battery Holder 4
Wasabi Power Battery (2-Pack) and Charger for Fujifilm (1400mAh)
Fujifilm NP-W126 Battery (1260mAh)
Post processing has made the need to carry lots of filters extinct. There are three classes of filters that you need to have in the field: Protection, Polarization and Neutral Density.
Protection filters are the common UV or Haze filters many people stick on to lenses to protect them from damage. I’ve found over the years that (a) I’ve only had a filter once protect a lens, (b) the money I spent on UV filters over the years would have paid to repair that lens (i.e., I didn’t save money spending it on filters before something bad actually happened) and (c) they can reduce contrast and increase flaring and other bad things, especially in bad lighting conditions, and double-especially in backlit or into-the-sun condititions. So I don’t carry UV filters any more, and I don’t put them on my lenses. Your mileage may vary, but ask yourself how much you’ve spent on them over the years, and how often they’ve actually protected your gear from something. Unless you’re in a hostile environment like salt spray a lot, you probably don’t need them.
Polarizers are a filter I use a lot, and there are some ways to sometimes simulate some things they do, but you can’t replace them with on-computer magic completely. They have an ability to mute reflections and glare as well as darken the sky, so I consider these important additions to the bag.
I have one for each of my key lenses. For my big lens I use the Hoya 77mm HRT Circular Polarizer, which is a nice middle-priced filter that creates few artifacts and little glare. Good, solid and reliable. For the smaller lens, I use the Hoya 67mm Pro1 Digital DMC Circular Polarizer Filter. It is a bit of a price upgrade over the other one, but I use it a lot more on the wide angle lens, and I like it’s low profile that minimized vignetting and it’s lack of a color shift or any noticeable glare problems. It’s a really nice polarizer, especially for the money.
With Neutral Density Filters, I only have them for the 67mm lens. I used a vari-ND filter for a while, one that lets you dial in the amount of darkening in a way that operates much like a polarizer, but I was never happy with color artifacts and other problems, so I finally upgraded to a set of three filters, the Tiffen 67mm Digital Neutral Density Filter Kit (ND 0.6, 0.9, 1.2 + Wallet). These can be stacked to give you up to ten stops of slowing, and these are critical if you want to experiment with slow shutter speeds (> 2 seconds) to smooth water or to get extreme water smoothing for images like my Bandon Lighthouse or Bandon Rocks images you’ll see in the slideshows above. These are much less finicky than my vari-ND was but with heavy stacks you can still get some vignetting and some color shifts, but the shifts are easily fixed in post. Overall, I’m quite happy with them.
Long term I’d like to have ND support for the larger lens, and I want to add some graduated ND filters to the mix, but when I do that, I plan on shifting to 100mm square filters and a holder that will work on all of the lenses with the right adaptors, and to do that means a bit of money and I just don’t have it as a priority right now. I also want to get a 10 stop filter when I do that so I don’t have to stack multiples. It’s on my — down the road — list.
- JJC JM-R(II) Wireless Shutter Release
- JJC compatible Fujifilm RR-90 Multi-Function Timer Remote Control
I’ve experimented with a number of shutter releases over the years and I’ve finally settled on two, one wired and one wireless. Both are by JJC and both are quite inexpensive. I use the wireless one when I’m locking the camera onto the tripod and I want to be able to trigger it when I see something but still want the ability to move around the area (or sit down and watch). I’ll used the wired shutter release in bad weather, when I’m working long exposures or timelapses or any other time when I’m staying near the camera or re-adjusting it between shots. Both work well, every shutter release I’ve found has User Interface quirks that make me scratch my head until I get used to them, and since they’re cheap, I don’t mind if I break one or lose it somehow. Since these are battery driven, I have to remember to carry spare batteries, because there’s nothing quite so painful as realizing your batteries are dead when you reach for the device. Because of that, I carry a couple of MN21/21 and a couple of CR2 batteries, since those are what my shutter releases depend on.
There are a few more things I keep in the bag. Every bag I use has a Petzl Headlamp, because when you work late and need a flashlight, you don’t want to realize your forgot to pack it. The same with the hex wrench to adjust and repair my tripod legs, my Giottos Rocket Air Blaster to clean the lens or sensor, and a pack of Field Notes Kraft to write notes to myself, along with a couple of pens. I also carry a Leatherman – Sidekick Multi-Tool and I’m tempted to put on in every bag, but I don’t need them that often, but when I do, it’s usually a situation that may abort a shoot if I can’t fix it. The leatherman units are awesome things to have handy when you need them. And don’t forget your Microfiber Cleaning Cloths to keep the lenses clean.
I carry the battery charger from the Wasabi pack listed above, and a card reader; my current favorite is the Transcend USB 3.0 Super Speed Multi-Card Reader. Both are there so I don’t have to remember to pack them when I travel (and I have permanent ones on my office at home as well).
I have a few things I carry that I rarely use but which when I need it can make a huge different. First is the Hoodman HoodLoupe Optical Viewfinder which lets me examine the LCD on the back of the camera without light or glare impacting the image. If you’re trying to figure out if you’re nailing the shot in the field, it’s a godsend. While most of the time I use and trust Automatic White Balance to get me close and adjust it back in the office, sometimes the light is really weird, and then I haul out the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo, which is a grey card on steroids. Take a few test shots and it’ll allow you to tune in the colors back in the office quickly and easily. And sometimes, especially with macro work, I need to encourage or discourage the sun a bit. For that, I keep a small PhotoFlex Pocket LiteDisc (White/Gold)
handy, big enough to shield a flower from direct sun or bounce a bit of light to soften a harsh shadow. It won’t help with Cranes at 200 yards, but it’ll definitely make getting a shot of that California Poppy easier. And finally, because I seem hardwired to get my horizons off level and not notice in the field, I use the (March 2016 Update)Three Axis Hot Shoe Bubble Level on the camera to help me get the camera straight. Lest you think you should magically get that level horizon line on their own, when you start talking to other photographers it’s fun to see how many of them are consistently 2-3% off and rely on this to solve this problem.
Oh, and I always carry business cards to hand off, which have one of my photos on one side, my name, email and web site on the other. That’s a lot easier than trying to explain to someone how to find my photos verbally or writing it down.
My Big Bertha Bag
Big Bertha is a birding and wildlife setup that uses the Canon 7dMKii camera body and the Sigma 150-600 Sport lens. This combo gives me an eight pound, very capable and reliable camera to use in the field when I’m out in the refuges with the geese and cranes. Note that Sigma has two versions of the 150-600, the more expensive sport and a less expensive Contemporary version. Why go with the sport? it’s built more ruggedly, so it’ll hold up better in the field. It’s got bigger focus and zoom rings, which I find makes it more consistent to use, especially in bad light. The tripod mount is beefier, too. The Contemporary lens seems to be to be built more for casual indoor use with autofocus and exposure automation turned on, where the Sport is designed more for outdoors, bad weather, and the kind of use that goes with it, including manual focus and a lot of hand work. That said, there’s about a 2 pound weight difference and the Sport model is twice the price, so if you want to be careful with the lens, maybe the Contemporary will work for you.
I keep this behemoth in its own bag, the Think Tank Photo Glass Taxi which is designed for this purpose, housing a single big lens on a body.
Also in the bag with this camera are two spare batteries in a Think Tank carrier (see above for the link); the compact flash version of the Think Tank Photo Pixel Pocket Rocket and a set of Transcend 32GB CompactFlash Memory Card.
While this is primarily a tripod unit, I still sometimes am insane enough to hand carry it. To do that, I have two straps, a one camera Black Rapid RS-7 strap that I’ve owned forever, and a Black Rapid Yeti Dual Camera Sling Strap. Both of these are messenger-bag type slings with sliders, and honestly, if you’re still using an around-the-neck strap I’m sorry, and double-sorry if you try to haul around eight pounds of camera with it. Slings rock and my neck thanks me at the end of every outing. The Yeti is interesting because it allows me to add my fuji as a second body, so I can walk around with both the big lens and my wide angle camera without having to carry the full bag and switch things around – while only looking moderately dorky doing so. Realistically, though, if you’re in that situation, it’s useful and fairly comfortable.
This bag is fairly spartan because I’m almost always using it in conjunction with my main bag, but it still has a few things in it: a Petzl Flashlight, lens cleaning cloths (both links are above) and a wired shutter release, the JJC Remote Control Shutter Release. Oh, and business cards.
Beyond that, if I’m going out without the main bag, I’ll pack in a few more essentials as I need them for the trip, but this bag is set up specifically so I have what I need to use that camera/lens combo when I haul it out, but in reality, I rarely haul it out unless I’m also hauling out my primary gear. This is definitely a supplemental unit to my main Fuji gear now, and likely sometime in 2017 I’ll be retiring it.
My Tripods and Supports
I carry two tripods most of the time, because when I’m in the field I’m often set up with the big lens on one, and a wide angle lens on the other timelapsing, doing video, or being triggers remotely by me.
My big tripod is built on the Induro CT-113 Carbon Fiber legs. These are big, hefty, sturdy as a rock and effectively have no vibration so they help you get good images in bad and windy conditions. They are not cheap, but they’re well made, and a lot cheaper than other manufacturers like Really Right Stuff’s legs. For someone who’s not a full time shooting pro, these made a good compromise and I don’t regret it a bit.
On top of this tripod I usually use an Induro ball-head that’s no longer made but very similar to the Induro BHD2 Ballhead. This combo is rock solid, very little vibration and steady in blustery weather.
The problem? it’s big and bulky, so recently I started looking at replacing the tripod I was using as my second, which was the first serious tripod I bought, a Slik with steel legs. It gave me yeoman’s service, but it was shakey and not good in wind (but it was cheap for a beginning photographer). After research, I decided to try the Vanguard VEO 265CB Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod with Ball Head which weighs 3 pounds and folds up into a small package only 15″ tall, while extending to almost five feet. It fits easily into a suitcase for travel.
In my testing so far, it’s shown itself to be quite steady and stable, although not as much of either as my Induro sticks. Definitely good enough for most work so far. I’ve even put the Big Bertha on it and found it to be stable to use, I never felt it would fall over and I didn’t see signs of camera shake in the images.
So if you’re looking for a good, portable, stable and light tripod, try the Vanguard. If you need something beefier the Induro sticks work quite well. Both live in the car with me, but the Vanguard increasingly is the one I haul out to carry with me in the field.
Both of those tripods have ballheads on them, but sometimes, you need a different type of head. When working with really big and heavy lenses, you’ll find aiming and securing a ballhead to be a challenge and most photographers end up shifting to a gimbal, which uses a pair of pivots to allow free motion of the lens — if you want to shoot wildlife or birds in motion, you’ll end the day doing so with a ballhead grumpy and frustrated, but the gimbal makes moving the lens to follow movement a lot easier. Unfortunately the gimbal most people recommend, by Waverly, is $500, and out of my budget. I was able to find one by an asian manufacturer, the Opteka GH1 Professional Gimbal Tripod Head for $100 so I gave it a shot. I’ve been really happy with it, especially at the price. The motion isn’t quite as smooth as the Waverly but it’s smooth enough, and it’s rock solid and feels well-built. It lets you lock down the camera when you’re not moving it, and there are adjustments to center the weight of the camera and lens on it for balance. Overall, it’s a great value.
One final accessory I’m starting to experiment with is the SunwayFoto DYH-66i Leveling Base. This attaches between the tripod legs and the head and allows you to level the head without having to try to make each tripod leg just right, so you can get set up and level faster and easier. This is especially important if you’re shooting panoramas where the travel across the scene has to be straight and level. If you’re shooting a single image, the bubble level in the hot shoe works well enough, but once you introduce motion into your shooting with panoramas, I think this kind of unit is going to be a lifesaver.
All of my camera have plates attached at the tripod attachment points, which give me quick-release usage on tripods and other holding devices. I use the Sunwayfoto clamp on my straps so I can quickly attach a strap to a camera to wear around my neck without having to remove the plates. Once you start doing it this way, you’ll never go back, because it also means you never have the neck strap getting in the way while the camera is on the tripod. the FastenR screw attaches to the clamp and lets you snap the strap onto it, giving you reliable connections from camera to neck.
My primary strap for the Fuji is the Luma Loop 3, which is comfortable and allows easy access to the camera as needed (disclosure: I know the people involved with the product, but I paid for this one). I use the Sunwayfoto Screw Knob Clamp Arca Compatible, with a Black Rapid FastenR-3 attached to let me fasten a strap to a Neewer PU-50 Universal Quick Release Plate Fits Arca-Swiss which is permanently attached to the camera. This way I can move from hand-held to tripod and back quickly without reconfiguring gear or having to remove or replace those plates.
I love the conveniences, I love that I don’t have a dangling strap in my way when I’m on the tripod, and I’m always amazed more people don’t use this kind of clamping system with their straps. But then, I don’t know why people still use neck straps when these shoulder sling straps exist…
Other Bits and Pieces and Travel Gear
That’s pretty much what’s in my bags and part of my every-outing gear in the car. There are also additional things I keep inthe office but will pack to take with me when I travel. First and most important: battery chargers, at least one for each battery type I use. I own the ones by the manufacturer, but I’ve been using Wasabi chargers as well with good results, and I’m now starting to test chargers that plug into USB ports, which if they work well will let me plug them into the charging station I travel with while being smaller and lighter. Too soon to be sure, but my early look is positive.
I also pack a sensor cleaning kit, since there’s nothing more frustrating than getting dust spots that won’t blow off two days into a two week trip. In that I keep a sensor loupe that lets me see a magnified view of the sensor: I use the Visible Dust BriteVue Sensor Loupe but since I bought it there are newer, less expensive options worth exploring. That lets me see whether the sensor needs cleaning and after, how well I did. I carry more lens cloths, because you never have enough and they’re always getting dirty and need to be replaced, and another air blower.
But for when that piece of dirt won’t dislodge without serious surgery, I also carry wet cleaning tools. Trust me, the first time you do this you’ll be nervous, but after a couple of tries, it gets better. Still you need to be careful because it’s possible to really screw things up if you get lazy, including scratching the sensor or getting fluid into the electronics.
To wet clean, you need two things: cleaning fluid and swabs. Both the 7DmkII and the Fuji use 16-17mm swabs and for fluid I use Eclipse Optic Cleaning fluid. Not this is different than the liquid lens cleaner you might use so don’t swap them. I should write about this process some day but Adorama has a good guide on it.
The last thing I carry on trips are spare hard drives: typically two, one to back up the computer, and one to store photos if I fill my main drive. the ones I use today are the Buffalo MiniStation TB 1 TB Portable Hard Drive which don’t require a power supply and are inexpensive. I typically don’t erase cards until the end of the trip (so it’s better to carry more cards than fewer!) which means my trip images are on at least 2 or three things until I get them home and get them backed up into the main backup systems — because there’s nothing worse than losing a card or having a disk problem on the road and costing you a week’s shooting. Backups matter, but most people don’t take them seriously until they get bit. Don’t be most people, and especially don’t be the person who WAS bit and still doesn’t take backups seriously. Seriously.
That’s a lot of stuff
Yup, that’s a lot of stuff, but to be honest, over the last year or so I’ve taken a hard look at what I use and don’t and gotten rid of all of the clutter of things I thought I’d use but really didn’t. And there are lots of things here that might give you ideas on how you can improve your kit. If you have thoughts or questions on this, please let me know and I’ll try to help you out!
(last update: September 6, 2016)