Being broke photographer can be an amazing thing. While I don’t necessarily recommend pursuing this route in becoming a professional photomaker, it certainly worked for me.
Everything in my current kit is a product of making the best of the gear you have on hand. Even now, as I have achieved an arguable measure of success, I still lean more towards the idea that your tools compliment your own ability and resourcefulness. Like Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Those words will carry you a long way.
Alright, let’s talk. I’m going to sort through every piece of gear you see in the picture and break each one down. I’ll give you the scoop on why and how I came to use all these little beauties.
My main camera body is a tried and true Sony a7R – bought used of course. It’s a first generation and comes complete with less-than-high-grade weather sealing and a shutter that sounds like an egg hitting the floor. That being said, it has withstood literally everything I have thrown at it in course of “art;” from being frozen in blizzards on the Appalachian Trail, to cooking in the heat of Death Valley, to being rained on by dozens of waterfalls. The a7R has been my workhorse for over four years now.
I hesitate to even call my Canon 5D Mark III a “second” body as it gets nearly as much use as my Sony. The weather sealing and performance reputation of the 5D series needs no flowery description from me. This 5D Mark III is my go-to body for video or when I absolutely know I’ll be running into extreme weather conditions. It was this camera which I used for the finishing winter shots for my new book, ‘Faces of Grayson’
Bought second hand from eBay, my 5D Mark III arrived blacked out by the previous owner. I’ve lovingly took to calling it “The Bat”.
Your lens is the eye of your camera. A quality piece of glass is most likely one of the best investments you can make towards producing solid images. Here’s a list of my current lenses (and adapters) which have guided the light making up the majority of my photographs.
Something you’ll readily notice is that I shoot a majority of prime lenses, and most those are fully manual in their operation. The reason for this is twofold: prime lenses offer outstanding sharpness and speed, and prime lenses are considerably cheaper than their variable focal length counterparts.
My Rokinon 14mm is one of the best super-wide-angle lenses on the market today, in my opinion of course. It is my best friend for astrophotography or when I don’t mind having a compressed background in a landscape. A wonderful, fully-manual low-light beast.
The Sony 24-70mm f/4 and Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art are the only two lenses I’ve ever purchased new. They are also the only autofocus lenses in my kit. The Sony 24-70mm is an outstanding piece of glass. Sharpness is superb and the native AF with my a7R is needed on occasion. Still, even the constant f/4 aperture is just a tad slow at times.
That’s where the Sigma 24mm comes in handy. The 24mm might be a fixed focal length, but the trade-off comes from its blazing fast AF even with my Sony (with MC-11 adapter) and the fact that the Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art could just be the sharpest lens I’ve ever encountered when shooting at f/1.4. I reviewed the Sigma 24mm and was so impressed that I bought one.
Now, let’s talk about my babies: the Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AI-s and Nikon Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 AI-s. These two lenses solidify the very core of my admittedly unlikely photographic career. These lenses have a backstory, but the gist is that they came included in a $10 package from a local pawnshop. Yes, that’s right, $10 US bought these two beautiful lenses plus a pristine Nikon F3 35mm camera.
These two lenses were first adopted to be used with my very first digital camera, a Canon 7D Mark I, and then progressively evolved to be used with my current camera bodies. Each one is about 40 years old now and the craftsmanship is something to be envied. I owe a huge thank you to these two lenses. They are fast, sharp, beautiful and still rival the image quality of today’s most luxurious glass. Can you tell I love these things?
If you can’t tell already the majority of my lenses are non-native and I use virtually all of my lenses with more than one camera. That’s where lens adapters/converters come to the rescue.
In the beginning, out of necessity, I needed to find a way to use my Nikon lenses with a Canon camera. To do this I scoured eBay and found two ultra-simple, ultra-cheap adapters. I have no idea who made them but they have held up well. They are the foundation of the Frankensteinish adaptability of those two Nikon AI-s lenses.
The other two adapters I carry are the Commlite Auto-Focus Mount Adapter EF-NEX and the Sigma MC-11 EF-E Converter. The former I purchased after I acquired my Sony a7R. It lets me use the Canon 50mm f/1.4 and my beloved Nikons, which still sport the Canon adapters (told you it was Frankensteinish) with my mirrorless Sony while still being compatible with the 5D Mark III.
The MC-11 converter, however, I use almost exclusively with the Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art. The reason for this is that while the Commlite will function with the Sigma, the autofocus speed simply isn’t there. With the MC-11 mounted on the a7R there is virtually no loss in AF speed or accuracy. Call it the best of both worlds.
When it comes to tripods, I feel Ansel Adams summed up my view on the subject best when he said that the ideal tripod was “a cubic yard of solid concrete with a 1/4″ X #20 bolt head sticking out of the top”. Granted, I don’t use a tripod as often as I should and I’m not one of those people who says absolutely every photo should involve a tripod. Still, for some compositions a tripod is absolutely indicated.
For me, it comes down to stability versus packability. Most times, I carry the Vanguard VEO 235AB Aluminum Travel Tripod. It packs down to about fourteen inches (35.6cm) and weights around three pounds (1.4kg). I also switched out the stock ball head for a quick-release Manfrotto MSQ6 which is much more versatile for my purposes. This tripod is not overly tall but it has served me incredibly well in everything from desert sand to knee-deep snow.
Up till now there’s been an overlying theme of frugality – it’s ok, I can admit it – but when it comes to filters it’s difficult to cut corners. I truly believe that your image quality is only as good as your worst piece of glass. So even if you have a $2,000 lens, putting a terrible filter on the front of it is a huge misstep. These are my go-to filters, all in 77mm and all from Breakthrough Photography:
The neutral density (ND) filters are awesome for those incredibly bright sunlit days when you want to impart a little motion to your images without burning out highlight detail. This could be for water or clouds or any time you need a dynamic element.
A circular polarizing (CPL) filter is a piece of gear that virtually any photographer can get use from regardless of genre. It reduces reflections and deepens color tone. I don’t mind saying that the filters from Breakthrough Photography were the first products to make me take on my first and only affiliate relationship with a company. These truly are the best filters I’ve ever encountered.
Lime Fuel Power Bank
There are times when I’m in the field for three or more days at a time. Having a way to charge my main camera and also my cell phone is something that I can’t do without. It’s not so much an issue with the 5D Mark III but the Sony’s EVF (electronic viewfinder) drains battery life especially in cold weather. So unless I want to carry five or six batteries (I carry two), a portable power bank is more efficient. The Lime Fuel Powerbank isn’t available anymore to my knowledge but if I had to buy a replacement today it would be the Anker PowerCore 20100mAh. It’s of similar size and weight of the Lime Fuel and offers essentially the same output.
Bags and Packs
The Osprey Atmos 65 backpack is the bag I use for not only carrying in my camera gear but also the other camping/logistical items that I need for extended jaunts during wilderness shoots.** The Osprey has shown itself to be a true friend over the years and has carried all my gear safely and efficiently.
The thing is, it’s huge. After all, I do technically live out of it for three and four days at a time, but it’s not practical to carry around all the time while I shoot. That’s where the Outlander Lightweight Packable Travel Backpack comes into play. Don’t see it? It’s that little package at the bottom right of the image. It packs down to about the size of a tennis ball. Once I make camp or get to a location, I transfer all my gear to that bag and that’s what I carry around for the remainder of the shoot.
** I shoot quite a bit of large format film photography as well. That is a completely separate kit with it’s own carry system.
Believe it or not, you will be hard pressed to find a more durable, waterproof and cost-effective way to transport your odds-and-ends photo accessories. In this plastic sandwich bag, I carry my spare batteries, lens cloths and wipes, plus a small remote for when I’ll be doing long exposure astrophotography. Get them from your local market or even off Amazon…no, I’m not kidding, Hefty Slider Plastic Food Storage Bags are on Amazon.
In a weird way, a large portion of photography takes place outside of the camera. Your mindset and attitude can play a huge role in how your final images plays out. For me, you’ll be hard pressed to find me without the following items while I’m “working”.
The Tao of the Dude
Pipe, lighter, with some type of Maple Cavendish
Flask, usually some type of varnish-strength whisky (18 year Jameson presently)
I’m not saying you have to carry a flask in your pocket or book in your bag wherever you go. What I am saying is that you should develop your own mechanism for fostering personal creativity. Being an ordained Dudeist Priest (yes, really) my copy of The Tao of the Dude brings a lot of Taoism and low-brow wisdom that helps calm me down and offers a tranquil accompaniment for long nights sleeping in the middle of nowhere. My pipe and beverage…well, these are some well-earned comforts that can lift even the dampest of spirits. What do all these things have in common? They help me relax and ground my thoughts while I’m making photographs. A relaxed photographer is a creative photographer and a creative photographer is more apt to produce superior photographs…whatever that means.