Photography 101: What’s in My Bag (or Case)?

Stephen F. Dennstedt

I am often asked what I shoot with. I’ve answered that question a few times in this blog but for the benefit of my newer followers I will answer it again. And there have been some major changes—during my visit back to San Diego (after a 5½-year absence) I have completely refreshed my photography kit as well as my personal gear.

World Trek Part II begins in just a few days with my departure to Iceland. As you may recall World Trek Part I involved my trekking Latin America for 5½-years: Mexico, Cuba, Central America and South America. My house was my rucksack and my office was my photography kit. I am fortunate to travel 365-days a year as a photographer and writer.

Human nature requires that people try to label me or put me in a box. What kind of photographer are you? What kind of writer are you? What kind of traveller are you? I understand the temptation to ask (and the curiosity that prompts those questions) but I hate labels and especially boxes. So without categorising myself I will simply tell you what I like photographing: wildlife, nature (landscapes & seascapes) and everyday people doing everyday things.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR with Battery Grip

If a person were to assign these loves to specific genres it might look something like this: wildlife photography, fine art nature photography, street photography and street portraits. But genres are so limiting and really meaningless when you think about it. Basically I am a generalist when it comes to photography and I will shoot virtually anything and everything. Everyone talks about specialisation these days (whether it’s medicine, photography or writing) but I continue to resist typecasting. My favourite writing is posting articles to this blog or the occasional photography-related articles to magazines.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II DSLR with Battery Grip

The photography kit I’ve chosen shouldn’t necessarily be your photography kit—my choices need not be your choices. I have very specific needs and requirements that might be totally different from yours. As mentioned I travel the world full-time so I need portability, functionality and reliability. I sometimes shoot in harsh unforgiving environments and I need robust gear that will survive those conditions (I don’t have the luxury of babying my gear). As a professional photographer working outside of a studio that says Canon or Nikon. Sony is coming on strong but hasn’t quite arrived yet (at least for my kind of shooting).

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art-series Prime Lens

In 2009 I switched from film to digital technology and at the same time switched from Nikon, Leica and Rolleiflex to Canon. Canon had recently released its Canon EOS 5D Mark II and it was an absolute wonder. Since that time Nikon has caught up and even surpassed Canon in many respects (especially in sensor quality) and the new Nikon D850 is something to behold I’m told. That being said I am heavily (and irreversibly) invested in Canon and its L-glass (professional level lenses). Continually switching brands is a fool’s errand and is like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. My advice is don’t do it.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens

Along with the portability, functionality and reliability I talked about I also need flexibility. As a full-time travel photographer (there’s that pesky label again) that says zoom lenses over prime lenses. I cannot physically transport enough prime lenses to cover the full range of focal lengths I need to cover. Don’t get me wrong, I love good prime lenses but they don’t serve my purpose. In a studio setting absolutely but in the field they just don’t work for me. I also need two camera bodies with different sensor sizes: full-frame and crop-sensor APS-C. My full-frame body is my workhorse and is used 80% of the time.

Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens

My crop-sensor camera (with its 1.6x field of view advantage and 10 fps) is great for wildlife and provides good backup. My full-frame camera body is the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and my crop-sensor camera is the Canon EOS 7D Mark II. If you’re a Canon shooter both cameras are outstanding pro-level platforms. And unless you’re an inveterate pixel-peeper you will not be able to discern any practical image quality differences between these two camera bodies and anything Nikon or Sony has to offer. There is no (practical) advantage to continuously chasing the latest & greatest gear.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens

The cliché that it’s about the photographer and not the gear is absolutely true (most of the time). Pick a brand that meets your needs, invest in it longterm and stay with it. The key to acquiring the proper kit is knowing what your needs and requirements are and then meeting those needs and requirements with the proper gear (regardless of brand). You know what my needs and requirements are because I’ve told you but do you know what your needs are? Before you heavily invest in and commit to a photography system you better ask yourself a lot of questions. It’s important!

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Super-Telephoto Zoom Lens

If the camera body is the brain then your lenses are the eyes. Photography is a visual medium so it only makes sense that the eyes are pretty darn important. Buy the best glass you can afford. Not everyone has the luxury of buying pro-level lenses but do the best you can. Gently used pre-owned lenses might be an option or an older version of a recently updated lens. In the Canon world it’s all about the L-glass (it’s their luxury or pro-level glass). Nikon often has equivalent lenses and Sony is trying very hard to catch up. Even Tamron and Sigma are upping their game (especially the Sigma Art-series).

Pelican 1510 Photography Case with TrekPak Dividers and Lid Organiser

My current kit has the two bodies I mentioned earlier plus four zoom lenses and one prime lens (the prime lens is the stellar Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art). My zoom lenses include: Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM, Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. All of this kit plus accessories is crammed into a Pelican 1510 hard case with TrekPak dividers and lid organiser for photography gear. My recommendation: if you travel with a lot of expensive gear (like me) opt for a hard case as opposed to a soft case or pack.

Field Notes: I am a full-time travelling photographer (365-days a year). I shoot everything from wildlife, nature, travel and street photography to the occasional commercial assignment. I was the staff photographer (and a writer) for The Yucatan Times online newspaper (for about a year) in Mexico and I am still a registered freelance photographer for the Boston Globe. I was also the unofficial-official (it’s complicated) photographer for the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve and Puuc Jaguar Conservation in Yucatan, Mexico for a couple of years. This article was brand specific only because it’s what I shoot but you can apply the same buying logic to any brand purchase. Not everyone needs pro-level equipment—it doesn’t necessarily yield better photographs. Excellent photography kit can make the job easier but not always better. I need robust gear because I travel hard with just a rucksack and Pelican case in harsh conditions (jungles/rainforests, deserts, high mountains and third world countries). Think long and hard before investing in a comprehensive photography system and then buy the best you can afford—don’t hock your soul to the devil. As an amateur you can still get great results with relatively inexpensive gear, shooting as a professional is a different scenario. Continue to enjoy your photography. SFD

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