I have updated this list as of December 2016. Click here to read the new updated post!
I am asked pretty often about my photo gear. Folks are always curious about what other photographers are shooting with and seem to be especially curious about my selection of toys because I rarely ever mention camera equipment. I am a complete believer in the philosophy that cameras, lenses, tripods, etc. are simply tools and do not themselves make great photographs. Expensive top-of-the-line gear will not grant a photographer great images any more than the best pots, pans, and knives guarantee a chef a Michelin Star. Sure, the proper tools do help and it is fun to try out different pieces of equipment, but every time I think that I need a new lens or camera body, I usually end up keeping the stuff I already have and spending the money on a trip instead - That’s how you get great images and advance in photography folks - you get your butt out there with whatever kit you have and shoot away. Time spent lusting over the newest gear is time wasted in my opinion. Get the best stuff you can afford and make pictures.
But like I said, good tools do help in making things easier and more efficient. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least somewhat of a “gear head” myself. We all are. That’s okay, as long we don’t spend more time (and money) on the products than the images they are supposed to help us create. Keeping that in mind, I’d like to talk a bit about what I use in the field. Below is a list of my current travel (and general nature photography) equipment with clickable links so that you can read the specs if you need more information. This article is not about gear reviews, but simply the tools I use and why I chose them. July 2016 Update: I have replaced the 70-300 VR with the Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR II. Though it adds weight to my bag, it has become pretty essential for me to have f2.8 zoom for portraits, weddings, and shooting in the dark Appalachian woods.
Lowepro Photo Sport Pro 30L AW
Gitzo Mountaineer Series 2 6X Carbon Fiber Legs w/ Manfrotto Panhead/Ballhead
Benro AT014404 Aluminum Legs w/ BH0-M Ballhead
Cleaning cloths, Q-tips, Domke lens wraps, extra batteries, battery charges, protective UV filters (Hoya and B+W), shower caps for rain covers, food, etc.
Pack Light for a More Enjoyable Experience
The most important thing that I take into consideration when packing or looking into new photo gear is weight. I like things light. I do not like to be weighed down. I do not like trying to manifest my photographic vision with an achy back and sore knees. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for me to enjoy making photographs with heavy cameras hanging all over me and an overstuffed pack on my back. It’s irritating. So, rule number one for me is: travel light.
That’s why I chose the D600 instead of larger more “pro” bodies like the D800/D810 or the D4’s and so on. Aside from the D600 being one of the best deals for full-frame cameras currently on the market, it’s very lightweight compared to the “big boy” cameras. I use it for landscapes and as my main camera for weddings and low light situations. It’s got everything I need (24MP FX sensor, 1080HD video, Built in time-lapse feature) and even a lot of bells and whistles that I don’t. Why not the D610 that replaced it you ask? Well, thanks to that little lawsuit against Nikon involving dirty sensors in some D600’s, I can send mine in for a cleaning free of charge despite the expired warranty. My D600 has no issues with excessive debris on the sensor, so this is very convenient for me. Also, the only real world difference between the D600 and D610 is that the latter shoots half a frame rate faster in burst mode. This means nothing to me. I’ll keep my D600, thanks.
The D7000 is even more compact and is a great budget option for a DX sensor camera. I use this mainly for wildlife because the cropped sensor allows for a bit more reach. For example, a 300mm lens on a DX sensor camera is the equivalent of 450mm on an FX (full frame) camera. This comes in handy when photographing small birds. While traveling abroad, the D7000 will be used by wife (who can also take a fancy pic or two every now and again).
For film (I love film), I use a Nikon F100. This camera was made from 1999 until about 2006. It was $1,400 when it debuted, but now you can grab one for only $100-$150. Pretty sweet. I chose this over the pro-build F5 because (you guessed it) the F100 is much smaller and lighter. It also works great with my current production Nikkor lenses.
Good glass is important, but doesn’t have to be heavy or that expensive. In the past I’ve used some of the top Canon and Nikon lenses. Back when I shot Canon equipment, I amassed a large collection of expensive L series lenses and only used a few of them. I also had a very large camera backpack to haul all of them in. I don’t find having tons of gear appealing anymore. Especially stuff that I’m not likely to use on every shoot. It’s pointless to have equipment sitting around collecting dust. I’ve recently adopted a much more minimalist approach to selecting lenses to go along with my lightweight mantra.
I currently only own three Nikon lenses, each of them fit the same criteria for weight, versatility, and cost. Keeping things light means I can shoot longer without fatigue. Versatility means that I only need a few lenses to get the job done (thus less freakin’ weight). And keeping costs low means I can book plane tickets instead of sit at home with fancier gear wishing that I could afford to fly somewhere to use it. It’s good business sense really.
I would highly recommend the Nikkor 18-35 f3.5-4.5G (not the older D version). It’s light, fast, sharp, super wide, and has very minimal distortion along the edges at 18mm and also shows very little vignette. It also has a minimum focus distance of 11 inches which is great for getting close and simplifying a scene. It is excellent for landscapes and is the equivalent of a 27-52mm on a DX camera – making it an excellent normal wide zoom for walking around a city.
Everyone needs a 50mm lens. The Nikkor 50mm 1.8G is small, well built, and weights practically nothing. It also cost practically nothing by today’s standards for good glass (buy it used for around $100). It is very sharp from 1.8 all the way through. You might not think a 50mm lens is very useful when it comes to wildlife, but one of my best selling whitetail deer images was taken with this lens.
The Nikkor 70-300 f4.5-5.6 VR is very versatile. It has the necessary 70-200mm range and a little extra. The vibration reduction works great. I’ve taken sharp handheld shots at 1/15 of a second at 300mm. Not bad for an “amateur” zoom. The case with every single zoom lens available is that they are less sharp at wide-open apertures when zoomed out all the way than when stopped down. That’s common knowledge and doesn’t bother me, especially since sharpness has more to do with the photographer’s technique than the lens. This lens auto focuses quickly and only seeks when the light level is very low. It is also compact and easy to pack around. The only complaint that I have is that the focus ring was an afterthought. It is very narrow and less smooth than more expensive telephoto zooms, but that hasn’t bothered me enough to make me want to trade it yet, especially since auto focus is adequately fast and accurate.
If for some reason the lenses above don’t quite fit a particular job or if I need more reach than 300mm, I’ll simply borrow from one of the reputable photo equipment rental companies out there. For around $50-$200, top quality pro glass can be delivered to your door for you to enjoy for a week or more. There’s really no need to go into debt and spend years paying off a $5,000 to $10,000 lens in the 21st century.
My Camera Backpack for Travel
The search for the perfect camera bag that allows me to store travel essentials (clothes, toiletries, electrical adaptor, etc.) is ongoing. However, I have found a near perfect backpack for the job. The Lowepro Photo Sport Pro 30L AW allows me to store one camera body with a lens attached, up to two additional lenses, the necessary accessories, and enough clothing/travel essentials for up to a week abroad. I do not check luggage. I’m not just talking camera equipment either. I don’t check any luggage when I fly. That’s why I like this backpack. By using my minimalist approach to packing, I’m able to travel with just one carryon size backpack. It is lightweight and well built. I’ve taken it miles and miles through rugged Appalachian wilderness and used it everyday I was in Iceland last year and it barely shows any wear at all. It’s made of water resistant material and has a weatherproof rain cover built in. The lower side compartment is well padded for storing camera gear and provides easy access on the fly. That compartment is also removable. The top has plenty of space for clothing (and sometimes a second camera body swaddled in a domke wrap) and there are several pockets for accessories all around the exterior of the pack. It does not have a dedicated tripod holder, so I simply place my small Benro tripod in the water bottle pocket on the side and secure it with one of the adjustable side straps. This works pretty well. I leave my larger Gitzo tripod at home for trips abroad because this pack will simply not accommodate it. The backpack is also pretty comfortable to wear even when filled to capacity. When all of my gear for an international trip is packed, the total weight is about 27 lbs.
Like most photographers, I have too many camera bags. Other than the Lowepro Photo Sport Pro AW, I also own a ThinkTank Retrospective 40 messenger bag that I use for weddings and portrait shoots. It holds all the necessary gear for those jobs with room to spare. For most of my day hikes here in the Blue Ridge Mountains I use a Lowepro Flipside 400 AW. It holds all the essential gear for outdoor photography. I can store 2 camera bodies, 3 to 4 lenses, and the necessary accessories. I can also clip my Gitzo tripod to the back and strap my Lowepro filter bag to the side. There's not much space in it for anything but camera gear, which is why it stays home for international trips.
I don’t bother taking speedlites when I travel. I pretty much only use the one that I have for the occasional wedding or portrait session. The Nisi V5 filter system is awesome. I highly recommend it. The polarizer is quite good and the entire system is well made and easy to assemble in the field. My Lee 3 stop ND grad filter fits into the Nisi V5 holder nicely. The dynamic range on today’s DSLRs (and film stocks) are so good that it’s rare that I even use an ND grad, but if it is within your budget and you're a serious landscape shooter I would recommend Lee filters. Nisi's filters are made of optical glass (Lee uses optical resin for grad ND's) and are supposedly awesome and have no color cast, but they are more expensive than many of the filters Lee makes.
Thoughts on Packing Light for Travel/Hiking
Other than the photo equipment mentioned above, I don’t pack very much. When hiking around the Blue Ridge Mountains, I typically only carry water, a light rain jacket, an extra pair of socks (only wool will do), and some food in the top compartment of my backpack. I’ll have a knife, some basic fire starting supplies, a small first aid kit, and maybe a folding saw stored in the outer pockets. That’s pretty much it. When traveling by plane, I only take a few pieces of clothing and obviously the weather dictates what types. You can buy clothes anywhere, so I’m never worried about not having the right shirt or whatever. I wear the same outfit on both the outbound and return flights. I only take one pair of shoes. If I’m hiking on the trip then I’ll just take hiking shoes. If not then I’ll just take walking shoes. It’s that simple.
I’ll provide a more detailed article about how I pack the every day essentials, as well as a post about how to find cheap flights and accommodation when I return from Sweden and Boston late in June. Until then, please follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for the day-to-day posts. Thanks for reading!
(c) 2016 Jon Reaves Photography. All rights reserved.