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Question of the Month
October 2011

What Gear is Essential?
What Gear do we almost always carry afield, and on our tours and safaris?

We're always asked about gear, and about what we carry afield, and what is the minimum, or maximum, one should carry or buy. Although we shoot Canon, we have no prejudice or bias here, and although our recommendations are based upon Canon lenses and focal lengths the equivalent, in most cases, can be had with Nikon or with generic lenses from Sigma, Tokina, or others. So, you don't have to buy Canon equipment or own Canon to follow our example, if you so choose.

For trips and safaris we always carry at least 4 cameras, 2 for each of us. For overseas trips we usually carry 6 cameras, using 4 and having 2 in reserve in case one of each of our's fails. That's a lot of cameras but the alternative -- having just 1 camera for a long trip when lens changes would be frequent -- is too unpleasant to ponder. For a single shooter, for a trip, 2 cameras must be the minimum and, if you don't wish to change lenses often if one of those two cameras goes down, bring 3 cameras.

We'd recommend having the same camera bodies, too, especially if you really prefer a camera. Remember, a 'backup' camera becomes the Primary camera if your primary camera breaks, and plenty of photographers have expressed frustration over using a cheaper model with unfamiliar features or menus when their main camera failed.

For lenses, we almost always carry:

500mm f4. The best all-around wildlife lens. Not too heavy, and often universally used. On safaris, it is wonderful when everyone has an equivalent focal length since using a longer lens often results in a subject being cut off. Remember, a 100-400 or 200-400 when used with a 1.5X or 1.6X crop-factor camera would yield similar results to a 500mm, so everyone would be at the same image size going that route.

ALTERNATE: 200-400mm f4 lens. Nikon has it, Canon's is coming. Probably THE best safari lens, for the focal range and compositional freedom. I can't wait for Canon's to come out, so Nikon shooters can gloat right now with the best option out there!

28-300 f3.5-5.6 zoom. We love this lens for the incredible range it provides. Nikon's 18-200 is the equivalent with a 1.5 crop factor. Although not as sharp as some zooms that cover only part of this range, it is sharp enough and too versatile not to be used. On our recent Yellowstone Photo Tour I changed lenses, switching to a 16-35mm, only once each trip. Otherwise, the 28-300 was mounted and used dailly for virtually everything else. The other camera had the 500mm mounted, of course, for wildlife.

16-35mm f2.8 zoom. Not used often, but the zoom range is great and the lens is sharp, and when I need the perspective I have real versatility here.

25mm Extension Tube. Combined with the 28-300 or a 70-200mm lens I now have a versatile macro that provides 1:3 or 1:2 magnification fairly easily. Attached to a 500mm, I have a close-focusing super telephoto lens.

1.4x tele-converter. We carry one each but rarely use them, as the image quality degrades somewhat. I have not tried Canon's latest III version, which might offer better sharpness.


Our basic field kit, 500mm and camera, 28-300mm and camera, and 16-35mm wide-angle, plus a converter, extension tube, and flash all fit into our Keboko bags, which are our favorite camera backpacks.

If we're doing a Photo Safari to Yellowstone or to Kenya or Tanzania, we keep our 500mm lenses in a Vertex Safari Long Lens Bag, a bag that I helped design. The bag holds the lens, with a camera mounted and lens hood extended, 1.4X converter, 25mm extension tube, Flash, flash off-camera cable, and tele-flash.

Flashes: In the field, for a safari or tour, we carry 2 Canon 580 flashes, off-camera flash cables, and a Visual Echoes tele-flash (which we sell from our office). We rarely use flash, but when we need it we have it. In Yellowstone, in two weeks I used my flash once, and Mary didn't use her flash at all. Still, I like carrying one for when I do need it.

Macro Equipment: Generally I don't carry real macro gear on a Photo Tour or Safari, but I use macro at home a lot, and always carry it on our Arizona hummingbird/bat shoots. There are several focal lengths available, and if I had one recommendation to make it would be to buy the 180mm macro, or 200mm macro with Nikon. Why? Image size and working distance -- you can be further away for the same magnification, and the angle of view is tighter, making a composition simpler.

We also own 100mm macro lenses, which require you to be closer but allow your flash to recycle faster since the working distance is shorter. Recently I bought the new Canon 100mm IS lens with a tripod collar and I believe it was worth the upgrade. It is sharp, and the IS does help even when using flash if I'm hand-holding and not using the lens off a tripod.

Don't bother with a 50mm or 60mm macro. The working distance is too short. Do not bother with Canon's 60mm 1-5X macro lens - it is extremely difficult to use, and most of my friends that use it have used it very, very rarely (one just sold his).

Canon Twin-Light Macro Flash system. Definitely worth it for macro work, and Nikon's version is wireless, so it is potentially even better although a bit heavier and clunkier. Ring Flashes, in contrast, create a weird circular reflection, which might suffice for macro flower shots but on anything reflective the results are distracting. Avoid a ring flash.

Tripods and Heads.

We use Gitzo tripods, the newest models that have independently locking leg collars. Buy a tripod that is tall enough, without using a center column, for you to look through a camera without stooping. Don't buy a short tripod!

For heads, we use a Wimberley gimbal action head which provides perfect balance for telephotos. In Yellowstone, we used it 95% of the time, only changing to another head when we were using a short lens and had to mount the camera body onto the tripod.

Then, we used the Really Right Stuff BH-40, a mid-size ballhead that was perfect for a camera and small lens. When we're traveling, we'll either use the BH-40 or, if we'll frequently be using a big telephoto, too, then we'll use our BH-55 ballhead.

All of our lenses and cameras have quick-release plates, made either by Wimberley or by Really Right Stuff. Every lens you own that has a tripod collar should have a quick-release plate. It is time-wasting and impractical to save some money and to switch plates afield. At home, that's OK and you can leave an unused lens without a plate, but on a trip, be equipped.

We don't worry too much about weather, but when we are photographing in rain the Rain Covers by FotoSharp are very affordable and work great.

This, believe it or not, is the short version. We have a lot of other gear, because we shoot a lot of different nature and wildlife subjects, but the above are the items we use most often and always carry on a trip.

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How, Who, and Why? The story behind our new web site.

Archived Questions of the Month
Most of my original Questions of the Month for the last several
years are available through this link. The 'look' is from my
original web site, although if I ever have enough time I might
redo these pages to match the new web site But that's not
a high priority.