Points in Focus Photography

My Gear: Late 2016, Early 2017 Edition

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I’ve never been one for doing posts about the gear I use. In many ways, I don’t see the point. You’re not me. Your eye, your objectives, your interests, and so on, aren’t the same as mine. The natural consequence of that is that your gear isn’t going to, and probably shouldn’t, be the same as mine either.

However, I was thinking about this the other day, and I realized that what I’ve used over time would prove to be an interesting look into my evolution as a photograpehr. When I realized that, I also realized that I was a little sorry that I haven’t regularly been writing up something about what I use and why. If only so I could go back and look at how my own preferences have changed over time.

So I’m starting here. I’m not going to list every piece of gear I own or go through my camera bag and pull everything out and talk about it. I don’t have a fixed bag of gear; what I’ll have on me at any point changes based on what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. Instead I’ll be talking about what I find I gravitate towards most regularly, and why. That’s where I think the interesting things come from over time anyway.

Camera(s)

My primary camera is a 5D mark IV, my backup is my old 5D mark III. I’ve owned everything from Rebels to an EOS 1D, and for what I want to do both in terms of subject matter and the kinds of prints I want to make, I find the 5D line, and specifically the 5D mark IV to be the body that fits me the best.

My primary interests in subject matter are increasingly landscapes, wildlife, and a what I’ve taken to calling industrial tech (something between architecture/landscapes and abstracts of man made things). My preferred output format is large prints; 13×19 is the smallest I want to print, I prefer to be in the 20×30 or >20 wide pano range.

Satisfying those interests requires satisfying conflicting demands. Wildlife action wants high frame rates, and big prints demands high resolution. And this is where I think Canon has struck a great balance in the 5D mark III and especially now the mark IV.

Resolution is reasonably high, at 30 MP, but not so high that it seriously compromises frame rates (7 FPS) or demands absolute perfection in technique and lens quality. That’s not to say you can be sloppy and use poor glass; you can’t, and those failings absolutely show up on close inspection. But the 5D mark IV is far more forgiving than the 5Ds is, and has the frame rate to be useful for action that isn’t there on the 50MP camera.

The rests of the features also fit my needs very well, enabling things like AF with a relatively slow f/5.6 lens and teleconverter instead of needing a huge heavy super telephoto prime.

I’ve always put battery grips on my cameras, no exceptions. However, this is one place where I’m starting to falter a little. A 5D without one is lighter, and the performance doesn’t suffer in any meaningful way. While I haven’t given up my grips yet, it is increasingly becoming something I’ve thought about doing.

Lenses

A lot of photographers seem to have a “bread and butter” lens that they always fall back to, at least it seems that way to me. I don’t really feel that I have anything like that. Actually, if anything some of the lenses I like the most are ones I use the least (16–35), and some of the lenses I use the most cover my least favorite focal ranges (35–60 mm).

My belief is that your lenses should be driven by your artistic vision, your actual needs, and obviously your budget. At least that’s how I approach my glass.

When I went to Alaska in early 2015, I took my Canon EF 24–105mm f/4L IS USM as a general purpose lens. Unfortunately, I wasn’t completely happy with the corner performance in some of the images I shot on that trip. When I went to the canyons of the Southwest in late 2016, I took my EF 24–70mm f/2.8L USM instead, hoping to do better with the image quality.

Between the two, I’m convinced the choice is driven less by image quality and more by other factors (IS and especially weight). I didn’t get bit by weak corners that in the Southwest but I also didn’t shoot images where I had fine detail relatively parallel to the sensor over the whole frame. Never mind, the 24–70/2.8L is big and heavy, and after at least one day of hiking has my shoulder quite sore.

I’d love to replace both, but I’m not in love with any of the options. The new EF 24–105mm f/4L IS II USM is bigger and heavier which is a big strike against it, and not markedly better optically. The EF 24–70mm f/2.8L II USM is optically fantastic, and its lighter than the 24–70 I have, but its still the 24–70mm range which I find a bit limiting.

On the wide end, I traded my EF 16–35mm f/2.8L II USM in 2 years ago for the EF 16–35mm f/4L IS USM. This is a decision I’ve been very happy with. However, I’ve found that I use it less due to changes in my style. I’m shooting more stitched panos now, more than single shot images and that has reduced my need for my 16–35. However, I still end up dragging it with me as there are plenty of times where its wide angle of view is invaluable and necessary — Antelope Canyon is one such example.

My EF 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6L IS II USM and Extender EF 1.4x II teleconverter are still my staples for wildlife. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been really pleased with this lens as an upgrade over its predecessor.

The range gives me a lot of flexibility when shooting, whether the subject matter moves or I want change the context, it can do it. Plus, the resolution is better the predecessor. Finally, the close up working distance, combined with a 1.4x TC delivering nearly 0.5x magnification at 3.2 feet lets me get nice closeup shots of stuff without either disturbing it or putting myself too close to being in harms way.

Plus, the mark II is a much better built, more robust lens, so I don’t have to worry about it failing nearly as much.

One new addition is an EF 50mm f/1.8 STM. I’m not a fan of the 50mm angle of view, so this is a bit odd in that respect. However, since I’ve started shooting more stitched panos, I’ve been paying attention to what focal lengths I shoot the source images at, and most of those are shot in the 50–70mm range.

At the apertures I’m using for panos, the 50/1.8 STM is as sharp as the 24–70/2.8L II, distortion is similar in magnitude, and chromatic aberrations and vignetting are better. While it’s not as flexible, it is a heck of a lot lighter which counts for a lot on the trail. Time will tell on this.

The other addition is a set of Kenko extension tubes. I’ve owned a macro lens almost as long as I’ve been doing this, and I’ve never really been trilled with the situation. My macro needs don’t usually require going down to 1:1 magnification, and a dedicated lens to get closer than 1:4 or so is usually dead weight to lug around.

Moreover, the 100–400 mark II and 1.4x TC covers a lot of the macro capabilities I really need, and does it at a working distance that’s much more usable for me. For the rest, a 12 mm or 20 mm extension tube on my 24–70 or 24–105 pretty much seems to be enough. Plus the extension tubes are light, compact, and easy to deal with compared to a lens. Moreover, since they have no glass in them, I can chuck em in a pocket without worrying about them.

Lighting

My main flash is a Speedlite 600Ex-RT, and it’s basically just worked for me. It recycles fast enough for my uses, and hasn’t overheated on me ever. Generally, I just haven’t felt the need to consider the 600Ex II-RT.

When I’m shooting in the studio, I still use a pair of 580Ex IIs with my Control TL PocketWizards for triggers. Unfortunately, this is increasingly seeming like a less elegant and efficient. Moreover, support for new cameras has become extremely slow — at the time of this writing, there isn’t one for either the 1DX mark II or 5D mark. This is a position I’m increasingly thinking about moving away from.

Not strictly photography lights, but anytime I’m going anywhere where I might do night landscapes, or be in the dark, I carry a Fenix LD12 LED flashlight, and/or a Black Diamond Storm LED headlamp. My headlamp is the 2015 model that doesn’t have all the wizbang features of the current one, which I almost like better.

Both lights are sufficiently bright to see a trail, navigate, or do some light painting on a rock or tree in the foreground — though like most LED lights, it’s a very cool white not the warm white of an incandescent lamp.

Audio and Video

This has probably been the biggest change over time. I’ve mostly given up on trying to shoot video and do sound in the field. When push came to shove, I’ve come to a couple of realizations about video. First, is that you can either shoot stills or video; you can’t effectively switch between the two at the same time. Second, you can’t shoot video with a very still centric setup. For example, a ballhead makes a really bad video head. Finally, both audio and video take significantly more time, effort, and attention than shooting stills, which can be problematic.

Now I’m not saying, “It’s too hard, I give up,” or that video isn’t worth shooting, but at the same time, doing it will means focusing on doing it well, and not trying to shoot stills at the same time. My problem, ultimately, is that I want to shoot the stills more than I want to shoot the video, and so quality suffers, or I just didn’t shoot any. Given that realization, I’ve decided that video isn’t something I can reasonably do right now, so I don’t need to carry all the gear around for it.

That said, if I think I might run into some really good video opportunities, I’ll throw my Rode VideoMic Pro in my bag. It’s self contained, and I can plug it right into the camera without extra stuff to fiddle with.

I’m also in the process of adding a GoPro. One point that was driven home to me, literally while driving around the Southwest, was that having a set and forget video camera that can record the interesting things I’m missing while I’m focusing on driving or shooting is something I’d really like to have.

Other Stuff

Having moved away from the 1D mark III as my backup body, I’ve alleviated some annoyances with batteries. Since both of the 5Des use the same LP-E6 series batteries, and those all charge in the same charger, I now carry 1 charger, and 4 or 6 LP-E6 series batteries, and that’s the end of my camera battery mess.

For AAs in flashes, most of the time I find I can get by on 12 Amazon Basics high capacity AA NiMH rechargeables. I usually cary them in a soft ThinkTank AA battery pouch that holds 8 batteries — plus 4 in my flash.

If I’m really concerned, disposable Alkaline AAs are cheap and readily available almost anywhere I’m currently traveling, so I’ll just buy some in a pinch.

The only other ancillary thing I usually have is an Anker 4 port USB charger for my phone, tablet, and anything else that uses USB power to charge.

The Bag

As far as bags go, I’ve always liked a backpack, and continue to do so. But the choice really comes down to what I need to carry and for how long. A camera, a single lens, and a flash for a few hours and I might go with a couple of belt pouches instead.

For a short, directed 1–2 day kind of thing, I’ll carry just what I need in my ThinkTank StreetWalker Pro. I especially like this bag here in Florida where it gets hot and humid, as its narrow and deep and allows more of my back to breath while still carrying a reasonably amount of gear.

If I’m going to be gone more than a couple of days, or need to carry a lot more gear. I have two options, one is my ThinkTank Airport Commuter, and the other is my F-Stop Gear Ajna.

For me the Airport Commuter is more of an urban, what I’d call a pack to the job, kind of bag. It’s not uncomfortable by any means, but at the same time I’d rather not have it on my back for 8–12 hours at a stretch.

The F-Stop Gear Ajna is a hiking pack, designed to be worn essentially all day. I have some gripes with it, namely the shoulder pads aren’t padded enough for the kind of weight the bag can easily accommodate. That said, with the right weight range (for me that’s around 30 pounds total) and some supplementary padding, I didn’t have any problem wearing the pack for 6–8 hours at a clip while hiking trails around the Grand Canyon and Zion.

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