One of the most important factors to capturing great images is having a robust selection of tools, and more importantly, knowing how to use your equipment for the best possible results. Often time it’s the smaller, inexpensive pieces of equipment that will allow you to capture unique photographs. Most importantly, it’s understanding how all of your equipment comes together in each unique setting that allows you to rise to any photographic challenge.
Fully loaded up, the bag weighs about 13 pounds, and you’ll notice quite a few scratches, scrapes and dirt on the bag… that’s because I put my equipment through heavy use! Click on the boxes below to see which tools and equipment I’m using, and advice on building your own SLR camera system.
We’ll start with the bag itself, one of the most important items as it holds the rest of your equipment and is critical in organizing and finding what you’re looking for. I use a Lowepro Fastback 100, which is a light weight, medium sized camera backpack. It has a large central compartment where I can just fit two full size digital SLRs with battery grips attached (without lenses mounted), or one SLR body with a small to medium lens mounted. This is the smallest possible bag I can use while still being able to fit all of my equipment into it at one time. I tend to move around a lot and having good mobility with a small bag is important to me.
The bag also has numerous internal compartments and pockets, with places to store your SD cards, additional lenses, an external mesh compartment for holding items like lens caps or battery chargers, and it has a convenient pocket on a backpack strap which perfectly fits a Canon battery.
Digital SLR Bodies
I shoot with two Canon digital SLR bodies, a Canon Rebel T3i and an older Canon Rebel XSi. The T3i fits 18 megapixels on an APS-C size sensor, and is a solid performer in the under $1,000 prosumer SLR market. The XSi is a 12 megapixel body that also has an APS-C sized sensor. The ability to shoot with two bodies is extremely convenient and allows for creative techniques. It also allows for one camera to be setup to shoot stop motion still frames or video on a tripod, while being able to shoot while moving around with the other body. Another advantage is being able to shoot simultaneously with two different lenses attached, allowing me to cover a wide zoom range from 10mm to 300mm without changing lenses.
Lenses + Filters
Arguably the most critical and expensive pieces of equipment are your lenses. They allow you to photograph a variety of subjects and ultimately having more lenses allows you to be a more diverse and versatile photographer. I find it best to cover the extreme ends of telephoto and wide angle lenses first, and I did that on a pretty tight budget. One of my most used lenses is the Sigma 10-20mm, f/3.5-5.0 wide angle. Relatively inexpensive and offering a surrealistic super wide field of view, this lens is great for indoor use (especially urban exploration settings), outdoor photography and anything where a slightly distorted almost fish-eye effect is desired. On the other end is the Sigma 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 telephoto-macro lens. This is great for outdoor photography, concert close-ups and with the addition of macro extension tubes, a pretty good true macro lens as well.
Also in the camera bag is a Canon kit 18-55mm lens, a Sigma 28-90mm and a Canon 50mm f/1.8. A inexpensive 50mm f/1.8 is a great addition to any camera bag, and allows for low light and extreme wide aperture photos, for those great blurry backgrounds. I try to have circular polarizers for all the lenses as well, or at least a UV filter for protection against the elements and drops.
I use a Canon 270EX Speedlite flash. This allows to swivel the flash head to do bounced lighting off of a ceiling. This creates a more natural, even lighting effect than pointing your flash directly at the subject. I also use an inexpensive plastic diffuser over the flash head to diffuse and soften the light even more.
Batteries & Charging
Being able to power your camera equipment is a necessity, so it’s important to have multiple batteries and chargers on hand. Along with SD storage space, battery life is the one other crucial factor in how many photos you can take in the field. Running out of battery life can end your shoot prematurely, and could potentially prevent you from capturing essential scenes.
To prevent running out of battery life I use a Battery Grip on each SLR body, which allows for two full size batteries to be used in each body. I also have an additional spare battery for each camera. With this setup fully charged, I can take photos for days without having to recharge anything. I also have rechargeable batteries for the external flash, as it quickly uses up the AA sized batteries. A car converter to charge your batteries while mobile is also handy.
SD Card Storage
Along with batteries above, SD card storage is one of the crucial factors in how many photos you can take in the field without having to return to electricity and a computer. SD storage has dropped in price considerably over the years, and large 16GB cards are now available for $30 or less. Of course, you will want to get the fastest cards possible, so I have a mix of fast 8GB 45MB/sec cards, and slower 16GB cards. I shoot on the faster cards first, and when those fill up I switch to the larger 16GB cards. Write speed is extremely important if you need to take many photos in a short period of time, so I’ll use my faster write cards whenever possible. With a mix of faster 4GB and 8GB cards, and some slower 16GBs ones as well, you can have an affordable solution to capture 10,000+ high resolution photos.
Tripods are essential for low light photography including interior urban exploration and low light outdoor work, and also are necessary for extreme macro shots to avoid lens shake. Getting a good tripod is essential, and if you have the money I recommend getting a $200+ tripod and head kit. I personally couldn’t spend that much on a tripod, so I have two lower price options. The first is a $70 Targus TG-P60T. This is a good solid tripod with independently moveable legs (a great feature and one you don’t find on most cheaper tripods) and relatively smooth action when panning with the head. The second tripod I use is a $50 SunPak 6000PG tripod, with a pistol-grip head. This is a very easy to use and adjust head, as you simply pull the pistol trigger to move the lens angle up and down as well as to pan left and right.
In addition to the main pieces of equipment above, there’s also many smaller items which prove invaluable. One of the most practical considerations is keeping your lenses, filters and LCD screens clean and free of smudges. I use three micro-fiber lens clothes, and I keep one extra clean just for lenses, another clean one for filters, and a third more “dirty” cloth that I use on LCD screens, etc.
Another important tool is an external shotgun mic, this is essential when shooting video on the T3i, as the built-in mic is totally inadequate.
The last addition to my camera bag is two remote release timers. I have one wireless system (a Shoot RC300), and another wired release, a Neewer EZa-C1. The wireless system transmits it’s own signal, and does not have to be in the line of sight of the camera’s built in IR sensor. The wired release is also an intervalometer, which allows for stop motion photography to be captured, as well as long-exposure astrological events.
Another important practical consideration is lens and camera body caps. Each SLR body has a cap, and all of the lenses have a front and rear cap. It’s important to keep track of these, as you don’t want to leave either side of your lenses, or especially your camera body open to dust or other elements. Also have extra lens caps on hand and reachable in your camera bag.