What’s In My Bag: A Look at the Camera Gear of a Nature Photographer

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Being a landscape or nature photographer is like enjoying ice cream and having unlimited choice in the ice cream shop. There are so many different kinds of images to make, and different ways of making them in the outdoors, that having a wide variety of gear to choose from is important. This article will take you on a little journey through what’s in my bag. From my own camera gear to the different tools that I use to help me photograph the scenes in nature that capture my attention, and turn ordinary life into extraordinary art.

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sunset reflected in water

Hudson Bay Mountain Sunset

The Backpack

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The biggest piece of gear I use is the Tilopa backpack from f-stop. It’s a rugged 50L pack that’s well suited for a wide variety of outdoor scenarios. There are all manner of straps and zippered compartments both outside and inside the pack that are useful for attaching and storing both large and small pieces of equipment. There are three things however that have proven to be especially valuable to me:

  1. Rear Panel Access – instead of just having access to the inside from the top, the Tilopa has a zippered section that allows you access to the bag when you lay it on the ground. This is helpful when you have gear at the bottom of the pack and you don’t want to excavate everything on top of it to get access (as you’d have to do when going in from the top as is typical in a lot of other backpacks).
  2. Internal control unit (ICU) – ICU’s come in different sizes and shapes and allow you to organize and protect your camera equipment. My Tilopa allows for a large ICU with space at the top of the pack for a jacket or food depending on my needs. The backpack also has attachment points that you can use to secure your ICU to the inside of the pack. One really nice feature is that the ICU itself can be zippered shut and removed or carried. If you fly a lot and find that your pack is overweight, you can remove the ICU with your valuable gear and take it with you on the plane while checking the rest of the bag.
  3. Padded Hip Belt – to carry some of the weight on my hips.

Backup Camera Bodies

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The first digital SLR I owned was the Canon 5D. It was such a huge step up, both in price and quality from its predecessor (a film Canon Rebel). I remember being amazed at how much more of the scene I saw when looking through the viewfinder (thanks to the full-frame sensor). In 2007 I purchased an additional body (Canon 5D Mark II), which meant that I now had a backup. Having two cameras available for use provides a nice sense of security, knowing if one has issues, there won’t be any loss of productivity. The main differences between the two bodies that I appreciate are the live view, greater dynamic range, and higher resolution screen that the 5D MK II provides.

Extra Batteries – Charging Devices

Having spare batteries is especially important when I am out shooting for extended periods of time, or I am photographing winter scenes. I also appreciate having grips for each of my camera bodies that gives me the option of going out with two batteries at a time.

Another situation where a longer battery life is appreciated is when I shoot time-lapse sequences. I can shoot several thousand images at a time and it’s nice to know that I can leave the camera firing away with ample power, and not have to continually come back and check to make sure the battery hasn’t died.

Not only do I have backup camera batteries, but I also had a portable battery charger (Goal Zero Switch 8) for my phone. I say HAD because I used it so much it’s worn out. I am planning on purchasing an upgraded power charger soon. This device can be charged at home by plugging it into a USB port, and then used in the field to recharge a phone (or other devices such as headlamps).

Image Storage

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Apart from the Compact Flash (CF) cards in the cameras, I also carry a small (older model) Pelican case with room for 4 CF cards. The majority of my cards are 16GB, but I also carry a 2GB one as an emergency backup in a small pocket in my backpack.

Apart from the flexibility that having multiple cards provides, I sincerely believe in redundancy. You never know when a card might fail, and so to be ready on the occasion that one does, it’s nice to know you can keep shooting. Most of the time I don’t fill the 16GB cards to capacity when I’m out for the day on a photo-adventure. There are occasions however when I’m on a commercial job where having multiple cards is an absolute must.

Lenses

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The three lenses I have are all Canon L-series glass.

  • 14mm, f/2.8: This wide-angle prime lens is really useful for capturing wide open vistas. It also comes in handy when you find yourself in tight quarters and don’t have a lot of physical depth between you and your subject. The trick when you’re really close though, is to make sure your main subject is near the center of the frame. Because of the nature of this almost fish-eye lens, objects near the corners of the frame have exaggerated perspectives. It’s almost as if they are unnaturally stretched. (Price it out on Amazon or at B&H)
  • Canon 24-105mm, f/4: This is the lens that I have on my camera the most, primarily because it has the greatest degree of flexibility when it comes to focal length.
  • 70-200mm, f/2.8: Every once and while I go out with the goal of focusing on more detailed aspects of nature, rather than a wide-angle view of a scene. The added focal length as compared to the 24-105mm lens helps me to do that. The large aperture can also provide a nicely blurred background when the need arises.

Tripod

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My current tripod is the carbon-fibre Feisol CT-3342 with a Feisol CB-50DC ball head. This allows for flexibility when composing your image and also has the capability to rotate when the camera is locked in place (there are degree markings to help when specific movements are required, for example when doing panoramas). There is a tiny removable hook (which you can hang things from) that screws in underneath the head which is useful when it’s windy and you need that extra measure of stability.

The tripod has 3-section adjustable legs that extend or contract with the simple twist of a rubber ring. One of my favourite features (as I do a lot of winter photography), is the screw-in metal spikes that attach to the bottom of the tripod legs. These come in handy when I’m out on ice, or other slippery situations, to keep the tripod secure during each exposure the camera makes.

I also have a small tripod clamp that comes in handy in situations where using a tripod simply isn’t possible.

A relatively new purchase has been the Capture Pro from Peak Design. This is a device that I attach to the shoulder strap of my backpack and then click my camera (with the appropriate shoe) into it. So the camera is always close at hand when I go out on my adventures. It means every time I want to make a photograph, I can just reach down and release the camera from the clip instead of stopping and getting the camera out of the backpack.

Shutter Release Mechanisms

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There are two different ways that the shutter on the camera can be activated. First of all, a wired shutter release can be plugged into the side of the camera.

You can accomplish hands-free shutter release wirelessly as well. The Pocket Wizard PlusX transceivers are the ones that I use. One gets attached on your camera’s hot-shoe and plugged into the appropriate port on the side of the camera. Then as long as that device and the second one you can hold in your hand (or even on another camera) are both set to the same channel, when the remote device is triggered, the transceiver on the hot-shoe will fire the camera.

Why remote triggering? It’s very useful in low-light situations where a sharp image is required and hand-holding the camera is not possible. It’s also absolutely essential when doing long exposures.

Promote Control

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This remote control device can be used for a number of different things, including bulb-ramping and focus stacking. However the most commons things I use it for are my time-lapse sequences and HDR bracketing.

LEE Big Stopper

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Essentially this is a piece of glass that allows me to make long exposures beyond the normal capabilities of my camera. Practically, it’s a 10-stop neutral density filter that allows me to make a long exposure of a waterfall and turn raging water into silky smoothness. I also use it to capture the motion of clouds in the sky. There is the 4″x4″ piece of glass that slides into a holder, which itself attaches to the camera via a ring that screws into the end of the lens.

Waterfall: 30 seconds, f/4, 12:36pm
Clouds: 30 seconds, f/14, 12:03pm

Other Equipment

There are a few other pieces of equipment that find their way into my pack every once and a while:

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Final Thoughts on Camera Gear

There you go, a fully-loaded backpack that weighs 35 pounds (15.9 kg). Thankfully not everything comes with me all the time, my back would definitely have something to say about that. With the years I’ve been doing photography, picking and choosing the tools that best suit the goals I have on any given day is what helps me turn ordinary life into extraordinary art.

What tools do you use? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Curtis Cunningham is a freelance photographer in Smithers, BC. He's passionate about seeking out the splendour of this earth, from the smallest snowflake to the grandest mountaintop vista. He absolutely loves telling the story of wherever he is, no matter what he's doing through his photography and writing. You can follow him on Instagram or his website.

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  • Andrew Kliss

    Love the sensor gel stick. Makes cleaning a breeze if the shmutz isn’t baked in too hard.

  • Gary

    Not a polarizing filter or smaller ND filters?

  • Not yet.

  • Yeah, it’s quite handy.

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    The Tilopa backpack is so perfect for nature & landscape photography. Other packs can hold all the necessary gear, but none so securely and comfortably.

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