Photography: “It’s About the Gear AND How You Use It”



Photographers tend to hang out in one of two camps. In the “gear head” camp, the photographers obsess about their equipment. The second camp is full of the art photographers. For them, the camera that they use makes very little difference, all that matters it vision...

By Jon Reid, NomadicVision.com

Photographers tend to hang out in one of two camps. In the "gear head" camp, the photographers obsess about their equipment. They can tell you about the MTF results of their sharpest lens and why their lens has a better bokeh pattern. This is all irrelevant if their photos are boring.

The second camp is full of the art photographers. For them, the camera that they use makes very little difference, all that matters it vision. Their images can evoke emotion and tell an amazing story, but may never be published due to a lack of quality.  

As I've grown as a photographer, I've spent time in both camps. I've realized that camera equipment form the tools of our trade. A screwdriver and an electronic drill can both be used to get a screw into a wall, but the drill does it more efficiently. In the same way, all photography equipment form tools designed to be used to help make images, but some tools work more efficiently than others.

I'm a professional travel photographer. As such, I have certain additional demands on my equipment that other photographers might not require. I need my equipment to be light weight as I usually have to carry it on my back. I need to be able to produce high quality work in a variety of challenging conditions. Attributes like weatherproofing are important to me.

Working in Rain

The colours in the crowd are umbrellas. This was a very wet day in Prague, but I was able to continue taking photos.

Here is a list of equipment I use regularly for travel photography assignments:

1. VSLR Camera Bodies

VSLR is the somewhat cheesy acronym given to SLR cameras that can be used to shoot video.

I use a Canon 5D Mark III and 5D Mark II as my camera bodies. My biggest client found me by searching for travel photographers that used a Canon 5D Mark II. At the time, the camera was the standard for creating video content. In a sense, I was hired because I had the right camera for the job.

I've since upgraded to a Mark III due to its' incredible low light performance. The camera allows me to create usable imagery in near darkness. I recently experienced the benefit of this whilst photographing the Emerald Cave along the Amalfi Coast in Italy. I was in a boat, full of tourists with cameras, and I was the only one able to capture any detail in the near pitch black cave.

5D Mark II Low Light

The light levels in this scene were very low, too low for the majority of cameras to capture. Fortunately, I had the right camera for the job.

I also use the mirrorless system by Panasonic. These cameras and lenses are lightweight and discrete whilst not giving up much in terms of quality to the heavier 'SLR' type cameras.

2. Zoom Lenses

Whilst I'm on assignment, I can cover up to 10 miles a day on foot. Any weight in my camera bag is unwelcome so I use zoom lenses to limit the number of lenses that I have to carry. For most of my work, I use a Canon 24-105 zoom lens. This gives me the flexibility to cover wide scenes and to get close close with the same lens.

Another zoom lens that gets a lot of use is my Tamron 17-35. This is a wide angle zoom lens that I use extensively for video shots.

Wide Angle Lens

Many of the scenes that I cover are interiors. To show the entire interior, a wide angle lens is an essential tool.

I bring along a Sigma 70-200 lens for when I need the extra length, but on most occasions, this lens stays in my hotel room as it is too heavy to carry around all day.

3. Filters

I create a lot of images whilst I'm on assignment. I just returned from a week-long trip to Italy with over 3000 images. Because I create so many images, I do not want to spend time getting the photos ready in Photoshop.

To get the best possible image straight out of the camera, I use three types of filters.

The first is a polarizer. I polarizer helps cut glare off reflective surfaces, which intensifies colour, especially in foliage. On an overcast day, a polarizer becomes a crucial tool.

Another filter that gets a lot of use is a graduated ND filter. This filter is dark at the top and clear at the bottom, helping to keep detail in the sky. Have you ever found when taking a photo that either your sky is pure white or your subject pure black? You need to use a graduated filter to balance the light in that scene. 

Graduated Filter

This scene in Amsterdam required the use of a graduated ND filter to capture the detail in the sky. If you look closely in the foliage on the left, you can see the effect of the graduated filter.

The last filter that I use is a 10 stop ND filter. This is almost a pure black piece of glass that I put in front of my camera. It is so dark that I usually cannot see through it. Because the filter is so dark, I can use a long shutter speed of 1 minute long. I use this filter in crowded scenes to make the crowds disappear. Any movement over a minute long exposure becomes invisible.

10 Stop ND filter

Using a 10 stop ND filter helped me get a slow enough shutterspeed to show movement in the sky. It also made the square look empty.

4. Stabilisation

In order to keep images sharp or video shots steady, a tripod is an essential tool.

Tripod

Many of my images are created an hour after sunset where light levels are very low. This means I need to stabilize the camera in order to get a sharp image.

When I'm on an assignment that doesn't require video, I use a lightweight tripod by Giotto which is so light, I don't notice it when I'm carrying it.

When my shoot requires video, I use a slightly heavier carbon fibre tripod by Manfrotto. The tripod is heavier as it needs to handle more weight. On top of the tripod I add a video slider by Glidetrack. This slider allows me to get movement into a static scene, but is too heavy to fit on my Giotto tripod.

5. Other Accessories

Over time, I've collected a mass of additional accessories which I've come to rely on.

I use a spirit leveller which slots into the hotshoe of my camera. This helps me keep my camera level, essential for video shots and important when using a wide angle lens to minimise distortion. Ironically, this cheap bit of equipment draws the most attention when I'm taking photos.

I've made a point of using high speed memory cards. This enables me to quickly download the images from the card, saving me a lot of time after a shoot. It also helps record uninterrupted video.

To carry all this gear, I use a backpack by Lowepro called the Computrekker. This stores all my camera gear inside the bag with my tripod and slider on either side on the outside of the bag. The backpack also has a special slot for my laptop. When fully loaded, it can weigh as much as 45 pounds, but I try keep it under 14 pounds when travelling during the day.

It's About the Gear AND How You Use It

It is often said about camera gear, "it's not what you have, but how you use it". Whilst it is certainly true that excellent photography is possible with any type of camera, having the right "tool" for the job makes the job a lot easier. With some of the innovations in camera technology, certain photos are possible today that were not possible even 5 years ago.

Your creative vision is important. Using the best tools for the job will make achieving your creative vision a far simpler task.

Article by Jon Reid from NomadicVision.com, who is a professional travel and hospitality photographer, currently working on a year long photo guide to London. Follow Jon on Twitter here.