DONT LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT: what's in my camera bag?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

We have all found ourselves slogging through swamps, soaking wet, cursing mosquitoes and the heavy camera bag we are lugging. RIGHT? Or scaling the side of a snow covered mountain and swearing to yourself about the load of lenses obeying the laws of gravity? I have. It gave me the idea for this blog.

Scoliosis is a medical condition in which a person's spine is abnormally curved. It can be congenital or caused by disease but my doctor tells me mine is from many years of carrying my photography equipment on my left shoulder.

As intrepid, itinerant, travel photographers, we are assigned to transport the tools of our trade everywhere. But that job comes at a price. Cameras and lenses are heavy. And the heavier they are, the more they influence your attitude and enthusiasm for carrying them. You may not be able to muster the energy to take that next shot if you are giving piggyback rides to too much gear.

While there are lots of blogs and videos about "What is in my camera bag?", they are mostly what kind of pricey cameras and lenses are necessary to take pictures. That’s all about machismo. But the devil is in the details. This article is about all the other stuff a working commercial/fine art photographer might need to make his/her vision visible, in other words, the grip gear.

Of course 1) cameras are the most important fixture. I carry lots of them. My weapons of choice are primary bodies and top of the line dSLRs for most commercial jobs. I am responsible for giving my clients the best in quality and capability.

For example, when I shoot a Winter Olympics, conditions insist on camera bodies with rapid motordrives and ability to survive extreme temperatures. But for advertising, such as billboards or posters, clients do not need the speed or robustness but may require the highest resolution. Not every assignment calls for every option. Weight, size and portability may dictate otherwise. For my street photography my choice is "smaller is better". I always put a glorified point and shoot in my pocket. Don't leave home without it.

2) Lenses have similar criterion. They are also heavy and possibly more important than the "black boxes" they attach to. As I have often said, "Lenses have personalities." Each one gives you a "look" that is unique to its focal length. To take full advantage of their personalities, you have to have some of them on hand.

As my career has progressed my favorite lens has changed. It has gotten shorter as time passes. As I have gotten braver, I like to get closer to my subjects for most street photography. To cut down on quantity, I have adapted more zoom lenses. Therefore fewer cover everything from 10mm to 200mm. (When you need that fisheye nothing will take its place but a fisheye.)

I have developed very specific physical exercises to condition myself to carry everything during my meanderings. But for travel or extreme photography where weight and size are tantamount, I carry smaller, slower cameras to save my back. I pack extras of everything, but dump what I don't need in the hotel room until I do.

Once I had to climb to the top of the mast of a tall ship sailing at sea. Besides being scared out of my wits, I took only one camera body and a short, zoom lens stuffed into my coat. Holding on to the rat lines for dear life I achieved a once in a lifetime shot. Hanging nearly upside down, most of the credit goes to the huge pockets in my jacket for that assignment.

Cameras are only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface are all the ancillary items that support our obsessive habit. To keep all this hardware active you need power. Cameras and speedlights devour energy at an unprecedented rate. 3) Batteries are a weak link. Every item requires energy and every gadget uses a different type battery. You also should have backups and the irony is exacerbated because you have to carry 4) chargers for each one. Chargers offer no other benefit but you cannot survive without a number of them. More weight. More complexity.
A major problem use to be having an adequate supply of film. This was of great concern if you were on the road for extended periods of time. Also navigating security at airports around the world was/is insanity. But we still have to capture onto some form of digital media. Enter 5) flash cards.

Why is it that camera manufacturers have long agonized over making all types of equipment compatible so they interchange between different camera models, but mix battery types and digital media with no compunction? It is a huge problem for the working photographer. Recording media evolves so quickly that keeping up is almost impossible. Compact flash cards grow smaller and lighter and cheaper, but we have to care for them with the same concern as film. 

I once thought I had been robbed of all my exposed cards during an assignment at Taj Mahal in India. I was sick for several hours until I located them.

Since we have gotten so used to manipulating everything in post production, filters and gels have become less integral to initial capture. White balance, color correction and adding colors and tints are often done after the fact. However, I still carry a couple of 6) filters with me. My kit always includes a polarizing filter. It does several things you cannot easily simulate in post: cuts down on glare and increases saturation; adds color contrast especially in skies and with clouds; and an overlooked usage: polarizers double as a neutral density substitute for slower shutter speeds or wider apertures.

The next most important noncamera tool is probably some form of 7) cable release. They can be mechanical or electronic even wireless. There are apps for cell phones to initiate an exposure on your camera remotely. However, I believe in simplicity because the more complicated devices will often fail in a pinch.
On one trip to Havana, Cuba I was escorted up several flights of stairs to investigate some wonderful live music. The building was a worn down, ramshackle relic and there was no electricity. The hallway and stairwell were pitch black. I was rapidly chasing my "guide" as he was sprinting up the stairs. I couldn't see a thing. Fortunately I whipped out my handy dandy, miniature flashlight. It kept me from stumbling over what turned out to be bodies who inhabited the space the whole way up. I could have killed myself or an innocent bystander.

Therefore I always carry a 8) small flashlight: in dark situations, at night, in dark studios, in caves, to find your way to the outhouse. Flashlights are an emergency instrument. Having them on hand is critical and they have to be reliable. I have experimented with several models over the years. I now also use a flashlight app that I downloaded onto my cell phone.

In the bottom of my bag there is always a 9) compass. It gets more use than you might think, not only for following directions but to predict sunrise/sunset. You might assume your clients or locals are aware of where the sun is everyday but most "civilians" have no comprehension of their physical surroundings. Again, there are apps on cell phones that serve as GPS, compass, latitude/longitude, etc. but you need decent mobile reception and remote destinations may hamper that.

I fill the ensemble out with some sort of 10) multitool, i.e. a Leatherman, Craftsman or Swiss Army knife. It should have a knife, scissors, screwdriver, maybe pliers, etc. I even found one that had a wine bottle corkscrew. Be careful. I have forgotten and had them confiscated at airport security more times than I care to remember. I mailed it back to myself numerous times too.

In addition I always have 11) ear plugs. I use them maybe once/twice a year but they save my hearing inside industrial plants and race car pitstops; various 12) USB cables for connecting cameras to my laptop while on the road; small roll of 13) gaffers tape which repairs literally everything; various 14) pens including a Sharpie; a stack of 15) model releases for adults and minors.

Most amateur photographers look outside to evaluate the weather and only shoot when it is sunny and pleasant. The real photographer often has to shoot in or may seek inclement conditions. On those occasions and in emergencies, you have to take care of your stuff when it is raining or snowing. I have tested everything to keep my cameras dry and it is an impossible task. Fortunately good dSLRs are built to withstand the worst situations. But why tempt the fates?

We all laugh at the zany, pedantic television commercials stumping the 16) SHAMWOW cloths. But I use them to cover my cameras and clean my lenses whenever there is moisture. They work wet and dry. And they are better than cloth or paper towels and nearly as good as plastic bags. One resides in my camera bag all the time.

The container that holds all this paraphernalia must be mentioned. A couple of decades ago the camera bag itself became a hot button topic. An industry grew up to design and manufacture bags to fulfill every fantasy. In any place photographers gathered it has been debated: trade association meetings, camera clubs, bars, magazines, etc. DON'T get caught up in this argument. NEVER. It just does not matter. Camera bags come in various forms, shapes and sizes: traditional shoulder models, backpacks, waist mounted, with wheels, etc. You can carry your tools in a plastic grocery bag if you wish. Ultimately, it is a matter of personal preference, necessity and pocketbook.

My favorite camera bag was given to me as a birthday present by my studio staff. I adapted to it rather than the other way around. It served me for just a few months short of a decade. I patched and taped it together for years. It looked nasty and acquired just the right "patina" from wear and tear.

Often I do not feel I can tote a tripod. As important as they are, I may need to travel fast and light. Instead, a permanent fixture of my camera bag is a 17) monopod. (Technically it is not IN my bag but hanging from it.) It is small and compact and increases my facility, especially with long lenses. With it, the average photographer can gain almost two additional stops slower shutter speed. It is a great perch for all other lenses too. Be sure to bury it in your checked luggage when boarding airplanes as mine has been confiscated at checkpoints.

One item I often mention but is very pedestrian is a 18) 15-20 foot common electrical cord. Hotel rooms are notorious for not having/not having enough electrical outlets. You have to plug all your stuff in and a $6 extension cord with multiple three-prong outlets or small power strip can keep you in business. I do not usually carry a zip cord in my camera bag but it comes along for the ride because it keeps all the rest of the paraphernalia running.


In a 48 hour round trip to Paris the only outlet I could find was in the bathroom. The long cord extended to my laptop, battery chargers and cell phone while I watched television from the bed.

REMEMBER! Just toss in a passport and you can go anywhere your heart desires.


Anonymous,  February 27, 2013 at 9:18 PM  

Hi, very informative thanks for sharing.

traditional homes

Tim Byrne,  February 28, 2013 at 5:07 AM  

Hi Lou-
Great list, & I appreciate the reco for Shamwow. Will make the investment (but wait, there's more!) I usually carry 1/2 plastic supermarket shopping bags as emergency raincoats for camera & lense. Cheap, available everywhere, and they work. (Generally once.)
Happy spring; hope all is well.

Camera Bag May 9, 2013 at 5:12 AM  

Generally I don't learn post on blogs, but I would like to

say that this write-up very compelled me to take a look at

and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank

you, Very Great Post.Also visit my page

Cambagcom December 18, 2014 at 4:02 PM  

Good laptop and camera bags are important to protect the laptop from wear and tear during travel.

Camera and Laptop Backpack

Post a Comment

About This Blog

blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.