Gear Talk


So, what’s in my camera bag, you ask?

The answer is, as little as possible.

I shoot mostly with a Sony NEX-7 body and a Zeiss 28mm f/2.8 Biogon ZM. On the NEX-7’s APS-C sized sensor, that lens is equivalent to a 42mm lens on a full-frame camera. To me this focal length is the perfect compromise between 35mm and 50mm. If you care about ultimately unimportant arcana when it comes to what is truly a ‘normal’ focal length, read this from someone who knows a lot more about these things than I do.

If I add a second lens, it will be either a Voigtländer 75mm f/2.5 Color Heliar, or a Leica 90mm Summicron-M f/2. The Voigtländer is a lot smaller and lighter, so it wins most of the time, even though it is slower and has less reach. But for portraits, the Leica wins hands down. The Voigtländer went out of production a few years ago. Now they sell a fast (and therefore much heavier) f/1.8 version. The Leica went out of production in the early 1980’s. Now they sell the aspherical version of the same lens, which costs around $4,000 new. My lens, unlike the new version, was made in Midland, Ontario, Canada, and I like that, if only for sentimental reasons since I grew up in Toronto, not too far away.

If I add a third lens, it will be a Sony 10-18mm f/4 zoom. On the NEX-7, this lens is the equivalent of a 15-27mm superwide angle zoom on a full-frame camera. It’s a great lens, but I’m thinking of replacing it with the Voigtländer 15mm Heliar Aspherical, which is manual focus and built like a tank. And it’s probably wide enough, coming in at 22.5mm on the NEX. Not any lighter, but a lot smaller and built to last forever.

Add two extra batteries, four 16gig SD memory cards (more than I need but they’re cheap and weigh nothing, so why not?), a microfiber cloth and I’m done. Generally speaking.

Of course what I take on a shoot varies according to what I expect to be shooting. The most important thing to remember is that carrying too much gear slows you down, and often causes you to miss shots you would have gotten had you travelled light. I see people all the time lugging thick backpacks stuffed with every lens they own. Not only is that not fun, it’s not effective. The fear is that you might come across a situation where you need something that you actually own but don’t have with you. But when you have a backpack full of gear what happens much more frequently is that you actually have what you want with you, somewhere in your backpack, but you just can’t be bothered to take off your pack yet again, open it up in the middle of the street, and dig through all your stuff to find it. And even if you do, you might be too late to get the shot, anyway. Or maybe you miss shots you never even eyeballed because you’re taking a rest in a café or back in the hotel, too tired from carrying around the pack all day. When it comes to travel photography, less is more.

I cut my teeth on SLRs, then moved on to DSLRs, but then I went mirrorless cameras and have never been happier. This kind of camera serves my needs about 90 percent of the time. The exceptions are when I need superfast autofocus and for that I turn to my DSLRs.

I should note that three of the above lenses in my kit are manual focus. MF lenses have their advantages and disadvantages, but obviously, I feel the advantages outweigh their drawbacks. I also realize that this is the minority view! That said, the autofocus Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS is a superb lens, it’s just that I don’t use it that often.

Add to that (depending on the shoot), a polarizing filter–usually Hoya but I also own more-expensive B+W filters but I prefer the Hoyas because they seem to cause less flare–and step-down rings to fit the various filter sizes. In this case, the filter would natively fit the largest lens size, the Sony 10-18mm zoom (62MM). Other items include the excellent Leica Table Top tripod outfitted with an old mini-ballhead that’s been kicking around in my gear cupboard for years, waiting for this moment of stardom. I don’t remember when I got it and it has no manufacturer’s name on it, but it works okay. I outfitted it with a Kirk quick release for Arca Swiss plates. (I use Wimberley universal P-9 plates for all my cameras.)

To attach the Zeiss, Voigtländer and Leica lenses to my NEX-7 I use the Novoflex M to NEX adaptor. Absurdly expensive, but you get what you pay for and I’m happy I laid down the big bucks for it. It is made to high-precision standards and clicks into place with a satisfying snap that makes you feel better for having paid so much for it.

Other lenses I sometimes use include the venerable Micro Nikkor 55mm 2.8 for close-up work (and more), as well as the classic Nikkor 200mm f/4 AI and, very occasionally, a Nikkor 400mm f/5.6 EDIF. For the Nikkors I also use a Novoflex adapter, which I bought after some disappointment with a Metabones adapter.

When the shoot demands it I lug my Canon 5DII and and the 24-104mm f/4L IS and the 70-200 f/4L IS. Along with extra CF cards and batteries, of course. I don’t actually like the 24-105 that much, but I have to admit that it’s a been a bread-and-butter lens for me. (I got rid of my 17-40 L and my 20mm 2.8 because the NEX-7 and the 10-15 combo is lighter, wider, and just as good.) The 70-200 f/4L IS is a gorgeous lens, and jaw-droppingly sharp. I’ve owned many 70-200 lenses (okay, technically some of them were 80-200s, but who cares), including the best Nikon and Canon f/2.8s, but I no longer feel the need to hump the extra weight to gain that one stop advantage and the f/4 version leaves nothing to be desired in terms of sharpness. The image stabilization is also superb. In short, it’s one of the very best lenses I’ve ever used.

I’ve used many different lenses, and I change my lineup all the time. There were times when used all primes, and times when I used all zooms. I’m back to pretty much all primes now. I’ll admit, I’ve been all over the place. In both Canon and Nikon, I’ve owned everything from 15mm fisheyes to 400mm super telephotos. Here are some of the ones that stand out:

Canon 135mm f/2. Razor sharp and blazingly fast autofocus. Simply outstanding.

Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 AIS. I still miss the lens. Buttery-smooth manual-focus masterpiece and built like a tank.

Canon 200mm f/2.8L. I gave this one to my dad when I bought the 70-200 f/4 IS. But I might try to convince him to give it back one day.

Canon 400mm f/2.8L. It was a gorgeous beast, but too damn heavy and I had to part ways with it.

Canon 35mm f/1.4L. Sharp and beautiful, but too heavy for me, considering its specialized uses. If only Canon made ultra-wide angles of this quality…

I’ve also owned a lot of off-brand lenses including Tokina and Tamron, none of which has shined particularly brightly, looking back. And a couple of them were downright awful. I’ve never tried Sigma, but they seem to come up with a lot of intriguing offers. One of these days I’ll give them a try.

I rarely use full-size tripods, but when I do I use Gitzo aluminum models, though I’ve been tempted by the latest carbon tripods by Feisol. I’m a little behind-the-times since I use aluminum instead of carbon-fiber tripods, but I do have some reservations here. A simple, indisputable fact is this: It’s nearly impossible to break an aluminum tripod, and sometimes, my gear gets some rough handling. It’s less about breaking an expensive piece of gear and more about being somewhere remote and not not being able to use it. Another fact: A heavy tripod is a sturdy tripod. There are no free lunches here. The heavier the better. But this of course, depends on the camera you’re using. A light tripod will do fine with a NEX-7 and a small lens. If I were to upgrade I would also consider wooden tripods, which have the advantage of absorbing vibrations instead of carbon fiber, which transmit them, but I have to say I haven’t done any side-by-side comparisons yet, so I’ll let you know. The thing to remember is this: you can get by with a MUCH lighter tripod with a mirrorless camera such as the Sony NEX-7.

As for tripod heads I use a variety, including the aforementioned no-name ballhead for the Leica Table Top (perhaps soon to be replaced by a Really Right Stuff BH-25, mainly just for the hell of it), an Acratech Ultimate Ballhead (early version without the bubble level), and a massive Graf Studioball for my beastly Gitzo 13 series aluminum tripod that weighs more than what Ryanair allows you for carry-on luggage. Now that I no longer have the Canon 400 2.8, that tripod never leaves my home, thank goodness.

In closing, I leave you with what Henry David Thoreau said about life, but which is also sage advice for travel photographers: “Simplify, simplify, simplify!”