What’s in your bag?

by Bob Simpson (One Stop Photo Workshops tutor for the Sunshine Coast)

It’s exciting to hike to out-of-the-way places, but you don’t want to be weighed down with unnecessary items in your pack. (Kwiambal National Park, New South Wales)

Sitting in camp at Sundown National Park recently after a tiring but satisfying morning photographing the stars from a high ridge, I was prompted (once again) to review the contents of my camera pack. It’s something I’m sure we all do from time to time – this particular episode was triggered by a pair of sore feet and shoulders brought on by lugging myself and my pack around the steep hillsides, and the consequent nagging question, “…Do I really need all this stuff?…”.

Of course, the ‘stuff’ you choose to take on any particular photo session is going to vary with the location and circumstances, and in a relatively remote and rugged place like Sundown it’s wise to err on the side of too much rather than too little. There’s no dashing home to grab that filter you rarely use but suddenly and desperately need, no mobile phone reception to get you out of a jam if things go awry, and no shop at the top of the hill to grab a refreshing drink and bite to eat.

While I’m all for the make-do-without attitude, safety gear like a first aid kit, torch, raincoat, adequate food and water, and some means of communication are non-negotiable occupants of my pack – they go everywhere with me. So that leaves camera gear as the biggest variable in the equation. The question of what to take and what to leave at home is, for most photographers, a work in progress.

So without further ado, here is what is in my camera pack and why it is there.

Cameras and lenses
My kit doesn’t change much whether I’m in a remote area or down at a suburban beach. It basically consists of a single dSLR body and two zoom lenses, a 17-40mm and a 70-200mm. A second body would certainly be good insurance in the case of a breakdown or a drenching, but as I’ve never experienced either of these (touch wood!), I’m willing to take the risk. But I do carry a good quality compact camera in more remote areas so all would not be lost in the event of a camera-related mishap.

The two lenses I carry limit the types of images I can seek, but that’s part of the trade-off. It would be nice to carry a 400mm plus tele-converter for wildlife, and a dedicated macro lens for the miniscule – and while I’m at it, another zoom to bridge the gap between 40mm and 70mm. On the other hand, a limited array of available focal lengths makes you focus on the things you can do rather than try and spread yourself across every possible option. I might miss out on that shot of an eagle perched high in a distant tree, but I can’t recall ever running short of ideas or subjects to command my attention – nature is good like that.

Filters still have a place in my pack. These days I limit it to a polariser and a couple of neutral density filters for each lens – these really expand the photographic options for very little cost in terms of size or weight. Many landscape photographers also use graduated neutral density filters to help balance exposures but, for the moment, I prefer to ‘bracket and blend’. It’s a work in progress and I might go back to my ND grads one day, but I feel that in many cases the new approach gives better results than the filters – and there is a feeling of liberation in leaving them at home!

My tripod and remote shutter release are essential companions on all of my photographic outings. For low-light scenarios, like around sunrise and sunset, they are necessary to ensure the camera stays perfectly still during long exposures. Even in bright conditions, a tripod gives you the option of attaching a neutral density filter to slow down the shutter speed and capture the movement of clouds, water and grasses. I also find a tripod to be an excellent aid to composition – it makes you slow down and allows you to fully consider and fine-tune your compositions. A good sturdy tripod can add considerably to the weight you have to carry, but materials like carbon fibre provide a lighter (if more expensive) option. My tripod stays strapped to my pack with an elastic occy strap.

Spare batteries and memory cards…never be caught out without them! Both can fail unexpectedly, batteries run down and memory cards fill up with important images. Genuine spare batteries can be expensive, but they don’t take up much space and you will be thankful to have them if (when) you experience a failure. A spare memory card weighs about as much as a pencil so it’s a no-brainer to always have two or three in your pack.

I also carry a few spare rubber tips for my tripod legs – I’ve lost them before in mud and crevices, but they also just wear out eventually. Genuine parts from your tripod manufacturer can be expensive but you can try your local hardware store for cheaper versions made for chair legs. I get mine from Clark Rubber for about 50c each.

While you don’t want to be pulling your camera apart in the field to clean the sensor, it’s a good idea to have some basic maintenance items on hand at all times. I carry more clean microfibre cloths than I’m ever likely to need, but they’re cheap and light, so why not? These are ideal for wiping mist or raindrops off your lens and camera body, but they can soon become wet and dirty so it’s worth having several on hand. I also carry a LensPen for more thorough cleaning of my lenses and filters – it has a soft brush on one end to dislodge dust without scratching and a dry cleaning tip that does a great job of removing fingerprints and other blotches. And it’s the size and weight of a pen!

Rain cover
Some form of rain cover for your camera is a must, even on those days when you think “…It couldn’t possibly rain today…”. Famous last words, if ever I’ve heard them. There are some very good purpose-built rain covers for cameras, like Kata’s range, or there are less high-tech solutions like a plastic bag and rubber bands. I carry a hiking dry-bag that weighs next to nothing and slips over my camera and lens when mounted on a tripod – it doesn’t have a clear window like the Katas, but it has kept my camera bone dry in several torrential downpours. I also carry a small hiking-umbrella so I can keep shooting when the rain starts. It’s a solution with some flaws, but it’s simple and has worked for me on many occasions.

* * *

Well that’s just about it, and on reflection, I think I really do need all this stuff! It’s not surprising really…I’ve been through this exercise quite a few times and my kit is already pared back to the basics. The fact is, getting to out-of-the-way places takes some effort, so tired feet and shoulders are part of the adventure….it’s a small price to pay when the reward is having a little piece of nature’s beauty all to yourself.

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