I just returned from a trip to Oregon with Don Smith. The prime purpose of our trip was to check out the fire damage in the Columbia River Gorge in advance of our annual spring workshop there. Because the damage in the areas where we take our groups wasn’t as severe as we’d feared, we didn’t need to spend a lot of time scouting alternate locations, leaving us with some extra time on our hands. And what do photographers do when they have extra time? That’s right—they take pictures.
In our case, we drove down the Oregon Coast as far as Bandon. Though Bandon was a complete washout photographically—wind, rain, minimal visibility, and an incoming storm that chased us inland on our final night—we saw enough of the coast that we decided to add a workshop there. (More on that later.) The photographic highlight of the coast trip was Cannon Beach, where we found the conditions much more favorable for photography.
If it looks like I got wet capturing these images, it’s because I did. Really, really wet. I started just trying to keep the water out of my shoes; by the time I finished, the surf was coming up to my waist and it no longer mattered because I knew I wasn’t going to get any wetter (as long as I stayed upright).
I did this entire shoot with a body and two lenses I didn’t have a year ago, which make me realize how new gear I added in 2017. Since I get asked so frequently about my gear, it occurs to me that I should just add my inventory to a blog post. So here goes…
I photograph nothing but landscapes, but the content of my bag varies with the location, whether I’m driving or flying, the amount of hiking/scrambling the trip will entail, and my overall objective for the shoot (conventional landscape, moon, stars, lightning, macro, or whatever). I have a core set of equipment that’s always with me, and an assortment of specialty gear that I add or subtract as the situation dictates.
Core gear (almost) always with me
My Sony mirrorless system is the lightest, most compact core gear I’ve ever carried. The a7RIII is my primary body. A always carry a backup body; that used to be the a6300, but I like the a7rII so much that I couldn’t part with it when I got the a7RIII. But I do like having a backup body with a crop sensor, so the a6300 is rarely far away. It’s very compact, and I’m so happy with the image quality that I don’t hesitate to use it as my primary body when I want the extra reach its 1.5-crop sensor provides.
As a 100 percent landscape shooter (nothing that moves), I’m always on a tripod. That means f/4 glass is usually all I need, and Sony’s f/4 glass provides a great combination of compactness and image quality. In a moment of weakness I replaced my Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4 with the Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM and like it so much that I can’t go back. It’s quite compact for an f/2.8 lens, and fast enough for most of my night photography. And the sharpness is off the charts.
My primary tripod/ball-head choice is the RRS TVC-24L and BH-40 for its combination sturdiness and height in a relatively light configuration. When weight is a concern, such as when I’ll be flying or plan some serious hiking, I opt for the RRS TQC-14 with the BH-30. While not quite as tall as I’d like, this combo is much lighter and plenty sturdy enough for all my body/lens combinations.
Specialty gear (with me as needs dictate)
My specialty gear comes with me when I have a specific objective outside the typical landscape scenes I encounter (and that are well handled by my core gear). Whether I’ve planned a moon rising above Half Dome, the Milky Way above the bristlecone pines, lightning on the rim of Grand Canyon, or wildflower or fall color creative selective focus, I have the body, lens, and accessory combination to handle it.
To capture a huge moon in my moon rise/set shoots, I use the 100-400 with the 1.4x or 2x teleconverter. Even with a teleconverter, this combination is sharper than any long lens I’ve ever used. Adding it to my a6300 gives me 1200mm full-frame-equivalent.
For my creative selective focus photography, I add extension tubes to this my telephoto lenses or Sony 90mm macro. Though extension tubes cut light, I don’t hesitate pushing the ISO of any of my Sony bodies as far as I need to.
Night photography is another personal joy. While the a7RIII gives me all the high ISO performance I need for most of my night photography, the a7SII’s ability to virtually see in the dark is ideal for the darkest nights photographing the Milky Way. Paired with the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens, this combination finds usable detail in impossible darkness. Equally important, using focus peaking with the a7SII/Rokinon combination, I can focus effortlessly on the stars, in seconds.
As a long-time daylight lightning shooter, both on my own and leading photo workshops, I have accumulated many years of lightning photography trial and error (not necessarily in that order) experience. More than enough experience, in fact, to know that shutter lag is death to lightning photography. Though I was fully committed to Sony before I had a chance to try it for lightning, I was thrilled to discover that the electronic front curtain shutter on Sony mirrorless bodies has the fastest (best) shutter lag of any camera available. Any of my Sony bodies paired with the Stepping Stone Lightning Trigger (the only lightning sensor I trust) provide the best chance for lightning success.
I like the F-Stop bags because they’re the perfect combination of roomy comfortable (for long hikes), and durable, yet compact enough for an airline overhead bin. In the field, I can fit virtually all of my core and most of my specialty gear in my Tilopa, plus a down jacket, gloves, and hat. When I fly, my tripod goes in my suitcase, but the rest of my camera gear never leaves me because I can fit a fully packed Tilopa into any overhead bin I’ve ever encountered (including the puddle-jumpers). When I want to travel light (my Grand Canyon raft trip, for example), I opt for the Guru, which handles all of my core gear and some of my specialty gear.
Since I always want my bodies and lenses with me (not in my checked luggage), sometimes I fly with the Tilopa stuffed with gear and the empty Guru packed in my large suitcase; at my destination I load the Guru with whatever gear I need for the next shoot. And if limited overhead space ever forces me to check my bag at the gate (which has never happened, fingers crossed), I can remove the bag’s ICU (Internal Camera Unit) and store it at my feet, leaving the mostly empty bag for the flight attendants to store.
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