How I Built My Camera System: Dan Bailey

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As photographers, we need our gear. Without it, we’re just people with highly visual imaginations and restless index fingers. However, the conundrum of all photographers is acquiring the right combination of equipment without blowing their budgets. In reality, there’s no “right” or “standard” selection of gear—everyone’s creative vision and needs are different. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, putting together a cost-effective kit that still offers you the freedom and flexibility to exercise your photography as you see fit, can be a real challenge.

To help you navigate this perpetual dance, let’s see how I built my camera bag over the years. Please note that these ideas do not represent the opinions and needs of the other 2,459,276,483 photographers out there, who will probably disagree with me.


Current Gear

Cameras

As a professional Nikon user who shoots a combination of action, adventure, locations and outdoor subjects, my primary need has always been having gear that produces high-quality imagery, but doesn't weigh me down.

For cameras, I’ve always gone with the highest-end ‘compact’ body in the Nikon lineup. Although my first camera was an all-manual Nikon FM2, when I turned pro, I went for Nikon’s then-top-end, non-battery-grip body, the N90, the N90s, and later the F100. When I eventually made the jump to digital, I bought the D200, and then the D300. Currently, my main body is the D700.

Why not the flagship D3X or D4?

Simple: price, size and weight.

I often run, ski and hike with my camera, and a smaller DSLR means that I can move faster through the wilderness. I bought an F5 back in 2000, but found that I didn’t use it very often, for the reasons described above.

Chances are good that I will upgrade to the D800, or to whatever Nikon releases next, but for now, my D700 still performs flawlessly, delivering professional-grade photos in all of the situations where I’m shooting.

Lenses

With my resourceful, make-do mentality which comes from being self employed, I tend to spend my money on good gear, and then use it for years, often until it wears out or is no longer compatible with my current needs and/or technology. This is more applicable to my lens selection than my digital cameras. Cameras need to be upgraded much more often than they used to back in the days of film.

Many of the lenses in my bag are the same ones I bought when I first turned pro. Here are my main lenses, all of which I’ve owned for years.

- AF 14mm f/2.8

- AF 24mm f/2.8

- AF 50mm f/1.8

- AF 85mm f/1.8

- AF 80-200mm f/2.8

However, I didn’t get them all at once. When I first started out, I slowly built a collection of manual lenses with the 50mm, 28mm and 105mm. Between the time I upgraded to AF bodies and the time I went full-time pro, I also owned a couple of slower zoom lenses, a 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 and a 70-210mm f/4-5.6. Over time, I came to prefer using fixed lenses for the shorter focal lengths, and upgraded to the 24mm, 50mm and 85mm.

My early ultra-wide choice was a Tokina AF17mm lens that I used for many years, mostly because it was considerably smaller and less expensive than the Nikon 14mm f/2.8. I don’t use that Tokina much anymore, but I still think that third-party lenses are a great choice if you’re on a budget. At the time, that Tokina cost about 1/3 of the comparable Nikon model.

Even though I like to go with lightweight gear, I consider my 80-200mm f/2.8 to be one of my bread-and-butter lenses. It’s heavy and expensive, but it’s fast, and it produces fantastic results. I will eventually upgrade to one of the AF-S VR versions of this lens, but as I said above, when I find something that works, I keep using it as long as it gets the job done. Over a decade later, it still delivers.

Lighting Gear

I started out years ago with a single Nikon speedlight, used that for a year or two, and then got a second. When I started expanding my creative and technical lighting skills, I got a couple of cheap umbrellas and some Pocket Wizards, and worked with them until I got the hang of basic camera lighting techniques. As I progressed, I added a few more flashes and a few more light modifiers. My main kit today includes the following items, all of which I chose for reliability, durability, portability and cost:

- Nikon SB800 & SB 900 flashes

- Photoflex Triton Flash

- Umbrellas

- Photoflex OcotDome NXT softboxes

- Photoflex WhiteDomes

- Lumiquest Softbox III and LtP

- PocketWizard Plus II radios

As with any of my gear, I don’t carry it all everywhere I go. I usually strip down to the smallest selection of items that I think will get the job done in any given situation. Sometimes, that may only be a body and one lens, other times it might be the whole bag.

Knowing When to Upgrade

Over the years, I’ve pared my camera gear down to the lenses and accessories that I use on a semi-regular basis, or those tools that serve a particular purpose. I don’t have very many items that I don’t use very often. That's because I don't generally buy something unless I think it’s really going to come in handy. Rather, I’ll borrow or rent it. I do upgrade, though, and usually buy at least one major piece of gear a year, depending on my budget and the scope of work that I’m producing at the time.

Upgrading is indeed necessary, especially in the world of digital photography. As you progress in your abilities and experience, you’ll be able to justify and afford better equipment. However, don’t feel that you need to upgrade every single time a new piece of gear comes out. You can fall into the trap of thinking that you need all the latest gear, but in reality, style and creative identity comes from having a specific selection of gear, and really knowing how to use it. In the end, a great photographer with one or two lenses will always do better than someone who just has all the toys.

My bottom-line advice is to start with a small and reasonable selection of good-quality gear, and slowly work up. You don’t need the best when you’re starting out, but don’t get the bottom-end stuff either. If you can afford only one pro-quality item, make it a lens. A great lens on a midrange body will do better than going the other way around, plus, it will save you money that you can put towards more gear in the future.

You can read more by Dan Bailey at his blog.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio
 

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I'm a Canon girl (Can I write that on here?)  But have been enjoying your personal blog for probably a couple of years now, regardless of your Nikon slant!   ;O)  And enjoy your posts like this one here on B&H.  Who doesn't love B&H?!!!

Wish I had read a post like this right before I took my first course with the Outside Adventure Film School. (Had I read the course materials before the first day, that would have helped too!)  I still would have bought Canon (Sorry!) but you're advice is perfectly transferable.

What came up for me reading today's post was the gear to transport it all.  It's taken me 18 months of trial and error to get that system down pat and by that I mean, lots of trials and lots of errors!  Wish I had been given some advice in that department before I left for 2 months in South Sudan.  It makes me gag how many shots I missed due to gear access in the heat of the moment.

My investment in the LowePro S&F technical harness, belt and accessories, along with the Manfrotto sling for my tripod after I got home, was a godsend for my following shoot in Belize.  I also purchased them from B&H.  They rock!

So, maybe you could write a post about gear transportation?

Cheers!

Michelle

 

Agreed! Size , weight and price.

Allow me to add that, when using DX-format bodies users can always rely on some cheper lenses, like Sigmas, since you`ll be using the center of the lens, where distortions are less likely to occur, right?

I`m using a D90, and a set of 2.8 lenses:

15mm - Sigma

85 / 1.8 - Nikkor

24-70 2.8, Sigma

cheers,

Klaus

Thanks for a great article!! Very helpful.

What camera bag is that?

No caps on the lenses in the bag? Do you actually carry them that way?

I have used Nikon since 1996 and I had a pair of N90s as wellas N70, N80 and F100.  The N90s were my workhorses until I purchased the D100 in 2000.  My first digital camera was the D70 purchased in 2004 and it is still in use.  I had originally planned to purchase a second D70 or D70s but it wasn't practical so I purchased a D50 in 2006.  Both of these cameras are still in use although they are aging.  I always have used zoom lenses and currently have an 18-70 digital as well as a 28-105 and 70-300 from the days of film.  The advantage of the 28-105 and 70-300 is the 1.5X factor which, especially the 70-300, has given me additional magnification without purchasing  la ens in the 400 mm range.  I have been planning to upgrade with the D7000, which I feel is more suited to my style of Professional Photography.  I too like the lighter bodies for my Photography.  When I prepare one of my bags for Photography I only carry what I need for that Photography.  Finally I challenge any other Photographer, Professional or other, to tell the difference between my photo's and photo's taken on the top priced Nikon's.  If  are skilled enough you will take the photo not the camera.