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A long time ago, I wrote an article entitled Bag of Confidence, and ever since, many have turned to me with their equipment questions. I would love to profess that I was smart enough to have just the right camera gear from the get go, but such is not the case. Like so many in the field, having the right camera gear was a trial-by-error methodology for much of the beginning of my photography career. I was asked to write this piece in the hope that you might learn from my mistakes, and build on my successes. So here’s how my camera bag has in it what it does today.
Photography for me, like for so many others, started at home, with other shutterbuggers in the family. My father carried an Argus C3 throughout WWII & Korea, and was still shooting with it when I was a teenager. Then my brother bought his Minolta, and when my dad saw that, going from a rangefinder to an SLR, well, he was sold. I got the hand-me-down, but that didn’t last long—the Minolta SLR was great. The photography bug bit hard, so as a freshman in high school, I was in the photography class.
This influence was huge! My teacher had a Nikon F, and my cousin had one as well. I will never forget holding my cousin’s F, with a 200mm f/4 attached, and looking out across the valley, seeing small things looked “big” in the viewfinder. I couldn’t afford a Nikon, so I saved and saved until I got a Minolta SRT202, my first serious camera.
That lasted a few years, and served me very well. But when I went off to school, it was obvious that the features in the camera, and the quality of the lenses (I had many a Vivitar back then) required that I move up. In 1980, I bought my first Nikon, an F2 w/DP-1 finder, and a 50mm f/2. That was it. I was hooked, and I’ve never looked back!
The F2 was upgraded a few times during the next couple of years with the latest metering head and a few lenses, until the F3 was introduced. While I looked at the 'prosumer' bodies of the time, there has always been something about the feel of the large, heavy, pro Nikon bodies that has always had me owning them. The time the F3 was added to my camera bag was the same time I got my first telephoto lens, the 400mm f/5.6 ED IF. That’s what I had when I started out as a wildlife photographer. It was a great system, teaching me many lessons about photography, wildlife photography and camera gear.
The F3 brought with it a photographic life-changing feature for me, TTL flash! This one simple, yet very powerful feature now made flash a friend, not a foe—a tool, not a ball and chain! Lighting for wildlife was now simple, small, compact and most importantly, no longer a hazard to critters. This was improved with each camera body, from the F3 to the N2020 with its AF, and finally the N8008. This technology, when combined with biology, made photographs possible that weren’t possible before, sending me down a path of forever chasing new technology.
The F3 morphed into the F4, the F4 into the F5—probably the finest film camera ever. The F5 was responsible for putting a whole lot of my best images in the filing cabinets and in print. It was during this time that the 800mm f5.6 ED IF entered my camera bag. That focal length became my main bird lens, and in my mind, it put my photography on the map. At the same time, TTL flash, flashes and accessories improved, making it possible to concentrate on just the subject and not the photography.
Then, in 1998, I walked out of a back room at PMA New Orleans carrying a small, brown paper bag with a secret the world was not yet to know about. I took it back to my hotel room, and with no one looking, took it out of the nondescript bag, powered it on, and took a photo of my big toe. My first digital photo was captured!
In the fall of 1999, the D1 was put into my hands, and I’ve never looked back at film since. One of my favorite photos of all time, one I rarely share, was taken with the D1. A 30x40 print of Sneak, a grizzly bear, hangs behind my desk, and that print was made from a 1MB JPEG. I knew then—as I know now—that digital rocks!
Every photographer needs to have their own bag of confidence, a camera bag of gear they can pick up and know they have the tools they need to tell their visual story their way. It’s through three decades of building that bag for my needs that I came to what I have today. That is:
200-400mm f4 VR2
70-200mm f2.8 VR2
24-70mm f2.8 AFS
18mm f2.8 AF
16mm f2.8 AF
Many ask why I own Nikon, and I’ve read many strangers’ ideas why, but there is only one reason—the same one I’ve said many times—flash! Nikon’s flash is what has kept me with the system for thirty years. It is an essential tool to my photography, and when it’s easy, photography is easy.
Why do I have the gear that I do in my bag? It boils down to one basic reason—it solves the problems I face in my photography. Cost does play into the equation. That's why it includes only these pieces—the ones I need—and not the ones I want. Every piece of gear has to serve more than one function. The 16mm fisheye does not only landscapes, but also my cockpit panos. The 24mm f1.4 AF-S is not only a fast wide angle, but also a great macro lens. The list just keeps on going.
And the most important aspect of this, the gear, might all change tomorrow! I feel photographers are as much problem solvers as storytellers. Solving problems in front of the camera and behind, so that we can tell the story as we see it, is very much a part of the process, dictating what gear we have in our bag.
One question I was asked is, “What’s the most-used item in your bag, what’s the least used, and why?” This is a very valid question, but if you have an answer for this question, either you aren’t in the business of photography, or you’re no longer in the business of photography. That’s the one aspect of all of this that is hard to grasp if you don’t make a living from your photography—the capital investment pressure. It’s like an employee—if they aren’t pulling their weight, you've got to let them go. If I have a piece of gear that's not pulling its weight, it’s got to go.
What’s the point of all of this? Probably the main point is that photography and photography gear are a learning experience. As my photography skills grew, the amount of camera gear grew. As camera technology evolved, my photography evolved, and the marriage of gear, skill, technique and passion moved forward. It pushed the photography forward, and it’s still pushing it forward today. Having the right gear does make a difference, but it’s not the end-all. It still takes the person behind it, their creative process, and the heart that drives them to make the photograph. But without that gear, those moments in life would only be recorded on the thin emulsion of our minds. Since I think we need to share our photographs, the gear is essential.