I doubt that I am the only one that becomes obsessive when it comes to packing for a photo workshop. It may seem peculiar that a man whose profession it is to coordinate photography workshops here in Iceland, and who rarely—if ever—attends a workshop as a student, would be writing on this topic.
On the contrary, my profession has allowed me to become a spectator and observe the behavior of workshop students. Through my observations, I have been able to fine-tune the art of packing for a workshop.
Your selection of your gear—and its reliability—will determine whether or not your time during the workshop is well spent. For starters, always pack your most reliable gear. Don’t even think about bringing that temperamental camera that will only work when finessed just so. While your temperamental piece has given you some of your greatest shots in the past, you cannot rely on it, and it may prove to be a burden. Your bare bones gear bag should have at least two reliable camera bodies, 3-5 reliable lenses, a quality tripod and tripod head, a cable or reliable remote release, some filters, and cable straps. I praise the day that my friend from the US introduced me to my first roll of cable strap. While seemingly insignificant, cable straps, have proven to be integral in keeping my cables coiled and organized. This way I don’t end up with a big knot of cables every time I reach into my bag.
If you are planning to bring a laptop to the workshop, you probably don't want to be lugging it around everywhere you go. Make sure you have a separate case or sleeve to house it. This way you won’t damage it when placing it in and taking it out of the hotel safe. It is of utmost importance that the laptop you pack has SSD drives. In order not to slow down your computer, be sure to pack at least two storage drives; one for your original images, and one on which to back them up. Having storage will prevent your hard drive from slowing down, and will make editing on your laptop faster.
Occasionally, time doesn’t allow for you to take out your DSLR, get the settings right, and take the shot. Do not forget your point-and-shoot! These simple machines may produce your best pictures. The images produced with a point-and-shoot may not be the best quality, but sometimes they can exude a feeling of spontaneity and nature that a DSLR image may lack.
I always bring along Vario ND filters for a couple of lenses, and at least one polarizing filter. A panning head for your tripod is a must. I also bring along an iPhone mount head. While handy, it is not a necessity.
After having administrated many workshops over the last few years, and having studied how the workshop students operate, I have noticed that in some situations the gear can control the students. Generally, the more-successful students have full control over their gear, and are thus able to better take advantage of what the workshop has to offer. Take, for example, the person that may pack a few things in his field bag, put the tripod strap around his shoulder, and walk away with one camera in hand, mounted with a medium zoom lens. He’ll walk around and stop regularly. You may notice him move to the side, or back up a bit, bend down, or climb a rock for a better view. Now and then he brings the camera to his eye, checks the framing, and may or may not take a shot. He is always on the move, moving around and observing. You’ll almost always find this student with the same camera and lens in hand. Sometimes he may set up the tripod and mount a camera, switching lenses every so often. But not before he gets quite a few shots with his original camera-and-lens set up.
On the other side of the spectrum, you will notice the other workshop student with his camera on a tripod and his big gear bag next to him, often within 20-30 yards from the vehicle. He works hard; takes loads of images, changes lenses, tweaks exposure and aperture. Both the student that has taken more pictures, and the one who was more discerning but took less pictures—they both seem satisfied. And so we move along to the next field stop, and the same students repeat the same behavior.
Back at the base camp, all the students begin critiquing and discussing the day’s work. Playing the role of an observer, I have the pleasure of relaxing and listening in on the conversation. Sometimes I’ll chime in when I feel I can add to the discussion. In my experience, most of the images from a workshop turn out to be very decent, but the student that moved around and perched himself on that rock for a slightly better view is the one with the killer shots. His shots display exciting framing, exciting perspective, beautiful and simple composition. Some are even breathtaking.
My point is that although we love our gear and we need reliable gear to produce great shots, gear is only one component of what makes a photo session successful. The other component is our mastery of the equipment and our ability to utilize our gear to its full potential. Yes, the lens extensions can be important, but never forget about the best lens extensions available to us—our legs. Gear is only as good as the photographer using it allows it to be. The photographer is only as good as his gear allows him to be.
To see more from Einar, and to learn about Focus on Nature workshops please visit his site www.focusonnature.is