Gear

Equipment. Gear. Hardware. Us photographers - particularly male ones - get all hot under the collar about cameras and lenses and stuff, but is it really that important?

In terms of not being able to take photographs without a camera of some description, yes it’s very important. But does it have to be the latest all-singing, all-dancing DSLR costing £1000?

Even though I have one of those very cameras (it’s my job, right?), I don’t think so. The Toy Camera portfolio will hopefully show you that. Holgas cost £25, brand new. All you need is a roll of film and you can start creating beautiful fine-art images that ooze character and atmosphere simply because the camera’s rubbish and the lens is soft. Who needs hi-tec? Or the Hipstamatic images shot with my Apple iPhone and the Hipstamatic App. It’s brilliant!
A better, more expensive camera doesn’t make you a better, more creative photographer, and having loads of gear, as macho as it may seem, can be a hindrance more than a help - by the time you decide which lens to use, the light has changed and there’s no photograph to take. Game over.

I actually use less gear today than ever before. In this digital age you just don’t need three or four different types of camera - one size fits all.

Gear

Rewind a few years and it was a different story. I’d routinely carry a Pentax 67 body and three or four lenses, plus a Fuji GX617 panoramic camera with another 3 lenses, maybe two dozen rolls of Velvia, a fistful of filters and all the other paraphernalia required by a workaday landscape photographer. When I was travelling light (yea, right), these brutes would be replaced by shrunken-down gear - a Nikon F5 and Nikon F90x plus a pair of Hasselblad Xpans with a full complement of lenses.

On my first trip to Namibia I was so concerned that I wouldn’t be equipped to cover all situations that I took the lot - four different camera systems. The plane almost had to stop and refuel I was packing so much weight and by the end of the trip I had become and expert in wearing the same pair of underpants as many times as possible between washes - because I only had space in my suitcase for three pairs. If you really want to know, it’s right way, back-to-front, inside-out, back-to-front and inside-out. Four days, one pair of pants.

Thankfully, those days are behind me. I now change my underwear every day and if you take a peep inside my Lowepro, on a fully-loaded day this is what you’ll find:

Actually, this is still a pretty hefty kit, but I rarely carry everything – I’m not sure my back would take it. If I’m working out of my car shooting landscapes I can always jettison items I don’t think I’ll need and leave them in the boot – like the 100-400mm, the 5D MKII (which is primarily a back-up body) and the infrared 5D. When I’m travelling, the 14-24mm and 100-400m are usually left at home and the 5D MKII stays in my suitcase unless I need to use two bodies simultaneously. So far, touch wood, I’ve never had a digital SLR fail on me, but I’d hate for that to happen when I’m on the other side of the world.

Q Didn’t you have a Canon EOS 1DS MKIII for a few years? What happened to that?
A I did and I sold it. I loved that camera to bits – it was my first DSLR – but over time I realised that I didn’t need such a bullet-proof machine for the kind of photography I enjoy and the weight and bulk started become an issue. The turning point came when I bought a 5D MKII as a back-up body and while in Bhutan in October 2010 I spent a fortnight using both bodies side-by-side. By the end of the trip I’d fallen for the more compact, lightweight 5D MkII – which has a better screen than the 1DS MKIII and better high ISO performance. From then on, roles were reversed, the 1DS MKIII became my back-up body, and its days were numbered – it’s too big and heavy to be a back-up body!

Q What did you replace the 1DS MKIII with?
A Having tested the 5D MKIII in Iceland in May 2012, I decided that was the next generation of EOS for me. The 1DX is a fantastic camera, but again, it’s big and heavy and I don’t want to spend five grand on a camera when I can get one that will do everything I require of it for half that.! Image quality from the 5D MKIII is amazing, and that’s my primary concern. It also offers a massive ISO range with all speeds useable, fantastic noise control at lower ISOs and weather sealing for those days when the weather catches me out. It’ll be a while before I see myself upgrading cameras. I feel at peace!

Q Are the images you shoot with the iPhone good enough for anything but a website?
A Absolutely. I admit that the sensor in a phone camera is teeny weenie. But despite that, image quality is surprisingly good. I’ve printed numerous images from the Hipstamatic portfolio, most of which was shot with a 3MP camera in an iPhone 3GS, to 12x12in and I reckon they’d go bigger. I’m currently using an iPhone 5 which has an 8Mp sensor. With the higher resolution, 16x16in or even 20x20in prints good enough to frame and hang on the wall are easily achievable.

Q Why the 17-40mm and not the 16-35mm?
A Well, I had the 16-35mm first, didn’t think it was good enough for the money so I sold it and bought the 17-40mm, which I reckon is a better lens. It’s not as ‘fast’ but I can’t remember the last time I used such a wide zoom at maximum aperture anyway so the loss of a stop has never been a problem. At f/16 and f/22 the corners start to soften and there’s usually some vignetting at the wider end, but all things considered it’s a great lens.

Q Why the 70-200mm f/4 and not the 70-200mm f/2.8?
A Because after years of carting a Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom around which weighed more than all the other lenses in my pack combined but was used the least, I decided to shed some weight. The f/4 IS USM is fantastic - tack sharp, miles smaller and lighter than the f/2.8, and (being a Yorkshireman it’s important) £100s cheaper. Okay, f/2.8 is handy for differential focusing and low light shooting, but the reduced size and weight of the f/4 means I can handhold at slower speeds than I could with the f/2.8 version anyway, so it’s swings and roundabouts. Also, the performance of the 5D MKIII at higher ISO means I’m quite happy to shoot at ISO400 instead of 200, say, to gain the extra speed that my lens lacks over the f/2.8 version.

Q Why a 50mm f/1.8?
A Because it’s as light as a feather (okay, 130g, but you know what I mean), as cheap as chips (I paid £79 for a new one in March 2010) and as sharp as a newly-ironed pair of strides. It’s also invaluable for taking handheld shots of black cats in coal cellars without having to hike up the ISO so far that the images look like they’ve been shot through a tea strainer. That said, I’ve used it on my 5DMKIII at ISO6400 and the results are surprisingly good. Buy one - I insist that you do, and I promise you won’t regret it.

To keep all of the above steady I use either a Gitzo GT3540LS tripod plus Really Right Stuff BH-55 Full-size ballhead or, for travel, a Manfrotto 190CF PRO4 tripod with Really Right Stuff BH-40 mid-sized ballhead. Both kids are super sturdy and the RRS ballhead are brilliant – I can’t recommend them enough. As I shoot panoramas I also have a levelling base on each tripod – a Gitzo GS1321 on the Gitzo legs and an Acratech on the Manfrotto.
To carry the gear I tend to use a Lowepro Pro Trekker 400 in the UK (it’s a big SOB) and for travel a Think Tank Street Walker Hard Drive, which swallows up masses of gear, including a laptop, but complies with airline hand luggage regs so there’s less chance of check-in trauma. When I need to travel really light I also have a Tamrac Adventure 9.

Filters and stuff
A number of digital photographers have decided that it’s not necessary to use filters any longer because whatever effect they have on an image, Photoshop can do it as well if not better. I’m sure there’s some truth in that - if you want to spend half your life sat at a computer embroiled in post-production. But I’m a photographer, so I’d rather be outside taking photographs, rather than inside working on them.
Computer time is unavoidable in this digital age, but I like to keep it to a minimum so that means getting my photographs as close to finished in-camera as I can. It’s not difficult - I had 20 years of practise when my cameras were loaded with film instead of CF cards - and filters are a big help.

I use a mixture of Lee and Hitech 100mm Filters simply because they do the job for which they were intended and they do it well.

I use neutral density (ND) grads all the time when shooting landscapes, to reduce the difference in brightness between the sky and the rest of the scene so the whole image is perfectly exposed in a single hit. I usually carry a full set of ‘hard’ ND grads - 0.3, 0.45, 0.6. 0.75 and 0.9 - though the 0.6 and 0.9 densities are used far more than the rest so if I need to travel really light, they’re the two I pack.
The main time that ND grads don’t work so well is if I’m shooting urban scenes where the sky is obscured by buildings. In those situations I do rely on computer technology - shooting a sequence of exposures (with the camera on a tripod) from -2 to +2 stops in full stop increments then combining them using the Exposure Fusion option in Photomatix Pro HDR or Nik HDR Efex Pro software. I even dabble with HDR as well sometimes - when used carefully it can produce great results.

A polarizer is also used occasionally, to enhance the sky, cut through glare to boost colour saturation and eliminate reflections. It’s easy enough to increase vibrance and saturation during post-production, but I’d still prefer to do it at the taking stage.
The only other filter I favour is the neutral density (ND), which is used to reduce the light entering the lens so exposure times are increased. I have 0.6 and 0.9NDs, which increase the exposure by 2 and 3 stops respectively, or 5 stops when used together. They’re ideal for shots of rivers, waterfalls and the sea where I want to record some blur but not go mad. When I do want to go mad I reach for a 10-stop ND filter (which increases the exposure 1000x so 1/15sec becomes 1 minute, for example) - either a B+W 110 3.0, a Lee Big Stopper, or a Hitech Pro Stop IRND 10. All three allow me to use exposures of several minutes in broad daylight, to record motion in a scene - turning drifting clouds to streaks and moving water to milk. In urban scenes, people and traffic simply disappear - providing they’re moving.

Check out my Time & Tide portfolio for examples of what these extreme ND filters can do and read my Motion Studies article for advice on how to use them successfully.

A recent addition to my filter system is the Hitech Lucroit Kit, which is designed for use with ultra-wide lenses and zooms that have a convex front element and fixed hood. The filters are 165mm wide and slot into an over-sized holder that attaches to the lens via special adaptor rings that are lens-specific. I used the kit on my Samyang 14mm prime lens. As well as standard NDs and ND grads, there’s also a 10-stop ND filter for the Lucroit kit, which makes it totally unique and highly versatile!