Three Questions For Choosing Your Gear

In GEAR, Pep Talks, The Craft, Thoughts & Theory, Travel, Wilderness by David27 Comments


In two days, I pack the truck and head north up Vancouver Island to meet my wolf guide, Tom, before spending two weeks camped on a remote island, waiting for coastal wolves to wander in front of my cameras. 🤞 Maybe some otters, bears, or eagles, too. I can’t wait.

Packing for a trip is always a mix of excitement and indecision. When I go to Kenya, I’m on autopilot; I know the gear and how to pack it. I’ve got packing lists that I follow, and there’s really no thinking required. But a new destination is a bit of a guessing game, so over the years, I’ve reduced it to three big questions that help me make choices: what are my needs, opportunities, and limitations?

What Are My Needs?

Sometimes, those needs are simple. A month in Venice? I need some good boots, one camera, a 24-105mm lens, a couple of batteries, some SD cards, and a laptop. I could probably do it carry-on only. I mean, I wouldn’t, but I could. I need my bigger suitcase so I can bring back wine.

But other times, the needs are more complicated and conflict with my limitations. I need long lenses for safaris, but I also need to watch my weight limits. For a bear trip, I might need rain gear for myself and the cameras. For this wolf trip, I know I’ll need longer lenses, rain gear and, because shooting will start early and go late, my fastest lenses.

What Are My Possibilities?

The possibility for this upcoming trip is wolves, which means long, fast lenses. But what about other options? Remotely triggered cameras? A drone? Even a simple GoPro on a stick might allow photographs I couldn’t get otherwise, though in this case, I’m leaving underwater gear behind. You have to make choices at some point. 

What Are My Limitations?

The third question matters to me now more than ever: What are my limitations? I might not be able to hike as far as I need to on a prosthetic leg with my heavier lens, two additional cameras, and a tripod. That’s one reason I packed the 300/2.8; with a 2x on that lens, I’m up to 600/5.6, and it’s VERY light. I could ditch both the larger 600mm and the tripod if I needed to really cover some distance. In Venice or India, I need to be able to walk all day, so one camera and a zoom lens lets me do that.

On other trips, the limitations include luggage allowances on planes or the need to get around Italy on trains and being able to fit everything into one suitcase and a carry-on. Or you might have limits on how easily your batteries can be recharged. Will you need to bring more, or an alternate charging solution? I’m bringing more batteries on this trip than I usually would, plus a larger backup battery by Goal Zero.

Knowing your limits will help you make better choices as you try to juggle your needs and opportunities. Prioritizing them and knowing which ones are non-negotiable will also help.

Now that I’ve written it out, here’s another one: What are my preferences? I really like wider lenses; you might not. So I might bring a 16-35 to India and be happy with only that one lens, while you might bring only a 70-200 because that’s what you like. I would bring my 600/4.0 instead of a 200-600 lens on safari because I prefer the look of the images I can get from the one over the other. One might be more versatile, and in some settings, that will be the most important thing, but if I have my choice, I go with the lens I prefer. No need to explain why; you like the gear you like. 

Knowing my needs, possibilities, and limits all inform my gear choices for this upcoming trip, and where everything else is equal, my preferences will cast the deciding vote.


How Many Cameras?

Three. I don’t want to have to change lenses in the rain. I want an extra in case I want to use one remotely. And I’m just too far away from the nearest camera store if one body misbehaves, so I feel better knowing I have a backup. I never do a photography trip without two or three bodies.

Which Camera Bag Do I Bring?

Now we’re getting to the really hard questions! In this case, I need something that is very weather resistant, lets me carry my longest lens on the camera body, access it quickly, and can be comfortably carried on my back. So the Shimoda Action X70 is my working bag for this trip, while the rest of it goes into a large waterproof Pelican-style case that can be left in my tent without worry. But the weight and size of my total gear are not one of my limitations for this trip so I can bring it all.

Anything else? Rain covers for the cameras. Cotton Carrier chest harness. Dry bags for clothing. Knee pads. Always a headlamp.

The gear you bring is not the big challenge; that lies in how you think about those choices, and what you do once you’ve made them. But here’s one more thought, and it’s probably the most important:

Whatever you bring, you’ll make it work somehow. Your limits might include not having access to a longer, faster lens. Or a third body, or whatever. You’ll make it work. Don’t forget that creativity always thrives under constraint.


Work with what you have, and don’t make a big deal out of what you don’t. On every trip, there has always been a moment of “if only I had a…”. If you bring 600mm, you’ll want 1200, and if you had that, you’d want 300mm. Bring 24mm, and at some point, you’ll want 16mm. But your limits and how you work with them define your work. Don’t sweat it; you’ll make something you’re thrilled with, and if you don’t, it’s probably not because of the gear. Gear is good, vision is better (but both make for a powerful combination!).

For the curious, here are the specifics of what I’m bringing on this two-week wildlife trip (excluding the camping and personal gear):

Cameras

Sony A1 x 2
Sony A7R4 x 1

Lenses

600/4.0
300/2.8
100-400/5.6-6.3
24-105/4.0
1.4x and 2x Teleconverters

Other

Gitzo Tripod, RRS Monopod
12 Sony batteries
Polarizing and ND filters (3-stop and 6-stop)
SD Cards (256gb x 10) and 1TB hard drive x 2
MacBook Pro
Goal Zero power bank
ThinkTank rain covers and a dozen lens cloths
Cotton Carrier chest harness
Binoculars, tools, first aid

Bags

Shimoda Action x70
Yeti Panga 100 waterproof duffle bag
Big orange Pelican case

I love talking about this stuff. The right choice of good gear will either make things possible or prevent you from making the photographs you want to make. If you’ve got a question about any of this, I’d love to discuss it, so feel free to leave it in the comments. I’ll answer everything I can before I leave on May 01.

For the Love of the Photograph,
David

Comments

  1. Hi David, good luck to see a lot of wildlife and great landscape. I’d be interested in your reasoning of bringing a 100-400/4-5.6 rather than a 70-200/2.8 II + a 2.0 TC. Wouldn’t the latter give you some more flexibility in low light?
    Have fun and take care, Lorenz

    1. Author

      Thanks, Lorenz. That is a GREAT question. If I were starting from scratch that is exactly what I would do, but when I switched to Sony I was given that 100-400 lens as a gift and it’s a great lens. But yes, I’d love the 70-200/2.8. It’s just such a pricey lens – $3500 here in Canada – and I want to put my money to getting to places I can use my gear, not buying more of it. And also because I spent over CAD$8000 on the 300/2.8 this year and bought a third body so my budget is more than spent. But if I were doing it over and I wasn’t generously given the 100-400, yes. I would do exactly as you suggest.

      1. Dear David, thanks very much for your thoughts! Safe travels and best regards.

  2. I have the Shimoda X70 also. First use was a trip to Alaska to photograph bears. Wonderful trip even though it rained almost every day. The pack worked wonderfully and accommodated my 600mm. I was a little bit worried about its size, its a little over the carry on size for airlines (especially the connecting flight to the airline hub), and large for the small plane that we took to get to the camp site. Made it work by getting in the front of the lines as much as I could to get into the overheads before they filled up and told the bush pilot I would send him some photos! Have you had any problems with this?

    1. Good to know, Merrill. I’ve not flown with this pack. I think if I were to really want it on a trip like that I might put the gear in a different bag and check the X70. This one just seemed good for more local stuff that didn’t need a plane.

  3. Hi David,
    I always enjoy reading your Contact Sheet irrespective of the subject, always stimulating and enlightening. Several years ago I downsized from Nikon to Olympus to reduce the weight and volume of the kit I was carrying around. More recently I made an even bigger change and now use my iPhone for most of my photography. Whilst it is probably of limited utility for wildlife photography, it’s great for Street, Landscape, Architecture, etc. The image quality from my iPhone 15 ProMax is really good, and as the saying goes it’s the camera you always have with you. No more worrying about what kit to take, it’s always there in my pocket, and no more hauling around that heavy tripod.

    My only worry is that I just have one camera with me; and I’m also using it for emails, messaging, and reading the paper as well! So far so good.

    Best of luck with the wolves.

  4. Hi David
    Another aid as to the what gear do I take with me, is one using software such as lightroom classic. One can do a search to see what focal length was used. So say you did a trip to Venice check it out and you will see the different ratios of focal length used. I tried this with a European trip and was amazed to find that over 80% of images were taken at 24-30mm. May help with lens choices, especially with new short and lighter focal length lenses.

    1. Hi David Unfortunately not financial enough to travel on these trips but always interested in hearing all about your trips and the photos you achieve. Meanwhile have a great trip and enjoy yourself Regards Ron Australia.

  5. Post script.
    Five lbs obviously does not include the monopod. With a photo backpack I might be closer to 10 lbs altogether.
    Sorry for typos.
    F.

  6. I use m4/3rds equipment because when I sta5ted “serious” photography ten or twelve years ago, I vowed not to lug heavy stuff around. I aim for 5 lbs max, including bag. This include s three bodies, and several lenses – I won’t list them now. The bodies are small enough at I can actually avoid changing lenses, by having a different lens on each body.
    The last time I did a traveling project, I didn’t use the tripod I was lugging, but do take a monopod. Have not found a perfect one yet,
    Charging is always a challenge, and am interested to see your inclusion of the Goa Zero. I obviously could use bigger cards and more batteries too.
    Thanks sharing. Someone said, gear is good, vision is better.
    Frank
    Stark

  7. Hi

    Are you able to specify the Goal Zero battery pack? Adn are there any flight restrictions/guidance on carrying 12 camera batteries on the plane?

    I am off trekking in Nepal in Sep: 21 days trekking and camping and no electricity. So this is my big unknown and source of anxiety. It would be my luck to spot the Snow Lepard on the last day with flat battery!
    Cheers

    1. Sadly the Goal Zero pack is ancient and I’m not sure what, in their line-up, now fills the gap. As for batteries, you definitely need to carry them on as lithium in the hold is a no-no. I usually don’t fly with more than 8 batteries – 4 in the cameras and 4 in a small pouch. Have never had any issues at all. Can’t imagine another 4 would cause problems…but this trip is my truck up the island and then a zodiac inflatable so no limits on batteries and luggage.

  8. Sounds like you need a Sherpa, while not formally trained, let me offer my free service (it’s free and darn well worth it).

  9. Photo gear wise you are the expert on what you need and want to use.

    As a much younger lad who prospected in Northern Canada I would consider the following:

    Good knife folding but substantial, belt case.
    Leatherman multi tool, belt case.
    Silva or Brunton old style compass, belt case.
    Area detailed paper topo maps, in zip bags.
    Any meds etc you need, take extra.
    Extra glasses, sunglasses.
    Bug repellent, good hat, possibly with net?
    Small mirror
    Stout whistle on lanyard.
    Extra cables.
    Tough thin gloves.
    Lighter and sparking tool.
    Full coverage clothing.
    Good quality, substantial belt.

    1. Most of these are also packed, though I’m relying on my guide for some of it. I had to chuckle at how closely your list of non-photographic gear matched my own packing list!

  10. Hi David,
    Thank you for the article and your fascinating upcoming trip. Enjoy!
    Question for photographing in rainforest areas: is a poncho better than a rain jacket?

    Thanks

    1. Hey Douglas, I’ve never really had much luck with ponchos. Good for a quick downpour I imagine, but not so much when hiking or moving around. At a certain point you just want good wool or fleece layers and full Goretex or similar. If you’re out there a long time you’re probably going to get wet no matter what so those layers need to keep you warm while wet.

  11. Best of luck with the wolves. Are you using custom foam, or dividers in the pelican?

    1. Thanks! Dividers now. Used too many foam kits in the past hate the waste.

  12. My favourite item on your list…12 batteries…and I hope you see so much you run out of battery power!

  13. Thanks, Sandy. I’ll be driving up to meet Tom, so no worries there. I’ve got a week with Tom, Gem, and the wolves all to myself!

  14. Neat trip that I can only dream about … too old.😉
    A couple of questions how much does it all weighs and how many assistants are traveling with you?
    Wish you the best weather and many worthy photo opportunities.

    1. Oh man, I have no idea how much it all weighs. With tent and sleeping bag etc, I’m guessing I’ve got 200 lbs of gear? But once I get it to camp, the daily gear will probably only be 30lbs? No assistants, but I’ve got a guide.

  15. Hi David! I hope you have a wonderful time with Tom and the coastal wolves! What an experience- I did it a few years ago. Tom’s amazing . You probably already know this, but just in case…… my trip started with a big plane that changed to a small plane that changed to a tiny plane. The counter agent for the tiny plane airline ( I can’t remember the name of it) gave me a very hard time with the weight of my gear in carryon. She said I could not board the plane. I went to the other end of the tiny airport, where my photographer friend took some of my gear. I went back to the counter agent and ‘poof’, my camera gear carry on was now just fine!. Once she ok’d my carry on, I went back to my friend, put my lenses back in, went through security, and got on the plane. Lol !
    Anyway- just thought I’d pass along my experience because you might have to be creative, and hopefully you have a buddy to do a switcheroo with! Please say hi to Tom for me

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