Gear Bag

Reviews of my photo gear, tours I've taken, and other stuff.

Photo Stuff
Nikon 500mm f4 AFS
I bought this lens, sight unseen, in large part because I became interested in bird photography. I was preparing for an instructional photo tour with Arthur Morris and needed a bigger, badder lens than the Sigma 600 f/8 I had been using.

When shopping for a big lens, I wanted to get the largest lens I could based on the following: it had to be longer than 400mm, it had to be faster than f/5.6, it had to auto focus with my F100, and it couldn't weigh a million pounds. On specs alone I picked this up after seriously considering the 400 f/2.8 and the 600 f/4. The 500mm weighs a lot less than both, and with the TC-14E I could maintain auto focus and get a 700mm f/5.6. In realistic terms it isn't much cheaper than either of the other two, but there is a slight cost benefit as well. If cost were not at all a factor, I would really consider buying a top of the line Canon body, a 600mm f/4 IS and 1.4 converter. I can't imagine a better setup.

In the field, the size and weight and layout of controls make this lens extremely usable. I'm not a large guy, and I can easily reach and manipulate all controls, including the four focus-lock buttons at the front of the lens. Also included are the standards for big, expensive lenses: focus limit switch, rear filter carrier, gel filter carrier, and (in my opinion) a much too large lens hood.

So far I've only shot with this lens a half-dozen times, but I am extremely pleased with the results. On my images page I have several bird pictures made with this lens along with the TC-14E. To get good results with a TC attached, you have to start off with a great lens. Even with the TC I consistently get great results in terms of sharpness and color contrast. If you look at this image you'll notice that the combination of the 500m + TC-14E on rare occasion produces slight vignetting when shooting into bright, evenly-colored backgrounds.

Most often any quality issues I have with images shot with this lens are the result of my bad shooting technique. As with any long lens, you will really have to concentrate on keeping your rig steady.

Update 9/04 I have most recently starting shooting quite a bit of sporting events on assignment with this lens. I can tell you that, unlike with wildlife shots, a longer lens is not always better. The viewing angle is realistically too small for shooting sports from the sidelines of most team sports. I will be using this lens mostly for wildlife now and will look for a good used 300 2.8 for sports.

Olympus Stylus Epic
Everyone ought to own one of these. Seriously. It is a tiny, light-weight, 35mm film format camera with an ultra-sharp 35mm f/2.8 lens and an advanced flash system. I've made some of my best images with this camera. The zoom versions are also very good, but I truely like working with the 35mm field of view. I don't go anywhere without this camera.

Kirk BH-1 Ball Head
I bought this head partially because of peer pressure and partially out of necessity. I often got strange remarks from others while shooting with the Giottos MH-1001 head (reviewed below) and the 500 f4 AFS. As mentioned, that head has held up remarkably well and if weight is an issue (trekking, etc.), I will still use it for long-lens photography.

I began a search for a new head because I felt like I needed a head with smoother panning for the big lens and could also lock down better when shooting in heavy winds. I flip-flopped between this one and the Arca Swiss B1. I chose this one, again sight unseen, for two reasons: first that I could actually get one these (I waited a week for the head from Kirk; I would have waited 8-10 weeks to get an Arca), and I was spooked by the familiar  lock up problem with the B1. I know there is a well-publicized fix to this issue but I would rather not have to remove the camera from the head and work on it frantically every time it happened (not a good practice when photographing birds). I don t care how renowned the B1 is, I don t want to deal with that nonsense.

The head is very smooth in both panning and progressive resistance. The knobs are adequate but I think the tension adjustment and panning lock knobs could be larger. I do like the knob on the QR platform as it can be easily manipulated with both bare hands and with gloves on. Speaking of the platform, it is nearly as large as the RRS Long clamp I bought for the Giottos, and comes attached with Purple Loc-Tite. I replaced the Purple for the Blue formula and have not had any loosening despite some aggressive torquing on my part.

The ball is well sealed and cleans up remarkably easy with a little WD40. The weight is as expected for a pro-level head and yes, I do feel the difference on long hikes with the BH-1 verses the Giottos. If you doing a lot of in-flight bird shooting you are probably better off getting a gimbal-type head that renders the rig virtually weightless. Those heads have very specific uses and, I feel, don t lend them self well to your average every day shooting. I would recommend this head to anyone (who can afford it, btw!) who wants a do everything head with minimal maintenance required.

Giottos MH-1001 Ball Head
This is a surprisingly good ball head in a compact package. It weighs less than a pound (13 oz.), holds 17.6 pounds, has a separate panning control, and costs less than $100 ($89.95 at B & H). I originally purchased the quick-release clamp from Giottos but found that the small, round quick release plates were prone to slipping under the heavier loads. I then purchased the RRS Long Quick Release clamp and replaced the original QR clamp (another nice feature of the head is that the clamp threads on, it isn't permanent). This combination is very solid and hasn't failed me yet. The head is fairly well sealed which helps keep the muck out, and cleans up well with only a rag and blower. I can easily recommend this head to weight-conscious users.

Lowepro Topload Zoom AW
I own lots and lots of bags like most photographers. I have storage bags, travel bags, long-lens bags, fanny packs, etc. etc. This particular bag is by far my favorite for in-the-field work. It is smallish at 13"x9"x8" but holds a reasonable amount of gear safely; this is the kicker - safely. All Lowepro AW bags come with a built in rain hood that packs very small in a pocket in the bag that is extremely effective at deflecting rain. This bag also offers a chest-mount harness that is great for leaving your hands free while hiking and biking (I've even brought it with me fly fishing) while keeping the camera available for those unexpected shots. I did say it was smallish, but I'm able to pack (creatively) my F100, SB28, 24-120mm f/3.5 - 5.6 AFD, 20mm F2.8, hoods, batteries, and six rolls of film. Lose the chest harness if you aren't going to use it and you have even more room. The bag is well made, carries easily, and is well padded. I recommend this bag.

Lowepro Street & Field Lens Trekker 600 AW
I looked at all kinds of large lens bags. My ultimate decision came down to this one and the Scopepack. I chose this one for the exceptional padding and the fact that it fits through the airport carry-on luggage templates that seem to be everywhere these days. The standard bag comes with a padded shoulder strap as well as a small carry strap on the top. In my opinion this bag should have come with a harness considering the weight of the equipment you'll be carrying around. They are available as an accessory and may be worth your additional purchase. I load my bag with the 500mm f4 (lens hood mounted backward), TC14-E, and F100 -- all attached. It also holds all the other larger pro bodies (ie F5, D1, etc). This is a great feature since your rig will always be ready when you reach into the bag. It can also hold a 300mm with hood attached normally. The AW cover is a blessing when it gets bad outside; the downside is that the cover takes up much of the only accessory pocket on the front of the bag. You can leave it at home to make more room available but I suppose that defeats the purpose of having an AW bag. With the cover in the pocket there is room for a flash or spare body (motor drive removed) but not both. The collar that wraps around the lens at the camera mount is confidence-inspiring and is very functional -- I have heard of other bags that do not support this point, resulting in bent lens mounts. The price is very reasonable for a high quality bag designed to porter your most expensive gear. I recommend this bag for long lens shooters.

Hamma Double-Bubble
This has to be by far the most expensive photo accessory by weight that has ever been made! I think I paid $45 at the instructional photo tour with Arthur Morris I attended; it weighs nearly nothing. If you haven't seen one, it is a plastic device that mounts on your camera's hotshoe. It has two levels for making sure the horizon is level in your images. Admittedly this is an important item, particularly for scenics, architechure and shooting with long lenses , but $45? It has saved my butt in a few shots, but then again I could have always corrected the horizon in Photoshop or have it done at the lab. Buyer beware on this baby, your money may be better spent on film and processing!

Holga 120S
Boy does this camera suck! And thank goodness it does. This plastic body, plastic lens, medium format camera with hot shoe flash capability is extremely fun to operate. Not only does the lens suffer from a lack of sharpness, but most are rife with light leaks, and none have a true F8 aperature as advertised, but who cares? I have taken this camera in many environments that I wouldn't think of taking any other. I know several serious studio photographers that use these when an artistic tone is desired; some have published images made with a Holga. The soft focus images have a feel all their own, and no two Holgas make the same impression on film. Buy this sub $20 camera and rediscover the reason you started making images in the first place.