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What's In My Bag? Wildlife And Stock Photography

Green crested lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) portrait in the jungle of Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Green crested lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) portrait in the jungle of Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Here is a list of all the gear I carry in my camera bag. Enjoy.

Canon 6D Mark II

This camera got a lot of shit when it came out. People talked shit about the focus points and the dynamic range, the lack of 4K video, and so much more. But I have to say, I like it. If I were buying a camera today, I would only buy a mirrorless camera. But I didn’t buy this today, I bought it a year ago, and it has served me well. I also find the dynamic range to be excellent, and the ISO performance is a vast improvement from my old T6i.

Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 OSM Sports

This lens has been incredible. I bought it used for a bargain and it has gotten me some of the sharpest images with buttery bokeh that I’ve ever taken. It’s a beast--it’s heavy and a pain in the ass to take with me. I always complain when a long trek begins and dream about other lenses I could have. But as soon as I start shooting I always praise the lens and am happy I brought it along. The only issue I have with this lens is that Sigma’s customer support is terrible.

Canon 50mm f/1.8

This lens is incredible. If you are starting out in photography and you want to shoot street, portraits, or just all around stock, buy this lens now. Even if I had a spare $2k to spend, I don’t think I would replace this lens with it’s L counterpart. The 1.8 aperture is good enough for me and it is incredibly sharp. I couldn’t ask for a better deal.

Canon 17-40 f/4

I got this lens for a bargain, used, by trading a Canon 24mm f/2.8 for it in Malaysia. I'm still happy about that trade, as I love the flexibility of a zoom over a prime for landscape photography, which is my primary use for this lens. This is the lens I have on my camera for 95% of sunrises and sunsets I photograph. I also took it with me on the street when I visited the Roman Colosseum, since I knew it would require a wide angle to capture the whole structure. I would prefer a newer 16-35 f/4, but for the price this is a great lens.

Sigma 2x Teleconverter

One beauty of having an f/2.8 telephoto lens is the ability to double the zoom range and still have an aperture of 5.6. I use this teleconverter all the time when photographing birds and other small animals, as well as when I'm at parks what where it is not allowed to get too close to the animals.

Tripod with RRS BH-55 Ballhead

I don't always have this in my bag, but I do strap it to the bag when I'm going out for sunrise and sunset. It's heavy and bulky and I don't always want to carry it if I'm not going to use it. Usually it stays in my car and I grab it if I need it.

Accessories

  • Extra batteries (3)

  • Canon wireless remote trigger

  • SD cards in a Pelican case

  • Shower cap from a hotel bathroom (for keeping water off the lens in rain and at rivers/waterfalls

Waiting For Perfect Conditions Vs. Taking Photos

Red-headed krait (Bungarus flaviceps) eating a frog in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Red-headed krait (Bungarus flaviceps) eating a frog in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Many people I talk to worry about the perfect time of day, weather conditions, the position of the sun, whether there is or is not precipitation, and so many other factors out of their control in order to get the perfect photo. So do I, admittedly. I only like going out in the morning or evening, and I prefer shooting wildlife at golden hour to any other time of day. I also love shooting in the snow, especially during a snowstorm.

Often, I let these factors get in the way of a shoot, and I know I’m not the only one. What I mean by that is if I wake up in the morning and I would prefer to get another hour of sleep that day rather than pull on all my winter gear to go shoot in the cold, I have all these different ways to talk myself out of it. Maybe I’ve checked Clear Outside and decided that there are too many low clouds and not enough high clouds to have good light. Or the wind is too high so the deer are less likely to be in the spot where I want to photograph them. Or even that it isn’t snowing, and I really want a picture of a cardinal with snow falling, so I might as well stay in bed.

These are all things we tell ourselves to make our life easier. Not better, just easier. It’s easier to stay in bed rather than go out and shoot. And it’s not just the weather we use as an excuse. Sometimes we tell ourselves we are gaining knowledge and improving by watching tutorials on wildlife photography or reading books on the subject. These can be great tools to improve, but nothing will hone your craft like getting out and shooting.

The excuses from your mind and body won’t stop, so you must put systems into place to beat them. Put your alarm clock (for most of us that’s our cell phone) in the kitchen and put the alarm on full blast so you have to run and get it before it wakes everyone up. Once you are out of bed and your heart is pounding you are far more likely to want to stay up. You could also put all the clothes and gear you will need into a neat pile the night before so you don’t have the excuse of not feeling like getting everything together (with the added benefit that you won’t forget anything).

I personally put my clothes and gear in a neat pile, put my alarm clock somewhere that I have to get out of bed to turn it off, tell someone I am going to the park tomorrow so as to create accountability (this one is probably the most important and highly underrated - humans care too much about what others think of them), and tell myself that I have taken awesome photos in every weather condition and I will never become a great photographer if I don’t go out and take photos.

Don’t let “getting ready” get in the way of creating great photos. You are ready. You have a camera and an able body. Get out and start shooting!

What kinds of things do you do to rid yourself of that procrastination demon inside? I’d love to hear from you.

Tips And Gear For Jungle & Rainforest Wildlife Photography

Southern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina) in the rainforest in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Southern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina) in the rainforest in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

I’ve spent a lot of time photographing wildlife in the rainforest. I’ve done hikes and camping trips in Borneo to see rare monkeys and orangutans. I’ve trekked for five days through the jungle of Sumatra, where I was growled at by a tiger and walked over elephant tracks. These treks have been some of the most memorable experiences of my life, but also some of the most challenging.

I’ve compiled a list of some gear I recommend having if you decide to go on a photoshoot in the rainforest, combined with some tips I learned along the way.

Monopod

If you are only doing wildlife photography and not planning any landscape shots, I recommend skipping the tripod and going with a more lightweight and portable monopod. I use a SIRUI P-326 with a Really Right Stuff MH-01 tilt-head. I keep this in a side-pocket of my backpack while I walk, or use it as a walking stick for the up- and downhill portions of the trek. For animals that are moving around a lot I prefer a monopod as it makes it easier to move around and get different animals while still keeping the camera steady.

A Waterproof Backpack

When I did the five day trek in Sumatra I brought a Peak Design backpack, which is waterproof on the outside. I thought that would work well since it is waterproof without needing to carry an extra rainfly. I was so wrong. By the time I walked out of the jungle it was soaking wet all the way through. It took a lot of detergent and scrubbing in the river before I got the smell out. Next time I would bring a dry bag like the Itinerant backpack from The North Face.

A Packable Clothesline

I recommend bringing a small clothesline like the Sea-to-Summit Lite Line, which I mentioned in my article on travel. It packs down to almost nothing (about half the size of your palm) and comes in handy at the campsite when your clothes are soaked with sweat, river water, rain, and dew at the end of every day. Don’t expect your clothes to dry in the jungle because they won’t. They may even be wetter the next day if you don’t hang them by the fire. But a clothesline will at least keep them off the ground and free of dirt and most bugs.

Only Two Outfits

I recommend you take 2 outfits - one you keep in a plastic zip-loc bag inside your backpack and wear only at night after you have bathed in the river (or wiped yourself off with a towel at least) and one that you wear every day during your hikes. You can rinse the latter in the river every day to keep it clean. But never rinse the former or you will be lounging in wet clothes for the remainder of your trip.

Vibram Five-Fingers

If ever there were a pair of shoes built just for jungle trekking, the Vibram Five-Fingers V-Alpha are them. I have walked through rivers, mud pits, solid ground, rocks, any type of warm-weather terrain you can think of in these and they have been amazing for all of it. When you get home just throw them in the washing machine with a bunch of detergent to get out any smells and they are as good as new. No need to take your boots on and off when walking through the water anymore.

And that’s it. I think it goes without saying that you should bring lots of batteries, a weather-sealed camera, and the right lenses. You might need to bring a tent or something to sleep in, but I’ve always gone with a guide who provided everything necessary.

Have you ever been on an extended jungle tour? Was there anything you brought that you found invaluable?

Cheap Unlimited Cloud Storage WIth Google Drive

Young Bornean bearded pig (Sus barbatus) searching a sandy beach for food in Bako National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia.

Young Bornean bearded pig (Sus barbatus) searching a sandy beach for food in Bako National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia.

As photographers, one of our most pressing concerns should be the safety of our photos. We spent time and money to capture our photos and they are now worth something more themselves, so it is important to keep them safe at all costs. We could use external hard drives, our computer’s internal hard drive, or even an expensive RAID server if we can afford it. But, all of these options could crash or go down in a house fire or flood.

The safest option for storing important data today is the cloud. If you don’t know what the cloud is, just think of it as a fancy term for a RAID server (a lot of hard drives linked together so if one goes down the others are still there with the data) with multiple copies stored in separate warehouses all over the world and owned by huge corporations that are entirely unlikely to fail overnight. It’s incredibly safe, especially if you pick to host your data at one of the more reliable companies, like Google, Dropbox, or Amazon.

For a long time, unlimited cloud storage was incredibly expensive. Now, with a Prime account you are allowed unlimited photo storage on Amazon Drive. This is the cheapest option if you are already a Prime member, so I recommend starting there. Unfortunately, the interface of Amazon Drive is not nearly as intuitive as Google Drive, which is why I switched.

For $11.98 per month I am subscribed to a G-Suite account, which is basically a Google Business account. It allows me to get my email from my web domain in a nice window like any other Gmail address, gives me access to Google support, and provides me with unlimited Google Drive Storage. I started looking into it for the email, and bought it because I couldn’t believe how cheap it was for unlimited storage.

If you would like to store an unlimited amount of data on the cloud, I highly recommend looking into opening a G-Suite account. Unlike Amazon Drive, Google Drive isn’t offering unlimited storage just for photos, but for ALL files. That means you can back your whole hard drive up to it to make sure you are safe even if your entire computer crashes.

Don’t get stuck in a house fire trying to save your computer, or stay in a city that is about to be hit by a hurricane because you don’t want to leave your RAID server. Get unlimited cloud storage for less than $12 per month and sleep in peace at night knowing that if anything happens your photos will be safe.

Really Right Stuff BH-55 Review

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) walking across a fallen tree trunk in Occoquan National WIldlife Refuge in Virginia, USA.

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) walking across a fallen tree trunk in Occoquan National WIldlife Refuge in Virginia, USA.

I have owned the Really Right Stuff BH-55 for about six months now so I think it might be helpful for anyone looking to purchase a new ballhead if I write a short review. The bottom line, if you prefer not to read any further, is that you should stop what you are doing and buy it. I will even give you the direct link: http://bit.ly/RRS-BH-55

I had a pretty good ballhead that came with my Vanguard tripod, but it was not arca-swiss. I’m not sure why anyone makes mounts that aren’t arca-swiss anymore (I’m looking at you, Manfrotto). Just about every L-bracket and universal mounting plate is arca-swiss. Anyway, I ended up having to purchase a part to convert my Vanguard ballhead to arca-swiss. When I did this the screw did not get tight enough and it would always come loose after a few days so my camera would start turning slightly when I had it on the tripod. Not good.

On my next trip I decided to take a small, lightweight ballhead to cut down on weight in my bag. This ended up being even worse, as the ballhead could not handle the weight of my camera. It would tip over as I tried to take photos. Again, not good.

So, when I went home for a short time last year, I decided to say fuck-it and follow my new rule of only buying the best quality items. I went to the Really Right Stuff website and purchased the best ballhead they sell, the BH-55 with a panorama mounting plate for a cool $640. It’s a ton of money, but it is one of the best buying decisions I have ever made.

The RRS BH-55 is heavy. It definitely did not help to cut down on the weight in my bag. But when you hold all five pounds of it in your hand you can immediately tell that it is sturdy. You could throw it through a window and off a cliff and still get stable shots when you put it back on your tripod.

The BH-55 is huge, with a large base that fits perfectly on all of the best tripods, like the Gitzo GT5543LSUS. This means you will be taking advantage of every bit of stability your tripod has to offer. Also, the version with the pano head that I got is great. Once you level the ballhead horizontally and vertically you will be able to take perfect pano shots just by turning the mounting plate, which is also labeled with a guide.

Last but not least, the knobs are amazing. The BH-55 looks like a Little Tikes My First Ballhead due to the massive silver knob that loosens the swivel ball. However, this turns out to be incredibly convenient and easy to find and turn while your eye is in the viewfinder, even if it is minus twenty degrees out.

And definitely get the quick release latch. This is a signature of Really Right Stuff and well worth the slightly higher price. I’ve never had a ballhead that allows me to attach and detach my camera so quickly and still maintain full security.

Overall, the BH-55 with the quick-release latch and panorama head is the best ballhead on the market today. If you spend the large sum of cash on this ballhead you won’t even consider purchasing another for fifteen or more years. This beast will last you basically forever and will always do its job well. Really Right Stuff is one of the best companies out there for camera accessories and this ballhead is no exception.