What’s in Greg’s Bag?
Below I discuss the items that are currently in my bag or in daily use in my image management workflow. One should never take another photographer’s gear choices as gospel; every photographer’s needs and interests are different, and there is no one size fits all solution. That said, I have chosen my gear carefully to build a kit that serves me well for my style of tropical nature photography. So, I hope the info presented here is helpful to you. As always, if you like and enjoy my Deep Green Photography website, I ask that you please consider purchasing your gear through some of the affiliate links on this and other pages on the site. They take you to companies that I trust and recommend. You pay the same, and I make a little extra to save up for the new Canon 400 mm f2.8 L IS lens — or at least the occasional pizza for the family!
A note — thanks to my good friend and fellow photographer Jose Lopez for taking this cool portrait of me in the field. Great work, Jose — coming up with a good image of such a below average model takes true photographic talent!
I started my full-frame adventures years ago with the original 5D Mark I (in fact, I still have it for sale). The 5DI was and still is a great camera but I really wanted those extra megapixels for the landscapes images for my forthcoming coffee table book. With the recent release of the Canon 5D Mark III body, I was at first intrigued. Should I buy a new 5DIII with the new autofocus and faster frame rate (the high ISO improvements are apparently marginal for RAW files so that dropped down the line as an important consideration)? If my budget were unlimited that would be a no-brainer but since I already have a Mark IV, the full-frame body is my landscape body, for which the new autofocus system of the 5D Mark III would be unimportant. In the end, I bought a slightly used 5DII for half the price of a new 5DIII and couldn’t be happier. It’s one heck of a landscape camera, and I’m enjoying the extra resolution, the bigger screen, and the live view capabilities that my 5D Mark I lacked.
I had been debating my big camera move for quite a while but finally settled on the Canon 1D Mark IV in March 2011. I had discounted both the 5D Mark II and the 7D for my new main body for wildlife. The 5D II is a great camera but simply is not designed for wildlife; one can use it for wildlife, but it’s clearly a landscape, still subject, and studio camera above all. And I’ve become convinced that the high ISOs, while pretty good, are not Canon’s best. The 7D is a great wildlife camera with very good autofocus. Unfortunately, high ISOs are not it’s strong point; most people who have this camera are loath to take it to ISO 800, much less beyond. For a full-time rainforest photographer like me, good clean high ISO files are a principal priority since I’m often shooting in low light.
After having the chance to use both the Mark IV and the Nikon D3s (the Lord of the Darkness, the generally acknowledged high ISO king), I came away impressed with the Mark IV’s high ISO performance. The D3s wins out at ISO 6400 and higher but the Mark IV is very good and in my opinion can produce magazine quality files up to ISO 5000 (these need to be well-exposed and composed in-camera to lessen cropping), which opens up whole new worlds for the rainforest photographer. And the Mark IV has the 1.3 crop factor and a higher megapixel count than the D3s, which are nice for telephoto work. And after testing both bodies, I actually liked the look (in terms of color and tone) of the Mark IV files better than those of the D3s. Now if I shot Nikon, I definitely would be happy as a clam to have the D3s (a fantastic camera), but I’m not going to switch brands at this stage of the game.
I’ve been very pleased with the Mark IV so far and do think that it’s the best Canon body currently available for the rainforest photographer. I bought mine refurbished and with a great coupon offer just a day after the Japan earthquake (coupon offer was released before the earthquake, so no relation to the tragedy), as I figured it would be quite a while before a new Canon pro body reaches the market. We’ll see, but I’m loving the Mark IV and don’t see any need to upgrade unless something monumental in terms of ISO is announced someday. The upcoming Canon 1Dx may or may not have a substantial improvement in RAW file ISO quality according to the limited information at this point.
This is our family camera. It’s great to use on all auto-mode for party pics but can also shoot RAW and has aperture priority and manual mode as well. The image quality and the video quality are quite good. What I love about it is that it has a standard Canon hotshoe so we’ll use it as a studio camera. Just pop a Canon ST-E2 wireless flash transmitter or a Phottix radio transmitter on there, add in a couple of flashes, and we’ve got a quick little studio for high-quality gear product review shots or dog and people portraits.
Legendary sharpness and just a fantastic all-around performer. Results with a 1.4x teleconverter are still outstanding, and publishable quality images with a 2x teleconverter (particularly with the new series III 2x TC) are no problem with good technique. There’s a new version coming out with the latest and greatest IS. If I were buying today, I would go for that if cost were no issue; the new super teles are expensive!
Many photographers who come to Costa Rica have a strong interest in birds. One thing you’ll notice is that my longest lens is the 300 mm f2.8. Since I’m not primarily a bird photographer (I shoot landscapes, general wildlife, and macro in equal doses), I don’t have the Canon 500 mm f4 L IS lens, which I think is the best lens for bird photography in Costa Rica. But for me, the 300 f2.8 is a fantastic lens — super sharp wide open, light enough to handhold, and gives me that dreamy f2.8 look that I love. If I were to win the lottery, however, I would go immediately for the new 400 mm f2.8. The longer reach would be great, and Canon has cut the weight of that lens significantly. Unless I make some big photo sales to Microsoft or another megacorporation, I won’t be buying the 400 mm f2.8 anytime soon
I’ve previously used the Canon 100 mm f2.8 non-IS macro lens, and I think it’s a fantastic macro for the rain forest and a great bang for the buck. Nonetheless, I recently switched to the Sigma 150 mm f2.8 macro lens. It’s seriously sharp and well-built (typical of Sigma’s pro line of lenses) and the focal length is a good compromise for me. I’ve never been a fan of the 180 mm and 200 mm macro lenses for the rainforest because I find them too limiting in terms of mobility. The Sigma 150 mm lens, on the other hand, is still light enough to handhold and work with flash as main light (which I do often in the rainforest) but gives that little bit of extra working distance for when I want to work from a tripod. The version I have is no longer manufactured as Sigma has introduced a new version with OS (optical stabilization). I will be getting my hands on this new version of the lens in a few weeks for a review (courtesy of B and H Photo Video) as I’m interested to see whether the stabilization really helps with macro work. Look for a review at www.deepgreenphotography.com at the end of January 2012.
This is the cheapest lens (I think) in the Canon lineup but it’s actually quite sharp from f2.2 on. If you really do a lot of street photography, you’ll want a 50 mm f1.4 or f1.2 lens but for a nature shooter, this small fast lens is nice for the occasional snapshot. I also use it for night photography (the fast aperture is nice), for product, people, and pet portraits, and with a 25 mm extension tube for super closeup photography on occasion.
There are other options in the Canon lineup featuring f2.8 and/or image stabilization, but I didn’t feel that paying extra for these features was necessary for the nature photographer. For landscapes, you’re stopping down the lens to get good depth of field, and you’re working from a tripod. And as far as the sharpenss factor, there’s a debate, but the general consensus seems to be that the 16-35 mm Canon zooms aren’t that much sharper if at all, particularly given the higher prices of these lenses. If I shot Nikon, I definitely would have the legendary 14-24 mm f2.8 lens, but Canon doesn’t have any wide angle zoom in that class. In addition, the cumbersome process of using filters with the Nikon zoom is a turnoff. For me, the 17-40 mm f4 L gives solid L class performance for a reasonable price, light weight, nice zoom versatility, and with easy use of polarizing filters (which are mandatory for nearly all landscape work in the rainforest).
Those of you who read my review of this lens will know that I liked it so much that I decided to buy it after my B and H Photo Video loan period ended. Since then, I’ve not regretted it for a minute. This is the sharpest zoom lens I’ve used, and the reach out to 300 mm is a big advantage over the 70-200 mm zooms.
Teleconverters work quite well on a sharp, fast prime lens such as my 300 mm f2.8. I will be looking to acquire the new series III 2x but probably not the new 1.4x. As reported here and elsewhere, the new Canon 2x (though not the new 1.4x) does offer an improvement in sharpness.
I bought this years ago. It’s a great way to obtain a closer minimum focusing distance for your lenses. I use it regularly with my 300 mm f2.8 lens for flowers and smaller wildlife such as lizards, snakes, and hummingbirds. When I bought this extension tube, there was lots of talk about possible compatibility problems between camera bodies and third party lenses. So, I invested in the one Canon tube thinking I would avoid any headaches. I have no complaints at all about the Canon, but if I were buying today, I would go for the Kenko set, which has three tubes of different lengths.
I just purchased this recently to use with my wide angle lens for some images for my coffee table book project. Since I already have the Canon 25 mm tube (see above), I decided to stick with the Canon. Again, though, if I were buying extension tubes for the first time today, I would go for the Kenko set, which has three tubes of different lengths.
You’ve got to have a cable release for landscape work in Costa Rica, and it’s also helpful at times for macro and even for bird photography on occasion. The fancier timer release is nice but I find it easy enough to check my watch for now during longer exposures (past 30 seconds).
Actually, I still use a 550 EX Speedlite for my main flash. Shouldn’t I have a 580 EX Speedlite? Sure, but until my 550 EX dies, I’ll stick with it.
I love off-camera flash photography, and it’s a crucial skill for the rainforest photographer. If a trip I’m leading involves multiple-flash setups for hummingbirds, I’ll bring along four of these. If not, I normally stick two of these in my pack for field work.
It’s not cheap, it doesn’t have a lot of functions, it uses a strange battery, and it’s another piece of gear to carry around but I find it to be much more reliable, flexible, and efficient than using a 550 EX (or 580 EX) as master or than the built-in flash on the 7D as master.
The Canon infrared wireless system works well but there’s nothing like radio frequency transmission to fire off-camera flashes. I use Phottix units for my multi-flash hummingbird photography setups, and I always have a set with me in the field for off-camera flash use. Since radio frequency doesn’t require line of sight and has a much greater distance capability than the Canon transmitter, these Phottix units are now my go to solution for the vast majority of my off-camera flash photography. The only downside is that the TTL flash capability is pretty limited, and the Phottix transmitters won’t work in high-speed sync mode. When I need TTL and/or high shutter speeds with off-camera flash, I reach for the ST-E2 unit above. For all other uses, it’s Phottix all the way. To get a set of these, buy first the transmitter/receiver kit (one transmitter and one receiver) and then add an additional receiver for each flash you’ll want to trigger.
This is a great unit for macro work. Though a bit more expensive, I recommend it over the ring flash. The twin flash, with two heads that can be moved independently, offers many more lighting possibilities. I use it with a bracket for the two flash heads to allow for more creative and natural-looking lighting schemes.
I’ve tried a number of different diffusers and softboxes but have finally settled on the Westcott Micro Apollo, which gives great soft light, is relatively inexpensive, and packs flat so it’s to take along in the field. Whenever I use off-camera flash, I have one of these on my main flash. They’re great for macro subjects, for accent light in landscape photography, and for small product photography. I actually have two, which I use on the flash heads of my MT-24 EX macro flash.
This is a must have for Costa Rica. Fill-flash is a necessary tool for wildlife photography here, and the Better Beamer concentrates the angle of coverage of your flash to bring it in line with the angle of view of a telephoto lens. Your flash gets a bit of extra reach and works more efficiently, leading to reduced recycling times.
I use flash quite a bit so I bought the Power Ex 8 battery rapid charger, along with lots of batteries, from the store at NaturScapes. Whether you need an 8 battery charger or not, I do recommend rechargeable AA batteries (and a charger) for your flash.
I have circular polarizing filters on all of the lenses I use for landscape as I use those lenses with polarizers more often than without them. I also have along a Cokin filter holder for use with my Singh-Ray three stop graduated neutral density filter. One special filter I use on occasion is the Singh-Ray blue/gold polarizer, which can give some really interesting effects when used sparingly and in the right situation.
I used the Manfrotto 055 Carbon Fiber tripod for the past few years, and it’s a great piece of gear. Nonetheless, I sold it recently because it was just a bit short for me. While shopping for my new tripod, I e-mailed Induro as I had heard some very good things about their tripods and heads, which are very well-designed and quite affordable. I described who I was and what I did and asked if they would be interested in providing some gear for me to use in 2012 while shooting the images for a new coffee table book on Costa Rica’s national parks and biological reserves. I received a call within the hour from one of their reps, a pro photographer himself, who helped me wade through the offerings to find the tripod (and head, see below) that would work best for me. I decided to go with the CT 313, which is lightweight but still plenty sturdy for use with my Canon 300 mm f2.8 lens. I’ve never been a fan of twist locks, but the quick 1/2 turn design on the Induro tripods is great. I’ll be doing a full review in the coming months as I have more time to use this tripod in the rainforest.
I used a Really Right Stuff ballhead for years and certainly had no complaints. It was great by itself and with the Wimberley Sidekick. Nonetheless, for my upcoming coffee table book project, I’m trying to cut weight where possible. I also have added a gimbal head recently (see below) so I definitely wanted to shave weight on a ballhead that I would be using with smaller lenses. After talking with the folks at Induro, I was intrigued by the new BHL line, which incorporates a tension knob that is integrated with the main knob in order to avoid confusion. With many ballheads, there are three knobs, which increases the confusion probability factor. As with the tripod, you can look for a full review on this head in the coming months as I have more time to use this new ballhead in the field.
I used the Wimberley Sidekick for years, and I think it does a good job. I loved the ability to shoot with a big telephoto one moment, and then immediately take off the Sidekick to use the ballhead for other types of shooting with smaller lenses. Nonetheless, I began to become increasingly suspicious of having all of that weight tethered to a side-mount arrangement. It just doesn’t seem to make sense, and I suspected that I could gain some sharpness by switching to a full gimbal head, where the weight is centered on the bottom rather than having a lens hanging off the side. Nonetheless, as someone who uses a 300 mm f2.8 lens as my longest optic, carrying around a heavy gimbal head such as the full Wimberley just didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
That’s when I found out about the Jobu Jr. It’s a full-gimbal type head but smaller and lighter and thus designed for those of us who use the smaller pro super teles. It’s a sweet piece of gear, and I’m looking forward to using it. And yes indeed, you’ll also be seeing a full review of this head in the coming months.
A couple of side notes:
If I used a 500, 600, or 800 mm lens, I would use a full Wimberley gimbal head.
If you like the idea of a side-mount arrangement, I much prefer the Wimberley Sidekick to the Mongoose. If you’re going to go with a side-mount , why not get the versatility benefits of the Sidekick? With the Mongoose, you get the disadvantages of a side-mount plus the disadvanatages of a full gimbal-type head. This is because the Mongoose is a standalone head. To use a ballhead you have to unscrew the Mongoose, take a ballhead from your pack, and then screw the ballhead onto your tripod to begin shooting. The Sidekick, on the other hand, mounts directly to a good ballhead. If you’re shooting telephoto and want to switch to a macro or wide-angle lens, you simply use the quick release clamp on your ballhead to unclamp the Sidekick, mount your camera on the ballhead, and voila, you’re ready to shoot. If you have the Mongoose and love it, cool. A number of well-known pros use it and get great results. It’s certainly a well-built piece of gear, and I’m all for photographers using whatever works best for them. I’m simply offering my humble opinion
I’ve tried lots of different rain covers, but since my friend Greg Downing, the owner of NatureScapes, gave me the LensCoat Pro rain cover, I’ve not used any of the others. What I love about the Lens Coat Pro cover is the opening for your shooting hand. Some of the other covers are simple, and that’s good, but they are a bit too simple as they don’t have this feature. Others are overengineered and cumbersome to use in the field. The lens hood extension on the Lens Coat Pro, if you don’t absolutely need it, can be adapted for decent protection for a flash as well. If you spend time shooting in the rain with pro telephoto lenses, this is definitely worth looking into. Lens Coat also makes a standard size rain cover based on the same design for use with shorter lenses, e.g., up to a 70-200 mm zoom.
I always have along a rocket blower to clean dust off lenses and camera mirrors and as the first step in sensor cleaning. If that doesn’t do it, I go to the LensPen SensorKlear, which usually does the trick. For wet cleaning these Eclipse ready to go swabs are great; they’re pre-moistened so you don’t have to worry about having a bottle of liquid and the resulting security hassles if traveling by air. Note that there are three styles for different sensor types — you’ll want to check the camera compatibility info, which is easily available in the product description at B and H and most other vendors.
Image Management in the Field
For trips longer than a couple of days, I’ll take along my 11.6″ inch Acer laptop with a USB card reader and a Western Digital drive for a double backup system. I chose this particular laptop for its small size, relatively robust specs, and very affordable price. For about $350 I thought the 500 GB hard drive and 4 GB of RAM was a great deal in a netbook-sized package.
Shouldn’t I have the comparable MacBook Air instead? I’d love to as it’s an awesome machine and definitely is faster than my Acer (the solid state drives are great in that regard). But the performance and features of my Acer are similar enough for me (plus my hard drive is twice as big) and saved me about $1200 — that’s a lot of money that can be applied to camera gear or photographic travel! So, I’ll happily wait a few extra minutes while my images download from my card to my laptop. After all, I’m not shooting the Super Bowl so no one is waiting intently on my latest monkey or orchid pictures.
In the field, I import images right to Adobe Lightroom and then do a bit of initial image selection and editing in order to get a head start. And since I do about 95% of my image workflow in Lightroom, I’ll prep and do final optimization for select images in the field as necessary or as I feel like it.
Image Management at Home
Many photographers use Mac, and while they’re great machines, tech support for Mac in rural Costa Rica is about zero. Plus, you can get more horsepower for the same price in a PC. So, I have a PC clone that the computer store owner in my town set up for me. With 8 GB RAM, one 250 GB internal hard drive (for operating system stuff and office files), one 1 TB internal hard drive (for images and Lightroom catalogs), it works great for image processing. I use a 22 inch monitor from AOC, which is cheap and works just fine in my experience — magazine editors, BBC/Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year judges, and print buyers have never complained about the results .
I backup to two Seagate external hard drives (1 TB each). If I were buying today, I would go for 2 TB drives, great for storing the larger file sizes of our modern camera bodies. My workflow is based on Adobe Lightroom, which I use for about 95% of my image management and processing needs. I also use Photoshop CS5 for noise reduction (see a video of my technique here), final finishing or print files, and stitching panoramics.
And though I like Nik products and am aware of their potential, I use them only sparingly because I like to have my RAW files as my master files simply for the sake of simplicity in organization. Thus the two Nik software products that I use are for specialty purposes — Silver Efex Pro for black and white conversion and HDR Efex Pro for the odd HDR. I think these two programs are the best out there for their intended purposes.
Since Jon Fuller of Moab Photo Tours in Utah brought me one of these, it’s become my main bag. I absolutely love it, and most of the gear above (save for the computer stuff and some odds and ends) fits right in there. It’s light and super comfortable to carry in the field, even full of all of my stuff!
I’ve seen Think Tank photo bag and case products numerous times used by clients on my photo tours. The Think Tank Airport International and the Think Tank Airport Security are beautiful products and have become the most popular rolling bags for people traveling with photo gear and laptops on airplanes. When Think Tank contacted me in late 2011 about becoming a product affiliate I was excited because I knew they made fantastic stuff. They asked me to pick out any piece of gear I wanted so that I could confidently and personally recommend their gear. Since I don’t really do any air travel with my photo gear I decided to go with their new Sling-O-Matic 30 bag.
I absolutely love it! I use it as a kind of travel bag for laptop and computer gear but also as a field bag when I’m only going to take one camera, a couple of lenses, and a couple of flashes and accessories for a day out in the rainforest. The bag is super comfortable and always keeps my gear at hand. I’ll take a hike, for instance, with my Mark IV and my Canon 70-300 mm f4-5.6 L IS zoom mounted on a tripod and then have the Sling-O-Matic bag with my 17-40 mm wide angle, my Sigma 150 mm macro lens, and a twin macro flash or two Canon 430 Speedlites inside. The long side pocket is perfect for accessories. And it even comes with a fully waterproof rain cover.