Thom's Equipment of Choice


You keep asking, the answer keeps changing...

Now superceded by In Thom's Bag article.

One popular question asked of pro photographers is "what gear are you using?" Sometimes it'll be asked about a specific category, as in "what raw converter do you use?" Sometimes it's just a broad generic question. Some askers are seriously interested in what the pro is using, some are just curious, some are looking for validation of their own choices, and some, well let's just say that they need therapy that a list isn't going to provide.

What follows isn't a recommendation (see right column). It's just what I've chosen to use at the moment. I should note that because I do a lot of testing of gear, sometimes I happen to be carrying things that aren't on this list, so if you see me in the field with an Exacta D1 and a 15-75mm Varex lens, it's not because I've abandoned my usual equipment. But the following is the list I'd likely use if you hired me to shoot a magazine or other assignment in my usual style.

The Basic FX Kit

  • D3x and D3 camera bodies. The D3x is the primary shooting body.
  • 14-24mm Nikkor. I don't like the lack of filters, but the 17-35mm isn't as good on the D3x as the 14-24mm in the same range.
  • 24mm PC-E. For quick panos and precise wide angle work. Also gives me a filter-accepting wide angle option.
  • 70-300mm VR Nikkor. Yes, the consumer grade telephoto zoom is better on the FX bodies than the pro 70-200mm. Fortunately, I don't usually need f/2.8.
  • Sometimes one of the following: 200mm f/2, 200-400mm f/4, 400mm f/2.8. If I need more telephoto options, one of these is what I pick to carry.

What, no mid-range zoom? No, I don't tend to shoot in that range with this kit. If I do need mid-range, then it's usually the Voigtlander 40mm that comes along, though sometimes it'll be one of the other "normal" lenses I have available to me (58mm Voigtlander, 50mm Zeiss, 50mm and 60mm Nikkors, etc.).

If I need to do macro work, I carry the 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor or 105mm Micro-Nikkor.

The Basic DX Kit

I've now split my FX and DX kits. I find that I don't tend to mix and match FX and DX: I'll carry FX most of the time, but go to a DX-only kit when I need to go lighter. Mixing FX and DX means extra lenses in the wide angle end, and often different battery and charger sets. These things add up when you travel.

  • D300, D90, and sometimes D200IR bodies. Other than when compared to the D3x pixel count, I don't fell I'm really losing anything here.
  • 10.5mm Nikkor. Not always carried, but a fun lens for a different perspective.
  • 12-24mm Nikkor or Sigma 10-20mm. Either works fine for me, but the Sigma lets me go a bit wider, which I like.
  • 24-70mm Tamron. Lighter and smaller than the Nikon alternative, and almost as good. I don't shoot mid-range a lot, so I'll compromise a bit of optical quality for size/weight here. If I'm really pared down, I'll substitute the 40mm Voigtlander or carry nothing at all in this range.
  • 70-300mm Nikkor. A very handy utiility telephoto if you don't need fast. If I don't need to go really long, the Sigma 50-150mm sometimes makes it into my bag instead.
  • Sometimes one of the following: Voigtlander 180mm f/4, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8, Nikkor 200mm f/2, Nikkor 200-400mm f/4, Nikkor 400mm f/2.8. If I need more telephoto options, one of these is what I pick to carry.

The absolute bare bones kit for me is D300, D90 (which would normally stay in the room as backup), 12-24mm, 70-300mm.

Sometimes I'll carry the 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor (plus extension tubes and CU filters) in place of the 70-300mm if I know I need to shoot macro and don't need fast focusing telephoto. Otherwise, I just carry an extension tube for casual macro.

Accessories

Also in the basic kit:

  • EN-EL4a or EN-EL3e camera batteries. The older EN-EL4 are okay in the D3's, but don't last as long between charges.
  • Speedlight SB-900 with accessories. Sometimes two or three Speedlights are carried. Depends upon the assignment.
  • Filters. Singh-Ray 1SS, 1HS, 2SS, 2HS, and sometimes 3HS graduated neutral density filters with my modified Cokin P-mount; 77mm Singh-Ray Variable ND filter, 77mm B&W polarizing filter. Just the basics, thank you.
  • Remote release. Varies with assignment, but a basic release like the MC-30 is usually enough, though I usually use the Phottix Cleon. When I'm out by myself, a wireless remote is absolutely necessary.
  • Right Angle Viewfinder. I shoot low a lot, and it's easier on my body this way. Often I'll have a GroundPod with me, as well. Oh: and knee pads.
  • Minimum 60GB card storage (almost all SanDisk Extreme III right now). Normally that's about a week's work of serious shooting. If I think I need more I'll supplement this with the Epson P5000 for in-field backup.
  • Some sort of compact. If I'm seriously shooting with the compact, it's the Ricoh Caprio GX-100 or the Leica D-Lux 3. If I'm not seriously shooting with the compact, the Nikon P5000 is fine.

The Supporting Cast

  • Think Tank Airport Antidote. My basic carrying case. Carries the cameras, lenses, computer, and storage while traveling by plane, and the cameras, lenses, plus auxiliary shooting equipment while moving through the landscape photographing.
  • Gitzo GT2530LVL. This is about as light as you can go with a D3. If I'm shooting with long lenses, then my old 1325 and leveling base comes instead, along with some extra support equipment for the long lens. Both tripods have leveling bases on them because it is just so much faster to set up panos with a leveling base.
  • Really Right Stuff B-55 head. You need a strong head for all that weight on it. Sometimes I'll use the RRS B-40 on the DX kit if I need to go light weight for hiking.
  • Really Right Stuff pano equipment. The full pano setup on the Gitzo leveling base takes moments to set up and gets the camera positioned right.
  • Apple 15" MacBook Pro, maxed out in RAM and hard drive. Pretty much the best portable computer I've seen; it isn't the best at all things, but it's the best balance between performance, features, weight, and quality. I've got a Verizon EVDO modem for wireless connectivity where WiFi isn't available. Plus I carry dual 250GB portable hard drives.

After the Shoot

  • Photo Mechanic. For ingest, basic browse and delete, captioning, renaming and moving. However, the more I use Lightroom, the more I see that I'll eventually move to it instead of Photo Mechanic. But I still need to learn Lightroom better, especially the database implications of doing things on my laptop, desktop, and server and keeping them synced. I'm slowly moving in the Lightroom direction.
  • Capture NX. For raw conversions that require the "best possible conversion."
  • Photoshop CS4. For serious image tweaking. Numerous roll-your-own Actions plus Neat Image are my main additions. Includes Nik software plug-ins.
  • Autopano Pro. For panoramic and HDR stitching (though I'm waiting for the D3/D300 update). This actually highlights a problem with all the photographer-centric software solutions for ingest and management: they don't understand "related" images. Good thing Autopano Pro can just look at a folder of images and figure out which ones are part of a pano.

What's not to Like

Now it's time to wave my magic wand. Considering the above, what would I change? Not a heck of a lot, actually:

  • Smaller body. What happened to the Japanese predilection for small? Note that I've moved to an FX/DX kit split for a reason. The FX kit just doesn't hack it when I have to put in an 18-mile day, it's too big and heavy. What I want is the D3x sensor in a D300-sized body. I'd move back to FX only and carry a D700 and this new camera most of the time.
  • Better wide choice. I need something that can get me to about 17mm that takes filters. A new 17-35mm that was as good as the 14-24mm would suffice.
  • Better auxiliary carrying. The Think Tank Airport Antidote doesn't have the best tripod carrying option I've seen. I really want to carry the tripod centered on the back, anyway. Moreover, the case's sides aren't well configured for adding even Think Tank's own accessories. Where do I put the RU Thirsty, for instance? All the LowePro's that will carry what I need are too big for regional jets and small prop planes. The perfect pack for both air travel and backcountry travel doesn't yet exist.
  • Lightroom for Traveling Photographers. I use three different computers, depending upon where I'm at. While I know I can force the issue by moving files the right way at the right times, I really don't want to think about it. I want an automated syncing option (for both the images I worked on with my laptop and the backup ingest (archive) that's on my portable hard drive). And please make the next version better at "related" images (that's actually a broader category than just panos or HDR, by the way).
  • The ultimate compact. APS sensor, 10mp+, high quality lens that has a real wide angle capability and manual control. I've harped on this before.
  • A true black and white camera. More and more I fall back to black and white shooting styles, and Bayer cameras have both pluses and minuses when used for this. Mostly minuses, so give me a 12mp+ non-Bayer camera with no AA filter and I'll be happy.

Yes. You should read the above as you probably did: there really isn't much I'd change for my type of shooting. I want a smaller camera and a better compact camera, plus a few odds and ends and I'd be 100% happy. Sure, I'll take any increase in dynamic range or noise reduction that comes along, and as long as I don't sacrifice anything else, more megapixels are always welcome. But generally I'm happy with what I've got, so these are icing on the cake, not missing cake ingredients.

For almost a decade now photographers have been deep into a constant churn on equipment as the digital cameras matured. But we're getting close to the time when we can just go out and shoot again, and not worry so much about what the latest and greatest equipment is. Don't be surprised if my list doesn't change much over the next couple of years.

 
 


Should you...

...go out and buy one of everything on the list at the left? Absolutely not!

Photography is personal. Your equipment choice should be, too. What works for me won't necessarily work for you, even if you do the same basic kind of photography I do (nature and landscape). While one of the most frequent questions a pro gets is "what are you using," the answers have very little to do with what you should get. Frankly, the D200/D300 is more than enough camera for 95% of the market, perhaps more (40D/50D for you Canon folk who've happened by to see what I'm complaining about this week ;~).

One thing I enjoy about having to carry test equipment with me (usually to workshops, where I'm not shooting anything specific, nor doing much shooting at that), is that it forces me to break my normal shooting habits and try new things. This exposes me to other ideas and equipment that helps me get interesting shots.

If I were a serious wedding shooter my list would be quite different, for instance. Likewise, if I were a macro expert or even a wildlife expert, I'd be modifying my list, too.

Some of you may have noted that when I climbed Kilimanjaro in the summer of 2007 I took D200 bodies instead of the heavier D2xs, as I was trying to keep the weight of my pack down. Thus you should also realize that what I list at the left is not locked in stone, either.

My advice: make your equipment match your personal needs, make sure it gives you some flexibility, and don't be afraid from experimenting with other products.


original article: 9/23/07
fixed MacBook Pro reference: 10/18/07
complete rewrite: 3/14/08
revised: 4/8/09


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