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Bare Essentials

Four professional photographers share how they travel light in the field

Getting the image sometimes involves leaving equipment back home. When you’re hiking six miles into the wilderness or climbing up to a higher elevation, the weight of the gear you carry makes a big difference. All the best equipment in the world means little if you’re too physically spent to hold the camera steady. Some of these items weigh only a few ounces individually, but all this gear combined can result in photographers carrying pounds of gear on their backs or over their shoulders. Although the romantic image of photography may often include a bag full of all the best photographic gear, there are times when working with a minimum of equipment not only may be necessary, but also helps ensure that you get the shot. We asked four professional photographers to discuss when and how they travel light. Although each has thousands of dollars of photographic gear at his or her disposal, he or she often finds occasions when less is definitely more.

[ James Kay ]

Kay’s Light Gear >>
• Nikon N90s
• 24mm ƒ/2.8D AF Nikkor
• 35-70mm ƒ/2.8D AF Zoom-Nikkor
• 105mm ƒ/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor
• Gitzo G1228 MK2 Mountaineer Reporter tripod
• Acratech Ultimate ballhead
• Pentax 67 6×7 SLR
• Pentax smcp 67 45mm ƒ/4
• Pentax smcp 67 75mm ƒ/4 shift
• Pentax smcp 67 105mm ƒ/2.4
• Fujichrome Velvia
• Lee filte

Whenever I travel into the backcountry on overnight backpacking trips, whether it’s three days or three weeks, the first items I leave behind are the big, clunky camera bodies and the long, heavy telephoto lenses,” says James Kay, who works with both 35mm and medium-format film. “I’ll grab my small Nikon N90s body, with its built-in motordrive. If I’m going to an important assignment for an extended period of time, I’ll also pack a backup lightweight body, such as my old FM2. “When it comes to the importance of traveling light in the big mountains, every ounce counts,” he says.

“Since these types of trips already require carrying so much gear, I take a very hard look at my camera gear and decide what I’ll really need to get the job done, period. Nothing redundant gets packed, just the bare essentials.”

For his sports photography, his gear includes the N90s and 24mm, 35-70mm and 105mm lenses. His landscape work is done with a Pentax 67 with three lenses ranging between 45mm and 105mm. “When weight is really an issue, you need to take a long, hard look at your gear pile. I’ve been on trips before where I’ve carried too much gear and was miserable whenever I had to hoist my hulking pack onto myback,” says Kay. “You want just enough gear to get the job done. Try to determine what gear you’ll need to capture, for example, 80 to 90 percent of the potential photographs.”

[ Art Wolfe]

Wolfe’s Light Gear >>
• Canon EOS 5D
• Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L USM
• Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L USM
• Canon EF 400mm ƒ/4 DO IS USM
• Canon EF 2x II extender
• Four Lexar 4 GB CF cards
• B+W polarizing filter
• Singh-Ray two-stop ND filter
• Tamrac backpack
• Gitzo G1348 MK2
Inter-Pro Studex tripod
• Kirk Photo BH-1 ballhead

Mobility is particularly important to Art Wolfe, as he prefers the ability to pick everything up in a compact, lightweight backpack and move with his subject. Light is always changing, and the animals are nearly always in motion, so packing light allows him to keep up with the quick and often unpredictable movements of the animals.

Whether photographing wildlife or landscape, Wolfe definitely sees the advantage of traveling light. You see this in his choice of lenses, which include the 17-40mm ƒ/4 and 70-200mm ƒ/4. Although there are faster zoom lenses available, Wolfe takes advantage of the reduced weight versus the one-stop gain he’d receive from ƒ/2.8 lenses.

Shooting digital also allows Wolfe to increase the camera’s ISO sensitivity on the fly. When he was shooting film, such adaptability required carrying different speeds of films in his bag, which inevitably increased the weight he had to carry. Now, he often carries a Canon EOS 5D with four Lexar 4 GB CompactFlash cards, allowing him to shoot thousands of images.

A tripod is an essential part of his inventory, but to keep weight down, Wolfe uses a carbon-fiber tripod. Particularly important when working under low-light conditions or when using a super-telephoto lens, this type of tripod delivers the stability and ruggedness he needs, but with less weight than a comparable model made of aluminum.

[ Carlton Ward ]

Carlton Ward’s photography is diverse, ranging from wildlife and landscape to his most recent work creating documentary images that reflect human impact on ecological systems. Regardless of how or what he’s shooting, he finds times when working light is essential.

Ward’s Light Gear >>
• Nikon D200
• 17-35mm ƒ/2.8D AF Zoom-Nikkor
• 28mm ƒ/2.8D AF Nikkor
• 80-200mm ƒ/2.8D AF Zoom-Nikkor
• Singh-Ray ND filters
• Gitzo G1228 MK2 Mountaineer
Reporter tripod
• Kirk Photo BH-1 ballhead
• Nikon SB-80 Speedlight
• Nikon MC-30 remote release
• Five Lexar CF cards

When it comes to working light, a lot of it has to do with the length of the assignment and how long I’m going to be out in the field,” explains Ward.”If I’m going to be gone for two weeks and I have a variety of subjects to shoot, I’ll keep my bigger gear, like the 600mm lens and the heavy tripods, in the truck and only use them part of the time for specific things.”

Ward’s latest assignments have allowed him to leave the long glass behind and work under more intimate conditions. “A lot of stuff that I’m doing now is shooting cultural heritage and people, all within an environmental context as it relates to resource conservation. For that kind of work, I just keep a Domke shoulder bag with one camera and a couple of lenses.”

Ward carries either a single or a pair of Nikon D200s with 17-35mm and 80-200mm lenses. As he prefers to have complete freedom of movement, he only takes a camera bag with him when he knows he can set it down. Otherwise, he keeps one camera on his neck and another over his shoulder using Op/Tech neoprene camera straps. For situations where he needs to carry additional accessories, he also utilizes a Kinesis belt system. “I also carry a cable release and an off-camera TTL flash cord for my Nikon Speedlight,” he says. “I’ll include a two-stop and three-stop Singh-Ray ND filter and a Gitzo 1228 tripod with a Kirk BH-1 ballhead as well.”

[ Linde Waidhofer ]

Linde Waidhofer’s work has her frequently traveling to various parts of the world. Her recent trips to Patagonia offer a good example of situations where she has had to reduce the amount of gear she takes with her out in the field. When she has to depend on two feet to get to her destination rather than four wheels, cutting down on camera gear becomes paramount. This has been much easier since she has switched from film to digital capture, however. “I’ve pared down my working camera to one body and three basic lenses,” says Waidhofer. “For that reason, I bought a Canon EOS 5D body as soon as it came out because it’s both smaller and lighter than my Canon EOS-1D Mark II.”

Waidhofer’s Light Gear >>
• Canon EOS 5D
• Sigma 12-24mm ƒ/4.5-5.6
• Canon EF 28-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS USM
• Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM
• Canon EF 2x II extender
• Lowepro Orion AW bag

Her lenses includes a 12-24mm, 28-135mm and 100-400mm; she also takes along a 2x teleconverter. “This gives me a working range of 12mm to 80mm,” Waidhofer says. For her macro work, she uses an extension tube and a close-up filter rather than take a separate macro lens.

Waidhofer uses variable-aperture zoom lenses rather than fast-aperture zooms to help keep weight down. Although they have better light-gathering capabilities, fast-aperture zooms are larger and heavier. When she’s working under conditions that demand that she keep what she carries to a minimum, variable-aperture zooms meet the demand while still delivering excellent image quality. “When I shot almost exclusively with Fujichrome Velvia, I always carried ƒ/2.8 lenses; now with Canon’s Image Stabilizer, I choose not to. I have the ability to boost the camera’s ISO considerably without running into noise problems, and I find that super-fast lenses with their ‘heavy glass’ are no longer a necessity. Digital capture has allowed me to lighten my kit.”