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Whats in Your Camera Bag? What do you REALLY need with you to take Better Photos?
What do you REALLY need in your camera bag? Judging by some other travel photographers who's lists I read about, you need everything plus the kitchen sink. But the more you have, the more you have to carry with you, and as the day goes on, and as the camera bag continues to bite heavily in your shoulders, you'll start to wonder if that foldup Leatherman socket set and engine tuning kit is really such a good idea after all.
Lets start with the bag itself,as the right bag will make a huge difference to the amount that can be carried in it. The key attributes of a camera bag are that it should be comfortable to carry, easy to access, and protect the contents. You will also like it to remain inconspicuous (see my Blend in with the Background page for more about this) so the less logos and name badges that it has on it, the better things will be for you as a Travel Photographer.
'Comfortable to carry' and 'ease of access' are often mutually incompatible. A bag that can safely and securely store your camera and lenses is unlikely to be one where you can access them quickly. In the day to day scheme of things, though, this is not such a problem as might be expected. You won't be changing camera bodies or lenses every two minutes, so a bag that is more comfortable than easy to access is preferable. Some photographers choose an off-the-shoulder bag with a single strap, but I have found that as the day progresses, these become really uncomfortable. I would always choose a camera bag based on the standard 'backpack' or 'knapsack' design. If I expect to trek long distances over difficult terrain, I would choose one with a waist belt as well, and sacrifice the extra few seconds it takes to unbuckle it for the extra comfort that waist support brings to a heavy load of lenses and camera bodies.
Despite a comfortable backback with its padded lining for delicate photograpic equipment, I find that in the daily course of things, I need a second bag as well, to provide protection for the camera that is currently in use. Although the camera is needed at a moment's notice, I don't want it slung over my shoulder on a strap as I wander about taking travel photgraphs. There is the question of protection - a camera is far too east to damage if it knocks into protruding objects, or bangs against rocks and stone walls. There is also the question of dust and grit - the ever present problem of the travel photographer, who keeps his camera under cover as much as possible. Finally, I don't want my camera on view all of the time, where it can attract interest from thieves, or alert people that I might be about to take a quick photo of them. These things considered, I opt for an over-the-shoulder small camera pouch from LowePro - the TLZ-1. This is a top-loading bag with room for my Nikon D300 plus which ever lens I am currently using. It has a small front pocket where I can store a spare memory card and battery, but it is otherwise quite small and unobtrusive, despite providing good padding and protection for the camera. The zippered top access is east to get into in a hurry, or I can leave it unzipped whilst still having some protection from heat and knocks. I place the shoulder pouch on my shoulder BEFORE putting the backpack on, as then it is impossible for a thief to snatch and run off with the pouch: the backpack straps need to be removed first.
So what's in the bag? Lets start with the smaller LowePro shoulder pouch first of all. In the main compartment I keep a camera body with its current lens - all of my lenses will fit in this bag. On the zippered lid of the main compartment is a small internal pocket: here I keep a polarizing filter for the current lens in use, and a luggage label with my name and contact details, just in case. The TLZ-1 has an outer pocket as well, also zippered. In here I will keep a spare camera memory card, and a freshly charged battery. A cloth for the lens, in a protective cover, and a retractable lipstick-style camera brush, to remove any dust and grit that does make it to the camera body. I am careful to only use this brush on the body, never the lens glass, as otherwise it would be easy to introduce grease or grit that can smear or scratch delicate lens or filter coatings.
Lets move on to the main bag now. Looking at some of the lists put out by other travel photographers, you would get the idea that they never eat, drink or get wet. Their bags are full of every kind of lens and gadget, but they never mention sandwiches or a bottle of drinking water. Unfortunately, in the real hot and dusty, wet and sweaty world of travel, there are other things besides the cameras and lens to make room for. Let look at some of them.
Whilst moving about I need to keep an idea of where I am, and keep notes about what to expect, what happened, and where I've been. So, in the top pocket of my backpack you will find my Garmin GPS60cx GPS receiver. This gets turned on in the morning, and generally forgotten about until it gets turned off on the evening again, and new batteries put in ready for the next day. (See my Georeferencing with GPS page for more details). Also in the top pocket is a notebook, pen, and highlighter, plus a small calculator for emergency maths.
Moving to the side pockets now: in one you will find an aluminium SIGG water bottle with a litre of water. Wow - that weighs 1 kilo: why can't someone make light-weight water?! In the other side pocket are a variety of small items: rubber air blower, bandaids, a small spoon, a stainless steel mirror, a single-blade penknife, a Mini-Maglite, spare AA batteries (fits the flashlight or GPS), and a tiny bottle of Liquid Skin.
Now to the main compartment of my backpack. The one I'm currently using depends on whether I have a tripod with me or not. If so, the length of the tripod dictates that I need a 35 litre daypack. Its rather bigger than I would otherwise want, but there isn't an alternative if I want to keep the tripod inside the bag, rather than strapped to the outside. See my Travelling with a Tripod page for more on this. If a tripod is not needed, I prefer a smaller daypack of 25 or 30 litre capacity. It must have room for the other major items within: Goretex rain coat and trousers by Berghaus: very lightweight and durable but still taking up room. My guidebook, of course: there's another kilo for you! Spare lenses, in separate padded bags. A spare body if necessary. Filters with stack caps for all of my lenses. The bag is getting full enough by now, and heavy enough, without adding some sandwiches and snacks for the day. If I am photographing around town this isn't necessary, but when trekking through remote and unfriendly terrain it is essential to have a supply of food for the day, plus a little extra in case of emergencies.
Not much room left in the bag, thank goodness. There's just enough space left for a large cotton scarf - I use one bought in Morocco: its a Tuareg headscarf, and measures about 1.5 x 0.7 metres. Its ideal for its original purpose: protecting the head from the hot sun of the western desert, but also serves a myriad of other uses: a cloth for wiping things clean or dry, a clean surface to attend to camera maintainance or to sit on, a container for carrying shopping, a covering to wrap things up, and even an emergency sling or bandage if necessary - I would never travel without it, or something similar.
That's about it for the contents of my Camera Bag. There maybe a spare pair of socks, and an iPod for long railway journeys, but little else. The other photographers with their Leatherman pliers, their packs of screwdrivers, and their rolls of gaffer tape are welcome to it if they feel such things are needed. Me: I carry my own bag, day in, day out, so stick to the REAL essentials.
Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...
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