So what is in My “Kit?”

San Diego — We are getting ready for the Yosemite Field Trip to take place shortly after Spring Break.  And each time we start to get ready for a major trip the questions keeps coming up about my “kit.”  Books and magazines on photography seem to be obsessed with a photographer’s collection of tools.  Art magazines do not normally list the brand and tube sizes of paint or the composition of of brushes of a painter.  Even collectors have asked me what I shot a given scene with.  My students in the Nature and Landscape class are always asking about what gear they should have.  Like nearly anything, the frustratingly annoying answer is, “It depends.”

Don’t you just hate that answer?

The problem is that “Landscape” photography encompasses a wealth of possible approaches, styles, and, most importantly, uses for the results.  And that leads to a wide variety of potential answers.   In my own case, for example, my involvement in the genre has changed over the years and with that change has come a change in my kit.

Back in the day, as they say, my revenue was primarily from editorial and executive portraiture, products, and industrial photography.  I shot landscapes for diversion and occasional print sales but never seriously saw it as a revenue source.  My kit was simply drawn from my commercial tool kit and was usually large format (4×5 and 8×10) view cameras and medium format.  And of course it was all film-based since the digital revolution was some years away.

I can tell you that tromping through the Colorado Mountains near tree-line (10,500 – 11,000 feet in elevation) was less fun when packing an 8×10 and a compliment of lenses and film holders; but I look back on that as priceless education as it taught me to shoot far more deliberately, an approach I carry forward even in this digital world.

Now, and for the past decade, I’ve shot exclusively digital.  Contrary to the denial still afflicting some photographers and photo commentators, my own experience has been that I have no trouble matching the quality I was used to getting back then with those bulky sheet film cameras by now using digital gear.  And for even less weight and bulk I can carry more “tools,” i.e. lenses and accessories for the digital bodies to expand my creative capture options even further.

In an unexpected twist, since I am now teaching and do not have the time to shoot commercially, landscape work has become more important for me.  Shooting for print sales and other merchandising of the images such as books or calendars, etc., plus leading workshops into the pretty places, has moved it into the forefront of my work.  But I approach it as I had grown to approach all of my work:  I shoot to try to create works of at least decorative art status and sometimes fine art status, meaning I shoot for my own heart and spirit but I always have an eye toward the potential client, or now, collector, in mind.  That desire to sell work informs my selection of gear.

I am not an “I was there” shooter or a snap shooter.  I do not take “snaps” of things; I leave that to the tourists and amateurs.  I have nothing against such an approach and mean no offense to those who shoot like that, it is just not how I work.  I prefer, rather than documentation, to create visual impressions, MY impressions and MY feelings expressed through the plastic medium of photography.  Consequently I am rarely a “straight” photographer and share virtually none of the tenets or aesthetic outlooks of the so-called “West Coast School” that, in my opinion, seek to turn the tool into the artist or at least to make the artist a slave of how the tool sees the world.

I refuse.  I will have none of that.  I seek instead to create an image that represents not so much just what I “saw” but rather, what I “felt” when standing before it.

Nor am I any longer in thrall to the idea that the work of this new technology needs to allow itself to be evaluated based on the technical constraints of any previous technology.  I fell prey to that trap early on but it was and still is simply nonsense.

When albumen emulsion became available the photographer did not try to make it look like tin-types; silver prints were not expected to look like salt prints.  So why should digital prints only be acceptable if they look like silver prints?  Watercolor paintings do not look like oil paintings, which do not look like charcoal or pastel, nor do they make any attempt to.  My only desire for a final print is to make it come as close as possible to be honest to my vision for it at the time I looked at and decided to render the subject.  I truly don’t care if it looks like it was done originally with film or if it was a cyanotype or a painting done in oils or acrylics or pastels.  Those “looks” are irrelevant to me because I do not make images to look like anything other than how my mind and heart see them at the time.  The art is not tied to the technique or to the technology.

Because I have a broader acquaintance with the art world than some do, I am familiar with those “looks” as I am familiar with the looks of older photographic technologies.  They help to fill my internal reference sources when coming up with ideas for the vision of a piece but I choose a look or approach not based on the technique but on how it will render the final image.  The result is often some mixture of “looks” and a piece that doesn’t really fit into such easy characterization.

And consequently I have totally embraced the digital world because it gives me the aesthetic and technical options to chase that vision in a way that works for me and my fine art (painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking) background.  So here is my kit and the reasons it works for me.  It would never occur to me to insist the same collection would work for you or anyone else.   However, perhaps by looking at my reasoning, you can apply it to find the best tools for rendering your own visions.

OK, OK, what about the kit…?  I have two “kits” and if I have room will almost always take both with me.

The primary kit, housed in a Pelikan™ case is based around “single frame” shooting, that is, shooting where the results will be taken or assembled into a single, normal sized image file.  This consists of two Canon DSLR bodies (a 1Ds Mk II at 16.7 megapixels and a 5D at 12.8 megapixels).  Surrounding the bodies are the following lenses:  Canon 8-15mm f4L Fisheye, Canon 17-40mm f4L, Canon 85mm f1.8m Canon 70-200 f4L, Canon 400mm f4L,   I have two true Macro lenses in the kit as well; the Canon MP-E 65mm 1X-5X macro and a Tamron 180mm f4 Macro.

Sometimes I will borrow a Canon 24mm f3.5 TSE when I think its tilt/shift ability will help.  I also created what I call my “Digi-View” camera which is a Toyo 4×5 with recessed lens board, bag bellows, and a sliding adapter back on which I can mount a DSLR.  It is great fun and a real showstopper in a crowd but it is of far more use in the studio than out in the field.  On the same note I have also shot with a smaller version of it put out by Calumet and designed to mount Hasselblad lenses (which I have) and it is a wonderful camera for all but wide angle shooting where tilt-shift abilities are critical.  But it is too heavy for me to want to haul around through the brush.

The Pelikan case also includes my electronic remote shutter release and intervalometer, Seconic Light Meter, X-Rite “Passport™” with Color Checker, a 10 Stop ND Fader, and several items to assist in creating a custom white balance setting in the cameras and facilitating tweaking in post including a standard 18% gray card, a WhiBal™ Balance Card, an Expo Disk™, and my new favorite, a ColoRight™ White Balance device. And it has a small notebook, pen, and a roll of artist’s tape (a white tape that does not leave a residue when removed).

The secondary kit is designed around creating Mosaics, that is, multi-row panoramas where my goal is to capture nearly surreal levels of resolution and detail, far surpassing what I could have accomplished even with my 8×10 view camera.  This consists of three types of spherical panoramic heads: (1) A “Panosaurus™,” light weight extruded PVC device perfect for putting in a backpack for trekking after a shot, (2) a Nodal Ninja™ billet carved version that is far more precise but also quite a bit heavier for those “close to the car” shots, and a Gigapan™ “Epic Pro” computerized version for when a very long lens creating many, many frames is desired.  To use with those heads I have four Zeiss/Hasselblad lenses with Canon EOS adapters, a 50mm, 80mm, 150mm and 250mm primes.  When I say I want these filled with detail and contrast… I mean it.

Those two kits are in “travel” cases.  But unless I could afford an army of bearers, carrying that stuff out in the field is simply more than my tired antique body can handle.  So I also carry, in the car, a QuestVest™ photographer’s vest and a Tamrac™ Expedition 7 Backpack into which I can toss only the items I expect to need for a given trek or shot.

I also have several tripods ranging from a little (and very old) Gitzo™ Reporter through a medium sized Bogen™ to a HEAVY Bogen-Manfrotto with which I have a true love/hate relationship.  The smaller tripods both have twist lock legs which I despise with a loathing reserved usually for blasphemous demonic beings.  But they are lighter to carry for any distances.  The Big Bogen is a model of rock-solid, never- shake qualities and the central lock/release for the legs is a thing of beauty.  But it is beastly heavy and though I certainly have slung it over my shoulder for a day’s hike in the mountains, doing so requires four days of tender personal attention in a hot tub to put my shoulders back into some semblance of normal.

That array of gear allows me to see and respond internally to a scene before me, pre-visualize it as a final image, which includes concepts of size, type of presentation and display, and then grab precisely the right tools to allow me (if I make no mistakes in selection or execution) to render that ‘vision’ into a tangible form.  It is no different to me than a mechanic with a tool chest full of specialized wrenches or a golfer with a bag full of clubs, each good at something, not so good at something else.

But all of those items, from camera bodies to lenses to accessories to tripods to bags are JUST tools.  The most important tools are already on board me.  They are my eyes to see the scene, my brain and “heart” to interpret it, my emotional response to filter it, and my legs to move me and a selected lens into the right position where the peculiar way the selected lens renders spatial relationships works to enhance my rendering of the scene.  I do not use telephotos as simple cropping tools nor wide-angles as simple expanded view tools: I select them because of how they treat various objects in space especially in relation to the camera to subject distances and then using my feet as a dolly, I search for the right spot that allows the lens to do its thing.

Those tools in the kit make it easier, but it is critical to understand that they do not always make the difference between being possible and impossible to get SOME shot.  They are mechanical-optical machines simply sitting there until I give them an order and they can only do as I bid them.  They fit my mode of working and so I am comfortable with them and confident in them which is a huge help that releases my attention to focus entirely on the image and not on the tool.

But having said that, it is, in my opinion, disingenuous to claim that the camera is irrelevant or the lenses are irrelevant.  Of course a good photo can be taken with nearly any body/lens combination.  Any artist worth their salt can produce art with any tool.  But to render a scene into a photograph as precisely as possible to match how I previsualized it, involves, among other things just as it would for a painter, a specific spatial relationship between objects in that scene.  Perspective, per se, is a function only of distance; field of view is a function of focal length, the trick is to get the combination correct.  And that can only be done with either the right lens or a tragic loss of real estate on the image file.

Let me give you an example.  You may recall my kit contains some ultra wide lenses, capable of up to 180 degrees of view.  But those lenses would render that scene with enormous barrel distortion.  If I want that wide a view but my “vision” for it does not include that distortion, then I shoot it as a stitched panoramic shot captured with light telephoto lens.  With that approach I can actually exceed the 180 degree view of a fish-eye lens and do it without all that distortion.  But that approach will not immerse you into the scene, foreground to background, as will the wide-angle or the fish-eye lens.  The result is that even with the same field of view, two very different “feelings” and stories for the shots can be made, each possible ONLY because of the availability of the right tools.

Despite having all of those tools and shooting digitally, I still shoot deliberately in the same approach that I used for the large format film cameras.  I look at lots of scenes, many of which I like to look at but do not see in them a photograph ready for the taking, usually because of the light.  I note far more photographs to be taken at a different hour or perhaps even different time of year than I actually attempt to capture.  My first visits to a place are like location scouts to see what is there, judge and note the proper times to return, get the “master shots” and “postcard shots” out of my system so I can return and get serious.  Sometimes, knowing the light is not right, I will use the opportunity to test the tools, see by experimentation which will give me the desired result so that when I return, and the light is fleeting, I already know what to do and where to do it.

So that is my kit.  It has been honed over the years to maximize my chances of success at rendering my own personal vision for a scene.  But it works only because it is applied in conjunction with my own ways of thinking and of seeing.  Other photographers going to the same scenery will very likely have evolved their own individual kits as unique in construction as their work.

If you are just starting out, despite what some might tell you, my personal thought is that you should start building your kit around a very good lens in the normal (35mm-60mm) range.  Don’t fall prey to the “faster is better” salesman pitch.  Determine what you like to shoot and what your starting style is and make your decisions on that.  In my case you may have noticed that nearly all of my lenses except the 85mm were basically f4 lenses and not the faster versions.  The reason is all about sharpness and depth of field relative to the types of subjects I shoot.

First you must understand, the final “sharpness” of your images has to do with a lot more than just the lens’ optics alone.  But those optics are certainly a part of the equation.  In my case I’m looking for a lens where the aperture “sweet spot” and the issues of diffraction coincide at a setting where I can get the maximum depth of field.  The sharpness based on aperture settings is likely to be best about 2-3 stops closed down from wide open.  With an f2.8 lens that is f5.6 – f8 but with an f4 lens the sweet spot is closer to f8 – f11.  No matter how wide it will open, diffraction will start creating a potential softness problem at about f16.  That is because it is an issue not of aperture but of diffraction and the sensors photo site dimensions.  So using my cameras with my f4 lenses I can shoot at f11 or even f16 and still produce optically sharp images.  And at f22 – f32 they will show less diffraction loss on the 5D’s 12.8 megapixel sensor than on the 1Ds Mk II body with more — and smaller —photo sites.

Again, this is just a part of the “sharpness” equation and in some ways, unless you are comparing everything to a really terrible lens, not the most important.  But it is a factor and when I am after the ultimate in surreal detail capture then it becomes important to me. (And this might also indicate to you that stuffing more and more photosites on the same sized sensor is not always a good thing… there is a point of diminishing returns and, worse, a point of actual loss.)

Anyway, then expand your lens collection as it is obvious to you that your vision is requiring you to go wider or narrower.  As you get them, work with each lens until you have mastered all of its buttons and settings, until you can previsualize how it will render the scene.  Then you can move on.  If you just throw a bunch of lenses in your case you will grab them as crop tools and never really learn to use them artistically.

The hardest thing to try to get beginning students to do is to slow down.  They are so anxious to try to take on everything; new lenses, new software, new printing papers, and in the end don’t use any of it very well.  My kit has been honed over many years and countless photographs.  You need to slowly, methodically, purposefully build your own.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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