(Above: the bear checking out his new gear-- our ATV (all terrain vehicle)... Alaska)
In addition to vision and techniques, our gear is critical for our success in photography. At times, our survival in the wilderness relies on it. So one shouldn't cut corners when choosing their travel gear. Here, I share with you my gear list (mostly for cold weather) and some horror stories. Many gear ideas were given to me through conversations with good friends, teachers, or mentors over the years including "Chas", Mr. Charles Glatzer, the just-appointed Canon Explorer or Light, while some other ideas were just from my own trial and error. (Many of these links are Amazon affiliate links. I really appreciate it if you purchase items through these links, as it will help fund my future trips.)
1DX has outstanding noise control. There's hardly any noise below ISO 3200. Anything below ISO 8000 is totally usable. I have gone to ISO 25600 and the image was not too bad. The AF tracking is way ahead of 1D Mark IV. I have used a 600mm lens with a 1DX and a 2x III teleconverter, vs putting the 600mm on with a 1D Mark IV and a 1.4X III teleconverter. The 1DX still performed better in AF tracking even with the 2x teleconverter on. The 1D series is also weather-proof. I had my 5D Mark II died on me quickly in the rain.
We saw a red fox on an elk carcass at Lamar Valley one day. About 100 feet from the fox, there was a coyote sleeping. If the coyote woke up and saw the fox, there would be a fight between them. I set up the camera and tripod and took test shots to check my exposure every few minutes. We waited there for 3 hours. Finally, the coyote woke up. He immediately saw the fox. The fox was in alert and looked at the coyote intensely. The coyote walked closer and closer to the fox, with his teeth showing. That's the moment I had been waiting for in the whole trip. Were they going to fight? The coyote suddenly bent his body into an inverted U-shape. He was going to attack. I never felt such an intense atmosphere. I immediately pressed on the shutter. No response. The camera was not focusing. My heart sank. After bumping the shutter for a few times without success, I immediately switched the lens from automatic to manual focus and rotated the focusing ring and pressed on the shutter again. Still nothing. The camera was obviously on, with all the settings shown on the viewfinder, yet it's not responding to my pressing the shutter. I turned off the camera, removed the battery, put it back on, turned on the camera, and pressed the shutter. Nothing. I was ready to throw my 1DX onto the ground. But I stayed calm, even though I heard non-stop clicking sound from the adjacent photographers this whole time. I quickly grabbed my 1D Mark IV on my shoulder, detached the 70-200 f/2.8 and just let it hang on my shoulder without the lens cap, and with one hand removing the 1DX from the 600mm lens, I attached the 1D Mark IV on. The 1D Mark IV was focusing, but the wildlife action had all finished. The red fox was nowhere to be seen. I turned to the guy on my left and said "what did I miss?" He was reviewing the photos he just took on the LCD screen. He took a deep breath, and said, "I think I just took the best shot of my life." --- story of my life. Later I put my 1DX back on the lens, and it's working fine.
5 years ago I drove 2 hours through Los Angeles traffic to visit San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge in Irvine. It's the American Avocet baby season. Once I parked the car, I took the camera out and tried to format the CF card inside the camera to get ready. That's when I realized I have forgotten to bring any CF cards. Trying not to faint, I gathered my mind and quickly googled for the nearest Best Buy or camera stores in my phone. There was a Best Buy a few miles away. However, they only had 1GB CF card with a brand name I had never heard of. It could only hold 40 photos. I usually took thousands of photos in a trip like that. With a 10 frame per second camera, it took me 4 seconds to fill up the card. It was a beautiful evening with lots of action of the avocet in breeding plumage. I was so busy deleting pictures every time I clicked. Lesson: Buy ton loads of CF cards. Buy a bunch of 64GB cards, a bunch of 32 GB cards (maybe more reliable) and put them in 2 separate locations. I used to use Sandisk Extreme Pro. But recently I found out that Lexar is pretty good and cheap. Never had I filled the buffer while clicking away.
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II
I sold my 500mm f/4 version 1 for this lens. With the same weight as the new 600mm, why not? I thought. The extra focal length did bring in a lot of convenience especially when paired with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter. But the extra diameter and length of the lens make it quite challenging to maneuver inside the car if you are planning to shoot through the car window. The sharpness and image stabilization are out of this world. I use this lens 90% of the time. It brought me a lot of happiness but also the back pain.
Canon 1.4X III Teleconverter
This converter almost always stay on my lens. I don't see any degradation in image quality.
Canon 2x III Teleconverter
Surprisingly I use the 2x teleconverter a lot! Sometimes I don't even stop it down to f/11 and just use f/8 and the quality is totally fine.
It's important to switch the factory one with this as it makes the lens lighter to handhold and also its much easier to put on and off the Wimberley Head or Ball Head.
This one comes in handy to protect your lens front element. I feel a lot more at peace when I use this in addition to the lens cover from lens coat. A must have.
Lens Coat is useful to protect your lens from scratches. It also makes you feel better when handholding it in the cold.
Heavy but smooth. I use the RRS BH-55 ball head for scenery. Scenery and wildlife photography require completely different game plans. If I go for wildlife, I just focus on wildlife. I brought the heavy BH-55 to some trips but I never used it.
You always need to carry a medium or short focal length lens with camera on your shoulder so you need the black rapid. If you have a Arca Swiss plate for your lens (24-105, 70-200 or 100-400mm), you can use a Kirk clamp attached to Black Rapid.
Computers and other electronics
Western Digital 1TB External Hard Drive
I buy two new ones for each trip. They are pretty reliable. One of them died few months ago. Recovery took several hundred dollars and some files were not recoverable. It happened to be the only drive I didn't back up (of course). So lesson learned. Now I have a lot of these 1TB drives for backup, a 12 TB RAID Drive, cloud backup and off site back up.
Amazon Basics hard drive case
For the hard drives.
iMac 27 inch Retina (for my home use)
I am still getting used to the retina display for the iMac because doing smart sharpening and unsharp masking on a 1200-pixel wide image is really difficult to adjust. If anyone has any tips, please let me know. Apart from that, running Photoshop CC is lightning fast.
OWC Thunderbay 4 RAID 5 Edition 12 TB
I recently purchased this as my RAID setup. So far so good!
Mainly for backing up files from the CF cards to the 2 external hard drives (and very rarely some basic image editing) during the trips. I am still using the old version but I expect the new one would be awesome.
iPhone 6 Plus
For behind-the-scene shots during trips, reading kindle books, listening to music and podcast.
Anker external battery
Not the biggest storage but lightweight and good for emergency charging. It usually goes into the pocket of my jacket. I also carries the iPhone cable and adaptor in my pocket when I go on trips.
Always a headache to find enough outlets in remote lodge.
InReach Explorer Communication Device
I just purchased this from the recommendation in David DuChemin's blog. The subscription fee is relatively cheap and you get a peace of mind in places with no cell phone reach.
High Gain Antenna
When you are in a remote lodge, every bit of wifi counts. People would be fighting for it like crazy. It would be difficult to just send a simple email to your family and friends to tell them you are safe. High gain antenna comes to the rescue. One year, I saw a medical doctor comfortably checking emails and sending images to his friends in his laptop, while we couldn't even get onto the wifi connection. Why? He brought with him several brands of high gain antenna and kept switching for the best. Lesson learned!
CF card readers
Bring two of those for any trip!
Under Armor T-shirt
Got a ton of them. I usually wear it before I put on the long sleeve base layer.
Cabela Base Layer
Not the prettiest but it's warm.
If you plan to photograph pouncing bears, you must bring many extra pairs of underwear.
Mountain Hardwear long underpants
For colder weather
North Face Denali Fleece Jacket
Usually I wear this on top of the base layer. It has many pockets. Perfect for photography.
Mountain Hardwear Compressor Jacket
So light and so warm. If it's really cold, I wear this in place of the Denali jacket.
Mountain Hardwear Compressor Pants
I remember it vividly. Sept 2012. I was in the Alaskan Arctic. All geared up, getting ready to go onto the small boat to look for polar bear. On our way, we were invited to go to the Visitor Center of the Eskimo Town to talk to some local children and hear about their experience with wild animals. We were seated in a room with the heater on. I had this compressor pants on. And within 10 minutes, I was sweating profusely, as if I had caught fire. But in front of everybody, its not too polite to take off the pants. I thought the meeting would end within a minute but it just went on and on. It was a torture and it finally finished after 45 minutes. It wasn't that cold when we went out to the sea afterwards that evening. So the next day, I got smarter and decided to not wear this compressor pants. Once we got to the sea, weather changed. Temperature literally dropped from 30F to -20F within a few minutes with freezing gust. It was the coldest I ever felt on my lower body. I asked the captain to lend me his extra jacket to wrap around my jeans but it was still freezing. Lesson is, its still better to wear this pants.
Arcteryx shell jacket (water-proof)
THE BEST. And expensive. I wear it on top of the compressor jacket, and it feels as warm as the North Face Himalaya Parka. Well, almost. And with layering, its a lot more convenient and less bulky.
Arcteryx shell pant (water-proof)
THE BEST and expensive as well. Customer service is awesome too. I tore it once and they sent me a patch instantly.
Liners are extremely important. It keeps you warm while allowing you a lot of flexibility to control the camera. Buy a bunch. I usually carry 2-3 pairs of liners. Why? Because one time I fell down into the river in Alaska. My hands were completely under water and I only had one pair of liner and glove. The rest of the trip I had very cold fingers because it took them forever to completely dry. Buy those that allow you to type in your phone.
Bring minimum 2 pair of gloves. In the heat of action of wildlife photography, people tend to lose one of their gloves. I usually carry one with a flip top, and another one with a removable trigger finger cover. I have heard a lot of good reviews about the Heat3 gloves. Chas once photographed bison in -40F for just a few minutes. Turned out there was an invisible hole in one of his gloves and he ended up having frost bite.
To put on top of the liners or gloves when not photographing.
It was an exciting morning 2 winters ago when we could hear the wolf howling just outside Mammoth Hot Spring before dawn. We quickly followed the howling and parked our car. Had a close encounter with two gray wolves who just walked past the parking lot. I remember the moment vividly, not only because of the wolves, but the -20F morning with -40F gust. My nose felt like it had fallen off. Balaclava is a must.
I can't stress enough about the importance of ear plugs in travel. One time I was on a float plane. They didn't have noise-canceling ear phones. The whole flight of 2 hours I had to endure the thunderous engine sound. So my key is to put a pair of ear plugs in multiple places, including the shirt pocket, the hard drive case, the side of the duffel bag, and the pocket in my sleeping pants. Sometimes you have to share room with another tour attendee that you don't know about. If they suddenly snore in the middle of the night, you need to make sure you have the ear plugs in reachable location without turning on the light and searching through your luggage. Noise can come up anywhere. And the last thing you need is a bad sleep, especially during wildlife photography trip where you usually have 3 hours of sleep per night.
As we often kneeled down to get eye level with the animals, knee pad can save your knee. Just need to bring one instead of a pair.
Mosquitoes head net
Just in case. Mosquitoes can be so overwhelming in Alaska.
This 2-in-1 setup turned out to be quite useful in my last trip to Yellowstone in winter.
For extreme cold, this is awesome. Very light-weight and easy to pack too.
North Face water proof Duffel
Water proof, durable, and easy to fit into the compartment of a float plane, I love it. But its very popular among visitors to Alaska so beware. My luggage almost got taken by accident by another guy. Fortunately I chased him all the way to the exit and got the luggage back. I reminded my good friend Carl to definitely get a yellow one so its eye catching. He was smart to even use black duct tape to write a big "CARL" on top of the bag. Yet his bag was still taken by accident and caused him half a day of delay. I told him to go straight to the baggage claim instead of taking a bathroom stop after the plane landed.
ebag packing cube
Good place to store my base layers.
Gura Gear backpack 32L
I used to have a 22L for my 500mm lens. Since I switched to a 600mm lens, the 32L is perfect. It's a must to use a backpack to carry your camera equipments because any bags with wheels could have the risk of being asked to check in. And that would be a nightmare.
Think Tank Urban Disguise
Usually the Gura Gear backpack can only fit 2 camera bodies, 2 teleconverter, a 100-400mm, the 600mm lens. So my laptop, ipad, external hard drives, 16-35mm lens, 24-105mm lens, battery charger, and CF cards go into the Urban Disguise. With the gura gear and urban disguise, it also means back breaking heavy.
Samsonite folding cart
To prevent breaking your back, this little folding card comes to the rescue. It can be folded before boarding, and its very helpful when walking between terminals when the backpack and urban disguise can be put on it.
Kinesis Long Lens Case
If there's space for the check-in luggage, I will pack the long lens case. Or if it is a local trip where I can put the stuff in the back trunk, I will also bring the long lens case. I can put the 1DX attached to the 600mm and 1.4x converter in the bag with just the hood inverted. So it allows quick draw of this setup for immediate shooting, instead of re-attaching everything from the gura gear. But the kinesis won't fit in the airplane overhead compartment.
Asolo Hiking Boot
One of the best hiking boots. One needs a tight grip especially on slippery slope. I was with my good friend Roland hiking on extremely steep slope near the summit of a mountain in Nome, Alaska, in heavy gust and slippery mud, when we encountered a mother muskox and her baby. And I was wearing my Asolo even though my legs were still shaking as I kept checking the spot I might fall into down there.
The classic. I wore it for several years. Got the job done. But got a bit cold when I was in Bosque Del Apache one winter.
Baffin Impact Boot
So I got a Baffin Impact Boot. It's extremely warm. A lot warmer than Sorel Caribou. But I got a size too big and the boots kept loosening up. It was frustrating.
My favorite boot. Very good for walking on mud or slippery places. Very comfortable. Water-proof!
New Balance shoes
The 990 series is so comfortable. It's my walking shoes.
So that's it for now. If you also use some of these and love them, please let me know. If you have any gear idea that has saved your day in wildlife photography travel that I have missed here, please feel free to share here too!