I took my first tentative photographic steps with Pentax film cameras. Since 2005, however, a Nikon camera is what’s been nestled in my photo backpack. First it was the beautiful FM3A, then the pioneering D70, and then the excellent D300. With the advent of the digital era, I started to focus on bird photography. What was once the domain of professionals gradually became available to the wider public, and therefore to me. But what would you find in my camera backpack today? Besides my camera and lenses, there is a whole bunch of stuff, so come take a peek.
Like in Spencer’s gear article, I’ve compiled every piece of my gear into a single link at the bottom of the article, which is where you can find info on pricing and availability.
Table of Contents
Camera Backpack And Camera Strap
Before we open the lid of my backpack and take a look at its contents, a few words about the backpack itself. Depending on the amount of gear I take into the field, I have two backpacks. The Lowepro Pro Trekker 400 AW (see our review here) has served me well for a number of years. Other than one buckle I broke with clumsiness a while ago, I would still describe its condition today as “like new.”
This backpack is my choice if I take a lot of stuff into the field, especially if I have a 400mm f/2.8 lens mounted on my camera. Unfortunately, it isn’t compatible with airline carry-on sizes, although I’ve been lucky so far. Or rather, I’ve honed my acting skills in the airport so it always looks as light as a wren.
For the last few months, I’ve been using the Peak Design Travel Backpack (our review here) and I’m very happy with it. The modular system of removable camera cubes is very adaptable to the size of your equipment. I usually have the largest cube inserted in my pack, but on my last trip to Ecuador (which wasn’t a photo expedition) I used the middle size. This left plenty of room in my pack for other stuff.
Disadvantages? I’ve come up with one so far. I’d like to make the pack a few centimeters bigger in all directions to fit what I could fit in my old Lowepro. With that small change, I’d sell the Lowepro in a heartbeat. But for the sake of long and wide telephoto lenses, I’ll keep both for now.
Crucially, I have a Peak Design Capture Clip (see our review) bolted to the left-hand shoulder strap on the backpack. The other component of the Capture Clip is on my camera, so the camera just attaches directly to the backpack’s strap! It’s amazing how much lighter the camera gets when its weight is no longer around my neck. Plus, the camera is immediately accessible this way instead of inside the bag. When I do need to carry the camera around my neck, I use a strap called the Peak Design Slide.
For more than ten years, I have been cooperating with the Czech Nikon office as a Nikon School lecturer. The advantage of this cooperation is that I don’t necessarily own all the gear I use, and can rent some instead.
Even so, I knew I eventually needed my own DSLR, and I filled the crack in my integrity with the Nikon D500, which still has a spot in my bag to this day. I took the vast majority of my photos with the D500. I love the camera’s professional build quality, great focusing, and impressive image quality at high ISOs.
When people interested in wildlife photography ask me what camera I would recommend, the D500 is one of my top picks even today. Especially when budget plays a role.
Only a few months ago, my worn-out D500 – with the lettering on the buttons barely visible any more – went int0 a backup role. My primary camera is now the Nikon Z9. It’s a camera from another world, but the Z9 still that carries the genes of its DSLR ancestors.
A well-built body, superior AF, great image quality, backlit buttons, extensive customization options and incredible battery life. If you find my assessment too brief, I’ll refer you to our Z9 review, in which our team at Photography Life covered the Z9 in depth.
My go-to focal length for bird photography is around 500mm on APS-C format (so, 750mm on full-frame). I still consider the APS-C format to be the best teleconverter! For everyday photography, I usually use the lens I bought with the D500 – the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR. But if I’m going on an expedition, I take either the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR or the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF.
I can forgive the 400mm f/2.8 lens its enormous weight, as long as I’m taking advantage of its fast f/2.8 speed and its ability to work with a teleconverter. However, when shooting in the tropics, it is a real slog that I am less and less willing to undergo.
That’s when the 500mm f/5.6 PF tempts me with its light weight and agility. For bird photography, you often need to find a gap between branches to reveal the bird hidden in the tangle of leaves and branches. While this can be done with the heavy 400mm f/2.8 (like in the photo below), it’s much easier with the relatively lightweight 500mm f/5.6 PF.
Why isn’t the 200-500mm f/5.6 my first choice during an expedition? It’s not because of the optical properties, which are excellent for a zoom lens in this price range. The weakness of that lens is the continuous focusing speed. It’s not suited very well for birds in flight.
Alongside the telephoto lens, something wider always has a place in my bag. My long-term project is to photograph animals with a wide angle lens. I like it when the photo also shows the environment the animal inhabits. But this poses completely different challenges for the photographer. Not every animal is happy when you stick a wide-angle lens right under its beak.
For a long time, I’ve had a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 in my backpack. It was a fine lens for the D500, although not without some issues. However, now that the Z9 is my main body, I will probably switch to the Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4 S (our review).
The Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G Fisheye will probably meet a similar fate. I have not yet met a bird that would tolerate the front lens of this lens pushed all the way to the tip of its beak, but snakes and frogs are more forgiving of this method of photography. I’ll need to find a substitute for the Z9 at some point.
I must confess one thing. Would you believe that until recently I didn’t own any lens in the classic 24-XXXmm range? I only bought a Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S a month ago, but I’m already excited. For travel photography, this range is invaluable. About a week ago, I even used the 24mm focal length to photograph blue-footed boobies with great results.
Although my main interest is bird photography, I don’t ignore the existence of small creatures requiring the use of a macro lens. My photo bag currently contains a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 OS Macro, although I’m planning to replace it with the Nikon Z MC 105mm f/2.8 Macro lens. After playing with it for a while, I was impressed with the results.
For a bird photographer, often no lens is long enough. That’s why I always carry the TC-14E II teleconverter in my bag. It doesn’t really click with the 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, but if I use my 400mm f/2.8, it’s almost glued to the lens. Combined with the D500, you get a field of view equivalent to 840mm focal length with f/4 aperture, which is great for long range while maintaining high speed.
Which cards are good for photographing wildlife? Fast ones – very fast. You definitely don’t want to wait nerve-wracking seconds after one sequence before you can keep shooting.
My Z9 is now loaded with a Delkin 256GB POWER CFexpress Type B card. It’s not quite as fast as some cards out there, although at the time I bought it, that card had the best price/performance ratio I could find.
Just as important as the speed of the card is its capacity. You’ve probably experienced the “FULL” message flashing on your display just when the subject was at its best, especially if you’re a wildlife photographer.
Tripods and Stands
Although the 500mm f/5.6 lens is light as a feather (so to speak), a tripod is still an invaluable tool. There’s no better way to hold your camera in place while waiting for some action.
When I’m photographing kingfishers at the nesting burrow, waiting for toucans near the feeder, or capturing hummingbirds at a flower, I would never be caught without my tripod.
Still, I’m trying to shave grams off of that piece of gear as well. I no longer use an aluminum Manfrotto, but rather a used carbon fiber Gitzo Systematic. Lately, I’ve even been using a carbon fiber travel tripod from Peak Design. It’s not built like a tank, but when folded up, it resembles a baguette in shape, size and almost in weight.
The tripod also includes a reverse ball head, which I use when I’m not shooting with a telephoto lens. Usually, though, I mount my trusted (see our review). It looks a bit odd on a travel tripod, but it works very well.
For some birds like hummingbirds, I will hold one of their flowers in place using a light stand and a Wimberly Plamp (that’s what they call it). This lets me position a hummingbird’s flower to get better background colors and light, without resorting to a hummingbird feeder. A cheap alternative would be electrician’s tape or cable ties.
Seeing and not being seen – that’s what it’s all about. For this, I usually use a simple “sniper” scarf of about 2 x 2 meters. It weighs almost nothing, and with a little effort, I can fit under it with all my gear.
The problem is that the piercing eyes of birds can often detect me under this cover, so I prefer to use a dedicated photo tent called the Tragopan V6. In the photo tent, I don’t have to sit completely still, and birds usually ignore me. The downside is of course the weight and size.
I also use camouflage clothing, so in the field I sometimes look more like a soldier than a photographer. When I tore my civilian-looking trousers in the Colombian forest and had to buy new ones in Bogotá, the soldiers assured me that they wouldn’t shoot at me, saying that their enemies were using quite a different pattern. That was very reassuring.
Other Important Things
Spare Battery: Although I find the battery in the Z9 almost bottomless, I realize that it’s only a matter of time before I end up shooting too much one day. Especially if you’re recording video, you need to keep in mind that battery power vanishes like water in the desert. Oh well, I’ve convinced myself to go order a second battery at some point.
Binoculars: Models with a large objective lens diameter are certainly great, especially when light is scarce. But when I’m carrying a camera, there’s not much room for large binoculars. The ideal magnification will be between 8x and 10x, and the objective lens diameter somewhere around 30. An optically excellent, yet relatively compact binocular is the Nikon 10×30 Monarch HG.
Bluetooth Speaker And Smart Phone: Can be helpful in attracting birds to my vicinity. If you imitate a bird call or use a speaker to play one of their calls, you have a chance that a bird (sometimes an angry male) will come to see you. But beware, this trick must be used with caution so as not to interfere too much in the birds’ lives.
Swiss Army Knife And Machete: The tools that are invaluable in the field. If you don’t already have a machete, the best place to buy one is at any hardware store in South America for around $5 (not counting the cost of the plane ticket).
A Piece Of Mattress To Sit On: You’ll be much better able to concentrate on your photography if you keep your butt dry, warm, and parasite-free if possible. I use a small piece of mattress that I’ve cut off and placed in your photo backpack.
Headlamp: A good headlamp will help you get home if you stay in the field after dark. There’s one from Fenix in my photo backpack. A quality and durable flashlight, named after a mythical bird? Count me in.
Optics Cleaning Kit: When you scramble through dense tropical vegetation or lie in the mud with your camera, it will need occasional cleaning. A rag for coarse dirt, a Lenspen and a microfiber cloth for fine debris.
Repellent: So that you don’t get chased away from the photography by bloodthirsty insects, a repellent with a higher DEET content can be very useful. Just be careful not to splash your camera too. While some repellents are effective at repelling insects, they also work just as well at removing the lettering on your camera’s buttons. I’d rather not imagine what repellent does to the lens glass.
Food And Water: I think it was the famous documentary photographer Antonin Kratochvil who once said that “chow is the gasoline of the photographer.”
First Aid Kit: I usually only keep band-aids in there for minor scratches, or a tourniquet and foam to stop the bleeding if I cut off my own leg with a machete instead of a branch. Plus disinfectant and water treatment drops so I don’t have to take too much of it into the field.
With that, my list of what’s in my photo backpack has come to an end. How about you, would you open up your photo backpack for me and other readers to take a peek inside? If there’s anything in there that would make being outdoors and taking photos easier or more enjoyable, I would be very happy if you would share it in the comments below. I wish you good light!