Dozens of cameras, hundreds of lenses, and thousands of photography accessories have passed through our team’s hands at Photography Life. But what gear do we personally use? We’ll be answering that question with a series of articles from some of our team members. Today, in the first of those articles, I’ll start with my own equipment.
I should mention that I’ve held off on writing this article for a while, because I think photographers tend to read way too much into one another’s choice of gear. My photos wouldn’t be meaningfully different if I shot with Canon or Sony instead of Nikon, or crop-sensor instead of full-frame. Most equipment is interchangeable with at least one or two other products out there. It’s the photographer that matters at the end of the day.
But with the volume of questions I get regarding my camera kit, it’s clear that there’s some interest in hearing what gear a professional nature photographer uses in practice. The camera accessories are probably the most important part of this article, because everyone under the sun is trying to sell you some new gadget, and I only find a handful of them to actually be useful.
Rather than filling the article below with a million affiliate links to Amazon or B&H, I’ve compiled everything into one B&H wishlist later in the article. For gear that’s no longer available new, I’ve either linked to its eBay page or added the newer version to the B&H list, where relevant. If you buy any camera gear through these links, eBay or B&H will return one to four percent of the item’s price to Photography Life. It sounds small, but it’s an easy way to thank us without any extra expense on your end.
My Digital Camera Equipment
I actively use one DSLR and two mirrorless cameras, plus a GoPro Hero 8 and an iPhone 11 that I sometimes use to film our YouTube videos. I also use a DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, which has a 1-inch type sensor, for both stills and video.
My interchangeable lens cameras are the Nikon Z6, Nikon Z7, and an infrared-converted Nikon D7000. I ordered the Z7 the day it was announced and sold my DSLR at the time, the Nikon D800E. The IR-converted D7000 is a new addition to my bag; I mainly use the Z6 and Z7 day-to-day.
The Nikon Z6 is my primary camera for filming our YouTube videos and doing astrophotography. It’s also my backup camera for international trips. On the other hand, the Z7 is my preferred camera for landscape photography, at least when I’m shooting digital rather than large format film (more on that later).
As time marches on and Nikon keeps improving the Z system, the original Z6 and Z7 may be looking a bit outdated. They’re also no longer available new, and are only found on eBay: Z6 here and Z7 here. For my landscape photography, though, jumping up to a Z7 II wouldn’t solve very many problems. Maybe I’ll switch to the eventual Z7 III depending on its features.
Considering the high marks I gave the Z9 in our review, you may be wondering if I switched to it or not. The answer is no. Upgrading to a Z9 would be nice for the astrophotography features, but my goal with my digital kit is to be lightweight for long hikes and international travel. I don’t intend to get a Z9 unless I start to do more wildlife photography.
Why Nikon rather than Canon or Sony? In part, I love the Z lenses and the potential of the massive Nikon Z mount. But mainly, it’s because of inertia. I’ve shot with Nikon since my first DSLR, the D5100, and by now I know their cameras like the back of my hand. Switching to other brands rarely gains you anything other than a lighter wallet, and Nikon seems to have a good future in front of them anyway. For now, I have no thoughts of switching.
For the Z6 and Z7, I just use three lenses right now: the 14-30mm f/4, 24-200mm f/4-6.3, and F-mount 105mm f/2.8 Macro. Since I usually don’t carry along the macro lens, my primary kit is just two lenses.
That’s obviously quite slim, but again, my whole point with digital these days is to go light. This kit covers all the focal lengths I need (14 to 200mm) with very good image quality, even though the lenses aren’t as sharp as many of Nikon’s Z-series primes or their f/2.8 zoom trio. I find that at landscape apertures like f/8, f/11, and f/16, the differences aren’t massive, and these two lenses are easily sharp enough for large prints.
I still have a few DSLR lenses lying around that I’m meaning to sell, none of which have seen much use recently. My DSLR kit used to be the Nikon 20mm f/1.8G, Nikon 35mm f/1.8G, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, and Nikon 70-200mm f/4 (plus the same 105mm macro lens). Between the two kits, the Nikon Z lenses are lighter and cover more focal lengths, so I’m glad I switched. As a landscape photographer, I just don’t need wide apertures, even for astrophotography (where I prefer to use image stacking anyway).
I don’t shoot as much macro photography these days, but if I did, I would strongly consider switching to the Z-series 105mm f/2.8 Macro. The DSLR 105mm macro lens that I have is great, but the Z lens is one of the best I’ve ever tested, and it’s a bit lighter between the two.
3. Tripod and Head
I’ve used the RRS TVC-24 tripod for ages, and I expect it’s going to outlast me. This thing is built like a tank despite weighing only a bit more than the Nikon Z9! I disassemble and clean it once or twice a year, and other than that, it doesn’t ask for anything.
I use two tripod heads. The RRS BH-40 ballhead is my main head for the digital kit. It’s light and doesn’t have any appreciable sag when I lock it down. Like the tripod, I expect that it will last forever.
My other tripod head is the Arca Swiss Cube. This tripod head is no joke, as one of the biggest geared heads on the market today. It’s heavy, expensive, and a bit exposed to the elements. (Any time I use it in the desert, I need to be very careful about cleaning sand out of the gears afterwards.) I almost never use the Cube with my Nikon Z cameras, because it’s complete overkill. Instead, I use it with large format film, since it makes it a thousand times easier to do tiny compositional adjustments compared to a ballhead, especially on the massive cameras I use.
In terms of tripod accessories, there are two that are part of my kit today. The RRS TVC-24 tripod has an optional center column, which reduces the setup’s stability a bit, but is invaluable for filming tutorials on our YouTube channel. (Otherwise, the angle is just too low when filming myself teaching.) The other accessory is the Arca Swiss Quick Link Set, which I reviewed here. It lets me swap between the two tripod heads easily, and more importantly, store the Cube in a more protected pocket of my backpack when hiking in dusty conditions. I also have some claw-style tripod feet somewhere that I usually forget to carry along.
4. Computer Software and Hardware
I tried to quit Adobe! I really did. I tested out ON1, Capture One, Luminar, and a few other alternatives, but I kept going back to Lightroom and Photoshop. Even though I’m averse to subscription software out of principle, it helps that Adobe has held firm on their $10/month price over time, which I didn’t expect. At this point, I’m too deep in the ecosystem to quit.
The only other software I use on occasion for photo editing is Nik Silver Efex, a plugin from DxO. I haven’t really been tempted by the various other software options out there, even the AI noise reduction or sharpening algorithms that are surprisingly powerful. Maybe one day when I need to make a ten-foot wide print, I’ll change my mind.
For editing our YouTube videos, I use Final Cut Pro and couldn’t be happier. It’s a big step up from any video editors I’ve used in the past. I get music for our videos from a stock site called Artlist.
As for computer hardware, I use a 2017 iMac Pro desktop and a 2020 MacBook Air laptop. Most of my photo and video editing is done on the desktop, and I write Photography Life’s articles from either device. For storing my photos and videos, I have a QNAP with 32 TB of removable storage that backs up live to a Synology across the room. I back up my photos online to Backblaze. The QNAP connects to my iMac via a 10 Gigabit ethernet port, so I’ve been able to edit 4K videos from the external drive without a problem. It’s overkill for photographers who don’t do any filmmaking, though.
5. Camera Bags
I have more camera bags than I can count, but the main ones I use these days are almost all dedicated hiking backpacks with inserts from F-Stop Gear or Shimoda. After testing almost every type of camera bag under the sun, I’ve found that hikers do it better, and most camera bags (even the best from F-Stop Gear) don’t hold a candle to their comfort for long hikes.
My favorite hiking backpack company is Gregory. I’ve bought three of their backpacks of different sizes, both for my film and digital kits. They have good access to camera equipment and excellent comfort, although they’re on the big side for a hiking pack. The Gregory Baltoro 65 is my main hiking pack, although I also have the 85 and 95 liter versions for my different film kits.
When I’m not going on a long hike, those bags are overkill. Any small hiking pack in the 30-40 liter range will do. I use one from REI that isn’t well-suited for long hikes but is great for travel. If I’m in a city, I use a small messenger bag from Think Tank that fits my Z7 and both of my lenses.
6. Other Accessories
As for the rest of my camera accessories, I don’t really have many for the Nikon Z kit. Here’s a list:
- Nikon EN-EL15 battery chargers (3)
- Dual battery charger for EN-EL15 batteries (Watson Mini)
- About eight EN-EL15 batteries, including some knock-offs
- Two 128 GB Sony XQD cards, one 64 GB Sony XQD, and a CFExpress card reader
- One B+W Nano polarizing filter for each Nikon Z lens (82mm and 67mm)
- RRS L-brackets for both Nikon Z cameras (lightweight version)
- Venus Optics KX-800 dual flash for macro photography, with an Angler pop-up flash diffuser
- MIOPS Lightning trigger that I forgot at home the one time I photographed lightning
- Sensor gel stick and Photographic Solutions wet-cleaning products to remove sensor dust
- Lots of lens cloths and sprays to clean the lens
- Rode VideoMic Pro microphone and windscreen
- Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker for deep sky astrophotography
- Apps for my phone, especially offline maps (maps.me) and an astro app (PhotoPills)
- Various hiking and camping gear
It’s rare that I bring along all of that. The star tracker, lightning trigger, and microphone in particular only go in my bag when there’s something specific I intend to photograph.
Also, I no longer use any filters for my digital kit other than a polarizer. I do have a full Lee filter system and a ton of 100×100 and 150×100 filters, which I use for film. Technically they could fit on the digital system too, but I never use them for that purpose. When I need more dynamic range or the appearance of a long exposure, I just use the technique of AHDR.
Another accessory you may be surprised to hear that I don’t use is a remote shutter release. I find that one second of exposure delay mode is all I need to eliminate camera shake caused by pressing the shutter button. There are other uses of a remote shutter release, but none of them are important for my work.
I don’t have a printer because at the moment, I don’t have room in my apartment for the size printer I’d like. I tend to print via BayPhoto, unless I’m shooting film, in which case I print by hand in my darkroom.
So, that’s it! I’ve compiled the full list of my gear here if you’re curious about pricing and availability:
My Large Format Film Equipment
If you’re an avid reader of Photography Life, you may have seen that I’ve been shooting a lot of large format film recently. I’ve even switched to shooting film for my main landscape photography kit. It may sound like an odd approach in the digital world, but I made this choice after falling in love with the process and the sheer image quality possible with a good large format kit. (More on my reasons here.)
I don’t want to bore our digital audience with a long treatise on my sprawling film equipment. I’ll put it into a list instead, but feel free to ask me in the comments if you want any details about this equipment or anything else related to large format film:
- Chamonix 4×5 large format camera
- Nikkor-SW 90mm f/8
- Rodenstock Sironar-N 150mm f/5.6
- Nikkor-M 300mm f/9
- Chamonix 8×10 large format camera
- Schneider 150mm f/5.6 XL
- Computar 165mm f/9 (rear element of 150mm and front element of 210mm Computar lenses)
- Fujinon 210mm f/5.6, older version (also used on 4×5)
- Schneider G-Claron 305mm f/9
- Chamonix 12×20 ultra-large format camera
- Computar 270mm f/9
- Schneider G-Claron 355mm f/9
- Nikkor Q 450mm f/9 (also used on 8×10)
- Fujinon C 600mm f/11.5 (also used on 8×10)
- Goerz Red Dot Artar 30” (762mm f/16 equivalent in my Copal 3 shutter)
- A different company’s 11×14 ultra-large format camera, but I don’t like it and intend to sell it once I shoot the rest of my 11×14 film
- Lots of film holders, mostly from Toyo and Chamonix
- All manner of negative and slide film, stored in a freezer
- Large Harrison dark cloth
- Various cable releases up to 30” long
- Pentax digital spot meter
- “Film Shots” app on my phone to keep track of exposures
- Lee filter holding system for 100mm rectangular filters
- Red, orange, yellow, and green color filters for black and white
- Singh-Ray warming polarizer
- Nisi 2-stop and 3-stop graduated filters
- Lee 6-stop ND filter
- Various darkroom chemicals, processing trays, and paper (mostly fiber-based glossy) for at-home printing
- Epson V850 and 11000XL scanners for up to 11×14 scanning
- Negative Lab Pro and VueScan for scanning software
I don’t see a good way on eBay to compile all of that into a list for you, and it would be a big mess anyway if I could! But if you want to buy any of this equipment in a way that gives us a small cut, you can still use our generic eBay link here.
Camera gear can be highly overrated, but I still think it’s valuable to know what working pros use, if only to see how many accessories aren’t needed. I also find photographers’ choices of lenses to be an interesting look into their priorities.
For me, the camera kit I take along depends on the situation, but I try my best to always bring the biggest, highest-quality imaging device possible for any given shot. That tends to be my lightweight Nikon Z setup for long hikes and international travel, but I ramp up to 4×5 film, 8×10 film, and eventually my behemoth 12×20 camera and lenses whenever I can.
The thing is, everyone approaches photography differently. In the upcoming “what’s in my bag” articles from other members of the Photography Life team, you’ll see that no two photographers have the same approach, even if they shoot the same subjects. And that’s because there isn’t such a thing as a best camera kit, but simply the right camera kit for you. Hopefully this article helped you along in that search.
Hi Spencer, thanks for sharing your kit. I find your articles very calm and matter of fact in their approach. It’s as if you are chatting over a coffee! I have just bought a preloved Nikon D810 and 14-28mm f2.8 after months of research, including this site. Budget and supply limitations in New Zealand limited the choices somewhat. Many thanks to you and your team for the advice and help.
If you ever come to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, please call in for a coffee!
Have you tried Darktable? It’s available on Linux, Mac and Windows. I still use Irfanview on Windows, excellent tool, simple and free. I’d love to see your comments and a write up on Darktable, it’s very powerful and similar to adobe products, but completely free and open source, I just haven’t taken the time to learn it. My son has and uses it in place of adobe. www.darktable.org/ and www.irfanview.com/
When I started reading the article, I made a list of what I thought would be in your bag and I was really interested to hear that you are using the f/4 zooms.
Are you using the 14-30mm f/4 for astro photography? How many images are you taking for a single stacked image?
Yes, the 14-30mm f/4 works well for Milky Way photography. I usually stack for about 2 minutes of total exposure, with 6-second exposures to completely eliminate star trails. So, 20 photos total.
I’d do the same even if I had the 14-24mm f/2.8, including using f/4 to get more depth of field in many cases.
Thanks so much for sharing…I will be trying what you suggest (with different lenses) the next night I am out.
Loved the article! I’ve been looking at cloud storage providers to back up vids/photos/Lr Library, etc. How has BackBlaze been? Do you have any pros/cons? It reads and sounds too good to be true.
Thanks Dave, I don’t have much experience comparing Backblaze to other options, so take my opinion for what it’s worth. I’ve found that it slows down my internet when backing up a large batch of images. There’s also no way I’m able to back up all my videos online (which are about 12 TB), so it’s photos only. I had to restore from these backups once, and the process was smooth but slow. It’s good peace of mind, if nothing else. I wouldn’t want to be without online backups in case something happens to my apartment.
Appreciate the input. Also looking at iDrive, seems comparable, I think. I currently use Amazon Drive/photos but they are decomm’ing the “drive” part, which was the feature I liked best. Thanks again!
I knew there was a reason I liked you.
Thank you, Vic – the feeling is mutual!
Nothing to do with your gear choices, but every time I read, “…and never looked back”, I deduct 10 points from whatever IQ I would have assumed from all other evidence.
Why? It’s not my most elegant sentence, but it seems like a small thing to get that bothered about.
If you were to record my speech, there would be a lot of umms and similarly useless tics, words and phrases, but when writing, I focus on what I want to say, typically spending at least twice as much time editing as in the original composition, writing and rewriting, considering every word and combination of words in a quest to convey my meaning unambiguously and with the fewest words possible. You’d laugh to hear how long it took me to get this far! Every word has to earn its keep and if not, is replaced or omitted. Phrases like “and never looked back” don’t mean anything. If you had any regrets, you would express them or switch back to DSLR, but you didn’t. Is it such a common theme in your life, you felt the necessity to inform us it didn’t happen this time? What am I supposed to do with this knowledge? ‘Well… since Spencer didn’t look back, I guess I’ll switch to mirrorless’. Or an EV. Or Pepsi.
And don’t get me started on “XYZ is the future!”
You’re clearly a talented photographer, but your job here is author, crafting written compositions, telling a story with simplicity and your ‘most elegant sentences’.
Based on your first comment, I thought there was a good chance you were trolling. I don’t think that after your second comment. You’re right, writing is a lot like composing a photo. An article needs to ebb and flow, and it should get the point across without anything that takes away from the message.
I try to aim for “book quality” writing with my articles on creativity and composition. For quicker articles like this one, I still aim for high quality, but I don’t agonize over each sentence in the same way, nor try to make each article read poetically. The pace of articles on Photography Life would slow dramatically if I did. (Since I’m the site’s editor, it wouldn’t just be my articles that slowed, either.)
Sometimes that means clichés like “never looked back” appear in my articles, but I do try to minimize them. I’ve been called out for saying “as far as” and “to be honest” before, and now you’ll rarely, if ever, see those phrases in my articles – as far as I know, at least :)
I’ve reworded the paragraph with “never looked back.” I think it reads better now. More importantly for you (and for my already precarious IQ), I guarantee that the next time I’m tempted to write “never looked back,” I will look back on this conversation and phrase the sentence differently.
I found Pat’s original comment and his reply to be highly offensive. His arrogance is unearned. Based on his short comments, his writing style leaves a lot to be desired, and makes his own IQ come into question. The phrase ‘never looked back’ certainly does have meaning and does convey something of the author’s feelings about his subject. If I were you Spencer, I’d disregard everything he said and not let it change your writing style in the slightest. So called clichés seem familiar for a reason; sometimes they are the best way of saying something. I hope that you will put your essay back the way it was before this person’s comments.
Thank you, Elaine, that’s helpful for the future. I think he correctly identified a sentence in the article that was only so-so. No matter what Pat or anyone else said, I wouldn’t have changed it if I liked it.
I agree with you about clichés. They can be the best way to say something. Pat seems to hate the phrase “X is the future,” but I find it a valuable way to word sentences sometimes: “Automatic lens corrections may be the future, but I wish Lightroom had the option to disable them.” I guess some phrases just bother some people more than others.
Also, you’re right that “never looked back” conveys useful information, even though in this case, I think there was a better way to word that specific sentence.
Actually, I have no issue with your example, “…may be the future….” Emphatically stating that something “is” the future, is inherently incorrect. Since no one can know the future, it can only be a guess even if one guesses correctly, which your phrase states.
Sorry … I couldn’t resist.
This person appreciates your perspective. While I still despise the phrase, I could have certainly stated it better. Unfortunately, its presence in the article was the “last straw” for me. ;-)
;-) Back at ‘ya! Now that you’ve used your last straw, what will you do next when something does not please you?
Oh no! That was the last straw in my “never looked back” basket! I have bushels of straws in other baskets! 😎
Somebody pissed in Pat’s Cheerios… Just ignore him. This is one of the best photo sites on the web, and “never looked back” conveys much meaning to me.
My mountain hiking landscape kit is quite similar to yours! I switched to Z from F for lightness, that’s the point. So I use the 14-30 plus the 105 MC too, and nothing else. If I plan to go to an area with potential wild animals encounters, I exchange the 105 MC for the 100-400 plus the 2X TC. And that’s all. Of course I have also other lenses for night use, portraits, etc (namely the Z 20/1.8, 50/1.2 and the 24-70/4 that came with the Z6 kit), but for landscape use I agree that the two/three above are all that is needed for 99% of the situations, and the rest stays home.
That’s awesome! The 14-30mm is really great for those situations, and the Z 105mm macro is one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever tested, including at landscape distances. Like you, I have more Z and F lenses (mostly ones I haven’t sold yet) but just don’t use them for my landscapes any more.
You guys have me thinking. I’ve been carrying the 24mm f1.8 S line and my older 85mm F1.8 G when backpacking. I’m waiting for Nikon to release a 70-200mm F4 that is collapsible like the Canon RF version. The recently announced Tamron 70-300 has me curious, but now you guys make me wonder if I should consider the 105 MC too. But I really want that 70-200!!! Come on Nikon! I like carrying the 24mm prime bc then I have one fast lens while backpacking and generally don’t stop enough to need a wider lens. I feel like the wider you go, the slower the composition process can take since you need to be closer to the subject.
And I’m generally on the move too fast to stop frequently and hunt for those wider compositions but I may still need to pick up the 14-30 at some point . Plus with the Z7II you can crop out the almost 90% of the frame and still get a usable image at monitor resolutions if you’re trying to have some reach even with a 24mm prime. Anyway, happy trails.
I find it pretty interesting that you have many more LF manual lenses than AF lenses for your Nikon Z setup, which I (possibly wrongly) assume is your main pro equipment. I only ever used one lens with my LF camera (when I had it, never really got into it) while I find it much harder to resist to GAS when it comes to those amazing modern mirrorless lenses being released.
At least your post shows that it is not necessary to own a whole collection of fast, bulky and expensive lenses to be succesful in taking great photographs. I knew it but please don’t tell my wife ;-)
That is interesting now that you mention it!
My basic idea is to be able to compose any landscape image I get into my head. I don’t want my lenses to limit that. It’s really easy with the Z system in just two zoom lenses, whereas with large format, I pretty much need a full set of primes for each system.
I wouldn’t say that either digital or film is my primary system, I just use them for different purposes. If I can bring along film and maximize image quality, I do, but if not, the digital kit has excellent image quality anyway.
How do you find the Nikkor-SW 90mm f/8 when it comes to focusing, especially in early morning and later evening situations? I’ve often thought of getting a 90mm but have always gone back and forth on whether I want something lighter – like the f/8 – or something with a bit wider of an aperture – like the f/4.5.
Would be curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.
I love that lens – it’s the perfect focal length and has great coverage. But it’s very dim actually. I just got a new fresnel that’s quite bright, so focusing isn’t a big issue. But with the basic ground glass or even a rudimentary fresnel, I think the f/4.5 would be easier to deal with.