So for the final bit of introductory discussion on gear, I’d like to answer that second question I get asked quite a bit: “what’s in your bag?”
The truth is, I have access to two different bags (I share gear with my wife, who is a talented, full-time, professional photographer). The first bag I built up over the years beginning with my early photography studies--my wife adding to it, as well, according to her needs as a working professional.
The second bag is more recent and represents my shift to mirrorless systems.
Bag #1: The Canon Bag
When I first started shooting for pay, I was doing everything from model shoots to weddings to accident scenes. I was just hustling to help pay my bills while I was a student. I also worked full-time (40+ hours per week) in luxury hotels, and kept a full-time student’s schedule. It was nuts. But I decided early on that I wanted my lenses to be the best part of my bag. Why? Well, quality glass and big apertures can open up a lot of creative space. That’s also what you need to shoot a wedding and not worry every time you changed settings or were thrown curve balls. Especially back when digital technology was still launching and most of us were transitioning away from film. And being so busy, I didn't have hours and hours to give to a shoot to ensure I didn't make mistakes.
Being on a student's budget and deciding that the quality in the bag would be focused on lens quality meant that I would have to make tradeoffs almost everywhere else. But as I was focusing on my preferred method and values, I was fine with that.
Also, as someone who always wanted to avoid flash whenever possible, I needed to make additional tradeoffs and be willing to work hard to acquire fast lenses (even though they were more costly). "Fast" lenses are lenses that allow for wider apertures (which is, to add further confusion, denoted with a smaller aperture number on the lens). A 1.2 aperture lens is much costlier than a 5.6 aperture lens, all other factors being equal. But that 1.4 aperture lens can let in a lot more light, and opens up some brilliant creative options for the photographer.
While I liked the Nikon bodies a lot better than Canon, I really loved working with Canon lenses. I’m not a maniac about it at all, though, even all these years later (I still like Nikon bodies better).
IIn the bag:
1. L 24-70 (2.8 aperture)
2. L 70-200 IS (2.8 aperture)
3. L 85 (1.2 aperture)
4. L 135 (2.0 aperture)
5. Canon 5DMark2
6. Canon 50D (backup body)
7. A few TTL Flash units
9. Some lighting gear (stands, soft boxes, umbrellas, etc)
10. Tons of batteries and cards.
This bag is fun. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. It contains two of the best prime lenses Canon has ever produced (the 85mm and the 135mm). Short of medium format quality, I can shoot just about anything in the world with this if I need to.
It’s also big, bulky, and moderately intrusive. Not a big deal for weddings, which is where this kit really shines. But for documentary style work I actually reach it’s limitations very quickly.
I can screech entire personal conversations to halt when that 85mm keg lens starts baring down on a human. I have a whole drawer full of beautiful photos—with perfect bokeh—of people looking like I was about to swerve at them with a semi truck.
Bag #2: The Fuji Bag
To understand why I have largely switched over to Fuji, you have to understand my roots. When I first started studying photography in Los Angeles, I was lent a Leica film camera and a 50mm lens. I also shot with a Canon film camera with a 50mm lens. While the Canon was exciting (and I owned it), the Leica was something…special. It was love.
The Leica rangefinder gave me incredible image quality, but also the ability to be almost completely invisible. I could stand right next to a father and a bride crying together and they wouldn’t even pay attention to me. I could shoot couples on the streets of LA and they wouldn’t break eye contact with each other. I talked my way into buddhist temples and mosques, during services, to shoot documentary photos. I became fast at operating my camera as a fully manual device. For about 8 weeks I was in a kind of photography heaven. I think I shot about a roll of film a day with that Leica, and had to wait weeks to get some of those rolls developed on my student's budget.
Then it was time to return the Leica. I felt like I had lost a part of me. I still went on and made some great images. I shot the hell out of my Canon. I began building a bag. I worked hard and bought better and better lenses second-hand from older photographers. And I was so grateful for it. But I never bonded to the autofocus, program modes, and electronic viewfinder design of the Canon the way I did the old rangefinder.
More than anything, I missed the “soul” of the Leica. It wasn’t the gear itself—it was how I could use it. Without realizing it, I had developed a creative workflow around that rangefinder and nothing else could come close to it. And it burned deep inside of me, like a hot brand into a steer, the sense of adventure and art that could be had with a tiny manual camera, fast lenses, great image quality, and authentic lighting.
Quite by accident, it also built my confidence very quickly, which is a huge step for all photographers to make in their photographic coming of age.
Years went by. Way too many. The digital revolution took hold, as did the dominance of DSLRs across the photographic world. Professional cameras were getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
35mm film wheezed, gasped, and died.
While the Leica lenses remain as amazing as ever, the bodies turned toward the absurd. A digital Leica body runs $5k to $10k and doesn’t offer any true horsepower to back up the price. Not only did it keep me out of Leica, but it kept too many shooters away from a size and format that might have become so meaningful to them.
But then, when all seemed bleak, a single photon of light appeared in the photographic universe. It was called, “Mirrorless”. And in a very short amount of time that light ripped through and began to effect EVERYTHING.
Practically, it meant that the “soul” of the rangefinder could be re-animated. You could pack superb image quality and lenses into sturdy, small camera bodies, and put sensors in them big enough to perform excellently in low light. It was a brilliant marriage of new technology with time-tested form factors. And it was small enough to begin moving the needle back toward greater “anonymity” for photographers who didn’t always want to be influencing the behavior of their subjects with the hulk of their gear.
So after months of tracking the technology, and research into the systems that might best support their mirrorless technology offerings, I ended up selecting Fuji. There were two main reasons for my choice—they seemed to best tap into the old Leica soul, and they have stunning lens quality at a price point much lower than Leica (and some of the fuji lenses give the Leica lenses a legitimate run for their money).
For the first time since I returned the Leica, I feel like my camera disappears in my hands. I’ll shoot at a wedding for hours and nothing about my equipment has consumed any of my attention. It’s just an extension of my eyes and my mind. I think I’ve used the autofocus system all of 12 times, total, and have only used the cameras in their manual modes. I still face plenty of photographic frustrations, but none of them are directed at my equipment.
I have acquired two bodies and three fast prime lenses--and that’s all. No big flash units (I can use the Canon bag if I must, but I probably won’t except for rare occasion). No compulsion to buy every lens in the store. Or fifteen different accessories. Or whatever. Just a tool to photograph that can stay with me as often as as possible.
In the bag:
1. Fuji X100s camera (35mm fixed length) (2.0 aperture)
2. Fuji XT1 camera body.
3. Fuji XF 56mm lens (practical 85mm) (1.2 aperture)
4. Fuji XF 35mm lens (practical 50mm) (1.4 aperture)
5. Fuji XF 23mm lens (practical 35mm) (1.4 aperture)
Other than the X100s, all the other equipment was acquired used and at deep discounts (and most were in unbelievable condition). I sold a Canon L lens to fund the X100s, and it was a great sacrifice to make.
The three Fuji prime lenses provide outstanding image quality. Truly outstanding. Everything is sturdy and well made (almost all metal construction, including the lenses).
I’ve been shooting this bag constantly since I acquired it. You couldn’t pry it out of my hands. The pixel peeping crowd will scoff at this due to the cropped sensor in the fujis, but I don’t mind a bit. If I need a high octane bag for one commission or another, the Canon bag is beautiful and effective. But I don’t feel limited by the sensor size for a moment. In fact, I feel free.
I didn’t need to buy expensive lighting kits, so I didn’t. I didn’t need to invest in full-frame-everything, so I didn’t. I didn’t want my bag cluttered with lenses, so I didn’t load up. I didn’t need to buy it all shiny and new, so I didn’t. And I feel…great.
Why did I take the time to write all this out? Well, the theme of this blog is about the ideas behind good photography that can lead us to pick up any piece of equipment, anywhere in the world, and shoot photographs that have meaning. And so with the all the consumerist frenzy around gear buying that has come to define the digital revolution in photography, I think it’s important to hit all the specs and numbers and focus charts with the simple stick, as hard as possible, and look back at that soul of a camera and think about how we use it, and to match our shooting style with the gear that gets the hell out of our way.
You see, for almost three years before the Fujis came along for me, 90% of my images were shot on—you guessed it—my iPhone. Why? Because it took good enough quality images, and it was always on me. I didn’t intend to shoot that much with it, I just did. It had no soul as a camera, and it was unprofessional to use on commissions (obviously), but outside of professional obligations it was simply in my hands whenever I needed to make a photograph of something.
Egypt fell to pieces and much of the country was covering the event photojournalistically from their iPhone cameras. The Arab Spring and Occupy protests were deeply documented on Instagram, Twitter, and social gathering sites.
But I felt my limitations with the iPhone dearly. I deeply missed some of my critical creative controls. And I missed something that felt as if it was designed to make photographs. I even missed working with RAW files (but not storing them…).
And this is the exact process that photographers can follow to find their perfect bag. It's the methodology outlined in the post "What Camera Should I buy", just expressed through human experience.
And it’s anchored in the simple questions about how we, as individual photographers, actually make photographs (not getting swept up in the hot lust of the technologists).
What am I driven to shoot, even if all I have is an iPhone?
What real limitations am I actually bumping up against as I shoot real pictures out in the real world?
What creative controls do I need in order for my camera to disappear in my hands and get out of the way?
Am I meeting my professional expectations and responsibilities as well as cultivating my personal motivation and energy?
It was in following these questions, authentically, that led me to my current photographic equipment.