Sam Nichols is one of SmugMug’s longest-living Sorcerers. In addition to creating mind-blowingly amazing things for you (like our original browser uploader and a little iPhone app called Camera Awesome) he sets the bar pretty high for anyone coveting the title “Camera Nerd.” From large format to Leica, Sam has used them all. We asked him to stop coding long enough to open up his gear bag, and here’s what we found.
What’s in your bag at any given moment?
A Nikon D800e with something wide and sharp (Zeiss 21mm), something versatile and fast (35mm f/1.4) and something tight and isolating (Nikon 85mm f/1.4 or Zeiss 100mm f/2.0) with a solid carbon Gitzo tripod (GT3542LS). I have problems with chasing extremes and found that primes are the sharpest, have the widest apertures, focus the fastest, have the least distortion etc. Versatility be damned I want the best, so those are what fill my bag. I’m liking shooting the 21mm with high aspect ratio crops (6×17) or (land/buliding)scape shots using tighter lenses like the 85mm or 100mm to isolate a subject and compress the background.
The only thing I keep wanting to include but don’t is a 24 Tilt-shift lens. I miss Canon’s 24L TS-E mkII. I loved that tilt-shift lens but Nikon’s 24 tilt-shift offering is older, has less features and isn’t as sharp as the Zeiss 21mm or the Canon.
If you had to grab one lens in a house fire, which would it be?
A 35mm f/1.4 is my jams. I loved it on my Canon full-frame bodies, it was the 1st lens I bought when I switched to a Nikon D800e, and its the only lens I own for my Leica M7. Long ago I started with a Canon 28-135, tried zooms up the wazoo and primes to the horizon eventually settling on 35mm as the sweet spot. I found 50mm too ‘normal’, 85mm was too confining and 24mm was too distracting, 35mm was wide enough to be dramatic without being overwhelming, indoors and out. Its a fast focusing lens (except on the Leica, obviously) and I’m a sucker for thin depth of field. I’ve no complaints on the size either (85mm f/1.2 or 1.4 I’m looking at you). When we go out and I’m just bringing one lens, it’s the 35mm. If we’re going on a trip it’s the first thing in my bag unless there is some reason or limit such that I can’t. :) Mmm, my precioussssss.
Do you have any totally-indulgent, special-occasion favorites?
Film. I take out my Leica M7 with B&W on certain occasions. I also use a medium format 6×17 view camera which forces a dramatic perspective but my film favorite is my large format 4×5 field camera: a Toyo 45AX with Schneider 210mm f/5.6 and Xenotar 150mm f/2.8. In 35mm camera parlance that’s like a ~60mm which is quite sharp and a ~40mm f/1.0! Yes I know I said I don’t like 50mm, but holy poop, f/2.8 on a 4×5 camera has such a shallow depth of field and the lens creates really unique shots. I originally went to large format to force me to slow down and think about the shot. It was a great exercise and I still like taking it with me for the unique images it produces and the different mindset it puts me in while photographing.
Being me, I also tried out the 8×10 format, thinking that if Big means Awesome, then Bigger must be Awesomer. But it turns out there is such a thing as too much and 8×10 just meant heavier and more expensive. However, I’ll still be jamming this into my main kit for an upcoming trip to Utah.
If you could change one thing about DSLR bodies…
High resolution full frame bodies! What happened to high-resolution, full frame pro bodies like the Canon 1DsIII and Nikon D3x? I suspect the problem is that the majority of pro body SLR users use them for sports/event/action/wildlife where you want a high frame-rate which precludes higher resolutions due to bandwidth. Combine that with studio photographers being ‘ok’ with a prosumer full frame body since they don’t need the ruggedness of the pro bodies and demand for the 1DsIII and D3x begins to dry up. But it sucks to be part of that minority who wants all the functionality of the pro bodies but doesn’t care about frame rate. I’d take 3FPS if I could also have > 30MP!
With all this delicious gear you’ve got (literally!) in the bag, is there still something you wish you had?
Digital medium format so hard. There are three things I want above all else: broad dynamic range, smooth tonal gradations (read high bit-depth), high resolution. I don’t care about frame rate, high ISO performance, fast AF (accurate AF is still important), AF points, sync speed, shutter speed, etc. All of that is important for ‘action’. Digital MF crushes those 3 desires, especially with its 16bit files (Nikon and Canon max out at 14bit), give me a 80MP Leaf back and I’ll be your friend forever (maybe), plus I could use the MF back on my large-format camera. The only thing between me and a pile of digital gear is price of course — even the ‘reasonable’ 40MP Hasselblads are in the $20k+ area.
What do you wish you could improve upon?
Actually going out and taking pictures for the sake of taking pictures, and a follow up to that would be actually editing and sharing them. I have a lot of technical knowledge surrounding cameras and photography but I don’t get out very much to actually apply any of that to taking interesting pictures. Sure, I bring my kit along almost every trip we go on and that often results in Goin’ Out To Take Some Pictures, but usually it just means (really good) snapshots. I have the know-how, I have ideas, but for some reason I never find the time. I blame working at SmugMug sucking up all my time. :)
We’ve always said that we love photography, but how can you tell it’s true? We’re busting at the seams with our crazy obsession for all things photo, and some of the most gear-minded folks on our team wanted to bust open their bags and show you what exactly they’re hauling around this year. Or this week. This minute. (You know how it is!)
Today we interviewed Ivan Makarov, SmugMug’s Controller. Since his official title is scarier than sand in a focus ring, we just call him “Uncle Scrooge.” Ivan’s been taking hauntingly beautiful black and white photos for years before he came to SmugMug, and he’s showing us what it takes to capture those now.
Why did you pick the setup that you have?
It took me a few years to put my setup together. I wanted to cover all focal lengths I usually shoot with sharp lenses, and I also wanted it all to fit into a backpack so I can take pictures both in the urban and nature setting. I shoot nature, I shoot architecture, and occasionally I shoot people. So this setup allows me to cover it all.
What’s your #1, go-to, must-have, desert-island item?
I shoot the most with 85mm f/1.4. It’s super sharp, and I’m in love with how it renders out-of-focus areas. The reason why I shoot with that lens a lot is because I have a house full of kids (three little clowns!), so I shoot them all the time. It’s a perfect lens to capture their little lives and faces.
What’s the rarely-seen underdog in your pack?
I hardly ever use a macro lens I own. I knew it from the start and was on the fence about buying it for years. That’s why I went with a Tamron version rather than a Nikon version – I knew I’d shoot with it very rarely. That turned out to be true, but this lens by Tamron is actually pretty good.
Are you an off-brand kinda guy?
I own a Sigma lens and a Tamron lens. They aren’t build as well as Nikon glass, but good enough for a lot of situations, and are often cost half the price.
Confession time! What’s your worst gear fail story?
I was once shooting a portrait of a nephew on the beach using off camera flash. A rogue wave came in, sending fully charged flash into the water. It electrocuted me, and fried the flash right away.
Show us one of your favorite shots and what you used to get it.
To end on a dreamy note, what’s at the top of your wish list?
I would upgrade my Sigma 24-70mm with the Nikon 24-70mm. The Sigma is very soft at f/2.8 and is very slow to autofocus. I do shoot with it quite a bit because it’s pretty sharp after f/5.6. Nikon’s version costs five times as much but the upgrade is probably worth it.
Do you know all those times when you’re out shooting and you run into another photographer? You sneak glances at their gear to see if they measure up to what you’ve got (or because you covet thy neighbor’s glass.) Don’t worry, we all do it!
Now we’re letting you do it shamelessly and without fear of getting caught. Let’s see what SmugMug’s House Pro Andy Williams of Moon River Photography puts in his bag. Read all the way to the bottom — you may just win something…
I’ve owned lots of gear, but my collection has actually shrunk over the years and now I only keep and carry what I actually use.
Let’s start with the bag itself. For years and years, I’ve been using the Crumpler Farmer’s Double and I still love it. It’s my bag of choice for a day trip or short outing. Look for it used, because Crumpler doesn’t make it anymore. :)
For longer trips, I’ve recently settled on the Kiboko bag from Andy Biggs’ Gura Gear. I’ve had the opportunity to try a whole lot of bags – top of the line models from Lowepro, Crumpler, Tenba and Think Tank – and I chose the Gura Gear bag:
It’s super light, made from the same fabric used in America’s Cup sailboat sails! It’s less than half the weight of the big bags from the other guys, and when you carry it all day that makes a big difference. It holds plenty: two bodies, plenty of glass, accessories and more. You can even put a 500mm f/4 in it!
The suspension system is awesome, it rides well, and you feel like you’re carrying much less weight than you actually have. And, it hides when you don’t want to use it. This bag will easily swallow up 35lbs of gear with room to spare. Everything about this bag screams attention to detail – the way the suspension system tucks away out of sight when you’re not using it, the built-in raincover, the zipper pulls that are glove-friendly. They’re out of stock most everywhere right now, but Andy Biggs assures me that he’s got some really cool stuff in store for his fans really soon.
As a landscaper, this is without a doubt one of the most important pieces of gear I own. I recently started using the newest carbon-fiber kit from Really Right Stuff, their TVC-23. Expensive? Yup. But the stability of this rig just can’t be matched by any tripod I’ve used (including the top of the line Gitzos). It’s super strong and super lightweight at only 3lbs. I pair this tripod with the Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead which also supports the lenses that I use regularly (up to 300mm). I do own the larger RRS BH-55 ballhead for when I need to support a 400mm or 500mm lens. For years, I was using the Gitzo 2530, and what I like about the new RRS ‘pods is their stability, and the way the head comes together with its “Apex Lock” system. It is without a doubt the sturdiest, lightest tripod I’ve ever owned.
For traveling, and lightweight (like backpacking), I also have the Gitzo 1541 and a RRS BH-30 which is a super lightweight combo! I shoot lots of panoramas, and so a very important piece of my kit is the Really Right Stuff Pano Head, which I use for stitched panos in the landscape.
I admit I’m a bit of a glass snob. I’ll use primes when I can, but I do love a couple of zooms I own. Let’s go from small to big.
- First off, the Tokina 10-17mm fisheye zoom – super ultrawide on the full-frame 5DII and for really fun landscape videos on the 7D. Sharp and reliable! But… I do have my eye on Canon’s newly announced 8-15mm fisheye zoom though, and expect to be shooting with it this summer.
- Canon’s 24 f/1.4L Mark II – a fantastically sharp wide angle lens, I’m so in love with this glass that I gave up the supremely sharp Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 for it!
- For all-around use, I have one of the very first copies of Canon’s 24-105L and it’s a workhorse lens for me. If I’m out for a day and I can’t take a lot of glass, I’ll grab this.
- For portraits, I have a couple of excellent choices: Canon’s 50 f/1.2L and Canon’s 135 f/2L. Given enough room, I love shooting portraits with the 135L, it’s one of the sharpest lenses ever, bar-none. Love the 50mm 1.2 for it’s ginormous lens opening – and it’s my go-to lens for extreme low-light work.
- More reach? I’m not the first guy to say that Canon’s 70-200 f/2.8L IS Mark II is a favorite. I own it, have owned the prior model, and won’t ever be without it. Super sharp, great IS so you can shoot in low-light when needed. Fast on the AF. And yeah, I use it in the landscape, too.
- Recently, I’ve been using Canon’s newest zoom, 70-300 L IS. It’s not fast (f/5.6 at the long end) but boy is it sharp and what a convenient little package.
- If you’re wondering about birds and wildlife: I don’t own really long glass but when I need it, I usually rent a 500mm f/4L or 600mm f/4L from BorrowLenses. When I travel to Africa for three weeks this October, I’m doing just that!
No surprise here – I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 7D. The 5D Mark II is a super landscaper’s camera, great performance, high pixel count, HD movies, and more. When I need a faster frame rate and a bit faster AF, I reach for the 7D.
Funny, I used to be a 1Ds Mark III snob… but I cannot for the life of me figure out why one would buy that camera body at nearly 3x the cost of a 5D Mark II. Sure, I’m awaiting the rumored 1Ds Mark IV like most Canon shooters, but the sane part of me says, “why”?
Guess what? I own only two, a circular polarizer and a neutral density filter. I use the CPL when I want to get the best sky possible 90 degrees or so from the sun. I will also use it in certain circumstances like fall foliage to get richer colors, and of course to lose reflections when shooting water. I love my 6-stop ND filter, to smooth out the water in a waterfall or running stream in daylight.
On my 5DII and 7D bodies, I add a Camdapter Hand Strap – super comfortable! I always carry my Infrared-converted Canon SD-980IS, camera manuals (you never know!), extra batteries, an intervalometer for timed exposures, a remote shutter release, headlamp, flashlight, shooting gloves for the cold weather, plenty of CF cards, lens cloth, lens cleaner, a mink brush, Giottos mini-Blower, The Photographer’s Rights, my business cards and a leatherman for when things go wrong.
After I shoot there’s plenty to do! I use Adobe’s Lightroom 3 (and SmugMug’s awesome built-in uploading), Photoshop CS5, Auto Pano Pro for my stitches, all on an Apple Mac Pro with two 30″ HP Monitors.
Win This MetalPrint
It’s not all work, and no play though. Now that you’ve gotten a close look at my gear bag, here’s your chance to take home something fun (note: Ts and Cs here). Comment on our blog post below and “Like” us on Facebook. One winner will be randomly selected on Monday, April 18 at Noon PDT to win a big and beautiful MetalPrint of this Mono Lake Tufa photo. You can see how it will look on your wall here.
Enjoy (looking into other photographers’ bags) photography,
UPDATE! We were totally blown away by the response to this giveaway, so we are sharing the love and randomly selecting THREE Winners!
First place, and the winner of the MetalPrint, goes to Darlene Buck. The two Runner Ups, and the winners of a free year of SmugMug Pro each, are Jordan Van de Vorst and Jenny Sipes. Congrats!! Katherine from our team will be emailing you each shortly with details of your prize.
Three things you’ll need:
Compressed air – We use air compressors from Home Depot (<$100) but the smallest compressor you can find is likely up to the task. If you don’t want to splurge on a compressor, there are the ubiquitous cans of compressed air available at any computer store. When using these cans always keep the can level and upright to avoid blowing its liquid propellant onto your lens elements. These chemicals can do weird and potentially harmful things to lens coatings, so please be careful. If you want to avoid chemicals all together, get a bike pump style canister that you pump up then use, or try a simple manual pump like a Giottos Rocket Blower.
Lens cloth – Our favorites are cheap, Promaster-branded microfiber cloths. You’ll notice that some types feel very slick and smooth against the glass and others gain some traction and drag more. We like the kind that has some drag and feels sticky against clean glass.
Cleaning fluid – You shouldn’t need any cleaning fluid except for the most stubborn and difficult cases. Again, we like the Promaster brand because it’s cheap and cheerful. The stuff we use comes in a clear plastic bottle with a pump atomizer spraying attachment.
Your lens is dirty. Now what?
It’s now time to touch the front element of your lens and clean it. If you are worried about rubbing the coating off, don’t be. We’ve never seen it happen, ever.
To clean a lens’ front element all you need is a set of lungs and a lens cloth.
1. Breathe on the lens enough to fog the whole element, then wipe the lens with a good amount of force in a circular fashion. You’ll likely be left with a smudge where your wipe stopped and some junk around the edge where the glass meets the body.
2. Make a little point with the cloth, breathe on the lens again and wipe the edge in one 360+ degree motion. Now you should be left with a mostly clean lens.
3. Now repeat the wipes, but with ever decreasing pressure. The last few swipes should be done very lightly. The trick is to buff the lens, which will pick junk up rather than moving it around forever. Keep rearranging the cloth so that you are using a virgin bit of material and not re-contaminating your almost-clean glass.
4. The final step is examining – and cleaning – both front and rear caps thoroughly before affixing them to your now-clean lens. A dirty cap will undo all your hard work in an instant, so examine both caps closely, blow on them from many angles with compressed air and only when you are certain they are clean can you affix them to your lens. If you use a UV filter, also make sure it is clean before you put it back on.
And with that, we’re finished. If you enjoyed that you should consider working for BorrowLenses.com – You could be cleaning gear all day long and getting paid to do it!