What’s In Your Bag? Sam Nichols: Camera Awesome Developer, Film Nerd and Resident Gear Master

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.

Sam’s bag. We’re pretty sure he doesn’t leave all the lens caps off all the time.

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!

Canon 1DsII with the 90mm f/2.8 TS-E on a tripod, then sepia cross-processed.

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.🙂

Published by


I'm a freelance documentary photographer who loves travel, rangefinders, medium format film photography, and everything in-between.

6 thoughts on “What’s In Your Bag? Sam Nichols: Camera Awesome Developer, Film Nerd and Resident Gear Master”

  1. As a Florida/Minnesota/Arizona photographer, I would like to see more weather proofing. Sand, wind, rain, snow, salt spray and ice are always a concern for me. Just about to upgrade to the Nikon D800 and the D7100 bodies. (up from D300s and D200 which are still in the bag(s)).

Comments are closed.