What’s in Our Camera Bags? - Close Up Photography in Nature (2014)

Close Up Photography in Nature (2014)


What’s in Our Camera Bags?

Aside from the occasional granola bar, we carry the close-up and macro gear that time has proven valuable over and over in our fieldwork as well as in our greenhouse macro studio. Barbara and I photograph a plethora of close-up subjects that require different kinds of equipment. Moreover, to ensure the highest quality images for instructional programs, our books and DVDs, and for other users of our images, we always insist on using only the best quality gear available. We try to operate on the “buy once-cry once” principle, which mandates that we initially buy the best gear available even if we’re not happy with its cost. That way, we don’t have to keep trading up over and over again to get to a total higher cost for gear we should have bought initially. Should you want to limit your equipment budget, however, please trust that you can absolutely make fine images with almost any reasonably priced gear that you use with good photographic techniques.

Okay, with all that said and always considering ladies first, here’s what Barbara likes to carry in her camera bag:



✵Nikon D4, with attached custom Kirk Enterprises L-bracket, a well-charged battery, and adequate memory for the shoot


Our three horses (left to right) include Toby, Teton, and Bandit. They help us reach remote alpine and subalpine meadows where we shoot many close-up photos. Thanks to them, some of our discoveries appear in this book. Nikon D4, 24mm, 1/250, f/18, ISO 400, Sun.


✵Nikon 200mm f/4 D ED-IF Micro lens with a Kirk quick-release lens plate attached to the tripod collar

✵B + W circular polarizing filter, 62mm, to fit the 200mm lens


✵Two Nikon SB-800 flash units, each with four fully charged AA batteries

✵Eight fully charged extra AA batteries

✵Nikon SU-800 Remote Commander, for remote control of the SB-800s

✵Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System


✵Gitzo #GT3541LS carbon-fiber tripod legs

✵Kirk Enterprises BH-1 ball head


✵Kirk Enterprises focusing rail

✵Kenko extension tube set for Nikon, with 36mm, 20mm, and 12mm tubes

✵Two Pocket Wizard Plus III Transceivers (radio remote flash controllers)

✵Nikon electrical remote release

✵Sharp pointed scissors

✵Notebook and pen

✵Photoflex MultiDisc 5-in-1, 22 inch multi-surface reflectors and diffuser

✵Large Giotto-Rocket blower, microfiber cloth, lens-cleaning fluid and tissue

✵Plastic ground sheet

✵Knee pads


✵ThinkTank Photo Airport Acceleration V2.0



✵Canon EOS 5D Mark III with attached Kirk L-bracket and a fully charged battery

✵2 extra fully charged batteries

✵4-32GB SanDisk CF cards


✵Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1x-5x macro, with Kirk quick-release plate attached to the tripod collar

✵Canon 90mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens

✵Canon 180mm f/3.5 macro, with Kirk quick-release plate attached to the tripod collar

✵72mm B + W circular polarizing filter for the 180mm macro lens


✵Two Canon 580II Speedlites, each with four fully charged AA batteries

✵One Canon 600 EX-RT Speedlite, with four fully charged AA batteries

✵One Canon ST-E3-RT radio flash controller

✵Two extra sets of batteries, eight in all, housed in plastic battery holders

✵Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter, for wireless flash control

✵One spare 2CR5 battery for the ST-E2 transmitter

✵MT-24EX twin flash with four fully charged batteries


✵Gitzo #1325 carbon-fiber tripod legs

✵Kirk BH-1 ball head


✵Kirk Enterprises focusing rail

✵Canon 25mm extension tube

✵Kenko extension tube set for Canon, with 36mm, 20mm, and 12mm tubes

✵Canon electrical remote release

✵Sharp pointed scissors

✵Notebook and pen

✵Photoflex MultiDisc 5-in-1, 22 inch multi-surface reflectors and diffuser

✵Large Giotto-Rocket blower, microfiber cloth, lens-cleaning fluid and tissue


✵Lowepro Trekker II


We’ve discussed much of this gear before, but now having listed it all in one place, let’s review the reasons we have selected these particular items.


The Canon 65mm macro lens is absolutely first-class for shooting very high-magnification images from 1x all the way to 5x! Do you want a full-frame image of that attractive horsefly eye? This is the lens for you!

The Canon 90mm tilt-shift lens is a special purpose tool allowing one to obtain seemingly large depths-of-field (DOF). No actual increase in depth-of-field is achieved, but realignment of the plane of focus permits an optimized utilization of the ordinarily available DOF and thus excellent focus over large segments of the image. This is a tremendous advantage when shooting planar subjects like an angled shot of a butterfly’s wings or the surface of a dense field of flowers, a spread of lichens on a flat rock and so on. An entire discussion is beyond the scope of this book, but interested techno-geeks might look up The Scheimpflug Principle on the Internet. (Note: focus stacking has made the need for this lens much less.)

Finally, the Canon 180mm macro lens and the Nikon 200mm micro lens are the workhorse lenses offering excellent working distances for wary insects. The pleasingly small angles of view are superb for good background control, and the rotatable tripod collars make shooting vertical images on a tripod easy. While both of our camera bags contain polarizers, we normally don’t use them for macro work because most macro subjects aren’t very reflective and the filters absorb about 2 stops of light. For any given aperture, this forces longer shutter speeds or higher ISOs, neither of which is desirable. Also, the polarizer dims the viewfinder by about 1.5 to 2 stops of light, which makes manual focusing more difficult and prone to error.


Occasionally Barb and I use two flashes for a given shot. Therefore, we each carry two flashes even though the bulk of our work requires only one flash. Besides, it’s never a bad idea to have a spare when working in the field. That said, they’re unarguably expensive, so don’t feel at all underequipped or deprived if you have only one.

I like the Canon 580II because it features wireless evaluative through-the-lens (ETTL) metering and emits plenty of light. However, I love being able to fire the camera remotely with the release button on the Canon 600 Speedlite, so I use it most of the time and will probably get another 600 Speedlite soon and add my 580 Speedlites into my hummingbird flash setup. Barb likes her Nikon SB-800s. They’re discontinued now, but are slightly smaller and lighter than the newer Nikon SB-910s, and Barb is never one to ignore a convenience if the function is equally good!

We nearly always mix ambient light with our flash. One must first determine the proper exposure for the ambient light and then adjust the flash for the desired effect. In doing so, the flash must be suppressed while checking ambient exposure. One can inhibit an optically controlled flash by merely hiding it behind one’s back, but a radio-controlled flash probably needs to be turned off. The radio-controlled flash is superb, though, for shooting from inside a blind, which is not done in close-up work, for firing a Remote flash at a distance greater than its optical cousins can handle, and for firing a Remote flash where line-of-sight between the controller and the Remote flash is not available.

Special purpose close-up flash units are available by both Nikon and Canon. The Canon MT-24EX Twin Flash and the Nikon R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight system each feature two small flash heads mounted at the front of the lens. These heads can be adjusted at various angles and the light output from each is independently adjustable, allowing creative lighting effects. They work well for tiny subjects, and for handheld shooting. These are generally excellent light sources, although Barb and I have such a preference for mixing ambient and flash illumination together that we prefer conventional flashes. Keep a lookout for the pitch-black backgrounds that can occur when using any flash without consideration of ambient light. Some photographers like black backgrounds, but we generally do not. Regardless of background preferences, whether the Canon or Nikon macro-flash systems will do well for you is your call. There is no wrong answer as it’s entirely up to your own personal preferences.


Focusing rails are an important accessory and practically a necessity when shooting images at life-size (1x) or greater. The bottom of the focusing rail attaches to the tripod head and the camera and lens mount to the top of the rail. The rail allows tiny fore-and-aft adjustments by a rotatable screw or a rack-and-pinion system. Major focusing is done by tripod placement and lens control. Fine adjustments are made by moving the entire focusing rail, which is supporting the camera and lens, back and forth in the very tiny but well-controlled amounts allowed by the rail. It is practically an essential tool when doing focus stacking, although as always, you get what you pay for. Inexpensive focus rails may be sticky and have annoying adjustment backlash, so buy once and cry once!


Scissors will come in handy. Sometimes the close-up shooter must do a little gardening or housekeeping to remove offending blades of grass, twigs, and dead leaves from intruding into the image frame. Besides, it is occasionally good to be able to cleanly clip a twig upon which a caterpillar is dozing to place it into a more favorable location. We avoid trampling a bush and at the same time obtain a lovely background for our caterpillar shot while allowing room to use our reflectors and diffusers. When done with the shot, we promptly return the caterpillar unharmed to its bush.


It is hard not to keep calling these gadgets cable releases, but in the interest of keeping up with technology, they’re better termed remote releases. The cable release of yesteryear was a mechanical plunger, but today’s remote releases can be wired electrical switches, infrared triggers, or even wireless radio triggers.

We almost invariably use one to trip the camera. It prevents us from touching the camera at the instant of exposure, thus preventing our unavoidable bodily wiggles and shakes from moving the camera even a smidgen and making fuzzy images.

Wired electrical switches connect to the camera and have a flexible electrical wire terminated in a thumb-operated pushbutton switch. They are available for most cameras—the Nikon MC-30 and Canon Remote Switch RS-80N3 are but two examples. Some cameras have handheld optical receivers built into the body, which makes the handheld optical remote trigger convenient, and our PocketWizard transceivers that usually operate Remote flashes can do double duty as wireless radio-operated camera triggers. All of the releases are generally available from camera manufacturers, and while not our own preference, that one irritatingly irreverent student of ours (a.k.a. Al Hart) has pointed out that relatively low-cost equivalents of each type are often found on eBay.


Every camera bag should include the necessities for keeping camera and lenses impeccably clean. Even a tiny bit of lens dust can cause contrast-reducing flare in an image, so lenses should always be immaculately clean. Camera bags need to be cleaned of dust and debris, too.

We always recommend the large Giotto blower because it’s been shown to be reasonably free of oils and rubber particles, making it suitable for cleaning your camera’s sensor as well as lenses and the camera body itself. Caution: Even beyond oils, rubber particles, and other debris being expelled from an unsuitably cheap blower, there have even been reports of one blower that when vigorously squeezed would actually expel its entire nozzle, a powerful plastic projectile potentially destructive to an open camera! Submariners and breaching whales blow often and blow hard, but photographers must blow carefully.

Lens fluid and tissues have been used for untold eons to keep lenses clean, and we continue the tradition. Be sure to use brand name fluid and tissues specifically designed for camera lenses as the important coatings on your lenses are not content when unmercifully attacked by inferior materials.

Microfiber cloths are widely used to clean camera lenses, and we do use them regularly. Everyone uses them except for that nonstop-nuisance of a student of ours who argues that careless users might inadvertently let a microfiber cloth pick up a grain or two of sand or other abrasive dirt and damage an expensive lens. Always keep the cloth free of grit.


As a photography instructor, I routinely write down notes of in-field photographic techniques and subject biology. I heartily recommend that my students record similar matters to later compare with their images.


Extension tubes, whether made by the camera manufacturer or a third party, fit between the lens and the camera body. They allow closer focusing that provides greater magnification. Every close-up shooter should own at least one—perhaps 20 or 25mm or thereabouts. That’s a good general purpose length, although sets of tubes of different lengths, like the three-tube sets sold by Kenko, are very useful.


This accessory includes four different 22 inch reflector surfaces in white, silver, gold, and soft-gold. Until more recently we used to reflect light into the shadow areas to lower the contrast of subjects or occasionally to raise subject contrast. The set contains a neutral white diffuser to soften shadows of ambient light. More recently, we’ve cut down on our use of reflectors. Instead, we favor flash, but for those who don’t use flash so much this is a splendid system of reflectors.


The physical milieu of the close-up shooter is largely in the dirt or the mud. We spend a lot of time on or near the ground, and often it is wet! What a comfort it is to lie on the plastic ground sheet and stay relatively clean and dry! I don’t use it all that much because we macho-men don’t mind being wet, but Barbara, with her charming lady-like leanings prefers being clean and dry. Our “got a better idea” student Al Hart dislikes plastic sheets and extols the benefits of the lightweight Mylar space blankets available inexpensively at many outlets. Some shooters just wear lightweight chest waders to stay dry, although some find them excessively hot on warm days and some object to the blocking of pocket access.


Okay, you trapped me! These Muck boots aren’t really in our camera bags, but they are always in a plastic tub in our car. They’re great in damp and dewy meadows on dew-drenched mornings when we’re shooting insects and plant life. We always wear rain pants and knee-high rubber muck boots for wet meadow photography. When we are done each morning, the wet pants and boots are put in the plastic box. When they dry, the sand and other debris falls off into the box, which is easy to discard.


Barb’s knee surgery virtually mandates these comfort-promoting accessories. They are inexpensive, widely available, and many photographers swear by them. I personally don’t use them because my knees are just fine. But, who knows, with advancing years I may yet change my mind.


Barb and I both use Gitzo tripod legs. They’re strong and reasonably light. They don’t have center columns, leg braces, and other mechanical nonsense. The legs can splay out so that our camera gear can get very low to the ground. Our tripod legs have now been replaced by later but similar models. The Gitzo brand continues to be the gold standard of the outdoor and nature photographer.

Our tripods are each equipped with the Kirk BH-1 ball head. Mike Kirk and I became friends in the late 1970s when he built custom flash brackets for me and many other nature shooters. Mike was a skilled machinist and eventually launched Kirk Enterprises, specializing in designing and manufacturing equipment for nature photographers. Mike has sadly and prematurely passed away, but his very capable son, Jeff, continues to successfully manage the firm that is located in Angola, Indiana.

We use the larger BH-1 because our wildlife work involves larger and heavier lenses. The smaller and less expensive Kirk BH-3 model is excellent for close-up shooting. Alas, we’d be remiss if we were to ignore the observation of that perpetually disorderly student of ours who never overlooks any opportunity to quibble. He unquestionably concedes the excellence of Kirk’s products and of Gitzo’s. He uses Kirk and Gitzo equipment himself, but claims that his own Really Right Stuff (RRS) ball head is also excellent.


As of January 2014, all of my close-up work is done with my Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and Barbara swears by the many virtues of her Nikon D4. These two cameras each offer a wide set of features that we find just right for our close-up and macro shooting. They’re each full-frame cameras with adequate sensor resolution to make large prints, and there is no lack of resolution for considerable cropping of the images. Each has high ISO capabilities at low noise figures that are great for dim light operations. We especially appreciate their ease of operation and find that their great flexibility in setup configuration is virtually unmatched. Should a newer version of these cameras become available, we would quickly upgrade in order to discover the new features that we could incorporate into our shooting workflow.

The cameras we shoot are expensive, but we shoot images for a living, and our success depends on capturing the finest quality images possible. To be honest, the advanced features on our cameras are more applicable to wildlife photography than close-ups. Any digital camera works fine for close-ups, so you don’t have to spend a lot of money to acquire a suitable camera.

All of our cameras are fitted with dedicated L-brackets. The ones we use are made by Kirk Enterprises. With lenses having no rotatable tripod collar, the L-brackets permit easy rotation between horizontal and vertical shooting, while maintaining a favorable center of gravity. Not having to flip the camera to one side to shoot vertical images on a tripod is an advantageous feature!


It’s a standing joke among all kinds of photographers that each has at least one large closet crammed full of idle camera bags that were acquired in a never-ending search for the perfect bag. Yet here, kind reader, we’re going to tell you the closely held secret of the perfect bag. Here it is: The perfect camera bag is one that you like. I like my Lowepro Trekker II and Barbara likes her ThinkTank Photo Airport Acceleration. Each thinks that our bag is almost perfect, although there are many others from which to choose. Most bags have a zillion features, but make sure that yours carries all the necessary gear into the field in an organized manner that makes it easy to find a specific lens, battery, or other piece of equipment. Don’t be seduced by the bigger-is-better syndrome. Getting a bag that’s larger than necessary may be far too heavy to comfortably carry into the field when fully loaded.


There is plenty of gear available for purchase that enables you to capture outstanding close-up and macro images. What we use and described above works well for us. However, you certainly don’t need to have everything we use and your choices—especially if you use another camera system besides Canon and Nikon—will be different. This entire chapter is meant only to be a guideline to help you decide what needs to be purchased now or in the future. We think having high quality close-up gear is important, but it is not as important as using the best techniques possible. To be honest, the quality of your images depends more on mastering technique rather than the equipment. Typically, it is the photographer’s lack of attention to detail that results in unsharp, poorly exposed, or badly illuminated images. It is not the fault of the equipment. Having good equipment does indeed make it easier to become a skilled close-up photographer mainly because it is easier to use and automatically solves many problems you will encounter.


Claret-cup cactus are simple to photograph because the blossoms are stiff and remain motionless in all but the strongest breezes. Helicon Focus combined the twelve images used to capture the depth of field in these blossoms. Canon 5D Mark III, 180mm macro, ISO 100, f/11, 1.3 sec., Shade WB.