Briefly: On Getting Asked About Gear

james-brandon-athabasca-glacierOne of the most common questions I get from readers and students is about the gear I use. Depending on the day, I receive this question with different feelings. I think this is because there really are two different angles to approach this question and I’m not totally set on either side of the fence. One part of me wants to gladly tell them the gear I use and geek out for hours. Yet I’m hesitant because I don’t think photography is always about the gear. A complete amateur with deep pockets could certainly not go out and buy all my gear and create the same shots. There is much more to it than that. One of the most irritating comments (for any photographer) is when someone says, “Wow that looks amazing, you must have a nice camera!” Or “Wow, great shot. What kind of camera did you use?” I always compare that kind of comment to pulling a waiter aside at a restaurant and saying, “This food is great, can you please ask the chef what kinds of pots and pans he’s using?” Isn’t that a bit ridiculous?  Ansel Adams once said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” The camera is simply a means to capture what a photographer see’s in his or her mind. True photography has nothing to do with taking pictures; it has everything to do with creating them and with telling the camera what to do, manually, to create what you see in your minds eye (not setting the camera on automatic and letting the camera decide how the picture will look).

But there is still another side of me…the darker side I think that most photographers wouldn’t confront usually. That side knows that to a certain and definite degree…it is about the gear. I can fight this notion until I’m blue in the face but in the back of my mind I know there is truth there. There have been countless situations where I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could not have gotten certain shots with lesser gear. With any industry or hobby (or anything in life for that matter) you get what you pay for. The higher up the ladder you go, the better quality you get. If all the industry leading pros out their tell the amateurs it’s not about the gear, then why aren’t they using Rebels or point and shoots? Why are they using $50,000 Hasselblads? Why are they using Pelican cases full of $4,000 prime Zeiss lenses to attach to their fleets of 1Dx’s or Nikon D800s? I’ll tell you why: The equipment allows them to do things that consumer level equipment won’t allow. You can’t post a JPG from a Rebel on a billboard. You can’t create useable images at night when your ISO isn’t usable past 800.  You can’t shoot in 98% humidity at 105 degrees with plastic lenses and bodies without your gear fogging up. You can’t shoot confidently in the rain with much less than a pro level body and lens. You can’t get a shot at 200mm in low light when you’re hand holding a lens that has to stop down to f/5.6 when zoomed in. I could go on and on with these examples but the point is that while gear doesn’t have much to do with the vision of the photographer, good gear absolutely makes the photographers vision easier to carry out.

So I think that to some extent, it is about the gear. The problem is that so many of us get caught up in gear so much that we go out of our means to acquire it, thinking that it will make us better at our craft. That is not the case. The gear I have is (in my opinion) the best gear out there for the type of work I do. I don’t buy gear unless I can pay for it in cash and that’s how I’ve built my entire business. With that said, here is a list of pretty much all the gear I use on a day to day basis. It’s not everything I want but it allows me to do my job and it stays out of my way.

Affiliate Disclaimer

You’ll see below that each item from my gear bag is using a link attached to it. Those links take you directly to Amazon where, if you so choose, you’ll be able to purchase the items and have them shipped to you in time at all (especially if you’re a Prime member). If you do decide to buy something from below, and you buy it through that link, you’ll be directly helping to support my site here and my family. I get a small cut from the sales and that’s awesome. So thank you in advance for your support. You rock!

Camera Bodies

Sony a7R II Full-Frame Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera, Body Only (Black) (ILCE7RM2/B) 

  • My main camera body.
  • Sony’s new mirrorless, 42 megapixel full frame camera.
  • This camera is just totally awesome. It produces absolutely incredible images and the thing is so light it makes you forget how powerful it is. The flip up screen is a huge bonus for me too. I love being able to get the camera down super low and just flip the screen upward. The heads up display style live view when looking through the view finder is really incredible as well.


Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera

  • My second camera body that I use for low light, astro and family stuff.
  • An absolute monster in terms of low light performance. Clean, useable images at ISO 10,000+.
  • Only 12 megapixels, but that’s fine for almost all applications.
  • The a7s is virtually the same camera as the a7 as far as ergonomics and menu layouts go. The main differences are that is has half the megapixels, but it makes up for that by basically being able to see in the dark and capture beautiful images at high ISO ranges. It also shoots 4k video at 30fps.

Camera Lenses


Sony 16-35mm Vario-Tessar T FE F4 ZA OSS Lens

  • My work horse lens. Used for almost all of my landscapes.
  • Extremely wide field of view.
  • Made by Zeiss and very, very sharp!
  • Super light weight compared to Canon/Nikon versions.
  • Only f/4 but that’s not an issue for landscapes. Some consider it an issue for night sky photography but paired with the a7s it hasn’t let me down in the slightest.


Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS Lens

  • So lightweight and versatile it’s almost hard to believe it’s a pro level lens!
  • Extremely well built and sharp, sharp, sharp.
  • Built in image stabilization just like Canon/Nikon versions.
  • Maximum aperture of f/4 is the main reason it’s so light. Not as much glass inside.


Sony 55mm F1.8 Sonnar T* FE ZA Prime Lens

  • My walk around and family lens.
  • Maximum aperture of f/1.8.
  • Crazy fast and crazy sharp! Also made with Zeiss glass.
  • Super lightweight and discreet.


Sony SEL90M28G FE 90mm f/2.8-22 Macro G OSS

  • A niche lens, but when you need it, its great to have around.
  • Lets you get super close to small objects.
  • Maximum aperture of f/2.8.

Flashes and Lights

Coast HP14 High Performance Focusing 339 Lumen LED Flashlight

  • Coast makes one of the absolute highest quality (if not the highest quality) flashlights on the market. This isn’t their brightest option, and I’ve learned from light painting quite a bit that you don’t always want something that’s super bright and powerful. Don’t get me wrong, this thing is dang powerful and puts out 339 lumens. What makes the flashlight so great is the pull-focus feature of the front part of the light. Just pull the front of the flashlight to focus the beam, and pull it back to broaden it. It also has a 4-click cycle that’s pretty slick. Click the back button once and it will turn on at it’s highest power. Click again and it turns off. Click again and it goes to low power. Click again and it turns off. Repeat as necessary.
  • Run time on high is around 4-5 hours, low will last around 20 hours. I always keep plenty of batteries in my bag in case it starts to get low. You’ll know it’s getting low because there won’t be a difference between low and high anymore.
  • High beam distance is approximately 575 feet so it will light up just about anything you put in front of the camera, save for the cliff face that is off in the distance somewhere around 580 feet away 😉
  • Impact and water resistant case made from lightweight (but very durable) aluminum.
  • Runs on 4 AA batteries which is so nice.

Flashes: Since selling off my Canon gear, I currently don’t even own a flash right now. I’m sure that will change soon (good to have one just in case) but I just don’t need them anymore.

Tripod Setup

LEGS – Really Right Stuff TVC-24L 

  • This is a carbon fiber 4-section tripod with a maximum height of 66.8 inches. Just a tad taller than me :-). The 24L is sort of a mid-range tripod in terms of load capacity which is all I need for my new, lighter gear. I also want my tripod to be as small and light as possible since the majority of my shooting nowadays is on the road.
  • I shot with a Manfrotto tripod for years and loved it. If you don’t feel like forking over $1,500 for a tripod then I highly suggest Manfrotto instead. That being said, RRS makes the absolute best, highest quality tripod gear in the world. Hands down.

HEAD – Really Right Stuff BH-40 LR II

  • This is considered a mid-sized head by RRS standards. I can say with confidence that this thing is far more capable than the pistol-grip ball-head I used before from Manfrotto. With an A7 and 6D as my new camera line up, it would have been ridiculous to go with their full size BH-55 head.

Filters

Formatt-Hitech Landscape Filter Kit Colby Brown Signature Edition Premier

  • Colby is a friend of mine so I was really excited to start using Formatt-Hitech filters when they partnered with him to create a filter kit specifically for landscape photographers. I chose the premier edition 100mm size which accepts 4×4 filters and comes with the gigantic 105mm circular polarizer. The kit also comes with a 6-stop ND filter and two graduated ND filters.
  • The aluminum holder is far superior to the plastic holder made by LEE.

LEE Big Stopper

  • I still love my Big Stopper from LEE though. The problem with LEE filters is that they are just so dang hard to find. They are always sold out wherever you look. I had to buy my Big Stopper and foundation kit off eBay and paid a premium for it (well over retail).
  • The Big Stopper is an absolutely incredible 10-stop ND filter but it’s made of glass which makes carrying it and handling it in the field quite nerve-racking.

In Camera Storage

Lexar Professional 1000x 128GB SDXC UHS-II/U3 Card 

  • 150 MB/second read speed.
  • Required for high bitrate 4k video capture, extended time lapse sequences, etc.
  • These things have never let me down. That’s all I really care about when it comes to an SD card.
  • The 128GB capacity is a bit overkill but that’s ok, it means I never have to change cards. If you go down that road, make sure you are backing up your cards to a hard drive every day you’re on a shoot. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Gear Transportation

MindShift Gear BackLight 26L Charcoal (see my video review here)

  • This is my newest bag that I use when traveling. It can hold my 13 inch Macbook Pro, all of my gear and plenty of other stuff as well. MindShift makes bags with the best quality imaginable and I highly recommend them!

Think Tank Shape Shifter (See My Review Over At DPS)

  • Love this bag! I still use this one from time to time for local stuff, mainly when working from a coffee shop or something. It carries my laptop, a camera and a few lenses like it’s nothing.

Think Tank Retrospective 20-Pinestone Tall Shoulder Bag

  • I’ve really become a minimalist with how much gear I carry on a daily basis so if I can get away with just packing this bag I will do it. It doesn’t hold a ton of stuff but it usually holds enough. I usually carry my camera body with a lens around my shoulder and then pack the bag with a couple extra lenses, flashes, other accessories, etc. It can also fit my iPad without a problem. Love that feature! This is just a great little bag for everyday shooting.

Video Recording Equipment

Google Glass Explorer Edition

  • Google Glass, at least at this time and with this version, is not an every day wearable device. It is however a great tool to use in the field whether your business revolves around photo eduction or you just want to start making videos in the field and sharing them. Glass gives you that first person view that you just can’t get with anything else (not even a GoPro). GoPro’s usually sit high above your head if you have a helmet cam or in the middle of your chest with a harness. The camera on Glass is right by your right eye giving a true first person view which is great for creating videos in the field of setting up a shot or doing something fun and exiting.
  • Glass is much more than a video recorder of course. I also use it from time to time as a timer for long exposures. I just say, “OK Glass, start a timer.” I see the timer count down from 3 to 1 and when it starts, I click the shutter on my remote. I can then walk around during the exposure and keep an eye on the timer for when to go stop it. Great for super long exposures. Of course it can also be used to take pictures, get driving directions, check emails, and so much more.
  • Quite expensive! As of right now they cost around $1,700 so they certainly aren’t for everyone.

Apple iPhone 6, Silver, 64 GB

  • The video capabilities of smart phones gets better and better with every release. While this didn’t used to be the case, I’m now more than confident using my iPhone to record video out in the field. It’s also great for making slow motion and time lapses!

Sennheiser EW 112P G3-A omni-directional EW system

  • The best video in the world is more or less useless without great audio to go with it. It took a while to drill this into my head but I finally got it when hearing the audio from these Sennheiser lapel mics. Simply incredible audio. It comes at a cost, but when you’re obsessed with quality it’s just part of it.

Computer and Digital Stuff


Apple iMac 27″ Retina 5K Display

One of the best purchases I’ve ever made. This thing is an absolute beast! I previously had a mid-2011 iMac that I purchased right from the Apple Store near my home. It was getting old, slow and sometimes unresponsive and I knew I’d be upgrading soon (I had been saving up). So when Apple announced the Retina display, I was ready to make the jump. The screen on this thing is just unreal. I went pretty all out on my machine, so here are the specs…

  • 4.0GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7
  • 500GB Flash/SSD Drive
  • 32GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 4x8GB (bought Crucial memory and installed on my own)
  • AMD Radeon R9 M295X 4GB GDDR5 Graphics Card (not really needed for most photo stuff, but I’m a pilot and this really helps with my flight simulator when I use it).


Apple MacBook Pro 13.3-Inch Laptop with Retina Display 

  • If I’m not at my desk, I’m using this. Fast, reliable, portable, relatively light weight. Will likely be moving to a MacBook Air before too long.

Wacom Intuos Pro Pen and Touch Small Tablet

  • This is crucial for any photographer that spends a lot of time in Photoshop or Lightroom. Having a pen tablet completely transforms the way you edit. Instead of clicking with a mouse, you get to paint with a brush. The pen is pressure and angle sensitive and even has interchangeable “nibs” with different textures. I am so used to using the pen now, I hardly ever use a mouse at all. I even surf the web with it!

Drobo 5D 5-bay Storage Array, Thunderbolt/USB 3.0

  • This thing was a big investment for me. I was used to just buying $200 hard drives each time one filled up and just connecting them all together. I was up to three. So slamming down over $1,000 for the bay, the hard drives and the extra SSD booster took some convincing. I can say though that it was a great choice. Being able to combine all of my photos on one array is awesome. The speed of the thunderbolt is just stupid when paired with the option SSD. I currently have 3x 3 TB drives in the thing which gives me around 5.3 TB of useable space. It’s only 5.3 instead of 9 because some of the space gets used for redundancy backup. That means that I could pull one of the drives out, smash it with a hammer and I wouldn’t lose any information because all the drives intermingle information . Pretty cool! Admittedly, it does make some weird vibrations and noises from time to time. When it comes time to get something new, I’m not 100% sure I’ll stick with Drobo.

Apple Time Capsule 2TB 

  • I use this to back up my iMac hard drive via Time Machine. That’s basically it. It also has the ability to work as a router and/or create it’s own network. I use the network to provide wifi signals to nearby devices like my Chromecast, my printer, the Nest thermostat here in my office, etc. Pretty nifty!

Backblaze for offsite backup of all files

  • This service is just so cheap that it would be dumb not to take advantage of it. Backblaze backs up my entire computer, plus my external drives and all for $5 a month! How ridiculous is that!? Offsite backup through Amazons cloud server would cost me upwards of $400 a month with all the space I have, so for $5 a month this is a no brainer.
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  • Hello James;
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  • Clay

    Good Afternoon James
    Upon reading your latest newsletter, I was interested in your use of the Lee Filter Big Stopper unit. I loved your photos of the ocean movement and the coast line. I was noticing the filter holder you used for the Big Stopper. I have never seen one like it. Could you tell what brand you use and where to find it? As a semi pro photographer. I love your newsletters. Keep up the great work!

    • James Brandon

      Hey Clay, it’s by Lee as well. It’s called the ‘Lee Foundation Kit’ Just like any Lee products, they are quite hard to find. Call Allen’s Camera Supply and they might have some. If not they will add you to the wait list and call you when one’s in. I bought all mine on eBay and overpaid for them :-/

  • Waiting for the UPS man today to deliver my Sony a7II and a couple of Sony lens. Cannot wait to see how they perform against my 5DIII and my 28-300 L lens. I am looking forward to having a much lighter load.

    • Linda, that’s great! Which lenses did you order with it? Maybe you need to come to Hawaii after all so we can get you broken in with the new gear 😉

  • Julia Dean

    I am interested In your opinion. I am purchasing (upgrading from a canon 50D and stolen wide angle lens). A canon 6D. I am trying to decide on a wide angle zoom as well – considering either the canon ef 16-35 f/2.8. Or the ef 24-70 f2/2.8. I typically shoot wildlife, dogs, horses-horse show, and travel. I have a L 70-200 f/2.8. My immediate goal is to capture some great wildlife photos in the Galapagos. Or would you recommend a Sony mirrowless option? Thanks for any help.

    Enjoy your newsletters and photos!
    Julia Dean

    • Hey Julia! The 6D will work great for your wildlife, dogs, horses, etc. Sony is great for landscape/travel stuff but so is Canon/Nikon. They both have their advantages/disadvantages. As far as lens choice goes, I’d probably get the 24-70 in your situation. The 16-35 is very wide, which is great for landscapes but not so much for wildlife type stuff. The 24-70 is superb for walking around and has a great balance between wide angle and zoom.

      • Julia Dean

        Thank you! And Happy New Year!

  • Rose Bradley

    Hi James, just watched your YouTube video on why you switched from Lee Filter system to Formatt-Hitec. I had a very similar experience back in August when I was on the cliff edge walkway leading to the Glacier Skywalk up near the Columbia Icefields in the Canadian Rockies. Had my circular polariser on my Lee system and watched in horror as it popped off and tumbled over the safety fence. I was really lucky as it stopped a couple of feet short of the 1000ft drop, and the Skywalk staff were able to retrieve it with a litter picker. Just a very small scratch on the glass that doesn’t interfere with images. I will definitely look at the system you recommend.

    • Rose, that is nuts! Can’t believe their filter holder has that big of a flaw in the design and that more people haven’t noticed. Glad you were able to salvage the filter though 🙂

  • Hi James,

    Why did you switch from Canon to Sony? I gleaned that Sony is lighter weight than Canon, other than that, why did you make the switch?

    • Hey Tanya. There were many reasons by yes, weight was a big factor. Dynamic range on these Sony cameras is insane, the electronic view finder is amazing, the flip up screen, focus peaking and low light performance are all factors as well.

  • SnakeChrmr

    After being a die hard Canon fan for 3 decades I bought a Sony mirrorless last year to try out.. I travel mostly by motorcycle so weight and space are always considerations. So far I’ve been pretty pleased and will most likely add a 7R2 to my travels later this year.