Whats in the bag, backpacks and cases of a climbing photographer

3rd Apr 2012

It’s amazing how many times I get asked “what gear do you use” most people actually mean camera gear, but in order to take a lot of the more specialist photos that I take you also need quite a lot of very specific gear (the chances are if your photographing Skiing you’ll need to be able to Ski, therefore you’ll need a full array of ‘Ski specific’ gear) so I thought I'd post a pic of "what gear I use most of the time when I take both editorial and commercial climbing photography" Obviously I don't carry all of the gear, all of the time, but on the whole the gear in the photo (apart from the Profoto and Elinchrom flash heads and packs) gets used 90% of the time.

Clockwise from the top:



Black Diamond Cams:

Camming devices I use for belays and deviations. I carry about 10 of varying sizes from tiny, smaller than your little finger up-to giant, almost the size of your head. I can quickly pop these into cracks and pull myself in and clip into them or alternatively clip my ropes into them to reposition myself – getting into exactly the right place before you even think about pushing the shutter is so important.




DMM Karabiners:

You can’t ever have enough Karabiners. I usually carry a minimum of 10 Screw-gate and 10 Snap-link with me. My personal preference is to use Screw-gates for the main belays and attaching myself into the system and the Snap-links for things like deviations and attaching things to myself.




Marmot Backcountry 30L Backpack:

I'll carry a small backpack for putting things like rigging gear, food and water in, but since the photo was taken I now use the F-Stop Tilopa BC which the design of allows me to carry all of the above and all my photo gear in the same backpack - result.







Gitzo Explorer Tripod Carbon 6X & Arca Swiss Ball Head:

Love this combo so much – the tripod is super rigid and super lightweight, which is a very important consideration when you have to ‘pack it in” The Arca Swiss ball head is without doubt the best ‘ball head’ I’ve ever owned.




Petzl Podium Seat:

This little seat is a ‘must have’ if your spending any amount of time hanging on the end of a rope. After about 20 minutes hanging in a harness the leg loops start to cut off the blood circulation to your legs and the waist harness digs in. Clip the seat instead of your harness into your abseil device, climb aboard and clip your harness to the seat with a short sling (you don’t want to be sliding off your seat!) attach to the rope with your preferred abseil device (mine is a Petzl GriGri) and away you go for one comfortable ride. 





Marmot Zeus Down Vest:

I carry this in the top of my pack or camera bag, its so lightweight it lives there permanently. If I start to get cold I throw this on top of whatever I’m wearing and it keeps my torso warm without restricting movement.







Static Rope 10.5mm:

You can never, never, have enough Static rope. All told I’ve probably got a couple of 1000 meters of the stuff. I’ve got short 25m lengths for the small Gritstone outcrops of Derbyshire, 100-meter lengths for the larger Limestone escarpments and sea cliffs and 200m lengths for the substantially bigger stuff. If 200m aren’t long enough you just join them together.





Marmot Pipeline Jeans:

Ok, perhaps these aren’t essential (I do have to wear trousers though) and these jeans from outdoor clothing manufacturer Marmot aren’t just cool looking threads, but stretchy (lycra in the weave) and water resistant to boot.







Patagonia Scree Shield Approach Shoe:

I wear whatever the weather dictates. If I’m in a mountain environment or abseiling down an Icefall I’ll wear the appropriate footwear (most likely the Scarpa Phantom Ultra) but for everyday use and walking around the low lying crags in Britain and Europe I like to wear an approach shoe. All the big brand outdoor manufactures make their own version and to be honest they’re all a “much of a much ness” some fit your feet better than other, some fit broad or narrow feet, some have extra grippy soles, I suggest you shop around and get whatever works best for you – I love the Patagonia Scree Shield.


Petzl Navaho Harness, Croll, Footloop and Hand-jammer:

Petzl are the biggest manufacturer of Industrial rope access gear in the world. The equipment they produce is designed to make your life technically easier while hanging in uncomfortable situations. The Navaho is a harness designed for sitting in “all day” it has an extra wide fully adjustable waist belt and leg loops and 3 built in “D” rings (attachment points) and some extra “beefy” gear loops. The Croll and Expedition hand-jammer are used for ascending ropes in conjunction with the foot-loop or Etrier. I have quite a few extra jammers and quite often carry two with me, which I use for sideways positioning once on the rope.




I don’t always wear a helmet; it’s a choice I make. I assess the dangers of where I’m going to be working and then decide. If I’m working on a cliff face with unstable or loose rock I’ll always wear one, if there happens to be other people in the area or on top of the cliff then I always wear a helmet. Over the years I’ve been hit in the face on more occasions than I care to remember! This helmet is a Petzl Elios, although you won’t be able to buy it with a paint jog like this – it’s custom made for Marmot team members.




Nikon D700 with 24mm-70mm f/2.8:

If I had to take just one camera and lens combo with me on a trip, up a mountain or cliff face then it would be the Nikon D700 full frame camera and Nikkor 24mm-70mm f/2.8. The D700 weighs about half the weight of the D3, but still allows you to put an extra grip / battery pack on it for added versatility if you like. The 24mm-70mm isn’t the lightest or smallest lens in the world, but for me it’s an ideal focal length and pin sharp even when you shoot wide open.




Nikon 24mm f/3.5 Tilt-Shift:

This is a lens I’m starting to use more and more. Quite often I’ll use it as a standard lens for shooting at the crag, but for those scenarios where I want to produce something a little different, throw an area out of focus or minimise converging verticals this little baby is “Da man”





Nikon 14mm-24mm f/2.8, 70mm-200mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4  & 2 x Converter (in bag):

Zoom lenses aren’t and probably never will be as good as fixed lenses. If I’m working in the studio I’ll always try and shoot on a prime lens, but when your out on location, up a mountain or hanging on the end of a 300m abseil versatility is king and you can’t get much more versatile than a zoom lens. I own four of them and will always pack the 14-24, 24-70, 70-200 f/2.8 and when the location dictates I also have the 200mm-400mm f/4 VR MKll, a beast of a lens which weighs 5kg’s – remember versatility only works if you can be arsed to carry the thing!




Nikon D300s with 200mm f/2:

When I take two cameras I’ll pack a D300s, primarily for its video capability but also if I might need to “extend” the range of my telephoto lenses. The D300s DX crop means you get a bit more “bang for your buck” which is very useful on the telephoto end e.g. my 200mm f/2 becomes a 300mm f/2 (obviously I can also do this in the crop mode on my D700)

I’ve got several long telephoto lenses in my arsenal but tend to only carry them when I know I have a specific use for them. The 200mm f/2 is an amazingly fast lens, which throws out all those unwanted backgrounds, but weighing in at almost 3kg’s it doesn’t get packed into many far-flung places, at least it doesn’t if I have to carry it!



Mini Tripod:

You can never have too many mini tripods. I use them for placing flashguns on. There’s loads of different makes on the market, I prefer the no-nonsense, uncomplicated type, although the flexible Gorilla pods are pretty funky and allow you to attach them to things like tree branches by wrapping the legs around them.




Nikon SB800’s & 900:

I always carry at least two flashguns, most likely the SB800’s (they’re physically smaller than the SB900) If I take just one or need a quicker recycle time then I’ll go the SB900 with an external Battery pack. I very rarely, if ever use the flash mounted on my camera. If I’m up on a wall I’ll hand hold it or use a pole, which I’ve adapted to get an extra few feet. If I’m down at ground level I’ll quite often use both flashes as a main and a fill.



Pocket Wizard Plus ll Remote Triggers (any number between 2 and 6):

Nikon cameras and flashguns now come with a built in triggering system so they can “talk” to each other. In theory this means my D700 will talk to my SB800 or SB900 without any external wires or 2nd user triggers. In practice I find this system at best to be very limiting / annoying (although it seems to work just fine for legendry Nat Geo photographer Joe McNally) especially outdoors or in bright light, so to make sure I’m concentrating on getting the shot and not shouting at an inanimate object I always pack my Pocket Wizards, which allow me to remotely trigger both camera and or flashguns from a distance.




Hoodman Loupe:

This Loupe is a great piece of kit especially when your outdoors in bright sunlight. Just pop in on top of your screen and immediately it shields the image from any extraneous light and enables you to get a close up of the image – I use this all the time, especially when shooting commercial work.


Fuji X100 Rangefinder:

I loved this camera momentarily. It was such fun to use and took me right back to the days when I first learnt how to use a camera (Periflex Interplan A rangefinder) I loved the ease of use with which it all worked and of course how light it was, but eventually its fixed lens limited when I took it with me and it got relegated to shooting “filler” images for the articles, and ultimately retired and then sold as it was an expensive luxury to have just sitting around – Fuji have just replaced it with their new X-Pro1 a camera not unlike the X100 but with interchangeable lenses.


Various Camera Bags:

Don’t get me started on bags. I love and hate bags in equal amounts. I have different bags for different situations and for carrying different items. It used to be a Kata Beetle-282PL for packing the gear into the crag and a Think Tank Shape Shifter for carrying gear onto planes and around town. It’s so small and light and doesn’t particularly look like a camera bag, which in today’s economic climate is a definite bonus. The big flash packs and heads are packed into either a large Peli-case 1600 (for flying or transporting in a van) or into a large Lowepro DryZone 200, a waterproof backpack. However since the photo at the start of this article was taken I now exclusively use F-Stop bags. For packing in to the crag the 48L Tilopa BC, for using in a more urban environment the 28L Guru and for carrying Lighting packs and heads the Lightroom Roller – perfect.



Bog Roll (at least two):

Never, ever go anywhere without my double ply, Andrex toilet paper. At least if everything else goes to “sh_t” you’ll be able to wipe away the stress with the softest tissue out there.




Elinchrom Ranger Quadra RX Heads and Packs:

What can I say about the award winning Quadra that hasn’t already been said? For me they have all the versatility and features of a studio system but in a package about the size of a small breakfast cereal packet. Add in the flash-head’s which are also tiny, about the size of a tennis ball, and the built in wireless triggering system and you start to get the picture. Even though they’re physically small they still take all the Elinchrom accessories and Light-shapers.






Profoto AcuteB 600 Head & Power Pack:

If I need a slightly more powerful (600 ws) but still relatively portable pack and head combo I’ll take the Profoto AcuteB 600. I’ve taken this set-up everywhere with me over the years, its got bashed and dropped, rained on and even left out in a sand storm, but still worked and of course it take’s all the legendry light-shapers (Octaboxes, softboxes, beauty dishes etc)


Petzl GriGri’s:

There are a lot of ways you can attach yourself to descend a rope, classic wrap it around you, old school Figure 8, for long descents a rack, for industrial applications a Stop or Rig, but my personal favourite over the years has to be the GriGri. Yes for abseiling while taking photos you need to be able to lock off the rope so you can shoot ‘hands free’ I’ve used pretty much used all of the above methods, except the Classic but my favourite piece of kit is the GriGri. I’ll carry at least 2 with me, so not only do I abseil in on one, but have a second which I can attach to a separate rope for positioning myself left or right. Very light weight (although I prefer the older one to the current smaller, lighter model)