This is a post that is only about three years late. My trips to Japan have garnered a fair bit of interest, and some of it pertains to equipment. This is a great way to start going through the gear I use, how I use it, and why I use it.
So, without further ado, here’s a reasonably representative view of my kit during my wanderings in Japan.
A brief list and notes, starting from the left bottom:
Moleskin 7.5 x 10″ notebook.
The notebook serves double duty. While it’s good for taking notes, it’s also large enough to fit flat into my backpack, and allows me to place tickets, brochures, maps etc. between its covers to keep them from getting damaged.
A passport helps in getting in and out of the country, and may be required as ID.
A case with some business cards. The case serves double duty to hold any business cards I’m given. I generally use these to give out in case someone wants to know where my pictures will be posted, or how to get in touch with me. I ended up having very little use for them in Japan, surprisingly.
Columbus V900 GPS Logger
The GPS logger keeps track of where I am, so I can mark the location into photos later. I have another blog entry on geotagging. In Japan this was really useful, because I didn’t have to stop to take notes about where I was. It afforded me the luxury to use various online maps after the fact to properly document where I was and what was shown in my pictures.
Giottos Rocket Air Blower
The blower is used to remove dust. Primarily it helps to blow off dust from the mirror box, should it be necessary, but also helps in removing dust from lens elements, especially the rear element when changing lenses. The Giottos Rocket line got good reviews when I was shopping for one, but any decent one likely would do.
The actual camera. I have since upgraded, but the D300 has served me really well, and is a great camera. I got it for its improved low-light ability and better autofocus, and loved it for the ergonomics and image quality.
Really Right Stuff D300 L-Bracket
Attached to the camera is an L-Bracket. Here’s a closer look at it.
Using the tripod threads on the camera to directly attach it to a tripod is too time-consuming. Instead, there are various solutions where you mount a plate to the camera, and this plate then mates with a mechanism on the tripod and allows for easy attachment and removal. There are many such solutions; I used the Bogen one for years, but eventually migrated to the Arca-Swiss dovetail “standard.” The Arca-Swiss mount allows me to choose from myriads of accessories, including some extremely high quality ones.
The point of an L-bracket, as opposed to a simple plate underneath the camera, is that I can mount the camera horizontally or vertically. This prevents the need to fiddle around with the tripod head to try to get it to swing 90 degrees to the side, it keeps the weight of the camera over the center of the tripod, and it reduces parallax when taking panoramas.
The unexpected benefit, and you can see evidence of this when you look at all the scrapes and nicks, is that it offers a wonderful flat and solid surface for bracing the camera. I can of course brace the camera against railings, lamp-posts etc. even without a bracket, but the bracket protects the camera, and offers a properly aligned, flat surface. Despite being rather expensive, this is also a purchase I have not regretted for a moment.
The circles with lines through them give a nice external indication of the center of the sensor and optical axis, if you’re ever in a situation where that matters.
Hex Key / Allen Wrench
The hex key is used to attach / loosen / adjust the L-bracket to the camera, and tighten/loosen various other components of the tripod system.
A lens brush is a specialized brush used to remove dust. This one gets rid of the dust on optical surfaces of the lens that the air blower won’t dislodge. Never try to use anything but a hand-blower to clean your mirror! The brush is for lenses only.
The pen is used for writing. Notes, immigration forms, signatures, whatever.
Whenever the blower and brush aren’t enough, or there’s oil on the lens, the microfiber cloth comes to the rescue for lens cleaning.
AF-S Nikkor 35mm 1:1.8G DX
(Occasionally also the AF-S Nikkor 50mm 1:1.8) This is a fixed-focal length lens with a wide aperture. Physically it’s compact and very light, so there’s no reason not to carry it. Optically it’s excellent, except for the flare and internal reflection characteristics which make it a bit iffy for night photography that involve point light objects. Still, the wide aperture allows for great portraits and hand-held photography that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. The sharpness and low geometric distortions made it my go-to candidate for panoramas and other shots where optical quality really mattered. On my full-frame camera the 50mm lens fills this same role; I used it with the D300 occasionally for portraits as well.
The D300 is a crop-format sensor body, so the 35mm lens on it corresponds broadly to a 50mm lens on a film camera, i.e. it’s neither a wide-angle nor a telephoto.
The flash is useful for illuminating dark places and providing fill light in bright / high contrast scenes. The D300 (and most all Nikon dSLRs over the past half decade) have the ability to use light pulses to remote control the flash, so it doesn’t have to be attached to the camera. As shown in the picture, it came with a plastic stand that allows it to be easily set up on a flat surface. If the flash is on the camera, the head can be pivoted and tilted to bounce the flash off the ceiling or wall for more even illumination. I virtually never use a flash to illuminate a photo by pointing it forwards. The lack of this bounce/indirect lighting ability is why built-in flashes are of such limited use.
While I went through entire long days with a single battery, having a spare one handy gives a lot of piece of mind. It’s also handy if I get stuck somewhere unexpectedly and don’t have access to a charger.
Tamron AF 17-50mm 1:2.8 LD XR Di II SP Aspherical IF
Yeah, lens manufacturers have gone overboard with the alphabet soup. (Auto Focus; Low Dispersion; eXtra Refractive; Digital i.e. crop sensor; Super Performance; Internal Focus),
This is my normal walkaround lens. There’s nothing particularly fancy about it. It’s a “professional” style optical design where the maximum aperture remains 2.8 throughout the zoom range as opposed to most consumer zooms where the aperture varies from 3.5 to 5.6 or so. In practice this means more reliable/faster autofocus, a brighter image in the viewfinder, the ability to shoot with less light, and the ability to obtain shallower depth of field and more blurred out-of-focus areas (bokeh).
That being said, the lens is sharp and produces images which I like. It’s one of the best lenses I’ve ever owned despite its lack of ultrasonic focusing, nano-coatings or image stabilization.
Used to keep the photographer from getting soggy during rain. Also, in reasonable rain it allows me to shield the camera and still get some photography done. The camera bag has its own rain cover. Also, everyone in Japan has an umbrella, much in the same way as the Brits, and I wanted to try to fit in.
A fancy medium-weight carbon-fiber tripod. I might be able to get away with a slightly lighter one, but this one is properly sturdy for my purposes. I got a good deal in it, otherwise I might have opted for a slightly different model. Despite being carbon fiber and rather expensive it’s by no means weightless. On the other hand, I dread to think what my back would say if I had carried an equivalent aluminum tripod… After mile 50 the idea of paying more for a lighter tripod no longer seems silly. Carbon fiber also is better in absorbing vibrations than aluminum.
I have two primary dislikes about this tripod. The first is the way the leg extensions are locked, by twisting the black rubber rings. While in marketing glossies this means no snags, low weight, mitten-friend operation etc. in practice I keep finding that they’re not staying tight. I managed to damage a really nice new camera badly for this reason. For my next tripod I’d look for some kind of locking mechanism that clearly and positively locks and unlocks. The second is the way the angle of the legs is set. There’s a little plastic tab that you pull and push to determine how far the legs can swing out, and it just seems cheap, likely to break, and good for pinching fingers.
The Benro is a ball head for the tripod. Once in the prosumer and professional league of tripods, the tripod legs and the head often are sold separately. A ball head is the easiest and fastest in that it allows me to position the camera and then just tighten down one screw. Theoretically good ones also allow me to adjust friction, so I can move the camera around, but have it stay put when I stop exerting force on it. Ball heads tend to also be very solid so when they’re tightened down and allow for no play or vibration.
If tripods haven’t given you sticker shock yet, the ball heads might. What you get for more money is better and uniform friction, more reliability and ability to not get sand and dust caught in the mechanism, less weight, and the camera staying pointed where you intended when you tighten the head. The Benro is a Chinese knock-off, and it does reasonably well on all these — it’s not uniform in friction, and the camera moves a bit when the head is tightened, but the price/performance is good, and I was too cheap to spring for the Acra-Tech head I really wanted.
Kenko Clamp Pod Pro 100
A bit of a novelty gizmo I picked up from Yodobashi camera in Osaka. It’s a mini-tripod / clamp that allows me to either set the camera on a surface or clamp it to a branch, lamp post, railing etc. I carry it as an alternative to the real tripod, as sort of less bulky emergency backup. This one I directly screw into the camera if using it becomes necessary. Now, if someone made this out of titanium / high performance plastics so it’d be properly light, and built-in Arca-Swiss mount, it’d be a winning accessory.
Laminated Map / Address Sheet
Since even Kyoto taxis seemed to always get lost trying to get to my domicile, I cooked up a laminated double-sided card. On one side is my contact information and addresses, in case I lose my bag. On the other side is a map with a star marking where I’m staying so the cab driver can find it. I played around with other combinations, one with a hyperfocal distance scale etc. Also, useful as a flat smooth surface to write on or make sure the Moleskin notebook doesn’t bend too much.
This particular one is awesome. Japan is great for handing out free or cheap maps in tourist offices, and most are pretty good. This particular one of Kyoto is the best I’ve found.
I had no cellular data service in Japan (since it’s insanely expensive to roam, and local data service required residency), so modern smart phone map apps were useless, and even acquiring a GPS lock for downloaded maps (such as Nokia) took a really long time. Battery life also wouldn’t get me through a day with an electronic navigation gizmo, so all my navigation was properly old-school. I further like a paper map because I can write on it or make other notes, and it allows me to easily look at surroundings and plan my route without constant zooming in and out.
The ICOCA Card is a contactless stored-value card accepted in virtually all Kansai area trains and stores near train stations. Very convenient.
This is a rail that allows one to offset the camera along its optical axis when mounted to a tripod in order to eliminate parallax errors in panoramas. In practice it’s surprisingly heavy, stupidly time-consuming and clunky to set up, reduces the solidity of the camera support and introduces blur into the picture, and I really never noticed any particular issue with parallax anyhow in my panoramas. This remained behind after the first couple of days and hasn’t really seen much use since.
Lowepro 40th Anniversary Primus AW Backpack
It’s made from more than 50% recycled content and has a cute polar bear on it. What’s not to love?
Actually, finding a good camera bag has been one of the biggest challenges for me, one that still hasn’t completely been solved. This isn’t helped by different environments requiring different bags.
For Japan, and a lot of other walking/hiking photo expeditions, I wanted a bag that holds my camera, an extra lens or two, a flash, the tripod, a water bottle, a jacket, and has room for all the random odds an ends such as travel documents, sunscreen, lunch, souvenirs I’ve bought and so forth. Obviously it should also be ergonomic and fit into airplane overhead bins. The Lowepro primus has come the closest to this. Here is how camera gear sits in it. It will hold the D300 with the L-bracket and a 70-210 2.8 lens (barely), and I’ve routinely packed three extra lenses in it. The zipper you see on the left of the picture is a side door which allows me to pull the camera in and out of the bag without taking it off my back. I was dubious at first, but the side entry ends up working remarkably well.
The primary faults with the bag are the inability to put anything large and flat, such as a laptop or A4 / letter sized object in it, and the failure of the tripod carrying system to carry a tripod. Instead I just end up sticking the tripod in the external pouch-thingy where jackets and such can also go.
The “Glide Lock” thing had some bungees on it which were supposed to hold onto the top of the tripod, and there’s a pouch for tripod feet that folds out from underneath the bag. While the pouch works, the bungees were unable to hold onto the tripod, and with a proper strap the tripod ends up tearing the Glide Lock mechanism out of the bag. This likely works really well for lightweight tripods and monopods, though.
The bag has ergonomic straps, a well padded waist belt, sternum strap and load lifters, and it lets you easily carry a heavy load all day long. It’s easily as good as many hiking backpacks and better than some. One side pocket holds a water bottle or other incidentals. The pouch where the tripod rests can still take more gear, and you can roll up rain pants and jackets on the exterior of the bag. Finally, there’s a rain cover underneath that can be pulled over the entire bag in case of a proper downpour. The bag also offers some attachment points for other Lowepro accessories, such as water bottle holders and extra lens pouches.
Oh, Yeah, the Remote…
There’s a little remote on the microfiber cloth. I pulled it out of the bag and wasn’t thinking when laying it out. While it’s something that lives in my bag, it doesn’t actually work with the D300, so it wouldn’t have accompanied me to Japan. Instead, for long exposures and self-portraits I relied on the self timer.
With water, extra layers and rain clothing, lunch, brochures and the 14-24 1:2.8 lens which I borrowed for one trip I weighed the whole thing at 20+ pounds.
And there you have it. Please post any questions or topics on which you’d like me to go into more detail.