Last Updated: November 2018 (In progress!)
My photography equipment has to travel around the world with me. As I work in remote areas, it needs to be totally reliable. Preferably small and light, too. Also, inexpensive is good.
I don’t ask for much, right?
I’ve completely changed camera system this year, so I thought I’d best update this post to reflect that. Since I’ve been taking underwater and wildlife photos fairly obsessively since I got my first camera in 2013, I’ve got a fairly good idea of which lenses etc I use the most now, which means I’ve been able to refine things down to the bare essentials… though your idea of essential (ALL THE CAMERAS) may differ from mine.
Because I’ve only had my Sony system since June 2018, and I’ll only get it underwater for the first time in September 2018, most of the photos I’ve added here were taken with my previous camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M1.
My camera: Sony A7rIII
This replaces my Olympus OM-D E-M1, released in 2013, which was my primary underwater and travel camera since I bought it in early 2015.
Why did I change? I’d been interested to see the adoption of Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras amongst my friends that are professional photographers or videographers, but then… several of them switched back to DSLRs. The consensus seemed to be that the sensors were great, but battery life was terrible, lens selection was average at best, and there were also issues with relatively poor autofocus compared to high-end DSLRs.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been using the Olympus underwater, but taken my Nikon D7200 on dedicated wildlife trips. That was down to the Nikon being 24 mp, compared to 16 mp for the Olympus (gives a bit more latitude with cropping), having better low-light and autofocus performance, and the telephoto lenses for the m4/3 system (the lens mount used by Olympus and Panasonic) were expensive. If I needed to shoot underwater, though, the Nikon got left behind – two systems were too much for me to carry.
Reef manta ray at night in Ari Atoll, Maldives, with Indigo Safaris.
The release of the Nikon D850 and the 3rd-generation Sony A7rIII at around the same time in 2017 got me interested in a switch. Both had high-resolution sensors (the A7rIII is 42 mp), both had excellent autofocus, and both were good in low light. The battery life on the A7rIII was also a major improvement over the 2nd-generation cameras.
The Nikon D850 is probably the better overall wildlife camera, with its superior weather sealing, battery life, ergonomics and lens selection, but I decided that the A7rIII was ultimately a better fit for my situation. I’m a ‘mirrorless native’, and I prefer to use the LCD screen for composition underwater. The camera is also slightly smaller (similar to my Olympus), which makes for a significantly smaller, lighter and less expensive underwater housing (more on that below). There are some other neat features, such as silent shooting, which I do find useful for wildlife photography with shy animals.
So far I’ve only used the Sony above the water (in the Arctic and in New Zealand). It’s very nice. Setting it up was a huge pain in the arse (thanks be to YouTube tutorials for making life easier), but now I’ve got the buttons fully customised for wildlife photography I don’t often have to dive into the menus. I imagine there’ll be a bit more menu diving for the underwater configuration though. I’ll write up my settings at some point, to help myself as much as anyone else.
I like the electronic viewfinder for a few reasons too, particularly being able to switch instantly between the ‘full frame’ (42 mp) and ‘crop sensor’ (18 mp). That’s helpful for focusing on small annoying animals that won’t come close (damn birds), and I still get more megapixels on target than with my Olympus. In practical terms, that turns my Sony 100-400 mm into a compact, relatively light 100-600 mm, with 18 mp from 400-600 mm. More on that lens below.
Whale shark at Talisayan, Indonesia, with David McCann and Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.
Underwater Housing: Nauticam NA-A7R3
I use Nauticam housings for underwater photography, and I suggest you do too. They’re brilliant. Get a vacuum system too, you’ll thank me later. I also use dual Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes with Panasonic Eneloop batteries and Ultralight arms with a few floats to make the system neutrally buoyant.
Comes with a cool protective bag, which was a nice touch.
Sync cords are a pain.
Note that I had to remove the tripod mount from the Metabones to fit in the housing.
Do little set-up videos?
I’ve got three lenses for the A7rIII at present. I have two lenses for underwater photography:
- The Canon 8-15 mm fisheye. There’s no native autofocus fisheye lens for the Sony mount, which is a huge pain.
- The Panasonic 8 mm fisheye. I actually have the Olympus 8 mm PRO fisheye too, which is supposedly a superior lens, but I find that the Panasonic focuses faster, it’s smaller, and I can’t see any noticeable optical differences between photos taken with the two lenses. So the Panny it is. It’s cheaper, too. I use it with the 100 mm Zen optical glass dome port. I don’t see much difference between that (expensive) port and my older (cheaper) Nauticam acrylic mini dome port when it comes to optics, so I’d probably just go for the Nauticam port if I was starting fresh. Acrylic domes are also easier to look after, although they are much more prone to accumulating scratches. I never seem to dry the glass properly on my dome, and it stains (permanently), which is annoying – and expensive, if the glass does need to be replaced. As an aside, Reef Photo can organise that.
Here (above, and below) are some of my favourite photos taken with the Panasonic 8 mm fisheye this year:
Reef manta ray at Nusa Penida, Indonesia, with Big Fish Diving.
Whale shark in the Galapagos with Alexandra Watts and the Galapagos Whale Shark Project.
Hawksbill turtle at Maratua Island, Indonesia, with Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.
Whale shark at Mafia Island, Tanzania, with The Whale Safari and Marine Megafauna Foundation.
Just as an aside, I also really like using the Panasonic fisheye for wildlife if the subjects are amenable:
Marine iguanas at Isabela Island, Galapagos.
Wandering albatross at Kaikoura, New Zealand, with Albatross Encounter.
Gecko at Lokobe National Park, Nosy Be, Madagascar, with Aqua-Firma.
I also use the Panasonic 7-14 mm wide angle lens. It’s excellent, but it does require an additional (larger) port so I didn’t take it on my last trip. I prefer the fisheye for whale sharks, but the 7-14 mm is a great option for general wide angle (reefscapes etc). The 7-14 mm and Olympus 8 mm fisheye will both fit in the Zen 170 mm port (with an extension ring), which is pretty cool.
Here are some of my favourite photos taken with the Panasonic 7-14 mm wide angle lens this year:
Dusky and common dolphins at Kaikoura, New Zealand, with Dolphin Encounter.
Hawksbill turtle (top) and reef manta ray (below) at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, Philippines, with LAMAVE.
Reef fish (top), giant trevally (middle), and Gonzalo Araujo with whale shark (below) at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, Philippines, with LAMAVE and the Philippines Siren.
Giant petrol off Kaikoura, New Zealand, with Albatross Encounter.
2. The Olympus 60 mm PRO macro lens. I really enjoy macro photography, and this lens is great. I use it with a Nauticam flat port.
I haven’t done too many macro photography dives this year, but here are are few recent photos from the Olympus 60 mm lens:
An orange seahorse (above) and frogfish (below) in Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania, with Aqua-Firma and Mafia Diving.
Nudibranch (top) and hairy squat lobster (above) at Scuba Junkie Komodo, Indonesia.
3. For wildlife, I use the Sony 100-400 mm.
Sharp, close focus.
Peak Designs Slide Lite
I’m also likely to bite the bullet and pick up a wide angle lens at some point. At this stage, I think my #1 pick would be the Sony 16-35 mm f/2.8. Sharp, takes filters, for my hypothetical landscape photography adventures, and the f/2.8 makes it great for low light astro, and potentially as a wide-angle portrait lens at a pinch. Expensive though… although I kinda think I might as well save up and get the best lens available for my use-case scenario, rather than making do. I want this camera system to last me a long time, and the lens’ of course are likely to be useful for longer than the camera body.
Vlogging / video…
Rode video micro
Osmo Mobile 2 – timelapse! Also a neat pano function. Doesn’t work with audio though, and need a counterbalance weight to work with the Moment Wide Lens and case.
It focuses much closer than most other telephoto lenses too, which means you can also use it as a makeshift macro lens:
Southern bell frog in Tawharanui Regional Park, Auckland, New Zealand.
Chameleon (top) and tiny frog (above) at Lokobe National Park, Nosy Be, Madagascar.
I love having that flexibility. Here are some more photos taken with the Olympus 40-150 mm PRO lens this year:
Common dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand, taken with Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari.
A sperm whale (top) and dusky dolphins (below) off Kaikoura, New Zealand, taken from a whale watching flight with Wings Over Whales.
Hoo are you? A small owl in Lokobe National Park, Nosy Be, Madagascar.
I’m not convinced by monkeys. But the Bornean primates were alright. Kinabatangan River in Sabah with Osman’s Homestay.
Yellow-eyed penguin in Otago, New Zealand.
Tui at Orokonui Ecosanctuary, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Bornean elephant at the Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia, with Osman’s Homestay.
Remote camera: GoPro Hero 4 Black
I’ve stuck with the Hero 4 Black, rather than go for the latest GoPro (the Hero 6) as I like to use an external battery pack when I’m leaving the GoPro out as a remote camera to maximise recording time. The newer models have an LCD, so there’s no way to add battery life. No matter, as the Hero 4 Black is pretty decent.
I mount the GoPro on a dive weight to get footage like this:
I didn’t get much use out of this system in 2017, but it can be good to have around.
Drone: DJI Phantom 4 Pro
I’ve had a couple of drones before this, the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ (it drowned; RIP) and the Phantom 3 Pro (that cliff came out of nowhere; RIP). This Phantom 4 Pro is a really major upgrade in both still and video quality. It’s got a much larger camera sensor, which makes a big difference in quality, and the battery life has dramatically improved from earlier models. It’s much easier to get smooth video, too.
The Mavic 2 has now been released, one of which will probably be the better option for most people.
Pro: same 1′ sensor size as the 4 Pro, although I haven’t seen a comparison between the two yet. 28 mm equivalent field of view, compared to 24 mm in the 4 Pro. Major size advantage over the 4 Pro. The larger size of the 4 Pro might make it a bit easier to hand launch and catch out of boats though, which is a major consideration for me. I’d love to downsize, but I’ll keep the 4 Pro until at least next year.
The Mavic 2 Zoon also looks cool – it’s got the same body design as the 2 Zoom, but it has a 24-48 mm equivalent zoom lens. At this stage, I’d say that the 2 Pro is probably the best option for most aerial photographers, while the 2 Zoom might be the better option for most videographers. They both look excellent.
That being said, I would still point most people to the Mavic Pro (fly more bundle) as the better option for them. It’s much, much smaller, and the quality is still excellent. I’m really happy with my 4 Pro though.
I was annoyed on my first few flights, as the DJI Go app kept crashing on my Nexus 6 phone. It would overheat and drain the battery, too. Putting the phone into flight mode (funnily enough) did improve things, but I’d kind of wanted an iPad Mini 4 for reading anyway, so I got a refurbished iPad which works much better with the drone too.
Sunset over Komodo National Park, Indonesia, with Scuba Junkie Komodo.
Sangalaki Island, Indonesia, with Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.
Maratua Island, Indonesia, with Scuba Junkie Sangalaki.
Camera bag: Think Tank Airport Accelerator
This bag fits my drone – with the Think Tank dividers – as well as my dome ports, cameras, and lenses. It’s a beast. It obviously doesn’t look too conspicuous though, as I’ve never once had to weigh it. #winning
If you have a drone, but not lots of other stuff, there’s a specialist Think Tank drone backpack too.
Underwater drone: Trident mini ROV
This should be arriving in about March 2018. Stay tuned :).
You’ll want a bunch of memory cards. Don’t cheap out on these, they’re an important part of the system so it’s worth getting decent ones. I use Sandisk Extreme Pro 64 gb cards.
I always travel with a lenspen to keep my lens clean.
I bought various filters and a torch from Fire Dive Gear to try out fluorescence photography. I haven’t really worked out how to use this gear yet, but I did a fun couple of dives in Madagascar.
Fluoro diving at Nosy Sakatia, Madagascar, with Aqua-Firma and Sakatia Lodge.
Is it worth travelling with a compact camera? Not for me.
I managed to drown my Sony RX100 mkIII compact during heavy rain in Borneo. Oops. I’m still trying to decide if I’ll replace it. My phone seems to be dying, so I’m tempted to just buy a new phone that has a really good camera (likely a Pixel 2, so I can keep using my Project Fi sim card). I’ve normally got my phone with me, so it’d be convenient.
However, the Olympus TG5 is also a neat tough camera (with awesome macro) that would be useful for taking photos on wet boats, which I do spend a lot of time on. Hmmm.
If someone would put out a large-sensor waterproof compact, I’d be throwing my wallet at the screen right now.
Photography software: Adobe Lightroom Classic CC
I use Adobe Lightroom Classic CC for organising and editing my photos. It comes as a monthly subscription with Photoshop, which I’ll learn to use… eventually. As an aside, if you don’t know how to use Lightroom yet, I found the Stuck in Customs video tutorial series really useful.
If you’re not already shooting in raw and editing your photos, you should learn – it can dramatically improve your output.
Laptop computer: MacBook Pro 13′ (2015)
My travel (and office) computer is a 2015 MacBook Pro with a 13′ screen. I’ve got the 512 gb hard drive, 8 gb RAM configuration. It’s a couple of years old now, but still going strong.
Apple put out an updated version in 2016, but I’m not in any hurry to upgrade.
External hard drive: Seagate Backup Plus 5TB
I’ve got a couple of these. I want ALL THE STORAGE.
Travel insurance: World Nomads
After a fair bit of research, World Nomads is the best insurance option for me at this stage. They cover normal travel stuff, health things, diving and other activities, and at least partially cover my gear.
That’s it for camera gear!
Hope that’s helpful and / or interesting. It was fun going back through some of my photos from the year anyway.
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