The Photographer's Go Bag: Building Your Everyday, Everywhere Camera Kit

Not every photoshoot is planned. Maybe you'll spot something interesting on your way home and want to stop for a few pictures. Maybe you'll come across a scenic place while travelling. Or maybe a friend will suddenly invite you to an event: parties, concerts, conventions, and art shows can all turn into great spontaneous photo opportunities if you're prepared.  
If not, however, you can find yourself desperately needing something you have twenty of at home, but forgot in the heat of the moment. I've been in that situation. There are few worse feelings for a photographer.
Having a well-stocked go-bag ready in advance will save you from heartache and makes photographing spontaneous situations much easier and more fun.

Leather satchel and rangefinder camera
Photo by Simon Carr

 You have two options:
  1. Get a large camera bag and fill it with everything you might need.
  2. Get a backpack (also called a rucksack, knapsack, or packsack) and put your normal-sized camera bag and everything you need inside it.
For nature shoots and street photography you may not need anything more than what you can fit in a small and sensible camera bag, or even in your pockets. In fact, carrying a bulky backpack around can just be a hindrance. But how do you know what you'll need to take for any given situation?
No matter what kind of photography you're doing you'll need spare batteries, spare memory cards, a charger, and a lens cleaning kit. You'll probably want some business cards as well to hand out to anyone who's curious. Beyond that is where it all starts to get interesting.
What else you pack depends largely on what you're photographing. If it's street photography, you can head out with just the camera and the basics, using natural light to reflect reality. If you're photographing nature or architectural exteriors, you probably won't have any use for light modifiers, but you might need a tripod. On the other hand, if you're doing a quick location shoot with a model, the tripod will probably just get in the way, but you'll need all the control over the lighting you can get. Let's consider purposes when picking what to pack.

Photo by Bob Mical

You'll probably want to take two lenses: any more than that will start to take up too much space in your bag. If you're going to take both, I'm assuming you'll want a prime and a zoom.
If you regularly photograph architecture, landscapes, or broad vistas, you might want a fast wide prime, preferably a wide-angle one like 24mm, 28mm or 35mm. For slower-moving subjects or candid portraits you'll either want a telephoto prime in 75mm, 85mm or 105mm range, or a zoom lens that covers that range.
If you're a photographer of moving subjects (like children) or odd and varied lighting situations, it's best to go with a fast normal prime - 45mm, 50, or 55mm - that can cover a broad rang of situations and allows you to open up the aperture in low light, letting you shoot with a much faster shutter speed while keeping the important part in focus. Picking a lens with image stabilization (IS) or vibration-reduction (VR) will help reduce the blur caused by camera shake, when you have to lower the shutter speed to get a clear shot.
Some photographers will also want to bring a good zoom lens to take those "just at the right moment" pictures without having to potentially miss your photo while moving closer. Something that covers from 20-80mm should be good for all situations.
Lens hoods prevent light from hitting the lens from the sides and top, which creates unwanted lens flares and reduces contrast in the rest of the picture. They also provide a bit of a protective barrier on the front of the lens. You can prevent your hood from taking up any extra bag space simply by screwing it on backwards so it fits over the lens when it's not in use. 
Finally, bring a good lens wrap: a cloth or pouch to protect your gear from itself while in your bag. Lenses, flashes, and other various bits of external gear can easily get scratched or dinged, but a solid wrap will do a lot to protect them.

Unfortunately bouncing your flash off the sky wont actually work
Photo by Petras Gagilas

A bit of flash can save the day in a pinch. That said, they can be heavy, so you're likely better of with a smaller flash than a larger one. The smaller the piece of kit, the more likely it is to stay in your bag, the more likely it is to get used. Most of the time, for the kind of photography we're talking about here, you'll be filling in some light in an underlit scene, not creating a lighting scenario from scratch.
If you haven't bought your external flash yet, you'll want to pick one that can rotate as well as tilt. This way, you can bounce the flash off of nearby objects, creating the illusion that the light is coming from another direction and creating a more flattering lighting situation for portraits.
If your flash doesn't have a focus assist beam, you may also want to pack a pocket flashlight to help it autofocus. 
Beyond that, remember that you don't need a ton of fancy flash modifiers or hand held light meters to make the best of your lighting. Usually, especially if you're shooting outside, a flash and a few reflectors will be more than enough to cover most lighting situations.

Hand holding gray card up to a wall
Photo by Enric Martinez

Next, you'll want to pack a gray card. Gray cards are a middle gray "reference" that you can use to set the white balance for your images. They're printed in a color known as 18% gray, often referred to as "neutral gray" because it's been determined to be the best tonality to serve as a neutral point for exposure and white balance in an image.
There's no reason not to have one on hand all the time: they're cheap, easy-to-find, and – being a piece of card – easy to fit into any photo bag. However, if you prefer to go fancier with your settings, you can bring an ExpoDisc, which lets you set your balance by photographing something white.
Finally, If you're going to be using flash in conjunction with fluorescent or tungsten light, and you want to achieve a consistent white balance, it's imperative that you use a flash gel, specifically a corrective gel. Remember, even with gels, you should still use a gray card to ensure perfect balance. 

Reflection of a forest tree in polarizing filter
Photo by Stephen Durham

Perhaps the best all-around filter to keep close by is a polarizing filter. The polarizering filter blocks specific wavelengths of light, and is handy for taking the glare off of things like skyscraper windows in urban photography, or leaves and dew in nature, giving you a richer photo with better color and more contrast.
Neutral density (ND) filters uniformly reduce the amount of light reaching the camera's sensor, letting you tamp down the amount of light coming into your camera. This is often useful when shooting in direct sunlight, or when you want to create motion blur.
You can also use cool or warm filters to subtly change the color of an image, making it look, well, cooler or warmer.  And if you're going to be visiting somewhere unusually dusty or dangerous, make sure to use protective filters on all your lenses. 
Now, let's briefly cover reflectors. Most of them, even the portable ones, are too large and cumbersome to practically fit into a go-bag. However, there's a better solution: almost any large, white object (painted walls, box trucks, etc.) that gets hit by the sun can serve as a reflector. They're often much better for even light anyway, since they're much larger than any reflector could be. You can even use sheets of styrofoam or foam core for this purpose in a pinch.
There's one thing that didn't fit anywhere else: If you're making self-portraits, time-lapses, or long exposures it's worth investing in a remote control. You can use the set-it-and-run-back-into-place method, but for more complex poses, you need a remote way of triggering it.You can also use your smarphone as a trigger with a camera attachment.


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