Shooting Sports: What’s in The Bag?

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Photo by Hernan Bernal

I’ve been making pictures for over two decades now, and I still work on improving my photography every day – and improving the gear I use. I have found sports to be the most demanding field I’ve ever worked in, it being tougher – and ultimately, more satisfying – than even chasing wildlife in the Florida Everglades.

Any good photographer will tell you that you can get great pictures with any decent camera, and when I started covering cycling races, I had just come back from a short photography hiatus with a new-to-me Nikon D80. It marked my return to DSLRs after having sold all my Canon gear some time before. The D80 got me hooked on Nikon, and I sold a bunch of good photos from it, but I kept on “trading up” until I got to the kit I use now. My biggest reasons for upgrading included faster autofocus, weather-sealing on the body and lenses, and a more usable ISO range.

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So what do you see me shooting with now out at races? I am a hardcore minimalist, but I still use two camera bodies, one with a wide lens and one with a telephoto. The Nikon Z 6 has become my primary camera – a big surprise to me, considering how many people want to talk down its sports capabilities. I may think differently about it if I were shooting 150mph race cars or motorcycles, but it does extremely well when photographing cyclists whizzing past me at 30+ mph.

My Nikon 70-200/4 VR is almost always attached to the Z 6 via the clunky FTZ adapter. The 70-200 is a staple in almost every sports photographer’s bag, and that’s why I resisted it for so long – trying to be different, but I was going about it the wrong way. I now see why this incredibly versatile lens is so damn popular. I picked the f/4 over the f/2.8 because of weight. Endurance sports are the only sports I shoot, and they are almost always out in the open and in the daytime – so I don’t really need that extra stop. And after running from one end of a criterium course to the other all day while carrying almost 30 pounds of gear, I realized I needed to lighten up the backpack.

The secondary body is one that I had wanted even back when I was still shooting Canon, having been released in 2012: the Nikon (former) flagship body, the D4. Tough as hell, and it shoots 11 frames per second – rat-tat-tat-tat! Ergonomic even with its considerable heft, it looks and handles the business. Mated to a Nikon 16-35/4 and hanging from a Peak Design Slide strap, it’s really not bad to carry around.

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The 16-35 is the newest addition to the kit, having traded in my beloved Nikon 16mm fisheye and the utilitarian Nikon 24/2.8 lens I used for a while. I don’t get the awesome distortion from the 16-35 that I did from the dedicated fisheye prime, but then the same distortion could easily become gimmicky at times. So the fisheye stayed in the bag more often than not. The 16-35 gives me that amazing wide-angle perspective I love, with a very useful zoom range.

Rounding out the lens selection, I held onto my Nikon 300/4 with a 1.4x teleconverter, for when I really need more reach. It’s a cracker of a lens, but it has made less appearances at race courses since I have had the 70-200.

What else is in the bag? Snacks, tons of batteries, a Think Tank Pee Wee Pixel Pocket Rocket case for all the memory cards, a Think Tank Hydrophobia rain cover for the unpredictable Sunshine State weather, a Nikon SB-900 flash, and a few other odds and ends. A rugged WD My Passport SSD hard drive serves as a backup and storage for second shooters. The pack itself is a Mindshift Gear (Think Tank again) MP-7 v2.0 backpack. It’s pretty light and fits everything just right, laid out in a way that makes sense for an active outdoors photographer.

Finally, hanging defiantly from an exterior zipper is a French keychain of the lion mascot from longtime Tour de France sponsor Crédit Lyonnais, to remind me of determination and pushing past limits; just like I can always ride my bike faster, I can always make an even better picture.

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