What’s In Scott Bourne’s Camera Bag?
DISCLAIMER: I will refer to crop factors in this presentation. It’s important to know that crop factor and the associated focal length multiplier only affects field of view. I prefer to reference this as effective focal length (EFL) but others use FOV. Feel free to use whichever term you like. Also please note I am an Olympus Visionary, but I made my switch to Olympus cameras before that honor was offered to me, and I paid for the gear I bought when I switched. I simply mention my status here by way of disclosure.
NOTE: I will regularly update this post when I add something to or change something in my camera bag. Bookmark it if you want to stay up on the latest changes.
Are you interested in getting started with bird (wildlife) photography or are you looking to take your shooting to the next level? Believe it or not you can do it using Micro Four Thirds gear. I have made some great portraits, birdscapes and even flight shots with this gear, and even made salable prints from the RAW files I get from my Olympus cameras. I’ve had my images from Olympus cameras used in articles and on web sites, used on television shows published in Outdoor Photographer Magazine, Birdwatching Magazine, Outdoor Photography Magazine and others – all images made with M43, mirrorless cameras. Three books were published in 2018 using my photos and one book was exclusively made of photos from my Olympus camera. My photographs hung at an international wildlife photography exhibition in China and my pictures were enlarged to 28″ on the longest side for an art book. Pictures from my camera have hung at international trade shows. My images have been used on greeting cards and made into posters. In every case, the quality of my pictures from this gear meets or beats that coming from other cameras I used to shoot with.
One of my favorite things about the switch to Micro Four Thirds gear is that it makes bird photography more accessible. For some, there is no other option. Many people who love birds and bird photography simply can’t physically carry or effectively wield the large, heavy full-frame gear that most associate with bird photography. Still others can’t come up with the $20-$30k that it costs to grab a couple of Canon 1DX bodies with telephoto lenses.
If you need to save space, weight or money, rest assured that the Micro Four Thirds gear I discuss here will get you some great results. I use this gear exclusively and have seen my keeper rate actually go up, because I can shoot longer than I used to when I carried the heavy full-frame DSLR.
This gear is expensive compared to some Micro Four Thirds setups, but it’s a bargain comparing to some other options.
If you have seen my gear guides in the past, do yourself a favor and read this one. There are several new items and I have made some significant changes to this version of the guide. As always, if you have questions about any of this I’ll try to help. Just email me – email@example.com.
Before I get into the camera stuff there are two items I want to talk about. I have had skin cancer and I wish I’d have understood the need to wear a hat that offers SPF protection from the sun. I don’t go anywhere without a hat these days and I strongly recommend the K-Tek KSH1 Stingray Audio SunHat for those of you who spend time outdoors, photographing birds. It’s comfortable, machine washable and UPF50-rated to block 98% of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays.
I also suggest carrying Grabber Mini Hand Warmers when there’s a chance the weather will turn cold. One year, I went to Bosque del Apache and forgot mine. They were in Seattle and I was in New Mexico. After only 20 minutes photographing in BEAUTIFUL light, I had to go to the car because my hands were so cold they hurt. These hand warmers also work in your boots to keep your feet warm. Bring a bunch of them and you’ll be able to stay in the field longer.
Ultimately, you need to get a camera body with excellent auto-focus, a high frame rate, a good buffer, and the ability to use fast, long glass.
My first choice is the Olympus OM-D E-M1X. This is the flagship body from Olympus and it is specifically designed for bird/wildlife/sports shooters. In other words, photographers who need amazing image stabilization, high frame rates and the ability to work with long glass. It has the best autofocus of any mirrorless or Micro Four Thirds camera. It even has tracking autofocus that, depending on your subject, uses machine learning to more accurately capture moving subjects. It has a fixed battery grip that works with two batteries and controls that can be easily accessed whether or not you are shooting horizontally or vertically.
My second choice is the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. The big advantage of the OMD EM1 Mark II is tracking autofocus that actually works. It was the first mirrorless camera on the market to offer a tracking autofocus that is this reliable. It has several other advantages including: It’s roughly a third of the price of a Canon 1DX MK II, and about 1/3 the weight of the Canon and one half the size.
The autofocus points on either Olympus camera body cover a wider area of the viewfinder than the AF points on any DSLR. Very few cameras in the world can match the Olympus when it comes to active AF points with a teleconverter attached. This is an incredible advantage for people who need the extra reach offered by a teleconverter or an accurate AF.
What about full-frame? At some point you can’t defeat physics. Full-frame DSLRs do have a very small advantage in low-light because of their larger sensor. But given the size, cost and weight advantages, any shots I would miss due to the camera’s sensor size are made up for in shots I get because I can work longer without getting tired. Beyond that, for most people, the cost of a 1DX MK II is simply out of reach. On the Canon side, the Canon 7D MK II is a crop-sensor camera that most entry-level bird photographers gravitate to and in my opinion, given the heavy lenses you have to use to make it work, it simply pales in comparison to the Olympus MK II. I think the Olympus body is better in every way except in some cases where the autofocus is a little faster in low-light on the Canon 7D MK II.
Another advantage of the Olympus bodies is the in-camera stabilization, especially when paired with a lens like the Olympus 300 f/4 Pro Lens. No other camera body I am aware of can match it. I often shoot the 300 f/4 with the Olympus 1.4 teleconverter for an effective focal length of 840mm and I handheld the shot at 1/90th of a second!!! This is unheard of performance. In my entire career using Canon or Nikon 600mm lenses with teleconverters I never once – not one time – got a decent shot trying to hand hold.
By the way, the battery life in the Mark II camera is the best I’ve ever seen from a Micro Four Thirds camera body. I can get by on two batteries per day, no problem. So I do carry a spare battery – Olympus BLH-1 Lithium-Ion Battery (7.4V, 1720mAh). The OM-D E-M1 X has similarly great battery life and uses the same battery as the Mark II.
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera would make a good step-up camera for those who want to switch but can’t afford the Mark II version. Note this camera is no longer sold as new. It’s been replaced by the Mark II version, but makes a very capable bird portrait camera. It doesn’t contain the fast autofocus found in the Mark II but if all you are doing is photographing captive birds or tame birds, it is a fine choice.
Believe it or not I also bring an action camera with me when I travel for bird photography. And I have tried many, including GoPro, etc., but by far, my favorite is the Olympus Tough TG-5. This camera is virtually indestructible. You can get it wet, cold, and even drop it and the camera just keeps working. It’s great for grab shots, for social media posts, for video that I sometimes need for BTS, there are lots of potential uses.
The problem with bird photography is that it is often very expensive because of the telephoto lenses favored by avian shooters. Big glass costs big bucks. There are things you can do to mitigate costs, but when it boils down to selecting where to spend the bulk of your money, you can’t go wrong with buying good glass. You may not need the super long glass if you’re lucky enough to live in a place like Florida where the birds are unbelievably tame, or if you have the luxury of working from blinds that are close to the action.
My first lens pick is the incredible Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens. It’s a $2500, stabilized telephoto lens with an EFL of 600mm at f/4! It also pairs well with an Olympus 1.4 teleconverter to get you 840mm in a hand-holdable lens that costs about 1/4th its full-frame equal. It’s one of the sharpest lenses I have ever used.
Long, telephoto lenses are crucially important to bird photographers. For years I shot with Canon’s $11,499 600 f/4 IS L lens. The Olympus 300 replaces that lens in my kit and is just as sharp, (if not sharper) allows just as much light to pass through (wide open) but weighs five pounds less, (Canon 8.75 lbs v. Olympus 3.25 lbs) close focuses to 4.59 feet (as compared to 14.76 feet on the Canon,) costs $9,000 less and is roughly half the size.
The close focusing distance advantage is truly amazing. It allows for close up pictures that fill the frame even when working very close to the subject. The color rendition, sharpness, contrast and clarity from that lens are all state-of-the-art. I’ve had the privilege of owning some of the best camera lenses in the world. This one belongs on that list.
The 300mm lens is fast to focus and its image stabilization is also state-of-the-art. These are all very important to bird photographers. Being able to hand-hold a lens with this kind of reach is amazing. You can also usually get by with any old ball head on your tripod. While a gimbal head always helps, if you can’t afford one or can’t find room for one, it’s not absolutely necessary when using this lens.
Along with the 300, I highly recommend the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter which is also state-of-the-art. It has very little negative impact on overall image quality or autofocus speed. Compared to the more expensive Canon teleconverter, it offers slightly better image quality and slightly faster autofocus.
The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO Lens is my mid-range flight lens. Offering long reach with an advanced feature-set and optical design, it’s a versatile 80-300mm equivalent telephoto zoom. As part of the PRO series of advanced lenses, this zoom distinguishes itself with a bright f/2.8 constant maximum aperture for consistent illumination throughout the zoom range to suit working in a variety of lighting conditions. Its optical design makes use of a series of aspherical and low dispersion glass elements to suppress chromatic and spherical aberrations for notable sharpness and clarity, and a ZERO coating is also used to reduce flare and ghosting for high contrast, color-accurate imaging.
More than 70% of my best eagle shots on my last Alaska trip were made with this lens.
Another lens I use to round out my bird photography kit is the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO Lens. While I usually prefer primes to zooms, this zoom is very special and very versatile. While I don’t shoot much in this focal range, when I need to do so, this lens is very easy to pack and very reliable.
Benefitting handling, the expansive zoom range is an optical image stabilization system that works in conjunction with this lens and select cameras’ you get up to 6.5 stops of stabilization. A Movie & Still Compatible (MSC) high-speed imager AF system provides quick, accurate, and quiet focusing performance well-suited to both photo and video applications, and a manual focus clutch permits fast changing to MF for more precise control. Additionally, a lens function button is featured on the side of the barrel for direct settings adjustment, and the lens also features a weather-sealed construction for use in trying environmental conditions.
If you are on a budget, there is one sleeper lens for bird photography that is a must have. The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II Lens doesn’t get much love because it’s not one of Olympus’ Pro Lenses and it is slower than the Pro zooms at f/6.7 when fully zoomed out to the EFL of 600mm, but I can guarantee you that this lens is very sharp. It’s also very compact and very lightweight. It is an amazing focal range of 150 to 600mm EFL, and is very easily something you can hand hold, all day long. It provides clear, color accurate, contrasty images that often compare with what you get from the more expensive lenses. I own every single lens that Olympus makes, including the Pro glass, but sometimes, I just grab this little guy because he is so small and lightweight and I have never been disappointed.
Flash & Accessories
Some people wrongly assume that a camera flash bothers birds. It absolutely does not in almost any circumstance, except when a bird is sitting on a nest with eggs in it. And even then, depending on the species it may be no problem. The smaller the bird the more likely the flash is to bother it in that situation. While somewhat controversial in some circles, I have no problem with using flash on wildlife photos.
Now just because I can use flash doesn’t mean I do. In fact, the circumstances that require flash are rare. Accordingly, I don’t use flash very often, but when I am working close and against a backlit subject, flash is great to fill in the shadow side. The Olympus FL-900R Electronic Flash is always in my bag or my vest just in case.
I use the Vello Off-Camera TTL Flash Cord for Olympus/Panasonic Cameras (3′) to get the flash off the camera for better (more flattering) lighting.
The MAGMOD MagBeam Wildlife Kit Collapsible Flash Diffuser is what I use instead of a Better Beamer Flash Extender. This diffuser lets me soften the light that covers the bird and does so without costing too much light. It also extends the flash range which is important when using big, telephoto glass.
For hummingbird photography I use a four flash setup. I use four FL-900R flash units and they are triggered wirelessly using one Olympus FC-WR Wireless Radio Flash Commander, and four Olympus FR-WR Wireless Radio Flash Receivers. This is a flawless setup and much easier to manage than when I relied on sync cables. That said, I always bring the cables as backup, just in case.
Avian photography is one of the rare photographic pursuits where the equipment can often make the difference between getting a shot or not. Telephoto lenses are hard to stabilize without a tripod. That said, I can, and do, often shoot without a tripod now that I have switched. But there are times (in low-light for instance) where a tripod can help. I often use a tripod or even a monopod if for no other reason than to rest my arms and let the gear do all the work.
I use the “Arca-Swiss” tongue and groove system to mount my cameras and lenses. The Olympus 300 f/4 Pro Lens has an Arca-compatible lens foot built right in. The 40-150 f/2.8 Pro Lens does require a lens foot. The 12-100 f/4 Pro Lens can be mounted to the camera and then the camera mounted to a tripod because it isn’t a big, large, heavy lens.
Kirk Photo makes high-quality, affordable Arca-Swiss compatible plates. You can also find lots of Chinese knock-offs on Ebay and Amazon, but I don’t recommend them.
I still carry a tripod, even if I may not need it – just in case. And my NEW favorite is the Robus RC-5570 Tripod. Load capacity 55 lbs. If you’re looking for a pro-quality tripod that can do video and stills, look no further than the new Robus RC-5570 Tripod. I just got mine and have it matched to the Oben GH-30 gimbal. Pro-quality in EVERY way.
While I have been using the GH-30 gimbal for about a year, this Robus is a new – beefier tripod for me which I need because I plan to do more serious video next year.
The Robus tripod comes with a nice carry bag, spikes for outdoors or non-slip pads for indoors, tools, instruction set and even a second base which provides a bowl for video style heads. This is a real Bargain! It costs as much as half some other pro tripods. There’s nothing cheap about this tripod other than the price.
As a backup, I carry a smaller, and less expensive Oben. I particularly like it due to its super light weight, relatively low cost, and portability. The Oben CT-2381 Carbon Fiber Tripod is the tripod you want if you are on a budget. It’s probably not gonna last as long as an expensive tripod from someone like Really Right Stuff, but my guess is that the vast majority of the people reading this don’t need anything better, me included. It has great specs for the money – Load Capacity: 26.4 lbs.
I have traditionally relied on gimbal heads, but more and more, I just don’t need one because my camera is so light I can either handhold it or mount it to a monopod. Lately I’ve grown partial to a very interesting piece of gear called the UniqBall UBH 45XC Ball Head with X-Cross Clamp. It allows me to absolutely guarantee a level horizon no matter what but still allows side-to-side movement.
It is Arca-type compatible ball head, which also functions as a pan-and-tilt, gimbal, or video fluid head. It has a built-in leveling base with a separate tension-controlled inner panning ball. The bidirectional X-Cross clamp has more than one entrance point, enabling lens plates or macro focusing rails to enter straight, and camera plates to enter from the side. The head is capable of holding even the heaviest camera/lens combo so it’s as sturdy as can be with a M43 system.
More often than not, when I don’t use a tripod, I do heavily rely on a monopod. The Manfrotto MPMXPROC5US Carbon Fiber XPRO Monopod+ is light, strong and and stands taller than most monopods. It’s inexpensive compared to the monopod I used to carry. You can use this monopod with the Olympus 300 f/4 Pro Lens and walk around all day without getting tired. My main reason for choosing a monopod is that it allows me to rest my arms. I use the Benro DJ90 Monopod Tilt Head to make the monopod perform more like a tripod.
If you want another idea for stabilizing your camera that is ultra portable, as in it will fit in any small bag or maybe even your pocket, look no further than the Platypod Max Camera Support. (There are smaller, cheaper versions available too.)
The Platypod Pro Max Camera Support is a wide, stable, and ultra low-profile platform that allows you to set up a large tripod head, camera, and lens on both horizontal and vertical surfaces.
Measuring 5.3 x 7.8″ and only 0.2″ thick, the Pro Max Camera Support allows you to photograph or record with a camera that is elevated only slightly higher than the tripod head it is used with. Four reversible, spiked feet that each feature rubber tips on one end can be distributed among five strategically placed, 1/4″-20 threaded holes. Once installed, they can be adjusted to level the platform on uneven surfaces, both indoors and out. For placement on unconventional surfaces and angles, two 2-inch belt shots allow the Pro Max Camera Support to be secured to a cylindrical object or to be taped onto angled floors. Two nail holes are included for permanent or semi-permanent mounting to walls, boards or ceilings; and for quick placement and removal from conventional tripods or quick release devices, 1/4″-20 and 3/8″-16 threaded holes are on the underside of the platform. You will need a ballhead for this unit, but when you want a stable camera and can’t bring a tripod, this is often a great substitute.
I also like to shoot from my car, using it as a blind. For this the Kirk WM-2 Multi-Purpose Window Mount for Tripod Head (you have to supply your own head) is the best unit I’ve ever tested. It gives you a super stable shooting platform. If you prefer, the Apex Mini Bean Bag functions almost as well, but does take practice to get used to.
As for camera straps – I like the Peak Design Slide Camera Strap SL-T-2 because it can quickly clip on or off and will hold the Olympus camera body with the 300mm f/4 Pro Lens.
I don’t use many actual filters on my lenses, but there are times I want a polarizer. My favorite is the Singh-Ray 77mm LB Warming Circular Polarizer Thin Mount Filter. It’s great for cutting reflections and warming a scene. 77mm with step down rings can be used on most lenses.
The ThinkTank Airport Security V 2.0 Rolling Camera Bag is far and away my favorite travel bag. It holds all my bird photography gear and can be either rolled through an airport or carried on my back. It’s very versatile, strong, and flexible.
When I am traveling light, or need to have a smaller carry-on (as required in international travel or for flights on regional jets) I use the ThinkTank Airport Advantage. It’s smaller than the Security model and will fit under the seat of any regional jet I’ve ever flown on.
For carrying gear to the field – I used to rely on Pelican cases, but I had two problems – i.e., two different cases had latch failures due to warping. So now – when I have to ship my gear, I rely exclusively on Impact Light Kit Roller Bag #2 – While it’s billed as a bag for carrying light stands, etc., the Impact Light Kit Roller Bag #2 is the perfect bag for carrying gear TO the field. On big jobs, using a series of inserts and the already good padding and configurable interior offered by the Impact bag, I can put two of them on the truck with no worries. I have shipped these bags and just to be safe, I put them inside cardboard shipping boxes and they arrive undamaged every time. They are large enough to carry a ton of gear.
They are well-constructed, sturdy, and roomy bags. Impact installed heavy-duty casters and a rubber skid plate which makes it easy to safely roll the bag from car to studio, etc. The bag has four compartments and the yellow interior makes it easy to spot your gear inside the bag. Because the bag is made of durable, weather-resistant, ballistic nylon, the bag shields contents from moisture, dust, dirt, and debris. This also makes it a good candidate for long-term storage.
I also rarely leave home without my Lowepro Urbex BP 24L Backpack. It is one of the most versatile bags I have ever seen. I use it to carry my small electronics, like laptop, iPad, phones, drives, etc. but it has room for a small lens and camera body as well.
Here are the features:
- Dual-Configuration Multimedia Backpack
- Spacious Main Compartment
- Removable, Versatile Equipment Pouch
- Dedicated, Padded Laptop Pocket
- Holds 15″ Laptop and 10″ Tablet
- Multiple Organizational Pockets
- Backpack-Strap Smartphone Pocket
- External Pouch Attachment Webbing
- Pass-Through for Luggage Trolley Handle
- Bottle Pocket, Top Carry-Handle
I probably went through a dozen different bags before finding this one. I can’t recommend it enough.
When it comes to organizing everything from spare memory cards to cables and even small tools, the newest addition to my bag collection is the Peak Design Travel Tech Pouch. Like everything from Peak Design, it’s very well-conceived, sturdy and a little expensive, but well worth it. I used to fuss over trying to keep all my photo/electronic accessories organized (meaning I just hoped I hadn’t lost them again) and this bag does it better than anything I have ever seen.
There’s one more bag I use. The Peak Design Travel Camera Cube is a great way for me to pack gear into the sliding bed drawers in my work truck. These cubes also work well for inserting into backpacks. I used to use the F-64 bags for this job, but the Peak Design bags are less expensive, better padded and they are designed to be more adaptable. I have three of them and love them.
Digital Darkroom Hardware
This is the place where my workflow is constantly in flux. I have primarily used Apple computers for all my photography workflow. Changes in Apple’s approach forced me to switch to Windows. But to prove the old adage is true – software sells hardware. I prefer using Skylum Software to edit and I used Mac Logic Pro for my podcast editing so I switched back to the Apple 27″ iMac Pro with Retina 5K Display as my main computer. It is very fast and it has a great display but it is overpriced. To quote my friends from Brooklyn – “What you gonna do?”
I also switched back to an Apple laptop but I ditched the horrid MacBook Pro (I hate that little touch strip across the top of the keyboard with an absolutely perfect hatred!) I use the new MacBook Air with Retina Display. It’s not as powerful as the Macbook Pro but it will do the job and it’s fast, lightweight, has decent battery life and a great screen.
I also use an Apple iPad 10.5 Pro for some applications. Like I said, I am stuck in the Apple eco-system.
I prefer the innovation I see from Microsoft but I need software that runs on Apple products and I am very sucked into the Apple eco-system no matter how hard I try to escape it. So I am giving up. At my advanced age I just have to stick with what works for me. And I have plenty of company. Most the professional photographers I know use Apple products.
When it comes to storage, redundancy and backup, I currently recently switched to two LaCie d2 Professional 10TB USB-C and USB 3.0 External Hard Drives. These units have a USB 3.1 Type-C port that is compatible with Thunderbolt 3 devices. The drive bay features a BarraCuda Pro enterprise-class drive, which spins at 7200 rpm and offers data transfer rates of up to 240 MB/s.
For some jobs that require me to go mobile, I have had good experience with the LaCie 4TB Rugged Thunderbolt / USB-C Mobile HDD. These are cheap and very portable. I have a dozen of them and use them now with confidence, since I’ve been traveling with them and they are very sturdy.
For even lighter travel, I use two SanDisk 2TB Extreme Portable USB 3.1 Type-C External SSD drives. They are super fast and very small. Easy to pack and ship and take out into the field.
When it comes to memory cards, I highly recommend the Sony Tough series. I specifically use the Sony 64GB SF-G Tough Series UHS-II SDXC Memory Cards. It pains me to recommend Sony anything because I am not a Sony fan – not a fan of the way they do business in particular, but when someone does a good job, I have to tip my hat. And my personal biases aside, right now, Sony are making the best memory cards for photographers. I usually carry about 10 of the 64GB cards in my bag on any job.
Digital Darkroom Software
I use a variety of software to edit my images. I used to use Aperture from Apple but when they abandoned it, I switched to Adobe Photoshop/Lightroom CC. I only use these products now when I am faced with extremely difficult post-processing tasks that I cannot do in Luminar – and that is very rare.
While not absolutely necessary, the Olympus HLD-9 Power Battery Grip certainly is helpful in several ways for those shooting with the MK II. It makes shooting verticals (handheld) mach more comfortable. It adds bulk to the camera which is a good thing for some of us who have bigger hands. And it stores a second battery. I keep one body with the battery grip in my bag and one without.
I believe patience is the number one tool in any bird photographer’s kit. To that end, I often find myself simply waiting on a bird to come to my preferred background. Because it’s less wear and tear on my old body, I prefer to sit while I wait. The very portable, lightweight, but sturdy Walkstool Comfort 55 XL 22 is the perfect field stool. I simply never leave home without mine. (This product comes in different sizes – check to see how tall you want the seat height and choose accordingly.)
Recently I also added the Walkstool Steady Supplemental Stabilizer to my bag. This allows the stool to work in soft sand or mud without sinking.
I hate dust on my sensor and thankfully, the Olympus camera I use simply doesn’t have a problem in that regard. But in case there is a problem, I use the Giottos Rocket Blaster Dust-Removal Tool. It is effective and affordable and can also be used to clear any exterior dust and debris from any and all of your camera gear.
The Olympus RM-CB2 Release Cable is a great help when you are shooting for long periods on a tripod. Instead of getting sore arms, shoulders and a sore neck by keeping your face planed to the viewfinder for hours at a time, you can just sit back and watch the LCD, firing when you see movement from the birds.
While it has limited use (flight photography with the 300mm lens) I do like the Olympus EE-1 Dot Sight. It has limited utility but has helped me track birds in flight so I always have it with me just in case.
I also never leave home without my pair of Olympus 10×42 Pro Binoculars. This set is waterproof and comes outfitted with a high magnification and generous objective lens configuration. Weighing only two pounds, they are comfortable and sharp as can be.
I am thrilled with the results I get from this gear and very thankful to the engineers who created the Micro Four Thirds format. Without it, my shooting career might be over. Thankfully, I don’t feel like I’ve had to compromise at all to make this switch and in fact, feel like I’ve gotten better images as a result. If you are interested in this gear don’t worry, it’s more than capable if you are.