The “Ultimate” Holiday Gear Guide
We’ve gone through a LOT of gear this year on a pretty wide variety of still, live action, and time lapse jobs this year that have taken my team and I a few times around the world in the last 12 months (150K miles plus = if you consider earth’s 24,901 mile circumference, we’ve technically flown 6 times around the planet, and that has resulted in a LOT of extra tags (and fees!))
This gear guide has proven to be the most popular post of the year for several years now so here goes!
Between Project AIR and the huge amount of gear we carted around the world, to commercial shoots and all the jobs and personal projects in between, I’ve probably put more gear in use this year than in any other year before.
As photographers and filmmakers our careers depend on the gear we use (and whether or not it performs when we need it to, especially in remote locations which are becoming more and more common it seems), so I take what I use very seriously.
With all that in mind, I’ve put together my annual Holiday Gear Guide. These are the products I’ve used consistently over the last year or more that I’m happy to recommend, based on what I consider their exceptional quality, performance and reliability in the field.
While there is no such thing as an “ultimate” guide because as everyone out there has different needs and aspirations, this is gear that I’ve worked with directly – and I can say that I’ve put all of these items through their paces and they’ve all performed just as I’ve needed them to!
While the Canon 1DX continued to be my work horse during much of the AIR night time work thanks to the fast frame rate and excellent low light performance, the more I saw the incredible images coming off of the Canon 5DSr from the air, the more I pushed my luck with slower shutter speeds to use it (The Canon 1Dx gives you 1 to 2 more stops in low light given that the sensor produces a smaller megapixel image, and therefore the individual cells are slightly larger and therefore can capture more light – this is a general rule you can apply to all cameras: more resolution or megapixels, the harder it will (generally) be for it to do as well in low light relative to a higher res camera.) The Canon 5DSr camera brings a level of detail and in-the-field capability to the 5D line up that is really incredible.
I use both the Canon 5Ds and Canon 5DsR by the way – I’ve found the “R” model is ideal for aerial. But don’t be fooled, it’s not just a resolution bump. With all of those extra pixel comes so much more color detail and incredible transitions between colors and gradients. The images are far superior on almost every level. And this series of cameras is my go to camera these days.
Here’s one of the images we shot over Sydney of some surfers with the Canon 100-400mm – it’s truly impressive when you see this level of detail up close!
And if you want to blow your prints up BIG, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have this camera in your arsenal!
The C300 MkII is a wonderful camera that delivers amazing low light performance, AF and 4K. But for those of you who are looking for the perfect entry point into video up from the DSLR world, the Canon C100 MKII is the way to go in my opinion. This is always a camera we would bring with us (alongside the Canon C300 MkI) on our year-long trip around the globe for AIR. For speed and ease of use, lightweight and ergonomic design and low light capability coupled with the new dual pixel AF, you simply can’t go wrong. We slung these (and a Canon C300 with the upgraded AF) on a MoVI M15 and used it in solo mode, and with the AF turned on, and we were able to perfectly track and hold focus on a moving subject. If you want to pick up a camera and “run and gun” out of the box with either your current Canon EF lenses, or fancier cine lenses this is the camera I would recommend.
The Hasselblad CFV-50C 50MP digital back was a stunning partner to my 503 this year. In fact I bought a used 503 body this year and 4 lenses (for a fraction of what that kit would have cost when I was in my early 20s – when I definitely couldn’t dream of affording it.) This is definitely what I would call a ‘nostalgic’ purchase. There’s something about looking down thru that prism, focusing manually, and hearing the shutter click and winding it back manually. It is the most “anti-digital” feeling you can get these days for those of us who want to slow down while not having to sacrifice ANYTHING in terms of image quality. When coupled with the classic Hasselblad lenses, the image quality is simply incredible, and there is currently a huge $5k+ saving to be had on the back, meaning it’s down from $15K to $10K. Sure it ain’t cheap – but compared to what a new system with 3-4 lenses used to cost … you can have a great system (of used bodies and lenses which can be easily found online) for 1/2 to 1/3 of what it used to cost new. The fact this integrates so well with a body like the 503 makes it a wonderful accompaniment when you want the feel of shooting film but enjoy the ease and versatility that shooting digital provides. This was my travel camera for the first half of the year (and was an amazing camera in Iceland) and came with me across Europe.
The biggest lens discovery during Project AIR was the Canon 11-24mm. It has produced some of the most dramatic aerial shots I’ve used and you can read my full thoughts on it here. It’s the sharpest wide-angle lens I’ve ever used in 35mm photography. Period. On the other end of the spectrum, theCanon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 USM IS MkII is also ridiculously sharp, one usually expects to sacrifice image quality with these zoom lenses over primes, but I haven’t been able to say that’s the case here…. this lens helped get some incredible shots that I simply couldn’t have achieved without it (because we simply couldn’t justify flying around the globe with my #1 favorite telephoto lens, which is heavier and bigger (and requires its own case..) the Canon 200-400mm. The fact that that lens is as sharp as it is, and has a built-in 1.4X converter that you can flip on or off – has literally become the go to lens for almost every single sports and nature photographer that I know today.
This is without a doubt, one of the most outstanding monitors I’ve come across in a while. Small and perfectly formed, HDI and SDI in/out with cross conversion, 441 PPI display – and while it doesn’t quite have the real estate of the Atomos Shogun, when you need something small in a very compact and lightweight package, this is a fantastic tool. I’ve seen this monitor on almost every single camera package that crews use out there as well… it’s caught on INCREDIBLY quickly and that truly says a lot. This is hands down the #1 on camera / on board monitor I would recommend to any crew – from low budget all the way up to Hollywood. And if you look around you’ll see it’s being used on big motion picture sets as well as on smaller productions of course due to its affordability.
Without a doubt, the Shogun has been one of the key pieces of gear for us through AIR, allowing us to monitor and record out simultaneously, integrating a stunning 1920×1200 IPS touchscreen display and being capable of 4K recording to 30fps (and 1080p at 120fps). The clarity and screen real estate is superb. Between this and the small form factor of the Atomos Ninja 2, I’ve become a firm supported of Atomos products over the last few years. For those of you looking for something incredibly compact that you can slap with velcro onto almost any camera from an iPhone, a DSLR to a C300 MKII or even and Epic or Alexa – you should definitely consider an Atomos Ninja Star.
Quite simply, I haven’t trusted my data to anyone other than G-Technology products for close to 5 years now. While we travelled for AIR this year, I shot over 100,000 images and my entire workflow was based around managing large amounts of chunky data while on the move. The 512GB SSDs, the tough 1TB ATC units for redundant back up and off-site transfer, and the 2 larger 64TB Studio XLs, one on each coast, have never once failed me. For more detail on the workflow for AIR you can check here and you’ll probably learn more than you ever wanted to know 😉 But these are my go to drives as I am shooting an average of 10-20TB a year now of raw still + video footage. The Canon 5Ds files aren’t small, nor is 4K – and especially so at higher frame rates!
These Extreme Pro CF cards are the only cards I put in my cameras. Fast, secure, reliable, no buffering (even when hammering the 1DXs from a vibrating helicopter) these are what I trust to capture both my stills work and the video we shot while on the go. The Extreme Plus SD cards are the perfect complement to the C100 MkII. And for those of you in need of SSDs for your laptops, or for your external recorders – don’t hesitate to use the SanDisk SSDs – they’re amazingly fast and reliable.
For on the go options for daylight balanced lighting, we’ve been playing with Peter Hurley’s new Flexkit. The quality and quantity of light that the Westcott kit kicks out is incredible. The kit isn’t cheap – but being able to roll these up and throw them in bag, and build out the frames and have them set up on location in minutes is absolutely worth it. Daylight balanced and with incremental dimmer switches (which work on a % output) gives perfect control and balance. And at the end of the day: it’s all about the quality of the light and how your subjects look – and this kit does that incredibly well without having to drag in a ton of light modifiers and that’s why they get the nod.
For both AIR and commercial work where we’ve had to travel with significant amounts of gear (at times up to $250,000 worth) and that means two things: the gear MUST arrive safely and ready to use THAT day, and also: the more gear you fly with, the greater chance you have of something getting damaged… I’ve used the Tenba Attache rollers and their versatile Shootout Action / GoPro backpacks, both of which served me wonderfully in the field.
The rollers present a lightweight alternative to the larger Pelican’s I’ve typically used in the past. They’re wonderful to work out of and much more comfortable to roll, lift and have a lot of nice bells and whistles such as fedex/shipping pouches built in etc.
The small Tenba backpack served us perfectly for our BTS video work (at times we were using 4 GoPros out and about) as well as a small travel day pack for either my Hasselblad kit, or my 5Ds kit. This is in fact the backpack I use every day – and on every trip for a year whether I’m shooting or not. The new MacBook fits PERFECTLY in the front pocket, giving me a full backpack to put all of my personal electronics, sundries etc in the backpack – even clothing! It’s small and compact (meaning that it forces discipline and it never gets too heavy) but it’s VERY intelligently designed. There’s room, on top for my Bose in ear headphones (these are so important to me that I now own two pairs – see below) and has room in the front for my sunglasses.
In the other pocket of my backpack is an emergency Delorme inREACH Satellite device (see below) that I travel the world with (you never know when you won’t have a cell phone service in many parts of the world, let alone in death valley in CA for example – what would you do if you or your crew got hurt … or your car broke down.)
INSIDE THE CASE/BAG:
I’ve used pretty much every case and bag ever made (no I’m not kidding … I’m a recovering bag-aholic!). Given how tough airlines have become … and international restrictions, you now need a case that CAN be checked if you’re not going to be given the choice … and to make sure your most prized gear (that you’re carrying on for a reason…) survives the nightmare scenario of a “forced check on.” That’s where the Pelican 1510 come in (we have 5 of them, and usually travel with a minimum of 3 on each trip. In fact we have different colored ones so we can quickly identify which case is which.) We put our Canon kit with prime lenses in one, our G-Tech Hard Drives in another, and our Video kit in the 3rd. That way no matter what: if our luggage gets lost we’ll always be able to shoot the moment we land…
One thing that has literally changed the way we pack it is TrekPak foam inserts – these inserts are infinitely reconfigurable (and painlessly so – compared to velcro dividers, and of course the disastrous pic and pluck 😉 We’ve put these in every one of our small cases and all of our carry ons for all of AIR now and I’m super happy. I love these as I can quickly add another lens and change the configuration in seconds so that the lens is nice and snug. I believe we have 3 Pelican 1510s with these and 2 larger cases. I should also mention we’ve been using the 1510 SC case – that has a laptop compartment on the top lid (see above)
The biggest surprise of the year for me in terms of how I use computers is Apple’s MacBook. I had literally been counting the years until Apple upgraded their Macbook Airs with a Retina display. So I bought one of these immediately when they came out. I didn’t know if I couldn’t depend on this as my main computer… It HAS become my main computer – and not just for web browsing, I actually use Lightroom and Photoshop on this machine. Now let me be honest: for big jobs we use MacPros LINK or MacBook Pros that we travel with, and at our offices we use the iMac5K retina (LINK) because the screen is just so amazing, especially when you need to judge images for the book and for fine art prints. You can see every little detail on the 5K screen BEFORE you print it … and we proofed the entire book on the iMac5K and with our Canon iPF4100 LINK printers for final proofs.
But for my day to day – I use the MacBook for pretty much everything – and have also proofed quite a few photos on this Retina display by the way… my previous favorite laptop the 13″ MacBook Retina has literally been gathering dust for almost a year now. I don’t think I’ll ever go back. That being said that 13″ and 15″ MacBooks are the perfect tools for the road warriors who don’t travel w/ MacPros (most of you!) But I now use the MacBook as my go to computer and haven’t looked back. It’s so compact and light that I have to double check that it’s actually packed in my Tenba backpack by hand before every trip… The fact that the power brick is almost half the size of the MacBook Pro’s doesn’t hurt either…
Just a quick mention of what would make the PERFECT holiday gift for a good client, friend or of course family member … the new Apple TV is it. It’s the right price point and people always have a free TV it seems… I’ve had one for almost 2 months and the remote alone is worth the upgrade. I’m sure that as Tim Cook predicts – the “Apps” on the AppleTV might actually become something pretty useful over time … regardless, the remote combined with Siri are actually worth the upgrade alone. I regularly say “rewind 10 seconds” or “find “x” movie” and it does – that’s impressive and a lot less painful than searching for it w/ the old remote on iTunes, the Netflix, then Hulu etc… (Oh how spoiled and lazy we have gotten! 😉
RODE has developed some outstanding products that we’ve used exclusively this year for our audio work this year. The Wireless Lav mics are incredibly simple and reliable and we captured all of our voice over and audio with them. For those looking for cheap, rugged and reliable alternatives to the standard Sennheiser G3s – these are them! The new compact Videomic shotguns have also been excellent additions to the audio gear we traveled with. They are tiny, light, run on a single battery that seems to last forever, and work as a great compact, omni-directional shotgun option.
The Bose Quiet Comfort Noise Canceling headphones have literally saved me this year – I literally won’t leave home without them. With another year of almost too much travel, frankly, these headphones just provide the comfort and isolation needed when it’s time to travel. Not the cheapest, but I still don’t think these can be matched. I’m not a fan of over the year headphones as they are bulky, and you often can’t sleep with them on (if lie your head down an cover the microphone these will often produce a high pitched screech.) These are also the PERFECT conference call headphones – and God knows I spent a LOT of time on the phone and conference calls. The noise cancellation makes it a little bit easier to hear the 12 people on the speaker phone(s) on the other end of the line… When you’re running off to the airport and moving around and MUST be on a call simultaneously – these are the secret weapon you’ve been looking for. So they’re a) perfect for travel/flying/music and comfort and b) indispensable for conference calls..
Kessler has been my go-to for timelapse gear and the Second Shooter bundle adds 3 axis motion control to the arsenal. Their sliders were also utilized during our workshops and the Parralax provides a fantastic tool to provide inward and outward panning motion during a horizontal slide move. I cannot emphasize enough just how much the quality of what comes out of Kessler continues to impress, backed up by solid support and a team dedicated to filmmakers everywhere. For those of you looking to take your first step into time lapse with motion – this is the smartest and most affordable way to go. For that price point: you won’t find ANYTHING that competes – and even if you already have a full system, this system is so compact that you can easily add a second or 3rd camera with it without suffering in the extra baggage line… As your needs grow Kessler offers systems all the way up to the CineDrive system where you can use an iPad to keyframe every move, focus pull, zoom, pan, til, slide and even boom up or down when you get super creative!
There were a few instances this year when we were out in remote locations where the Hyperjuice was absolutely essential. Every one of us should have the ability to power our devices anywhere, and these seem to provide the best bang for buck I’ve found. The dual USB ports are also great to share charging with a friend or to power 2 devices off of the same unit. I actually often go to hotels overseas where I am either too tired to find the proper power adapter and I’ll charge two phones, or a phone and iPad for several nights with this unit. If you go outdoors for time lapse and/or are camping this is the big secret out there. This hyperjuice lives in my Tenba backpack 24/7 – literally.
This might seem extreme to some – but if you need to power a microwave / refrigerator / LED lights / hard drives / Laptops and even a MacPro in the middle of a desert … this relatively compact unit is the solution. This unit is absolutely invaluable for when on the go on location – especially when stuck on location for a number of days and simply won’t have access to power. The Yeti 400 can also provide real time power directly from the sun which will allow you to power small electronics (think laptops for data management and transfer). No noise, no exhaust – the perfect, environmentally friendly solution to the standard gas powered generators. It also has cigarette plug, 2-USB ports, 2 household plugs and direct connect to many laptops. This isn’t just for shoots of course – for those of us who live in Earthquake parts … well let’s just say I have this in my power backup solution outside of a small generator which has clear pros and cons (fuel…) This unit is a wise investment both for personal and professional use.
The Lee Filters An essential piece of kit we’ve used consistently this year to control the light outside (you can just about see the NDs here in action for our GE shoot). I’ve bought and entire kit, inside these Mindshift filter holder bags which are awesome! – including many many lens diameter adapters. But this is a must have for any serious still shooter in my opinion – whether for aerial, landscape, nature or architecture. As an aside, the Lee set is excellent but the filters are resin – if you want glass filters, I recommend the Formatt hitech filters.
More than just a sturdy flashlight, this shot was lit entirely from the light output of the Surefire. We simply bounced it up into the rotors of the helicopter creating a beautiful soft light. These are the perfect companion for camping, shooting on location in terms of durability, low power draw and INCREDIBLE output. I have one of these hidden in every part of my home, my car, and my gear cases. They are legitimately great lighting tools on a shoot where you didn’t plan on needing lights at first…
Of all of the heads I’ve ever used for stills – wow, this is the single more painless and precise in terms of leveling and accuracy. Ballheads are amazing – but as you know, when you need to make a super precise little change – they can be maddening … this is the solution. This is the best you can find and made by hand … expensive? Sure. Ridiculously precise and a stress combatant on high pressure shoots or sunsets … Absolutely. I own a dozen amazing ball heads from GREAT companies… I can honestly say: once you’ve used this … you’ll never go back to a ballhead. Ever. And if you’ve spent thousands on a still kit, a medium format kit – this is the ballhead for you!
If there is one thing 2015 has shown us is that drones are not only here to stay, but are becoming an increasingly important element within the filmmakers arsenal to get epic overhead shots or sweeping, establishing wides. The permitting thing is an entirely different discussion … so let’s leave that aside for now. DJI is continually pushing the envelope with new drone development. We used one of these out in the desert a few months back and it was incredible to see just how far things have come since the first Phantom came out just a few years ago – the speed of this thing, the programing capabilities out of the box (you can set destinations or paths with your iPhone or iPad) and the stability and quality are truly impressive – as is the case you can get with it (it travels well!)
For those not looking to spend as much but still get a great 4K option (but without the ability to switch out the camera or run a separate camera operator), take a look at the Phantom 3 – still a fantastically robust and well built piece of drone gear. And when you err “collide” with a tree … a little less painful than the Inspire 1 “collision.”
Finally if you DO end up with one of the Phantoms, I can definitely recommend the Think Tank Airport Helipack Backpack for safe and secure transport of the drone itself.
We’ve worked on this project for over a year now … and I can’t resist but to mention new Project AIR book, and lithographs now on sale in my own Holiday gear guide! Through the end of November (the next 4 days,) if you use the code ‘holidayAIR’ you’ll get 20% off on your order.
I’m obviously far from impartial… but these make the perfect holiday gifts. In fact most people are buying multiple copies of the book – I assume to give as gifts and keep on for themselves. To that end we’ve put up a special series of bundles to address that need – and also to give you the opportunity to get an autographed copy .
The Lithographs are also pretty beautiful and special. While I can’t yet own a copy of one of my favorite photographers, Henri Cartier Bresson’s prints on my wall – I’ve had a poster of his for 2 decades and it has moved with me thru several homes… I wanted to make sure people could also have the opportunity to do something similar with AIR without having to face the associated high cost of fine art prints and framing. The Lithographs (a fancy word for poster – but these are near continuous tone and of pretty amazing quality) are meant to address that.
And by the way: the support you provide when you purchase a book and/or a litho goes directly to offsetting the project costs (helicopter time isn’t cheap! It’s about $40/min for those of you who wonder … ) and to funding our team’s continuation in photographing future cities!
Regardless of how you celebrate and wherever you find yourself over the Holidays, have a safe, peaceful and enjoyable time, thank you all for the positive messages and support through Project AIR this year, and here’s to the new adventures that await us all in 2016! It’s fair to say that the project would never have taken flight without your support (literally.) Thank you all of the support of this project, of this blog, and over the years.
Sincerely – Vincent Laforet