Camera Gear

Luck favors the well prepared. In this post I share some tips and thoughts as to camera gear, in the hope that it will be helpful for photographers in general and Israel visitors in particular. Some advice may be obvious to you, so skip ahead where necessary.

Most of the suggestions come from mistakes: the mistakes I made over the years. Mistakes have led me to be more discerning when selecting equipment. I have also started to seriously question some advise and product reviews provided on the Internet or in magazines.

Jerusalem old city: Nikon D700 with 70-300mm/f4.5-5.6 zoom

Camera

This is probably the most disputed subject when it comes to photography. Camera, lenses etc. are tools, some types of cameras or lenses are better at a given job, some are less. The camera brand doesn’t matter much, so no hard feelings if your model doesn’t come up.

Israel is generally welcoming to photographers. Most places, even many museums, allow you to take pictures (without flash). But there are exceptions too: many orthodox-religious Jewish people do not want to be photographed. It’s their right. So avoid walking into an ultra-orthodox neighborhood such as Mea Shearim in Jerusalem with heavy camera gear machine-gun-shooting photos. Also, do not take photos on Sabbath and on Jewish holidays when among Jewish religious people – it’s against their religious law. If you want to take photos at the Western Wall (Kotel), do it on a weekday (or use a telephoto lens from afar, away from the crowds).

Sometimes people react differently when you point a big pro camera at them. I found that my small Olympus OM-D E-M10 with its retro look is the perfect tool for street photography. Most people would either not notice or would not mind if I point that small camera at them. It looks like an old analog camera, almost like a toy. If I use for example my Nikon D850, I often have to interact with the people and explain. You simply can’t go unnoticed with a big camera.

The Olympus has an additional feature that is very useful for candid shots: a touch screen that can be tilted up or down (not a fully articulated flip screen!!!). This allows me to take pictures with the camera hanging around my neck, using the touch screen to focus and release the shutter. Unfortunately my Canon R5 has a flip screen which is useless for candid shots (when you flip out the screen, everybody sees that you are shooting).

Sometimes a big camera is an advantage. For the following photo, people moved aside to let me take some shots from a vantage point. All I did was hold up my Nikon D850.

Street Legends – life music at the beach promenade: Nikon D850 with Nikon 24mm/f1.8

Many important sites are badly lit. Take for example the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or practically any other church. Here it pays to have a camera that can take clean photos with little or no noise at ISO 1600 or even higher. The general rule in churches, mosques, synagogues and other popular indoor sites is “no tripod allowed“! Of course, flash is usually discouraged or forbidden.

Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: Nikon D850 and Tamron 15-30/f2.8 @1/15s f4 ISO 720

IBIS or In Body Image Stabilization is your friend when you need longer exposure times and don’t mind blur from people moving. In many cases an image stabilized lens will also do the trick, as you can see in the above image of the edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Christ Church: HDR photo, Nikon D850 and Tamron 15-30mm/f2.8 on tripod

We usually don’t have a problem with cold weather, even winter temperatures are moderate. However, when it rains it pours. Protective gear is advisable for the winter months from October-November to March-April. Better is a camera that is able to stand the rain. My Nikon D700 and D850 have seen enough rain for me to be confident. I haven’t tried the Canon R5 yet under rain, but it has seals like any professional camera. Don’t forget that the lenses must be sealed too – if in doubt, check the specifications. For example Canon’s L-series are weather sealed. A rubber gasket on the mount flange is a good sign, too.

Stormy day at the Tel Aviv port: Nikon D850 and 70-200mm/f4 on tripod

There is no rain during the long summer period. Be aware of the dust – dust is everywhere and in abundance. I’m very happy with my Nikon D850 which sees a lot of lens changes, but rarely do I have to clean the sensor. Make sure to bring sensor wipes if needed. Another way to avoid dust specks is to not change lenses, for example by using a wide to medium telephoto zoom that covers the zoom range that you need. Or bring two cameras fitted with different lenses (don’t forget, you’ll need to carry that). My Canon EOS R5 mirrorless camera closes the shutter when turned off. This helps prevent dust reaching the sensor when changing lenses.

The best way to discover the country is by foot. Places like the old city of Jerusalem or Acre are practically inaccessible by car. The most rewarding landscape photos are often those that require some hiking, sometimes over difficult terrain. Aside from your camera gear you must account for the water you need to carry, somewhere between 3 to 6 liters depending on the weather. I use my Olympus OM-D E-M10 MFT camera together with the compact but excellent 12-40mm/f2.8 zoom lens for such hikes. Panasonic and Fujifilm have similar, relatively compact cameras. The Olympus model I own offers some of the best colors out of the box and is a fantastic good light camera (see the examples on this page).

Small Makhtesh before sunset: Olympus OM-D E-M10 and 12-40mm/f2.8 Pro lens (equivalent to 24-80mm on a full size sensor)

Here are the cameras I use(d), for your reference:

  • Nikon D850 DSLR with full frame sensor
  • Canon EOS R5 mirrorless camera with full frame sensor
  • Olympus OM-D E-M10 mirrorless MFT (Micro Four Thirds) camera
  • Nikon D700 DSLR with full frame sensor (my long-time workhorse, but no longer in my possession – wish I still had it)
  • Nikon D7200 DSLR with APS-C sensor (I no longer own it, but a capable camera nonetheless)
Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem: Olympus OM-D E-M10

I recently added the Canon R5 to my stable, as a more compact camera for hiking tours. Both my Nikon D850 and my Canon R5 are 45 MP cameras. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The Nikon offers better dynamic range and shadow recovery, but the Canon features IBIS, great eye-detect for humans and animals and autofocus that covers the entire frame. Both are great cameras, each in its own right.

Tzafit trail, Ein Gedi: Canon EOS R5 and 35mm/f1.8 lens

Both cameras somewhat struggle with white balance, particularly in desert landscapes. Nikon seems to nail the tint whereas Canon is better in determining the color temperature. From the cameras I use(d), Olympus provides the most gratifying colors, but in the end it’s a matter of taste. Friends of mine use Panasonic, Sony and Fujifilm with great success.

Lenses

Whether narrow alleys, tight rooms, or vast vistas, the first lens I would pack is a wide angle lens or zoom. Primes are usually lighter and offer similar or better optics compared to zooms.

Nahal Zavitan, Golan Heights: Nikon D850 and Nikon 24mm/f1.8

A possible alternative or supplement to a wide angle lens is a standard zoom such as a 24-70/f2.8 or 24-105/f4. However, there are times when 24mm isn’t wide enough.

Mahane Yehuda market: Olympus OM-D E-M10 and 12-40mm/f2.8 Pro lens

Standard zooms are good for many situations: street photography, landscapes or even sunsets, as shown below.

Tel Aviv seafront at sunset: Olympus OM-D E-M10 and 12-40mm/f2.8 Pro lens

I usually carry a 70-200mm telephoto zoom with me, but I use it a lot less than the wide angle lens. I both own a Nikon 70-200/f2.8 VR as well as a Nikon 70-200/f4 VR, the latter of which I prefer in most (but not all) situations. Speaking for the Nikon lens, the f4 version is tack sharp and much lighter and smaller than the f2.8 versions. The VR (vibration reduction in Nikon slang) works great, too. The f2.8 version is better for low light, sports and portraits, though.

Little egret: Nikon D850 and Nikon 70-200mm/f4

Israel is a paradise for birders and wildlife photographers. About 1/4 of the country is nature reserves. Twice a year around 500 million birds fly over Israel as they migrate between their nesting grounds in Asia and Europe and their wintering grounds in Africa. To capture wildlife and birds, especially birds in flight, you need a long telephoto lens or zoom. I use the relatively inexpensive Nikon 200-500/f5.6 zoom lens on my D850. It is light enough to hand-hold and its reach is just about OK. 600mm or 800mm would sometimes be better. Tamron and Sigma offer third-party alternatives up to 600mm. Canon has introduced some really low-cost, small and lightweight 600mm and 800mm f11 (fixed) telephoto lenses for their RF mount that can be used under good light.

Gull in flight: Nikon D850 and Nikon 200-500mm/f5.6 zoom lens
Golden jackal: Nikon D850 and Nikon 200-500/f5.6 zoom lens

As mentioned before, if you don’t want to bother changing lenses, there is the option of using a wide-to-telephoto travel zoom that ranges from 18, 20, or 24mm all the way up to 105, 200mm and more. Those travel zooms often have a variable aperture from f4 to f6.3 or more. They are compact and lightweight and many feature image stabilization. Most of them are also inexpensive. Before purchase, make sure the lens delivers the goods. Convenience and low price often come at a penalty such as inferior optics, slow focus and cheap built.

Here are some of the lenses I use:

Nikon F mount:

  • Nikon AF-S 24mm/f1.8G
  • Nikon AF-S 70-200/f4 VR
  • Nikon AF-S 200-500/f5.6 VR
  • Tamron 15-30/f2.8 G (recently sold – sharp lens but heavy and bound to produce flares, doesn’t take filters)

Canon RF mount:

  • Canon RF 24-105 F/4 L IS USM
  • Canon RF 15-35MM F2.8L IS USM – haven’t really tested it yet
  • Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM (doesn’t come with a lens hood which is a must for this lens if you use it for landscape photography)

Micro Four Third mount (this is a standard and lenses are compatible with Olympus and Panasonic):

  • M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO

Flash

Using flash is prohibited in many museums, churches etc. For a good reason since the strong light of the flash can damage and degrade precious exhibits and paintings. It is also quite annoying.

Ancient oil press at Beit Loya: Nikon D850, Nikon 24mm/f1.8 and Nikon SB-400 flash

But a add-on flash can come in very useful if you plan to visit archeological sites with dark caves and rooms. The walls won’t mind the light, as long as there are no frescoes or other paintings. Israel has many natural caves, man-made hide-out caves, burial chambers or caves, as well as underground dove-cots (columbarium). It should be possible to tilt and rotate the add-on flash and to adjust the light beam. I use the bounce card in my Nikon flash a lot, as well as the diffuser. Having the ability to remote control the flash can help improve the lighting.

Here is my Nikon flash gear:

  • Nikon Speedlight SB-800 (there are newer models now, but this one does the job)
  • Nikon SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander – the remote control for my D850; a Nikon D7200 for example can remote control the SB-800 via built-in flash so it doesn’t need the commander
  • Nikon SB-400 – a small, lightweight add-on flash that I often carry on hikes in case I need it – it’s not very strong and can only be tilted upwards to 90° (no rotation!). The flash cannot be remote controlled.
Malham salt cave, Mt. Sodom, Dead Sea: Nikon D850 and Tamron 15-30mm/f2.8 with SB-800 flash

In many cases a flash can be substituted by a tripod and flashlight, or just a tripod if there is some light. For the photo above there is no substitute to a flash.

Tripod

Please note: If you book me for a photography tour, I will be happy to provide a tripod.

If you are in search of a good tripod, read on. Travel tripods are a compromise between small size and weight and rigidity/stability. The load capacity advertised by manufacturers doesn’t mean a thing. Here some general points to check when selecting a tripod:

  • The most important factor to influence the tripod choice is the length of the camera+lens to be mounted. A long telephoto lens requires a more rigid and solid tripod than a perhaps equally heavy camera+wide angle lens.
  • High resolution cameras require a better tripod/head than relatively low resolution cameras. With a high-res camera such as a Nikon D850, Canon R5 or Sony A7R-IV you’ll notice the slightest movement.
  • Cheap labels often promise fantastic load capacities which we know is irrelevant.
  • Some tripod makers use steeper tripod leg angles to gain an inch or two in height, at the expense of stability. Go sue them when your tripod with your expensive camera and lens tipped over.
  • The fewer leg sections, the better the stability. 4 sections is a good compromise for travel tripods where folded size matters.
  • A center column reduces stability/rigidity. If a center column is needed, choose a tripod with a sturdy one.

Probably the best source of information for choosing a tripod and tripod head is The Center Column. The first choice you need to make is between carbon and aluminum tripod. For a travel tripod you will almost always want to choose carbon – it’s lighter and stiffer. Unfortunately good carbon tripods are expensive – around $600 to $1,500 and more. Sure you can find some cheap knockoffs of premium tripods that are literally trash (I actually ordered one of those). There are exceptions such as Leofoto: Their RRS look-alikes are of good quality. However, I prefer to spend more money and get the real thing.

Avshalom stalactite cave: Light painting – Nikon D700 on tripod, remote release, bulb exposure, flash light

After having purchased several tripods, I finally bit the bullet and bought the following tripod and head:

  • Gitzo GIGT2545T Traveler Series 2 carbon tripod – a very stiff tripod with center column and 4 leg sections that reaches a maximum height of 154cm/ 60in (I’m 1.86cm tall and hate to bend down to the viewfinder). It weighs 1.33kg/2.94lbs without head.
  • Really Right Stuff BH-40 LR2 ball head with quick release clamp. A very stiff ball head which weighs only 445g/15.7oz. This keeps the total weight under 2kg. The RRS ball head has a fool-proof design and can be safely operated in darkness. Each screw and lever has a different shape and size, so you won’t accidentally unlock the ball head when you intended to pan the head. (The RRS tripods are also the very best money can buy, but I found the Gitzo more suitable for my needs.)
  • RRS offers custom made L-plates for a variety of cameras. I got one for the D850 and am able to change the camera from landscape to portrait mount and vice versa in seconds without having to readjust the ball head. Unfortunately the Canon R5 has this flip screen that gets in the way which is really annoying. (You probably noticed by now that I am no fan of flip screens, no matter how often review sites praise them.)

I could have saved myself quite some money had I gone for that tripod/head combination in the first place. My 3 other tripods are just there to collect dust now.

Columbarium cave at Beit Loya: Nikon D850 and 24mm/f1.8 on Gitzo/RRS tripod/head @13s/f4.5 ISO 80

If you prefer a very compact and light tripod, check out the Peak Design Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod. This tripod weighs just 1.29kg/2.81lbs and folds down to very compact dimensions. It may not offer the same stability and performance of the Gitzo/RRS combination, but is faster to set up and collapse.

Note: If you shoot landscapes, even a flimsy cheap no-name tripod can get the job done. Just put your camera on 5s or 10s shutter delay and you’re good. Caveat: this only works when there is no wind!

Carrying Straps and Carrying Systems

When unboxing a camera, I leave the camera strap in the box. For one thing, they are literally a pain in the neck. I also do not wish to walk around with a big bright “Attention – expensive camera gear” banner.

Nahal Zavitan, Golan Heights: Nikon D850 and Nikon 24mm/f1.8

BlackRapid offers some camera straps and carrying systems that are more comfortable and convenient. However, I found the BlackRapid Backpack to be a little too cumbersome to attach or detach to/from the backpack, so you better check if it fits your needs. A benefit of the BlackRapid strap is the locking mechanism which keeps the camera locked in place. This helps a lot when climbing rocks or ladders.

More recently I switched to the Peak Design SL-AS-3 Slide camera strap. This strap is wide, comfortable and works really well with a backpack. I first wear the camera sideways in a sling position, then I mount the backpack. When working with a tripod, I just remove the strap as it takes only a few seconds.

The Peak Design strap must be attached to the tripod mount. If you wish to mount the camera on a tripod, you would need to remove and replace the anchor mount with a tripod plate. Peak Design offers special tripod plates that let you fasten the anchors on the plate. I purchased additional anchors and the Peak Design tripod plates for all my cameras and lenses with tripod collars. Too bad that Peak Design doesn’t ship the strap with a tripod plate instead of the anchor mount screw.

Note: The anchors can be directly attached to an RRS L-plate, so in that case you can save yourself a Peak Design tripod plate.

The Peak Design strap is good, but not perfect. To some degree the rubberized side of the strap does prevent the camera strap from sliding, but it doesn’t lock the camera in place like the BlackRapid does. The quick-adjusters don’t really lock down tight enough and eventually the strap will extend (no issue for me as I wear it at maximum length). Also, I’m concerned that the aluminum quick-adjusters might damage the LED screen on the camera.

Yet, so far this strap has proven itself with different camera/lens combinations, including the relatively heavy Nikon D850 / 200-500mm zoom lens combination.

Camera Bags and Backpacks

A camera bag or backpack may be a convenient way to carry gear on a tour through town. However, that same bag or backpack may show severe deficiencies when used on a hike through the wilderness or desert, so much so that it can pose a danger to your life. Vice versa, a good hiking backpack may be quite inconvenient for a stroll through the city. That’s why I divided this chapter into two: Camera bags/backpacks and camera hiking backpacks.

Camera Bag and Camera Backpack

This one is easy. I use and recommend the Peak Design Everyday Backpack for city tours and easy hikes. Two years ago I got myself the 20L version just before our trip to Germany/Italy. Since then I have used it on countless tours.

Acre at sunset: Camera bag by Peak Design, Nikon D850 and Nikon 24mm/f1.8 @1/25s, F4, ISO 1250

What I like in the Peak Design Everyday Backpack (version 1):

  • Fashionable yet unobtrusive design that doesn’t shout “camera bag”
  • Looks small but offers lots of space
  • Can be used as carry-on bag on airplanes – I had no problem boarding with this bag and a boarding trolley. Different airlines have different rules, so don’t take my word and check.
  • The backpack can be stored under the front seat in an airplane
  • The 20L version was able to carry a Nikon D850 with Tamron 15-30/f2.8 lens mounted, a Nikon 70-200/f4 zoom, a Nikon 50/f1.4, chargers for camera and laptop, a MacBook Air, photo accessories such as card reader, blower, etc., external SSD drive, a sandwich, a water bottle (stored outside in a side pocket), documents and passports for the whole family, and a jacket
  • Zippers can be secured against accidental opening or pickpockets
  • The upper compartment size is variable using a flap and a clever locking mechanism – else I wouldn’t have been able to store so much stuff
  • Fastening loops and straps help fasten accessories, tripod and other stuff on the outside
  • The backpack is made of sturdy, water repellent material
  • Sternum strap can be fastened and released with one hand
  • Flexible arrangement of dividers allows adapting the bag to different needs
  • Camera compartment accessible from both sides or from the top (depending on how the dividers are arranged)
  • Surprisingly comfortable to carry considering the poor waist strap design (see below)
  • Convenient handles on three sides

What I don’t like in the Peak Design Everyday Backpack (version 1):

  • Hip belt is next to useless – no padding, doesn’t support the weight. Note: The new v2 version of the Everyday Backpack offers a separately available padded waist belt – kudos! See below.
  • The charcoal version gets extremely hot in the summer sun, so hot that touching it can burn your skin. Fortunately the top and side flaps are made of multiple layers and don’t let the heat penetrate. If I had known that I would have chosen a brighter color (“ash”).

I recommend you watch the setup + tips video which is very helpful.

Important note: The new version 2 (v2) of the Everyday Backpack can be fitted with an optional padded hip belt. If you plan to get the larger 30L model and/or carry more stuff/heavy stuff, that would be a good investment.

Some people prefer messenger bags. These are often easier to use and allow for quicker lens changes.

Camera Hiking Backpack

For many years I’m looking for the right camera hiking backpack. I searched the B&H website back and forth, visited all major camera equipment stores in Israel, London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, Stockholm and Helsinki and didn’t find anything remotely usable. Except perhaps at B&H, but more about that below.

Glossy ibis, Emek Yizreel: Nikon D850 with 200-500mm/f5.6

There are lots of good hiking backpacks and I have a couple of them that I use for my work. But photographers are left in the cold. None of the known brand names offer a useful model for hikers. After a long search and many bad purchases did I come upon a small company named Clik Elite, which unfortunately went bankrupt. I found two of their backpack models at B&H and ordered both. Those are my two hiking backpacks now, with the preference for the larger one for better carrying comfort.

There are perhaps a handful of manufacturers that make an effort to create a useful backpack for photographers. Among those is f-stop with the Mountain Series Tilopa Backpack. It’s too big for my needs, though. Also, I’m no fan of the ICU insert as any lose part can potentially shift, though I never tested it. Up in the mountains on a thin ledge, shifting weight can be disastrous.

Nördliche Arava
Hiking Nahal Halak – a good backpack is mandatory: Nikon D850 and Tamron 15-30mm/f2.8, Clik Elite backpack, BlackRapid Backpack camera strap

Hiking in Israel is no walk in the park. Many trails lead through rocky mountains with little shade to protect from the sun. Foreigners often underestimate the sun and the need for lots of drinking water. Even in winter time, on a sunny day, one needs to take at least 3 liters of water for a 3-5 hour hike. Hikes during the warm season or in hot regions like the Dead Sea basin, Judean desert, Negev or Arava desert will require 5-6 liters of water per person.

You cannot use water bottles on such hikes! Because each time you want to drink you need to stop, pull the bottle, open it and drink. Walking in a group will slow down the whole group. What happens frequently is that people put off drinking stops until it’s too late: dehydration, collapse, you name it.

The solution is so simple: Use a hydration pack / water bladder with tube. A hydration pack and tube allows you to drink while walking without having to stop and without taking the eyes off the ground. Any hiking backpack must accommodate at least a 2 liter, better a 3 liter hydration pack with tube. In addition, the backpack should safely hold two 1.5 liter bottles of water.

Hiking Wadi Sodom at +100F/40°C: Olympus OM-D E-M10 and 12-40mm/f2.8 Pro lens

The foremost task of a hiking backpack is to help keep you alive. Everything else is secondary. So here is my checklist for choosing a camera hiking backpack, in order of importance:

  • Backpack must accommodate a hydration pack of at least 2 liter capacity, better 3 liter
  • Save storage of two 1.5 liter water bottles (e.g. outside in deep side pockets)
  • Wide adjustable shoulder straps
  • Wide, height adjustable hip belt
  • Height adjustable sternum strap
  • Integrated frame
  • Load stabilizing straps
  • Good airflow on the back
  • Separate pocket for essentials such as emergency kit, toiletries, sun screen (never put that oily stuff in the same pocket as your camera gear)
  • Pocket for food/snacks
  • Well padded camera compartment with flexible dividers that hold the gear in place and protect it
  • Easy access to camera and lenses
  • If needed, a tripod storage pocket or attachment straps that make sure the tripod stays in place
  • Rain cover for the winter rains
  • Low center of gravity: heavy items such as camera and lenses should be stored close to the bottom. Likewise, the hydration pack should be close to the persons back, for example between the shoulder strap attachments and the hip belt
  • Camouflage color – useful for wildlife photography.

The backpack should be adjustable and very comfortable to wear. All heavy items (e.g. bottles, tripod etc.) must be stored or tied down so that they cannot swing back and forth.

Nahal Halak: 2 miles climbing through this gorge with the Nikon D850 and Clik Elite backpack

Recently I discovered two very promising backpacks from the US manufacturer Atlas Packs, the Atlas Athlete and the Adventure. I ordered the Atlas Athlete, but delivery will only be in August or September.

Summary

Israel offers lots of photographic opportunities, be it historic sites, landscapes, people and more. Many visitors will want to see (and photograph) at least some of the historic and religious sites.

When you have to haul around the photo gear over long walking distances, you might want to (re)consider what to pack. A comfortable bag or backpack will make it a lot easier, as will the right camera strap or carrying system.

If you are physically able and willing to go the extra mile and embark on a nature trail, you will be rewarded with breathtaking vistas and photo opportunities that most other travelers will miss. So if you plan on hiking, use hiking gear (shoes, clothes, etc.) and a real hiking backpack. Always take the weight of the drinking water into account when choosing gear. If in doubt, choose a lightweight camera setup.

For those who do not wish or cannot do hikes or long walks, there are plenty of places to explore by car and/or a short walk. I will be happy to arrange for transportation.

As always, the best camera is the one you hold in your hands. This is why I keep a small “walk-around” camera with a standard zoom in my arsenal for when I want to travel light. It will get me like 95% of the photos I want.

See you in Israel !

Heiko

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