It’s Not A Purse Its A Satchel

As you join the grocery store checkout queue, patiently waiting for the pensioner to surrender his geriatric cat food coupon, a headline amidst the trashy tabloid rag rack catches your eye: “Ten Items in Every Purse”. The probability that all purses share ten identical items is considerably slim, however I would argue that what is found in a purse can tell you plenty about its owner. Werther’s Original or TicTacs are clear indicators that the purse’s owner is at least seventy years of age. Wet Wipes or band aids, there’s no question there are children nearby. Similarly, there’s a lot that can be learned about a photographer by what they keep in their bag – and even the bag itself. Consider this a brief glimpse into the bowels of one photographer’s camera bag and a bit of reasoning behind the choice to carry specific pieces.

Prada, Gucci, Coach, … MEC? There are countless options for lugging around camera gear. Some choose to sling their cameras in stylish and discrete purses, others use huge seemingly bomb proof hard cases for every piece of gear imaginable, and of course there are those who choose more conventional backpacks. I chose a unique style of backpack, it’s a LowePro DryZone. It’s half back pack and half scuba dry suit. Working on the coast means things inevitably get wet, but owning this bag means your gear doesn’t. Whether it’s torrential rain or a swamped canoe, no matter what it’s faced over ten plus years I’ve had it, it’s never let anything inside get wet. There’s ample padding internally, the outer pouch can hold a surprisingly large amount, the mesh pockets are great for water bottles or bear spray, and attaching a tripod is easy. With all the positives the down side is it’s not the most comfortable bag and shouldn’t be the first choice for anyone intending to use it for long day hikes in drier environments. If you plan on wearing your camera gear on your back for long durations check out the great backpacks made by f-stop gear.


There a very few women I know who own only one purse. There’s a sleek subtle purse for fancy dinners, a purse that’s really more a duffle bag for going to the gym, and that ol’ time daily favorite, held together by discreetly placed safety pins. Likewise, most photographers have more than one camera bag. One specific bag may be great for remote mountain ascents, but wouldn’t survive the airport luggage system – I’ve yet to encounter one camera bag that fits every need. The LowePro DryZone is a great waterproof bag, however it’s not overly rugged. The solution is a Pelican case … or two. Fill the case with anything and everything, and forget about it. Chuck it in the back of a truck, on the deck of a boat, or even an over-sized baggage carousel and there’s no worrying about the contents being damaged or getting wet. There are a few other companies that produce very similar hard cases, such as HPRC and Nanuk – a great Canadian company. Disadvantages of using a hard case include the additional weight and the awkwardness of carrying. Most good sized hard cases are at least 5 kilograms and carrying a hard case for long distances while walking over rugged terrain is not at all comfortable.

A photo posted by Neil Fisher (@fisher604) on

As interesting as purses and bags are, we’ve all been taught that it’s what’s inside that counts. I use a Canon 5DmkII, circa 2008, this is a 22 megapixel full frame camera that has done pretty much everything I’ve asked it to. The 5DmkII is used in conjunction with a number of different lenses. First up is a 16-35mm f/2.8, it’s a great focal length for landscapes and up close encounters with large subjects, such as beluga whales. Its big aperture is perfect for creating a nice shallow depth of field even at very wide focal ranges. Next is the 35mm f/1.4, a focal length that’s perfect for a full frame camera – it forces a photographer to really think about composition before anything else. Along with the attractive focal length, an aperture of f/1.4 is amazing for lower light environments or situations requiring a very small depth of field. Now for a fun lens the 100mm f/2.8 Macro. This specialized lens allows for unique perspectives of very small subjects. The closest this lens can get to a subject is 30 centimetres, which doesn’t sound very close, but in practice the 30 centimetres combined with a 100mm focal length is a powerful combination. If the subject isn’t comfortable with having a camera shoved in their face – there’s the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens, this mid-range telephoto lens has amazing optics that produce some phenomenally sharp photos. All of these lenses has it’s own specific strength and each is worth being carried up a mountain – if I leave one behind, I always regretted it.

Just as the presence of wet wipes and band aids in a purse can teach you about a woman, the absence can do the same. When examining the contents of my bag, with attention paid to the lenses, it should be noted that there is a significant chunk of focal range missing. To quickly explain what focal length is, it’s the distance (in millimeters) from the middle of a lens to the image sensor… or film, at the camera’s focal plane. The focal length determines the angle of view and the magnification – how much of the world will be captured and how big the world will appear. The smaller the focal length, the wider the angle of view and the lower the magnification. I’ve essentially a hole between 35mm and 70mm. Many photographers, especially wedding photographers and photojournalists, would consider a 24-70mm lens their primary work horse. However, if you asked a wildlife photographer what lens they used most often, I would bet the majority would answer with a focal length of 300mm or longer. This missing range of focal length could be interpreted in a few ways, but the most obvious would be that I typically focus on subjects that are either very large and very close, or subjects far away.

Cameras and lenses are great at capturing light, but sometimes there simply isn’t enough light to capture. That’s where a flash or two comes in handy. I use two Canon 600ex‘s, they’re small yet powerful, and work well on and off camera. To get a flash off camera I use a system of pocket wizard FlexTT5 radio triggers. Yes, the Canon 600ex’s could use their dedicated ST-E3 radio transmitter, but I like to have the Pocket Wizards handy as they’re great for setting up remote camera shots. These flash heads and pocket wizards don’t often make the cut when heading out on longer single day or multi-day hikes. However, they’re very important when photographing smaller subjects against solid backgrounds with light-hungry apertures of f/16.0 and smaller.

Now it’s time think simple, with a pinch of laziness. Here’s a camera that doesn’t even require the presence of a photographer to trigger the shutter. The Bushnell Trophy Cam HD Max reveals its intended purpose in its name. Targeted towards hunting, placing one of these cameras along an animal trail can tell you what species frequent an area and what time they tend to be most active – information that can be quite valuable to a photographer. When a passing animal activates the camera’s infrared motion sensor a photo is taken. The photos this camera produces are only 8 megapixels in resolution and it doesn’t have the best optics, so it’s unlikely you’re going to see a photo from this type of camera gracing the cover of National Geographic any time soon. That said, it’s these types of systems that are likely to discover new species or witness the unexpected. Plus they’re relatively inexpensive, waterproof, and remain powered for six months on twelve AA batteries – provided the ambient temperature isn’t too cold. I’ve yet to figure out how Steve Winter kept his remote cameras powered in the cold of Nepal in order to capture his snow leopard photos.

Seventy-five percent of the Canadian population lives within 161 kilometres of the United States border. As such, if you’ve ever left the paved road or visited the less populated Canadian landmass, you’ll have discovered that cell phone coverage is nonexistent. Solution – the Iridium network of satellites. Yes, there are less expensive options available like the inReach and Globalstar satellite phones, but their networks aren’t truly worldwide. There are also Spot distress satellite beacons, but they’re only capable of transmitting locations and simple messages – it can be very beneficial being able to communicate as much as needed. Sadly there’s no flashy bright pink bedazzled case for the satellite phone, it doesn’t have cute ringtones, and I’m not sure what finding a sat phone in a woman’s purse would mean?

Currently, the longest focal length lens at my disposal is 200mm and in the grand scheme of wildlife photography, 200mm may as well be a children’s toy. There are 500mm, 600mm and even 800mm lenses – and these can be coupled with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. These super-telephoto lenses all have equally super price tags, think car loan, and until the day I can stomach such an extreme dollar figure, 200mm will have to suffice. In the mean time, helping to get my eyes closer to subjects far far away is a pair of Canon 10×40 binoculars. These binoculars are amazing: rugged, sharp, and full-on waterproof. What makes them unique is their image stabilization feature that’s borrowed from Canon’s lens technology. Image stabilization uses tiny gyroscopes to detect small vibrations and movements, then moves the lens elements to counteract the vibrations and provides a very clear and stable image. So, if you’re hands are shaking due to excitement or shivering due to cold, the little magic button will create a nice stable image. As of late, I’ve found myself spending more time looking through these binoculars, simply watching and observing an animal’s behaviour, than actually photographing them.

The Canon 10×42 binoculars are amazing, waterproof, image stabilization, 52mm threaded lenses – seriously stellar bins!

Towards the bottom of a purse are those small items that are often overlooked. The random piece of juicy fruit gum, a paper clip, thirty seven cents of small change, a pair of gas station sunglasses – the stuff Macgyver could save the world with. In the outside pouch of my bag lives a multi-tool, first aid kit, a GPS, a few big garbage bags, a flashlight, a headlamp, a knife, waterproof matches, a old fashion compass, a few cliff bars, toilet paper, a whole whack of other important smaller essentials … and maybe a Werther’s Original. This is the stuff that you don’t want to forget. It’s one thing to discover you’ve forgotten an extra camera battery, but when need a compass and matches, you really need a compass and matches.

To finish off, it’s worth reemphasizing that any camera is simply a tool to capture light. Yes, different tools are better suited for different jobs, but how often do you walk by a construction site and hear the crew debating which hammer drill is better? If you own a camera, get outside and use it and let your work speak for itself – it doesn’t matter how many megapixels or auto focus points were used, just so long as the photo is captivating.


4 thoughts on “It’s Not A Purse Its A Satchel”

  • Nice piece.. you should see my collection of “video purses” and their content. UK hard cases and lots of wipes, memory cards etc etc. Go to my GoPro collection and it becomes rather desperate to add anything into the current box. It is like owning a boat. Before you know you contract “3 footitus”.. For non marine inclined readers this is the constant and expensive urge to get the same boat you have but 3 ft longer because that will make it more spacious and practical for the steady inflow of crap you stow on it. 🙂 At nausium 🙂

    • Peter, I can’t imagine how giant your collection of video purses is! The size of your gates housing in huge and a hard case to carry it must be equally massive! As for “3 footitus”, I think i’m suffering from a commonly diagnosed illness for photographers known as “focal lengthalaria” – it can be rather seriously 😛

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