Matt’s Gear

I’m somewhat of a hoarder when it comes to camera gear.  Thankfully, I buy most of my stuff used, and not until years after its initial release.

I bought my D800e used for $2300, and my two D700’s used for $1900 and $1400.  (Less than I paid for a NEW D300, in 2007!!!)

What’s currently in my bag?  Here’s a list. Keep in mind that I’m currently a full-time wedding photographer, and astro-landscape photography is just a hobby.  If you have any questions about gear, please feel free to comment below!

My Favorite Nikon DSLR Bodies

Nikon D750

Even after extensively testing the Nikon D810 and D800e, my inner weight-weenie won in the end.  the D750 is oh-so-lightweight, (for a full-frame DSLR, that is) …plus the megapixels are a bit more manageable for my day job of wedding and portrait photography.  All in all, I feel that the D750 is the ultimate astro-landscape & adventure photography camera.  It’s light enough that I don’t feel like I’m really missing out on the benefits of mirrorless, and the optical viewfinder / traditional DSLR system allows for far superior battery life.  All in all, it’s the bees’ knees.

Nikon D800e (used)
“Nikon, you’ve created a monster…” I highly recommend this bad boy, or a regular D800, if you’re OK with buying used gear and if nothing in particular about the new D810 screams at you.  The D800e’s sensor is proven to be essentially the same as the D810’s sensor, for all but the most crazy envelope-pushers.

Nikon D5300

Honestly, I do more landscape and even astro-landscape photography with this camera, than my full-frame stuff! Why?  Because it (and its DX lens system) don’t feel like a cinder block in my backpack, and that means a whole lot on 5+ mile hikes and/or when tackling extreme elevation gain.  Calling me a sissy?  Don’t worry, all this weight saving versus a flagship FX setup is negated by the fact that, for timelapse work, I usually wind up lugging 2-3 camera bodies over hill and dale anyways.  In other words, I can either lug one D800e up a mountain, or a pair of D5300’s.  And with astro-landscapes / timelapses, you can NEVER have too many cameras!

Nikon D700 (used)
Mainly used as a b-roll astro-timelapse camera, 12 megapixels is basically just good for creating 4K timelapse footage, and barely that too.  My pair of D700’s have served me well as a wedding photographer (my day job) though, and I loved them dearly.  I already sold off one of my D700’s, and the 2nd one will probably get sold as soon as I can pony up for a Sony A7S, for even more beautiful 4K timelapse / astro-landscape video / B-roll recording…

Nikon D300

Another camera prone to staying shelved lately, it served me very well as a wedding photography workhorse back in the day but is relegated to B-roll timelapse duty now.  Still, if your EN-EL13 batteries are fresh and new and if ambient temperatures are freezing or below, the D300 is the only camera I trust to expose for longer than ~5 mins without horrible “christmas tree light” noise showing up.  My current record is a clean 64 min exposure on the D300, with 18% battery left over! (It was admittedly well below 32 degrees, and the battery was almost brand new)


My Favorite Full-Frame (FX) Lenses

Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

While most astro-landscape and landscape photographers (even some Canon shooters) consider the holy grail of ultrawides to be the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, I found that I just couldn’t justify the weight and price of it compared to this Rokinon ultra-wide.  It’s extremely sharp, both wide open and stopped down, and has decently low coma for astro-landscapes wide open.  It’s only downfall is utterly horrible vignetting and downright fisheye-esque distortion everywhere except the dead-center of the image.  (Try placing a coastal horizon at a rule-of-thirds line in your composition, and things will be even more wobbly and noticeable than if the horizon were at the very edge of the frame!) …Fortunately, there are lens profiles out there to practically eliminate this distortion and vignetting, although brightening your corners by 3-4 stops is never good for image detail, especially on Canon.  Still, this little ~$299 gem puts the Nikon and Canon 14mm primes to shame, and gives the 14-24 quite a run for its sharpness money at all apertures.

Nikon 24-120mm f/4

Yes, I got rid of my 24-70 2.8 and 70-200 2.8, in favor of this single f/4 zoom.  Call me crazy, but for adventure and travel photography it just makes sense.  F/4 is even usable for astro-landscape photography when the moon is bright enough, too.  Sharp enough wide open to get the job done or the kinds of things that require shooting wide open, and sharp as heck stopped down for more traditional landscapes and such.  With the D750’s newfound levels of high ISO awesomeness, I just didn’t feel that f/2.8 was mission-critical for the general photojournalism that I do with such zooms at a wedding.  Besides, I use primes for all the really important stuff anyways.

Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8

This lens stays home from almost every landscape adventure, and even when car camping it really only comes out when I have a specific need for a certain focal length.  In short, I only own this lens because I’m a full-time wedding photographer, and even then I prefer to use my 35+85mm prime combo whenever possible.  But if you need f/2.8, zoom capability, and incredible sharpness, this lens is a champ.  However despite its heft, unfortunately it is highly vulnerable to slight bumps to the rear barrel area, and the zoom ring can pinch and grind very easily.  Every wedding photographer I know has had to send this lens in multiple times for repair, and at least one person I know wound up trading to the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC instead.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art

A fantastically sharp lens, even wide open on the likes of the D800e or D810!  A 35mm prime isn’t as useful as a 24mm or wider lens for astro-landscapes, but when you need it there is definitely no sharper lens to turn to, even at over double its price.  If you can stop down to f/2 or f/2.8 when shooting astro-landscapes under bright moonlight, your jaw will drop.  If you hit f/5.6 to f/11 in normal conditions, well, you’ll already be so impressed and hard-pressed to see a difference in sharpness, that it won’t matter how flawlessly sharp your results are.

As a wedding photography lens, I couldn’t be more happy with the Sigma 35 Art. OK, that’s not true, as amazingly sharp as it is, (and a perfect focal length for general group photos; I’m not a fan of 50mm) …I don’t feel like Sigma’s fast primes, (or Nikon’s for that matter) are as reliable at autofocusing than Nikon’s flagship f/2.8 and f/4 zooms.  Even on the new low-light co-champion, the D750, there is just not the same magic AF reliability as with an f/2.8 or f/4 zoom.  Even in normal shooting conditions, not just extreme low light.

I really hope Nikon steps up their game with AF reliability with their Silent Wave Motor primes, and Sigma does the same with their (copycat) Hypersonic Motor system…

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (mk1)

I don’t think I’ve ever taken this lens on a hike, and it only comes on car camping trips or general vacations if I know I have a specific reason to be at 200mm.  Otherwise, I opt for my 1 lb lighter and far smaller Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC instead, on my D5300.  Full-frame addicts looking for a similarly lightweight and sharp tele zoom should definitely skip any f/2.8 zoom in this category, and opt for the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 VR instead in my opinion.

Nikon 85mm f/1.8 G

Purchased originally for wedding photography, this lens has also served double duty as an ultra-light telephoto lens for landscapes and general travel both on my D5300 and D800e.  On the 24 megapixel D5300 sensor, this lens is long enough and sharp enough to offer decent images of the Andromeda Galaxy and Orion Nebula, but shooting wide open can be problematic due to purple fringing.  You can eliminate this by mis-focusing ever so slightly in one direction, (I forget which) …Or you could just buy the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 and enjoy absolutely zero image quality flaws wide open.  ;-)

DX Lenses In My Bag

Nikon 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-P DX

One of the most compact ways to get to the equivalent of ~15mm (full-frame), this DX lens is impressively sharp corner-to-corner when stopped down to to f/8-10. It’s absolutely tiny, weighs almost nothing, and takes 72mm filters which I adapt to 82mm to avoid vignetting and also just because all my best filters are 82mm now.

BONUS: You can use this lens on full-frame at ~14-16mm, without cropping, if you’re okay with soft-ish corners even at f/11-16. It’s a great portable way to use a dark ND filter for long exposures on full-frame, if you only do such long exposures occassionally and don’t wish to lug around a massive full-frame ultra-wide lens, and/or one of those unweildy ultrawide filter systems that has to be clamped onto the lens hood…

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 DX mk2

The king of ultra-wide DX lenses, and the only DX ultra-wide zoom to offer f/2.8.  I absolutely love this lens, especially when I need 11mm and f/2.8.  Both wide open and stopped down this lens beats almost any other lens in its range, aside from the newer Tokina 12-28mm f/4 DX which doesn’t go to 11mm or f/2.8, but is even more incredibly sharp.  Unfortunately, my copy of the 11-16mm does suffer from some field curvature, and general “weirdness” especially at 16mm.  But maybe that’s just because I started comparing it to the even sharper Rokinon 16mm f/2…

Rokinon 16mm f/2 DX

One of the sharpest APS-C lenses I’ve ever used, although that is pretty much true of every Rokinon lens on the market.  If I could do it all over again, for astro-landscapes where wide-open sharpness is king) I might even skip the Tokina 11-16mm and go for this lens plus the Rokinon 10mm f/2.8 which is also incredibly sharp.  If you shoot landscapes or astro-landscapes and don’t mind manual focus, that pair of Rokinon lenses will blow anything else completely out of the water.

Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC

This lens has been a real workhorse over the years for both landscapes and adventures, as well as wedding photography on my D300 back in the day.  Sharp as heck at f/4, and built quite solidly, this lens was rocking the “ART” reputation long before Sigma’s global vision lineup became so hip with their 35mm Art and 50mm Art lenses.  Despite owning the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR for wedding photography work, I still prefer to slap this lens on my D5300 for telephoto work when traveling.  The 70-200 2.8 on a D800e is just too absurdly brick-ish, I feel silly using it for anything other than weddings.

Use All The Cameras!!!

As an astro-landscape and timelapse photographer, I own a lot of cameras.  (All my Canon-shooting friends who are into the same types of photography all still keep their first Rebel, or at least some random crop sensor body, with them too!)

Simply put, if you go out into the wilderness to photograph the stars and you only take one camera, you’re going to get pretty bored pretty quick when you decide to create a 2 hour long star trail image.  Sure, with the right intervals a single camera can produce both a star trail still image and also a timelapse sequence, but trust me, things get so much better when you go out with two, or even three, camera bodies and the appropriate number of extra lenses.

Other Gear I Use

To support all these cameras, I often pack a lot of support gear too.  I’ve been known to take 4-5 tripods on a road trip, if vehicle space permits.  Plus, roughly the same number of intervalometer triggers, timelapse stuff, and other random accessories that are used for landscape or astro-landscape or timelapse photography.

The general philosophy about tripods is, well, you can never own just one.  There is no single perfect tripod that can do everything.  The more serious you are about various forms of outdoor photography, the more you’ll find yourself needing an ultralight tripod for backpacking, a sturdier tripod for general use, and maybe even a gigantic tripod for supporting extremely heavy gear.

Off the top of my head, currently in my arsenal:

A beat-up old “boat anchor” tripod – Slik 700DX AMT

(It must weigh ten pounds, seriously!) If you’re interested in a beefy, rock-solid tripod that can take a beating and support any camera in any weather, I strongly recommend checking out a tripod like the Slik 700DX.  Sure, it weighs ~7 lbs, but in gale-force winds on the Death Valley Racetrack, it might be just what you need. ;-) You can also search Ebay for old Manfrotto tripods, they seem to abound for pretty cheap.

Slik 614 CF tripod legs with a Really Right Stuff BH-30 ball head

Unfortunately discontinued, there are very few tripod legs as lightweight and yet extremely rigid as the Slik 614 CF. With the RRS head it weighs just 2.5 lbs total, and that’s lighter than any Gitzo or other high-end, fancy brand out there! For backpacking, where every 1/2 lb really makes a difference, I believe this is the ultimate setup. Since the 614 CF is discontinued though, you can probably do just as well (or better) with the 614’s slightly larger siblings, the Slik 624 and 623. They’re about the same weight, and probably even stronger / taller.

A handful of light and medium-weight aluminum and carbon-fiber tripods

(Oben, FotoPro, MeFoto, Benro, Induro, Giottos, Manfrotto, and Slik) …have all served me well over the years. (Okay, some have fallen apart very quickly, I’ll admit!) Of all the “knock-off” brands out there, Giottos and Induro seem to have been around the longest, and have a decent reputation, however I’ve still seen a couple issues here and there with Giottos, though not Induro as far as I recall.

If I were to give advice on what “mid-range” tripod to buy, I’d have to say that it really depends on how much you plan to use (or abuse) your tripod. If you’re a casual photographer who barely uses a tripod, and takes gentle care of it, then you could probably buy whatever tripod strikes your fancy or fits your budget, as long as a handful of other serious photographers can vouch for it. Don’t worry about those bearded ol’ landscape photographers who are running around with $900 tripods and $500 ballheads, quoting famous advice about how you should just break down and spend a grand on tripods immediately.  These days, the casual shooter will find plenty of good options in the $200-300 range. HOWEVER, the minute you get truly serious about outdoor photography, you’re going to find yourself using your tripod a hundred times more frequently, and in conditions that really wear out a tripod quickly.  If this is even a remote possibility, don’t cheat yourself by getting a new-kid-on-the-block tripod that could fall apart in 6-12 months. Decide what your weight constraints are, and then buy the best Slik / Manfrotto / Gitzo that you can afford. (Used Gitzos and Manfrottos abound on Ebay!)

A Giottos QU 500B table-top tripod with a Giottos MH5400 ballhead, and a custom-drilled Kirk 1″ Arca Swiss Clamp

Yes, that’s a mouthfull, but the stability that little puppy offers is staggering! You can probably avoid the whole “custom drilling” (And at least $50) by getting a Giottos MH-1303 mini ballhead instead, hack-sawing the 1/4-20 screw down to the right length, and screwing on a regular un-modified Kirk 1″ Arca-Swiss clamp.

Oh, and in case you didn’t figure out, I assume that you have an Arca Swiss plate permanently bolted to your camera body / bodies.  Every serious outdoor photographer should!

Oben Ball Heads

I love Oben ball heads because they’re simply the best affordable brand that can stand the test of time. All other “cheap” brand ball heads have rubber knobs which either dry out and crack and fall off when exposed to lots of hot weather, …or they just melt off instead. I’ve had this happen to literally every single ball head I’ve ever owned that had rubber knobs. (This might be the reason why RRS has metal knobs, too!)

If you want a massive, beefy ball head, check out the BC-126, BC139, or BC-166. (Hint: the numbers 26, 39, and 66 represent the head’s weight rating!)

If you want a portable, but still rigid and durable ball head, check out the BE-108 or BE-117.