What's in my camera kit?

Earlier this week, I took advantage of an unusually warm and clear autumn day to go explore the coast around Dunedin. It was also an excuse to properly try out my new telephoto lens! As many photographers will tell you, it’s really important to know your equipment well when you’re photographing wildlife (or anything, for that matter), so I took most of a day to learn the ropes of the nicest, biggest lens on the best camera I’ve ever had. I went out to the sleepy little town of Aramoana, to photograph the southern royal albatrosses nesting on Taiaroa Head on the other side of the Otago Harbor, and then over to the Otago Peninsula to look for sea lions out at Allan’s beach (also a great spot for stargazing and the Southern Lights).

A shag perches at the end of the Aramoana spit, across from the albatross colony at Taiaroa Head.

Allan's beach at sunset. There are usually sea lions around, but not that day...

When I first started taking photos as a hobby back in 2007-ish, I was using a Canon PowerShot A520, with a mere 4.0 megapixels and 4x zoom. After a while though, the lens cover got stuck in the “mostly open” position, due to my habit of fiddling with the shutters. I moved on to a newer, nicer PowerShot (I think in the 7-800 range). That little camera got me through tons of trips – Costa Rica, Iceland, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite... But the PowerShot met its untimely end in Greece when I dropped it on its open lens right next to the “Navel of the Earth” in Delphi (I didn’t realize that I wasn’t wearing the wrist strap, and let it go - oops). It still took pictures after that, but they were usually out of focus.

Photographing wildlife in South Africa with my Nikon CoolPix was amazing, and now I want to go back with my DSLR.

After some cajoling, I convinced my parents to get me a used Nikon CoolPix L120 with 14.1 megapixels and a 21x zoom – at that point, beyond my wildest dreams. That CoolPix took me through most of college and beyond, including on both of my semesters abroad, the trip to South Africa that jump-started my interest in wildlife conservation, and on my first two trips to New Zealand in January 2014 and ‘15. But I eventually became frustrated with the quality of the images. Yes, they were better than anything I had ever shot with the smaller point-and-shoots, but I wanted better. So just before I moved to NZ in early 2016, I found a used DSLR – a Nikon D3300, complete with two lenses and a bunch of other stuff – for half price from B&H. Once I added more discount codes and my Christmas and birthday cash, I ended up only paying about $100 of my own money for the whole kit and caboodle.

The quality of my photos increased dramatically after getting the DSLR.

I was (and still am) blown away by the difference. I liked having control over all the different components, and the quality of images improved at least tenfold. Even just pressing the shutter made the most satisfying noise. In short, I fell in love… with the camera itself, that is. I was always a little frustrated with the lenses that came with it – an 18-55 mm and a 55-200. While the photos were better and more detailed, I missed the range of the CoolPix’s zoom. Swapping the lenses between shots was tedious, and I constantly worried about dropping one or getting dirt inside the camera.

From Yellowstone last August, on a 200 mm lens. The tiny speck on the left is a wolf, and the speck on the right is a bear.

My frustration came to a peak last August, when I went to Wyoming to see the total solar eclipse and visit Yellowstone and the Tetons. While I got some beautiful shots on that fantastic trip, I missed out on photos of faraway bears and wolves. Even at 200 mm, the animals were still just tiny specks in the frame. And of course I wasn’t foolish enough to try to get closer for a better shot. But my folks picked up on the problem, and a few months later, bought me a telephoto lens and a travel tripod to support it as a combined Christmas, birthday, and “yay you finished your thesis” gift – a Sigma lens with a huge range of 150-600 mm. Additionally, I used some of my savings to buy a single lens (also a Sigma) that covers 18-250 mm that I use for everyday stuff (without having to worry about lens swapping all the time!).

The purple thing is a tea towel that keeps the strap from cutting into my neck. But the Big Boi is so heavy that I couldn't carry it by just the strap anyways!

I’m head-over-heels for my new lenses, especially the telephoto lens (affectionately nicknamed “the Big Boi”), and I had a wonderful day with them here in the “Wildlife Capitol of New Zealand”. I can’t wait to use them again!

Me taking a photo of a NZ robin at Orokonui Ecosanctuary near Dunedin