In My Bag – by G.J. McCarthy

G.J. McCarthyG.J. “Gerry” McCarthy is a staff photojournalist for The Dallas Morning News, where he has worked since 2007. Before relocating back to his home state, he worked at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Mid-Missouri. Gerry plies his trade as a daily assignments photographer at TDMN, covering just about anything and everything — features, breaking news, sports, as well as the odd (literally) self-generated essay from time to time. He also regularly shoots and edits video, and works shifts on various photo editing desks as needed. He is a graduate of the University of Texas’ School of Journalism; a former musician but a terrible dancer; and, the proud father of a two-year-old boy. Give him coffee, or give him death.

I did a version of this type of article for Bert Hanashiro’s newsletter like a year and-a-half ago; you can read it here. In that time some aspects of both my gear and approach have changed, so I’ll address that with this article. Let’s break it down …

The Goldilocks Effect

Over the years I’ve ebbed and flowed on what combinations of cameras and lenses I shoot with, always looking for that “just right” setup. With the release of the Canon 5D Mark III last year, I feel like I’m as close as I’ve ever been.

in my bag

Canon 5D Mark III (2)
Canon 28mm 2.8 IS
Canon 85mm 1.8
Canon 580 EXII + OC-E3 off-shoe cord
Batteries, cards

It’s funny that this article series is called “In the Bag,” because I stopped using them back. Like any good photographer, I still have more bags than I know what to do with, but now I mainly work out of a couple Think Tank rolling cases in my car. Depending on the assignment I take what I need, usually minimal gear I can carry on my person.

The above setup suits me perfectly for everything I photograph that isn’t sports. I used to be more of a snob about the glass, shooting all the fast, L-series stuff. But once the Mark III came out, I paired down a bit. I find its high ISO capability to be just fine for smaller apertures. Plus to be honest, I rarely shot my old, fast glass wide open — too tricky to really nail the sharpness consistently, if you ask me.

The flash is there for decoration; it’s like parsley on a plate of food. I maybe fire off a few strobe pulses a month, if that. Probably to a fault, I’ve just never been much of a flash guy. It’s a nice thing to have handy, but honestly, it usually is sitting somewhere on the floorboard of my car … lonely, unused.

I put one 16-gig SanDisk card in each body, and just throw a few more cards in a pocket. It’s not a particularly careful system, as I’ve washed most of my CF cards in the laundry at least a dozen times each, lost many more, and once somehow managed to run over one with my car. Yes, it still worked — I called that one “Lucky” till I retired it.

Put Me in, Coach

I didn’t grow up with much of an interest in (or playing) sports, but have spent a large chunk of my professional career earning a keep documenting it, from the high school level up to the pros. I’m still not that interested and only maintain enough of a knowledge to do my job. Whether I do that “well” or not is up to the jury.

But, it would be fair to call me a “sports shooter,” and accordingly the gear needed to meet that end is an important part of what I work with.

in my bag

Canon 1D Mark IV (2)
Canon 5D Mark III + BG-E11 grip
Canon 16-35 2.8L Series II
Canon 24-105 IS 4L
Canon 70-200 2.8L IS Series II
Canon 400 2.8L IS Series I
Canon 1.4x TC Series III
Slik “The Pro Pod” 4-Section monopod

Much like my daily approach, I don’t really use any bags when I shoot sports. Over the years I tried everything from Mountainsmith to Kinesis to Newswear, but I never got comfortable with something hanging off my waist.

So, again, I just work with what I can carry in my hands or over my shoulders, if that makes sense. The basic setup is three bodies: Mark IV + 400 (on monopod); Mark IV + 70-200; and Mark III + wide.

The wide varies on the sport, but is usually that 24-105. I might switch over to the 16-35 at halftime to be ready for post-game react. As a rule I generally don’t like to shoot that wide, especially on a full frame body, but in some of those crazy scrums after an NFL game or the like, you have to try and work your way in as close as possible, so in that sense I’d rather be too wide and crop in.

I keep the teleconverter handy — usually in a pocket — along with some extra CF cards. Thankfully, I’ve yet to launder (or run over) the converter.

Video Killed the Newspaper Star

I know some of you folks at other papers think we here at TDMN are the devil and blame us because you had to start shooting web video or — hopefully not — publishing frame grabs. Misnomers, both ways. We don’t shoot as much video as you think, and I seriously cannot remember the last time we ever ran a frame grab.

But, video has been a part of my wheelhouse for a while now, and it’s fairly common that I get asked to shoot stills and video at the same time during an assignment. Not the easiest thing, but I try my best.

in my bag

Canon 5D Mark III
Canon 24-105 IS 4L
Beachtek DXA-SLR
Seinnheiser EW 112-p G3 wireless mic set (2)
Seinnheiser ME-66 shotgun mic + SKP 100 G3 wireless transmitter
Seinnheiser MKE 400 Miniature camera-mount mic
OWLE iPhone Video Mount

Pretty straight forward. I sometimes use one of those Zacuto viewfinders, too, but more often than not I just work off the LCD screen of the Mark III as is. The way I compose and shoot video, I usually have time to pre-focus as needed. Oh, and it goes without saying that headphones should be somewhere in the mix — monitoring audio is like one of the biggest battles in the war of good video capture, if you ask me. I use Apple earbuds.

And speaking of audio, I don’t use that Beachtek much any more since the new 5D has a headphone jack. I bring it out when using the lav mics so I can run them off of XLR inputs rather than the 1/4″ mini jack. I’m sure I’m being delusional, but I swear the audio sounds better through XLR … warmer.

The shotgun and transmitter combo is another rare use for me but nice to have. Comes in handy for any kind of a scrum-like interview in a locker room or such where you need that little bit of extra reach to the subject. Also, when I get bored, I can wave it around like a light saber and make “whooshing” sounds with my mouth.

Lastly, the OWLE I use as a stabilizing grip for iPhone video, which we only really do for breaking news. The wide-angle attachment is a bonus, as is the little hotshot that lets you mount a small mic up on top.

And yes, I do have a tripod and such but rarely use it, relying more on the lens’ IS.

Goonies Never Say Die

I think of that movie line every time I shoot film, which is something I actually do quite often “just for me.” Maybe it’s because I get bored easy and have one of those brains that needs something to do all the time, but I always have these little essays — self-generated things — going on the side. A few have gotten published in the paper, but mostly I just do them for fun. Anyway, the gear…

in my bag

Hasselblad 500 C/M body + 120 back (x2)
Carl Zeiss Planar 80/2.8
Graflex Speed Graphic
iPhone 5

The 4×5 and iPhone are the two newest things in this set, in that order. I bought the Graflex off eBay several months ago and have not run too many sheets through it yet, but so far I’m happy with the results. And my AT&T upgrade came up recently, so my Christmas present to myself was to switch my old iPhone 4 out for the latest model just the other weekend. Love it so far, too. And for those keeping score at home, I’ve now dropped it six times. Thank the gods for Apple Care.

I know what you’re thinking: Gerry, you pretentious bastard, why show off this stuff but also show ignorance by not having a light meter in the mix? Good question.

The reason for including the iPhone in this set (aside from loving to shoot mobile pics) is I have a little light meter app that is a real dandy. It’s more like a spot meter than an incident, but it’s good enough for government work and gets me pretty damn close exposure wise. I tested it out against a Sekonic meter, plus the spot meter on a dSLR, and it’s really pretty outstanding for something that cost like $1.99.

Let There Be Light

If any of my coworkers (specifically my editors) read this article and make it this far, I will be made fun of at the office mercilessly. Why? Because I suck at portraits and usually don’t light them, preferring what I once heard a guy call the “Washington Post soft box look” (meaning, find a big window with indirect sunlight and make your subject stand real close to it). Still I carry this kit in my car and do use it on occasion, so it’s worth noting:

in my bag

Dynalite Uni Jr. moonlights (2) + reflector and speed right
– Metal grid set
Chimera medium softbox + fabric grid
LPA MultiMAX Transceivers (3)

To steal a line from a viral marketing campaign, I don’t always light my portraits, but when I do, I prefer soft boxes with fabric grids on them. Seriously, just love them. I also enjoy getting the modifier about as close as I can to the subject while watching their facial expression get progressively more nervous looking.

Anyway, add to this mix some air-cushioned stands, Jackrabbit packs (that are never charged), a bunch of A-clamps, gaffer’s tape, myriad sizes of white foam-core board (read: cheap reflectors) and black fabric, etc. Even though I rarely light my portraits, when I do, I like to make the biggest mess possible while setting up. I think it makes me look important.

Hack the Planet!

[if you get that reference, we should be friends]

in my bag

What journalist on the go is complete without computing gear? Not this guy …

I don’t really see a need to make a list version here. So, um, ya.

My paper supplies me with a 15-inch MacBook Pro. If you want to know about the processor and all that stuff, go play some D&D, nerd!! (kidding, email me). I have a mix of card readers but prefer the old Lexar firewire 800 one — super fast. I also regularly use 1-terabyte Western Digital “My Passport Studio” hard drive to back stuff up on and edit video off of. The pretentious Moleskine and pencil are for taking notes and writing down the ridiculous things I hear people say while sitting at coffee shops and the like. The little black thing is a flash drive shaped like a camera lens that my DOP gave us a couple years back. It’s so cute! Lastly, the PacMan bag is full of all the cables, dongles and such one needs while … well, computing. Oh, and yes, Apple earbuds for those times I don’t want to listen anymore to the idiots at the coffee shop. Oh ya, and gum. It’s what’s for dinner.

If You Made it This Far, You’re a Saint

No really, I had no intention to writing this much. I was just trying to be thorough, not pen a manifesto! But, as a reward, I decided to go dig around my car (not the hatchback area) and come up with a list of the things I found in there. After all, I basically live in my vehicle; I figure at half of the random shit in there is pertinent, and the other half, well, it should be entertaining.

[note for people who take everything seriously: some of the things below are “make believe” … a joke. you figure it out.]

– Prescription sunglasses with the left lens held on by masking tape. Hey, you think that’s silly, imagine how I looked before I found the left lens under the car seat after it popped off one day.
– Empty coffee cups and water bottles, crumbled bags of eaten jerky and similar salty snacks, a bottle of CVS brand nicotine lozenges that spilled open, and sundry other evidences of my existence. If I ever get abducted by aliens and they decide to go through my car, they’re going to think we humans are a sad, unhealthy lot if they base any assumptions of us just on me. At the very least, they’ll think we’re very messy.
– Speaking of salty snacks, I found a Corn Nut in my glove box; just one, and it smelled like it used to be Ranch flavored. I don’t eat Corn Nuts. I think I should be worried.
– Two cans of Fix-a-Flat. Better safe than sorry.
– Individual packages of generic “Wet Naps” and a roll of toilet paper sealed in a plastic bag. Again, better safe than sorry.
– Extra pairs of socks and underwear. See above.
– Emergency poncho. I always have a rain jacket in my car, so I never have cause to wear these as designed. But, with some careful cutting and liberal amounts of taping, they make decent rain covers in a pinch.
– Gym bag with two lengths of 50-foot nylon rope, zip ties and duct tape. I’ve been thinking for some time now this will not look good if I ever get pulled over and my car tossed by the cops. “Officer, I can explain!” Funny thing is my wife was just given a huge bowie knife for Christmas by her brother. Don’t ask. I think I’ll borrow it indefinitely and throw it in the bag as well, along with some latex gloves. What’s the worst that can happen?
– Speaking of the domesticated life, a couple of empty sippy cups, some toddler toys and books. I have a toddler. He needs stuff.
– Speaking of books, copy of Dave Eggers’ “What is the What” and “In the Garden of the Beasts” by Erik Larson. I love to read, and I generally have a few books going at once.
Canon 580 EXII + OC-E3 off-shoe cord. I wasn’t kidding earlier.
– The remote for our VCR. Always the last place you look!
– Laminated card with the “Prayer to Saint Christopher” on it. I also carry one in my wallet. I was raised Catholic, and my mother (who will probably be canonized one day) is a worrier.
– Empty shell casing of a bullet. Again, don’t think this is mine. “I don’t even own, *a* gun.” I bet it belongs to the Corn Nut guy.
– And finally, an unused trash bag. See one day, I may get around to cleaning out my car.

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