Camera bags are a little like a woman's handbag. Delve into them and you are likely to find all sorts of weird and wonderful paraphernalia that speaks to the needs of the individual and more than a little to their - maybe quirky - personality. I remember reading in a flying magazine in my teenage years (when I was besotted with anything that stayed off the ground for longer than 10 seconds) of the publication's photographers and how they literally spilled the contents of their Billingham bags out onto the editor's desk to see what trophies lurked inside. One of the chaps swore that he never left home without a barf bag (he did spend some time in the air to be honest). Pocket knives, small screwdrivers and various cleaning bits seemed to crop up regularly amongst the trio of snappers. One thing that was common though, was that of the bits and bobs that they felt were the most essential for a successful day shooting, hardly any of them were directly related to actual photographic equipment.
I spend most of my time shooting on location. Whether I am doing landscape work or shooting for a client, it still tends to be 'on location' rather than in studio. As a result there are a few things that have started to find their way into my bag so that I feel I cannot leave without them. Claire, my assistant, would chide me for not including food in this list as I invariably forget to eat while shooting and she subsequently has to go and find something for us to chew on before we pass out, but that's why she works with me I suppose.
1) Sea to Summit large microfiber towel. I picked up this tip from Joe Cornish while shooting with him last year and since then dare not include this in my bag. It is soft enough to clean lenses and filters, opaque enough to use as a 'dark cloth' when looking at the LCD screen, big enough to wrap around lenses for transport, absorbent enough to mop up sea water when your camera gets drenched, and can even act as a towel if you absolutely have to dry yourself. It is now absolutely essential gear for me.
2) Semi opaque vehicle dash protector. I've been using one of these for years. It makes a fantastic and light substitute for a genuine photographic diffuser. Because it has two connected circles it can stand on its own over a plant (so you don't need an extra pair of hands to hold the thing) and when used apart can make a fairly substantial scrim, although this time you do need another pair of hands. I've even jury rigged it once to a tripod to get a to of shade while having lunch on top of a mountain.
3) Soft paintbrush. A soft long bristled good quality paintbrush is an excellent bit of unconventional cleaning kit to carry. Working around any kind of seaside, in mountains, or just generally outdoors, the camera picks up a kid's sandpit worth of dust and mud. Lens brushes are useless for poking into the nooks and crannies of the camera and lenses bodies. The paintbrush does the trip brilliantly.
4) Small LED torch. I do a lot of light painting in my work. Having a small torch on hand at all times has become indispensable for my style of photographic work. Since it's always in the bag it also means that when I do actually need a torch for finding my way (happens quite frequently considering the late light that most landscape photographers try to capture).
5) PecPads. These are essential. No questions. I have yet to find cleaning tissue that is as effective as this. Don't expect it to dry up moisture though. These are really best used with the appropriate cleaning fluid. They are, however, soft enough to use for cleaning sensors as well as lenses (admittedly the manufacturers have recently taken a stance not to recommend this, but this I suspect has more to protect themselves than as a sign that the product is suddenly not adequate for the task).
6) Duct tape. Okay, so gaffer tape would be better, but it can be tricky to get hold of here in South Africa, so duct tape takes its place more often than not (if I can get it gaffer tape is preferential). I use tape to secure cameras to strange surfaces, fix lenses, clothing, packs, tripods and more, gobo ( flag) flashes, tape down students' shutter buttons for star trails when a cable release is missing, tape down reflectors, repair umbrellas and softboxes and strap flashes together to create a more powerful light. The uses of duct/gaffer tape are limited only by your imagination.
7) Electrical tape. Duct and Gaffer tape are amazing stick like super glue to anything and everything. However, I've found a small roll of electrical tape is amazingly useful when you don't want to have the sticking power of acme cartoon glue. Like when I'm strapping a gel to my flash head or need to attach something temporarily to a tripod leg without leaving a snail trail of tape gum. Black (I happened to have white tape, but usually carry the black one with me) electrical tape is must have accessory.
8) Pocket knife. Everyone can be a Macgyver too! I love Leathermans, but they are just plain big and heavy compared to the traditional Swiss Army knife. The small Leathermans then don't have a usefully sized blade. Carrying a pocket knife is fairly self-explanatory. You will will find a use for one, even if it's just to open a can of beer after the shoot.
9) Dark slides. I actually carry two of these. They are fantastic for using as cutters or flags when I am doing landscape work, or as small gobos and flags when strapped to a flashgun with electrical tape. Yes bits of black card would work, but the hard plastic of a 4x5 film holder dark slide is more durable, doesn't have disintegrate in the rain and has a nifty little wire hanger that makes it easy to grip with things like cable ties, clamps and clothes pegs.
10) Cable ties. Like duct tape, cables ties just seem to always be. Useful. String them together to make one big cable tie if necessary. They are light and cheap and can be used a myriad number of ways. I find them particularly useful to holding things to my tripod when I don't have proper attachments - think flashes for macro work for instance.
11) Lip balm. Working outdoors means that I'm in the sun a lot of the time. Sun screen should probably be added to this list, but more important to be is lipbalm. Seems like a silly thing to add but it's one of those things that'll drive you mad if you don't have it.
12) Antihistamine. Last, but certainly not least. This is the one thing I always regret forgetting. I forgot them on the last Thanda workshop and was a streaming, blithering snot monster as a result. Invariably if I remember to bring these little pills I won't need them. If I forget however... Working in South Africa and Africa, and outdoors, means I'm exposed to billions of little pollens and dust to boot. Sneezing and blinking through swollen eyes is not the best way to maintain any level of photographic creativity.