What’s in my gear bag, and why by Simon Du Plessis

A journey through my equipment upgrade career

Text and photo’s by Sigma Ambassador Simon Du Plessis, Actionimage.

The sadly retired Sigma EX 300-800 f5.6 HSM (see text)

A question I am asked often, and I just know a lot of other professional and experienced photographers are asked quite often, is what lens or camera is best for any specific application.  Over the past 35 years or so that I’ve been active in photography, starting out as a real beginner with very basic entry level kit and upgrading, building up my experience , learning from two mentors back in the 80’s and 90’s, to the point where I am now….wherever that is…. I have learned a lot, experienced a lot, learned the hard way about the qualities of different lenses and cameras, and built up a knowledge base that has helped me and many fellow photographers quite a lot over the years.  There is nothing like first-hand experience, they say.  Sometimes I hear advise given to the extent of  “ don’t buy the entry level ABC lens, save up for the pro series XYZ model”.  Now that pro-series XYZ model can cost as much 3 or 4 times the price of the entry level ABC model, could take you years to save up for.  Just imagine the experience you could have built up with the ABC lens, capturing images otherwise lost to you, even if they are not of absolute pro quality – yet still more than good enough for your memories, family, friends etc.

One important thing I have learned is that you should buy the equipment that suit your needs, and your budget.  I have a wide variety of needs, and very little in terms of budget, so researching my options and then saving up to buy them, has for me always been the issue.  From my first SLR camera, an all manual Ricoh KR5 Super with a its 50mm f1.8 lens, I’ve ended up with two Canon 1D bodies, three lenses, 1.4x and 2x Extenders and two flashguns.  In addition to my main kit there is a small Canon EOS M5 mirrorless with an EF-M 18-150 lens for the light travel quick pic jobs.  Additional kit is a monopod, two bags (one backpack and one small sling-bag), some CF and SD cards, rain covers, PL filters and a Skylight 1B filter.  No, I don’t have a selection of 10 prime lenses and 8 zooms, currently three lenses only.  And those can do all I want them to do.  For now – there is always something else you need, right?

Before I get to the specifics, some background on Sigma and other lenses I’ve owned and used over the years.  The first tele-zoom I owned was some obscure Kalimar 80-200 lens, which I quickly sold off and upgraded to a Sigma 70-210 f4-5.6 MF lens for my Ricoh KR5 Super. Had to pay in something like R35.00 back in the late 1980’s!  Was a big improvement in quality for me.  Used that Sigma for quite some time, also on my upgraded Ricoh KR10M (3fps but still MF).  Sold off the bunch and bought my first AF SLR, a Canon EOS 100, in 1996.  And my next two Sigma lenses soon thereafter, the 28-80 and 70-300 APO Macro Super.  Already I was leaning towards zoom lenses to cover a wider range of focal lengths, and obviously buying less lenses to fill my needs.  Both lenses were later traded off; the 70-300 made way for the 135-400 f4-5.6, and the ageing 28-80 for the 24-135 f2.8-4.5.  Somewhere along the line, cannot remember exactly when, I also had the early version of the Sigma 17-70 f2.8-4, think it was just before the trade-up to the 24-135 or after that.  In 2003 I traded the 135-400 for my first pro series lens, the Sigma EX 120-300 f2.8 (first gen). At about the same time I switched to D-SLR and invested heavily in the Canon D30 3.25MP (the propack version which came with a battery grip and 1Gb Microdrive).  I felt like a pro then, shooting weddings, portfolios, commercial stuff and motorsport.  That first gen 120-300 f2.8 saw serious use over the years, only selling it around 2018 when the third gen OS version became my most used lens, with the Global Vision Sport version landing in my gear bag in early 2019.  Those three versions of the 120-300 f2.8 lenses probably captured 60% of all my digital images.  In 2005 I started covering cricket and rugby on national and international level along with my motorsport events, and wildlife and birding also became a passion for me, even did some photo safari guiding activities from 2010 to 2015.

A five year spell with a Sigma EX 300-800 f5.6 loaned to me by Sigma SA in 2015 made me fall in love with this brute of a Sigmonster, my go-to lens for wildlife/birding and cricket. Really sharp, slowish AF in comparison to my 120-300 f2.8 OS but acceptable.  Very heavy but manageable. Outstanding zoom range at f5.6 all through.  Sadly it became obsolete and could no longer be maintained due to lack of spares, and the lens was returned in 2020 to Sigma SA for permanent retirement, a sad day for me.  That role now taken over by my 120-300 f2.8 Sport with or without 1.4x or 2x Extenders. Less reach but still very good quality with the extenders.

Macro photography has always fascinated me, but initially at best I could do close-ups only, not owning a macro lens, a luxury item in my early years.  Bought my first macro lens in 2008, a third party 180mm f3.5, and recently managed to switch to the Sigma EX 150 f2.8 Macro OS, a real gem of a lens after some assistance from Sigma SA.

My current camera kit (L-R, Top -Bottom) Canon EOS D30, Canon EOS 1D MkIV, Canon EOS 1D X, Canon EOS M5, Canon 430 EX MkII, Canon 580 EX MkII

Back to the original question – what cameras and lenses are currently in my gear bag?  As mentioned earlier I have two Canon EOS 1D bodies, a 1D Mk IV and a 1D X. My ancient EOS D30 is still there, but resting in the closet, in full working condition.  Sometimes I take it out and play a little, just to remind me how technology has changed.  My camera timeline therefore reads Ricoh KR5 Super – Ricoh KR 10M – Canon EOS 100 – Canon D30 (current) – Canon 20D – Canon 1D MkII – Canon 1D MkIV (current) – Canon 1D X (current).  Also the Canon EOS M5 mirrorless (current).

My current lenses L-R, Top to bottom): Canon EF 24-105 f4 L IS Mk I, Sigma 120-300 f2.8 Sport, Sigma EX 150 f2.8 Macro OS fitted with 25mm Extension tube and custom-made flash bracket, Sigma EX 2x, Canon 1.4x MkII, Canon EF-M 18-150mm (mirrorless)

Lenses I now own are:

Sigma 120-300 f2.8 Sport –my favourite lens of all time, super sharp, super-fast AF even in low light, f2.8, etc.  I cannot sing the praises of this lens enough.  Sees action with rugby, cricket, motor sports and wildlife/birding.

Sigma EX 150 f2.8 Macro OS – incredibly sharp, good AF for a macro lens, OS is a bonus, easily handheld which is how I do all my macro. Usually used with a 25mm Extension tube.

Canon 24-105 f4 L IS, (first gen) – good value for money, f4 all through is fast enough, sharp enough, but getting old with better models now available.  (Due for replacement).  Used for general walk-about, commercial, portraiture, landscapes, motor sports and big wildlife close to the camera.

Canon EF-M 18-150mm, kitted with the EOS M5 mirrorless.  Light travelling trips, commercial, wildlife, general walk-about.

Sigma EX 2x Extender and Canon 1.4x MkII Extender.  Partnered with the 120-300 f2.8 Sport when more reach is required.

Why the interest in Sigma lenses, and not other third-party lenses to partner my Canon bodies?  That first 70-210 made up my mind for me.  Half the price of the Canon equivalent at the time, and good value for money for a student just finishing his studies and with a not so impressive salary.  One good experience led to another.  I just stayed with the brand I trusted, and which could offer unique, affordable solutions to my lens requirements, along with some OEM offerings.

Ever since that first 70-210, I have not been without a Sigma lens in my gear bag.

Where to from now:  Obviously, I would like a replacement for the void left by the untimely passing of the Sigma 300-800, upgrading my older generation Canon 24-105 f4 for the Sigma Art version.  Maybe get a 150-600 Sport. All of these with obviously funds permitting.  I reviewed the 150-600 Sport for Sigma SA and came to like it a lot.  The performance increase over the Contemporary, which I also did a review on for Sigma SA, makes the price difference worthwhile for me.  Unfortunately, my budget does not think so.  If I can persuade that budget to allow me a 500 f4 Sport, I will most definitely do that too.  Used to have a Canon 500 f4 L IS (Mk I version) some years ago, and the 500 f4 Sport is probably the only prime tele lens I now would like to use.  Works a charm with a 1.4x Extender for 700mm f5.6 and could be a good replacement for the 300-800, good reach but without the handy zoom range.

My current kit was built up and evolved over the past 35 years from full manual film cameras to high end D-SLR bodies, from doorstop quality basic lenses to professional series, top quality lenses.  I learned a lot, the costly way.  But there was no other way.  I’ve learned to use what I could afford, did some camera and lens trading up as I could afford to do so, and used them some more.  Now I can look back on a very rich and rewarding experience with all types and kinds of equipment, populating my internal knowledge database, and can plan for future upgrades and expansions (if my budget allows).

Happy shooting!