Gearing Up For Nature Photography

Text copyright James H. Egbert. All rights reserved.

In my days of working behind the counter at a local camera shop, the most valuable accessory a nature photographer could own was a Platinum American Express Card! It is very easy to spend your life’s savings on your photographic equipment, but you don’t have to. If you won’t actually or consistently use it, don’t buy it! It is very easy to be tempted into buying the latest and greatest equipment known to modern man, and there are times when we might actually need it, but often those must-have purchases just become dust collectors or added weight to the field pack.

Let’s build a system without a name brand that you can take into the field and use for every facet of nature photography.

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35mm Camera Body

Camera bodies come in different shapes, sizes and weights. Some have all the bells and whistles, and some are the bare minimum total manual systems. Ask yourself what features you really need in the field.

Ease of use. Understanding how the system works is essential, you want to understand all controls and know how they can help you make better photographs. Many modern 35mm SLR’s have auto-everything settings. All you really need are a couple auto settings and the ability to go full manual if you choose to take total control of the process. Aperture and shutter priority settings are very handy for those who have a formula already programmed into their shooting style.

Metering options. There are three basic metering options to consider and having a system that allows you to make a personal choice between them to fit your situation is of great value. Look for spot metering, center weighted and full matrix/evaluative. This will allow you to work in a wider range of situations and shooting styles.

Shutter speeds. While most systems allow you to vary the shutter speed settings, many are limited. You may want a camera that can handle shutter speeds of “bulb” or self-timed up to 1/8000 of a second. Now keep in mind, with 100 ISO film you can stop most action sharply with a shutter speed of 1/3000 of a second at f/2.8. Even a Bald Eagle that can fly by at speeds upwards of 100mph can be easily captured at 1/1000 of a second.

Auto / Manual focus. While many photographers tend to trust their own eye over that of the camera’s focusing sensors, having auto focus is of great value. It was Art Wolfe who once told me that in order to capture wildlife such as birds of prey, you will want auto focus for speed and accuracy. If you manually focused, by the time you took the shot, the animal might be nesting somewhere totally out of sight.

Depth-of-field preview. This very handy feature allows you to preview the depth of sharpness of your image. If you want to be more exacting when selecting your f-stops, seeing is believing. This tool is especially useful with macro photography.

After-market lens compatibility. While most manufacturers make a wide variety of lenses for their cameras, not all after-market lens companies make lenses that will fit every make and model. Tamron, Sigma and Tokina make a large assortment of lenses for Nikon, Canon, Minolta and Pentax.

Lenses

While for most it may seem obvious that the lens is paramount to what one captures on film, many photographers tend to overlook this and over-emphasize the camera body. This results in a lot of body capability but poor lens results. When evaluating a system I tend to start with the lens, then work my way back and down. Consider the types of images you want to capture, then match up your needs with lenses that offer the capabilities to capture those images.

Wide-angle. A great deal of nature photography images can be captured by way of the wide-angle lens. Just going out and getting any wide-angle lens will result in a wide range of results, some of which will not be all that appealing. Several wide-angle lenses will distort the image and skew the perspective, rendering a not-so-natural view of the world. This is not to say that the effect is not desirable; it is rather an artistic choice. If you prefer to portray your view of the world more in tune with how the natural eye sees it, pick a wide-angle lens with aspherical correction or a lens that has the same field of view of the human eye of approximately 49 degrees.

Micro or Macro lenses. Working in nature you will find that there are tons of opportunities for macro or close-up photography. You will want a good macro lens to capture them. There are multi-focal length lenses made that have what is called a macro setting. These are not true macro or micro lenses. They offer some ability to do close-up work but do not allow for true 1:1 ratio aspects, or life size. When selecting a macro lens find one that is dedicated to the task. You will achieve sharper and better images.

Telephoto lenses. There are a number of telephoto lenses on the market, and this is the area where some buyers go wild. You need to be very careful to make sure you’re not buying a lens that is too limited in its use or need. Consider a variable lens, such as a 28-300mm, which allows you to do wide-angle and effective telephoto work with less weight to be carried and cost for use.

Tripods

Simply put: use one. The difference between a photograph and a snapshot is a tripod. There are very few times I shoot without one and even fewer times I would ever recommend anyone doing it themselves. Think of a tripod as a life support system for your photography. Choosing the right tripod has many variables to it. My first consideration is sturdiness. I have chosen a Bogen tripod time after time for the durability and functionality. Tripods are sold separately from their heads to offer you a wide variety of mounting options. You can choose pan and tilt heads, ball mounts and action grip mounts all with a quick release module that allows one to change out camera bodies and lenses quickly. The quick release plates can be bought individually so that you can have a plate on every camera body or mounted lens bracket.

Cleaning Gear

I don’t know how many times I have set up a shot only to find a speck of dust either on the lens or inside my viewfinder. Or maybe while capturing a waterfall a little spray got on the lens. Whatever it is, you want to have the right cleaning gear available while not carrying a lot of additional items. A microfiber cloth is a great tool as is the Lenspen and air puffball, or bulb blower. All of these combined will take up very little space and even less weight!

How do you carry all the right stuff?

Selecting a packing system is purely personal; I personally prefer a good backpack designed to carry camera equipment and also a photographer’s vest for the small items requiring quick access. Speaking of clothes, you will want to dress for the environment you will be working in. Do a little research on the topography, weather and insect life! There’s noting worse than waiting for the perfect light while either freezing to death or being eaten alive by insects!

Are we missing anything?

Have you thought about film? I’ve been asked how much I take into the field with me on any given trip. My answer is fairly simple; I take just enough to cover my anticipated needs but not so much that I cannot pack water and a few snack bars. Be reasonable, but try to have more than you think you’ll ever use during the outing.

Film type. Peronally, I prefer to take out nothing but slide film. I shoot mostly Fujichrome Velvia 50 and 100 ISO. For black and white I can either convert a scanned slide in Photoshop to render a monochromatic version or I can shoot Agfa Scalia. The reason I use slide film is image quality and that I want to see my work and not the lab’s work. With print film, you are seeing a small percentage of your own work and the rest is dependent on the lab equipment, chemicals, paper and staff. Print film is very unpredictable at best for nature photography. Remember, film is your most important, but cheapest, piece of equipment.

Digital media. Shooting digital offers instant satisfaction of knowing you have the image the way you wanted it or at least good enough that you can run it through a photo-editing program for adjustments. Storage is a concern; most digital cameras offer different file sizes such as small or large JPEGs or RAW settings, but each has a noticeable impact on the number of images you can store. Like film, you want the best quality capture media and in some cases, a large number of memory cards. There are many times where taking the laptop along in the field is desireable. There is also the option of portable storage devices that take up little weight and space.

Just remember: read everything you can, shop around, and if you won’t actually or consistently use it, don’t buy it!