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TOP 10 PHOTO ACCESSORIES FOR OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHY
By Vandit Kalia
April 2006

In nature and wildlife photography, the “decisive moment”, be it the perfect scene lit by the ephemeral rays of a setting sun, or the pounce of a tiger, can happen in an instance. More than having the sharpest lens or the top-end camera, it is being ready for these moments that makes the biggest difference between getting a great shot and getting a mediocre one, or even nothing.

I remember my first trip to Africa: I had been dreaming about this trip since I was a kid, and was only starting to get into photography. However, armed with my new 100-400 lens and a Canon Elan series body, I was ready to go there and get some great shots.

While certainly respectable, this wasn’t pro-grade kit by any means, and I went in hoping that I wouldn’t miss a big 500 and the uber-fast motordrive of the EOS 1 or 3 bodies. As it turned out, the gear was rarely a limitation. As long as I was able to see a “moment” coming, the gear took the shot I had visualized. Even when the focal length wasn’t enough, I was able to find a composition that worked. My biggest problem wasn't my equipment - it was was my inability to react in time to what I saw. Many times, I missed the action because either I, or my gear, were not in a position to take the shot.

I left with the seed of a new thought implanted in my mind, namely: instead of worrying about trying to polish the last 1% of the image by fretting over sharpness differences between, say, a Canon 100-400 and a Canon 300/4 + TC, I’d be better served by making sure that I was ready for the decisive moment, whenever it happened.

A major part of being ready comes with experience, both with nature and with photography. But various accessories can also go a long way towards ensuring that you are able to handle whatever nature throws at you – by being both physically as well as mentally prepared. And the best thing is, most of these accessories don’t have to cost a lot.

So without further ado, I give you, in no particular order, my 10 top accessories for nature photography:

1. A flash extender

If you do wildlife photography, get in the habit of using fill flash when needed. It is hard enough to get clean shots of wildlife doing something interesting, without having to worry about poor lighting. A flash goes a long way towards taming harsh shadows and adding a bit of sparkle to your shots, or a catchlight in your subject’s eyes -even in daylight. Gaining control over an additional variable makes you less reliant on luck, and offers the potential for significant improvements in your results.

The problem is, a normal flash unit, no matter how powerful, is simply not going to provide enough reach to light a subject at the typical wildlife photography distances. That’s where flash extenders come in. They are plastic lens-like jobbies that attach to the front of your flash, and focus your flash’s output into a smaller area – thereby increasing the flash’s range. With a flash extender, your effective fill-flash range increases to as much as 20m away – and you can add a catchlight to the eyes of subjects that are even further.

There are various designs - Better Beamer, Flash X-Tender, Project-A-Flash. Based on what I’ve seen, there doesn’t appear to be a huge difference in functionality between the various options; some designs collapse and pack better. The price for these things is around $30-40 – and this is money well-spent, trust me!

Needless to say, you’ll also need an external flash to go with the extender. I’ve found that for single-flash fill photography, third party flashes work just as well as original flashes, and cost a lot less.


2. Beanbag

Another low-cost item, yet worth its weight in gold. Used properly, it works almost as well as a tripod (and indeed, may even work better than a cheap tripod) – you can use it to brace your lens on all sorts of surfaces, use it as a cheap way to do ground-level shooting and at a pinch, you can even use it as a pillow.

I have had a couple of canvas bags stitched together, with a zippered opening on one side. Each is roughly half the size of a largish pillow. I fill them up with rice or beans when I reach my destination (no sand!). I usually keep one half-filled, and the other filled to about three quarters. The half-filled one goes over the car window, or on top of any strange-shaped surface, the slightly more filled one goes on top of that. Pat them down into shape, put your lens on top and fire away.


3. A good carbon fiber tripod

Ok, hopefully I don’t have to convince you of the value of tripods – if I do, then read my article on “Tripods – A Necessary Evil” (coming online soon).

Like virtually everyone, I read about the benefits of a good tripod, took one look at the prices of carbon fiber tripods and promptly went and bought a sturdy but heavy Manfrotto. At the time, my longest lens was a 400/5.6, so the tripod itself was sturdy enough for all my gear. But it was heavy, and I hated taking the blasted thing with me, finding every excuse possible to leave it behind if I could. Finally, after one ill-fated hiking trip where I wrecked my knee yet again, and another trip where I could have really used a tripod but had left it behind, I decided that enough was enough, and ponied up for a Gitzo carbon fiber jobbie.

Now I know why everyone (much to my annoyance at the time) had recommended a Gitzo to me when I first started asking advice on cheap (ie, $50-100) tripods. A carbon fiber tripod, paired with a good head, is a pleasure to use and consequently, I use it a lot more as well. This has driven home the lesson that having a sturdy tripod isn’t enough if said tripod is too awkward to use or transport. Wildlife photographers have enough weight problems with the long lenses, pro bodies, grips, etc. without adding to it, so do yourself a favor and get a light yet high quality tripod.

I also know how hard it is for someone who hasn’t gone through this learning curve to accept it, so even though I know I will not convince anyone, let me say it anyway– if you shoot outdoors, get a carbon fiber tripod. It is expensive, but well worth it. At the very least, when you realize the truth of this statement the hard way, I’ll have earned the right to say “I told you so.”


4. Proper camera straps

Go ahead, laugh. But I used to detest carrying an SLR for walkabouts, because the strap was unwieldy, would slip and would bite into my shoulder. I finally got myself a pair of Optech straps, one for each of my cameras, and suddenly, carrying a camera is a lot more comfortable. The padded, slightly elastic straps don’t slip, don’t bite into your shoulders and give the perception of having reduced the load on your shoulders.

As such, I not only am more likely to take the big rig out, but because it causes me less physical discomfort, I am also in a generally better frame of mind for taking photos. Initially, I switched to Optech camera straps, which have a broad, stretchy padded neoprene belt which reduces the apparent weight of the camera gear. The only problem with them was that they tended to slip. Then I got clued on to UpStraps - while they look a lot more low-tech than the Optechs, with not a whole lot of padding, they are very comfy and absolutely do -not- slip from the shoulders. A great product!

Just say “no” to those evil fabric straps with a big “Canon” or “Nikon” on them.


5. Good quick-release plates

With my generic QR plates, moving locations with a tripod meant taking the camera off, carrying three things (the camera bag, the tripod and the camera) to a new location, trying to set up while making sure that neither the camera bag nor the camera got set down where they shouldn’t, and also ensuring that I didn't scare off every living thing within miles. The reason for all this was that carrying a tripod with the camera and lens attached could cause the weight of the camera to loosen the plate, resulting in the whole assembly come crashing down. If you think Humpty Dumpty was hard to put together, you ain’t seen an image stabilized L lens fallen apart. It just isn’t a pretty sight, take it from me.

Custom-fitted lens plates, while expensive, are a lot less likely to come loose due to the torque caused by the weight of the camera and lens. So moving location means sweeping up the tripod, slinging it over your shoulder and moving to the new location.

Sounds like a simple and minor benefit, doesn’t it? But don’t underestimate the usefulness of this– if moving is easy, you are likely to experiment more with camera placements and angles. And sometimes, even a small shift in location and angle can make the difference between a good and a great shot. On the other hand, if moving your gear becomes a chore, you will find yourself either shooting from the first position you set up, or not using a tripod. Neither is as effective a solution.


6. A compact P&S

After devoting a fair bit of space in this article about the various accessories that make your photo gear easier to use, let me talk about something that makes it easier for me to not use my photo gear at all. After all, as Emerson (if I recall correctly) said, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

Very few people carry an SLR with them all the time – I depend on photography for a living, and I don’t. Yet a photo opportunity can present itself anywhere. A good P&S camera can go everywhere with you, and will let you get that shot. There are times when a discreet P&S does a better job than a big SLR – both in terms of letting you get a shot without attracting attention to yourself, and in terms of being respectful and considerate to others.

Lastly, there are times when your main lens simply can be too big – either the subject comes too close, or you want a more expansive shot showing the habitat. For wildlife, I generally carry 1 SLR with a big lens (500/4 plus teleconverters) and another with a 100-400 or similar mid-telephoto. Carrying a third body is simply not an effective solution, either cost-wise or space/logistics wise. Switching lenses can take too much time. Enter a compact P&S.

Having gone through an Olympus C3000 (my first digital camera), a Nikon 2500, a Sony W1, a Canon S70 and a Canon G6, my current compact of choice is the Panasonic LX-1.


7. Reference books

I can hear the chants already: booooo-ring. I agree – reference books are hardly the sexy, “will solve everything” insta-fix solution that most people want to hear. This requires people to work through things for themselves, instead of getting pre-packaged answers.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pre-packaged answers to anything – if I did, I’d have a halo on my head, a voice like thunder and the ability to call down lighting on people (one of two things in life that I’ve always regretted not having, the other being a fully-functional light-saber).

I do know that more than any quick tips or short cuts, the biggest long-term improvement to my photography has come from reading books – this includes books about photography techniques, books on aesthetic/design elements and behavioral guides to wildlife. Learning more about my subjecs and destinations, as well as seeing how other people interpret the world around them, has played a large role in helping me develop my own vision and accelerated my own development as a photographer.


8. Cargo pants

I am serious here. I regularly see photographers wearing vests with a bazillion pockets, all crammed to the gills with so much gear that I expect them to use a reference card to figure out what is where. While such a vest does have its uses, and I too own and frequently use one of these, oftentimes the most useful thing to wear is baggy cargo pants, with external pockets and made of rugged canvas. There is a lot to be said for having a couple of roomy pockets for carrying gear – you can slip in an extra memory card or two, a spare battery, stash your lens cap and even an extra lens (albeit a small one). This avoids your needing a bag or a dorky vest, and lets you walk around completely unencumbered. And if you are like me, this also helps you avoid the temptation of overpacking. Sometimes, less is indeed more. As an added bonus, these pants protect your legs if you have to go crawling on the ground, or walk through bushes with thorns.


9. A belt system

As I spend a lot of time hiking in the Himalayas, I come across a variety of photo opportunities, which require a full span of lenses to capture. Galen Rowell was able to manage with just a handful of lenses, but I unfortunately am not able to do so. So I need to lug a full array of lenses around with me.

As anyone who has carried a photo backpack can attest, they are not fun to carry around. Even the Lowepro Trekker series, which are fairly well designed with intelligent harnesses and some load-bearing frames, are not as light or comfortable as a high quality mountaineering pack. And besides, after a few iterations of having to take your rig off, unpack your camera gear, and then set up for a shot, it becomes too tempting to just ignore photo opportunities (especially the ones which may require a bit of work to exploit fully). Also, forget the idea of ever taking a grab shot.

Some people swear by photo vests - and I agree, they are quite convenient, especially for outoors use (I personally dont like wearing a photographer's vest while shooting travel shots - people wearing these vests stick out like sore thumbs and usually, that is not the impression I want to convey). But while a vest is useful for carrying accessories and miscellaneous items, try stashing 3-4 lenses and a flash, and climbing a mountain with it - I guarantee that it will not be long before you feel like ripping it off and throwing it down the nearest chasm.

Enter beltpacks. They let you carry a lot of gear on your waist, thereby taking a lot of stress of your shoulders. Because your center of gravity is lower, you are also more stable on the mountain. And best of all, you are comfortable. When a photo opportunity arises, you can simply uzip a bag and pull out your camera to shoot. Great for taking grab shots. Depending on your needs, you can even combine a harness system with the belt, to distribute the weight as per taste.

After you try a belt system, you'll find it hard to go back to photo packs!


10. A large towel

Douglas Adams was right on the ball when he advised carrying a towel while hitching across the galaxy. This humble item is an invaluable item to have in the field. On dusty jeep rides, you can wrap it around your gear to reduce dust accumulation on your optics and sensors. In the case of rainfall, you can wrap it around your gear to prevent water from seeping in (obiously this only works in light rain or in combination with an umbrella). A rolled up towel works as a beanbag - I have used ti a couple of times when I didn't have a beanbag handy, and also didn't have time to set up a tripod. You can lay it down as a clean platform for both you and your gear if you are doing some low-level shooting.

This simple and versatile item is pretty much a standard whenever I go outdoors. Some people prefer plastic bags, as they do a better job at sealing our dirt and moisture, but I find 2 main problems with plastic - it is noisy and can frighten wary wildlife subjects, and it is prone to flying away if caught in the wind. So a towel is is, for me.


Bonus: A compass

Like Spinal Tap, my list of top 10 goes to 11 - the last useful accessory for outdoors work on my list is a compass. It helps me get a rough idea of where sunrise and sunsets are going to happen, and gives me some backup navigation tools, in case I need it. I don't carry an external compass - instead, I have one built into my main watch, a Suunto D9 dive computer and also my mountain watch, a Casio G-Shock, and it is alays there when I need it.

 

Not surprisingly, most of the items on this list are things that make my life easier or more comfortable when I am out taking photographs. When I am physically less stressed, I am more receptive to what is around me, and better able to see photo opportunities. To me, the items on this list are more useful in improving my photos than splitting hairs about whether the Tamron 28-75/2.8 is better than the Canon 24-70/2.8 or stuff like that.

Happy photography!

 
     

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