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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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