A short listing of other bits and pieces that are indispensible for me when I'm shooting in the field.
If you're looking for information about the cameras I use, you're in the wrong place! Go to "Stuff I Use - Part I: Cameras for that information. And, if you're looking for info on lenses and teleconverters I use - go to "Stuff I Use - Part II: Lenses & Teleconverters" for that.
THIS part contains:
(Updated 1 March 2011)
If the rule of retail sales is "location, location, location", the rule of quality photography is "tripod, tripod, tripod". If you're serious about your photography make sure you get serious in choosing a quality support system for your camera and lens. Besides holding your camera steady, a tripod allows you the luxury of studying your entire frame/composition before tripping the shutter. When hand-holding a camera you tend to think ONLY about the main subject and your ability to spend time composing your image is often compromised. Use a tripod.
I own and use 5 pods (excluding the "i" variety) - four tripods and one monopod.
Gitzo 1348 Carbon Fibre Tripod. This is my largest and most stable tripod and is my "bread-and-butter" tripod. It also extends up to at least 6.5 feet high - which allows me to stand up fully upright behind it while shooting (invaluable if you're going to be behind it for several hours). I use it without a centre column (with the head mounted directly on the base plate) to maximize its stability. I almost always use it with a Wimberley head (more on this head below). Positives of this tripod? Very stable for its overall weight. Very durable. Downsides to this tripod? Relatively bulky. Relatively pricey. And still relatively heavy (if you're backpacking it) - 4.8 lbs. Carbon fibre legs can get "sticky" and difficult to extend if you don't keep them clean. When not on beanbags or foam pads, you'll one of three lenses living on this tripod - my 200-400 f4 mm zoom, my 400mm f2.8 VR prime, or my 600mm f4 VR prime.
Gitzo G2220 Explorer Tripod. This is a specialty tripod where the centre column is on a pivot and allows you to position your camera at "odd" angles relative to the base of the tripod (the centre column can be at almost any angle relative to the 3 main support legs). This is a great tripod for doing macro work! It's not nearly as stable as the Gitzo 1348 so is poorly suited to supporting heavy super-telephoto lenses, but if you limit it's use to moderately-sized lenses (up to about a 300 mm non-stabilized lens)) it's stability is more than adequate. I normally match this tripod with an Acratech Ultimate ballhead. The 2220 Explorer is my tripod of choice if I'm going to do serious macro work. On the downside, this tripod is a tad heavy, so isn't my first (or second) choice when I'm going on a long hike with my camera. By the way, many tripods feature centre columns that can be reversed (pointing down between the tripod legs) and sales staff in camera stores often claim this is "great for macro photography". In reality, it's a complete pain in the ass for macro photography and I only recommend it for masochists or contortionists.
Gitzo GT2541EX Explorer Tripod. Basically the same tripod as the G2220 tripod, but with carbon fiber legs (so a lot lighter). Normally paired with my AcraTech Ultimate ballhead and the tripod I normally carry when day-hiking. Great for macro work. Downside? Costs a bundle. But what doesn't these days?
Gitzo G1228 Mk2 Mountaineer Carbon Fibre Tripod. This is my "keep it light as possible" tripod which I primarily use on long hikes or backpack trips. I bought it with a carbon fibre centre column that was about 14" long but replaced it with a super short centre column - partly for weight reasons and partly to keep the column out of the way when I have the legs fully spread for low-level photography. I invariably pair this tripod with my lightweight Acratech Ultimate ballhead and end up with a very light yet very usable package. I also use it to hold flash units when I'm working in situations where multiple flashes are involved. This support system is great if you use it for what it is intended for - cameras with wide-angle or lightweight short telephoto lenses. Will this system work with a heavy body with a 600 mm f4 telephoto attached? Not a hope - but this is NOT what it is designed for!
Manfrotto 680B Compact Monopod. I occasionally use a monopod - like about 1% of the time. I grab it in situations where I need quick mobility and only minimal support (for instance, when shooting this running Gray Wolf). I normally pair this pod with the Acratech Ultimate ballhead and end up with a very light - and very compact - package. I have, on occasion, used this setup for shooting wildflowers with my 105 mm f/2.8 VR macro lens with some success.
For years I used a leading manufacturer's tripod heads that featured a quick release mounting system. This system featured squarish mounting plates that attached to your camera body or lens and then snapped into place on the tripod head. They made short work of getting your camera onto your tripod, but I continually ran into a number of other problems, most notably I could never keep the plates from twisting when used on heavier lenses or camera bodies. About four years ago I decided to try the Arca-Swiss standard mounting system with quality mounting plates from companies like Wimberley and Really Right Stuff. I've now converted all my tripods and cameras to the Arca-Swiss standard and have been totally happy. Here are the tripod heads I'm now using - in order of most to least valuable to me:
Wimberley Gimbal Head. This bulky and odd-looking head is specialized for use with medium to long (and heavy) telephoto lenses (so don't try to use it in macro work). This amazing head allows you to support the heaviest of lens solidly while allowing silky smooth adjustments with the lightest of touches (a friend of mine calls his "eye-controlled"). While this unique head takes a little getting used to, once you're familiar with it you have so much control that you can follow rapidly flying birds in flight without problem. If you don't want to buy one of these, don't try one. For more info go to Wimberley's website.
Acratech Ultimate Ballhead. This is a very cleverly engineered product whose function exceeds logical expectations. This ballhead is very light yet offers amazingly firm support - with virtually no sagging or creeping when you take your hands off your lens. I grab this tripod head first if I'm doing ANY macro work or if I'm using any lens up to my 300 VR in size (sorry Acratech, I love your product but it doesn't work as well as a Wimberley for those huge lenses). If you don't use super-telephotos then this ballhead is all you need. It's just a great product. For more info go to Acratech's website.
Acratech Long Lens Ballhead. While nothing supports a super-telephoto lens as firmly or moves as smoothly as a good gimbal head (like a Wimberley), they weigh a ton! So...what do you do when you want to haul a big, big lens far into the field (on foot)? The last thing you need is MORE weight? Well, Acratech to the rescue. Their "Long Lens Head" solidly supports big glass (up to, and including, those lightweight 600mm f4's!) and provides smooth freedom of movement AND it weighs under 1 lb! Does it FULLY replace the need for a gimbal head? Not for me - but this small dual-pivot head is a pretty darned good alternative if you want to save carrying several pounds of tripod head! This head is best used mounted directly to a lens with a rotating lens collar. For more info go to Acratech's website.
While in the field the serious nature photographer faces a plethora of problems to solve on a minute-by-minute basis. "How can I effectively support this monster lens without my tripod?" is one such problem. Here's two solutions that have worked well for me:
Bean bags. I've probably used a bean bag under my 200-400 mm VR almost as much as I've used a tripod. I try to always keep one handy in my car or in my house. They're cheap and with a little practice you can hold a really large lens satisfactorily still, especially if it's a VR lens. Bean bags are readily available in most hunting shops (but rarely in camera shops).
Foam Pad. My oldest piece of camera gear is a high-density foam pad that is about 16" long, 14" wide, and 1/4" thick. Over the last twenty years or so I've used this same pad to support my camera in hundreds of different ways - folded up and against a tree (or stump), on the pontoon of a zodiac boat, on the railing of my deck, etc. The pad is amazingly light, fits in any pack, and can double as a knee or butt protector if you have to get down on wet or hard ground and need a little padding for either protection or comfort.
(Updated 11 December 2012)
To me it makes no sense at all to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on camera gear and then have no practical way of getting it (or one of many combinations of "it") into the field. Which means I have an office FULL of various camera bags and (most especially) backpacks! And, I pretty much use them all!
Currently my primary "go-to" backpack style camera bags are made by F-Stop. And I still have more than a few LowePro bags in my collection...
F-Stop. In January of 2011 I discovered F-Stop bags and, in particular, their Mountain Series of backpack style camera bags. Shortly thereafter I took possession of my first F-Stop bag - a Tilopa BC. Very cool idea, and a very well-designed and well-built product! Definitely products where, after seeing and using them, you say to yourself "...why didn't someone think of this before?" Long story short - the Mountain Series packs from F-Stop are state-of-the-art backpacks (ergonomically built!) with removable, configurable camera-gear carrying "boxes" within them that F-Stops calls Internal Camera Units (or ICU's). The ICU's come in various sizes and are similar to the internal compartments on a Lowepro bag - padded and configurable compartments with removable velcro-based dividers. Going on a long day hike where you want to carry a lot of non-photographic gear and only a bare minimum of camera gear (e.g., a DSLR and two or three smaller lens)? Slip in your small ICU. Going out on a shoot and want to carry considerably more gear but don't need too much non-photographic gear? Load in a large ICU. The ICU's come in four sizes (S, M, L, XL). Buy a single pack with multiple ICU's and you have a VERY versatile system. At this time of this writing (2 March 2011) I have been using my Tilopa BC for only about a month (usually when going snowshoeing or winter hiking) but it is already my favourite camera backpack. As a matter of fact, I like my Tilopa BC so much I ordered the larger Satori model shortly after my Tilopa arrived. Check out F-Stop's website for more information.
Lowepro. Over the years I have used a lot of Lowepro camera packs. I primarily use backpacks in their "All-Weather" category (I currently have a Pro Trekker 400 AW II, a Photo Trekker AW II, and a Lens Trekker 600 AW II) but I have some packs from their other categories as well, including one from the Waterproof series (a DryZone 100). Until I discovered F-Stop packes I primarily used Lowepro packs, and usually their backpack style bags. They are well-built, have a very adjustable suspension system, are quite weather resistant, and they stand behind their products. In my opinion, from an ergonomic perspective, they are NOT the best bags on the market to really hike with, largely because they are really just soft "configurable boxes" with shoulder straps and a padded waist belt. But, they do work well for me when I'm traveling, especially if at the end of the "motorized" part of the journey you have to carry your gear for a short distance. So...if I'm going by plane, train, or automobile I grab one or more of Lowepro AW backpacks and head out.
While backpack style camera bags are great for transporting your gear TO (or INTO) the field, in some situations they do have a "flaw". And the flaw is that your camera isn't available for "instant" (or even very fast) access. For me this need for instant access arises in two main situations. First, I spend a LOT of time in the field and often encounter a subject (wolf, cougar, etc.) unexpectedly and have very little time to grab a shot before my options are down to "south end of northward heading animal" ONLY! Second, on my photo tours I'm commonly shooting from a Zodiac inflatable boat and working with a skittish subject (grizzly bear, sea lion, etc.). In these situations one can't simply put down the camera/lens combo and easily haul a different combination out of a camera bag without scaring or stressing the subject. In both of these "no time/can't move" situations you almost need to be WEARING your camera gear. So...in 2010 I experimented with using a belt and shoulder harness system that provided super-fast access to a camera with lens mounted and a few extra bits (second lens, teleconverter, etc.).
So...in 2010 I experimented with using a belt and shoulder harness (plus holster) system that provided super-fast access to a camera with lens mounted and a few extra bits (second lens, teleconverter). I chose Think Tank's system and can say I was VERY pleased with the results. The main components of the system I'm using include Think Tank's wide "Steroid Speed Belt", "Pixel Racing Harness", "Digital Holster 40", Digital Holster 50", and assorted lens cases (and many lens cases from other makers - such as Lowepro - DO fit on the Steroid Speed Belt). Does this belt and holster system replace the need for camera backpacks? Nope, not at all! But when you're in those situation where you need fast access to your camera, they can be absolutely indispensible. Finding a good selection of the components of Think Tank's belt & holster system can be tough - most retailers don't carry a great selection of the bits you need. So...check out the Belt System section on Outdoor Photo Gear's website for more info (or to purchase the system that works best for you).
(Updated 2 March 2011)
I've tried or used a million other accessories and gadgets. Here are the ones I still turn to in the field:
At the risk of having this sound like an ad, Nikon's Creative Lighting System (CLS) simply works great. I use a SB-900 Speedlight, a SB-800 Speedlight, plus the R1C1 Speedlight Kit (mainly for macro work). Combined these systems provide extremely easy-to-use wireless options. Nikon's i-TTL Balanced Fill system (WAY too many acronyms Nikon!) provides fill-flash that looks very natural. I commonly use flash-fill when photographing birds (and small mammals) and these systems take all the guess-work of the exposure out of it.
I have two key flash accessories I use very regularly - a Better Beamer Flash Extender and a Really Right Stuff Flash Bracket. The Flash Extender is little more than a flexible plastic lens that focuses the flash of any TTL flash system. Depending on the level of ambient light it can double or even triple the range of your flash - which can make the critical difference when photographing wary birds. The Really Right Stuff flash bracket does two things - it moves the flash higher above the lens and tends to diminish the "red eye" effect plus it allows you to keep your flash on TOP of your camera (where it normally should be), regardless of whether you're shooting with your camera body held horizontally or vertically.
When I was primarily shooting film I used the "normal" number of lens filters. Polarizers to add contrast in skies and reduce reflections. Neutral density filters to reduce light. Graduated neutral density filters to selectively reduce light. Warming or cooling filters to emphasize selective hues or to counteract a colour cast of a specific film. Et cetera.
But since switching to digital I use lens filters significantly less often. Now I only regularly use polarizers to kill excessive glare - normally in scenes that include wet vegetation (or aquatic mammals). I never bother using polarizers to "correct" the look of a sky (there are better ways to do this using Photoshop). Occasionally I use a neutral density filter to reduce light and allow longer shutter speeds. I never use graduated ND's anymore (another example of where there are superior digital solutions to extend your image's dynamic range). I never use warming or cooling filters anymore (I shoot RAW and can tweak the white balance when converting the RAW images). And, of course, at times I use protective filters (those old "UV-haze" and "Skylight" filters) to protect the front lens elements of my lenses. And that's it...
Every outdoor enthusiast owns a GoreTex coat or two for rainy days - right? But what do you do with your camera on a rainy day? I cover mine with AquaTech SportShields - which are more-or-less GoreTex coats for your cameras and lenses - and continue to shoot in the rain. These shields are imported from Australia and come in a number of sizes (in order to accommodate various len sizes). These rain shields are extremely well-built and allow easy access (with a little practise) to all your camera's functions. I needed to purchase 3 different shields to cover all my lens/camera combinations but they work great. Given that I live in a relatively arid area I only use these shields occasionally, but they've allowed me to capture images that I could not have obtained without them (unless I was willing to sacrifice a camera body and a lens or two). When I shot this image of grizzlies swimming in the Great Bear Rainforest I was in a Zodiac boat with a number of other photographers. It had just quit raining and the other photographers' cameras were safely packed away in waterproof cases. I was the only with my camera out (in its rainshield) and was the only one to get the shot. The downside to these rain shields? They're not cheap. For more info about these quality rainshields check out the Rain Cover section on Outdoor Photo Gear's website for more info.
I have a very limited number of requirements for a hand-held photo viewer/backup device. Here's all I really need - a weather-resistant and rugged device with: fast transfer rates (from CompactFlash Card to the hand-held); decent battery life; a display capable of rendering RAW format images with sufficient quality to allow initial culling; and, a minimum of 60 GB of storage. I don't need a million other features (which are normally the work of overly zealous marketing departments anyway), but I would like to remove the necessity of hauling my laptop into remote locations on multi-day field shoots. The first products I tried fell dismally short on ALL of my criteria (except possibly hard-disk space). I acquired a 120 GB version of JOBO's GIGA Vu PRO evolution in late April of 2007 and it fills the bill for me. A good, sturdy feel; a bright 640x480 pixel display; a processing engine that renders Nikon RAW files very well; and the battery life seems good. For more info on the GIGA Vu PRO evolution check out JOBO's website.
Buying the right binoculars (and spotting scope) is a lot like buying a camera body. If you are going to put the product under only light to moderate use (and in fairly benign conditions) you can get by with moderate expenditures. But, if you want a product that will reliably give high performance over years of use under demanding field conditions, you have no choice but to fork out the big bucks! I currently use Swarovski EL 8.5x42 binoculars - they're a great product. Prior to getting these I used and was very happy with Nikon's Venturer 8x42 for almost 10 years. Variables to consider when choosing binoculars include: optical quality; magnification (more isn't necessarily better); light gathering ability and image brightness (especially performance in fading light); durability and weather-resistance; and - last but not least - ergonomics.
Spotting Scopes? I use a Swarovski ATM HD 80 spotting scope with 20-60x zoom eyepiece. It's AMAZING. 'Nuff said.
One irony of nature photography is that you can spend hundreds or even thousands of hours in the field just to capture an instant in time that measures only a fraction of a second. I like to be as comfortable as possible during all those hours when I'm waiting for that "just right" instant in time. If I'm not at least reasonably comfortable I sure wouldn't want to get up at 4 AM the next morning and do it again (and again, and again...). For me there are three realities that factor into what I wear in the outdoors:
1. I'm a sweathog. Especially when I'm carrying 40 lbs of gear up a mountain slope. And, to make matters worse, moments after climbing that slope I often have to stand still for up to several hours at. Hmmm...sounds like the perfect recipe for hypothermia. So, for me, cotton clothing is evil. I absolutely need clothing that wicks moisture away from my skin and dries quickly. Cotton doesn't do this - modern synthetics do.
2. I've never found good quality generic outdoor clothing that is inexpensive and performs well under reasonable abuse. Invariably, the products that end up working best for me come from one of three manufacturers: Arcteryx, Patagonia, or Icebreaker.
3. I'm a firm believer in the "layering" approach to outdoor wear.
So, without going into ridiculous detail about specific products (most of which will have different product names by next year anyway!) here's some general trends about what works for me:
Base (or inner) Layer (the stuff that goes next to my skin). No question here - the layer next to my skin is always made by Icebreaker and always made of merino wool. Other wools make me itch, but not Icebreaker's merino. Wool retains its ability to insulate when wet and doesn't retain odors the way synthetics do. One of my rules of life is "you can't have too Icebreaker."
Mid Layers (things like shirts, fleece tops, pants, etc.). A quick survey of my closet would show about equal quantities of Patagonia and Arcteryx products, with a smattering of selected Mountain Hardwear pieces.
Outer Layers. (jackets, parkas, rainwear, gaiters, etc.). For the last 2 years these purchases have been dominated by products by Acrteryx. Their stuff is simply top-notch. Cheap? NOPE. But when you're on top of a mountain in a snowstorm or fighting a gale in a Zodiac, you don't care about price - you care about being warm and dry!