Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Augment your DSLR and high-quality lenses with some key equipment that will help you take your photos to the next level
We just can't overstate the importance of keeping your lens and your sensor clean. There's nothing worse than getting back to your home base and discovering that the perfect shot you got in the field is plagued by dust spots. Most pros are absolutely obsessive about keeping their lenses, filters and sensors clean, yet many amateurs take a much more cavalier attitude. Dust spots on the sensor are bad enough, but dust, hair or tiny smudges on the lens or filter can be even more insidious. They rob you of sharpness and contrast, and they can result in flaws that can't be fixed after the fact.
Two items that you'll see in just about every pro's bag are a fine brush and a small blower. The LensPen (www.lenspen.com) has a brush on one end and a gentle cleaning pad on the other. Like the name implies, it's about the size of a Sharpie® and it's indispensable in the field. There are a number of excellent blowers on the market from companies like VisibleDust (www.visibledust.com), Giottos (www.hpmarketingcorp.com) and more. Take care to hold your camera or lens so that dislodged contaminants will fall away from the camera!
Being in the right place at the right time is the first step in creating any great nature photograph. In this high-tech age, there are software solutions that can help you to accurately predict weather conditions in a favorite location, and there are topo maps and almanacs that you can use to visualize terrain and locations for sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset. The Photographer's Ephemeris (photoephemeris.com) puts all of these tools in a single package that was originally conceived specifically for outdoor photographers. TPE is map-centric software whose real strength is that it actually shows you how the light will fall on the landscape anywhere on the planet on any day. This is fundamentally different from most almanacs, which just give you coordinates for where the sun or moon will be at a given time. TPE is a wonderful tool that will help you to maximize your time in a location. It's available as a free download for desktop computers, as an iOS app via the App Store and in an Android version via Google Play. You can use it to determine the best time and date to photograph specific landscapes and cityscapes by natural light.
If you've ever wished your shoe-mount flash unit had more power, a Fresnel-based flash extender is just what you need. A standard flash unit spreads its light to cover a wide-angle lens' angle of view. When you're shooting with a long lens, you don't need such wide coverage. The Fresnel unit concentrates the flash beam to cover the angle of view of a 300mm supertelephoto, and thus extends the flash unit's range (by about two stops). Fresnel-based flash extenders are great for adding catchlights to wildlife subjects' eyes, as well as providing fill-in for backlit shots. TTL flash control operates as it would without the extender. Experiment with your camera's flash exposure compensation to find the flash ratio(s) that you like best. The low-cost Visual Echoes Better Beamer Flash X-Tender (www.visualechoesinc.com) comes in models to fit many popular shoe-mount flash units, all of which break down flat for easy transport.
Natural light is wonderful, but not always where you want it. You can use a reflector to put light on a close-by subject that isn't getting enough. Reflectors are especially handy for flowers and insects, and small critters like lizards. Professional movie crews use reflectors to supplement existing light on a regular basis, but pro reflectors are bulky and costly. The Flashpoint 5-in-1 Collapsible Disc Reflector (www.adorama.com) is inexpensive and versatile, collapses down to compact size and comes with a handy carrying bag. It includes a white surface for soft light, a silver surface for stronger fill light, a gold surface for warmer fill, a translucent surface that softens direct sunlight and a black surface that can be used to block sunlight from areas where you don't want it (a distracting background, for instance).
While nature photographers often want to maximize depth of field, sometimes minimizing depth of field is desirable. For example, you can shoot a close-up with the lens wide open to direct the viewer's attention to a specific portion of the subject by blurring the rest. But in very bright light, your camera may not have a fast enough shutter speed to allow shooting wide open. Conversely, sometimes you'll want to use a long exposure time, to blur moving water, for example. In bright light, you may not be able to stop down far enough to use such a long exposure time, even at your camera's lowest ISO setting (not to forget that stopping the lens all the way down can reduce image sharpness due to diffraction, and using a camera's expanded ISO settings—whether higher or lower than the normal range—can also reduce image quality).
The solution in both cases is a neutral-density (ND) filter. An ND filter reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor without otherwise altering it. ND filters are available in a number of strengths, from 1/3-stop to 10 stops or more. But buying and carrying a complete set is costly and awkward. Variable ND filters provide a range of strengths in a single filter: Just rotate the ring until you have the strength you want. For example, the B+W XS-Pro Digital Variable MRC nano filter (www.schneideroptics.com) provides 1 to 5 stops of neutral density, the Heliopan Vario Gray ND filter (www.hpmarketingcorp.com), 1 to 6 stops, and the Kenko Variable NDX neutral-density filter (www.kenkotokinausa.com), 1.3 to 10 stops.
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