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A ballhead is the most popular type for landscape photography because it lets you position the camera as you wish, then lock it there with a twist of a knob. Three-way pan-tilt heads let you control movement around three axes individually, but take longer to put the camera in position and are better suited for studio work. Bird-in-flight specialists like gimbal heads, which support the camera and supertele lens, but let you track quick- and erratically moving subjects, something you can’t do with other head types.
The best ballheads operate smoothly, and securely lock the camera and lens into position with no creep. A large-diameter ball provides sturdier support. It’s definitely better to get a ballhead that’s too strong than one that’s too weak. The Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 (rodklukas.com) can support up to 130 pounds, and features an elliptical rather than a spherical ball to help counter the effects of gravity as you position a camera off-center. It also comes with an Arca-Swiss quick release, and uses the popular and versatile Arca-Swiss mounting plates. You attach the plate to the camera’s tripod socket, then can quickly lock the plate (and camera) onto the head, or remove it for handheld shooting.
Small LEDs For Video And Macro
Serious macro photographers frequently use electronic flash to get a lively looking image or to bring the subject out from a busy background, but if you’re capturing some motion, macro flash isn’t an option. You’ll need a continuous light source. A good still-and-video solution is an LED light. These lightweight LED arrays fit easily into your bag, they’re simple to use, and they have rheostats that give you precise control over their output. Beyond macro and video, compact LEDs also make good tools for adding a little foreground fill light to a big landscape scene, and you even can use one for experimenting with light painting at night.
Litepanels (www.litepanels.com) offers a variety of LED lights that mount on the camera (or a light stand, or can be handheld) and put out cool, daylight-balanced light that’s flicker-free at any frame rate or shutter angle. They can be powered by AA batteries or AC, and there’s no color shift when dimmed from 100% power.
Technology has made it easy to create panoramas. Many Sony cameras have built-in Sweep Panorama modes, which automatically stitch a series of images together, and Photoshop’s Photomerge feature enables you to stitch a series of individual frames together quickly while still giving you control. The key to making the best use of any postproduction stitching feature is to start with good individual frames. Using a panorama attachment on your ballhead takes it to the next level by incorporating considerable precision at the point of capture. The Really Right Stuff Pano Elements Package (reallyrightstuff.com) consists of a PCL-1 Panning Clamp and an MPR-CL II Nodal Slide. Used together, you’ll be shooting on a level platform and rotating the camera around your lens’ nodal point.
Portable Audio Recorder
The microphones built into DSLRs and mirrorless digital cameras can pick up the sounds of the camera, and the audio quality isn’t the best. A good way to avoid this problem is to use a portable audio recorder to record sound: You’ll get better-quality sound, free of camera noise. The Zoom H6n Handy Recorder (www.zoom-na.com) features an interchangeable mic system, with up to six channels of simultaneous recording and over 20 hours of operation with 4 AA batteries. It delivers high-definition stereo audio up to 24-bit/96 kHz, and supports SDXC memory cards up to 128 GB. There’s an optional hot-shoe mount to attach it to an HDSLR.
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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!
The Photographer’s Ephemeris
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).
From top to bottom: Kenko Variable NDX, B+W XS-Pro Digital Variable MRC, Heliopan Vario Gray ND.
Variable ND Filter
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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An intervalometer automatically fires the camera at preset intervals, handy for time-lapse sequences. You choose the desired interval and the starting and ending time, and the intervalometer does the rest. Some cameras have intervalometers built in; for others, you can use an external intervalometer. The Hähnel Giga T Pro 2 (www.rtsphoto.com) combines an intervalometer with remote-release capability, allowing you to control multiple cameras. Especially with wildlife, being able to fire the camera(s) wirelessly from a hidden spot can give you an edge. The intervalometer automates sequences of flowers blooming or the travel of light and shadow across a scene during the day; the remote lets you fire the camera at the decisive moment from a distance.
A tripod can hold your camera steadily, but it’s hard to cart around and can’t always position your camera just where you want it. A simple beanbag can be used to support the camera in the neck of a tree or just about anywhere, and is much easier to tote, especially if you just take the bag and fill it on location. THE pod supports (thepod.ca) are simple, high-quality beanbags that have a standard ¼-inch mounting bolt built in. They come in five different models to suit just about any type of camera, and are great for ground-level shooting as well as supporting the camera where a tripod can’t go. Higher-end pods come with straps to hold the camera or pod in place.
The ability of smartphones to act as navigators can lead one into a false sense of security on a remote trail. You might have an app that calls itself a GPS, but your smartphone operates in a fundamentally different way than a true GPS. When you get out of range of cell towers, the smartphone actually has no connection to civilization while a handheld GPS unit communicates with an elaborate satellite system. The GPS maintains line-of-sight connections with a number of satellites at any given moment, and as long as you’re not in a cave, you can probably maintain a signal. Also, compared to a smartphone, the GPS is very efficient with its battery. When your smartphone loses a signal, it actually begins to drain the battery rapidly as the phone constantly reaches out to try to reacquire it. And if you’re relying on your phone to navigate in the wild, you can find that it’s not only lost, but its charge is fading fast. GPS units have become much more user-friendly over the past few years. Taking some cues from the smartphone arena, the Garmin Oregon 650t (www.garmin.com) incorporates a full-color touch screen, and it’s preloaded with TOPO U.S. 100K maps. The Oregon 650t also takes a rechargeable NiMH battery pack or AA batteries.
A simple extension tube enables your normal lens to focus at macro distances. Attach the tube to the camera and the lens to the tube, and you’re ready to go. Most tubes maintain the camera’s TTL metering and autofocusing capabilities, although many close-up photographers prefer to use manual-focusing mode and focus by moving the camera closer to or farther from the subject. You can combine tubes to get more extension and greater magnification. Keep in mind that the lens won’t focus out to infinity when you’re using an extension tube, and the extension reduces the amount of light transmitted to the sensor (TTL metering automatically compensates for this). Note that while teleconverters contain optical elements and slightly degrade image quality, extension tubes contain no elements—they’re just tubes—and thus don’t degrade image quality. The Kenko DG Auto Extension Tube Set (www.kenkotokinausa.com) provides three tubes—12mm, 20mm and 36mm in length—and retains TTL metering and AF (when light is bright enough).
In some cases, your car can serve as an effective “blind,” allowing you to photograph wildlife that would flee (or attack) if you were out in the open. Working from your vehicle also provides you with comfort in adverse weather, and you don’t have to leave gear behind because it’s too much to carry in a bag or backpack. A window bracket provides a sturdy mount for your camera during such shooting. Most are made of metal, but the Berlebach Wooden Car Window Camera/Scope Mounts (www.hpmarketingcorp.com) are made of wood like the company’s tripods. Wood is easier to deal with in very hot or very cold weather, and absorbs vibrations well. Both the standard and large mounts can support up to 22 pounds. You can mount the camera directly to the mount via the ¼-inch screw, or mount a tripod head and then attach the camera to that.