Good photography requires creativity and imagination. You also need the right tools to translate your vision to that final print. But like any art, there isn't one perfect tool. Just as there's diversity in nature, a variety of cameras, lenses and printers are available to help transform the snap of the shutter into your final image.
Different photographic needs mean some equipment features are more important than others. We'll examine those qualities to give you an idea about what to consider so you can maximize your gadget bag. Realize, though, that we don't have the space to show every product that fits these criteria, so consider the images only as illustrations of the concepts.
Whether you're shooting digital or film, we think you'll find information that will help you make the most of your creative time in the outdoors, regardless of how much you spend or carry.
Camera>> A high-performance camera is more than its resolution or price tag. It's a product that provides rugged construction along with features geared for photographers who push their cameras and themselves to the limit. Such cameras often include a continuous firing rate of 4.5 fps and higher, mirror lock-up, a built-in vertical shutter release button, advanced multi-pattern metering and the ability to be controlled remotely via a computer. These cameras also have improved seals against moisture and dust for reliable performance under harsh environmental conditions.
Lenses>> Professional and serious photographers often shoot in less than ideal lighting conditions, so their lenses must deliver superior image quality even under demanding circumstances. Along with a fast constant aperture for low-light shooting, these lenses also feature advanced optical designs, which may include multiple low-dispersion glass elements to reduce chromatic aberrations as well as several aspherical elements to eliminate distortions and reduce the weight of the lens.
Tripods>> A good tripod achieves a balance between rigidity and portability. The legs and the head should solidly hold the heaviest lens and camera that you intend to use. Carbon-fiber tripods are lightweight and deliver the stability needed for handling heavy photographic gear. While height is important, you also should consider how low the tripod can be positioned and whether it includes a reversible center column. Both features help greatly for close-up work.
Filters>> Whether shooting digital or film, your ability to control light means more than just a correct exposure. The difference between the highlights and shadows of a scene can be more than any film or sensor can capture, so a graduated neutral-density filter is important to maintain those essential details within a single frame. A polarizing filter eliminates glare and reflections, which can reduce an image's contrast and color saturation. Both filters will help ensure that the image created in the camera is the best that it can be.
Printers>> Capable of producing prints of 13x19 inches and larger, large-format printers deliver incredible color accuracy and tonal range, while also providing lightfastness that rivals or outperforms traditional printmaking. With the ability to create a print on virtually any surface material, such printers are indispensable for creating works of art from your favorite images. Although these printers are large, their oversized output offers a great way to show off your best work.
Papers>> The paper on which you choose to print will make a huge difference in the look of your images. Color saturation and contrast of a print, even produced from the same image file, can take on a much different appearance on different papers. Beyond a choice between matte or glossy, special rag, linen and watercolor papers can transform a great photograph into something even more special. Many papers also can take advantage of the high-fade resistance of today's inks, ensuring that the prints last a lifetime and even longer.
Monitor Calibration>> The frustration of not having your prints match your monitor is a common one. Yet it's a problem that's easily remedied by calibrating your CRT or LCD monitor. Using a colorimeter that attaches to the screen and software that walks you through the process, you can ensure that the color and tone changes you make to your image are represented accurately on the screen. Basic systems provide sufficient color calibration for output to inkjet printers. For higher-end printing, including four-color presses, more advanced versions with greater custom controls are available.
Software>> When it comes to high-end image-editing software, the benchmark is Adobe Photoshop CS2. With the capability to handle 16-bit files, RAW file processing, full color management, advanced layering and masking tools, and customization of your entire digital workflow, this is the title by which everything else is measured. Although Photoshop involves a steep learning curve, the results make such efforts worthwhile.
Camera>> Low- to mid-range digital SLRs offer the benefit of a smaller camera packed with advanced features. For a photographer who prefers a camera with a smaller profile, such models weigh significantly less than their pro siblings. In addition to including many high-end features, they offer some not found in professional SLRs, including a built-in flash. These cameras often have focusing and metering systems that handle even the most difficult shooting situations.
Lenses>> A couple of zoom lenses can provide a complete range of focal lengths. A wide-angle zoom, such as a 24-70mm, complemented with a moderate telephoto, such as a 70-300mm, allow you sufficient coverage for photographing travel, landscapes and close-ups. If you're photographing wildlife, you should consider a telephoto zoom lens that has a minimum focal length of 300mm.
Tripods>> Even if your gear isn't heavy, a solid tripod is still necessary to ensure a sharp photograph. Metal tripods, including those made from aluminum alloy, provide a firm platform for your camera and lens. Although some models aren't as light as carbon-fiber models, they come in a wide variety of styles and features that can fit virtually any budget.
Filters>> If you only own one filter, it should be a polarizing filter. Glare and reflections can ruin a wonderful photograph by reducing color saturation and contrast. By simply rotating a ring on the filter, the unwanted glare is eliminated. If you use wide-angle lenses, choose a polarizer with a thin filter ring to reduce the chance of vignetting.
Printers>> While printing often involves the computer, there are many printers that make it easy to produce prints directly from the camera. Built-in media slots, USB connectivity and support of PictBridge technology make it easy to produce quality prints in minutes. Although it can be fun to edit an image on the computer, it's sometimes more important to create a simple print as quickly and easily as possible. These printers allow you to do just that.
Papers>> What's exciting about inkjet printing is the variety of paper choices available. Even with similar paper surfaces, such as glossy or matte, there's diversity in whiteness and weight. Differences in whiteness can result in cooler or warmer prints that can be pleasing for both color and black-and-white prints. Sometimes, a preferred look can be achieved by the choice of paper, rather than exhaustive adjustments to the images within your image-editing software.
Monitor Calibration>> See the paragraph under Full Package.
Software>> Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 and Corel Paint Shop Pro 9 offer full-featured image-editing programs at an affordable price. While including advanced features such as layers, masks and unlimited undos, these software titles also are designed to make workflow as easy as possible. They can provide image enhancements that include preview windows and simple user interfaces.
Cameras>> When you need to go light, a compact digital camera often can be preferable to a large SLR. Its compact size and weight make it not only easy to transport and store, but it also lets you be unobtrusive, especially when traveling. With excellent optics and metering, these cameras deliver photographs that are comparable to those created by an SLR. In fact, the optical zooms of many of these compact models provide ranges beyond what many photographers have available in their standard camera bag.
Lenses>> Auxiliary lenses that attach to the existing lenses of compact digital cameras expand your creative possibilities. When attached to your camera's native optics, these lenses provide wide and telephoto focal lengths while ensuring good contrast and color accuracy. These lenses are very small and light because they contain only glass and a mount rather than CPUs, gears and motors.
Tripods>> All cameras used in the field can benefit from the use of a tripod. Mini-tripods and monopods offer a portable and lightweight solution. Although there will be times when carrying a tripod just isn't viable, rather than missing the shot, you quickly can pull out a mini-tripod to ensure you return home with a sharp, beautiful photograph. Carbon-fiber tripods of a small size can be a great choice when trying to keep things light.
Printers>> Just because you're traveling doesn't mean that you have to wait until you get home to actually print your pictures. Compact thermal dye transfer and inkjet printers offer an easy and convenient way to produce 4x6-, 5x7- or even 8x10-inch prints to share with your fellow photographers and family. Connected to the printer using a USB cable, the cameras may allow you to make minor image adjustments for contrast and cropping. Using the right paper stock, you even can create your own personalized postcards.
Portable Power>> If you expect to be out in the field for a while, power is important. Chargers such as the Brunton SolarRoll allow you to recharge not only camera batteries, but also any rechargeable device, including a GPS receiver, cell phone or laptop computer. If your devices use AA-sized batteries, invest in NiMH cells, which provide the best performance for high-drain devices such as digital cameras.