|The Gura Gear Bataflae loaded up for a day of long-lens work.|
When you're going into the field for a day of wildlife or sports-action photography, evaluate what to bring along. Sure, it would be great to have all of your gear with you, but that's probably not realistic and it can be really heavy. You'll be weighted down physically, as well as creatively. Limiting your equipment is a great way to stay focused, and when you're focused, you can think more creatively without becoming distracted by the myriad other possibilities that may present themselves. For some, this sounds counterintuitive, but many great photographers would work with a single camera and a single prime lens intentionally for just this reason. You'll start to "see" with that lens in mind, whereas if you have every focal length from 20mm to 400mm with you, it can overwhelm you. So for a day in the field with a long lens, here are some thoughts about what to bring and what to leave at home.
The Long Lens. You want to have your big telephoto with you, obviously. Whether it's a super-pro 400mm ƒ/4 prime or one of the extreme telezooms that we spotlight in "Gadget Bag" in this issue of OP, this will be your primary tool for the day. If won't be moving around a lot, you can opt to place the lens and DSLR on a monopod or tripod and carry it over your shoulder and leave the big camera bag in the car. If you'll be moving around, though, you'll want to carry the lens in a photo backpack that can accommodate it and keep it accessible.
The Sort-Of Long Lens. We mentioned that limiting your array of lenses can keep you focused in the field. When it comes to wildlife and sports, you can sometimes find yourself over-lensed, particularly if you're using a long prime. It's a good problem to have when the action is happening so close that you can't frame a good shot with the big tele. Because we should all hope to be so lucky, your 70-200mm is an ideal lens to have in the bag. It will add some weight, but you'll be ready should the action come fortuitously close.
Monopod. The convenience of a monopod can't be overstated. They're light and versatile, and make it easy to change composition on the fly while still keeping your rig steady. We prefer monopods in many situations, but they do have the drawback of not allowing you to leave them unattended.
Tripod. Even in an age of in-camera and in-lens image stabilization, nothing beats a sturdy tripod with a good head on it. For long-lens work, be sure your tripod is rated to support the weight of the rig with the heavy lens. Tripods aren't as light and maneuverable as monopods, but they have the advantage of being self-supporting so you can leave your rig set up and ready to shoot without having to hold it up.
Heads. Ballheads will work, but a gimbal head is usually a better choice for long-lens work. They stay balanced, and with a little practice, you can maneuver them very fast. If you're shooting from a monopod, consider using a video head. A video head wants to go back to its straight-up position. That self-centering keeps your rig from moving unpredictably, which can happen if you're using a ballhead and you don't have the drag set well.
Lens Cloth. A good, clean microfiber lens cloth should always be in your bag. Don't just cut apart cheap Costco microfiber cloths and use them on your lens surfaces. Use a proper lens cloth that won't scratch your optics. When the cloth gets too dirty to use, you can clean it with a mild solution of vinegar and water (be sure to thoroughly rinse the cloth afterward!), or simply replace it. Don't wash the cloth in the laundry with other clothes because you risk leaving detergent in the fibers and lint will be a problem.
Waterproof Fabric. A 1x1-foot piece of waterproof cloth is ideal for kneeling on when the ground is damp. You'll stay dry and comfortable, which means you'll be able to concentrate on shooting rather than thinking about your knees feeling so wet and cold.
Polarizer. Because you'll be moving the camera a lot, you need to pay particular attention to the effect in the viewfinder, but a polarizer is still a must-have in the bag.
Flash. From the distances at which you'll be shooting, most flash units won't do much to illuminate the subject, but they're still useful for creating a catchlight in the eye. This is particularly effective in low light, but don't overdo it. A catchlight adds life and dimension to an animal, but if you can see the illumination in foreground objects, the photo can look pretty terrible. Always be sensitive to stressing an animal with artificial flash.
Other Stuff. If your lens doesn't come with a tripod collar, get one. It will keep your rig balanced, reduce fatigue and prevent stress on the lens-DSLR mount. Duct tape can fix anything, but when it comes to photo gear, a roll of grip tape is a better choice. We can't even list all of the reasons why you should have it with you. Just do it. Even in an age of smartphones and Evernote, a small note pad and a pen are useful to have with you. Copies of a model release are good to bring in case you ever want to try to sell a photo. Reduce camera vibration with mirror lockup and a remote shutter release. Make it a release with an intervalometer, and you'll be ready to shoot time-lapse if the opportunity arises.