Beyond camera and lenses, what photo accessories and tools do nature photographers need to carry in order to be prepared for a variety of likely subjects and situations? There’s so much cool stuff out there, but bag space and back strength have their limits! Here we’ll discuss some of the tools that I regularly employ in the field. And while we’ll share the brand names of specific products I carry, other manufacturers may offer goods that accomplish the same things. (Note that we don’t receive payment from any of these suppliers, but some do furnish equipment for testing.)
Neutral Density Filters
Neutral density (ND) filters reduce the light that enters the lens, allowing the photographer to employ capture settings that would not otherwise be possible. The most common use is in photographing falling or moving water; reducing light allows a lengthened exposure that renders the water silky smooth and emphasizes movement. I carry filters of two densities for this purpose. A five-stop ND is used most often, as my favorite shutter speeds for water are 1/8 to 1/2 second. But there are times when the water is very brightly lit and more light-filtering is needed to achieve the lengthened exposure; then the 10-stop ND becomes useful.
For really long exposures on a bright day, add a 15-stop ND filter to the bag. Let’s say we have people walking around in our scene. A single exposure of many seconds can actually erase them as they move about, eliminating lots of post-capture work in Photoshop! Think of the 15-stop filter as one that helps to achieve long exposures for special effects, such as recording the movement of clouds through a landscape in a single capture.
Oh, and one more! I sometimes carry a variable ND filter that can be precisely adjusted from two to eight stops in order to achieve the desired shutter speed and aperture. However, the variable ND filter is not suitable for use on lenses over 200mm. It is comprised of two polarizing filters that are rotated in front of each other, and when that much glass is put in front of a telephoto lens, sharpness will be lost. For longer focal lengths, a single ND filter is usually a sharper alternative, even if it isn’t as easy to use as a variable one.
ND filters now have another use, and that is for video. It is desirable to have a shutter speed of around 1/60th second when shooting at 30 frames per second (FPS) and 1/125th second at 60 FPS. This gives a smoother look to the video. On a bright day, it’s not possible to attain those speeds when using a large lens aperture for shallow depth of field without the addition of an ND filter. Note that when shooting video with frame grabs in mind, much higher shutter speeds are necessary, so the ND filter would not be used.
My personal choice for ND and polarizing filters is Singh-Ray (singh-ray.com). I’ve worked with them for many years and tested the ND filters for clarity and color.
Some 35 years ago, I began to experiment with Fresnel lenses and flashes to better concentrate light output on the subject. The Fresnel lenses I used then were the plastic kind you’d find in a bookstore to magnify the text on a page. A plastic bottle with a height equal to the focal length of the Fresnel lens was modified to hold the lens and fit over the flash. Soon, my son Torrey and I designed a more efficient product and began to manufacture the Project-A-Flash. The apparatus was still a bit bulky; when Walt Anderson developed the Better Beamer, a projected flash that folded down to fit easily into a camera pack, I transitioned to it.
Recently, a participant at one of my seminars introduced me to a new projected flash called the MagBeam from MagMod (magnetmod.com). The MagBeam is a lightweight, collapsible rubber unit that holds the Fresnel lens in place. It attaches magnetically to the flash head via a separate elastic mount that stays in place to allow quick access. Like the Better Beamer, the MagBeam will gain approximately three stops of light when using a telephoto lens of at least a 200mm focal length, although it isn’t actually achieving more power, but rather gathering and focusing the light to the area that the lens sees. This is a great tool for bird and wildlife photography, either as fill flash or as the only light source in dark environments. The best way to purchase the MagBeam is in the MagBeam Wildlife Kit configuration ($74).
Remote Shutter Releases
Remote releases—whether hard-wired cables or wireless transmitters—allow the photographer to fire the camera without physically touching it. The remote release is one of several techniques I use to eliminate camera movement/vibration when working with long lenses, long exposures or multiple exposures. Cable versions include a simple, short connection with a button that closes the circuit and fires the camera, or a more complex unit that allows the camera to be programmed to take time-lapse images (intervalometer), long exposures that exceed the 30 seconds found on most cameras, or to fire the camera sometime in the future.
Wireless units (either built-in or accessories) use a radio or infrared beam to communicate with a hand-held remote device from which the photographer programs and fires the camera. The least-expensive option is the built-in version, which I use in the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, coupled with an app on my iPhone or iPad. For other bodies, the camera manufacturers offer rather expensive after-market WiFi options, but I often use a relatively inexpensive wireless unit called the Phottix Aion (phottix.com), about $95 online. It has all the functions of the complex cabled units plus multiple firing for HDR. The radio range is nearly 200 feet.
For more complex situations, I use the CamRanger (camranger.com) to monitor and remotely fire the camera. The CamRanger is a WiFi transmitter that attaches to the camera and sends an ad hoc WiFi signal to a tablet or smartphone that is running the CamRanger app, which enables sophisticated still and video capture options, including precise focusing from as far as 150 feet away. This is by far the best way to monitor and fire a camera without touching it, but at $300, it’s not the least expensive route to remote capture.
We’ve mentioned the Hoodloupe (hoodmanusa.com) in these pages a number of times because it really is an important tool. On a bright day, you can’t see the LCD on the back of a DSLR to make evaluations in Live View or read camera menus. If you are shooting video, you need to be looking at the LCD for focus and framing, and without an LCD loupe, this is not possible. The standard Hoodloupe is $90, and a mounting device to keep it in place for video will run another $19 (Cinema Strap) to $40 (HoodCrane).
I always carry a tripod, whether it’s a medium weight for long lenses and video, or a travel version that might not be quite as robust but will do the job in reasonable conditions (no wind). Lately I’ve been using a monopod more often because I’ve been working in locations where tripods aren’t allowed, or I need help with hand-holding long lenses where a tripod isn’t practical. A monopod will also steady a DSLR that is being used for video when a tripod with a fluid head can’t be used, as in this example of 4K video captured in low light at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (vimeo.com/192847679). The monopod and lens image stabilization did a pretty good job.
I’ve used the monopod when shooting from ships, where a tripod would have transferred the engine vibration, and from kayaks to relieve the weight of the camera and long lens over extended periods of time. Be sure you get a monopod that collapses enough so that you can use it sitting down and that has a head that pivots to change the angle of the camera—a ball head on a monopod is too much movement.