Our Favorite Photo Tools

Double Bubble Level • Wet Protection • Projected Flash LCD Viewers • Lightning Triggers • GPS • Apps

To maintain a straight composition in a composite panorama, the camera and tripod must be level. This can be assured by using a bubble level for the camera and a leveling base for the tripod legs. This panorama of aspens on the Grand Mesa of Colorado was taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a Canon 100-400mm lens. A Hoodman HoodLoupe 3.0 was used to check the critical focus on the LCD.

If you read this column regularly, you know I love tech “tools.” Sometimes my wife Kathy calls them “toys,” but maybe she’s just kidding. To incorporate both perspectives, we teamed up for this column to choose some of the essential accessories outdoor photographers really need to help them stay safe in the field and get the images they want. We’ll start with the simplest and least expensive items, and escalate from there.

Double Bubble Level
This low-tech accessory that helps me to find and keep a level horizon has been my constant companion for years, and with panoramas and video pans, it’s more important than ever. The two-axis bubble level slides into the camera’s hot-shoe and displays your horizontal and vertical alignment. It’s important to keep your tripod level, too, so if yours doesn’t have a built-in level, you may want to invest in Really Right Stuff’s (www.reallyrightstuff.com) BH40-LVL or BH55-LVL plate ($45) to assist you in leveling your tripod before you level your camera.

Wet Protection
When rain falls on your parade, you need protection for your gear. I always carry at least one lightweight, inexpensive, heavy-duty compactor bag for emergencies. But you can get more serious. Recently, I packed a Camera Duck All Weather Cover (www.cameraduck.com) Standard (SLRB) with an optional telephoto sleeve (ASLR1B) in my bag and headed off to Africa. The last stop on the trip was Victoria Falls, which at high water is like a tropical downpour. I worked the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV from within the Camera Duck, and the only problem was continuously cleaning the water off the front element of the lens. After the dowsing, the camera was dry, so the Camera Duck passed the test in the worst of conditions.

Projected Flash
Sometimes you need flash and you need it way out there, especially with wildlife subjects, whether you’re trying to capture flying birds or light up the mouth of a yawning lion. I always carry a projected flash system that uses a Fresnel lens to concentrate the light, gaining about three ƒ-stops and ex-
tending effectiveness up to 100 feet, depending on the power of the flash, ƒ-stop and ISO being used. The Better Beamer (www.naturescapes.net/store/visual-echoes) fits many flashes and positions the Fresnel lens at the right focal length. As a bonus, it folds up into a small package so you’ll be more apt to bring it along.

LCD Viewers
If you could only see it, you’d find a lot of useful information displayed on your camera’s LCD screen. The main problem is daylight glare and brightness that washes out the image on the screen. The answer is to carry a loupe that covers the LCD screen and allows you to view the images, image data and settings displayed there. Even better, you can use the loupe to focus the camera while capturing DSLR HD video and when using Live View. The best loupe for the money and the one I carry everywhere, hanging from a cord around my neck, is the Hoodman HoodLoupe 3.0 ($79, www.hoodmanusa.com); it offers a sharp, slightly magnified view of the LCD and allows you to focus up to 10x. If you’re doing DSLR video, you need the HoodCrane ($79 for the Crane only; you’ll also need the Loupe). It’s a great tool that allows you to switch between shooting video and stills in a second, which is, after all, what DSLR HD video capability is supposed to be all about.

Lightning Triggers
You can skip this one if you live where lightning never strikes and you don’t care about photographing it when you travel. But most of us are fascinated by lightning and the challenge of capturing strikes.
I’ve been using the Lightning Trigger (www.lightningtrigger.com) to capture lightning in the daytime and at night for about 10 years with excellent results. The unit attaches to the camera’s hot-shoe and connects into the remote port via a supplied cable. The pulse of energy from the lightning fires the camera and captures the bolt. At $329, this isn’t an inexpensive tool. A new entry into lightning capture is Aeo Photo with a couple of different units (www.aeophoto.com). I haven’t tried them yet, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities of one that fires the camera when it senses lightning or motion.

Last time out, Kathy and I carried five GPS-capable tools between the two of us, a proliferation I’m willing to admit may be excessive. We strongly recommend these potential lifesavers to anyone—photographers, hikers, fishermen—who regularly venture outside the range of a cell tower, because in addition to telling you where you are, they tell designated others where you are. When I’m on the road alone, Kathy can log into the tracking site from home and watch my progress on a Google map, even if we can’t connect by cell phone. The afternoon I sliced a tire on a particularly rough Rocky Mountain four-wheel-drive road, she could see I was stuck in the same spot for a couple of hours. “Great photo op or breakdown?” she wondered. I sent a quick message: “I’m OK.”

The folks at Spot (their trademark: Live To Tell About It™) offer a variety of satellite tracker options for outdoors people, all of which require at least a $99/year service plan and additional costs for more functions, such as evacuation insurance (www.findmespot.com). The simplest tracker is the Spot Personal Tracker. It costs around $99 and lets you send three preprogrammed messages (I’m OK, Send Help, or SOS/911), and also offers progress tracking. The Spot Connect ($169) turns your iPhone or Android phone into a satellite communicator when you have no cell service. The phone, using a free app, allows the user to choose from among several predetermined messages (I’m OK, Just checking in, or SEND RESCUE) or 41- character custom notes.

More sophisticated (and more expensive, at $450) is the model we use, the DeLorme (www.delorme.com) Earthmate PN-60w GPS with the Spot Satellite Communicator. You not only have a GPS trail map in the handheld unit, but also a satellite transmitter that can send out an SOS and/or unique typed messages of 41 characters, e.g., “Found injured snake. Bringing it home.” Unfortunately, there’s no answer-back capability. And you even can share your adventures in real time with your friends on Twitter or Facebook, who can track you on Google Earth if they have nothing else to do.

iPhone And iPad Apps
I’ve found a number of apps that are useful for photography.

Sky Trackers. Darkness, VisiMoon, Sunrise and Helios are Apple iPhone apps that will give times and location for sun and moon positions. Presumably, it’s no longer necessary to spend several nights on location to figure out where to set up for perfect positioning of landscapes at sunrise or moonset.

Nature Reference. Once I carried an entire library of reference books in my van. Now I use iPhone apps to identify plants and birds. I have the Audubon Series apps, iBird and Peterson’s Backyard Birds on my iPhone. Before a recent trip to southern Africa, I downloaded two guidebooks on wildlife of the region so I could ID subjects in the field.

Travel. In addition to apps that help with travel logistics by following flights and locating lodging and lattes, there are a number of photo location guidebooks available in the Apple App Store (I’m sure many of these are also available for the Android). Examples from our iPhones include California Photo Scout, Photographing Yosemite Digital Field Guide and Rocky Mountain National Park by Travel Photo Guides, which offers apps for Yellowstone and the Smokies as well.

Weather. The go-to weather app is The Weather Channel. Maps and radar locate storm centers and directions, with frequent updates to keep you shooting until the last minute and get you out of an area ahead of dangerous weather.

There’s More! We use the iPhone for voice memos, taking notes, snapping and sending quick photos, and recording interviews. You also can use the screen as a flashlight (hope your battery lasts), carry all your contact info, and even make a phone call! The iPad offers many of the same functions, but on a larger screen. We get all of our magazines (including Outdoor Photographer and Digital Photo) on the iPad.

The Changing Landscape Of Tech Tools
So that’s our list of “can’t-do-without” accessories for outdoor photographers. Of course, one of the best (and worst) things about tech tools is that they’re constantly being improved and updated, so who can say what we’ll recommend next year? Stay tuned.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit www.georgelepp.com. If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at www.georgelepp.com.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.