Nature Photography Tools - Basic Kit
Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 02-12-2011
The following is a list of equipment I would consider a basic kit for nature photography. The list was derived from some of the photography tools we use when capturing and processing images for WildlifeSouth. Realize some folks specialize in specific areas within the nature photography spectrum and may not use all of these tools or may require additional equipment.
Just because the photography equipment listed here is referred to as a "basic kit" doesn't mean it's cheap. You may find you have to purchase the components separately over time to spread the costs.
While medium and large-format cameras may allow better control of perspective, depth of field, and image quality, they're generally more expensive, larger, and heavier than digital SLR cameras. Digital SLR cameras are easier to transport and thus offer better mobility while in the field. They are the most commonly used cameras for nature photography.
There are many manufacturers that produce digital SLR cameras, though there are only two major players: Canon and Nikon.
Realize once you invest in a camera from one of those two companies, you are locked in to that manufacturer's lens mount. You can't buy a Canon camera and expect to mount Nikon lenses or vice versa, the connections are different.
Features to consider when purchasing a digital SLR
- Sensor Format (size)
The sensor is the device on the camera that actually captures data when you click the shutter release. This data is transformed on your computer into a viewable image. Nikon offers two formats, an FX format (full frame) and a DX format (1.5x crop factor). Canon offers three formats, a full frame format, an APS-H format (1.3x crop factor), and an APS-C format (1.6x crop factor).
Full frame sensors provide the same angle of view as 35mm film cameras when used with lenses designed for 35mm film cameras. Most photographers who have a background in 35mm film photography believe full frame sensors superior to cropped sensors. A full frame sensor is generally considered to have better image quality and better high ISO performance.
Cropped sensors are smaller which translates to a tighter angle of view when used with lenses designed for 35mm cameras. Cropped sensors are cheaper to produce and the cost savings are reflected in the retail price. Cropped sensors also increase the perceived focal length of lenses designed for 35mm cameras. For instance a lens with a focal length of 500mm becomes a 750mm (1.5 x 500mm) when used with a Nikon DX format camera. This could be considered an advantage when shooting birds and other wildlife at a distance, but a disadvantage when trying to do wide angle landscapes.
Resolution is generally considered the amount of detail a camera is capable of capturing and is measured in pixels. The larger the resolution the more pixels are captured and the larger the file size. Though a somewhat simplistic explanation, for the most part this is what folks are thinking of when you mention camera resolution. The greater the megapixels the better the detail and print quality. Larger megapixel cameras allow for greater latitude during cropping.
- Low Light ISO Performance
The ISO speed is the sensitivity of the sensor to light; it is the digital equivalent to film speed. The higher you set the ISO, the less light is needed to make an exposure (the quicker the sensor captures the image). This allows higher shutter speeds for capturing action in low-light settings or smaller apertures for greater depth of field in low-light settings.
The problem with higher ISO speeds is the creation of artifacts called noise. Noise is random variations of brightness or color data within images. As you increase your ISO speed you also increase the noise generated. If you continue to increase the ISO speed there will be a point at which the image produced is unusable due to noise.
Full frame sensors usually have better low-light performance (higher signal-to-noise ratios) allowing you to use greater ISO settings before the image becomes visibly degraded. The resolution of a camera also factors into low-light performance. Higher resolution sensors typically produce more noise than their lower resolution counterparts. Realize sensor technology is constantly evolving producing greater signal-to-noise ratios on higher megapixel cameras.
DxOMark.com maintains a web page with sensor rankings for various camera models. One of the tabs (Sports) is specific to low-light performance. This is a great place to research low light ISO performance before purchasing a digital SLR.
- Auto Exposure Bracketing
Exposure bracketing is the procedure of taking a series of the same shot at different exposures. Typically this is done using a fixed aperture and adjusting the shutter speed to underexpose and overexpose the set of images.
Auto exposure bracketing is a feature on some camera models where the camera automatically adjusts the exposure for the next shot. You simply click the shutter release and the camera underexposes or overexposes each image for the exposure range you selected. Camera models vary on how they implement this feature. Some models only allow a series of 3 shots while others allow a series of up to 9 shots. The allowable change in exposure between shots also varies between camera models.
Exposure bracketing is useful if you're unsure of the exposure you want. You can also use bracketed images to blend exposures into a final composite image using layers within Photoshop. In addition, HDR photography requires images created from exposure bracketing to construct a finished (high dynamic range) photograph.
- Spot Metering
The metering mode determines how the camera interprets light and sets the exposure. Most cameras have some type of multi-zoned metering along with center-weighted average. Some cameras also provide a spot metering mode which allows the most control over exposure.
- Multi-zoned (Evaluative or Matrix)
With multi-zoned metering the camera measures the light intensity at several points within the scene and then calculates the results to find the settings for the best exposure. The algorithms used for the calculations vary depending on the make and model of the camera.
This is generally considered the standard (all purpose) metering mode.
- Center-weighted average
Center-weighted average meters the entire frame but the values at the center of the viewfinder receive more weight during the calculation for exposure.
Some consider this type of metering good for portraits.
- Spot metering
With spot metering the camera meters a very small area of the scene, usually less than 5% of the viewfinder area. This ensures the subject will be properly exposed regardless of whether the background is darker or lighter.
Spot metering is the most accurate of the metering modes and allows for the most control over exposure. It is not influenced by other areas within the frame.
Many photographers use spot metering even when they want the whole scene exposed correctly. Camera algorithms try to make the spot metered area a neutral tonality (not too bright, not too dark). With that knowledge you can use exposure compensation to properly set the exposure for the whole scene.
- Multi-zoned (Evaluative or Matrix)
- Mirror Lock-up
An SLR (single-lens reflex) camera involves the use of a mirror which allows a person to view directly through the lens. Your eyes are viewing exactly what the sensor will be exposed to when the shutter opens. When you press the shutter release button under normal operation, the mirror is flipped-up out of the way of the light path, the shutter opens to expose the sensor for the correct amount of time, then the shutter closes and the mirror falls back in place. The mirror slap from normal operation causes a slight vibration which could result in soft images.
Mirror lock-up is a feature some camera models have that allows the mirror to flip up well before the shutter opens, allowing the vibrations to settle down before the shutter exposes the sensor. Note that once the mirror is locked in the up position the subject is no longer visible through the viewfinder. Obviously using mirror lock-up while shooting action that requires panning the camera is not practical (if not darn near impossible) to do.
Some camera manuals suggest using mirror lock-up when using super telephoto lenses. Unfortunately many scenarios where a super telephoto lens is appropriate, such as bird photography, involve panning the camera to capture in-flight action or quickly adjusting the composition because the bird is moving from limb to limb. Mirror lock-up is not an option in these scenarios.
Most camera manuals suggest using mirror lock-up for close-ups. Some photographers suggest using mirror lock-up for landscape work too. You'll probably hear different opinions on how effective mirror lock-up is for landscapes depending on the length of the lens and shutter speed used. Personally, I try to use mirror lock-up on any still composition. Note that the camera must be mounted on a tripod for mirror-lock-up to be effective.
- Frame Rate (frames per second)
The frame rate is simply the number of images you can capture within the timeframe of one second. Frame rate is also referred to as the "continuous shooting" speed and measured in frames per second (FPS). Note that the length of time a camera can keep up a given frame rate is limited by the size of the buffer. Once the buffer fills the frame rate will decrease.
Frame rate is typically of interest to wildlife photographers shooting action shots. For instance a camera with a high number of FPS might be desirable for capturing birds-in-flight, the rutting behavior of deer or elk, or maybe getting the right framing on a dolphin jumping into the air. A frame rate of 6 FPS or higher is considered fast.
Typically landscape and macro work is not concerned with frame rate.
- Depth of Field Preview
When you look through your viewfinder you are viewing through the lens at its largest aperture (regardless of how you've set the aperture on the camera). The depth of field preview button lets you "preview" the image at the aperture you have selected.
The depth of field preview button temporarily stops the lens down to the chosen aperture so you can preview the depth of field (what's in focus). Because the chosen aperture may be small allowing less light, the viewfinder may get dim. It is important to let your eyes adjust for a moment so that you can see what's in the viewfinder.
What cameras am I currently using? I use a Canon 1D Mark II N (8 MP and 1.3x cropped sensor) and a Nikon D3s (12 MP with a full frame sensor). The Canon is no longer manufactured. Both are (were) considered high-end digital SLR cameras, but I will readily admit I consistently see photographs as good or better made with entry level cameras like the Canon Rebel. It's the photographer behind the camera and not the equipment that makes an image interesting.
Lenses 16mm - 200mm
Most nature photographers consider focal lengths of 16mm or 17mm through 200mm to be a basic lens kit for a full frame camera sensor. Assuming 50mm is a "normal" or "standard" angle of view, then the focal lengths below 50mm are considered wide-angle and the focal lengths above 50mm are considered short-range telephoto. A lens kit covering 16mm - 200mm will cover most landscape scenarios and nature portraits. With the addition of extensions tubes you'll be able to capture many close-up scenes as well.
You should consider your sensor size when selecting lenses for this setup. Cropped sensors increase the angle of view by their crop factor. To achieve the same angle of view seen using a focal length of 16mm on a full frame camera, a camera with a 1.6x crop factor would have to use a 10mm lens (16mm divided by 1.6).
|Sensor Format||Crop Factor||Equivalent Focal Length Range|
|Full Frame (Canon full frame and Nikon FX)||0||16mm - 200mm|
|Canon APS-C||1.6 x||10mm - 125mm|
|Nikon DX||1.5 x||11mm - 133mm|
|Canon APS-H||1.3 x||12mm - 154mm|
Folks using a cropped sensor are probably not going to find any fixed-length or zoom lenses with a maximum focal length of 133mm or 154mm as shown in the chart. But they will find wide-angle zooms starting at 10mm and 12mm.
My suggestion for a basic lens kit on a camera with a cropped sensor is to cover the range of 10mm through 200mm. A range of 10mm - 200mm on a camera with a 1.6x crop factor will provide an angle of view equivalent to 16mm - 320mm on a full frame camera.
One final note on lenses, get the best you can afford. Lenses are considered as important as (or more important) than the camera model you use. Lenses hold their value longer and typically have a longer usable lifespan than cameras. A quality lens on an entry-level camera model can take great pictures; a cheap lens on an expensive camera model might not.
Characteristics to consider when purchasing a lens
- Focal Length
As mentioned above, lenses within the 16mm - 200mm range will give you the focal lengths necessary for most landscapes scenarios. In addition, nature portraits of flowers and wildlife that you can approach within a reasonable close distance can also be covered with this selection.
The lower end of the range (16mm - 35mm) offers a broad field of view, effectively decompressing the landscape and making distant objects seems even further away. One effective way to use wide lenses is to position the lens extremely close to a foreground subject in order to exaggerate its size in relation to the background. Use a slight angle so that when you point the lens down at the subject the horizon line is fairly high in the frame. The resulting image should give the impression that you could reach out and touch the foreground element.
The upper end of the range (70mm - 200mm) is useful for isolating scenes from elements that distract from the overall aesthetics of the image. A focal length of 200mm is often used for environmental photographs where in addition to your wildlife subject you also include the surrounding landscape. The 200mm focal length can also be used for macro/close-ups when extension tubes are added.
- Lens Speed (maximum aperture)
Before diving into lens speed it would be good to define a couple of terms. The "aperture" is the hole through which light travels before striking the sensor. An "f-stop" is the focal length of a lens divided by the effective aperture diameter. The smaller the f-stop value the wider the aperture.
The term f-stop is used to quantify lens speed. Smaller f-stop values let in more light, larger f-stop values let in less light. An f-stop of 4.0 (or f/4) on a 50mm lens transmits the same amount of light as f/4 on a 500mm lens.
The speed of a lens refers to its maximum aperture diameter which is reflected in its f-stop value. Generally lenses with a maximum f-stop of 1.0, 1.4, 2.0, and 2.8 are considered "fast" lenses. They let in more light than their counterparts who might have a maximum f-stop of 4.0, 5.6, or 8.0. Letting in more light results in faster shutters speeds thus the term "fast lenses". This is a somewhat simplistic explanation because a lens is only fast in relation to its focal length.
So what does this mean in relation to our 16mm - 200mm lens suggestion for a basic nature photography kit? Fast lenses are usually not necessary for landscape photography. Fast lenses are important when you want to capture action or you want to blur the background from your subject. I suggest f/4 or wider for lenses within this range, though f/5.6 is not unreasonable if you are just taking landscapes.
- Image Stabilization
Image Stabilization refers to mechanisms (gyroscopic sensors) inside the lens which reduce blurring associated with the motion of a camera during exposure. This makes it easier to hand-hold longer lenses without getting motion blur. Canon refers to their image stabilization as "IS" and Nikon refers to theirs as "VR" (vibration reduction).
Because you'll be using a tripod for wide-angle shots (potentially long exposures), there's not much need for image stabilization on focal lengths between the 16-70mm range. Also shorter focal lengths don't magnify camera motion blur like the longer focal lengths do. Image Stabilization would best benefit the 70-200mm range should the photographer elect to hand-hold the camera.
- Fixed versus Zoom
Zoom lenses offer versatility by providing more options for composing a subject from a given position. Using a zoom also reduces the number of times you have to change lenses, thus minimizing the potential for dust getting on the sensor.
Fixed-length lenses often have the better optical quality. They are often faster than zoom lenses so they work well for capturing action shots.
Which should kind should you purchase? Both Canon and Nikon make some very high quality zoom lenses within the 16mm - 200mm range and many professional nature photographers use them. Excluding macro lenses, my philosophy is to use zoom lenses for anything between 16mm - 200mm and use fixed-length lenses for anything above 200mm.
Suggested Lenses for a Basic Nature Photography Kit
A high-end basic kit of lenses from Nikon might include these three lenses: a 16-35mm f/4 VR, a 24-70mm f/2.8, and a 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II. These zoom lenses all share the same 77mm filter size, which is very convenient.
A high-end basic kit of lenses from Canon might include these three lenses: a 17-40mm f/4L, a 24-70mm f/2.8L, and a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. Like the Nikon selections above, these Canon zoom lenses all share the same 77mm filter size.
Excluding the camera and lenses, the tripod is considered the most essential piece of hardware for nature photography. Using a tripod should be your very first step to ensure image quality. Outside of an earthquake or unusual strong winds, the moment you mount your camera and lens on a tripod you eliminate the possibility of blur due to camera shake. A tripod holds the camera in a precise position.
Don't skimp on your tripod selection. A good tripod will outlast your camera and probably your lenses. Important characteristics to consider before purchasing a tripod include the stability, the maximum height (without a center column extended), its weight, and the load capacity.
Make sure the tripod is at least slightly higher than eye level when the legs are fully extended. You don't want to stoop all day long when looking through your viewfinder. If you'll be carrying the tripod for a decent distance the weight will be important. Tripods made with carbon fiber are lighter than their aluminum counterparts but they're more expensive. Select a tripod with a larger load capacity than you think you'll need. You don't want to have to buy another tripod because you purchased a heavy super telephoto lens at a later date. Tripods with a large load capacity are typically sturdier anyway.
What kind of tripod do I use? My favorite is the Gitzo GT3541 XLS. This tripod is made of carbon fiber and has a load capacity of 39.7 pounds. I could have purchased it with the money I spent on other tripods trying to find the right solution. I wish I knew then what I know now.
The GT3541 XLS has no center column. I learned from experience that a center column added no value to my shooting and actually got in the way when positioning the tripod low to the ground or when spreading the legs over obstacles. The XLS stands for extra long. The tripod extends to 6'6''. I can actually walk underneath it when fully extended. Why have a tripod that's taller than your height? This gives you the option to extend a leg further down a slope. I have also used the legs fully extended to the ground while standing on a guard rail to shoot a mountain vista next to the road. The height was necessary to eliminate unwanted vegetation on the slope in front of me from showing up in the image.
Gitzo is considered the leader in the high-end range of tripods. Manfrotto is popular for its mid-level (and mid-priced) tripods.
Most nature photographers prefer a ball head (ball and socket). Ball heads allow you to quickly point the camera in almost any direction and are easy to use. The better ones also have a separate mechanism for allowing left and right panning. These will have a main locking knob for the ball, a tension knob for adjusting drag, and a panning lock.
Don't skimp on your ball head selection. Like a good tripod, a good ball head will outlast your camera and probably your lenses. Make sure the load capacity is fitting for the equipment it will be carrying. Popular brands of quality ball heads include Arca-Swiss, Kirk, Markins, and Really Right Stuff. I use a Really Right Stuff BH-55 with a load capacity of 50 pounds.
Quick Release Clamp, L-Bracket, and Lens Plate
The quick release clamp attaches to your tripod head. The L-bracket (L-plate) attaches to your camera. The lens plate attaches to lenses with a tripod collar, for instance a 70-200mm. The lens plate or L-bracket can then be attached to the tripod head via the quick release clamp.
An L-bracket fits on the base of your digital camera and allows you to mount the camera on a quick release clamp in either a horizontal or vertical orientation. This eliminates flipping your tripod head on its side for doing vertical shots (portrait orientation). Quality L-brackets should allow easy access to the battery pack and the I/O ports.
Kirk Enterprises, Really Right Stuff, and Wimberley make quality quick release clamps, camera plates, and lens plates. Of those three only Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff make L-brackets.
I use a Really Right Stuff L-bracket, lens plate, and quick release clamp.
Remote Shutter Release
A remote shutter release prevents unwanted vibrations within the camera caused by physically pressing the shutter release button. They come as wired or wireless. I used the cheaper wired version.
Spare CompactFlash and/or SD cards
There are many brands of compact flash and SD memory cards on the market. I usually try to stick to SanDisk and Lexar high speed 2 GB, 4GB, and 8GB capacity cards.
That last thing you want is to be out in the field and your battery run out of juice. I've tried using third party batteries with mixed success. About half have lost their ability to hold a charge, while the original batteries from Canon and Nikon are still going strong. The next time I purchase a battery it will be from the camera manufacturer.