Nature Photography Tools - Optional
Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 02-18-2011
Telephoto lens mounted on a Skimmer Ground Pod - Photo by Scott McWatty
The following is a list of optional or specialized equipment used for nature photography. Of course a bird photographer isn't going to consider a super telephoto lens as an "optional" piece of equipment. A very long focal length is necessary to capture most birds. Those who specialize in macro photography might not consider a focusing rail as optional. A few landscape photographers may require a tilt/shift lens within their kit. Depending on your interest, the equipment listed below may or may not be essential.
If you want to shoot mammals or birds then a long telephoto lens will be necessary. These lenses are not cheap as noted in the table below. Both Canon and Nikon manufacture telephoto lenses in the 300-600mm range. Canon goes a step further by providing an 800mm f/5.6 lens. Third party manufacturers such a Sigma and Tamron also market lenses within this range for Canon and Nikon mounts. Though less expensive, Sigma and Tamron telephoto lenses are generally considered subpar compared to their Canon and Nikon equivalents. Don't dismiss Sigma and Tamron long telephotos; they are a viable option for limited budgets. Just be aware that Sigma and Tamron long telephotos are usually slower (smaller maximum aperture) than Canon and Nikon telephoto lenses and will require optimum lighting conditions to produce good pictures.
|Compared to a standard lens (50mm full frame)
|Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM
|3.5 x 8.7
|Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM
|5.0 x 9.9
|Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM (new)
|5.0 x 9.8
|Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
|up to 8x
|3.6 x 7.4
|Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM
|3.5 x 10.1
|Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM
|5.0 x 9.2
|Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM
|6.4 x 13.7
|Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM (new)
|6.4 x 13.5
|Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM
|5.8 x 15.2
|Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM (new)
|5.7 x 15.1
|Canon 600mm f/4L IS USM
|6.6 x 18.0
|Canon 600mm f/4L IS II USM (new)
|6.6 x 17.6
|Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM
|6.4 x 18.1
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED
|3.5 x 8.8
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
|4.9 x 10.5
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II
|up to 8x
|4.9 x 14.4
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8G ED VR II
|6.3 x 14.5
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR II
|5.5 x 15.4
|Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR II
|6.5 x 17.5
For most folks price will be the limiting factor on what telephoto they purchase. Other considerations include focal length, lens speed (maximum aperture), minimum focusing distance, weight, and dimensions.
Bird Photography - Most bird photographers want the longest focal length they can get (600-800mm), especially for songbirds in the field. Many use teleconverters to increase the focal length further. Some use extension tubes on these same telephoto lenses to decrease the minimum focusing distance so they can fill the frame with their small subject.
There's no rule that says you have to use a 600-800mm lens for bird photography. Many photographers do just fine using a Canon or Nikon 500mm f/4, which is a good general purpose focal length for wildlife. Using a fast 300-400mm f/2.8 with teleconverters to increase the focal length is another option for bird photography.
Mammal Photography - Focal lengths for mammals depend on the animal size and the closest safe working distance you can achieve. Some places animals are acclimated to people and there are opportunities using a 300mm while other locations require longer lenses in the 500-600mm range.
Hiking - Weight is going to be an important factor if you plan to hike with your lens. Lighter lenses have less focal length and a slower lens speed. The Canon and Nikon 300mm f/4 would be good considerations for walkabouts.
Travel - Folks flying abroad for a safari experience may want versatility in a lens so they don't have to travel with a full kit. In this case a zoom might be appropriate such as Canon's 100-400mm or Nikon's 200-400mm.
Telephoto Lens Accessories
- Gimbal Tripod Head
A gimbal head is a specially designed tripod head for use with super telephoto lenses. It allows you to rotate your lens around its center of gravity providing smooth operation while tracking moving subjects. A properly balanced lens on a gimbal head eliminates the danger of the lens flopping over when you release your grip. Gimbal style heads are commonly used with the 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, and 800mm f5.6 lenses. Wimberley Inc. is the top manufacturer of high-quality gimbal style heads (Wimberley Head - Version II).
Teleconverters are optics that fit between the lens and the camera to increase focal length (magnification).They come in powers of 1.4x, 1.7x, or 2x. When using a teleconverter you increase the focal length by the specified power and you also decrease the aperture by the same power. A 1.4x teleconverter on a 300mm f/4 creates a 420mm at f/5.6 effective lens. A 2x teleconverter on a 300mm f/4 creates a 600mm at f/8. Minimum focusing distance does not change from the original focal length.
Although using teleconverters to extend the focal length is much cheaper than purchasing new telephoto lenses, there are some disadvantages to using them. The autofocus typically doesn't work at maximum apertures above f/8 on high-end cameras and at f/5.6 on mid-level cameras when using teleconverters. Image quality may also suffer; a 1.4x will generally produce much better results than a 2x. Teleconverters generally work better on fixed-length lenses than zoom lenses. For best results use the lens manufacturer's teleconverters on the fastest fixed-length lens you can.
- Flash Extender
A flash extender is a Fresnel lens mounted in front of the flash used to concentrate the light into a narrow beam. This allows using flash at greater distances. Flash extenders are excellent for wildlife and birding photography where long-distance fill-flash is often required. Probably the most popular on the market is the "Better Beamer" Flash Extender. The Better Beamer is designed to be used with lenses whose focal lengths are 300mm and longer.
- Bean Bag
Bean bags are used to support your camera and lens in lieu of a tripod. They are commonly used with long telephoto lenses when shooting from an automobile. With the window rolled down, the bean bag is placed on the door frame, and then the lens is rested on top of the bag while the photographer holds the camera. Bean bags are also frequently used on top of a vehicle's hood when shooting from outside the automobile.
The Molar Bean Bag is in the shape of a tooth. The "roots" of the tooth hang over the inside and outside of the door to add ballast, keeping the bean bag in place.
- Skimmer Ground Pod II
The Skimmer Ground Pod II is a device offered by Naturescapes for mounting and using a long telephoto lens while lying on the ground. It is basically a circular dish that a ball or gimbal head can be mounted to. According to the website, "With a unique circular design, it allows you to slide camera equipment in any direction on the ground, even through mud, sand, and grass. And your equipment stays clean and dry, even in up to an inch and a half of water!"
Some folks use a homemade version of this device by mounting a ball head on the underside of a Frisbee, or simply turning the Frisbee upside down and resting the lens foot inside.
Tilt-shift lenses (Canon) or perspective control lenses (Nikon) allow movement of the lens in relation to the camera sensor. They are fixed length lenses that are focused manually and usually fairly expensive.
The "tilt" mechanism lets the lens rotate on a given axis allowing you to control the focal plane. Landscape and macro photographers use this to imply a greater depth of field, making images sharper than a normal lens could capture.
The "shift" mechanism shifts the lens up or down (or sideways) while keeping the lens plane parallel to the digital camera sensor. You can use shift to avoid the convergence of parallel lines when shooting tall buildings. Photographers who shoot architecture benefit from using the shift aspect of the lens to control perspective.
Fisheye lenses produce a distorted, extremely wide, hemispherical image (180 degree). Normally considered a specialty lens, fisheyes are usually used for artistic expression and aren't considered critical equipment for nature photography.
Macro Focusing Rail
Serious macro work usually necessitates focusing manually. A focusing rail allows you to adjust the camera to subject distance in minute increments for super-fine focus. The procedure typically involves setting the focus manually and positioning the camera to achieve a gross focus. Next use the adjustment knob on the focusing rail to move the camera in small increments to the desired focal plane.
Using a blind allows you to get closer to skittish wildlife and is particularly effective for shooting birds. Two popular configurations used by wildlife photographers include body (bag) blinds and tent-style blinds.
A body blind can be as simple as wrapping camouflage material around yourself and your gear. Steve Ellwood demonstrates this in his article "Quest for the Belted Kingfisher". A few companies offer more elaborate body blinds with Velcro fasteners, a mesh viewing area, and a prefabricated sleeve for the lens. Body blinds readily fit into a backpack and are easy to transport.
Tent-style blinds include ones specifically made for wildlife photography and readily available hunting blinds. Some folks just cut holes in a children's tent to create their blind. Tent-style blinds allow for freedom of movement within the blind without the potential of disturbing the wildlife outside.
Neoprene Hunting Boots
Neoprene hunting boots keep your feet dry when traversing mucky/swampy areas. For the most part these boot are very comfortable though your feet will tire with extensive hiking. The standard height is usually about 18 inches. You can purchase these with or without insulation.