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Nature Photography Tools - Standard Kit

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 02-18-2011

The following list contains equipment we recommend, in addition to the tools listed on the Basic Kit page, to create a standard nature photography assembly. Note that we elected to categorize super telephoto lenses necessary for bird photography and some mammal photography as optional or specialized equipment. Those tools can be found within the Optional Tools page.

300mm F/4 Lens

The 300mm f/4 makes a perfect complement to the 16 - 200mm basic lens kit. Both Canon and Nikon market this focal length and speed. The lens produces a pleasant bokeh at f/4 and works well with a 1.4x teleconverter to increase the focal length to 420mm. Unlike the 300mm f/2.8, the lens is light enough to comfortably hike long distances with. The minimum focusing distance is 4.9 feet for the Canon version and 4.8 feet for the Nikon version.

This focal length is great for shooting butterflies or isolating flowers. The focal length allows you enough distance so as not to startle butterflies or dragonflies and the f/4 aperture blurs the background nicely. The lens is frequently used for landscapes and wildlife (when within a reasonable range). Add extension tubes should you need to focus at closer distances.

This is my favorite lens to shoot wildlife with from a kayak. I also frequently hike with this lens.

Extension Tubes

Most SLR camera lenses have a minimum focusing distance. When the distance between the camera and subject is less than this value you will no longer be able to focus.

Extension tubes are a way around this limitation (minimum focusing distance). The tubes are hollow and contain no optical glass. Extension tubes fit between the camera and the lens and are used to move the lens farther from the image plane. The farther away the lens is from the image plane, the closer you can get to the subject and still focus. The downside of using extension tubes is the loss of light which may require a longer exposure time.

Digital SLR Cameras

If you decide to purchase extension tubes, makes sure they come with electronic contacts to retain exposure control within the camera. Cheaper tubes may not have electrical contacts.

Extension tubes in combination with a Canon or Nikon 70-200mm lens are popular setups with nature photographers. By adding tubes to this lens you are effectively creating a 200mm macro lens for close-up photography. Extension tubes also work well with a 300mm f/4 lens for butterfly/dragonfly shooting. Some bird photographers use extension tubes on their long lenses (500-800mm) to lessen the minimum focusing distance when shooting small song birds.

I use the Kenko Auto Extension Tube Set DG for Nikon, I also have the same set but for a Canon camera. The set comes with 36mm, 20mm, and 12mm tubes. The tubes can be used in any combination with each other and all have electrical contacts. The set retains auto-focusing as long as the effective aperture stays at f/5.6 or wider. Note the focusing may hunt and be a bit slow at times. Most folks just use manual focus.

Macro Lenses

I'd like to again mention that extension tubes work very well with a high quality 70-200mm zoom lens as an alternative to a macro lens. That's approximately $200 for a set of extension tubes versus $1400 for a Nikon 200mm or Canon 180mm macro lens.

Is there a difference in quality? Probably. Macro lenses are optically optimized for maximum sharpness at a close-up distance. The 70-200mm zoom was not designed for nor has been optimized for close-up ranges. Can I visually see a difference? Most of the time I can't tell a difference. The images from folks who shoot close-ups with extension tubes usually look as good as the work from folks who use real macro lens (assuming both parties are using proper techniques).

If you're interested in getting a macro lens I suggest one within the 100-200mm range. These offer a greater working distance from the subject than lenses within the 50-60mm macro range. A greater working distance provides two advantages, one - you'll be less likely to scare the critter away if photographing insects, two - the greater working distance may allow more light to hit the subject.

Quality macro lenses in the 100-200mm range include Canon's 100mm f/2.8L IS and 180mm f/3.5L, Nikon's 105mm f/2.8G and 200mm f/4, and Sigma's 150mm f/2.8.

I own the Sigma 150mm f/2.8. It's a fine lens and delivers quality images.

Neutral Density Filters

A neutral density filter reduces the intensity of light without changing the color hue. This allows for slower shutters speeds or wider apertures during daylight operation. ND filters are frequently used when shooting waterfalls to slow the shutter speed. A slower shutter speed is necessary to create the silky motion blur of the water.

I prefer a variable neutral density filter that screws onto the lens (as opposed to the rectangular glass plates). The filter I use allows a change of 2 to 8 stops of light.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

A graduated neutral density filter has a dark side which fades to totally clear on the other side. GND filters are used in high contrast scenes to compress the range of light values entering the camera. A common scenario where GND filters might be used would be horizon shots where the sky is much brighter than the foreground. Graduated neutral density filters come in various strengths.

There are two main types of graduated neutral density filters.

  • Soft Edge - A soft edge GND filter has a slow feathered change from dark to light. A soft edge is useful for scenes where there is no distinct boundary between light and dark zones such as a mountain vista rising into the sky.

  • Hard Edge - A hard edge GND filter has an abrupt change from dark to light. A hard edge is useful for scenes where there is a distinct boundary between light and dark zones such as an ocean horizon.

I carry two of these in my camera bag, a 2 stop soft edge and a 3 stop hard edge. Both are rectangular plates.


Nature photographers frequently use polarizers to remove glare from water and vegetation. Some photographers like to use polarizing filters to darken blue skies. Polarizers increase color saturation under some lighting conditions.

Polarizers are most effective when the sun is at a 90 degree angle from the direction the camera is pointing. The effect degrades as you widen or lessen this angle, eventually to the point where there is no or very little polarization.

I use a 77mm polarizing filter from Nikon.

Eclipse Optic Lens Cleaning Solution

Eclipse Optic Lens Cleaning Solution is a solvent (methanol) that can be used to clean most lenses.

According to the Photographic Solutions website, "Eclipse lens cleaner is the highest purity lens cleaner available, containing less than 5 parts per million (ppm) of contamination (the whitish residue left after evaporation). It dries as quickly as it can be applied leaving absolutely no residue."

PEC*PAD Photo Wipes

PEC*PADs are a disposable photo wipe used to clean lenses. The product is can be used in conjunction with Eclipse Optic Cleaning Solution.

Per the Photographic Solutions website, "PEC*PADs are extremely strong, lint-free and so soft and pure (99.999%) it is almost impossible to scratch an emulsion with them. PEC*PADs are so soft they can be safely used to clean all types of sensitive surfaces including scanners, CDs, mirrors, lenses, and telescopes."

Collapsible Diffusers and Reflectors

Collapsible diffusers and reflectors are usually made up of a semi-rigid shell with fabric or plastic stretched across it. The fabric (or plastic) either allows light to pass through it (diffuser) or reflects light (reflector). The shell can be twisted and collapsed to be stored in a travel bag.

A collapsible diffuser works great for wildflower photography when the sun is harsh or high in the sky. By using a 1 or 2 stop diffuser you can filter the light and create a softer even spread. Collapsible reflectors redirect the sun's light allowing you to highlight significant features of a subject. Reflectors also work well for wildflower photography.

I use Lastolite's 33 inch TriGrip diffusers and reflectors, though I must say I use the diffusers much more than the reflectors. The Lastolite TriGrips expand into the shape of a triangle and are easier to hold with one hand than the same size circular diffuser or reflector. These diffusers and reflectors collapse small enough to be carried in a backpack.


Flash can make an average scene great or make an average scene really bad. You need to properly use flash to receive benefits. Wildlife photographers may use fill flash to balance contrast and brighten shadow areas on their subjects. Flash can also be used to freeze motion. Hummingbirds are popular subjects for that type of usage. Bird photographers use flash with the Better Beamer flash extender to create catch light in bird's eyes. Landscape photographers might use flash to highlight foreground and background elements within a scene to add drama. Using an external flash off-camera can provide creative latitude that's not available when the flash is mounted on the camera.

Canon flash systems are called "Speedlites" while Nikon's are called "Speedlights". I find this proprietary naming convention somewhat humorous. At least I'll always refer to their respective flash systems correctly during conversation. Both manufacturers market a variety of flash units from top-of-the-line to entry level versions.

Camera Bag

Camera bags come in two main flavors, shoulder bags and backpacks. Shoulder bags offer better accessibility to your equipment. Backpacks offer better mobility when hiking but accessing equipment can be difficult. Popular camera bag brands include Tamrac, Lowpro, Tenba, and Kata. I use a very large Tamrac shoulder bag to store most of my gear at home and for transporting it in an automobile. I use a smaller Lowpro backpack and stock it with select lenses when I hike.

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