We are getting you "geared up" for an amazing experience in nature and wildlife photography. I have discussed camera essentials, lenses, and filters in the last postings. This time I want to wrap-up the gear you will need by discussing some of the accessories needed to photograph in the wild.
By now you know or have the big things needed to capture digital images, but as with most endeavors, the devil is in the details. So what is in the camera bag or backpack that keeps you taking great photographs? The first thing is the bag itself. There are 3 or 4 options for carrying your gear in the field. The first is going bare with lens and camera for a specific shot. This works sometimes but nature is not always predictable and more times than not, she will offer you amazing and totally unexpected opportunities, if you have your gear along. A second option is a traditional over-the-shoulder camera bag. This is nice near the car but usually doesn't lend itself well in the back country or down a long trail. A third option is a gear vest and/or a fanny pack. These were great in the film days when you needed many rolls of film and a means of separating fresh and exposed film but I find these are too small to carry extra lenses that I might need. Option four is a rigid travel case that works great in the city but has little role once you are outside your car. Finally, my choice for outdoor work is a purpose-design SLR back pack such as those made by Lowepro and Tamrac. In my Tamrac Expedition 5x pack I can carry a spare camera body, 5 lenses, and all of the accessories I will discuss later. It has an integral tripod holder and many tie-points to strap a water bottle and additional gear. I added a padded waist belt and can haul about 30 pounds of gear for several miles in reasonable comfort. Everything is padded, adjustable, and easily accessible.
Nothing can ruin a photo shoot faster than a full memory card or a dead battery. For this reason I carry at least one spare battery for each camera body (and their chargers for both car 12VDC and AC mains (110 or 220VAC) with the proper adapters. I also carry a 32GB memory card in the camera and several 16 GB spares. I can shoot more than 1,000 high-resolution RAW shots with one battery and card.
I have a velcro filter case strapped to one shoulder in which I carry a variable neutral density filter, circular polarizing filter (CPL), and spare UV/haze filter. In the pack I carry a rectangular 2-stop hard-edge, graduated neutral density filter, holder and adapters. These filters usually get me through most difficult lighting situations. I also have a 5-way, collapsible reflector to help bring light to the shadows. At this time, I do not carry a flash/speed-light/strobe with me in the back country. I probably should but I find the pop-up, in-camera strobe and the reflector serve me well. Someday maybe I will find space for a flash, and a flash extender, flash filters, and spare flash batteries, and a bigger backpack.
In the bag I also carry a 1.4x teleconverter and a set of 3 extension tubes. The teleconverter increases the range / magnification of my telephoto lenses and the extension tubes can be used to reduce the closest focus point of all of my lenses. These are especially useful for close-up and macro shots.
Don't forget to carry a remote shutter release with you in the wild. These come in several varieties from mechanical, to electrical, to infrared, to radio controlled. The important thing is to be able to fire your camera without touching it and causing motion (camera shake) during long exposures or high magnification shots such as macro or long telephoto shots.
Finally, in the bag I carry cleaning gear including a Lenspen brush, several microfiber cleaning cloths, lens cleaning solution, a blower, and lens paper. These essentials usually get me through any field clean-up operations and keep my optics clean.
Lastly, the most important accessory of all, is your camera stabilization gear - your tripod. Camera stabilization is critical for telephoto shots, long exposure shots, high dynamic range (HDR) shots, panorama shots, macro and close-up shots - did I miss anything? I cannot emphasize the importance of a good tripod in capturing good photographs. Not all shots are taken with a tripod but many are, and virtually all shots could be improved if a tripod is used. Now the reality is that tripods are large, bulky, awkward, and heavy to carry. However, small, light-weight tripods are totally worthless and a complete waste of money. The purpose of a tripod is to provide an absolutely rigid mount for your lens or camera - it must be solid, sturdy, and stable. What choices are available?
One of the first choices in selecting a tripod is the strength defined by the maximum load weight capacity. You need a tripod capable of holding the head, camera, and largest lens you will use. Once you know the weight capacity you need to choose the construction - most tripods today are made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Pound for pound, carbon fiber is lighter, stronger, more durable, and more capable of reducing vibration than is aluminum - obviously, with these qualities, it is also more expensive. Next, you need to consider the maximum and minimum heights at which the tripod can be used. High quality tripods have legs that extend widely to place the camera very low to the ground and straighten to give lift to eye-height. Some tripods have a central elevating column to gain additional height. The center columns often reduce the stability of the tripod when extended and interfere with lowering the tripod for low-level ground shots.
Two other choices are available in tripod construction - the number of leg sections and the means of securing the leg extensions. Most brands of tripods have both 3 and 4 section leg extension models. The 3 extension models are usually quicker to set-up, stronger and sturdier but also fold to a longer storage length. The extensions can be secured by either flip-locks or twist locks. People tout the advantages of both but as long as the locks are strong, I don't think the type of lock makes a difference. Some tripods offer padded feet with extension spikes for greater stability.
Sometimes a monopod is a useful camera stabilization tool in the wilderness. It is no substitute for a good tripod but the monopod can reduce fatigue and add stability to action shots such as sports or birds in flight. Monopods have aluminum or carbon fiber construction and are available with a 3 or 4 section leg. Some tripods have a detachable leg that works as a monopod. Some inovative photographers have modified their monopods to be used as a walking stick or their walking sticks to be used as a monopod.
As if tripods were not difficult enough, the head that joins the tripod to your camera or lens is even more complicated. Older tripods used almost exclusively a "pan and tilt" head to control the three planes of rotation of the camera on the tripod. These heads are modification of what was used for video and movies. These heads require either two or three adjustment knobs to change the camera position. Most still photographers in recent years have adopted a ball-head mount. The ball head allows faster re-positioning by loosening only one adjustment knob to move the camera in all three planes. The ball-heads come in several sizes and the larger sizes usually support the most weight and give the greatest stability. There are many designs of the ball-heads and costs vary widely. The third type of head used by nature photographers is the gimbal head. This is a significantly larger mount that is necessary for today's super-telephoto and very large aperture lenses. The gimbal mount keeps the center of gravity of the camera and lens at the exact center of rotation so there is no resistance to movement and no tendency for the heavy lens to drop downward as it can with a pan-and-tilt or ball-head mount. These gimbal mounts are fairly heavy and quite expensive.
The last accessory is a quick-release fitting between you tripod head and camera or lens. The quick-release comes in several styles but the ARCA-Swiss style is becoming an industry standard. The quick-release allows a strong and stable connection between your camera/lens and tripod but yet allows the camera to be removed quickly for hand-held shooting. The last thing you want to do to your camera is to screw it off and on your tripod and risk damage to the camera or lens. The quick-release is a good solution. Get a system for your tripod(s) and a mounting plate for each camera/lens with a fitting.
With all of the complexity of tripods and heads, you might ask what do I use? Unfortunately, the answer is all of the above. For years I got along with a Manfroto carbon fiber tripod with center column elevator, 4-extension, snap-lock legs, and a ball-head. It was a perfect union for the nature photographer who like to hike deep in the woods or high in the mountains. Then I got my 600mm f/4 super-telephoto lens. This monster 12 pound lens simply could not be used safely or comfortably on a ball-head so I was forced to get another tripod and head - this time a Sirui carbon fiber tripod without a center column elevator with 3-extension, twist lock legs and a Wimberly gimbal head. This is a rock-stable rig that will hold the heaviest dSLR lenses and cameras made - but, it is heavy. The tripod weighs over 5 pounds (and extends to my full height) and the head weighs another 4 pounds. Add a 3 pound camera and 12 pound lens and it makes you want to give up hiking!
There you have it - all the accessories you will need to accumulate for serious nature photography. So before you dip your toe in this water consider the merits of a nice 1.5 pound point-and-shoot camera with a super-zoom lens - it does a pretty good job and will always be with you in the wild.