with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Basic Nature Photography Chapter 4 – Equipment – Tripods, Camera Bags, and Film

We have heard every excuse known to humans why tripods are a pain in the #%$&. Most of these excuses came out of our own mouths. We hate them. So much, we have come to love to hate them. Especially when we know that the bigger and the heavier, the better. But we complain with a smile because we know we have got something over any photographer that doesn’t use one: guaranteed better image quality.

Example of proper tripod eye-level positionsTripods offer that guarantee and we use them for two distinct reasons. One, tripods cut camera vibration. They hold the camera steady and still and allow us to take a sharp photograph, regardless of light levels. Two, tripods encourage careful compositions. They force you to spend more time with your subject, exploring your creative options. Anytime you spend more time with someone or something, you get to know it better. It’s amazing what you learn.

There are a lot of tripods on the market, but the first mistake made by photographers is the cheap one. They’ll spend a thousand dollars or more on a top quality camera and lens, then mount them on a $15 tripod. The more expensive the tripod, typically the more durable and long lasting. Put time and research into your tripod purchase. A good tripod is one that is heavy, strong and steady. The head of the tripod (considered a separate part) should come up to eye level when you are standing straight up. The legs should have as few extensions as possible, meaning it should only come out in three, or at the most four, sections. The knobs to raise and lower the legs should be tight but easy to use.

Example of turning the tripod head upside down on the legsThe tripod head is often bought separately from the tripod legs. There are two kinds: pan-tilt and ball head. A pan-tilt head allows for separate horizontal and vertical controls. A ball head allows for freedom of movement in all directions using a ball-and-socket joint. Pan-tilts have different knobs that twist and turn and stick out from the tripod head, controlling each of the horizontal and vertical tilting elements. A ball head often has only one or two knobs which control the locking mechanism and the tension. Scenic photographers tend to prefer the pan-tilt head, but most other nature photographers prefer the ball head, as it allows for greater ease of movement and positioning.

Exercises

Tripod Practice
Just like your camera, you have to practice with your tripod, opening and closing it and putting it into position. Without the camera on it, practice in a safe spot opening and closing the tripod and then arranging it at different levels and in different positions. Take the head out and reverse the pole (if possible). Lay down on the ground and find a position that allows you to view through your viewfinder (you can put the camera on for this part) without the legs getting in the way. Do it until it becomes fast and easy to do. Set up on a hill (or stand on a bench) setting the tripod legs at different lengths to accommodate the uneven terrain. Carry your tripod around the block. Does it feel comfortable on your shoulder? If not, consider buying pipe insulation or thick tape for padding the legs against your shoulder. Or is it more comfortable to carry it under your arm or with a strap? Practice with it until it becomes easy to manipulate and use. Don’t wait until you are out in the field to figure out how to adjust it.
Measuring Your Tripod
Just as you have to measure to determine the closest focusing distance, you need to find out what the highs and lows of your tripod are. How low to the ground will it really go? Do you need the center post or is it removable so you can get lower? If you can reverse the pole, how low will it still allow you to go? How high will it really go? Below, at, or above your eye?

Film

You might not think film is part of your equipment but it is. It records the end result of your activity. Without it, your other equipment is useless. Film is a camera’s gas, and without it, you won’t get anywhere. There are a variety of films available. We recommend Fuji films, specifically Sensia and Velvia, both slide films. These match and enhanced the colors of nature, especially the greens in the forest, and the clarity and grain of the film is unmatched. Kodak has created some new slide films with good grain and quality results, but the nature photography community still prefers Fuji films for their “natural” color renditions. We recommend you try all of the films and pick the one you like best.

You might not think of film when you have a digital camera, but how a digital camera records colors and light onto digital media needs to be taken into consideration, too. Different digital cameras use different mediums for capturing light and images. The end result of your digital image is based upon the resolution setting of your camera at the time you take the photograph, and the techniques used by your camera to record the image. Some digital cameras use three to five sensors to capture light, while other more expensive cameras use more and/or different types of sensors. Read through your manual and the manufacturer’s website to find out how your digital camera records images and how their technique compares to others so you can understand completely how your digital camera records an image.

Camera Bags

Camera bags are one of the most under-purchased pieces of camera equipment. A good case is one that carries everything you need, is easy to carry, and protects your gear from itself and the elements.

It’s not enough to take our suitcases with us when we go, filled with clothing and odds and ends for every possibility and weather condition. We haul our camera gear with us, too. For some, it’s a simple matter of throwing a simple-point-and-shoot camera into a pocket. For the serious photographer and traveler it means bringing a full bag of gear.

Photograph of our equipment
Choices in camera bags used to be limited to good, bad, and indifferent. Sometimes the home-made bags were the best. Now there is an outdoor pack and bag for every possible sport from simply taking a walk in the park to hanging off the steepest cliff. The qualities that make a good camera bag haven’t changed, but the selection and technology sure has improved.

In general, high on our brand recommendation list are Tamrac, Domke, Billingham, Kinesis Gear, and Lowepro. They offer everything from waterproof to water resistant, padded to unpadded, classy to punk, dark earth tones to neon crazy, and everything in between for all types of photographers. The key is to find one that carries what you want to carry, keeps everything safe and protected, allows easy access, and is comfortable to lug around.

It Carries What You Want To Carry

Functionality means it has to carry what you need when you go. If you require two camera bodies and 18 lenses, then the bag you choose needs to carry that. If you just have a single point-and-shoot camera, then a big bag will be way too much. For the serious photographer, the important part of a camera bag is the inside. We demand high functionality and durability over good looks.

photograph of camera equipmentBefore going bag hunting, put your equipment together in one place and play with it to get an idea of how big a bag you really need. Does everything go with you every time you go out? Or do you customize your equipment each time to meet the requirements of your target subject? Do you prefer a shoulder bag, fanny pack or the backpack style? After you have a preliminary idea of what you need, put your equipment in the car and head down to the local, well-stocked camera store. The best way to choose a bag is to put your gear in your prospective purchases and see which is best before you take it home. Make sure that it all fits comfortably without rubbing or stressing the equipment. Can you get it in and out easily, without fussing or hunting? Play with it and see if it works for you before you hand over your credit card.

Keeps Everything Safe and Protected

Nature photographers and travelers are typically rough on their equipment. We are always banging into trees, slamming things down on rocks or even sitting on our camera bags. Whatever your choice of personal violence on your equipment, choose a bag that insulates your gear from harm.

Structure
Look closely at the way the bag is built and the elements used in its construction. Years ago, the technology for padding a bag was based on the use of cotton batting surrounding cardboard sheets. With the availability of new plastics and foams, padding has improved. It is much better and lighter. Find out what is inside the layers. Is it waterproof plastic, long-lasting closed-cell foam, or water-absorbing cardboard? We prefer bags with linings which can be opened and dried out if they get wet. This is rare to find, but worth the hunt.
Construction
Look at the stitching, inside and out. We’ve had bags go crashing down on the rocks because of bad stitching around the straps which broke under the strain. Make sure it is reinforced and double stitched. The stitches should be very close together with a durable thread.
Look inside
Pay attention to the details inside. Is the fabric on the dividers as soft as it is on the sides, or is it different? Not only do you need a bag with sufficient padding, the fabric must be soft enough to not wear the finish off your camera body or the writing off the lenses. You certainly don’t want to skin your knuckles as you dig inside. Are the dividers sturdy enough to hold the lenses in place? Can you attach the dividers anywhere in the bag or are you limited to specific locations and layouts?
Look Outside
camera equipment inside of one backpackLook at the labels for the listing of fabrics used. Look for durable fabrics such as denier or cordura? Is the outside fabric durable or just resistant? Check seams to make sure they are even and sewn all the way through. Is the stitching strong with small, even stitches, enforced with bias tape? Are all the pockets accessible and easy to open? Are the straps securely attached with adequate stitching and is there room to attach additional straps if necessary?
Check Openings and Closings
Play with all the zippers and clasps. Are they easy to open? Can you do it with one hand, or does it require two? Can you do it without looking, while you are concentrating on your subject through the camera? Are the clasps plastic or metal? Will they wear out with heavy use? Can you easily find the zipper pulls? In other words, will your gear stay securely inside, protected from the elements, while you still have fast and easy access to what you need without taking your concentration away from the camera?
Put it On
Can you open the bag while wearing it? If so, how does it open? Does the lid flip down to keep your gear protected while you are changing lenses? Can you use the lid to stabilize a lens without it falling off when changing lenses? Does the lid open towards you or away? Can you change that to suit your needs? While you have the lid loose, can you bend over and not have everything come spilling out as you move around? Think about all the ways you move as you use your camera equipment and photograph. Will the bag hamper your movements or allow you to move freely?

Allows Everything to be Easily Accessed

If you can’t find it, you can’t use it. Can you get to everything, or at least what you need most, most of the time? A great bag will let you reach in blindly and pull out exactly what you need. You’ll never have to take your eyes from your subject. Does everything fit in nicely? Is there a place for everything and is what you use the most readily available? The bottom of the bag is often hard to get to. Some of the Tamrac bags allow for easy outside access to these places.

Consider modular interior or exterior systems for maximum flexibility. Look for removable and interchangeable innards to adjust to your specific needs, one that will grow with you as your photographic interests and equipment changes over time. When searching for a new bag, look for a system with the most flexibility and security so you can spend more energy concentrating on what you are doing and not on the bag.

Luv to Lug?

Put your photography gear in the bag and then put the bag on. It’s important that the bag be comfortable with the normal weight you’ll be carrying. A pretty bag may be miserable to carry. Bringing your gear into the camera store, and put it in the bag you are interested in. Lift it up and carry it as you would while you are traveling and photographing. Is it too heavy? Does it feel cumbersome? How does it fit against your body?

Brent carries the backpack of equipmentHow do the straps work for you? Shoulder strap bags are great if you are rushing to an airplane and need to toss it off for the security scans. They are great for working out of a car. But for the long hikes, a fanny pack or backpack are better bets. Check the straps that rest on your shoulders and hips. Are they thickly padded? Thin supports and padding can cut right through clothing and wear into the skin on long hikes. Is the pack soft where it meets your body or does it rub against you as you move? Have an experienced salesperson help fit it to your body for maximum comfort and support. Make sure your bag or pack will distribute the weight so you don’t injure yourself when you carry it.

Advertising to a Thief

Don’t forget to consider security issues. Does it say “steal me” on the side? Many professional photographers choose bags resembling worn-out and much abused knapsacks. Others buy excellent brand-name bags and cut off the logo to keep it neutral looking. We like working with untraditional looking bags and keeping a very low profile when we travel and photograph. It’s bad enough having a 500mm lens that stands out in a crowd, but carrying a bright-colored camera bag invites too much attention. Consider where you go and how you will be using the bag. Make sure you get one that doesn’t attract unwanted attention.

Making the Final Selection

Photographer with a backpackThere are so many different bags on the market, choosing one can be overwhelming. You can buy the traditional styles, or go for the add-as-you-need modular systems.There are backpacks which are camera bags and camera bags which are backpacks. LowePro and other manufacturers are making packs that can be split into separate pieces. You need to find one that meets your specific needs. Like shoes, you’ll probably own several before finding the right one.

Spend some serious money to get a seriously good bag. Remember, you might be putting hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment into your bag. The price of the bag should at least be comparable to the value of your equipment. Just as a good quality camera lens will cost you, so will a good quality, well constructed camera bag. Spoil yourself and your equipment and spend the extra money.

Whatever you decide on for your travel camera bag, keep it close to you at all times and never let it leave your side. Or you’ll be looking for a lot of new equipment AND a new bag real soon.

Exercises

Practice Accessing the Bag
Just like your equipment, you have to be able to reach into your camera bag while watching the elk walk across your view to grab a lens or film or filter. Make sure that everything has a comfortable place and is easy to access. Then practice pulling out different lenses and accessories without looking at the bag, while wearing it and/or having it sit beside you. This is a good exercise to do while watching television. Rearrange things to make them easier to access, if necessary.
Inventory Your Contents
When camera equipment is stolen, often the camera body and lenses are the only thing replaced by the insurance, yet all your photographic accessories, if stolen, need to be replaced as well and are often covered by insurance policies. Take everything out of your camera bag and write down your inventory. Include every filter, stepping ring, cable release, lens brush, flash, battery, filter wrench, lens cloth, everything. Update this list whenever you add a significant piece of equipment or once every two years. All these little parts and pieces add up. You have to replace them anyway, so make sure you know what is in the bag.
 

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