As Spring still seems elusive here in the North Woods of Maine I am making the most of these last cool days to photograph Winter landscapes via snowmobile. With about 4 feet of snow in the woods, the sled makes it possible to get to some otherwise inaccessible remote locations. The idea of being able to photograph a particular spot throughout the seasons is appealing to me and ever present in the back of my mind is the possibility of photographing Moose! Much harder to locate when the snow gets deep, Moose tend to “yard up” where the food and cover are good so they do not have to expend precious energy. “Peekaboo” is an image I am particularly pleased to have captured this Winter as I believe it conveys a real sense of the elements.
While Winter photography is not for everyone, I have received several emails from people planning to attend this year’s Spring and Fall workshops asking about gear and lens recommendations. Let me first say, all skill levels of photographers have taken my workshops from the most advanced to the novice. One of my goals during the workshops is to have each participant learn ways to achieve better images with the equipment they have. One participant a few years back stands out in my mind as a person who probably had the best time of anybody. Every time we stopped at a location to photograph he took a miniature sized Elf digital camera out of an Altoid’s tin (that he had strung around his neck), took a few shots, then carefully placed the camera back in the tin and smiled. He did not have the most exspensive equipment, he just had a great time!
The other end of the spectrum is a photographer last Spring who had an 800mm lens with tele-converter attached when a cow Moose and her calf unexpectedly appeared just behind us on the board walk. Needless to say he was scrambling for his other camera body and wide angle lens! Most of us fall somewhere in between when it comes to the extent of our camera gear – often times the amount dependent on just how much we are willing to spend and how much we are willing to carry. We tend to invest enough in our equipment to get good results and always have a wish list of upgrades that are sure to help us get even better pictures.
Wildlife subjects don’t always necessarily require the longest telephoto lenses to capture extraordinary images. However, when it comes to photography workshop gear I consider using a sturdy tripod and properly rated ball head a must. Often a “grudge” purchase, a carbon fiber tripod can cost between $200 and $900 USD. And that is just the tripod. You still need a tripod head which come in several styles and shapes. Ball heads usually are used in conjunction with the shorter, non-collared lenses. Don’t forget the camera plate, which attaches to your camera body and then to the ball head. They are in the $40 range. Even more efficient than a flat plate is an “L” bracket which allows you to adjust your camera from horizontal to vertical without changing the center of gravity or having to adjust your tripod. With an “L” bracket, the level and axis remain the same for each position. The” L” bracket secures to the camera body and allows the user to quickly shoot either horizontal or vertical with lenses that do not have a rotating collar. These “L” plates are manufactured by several companies, and typically will set you back about $150.
A good ball head works well for up to about a 300mm lens. Beyond a 300mm lens I recommend a full gimbal style head. Described by a friend of mine that recently purchased one as “a mechanical work of art”, I have to agree with him. A gimbal head cost between $300 and $600 and allows for quick and fluid movement. These heads are also manufactured by several different companies. The gimbal head is able to adjust to any angle while the camera and lens are suspended directly below the center of gravity of your tripod. In my opinion, there is no better way to work a wildlife subject with these longer telephoto lenses than with the gimbal style head.
One of my latest purchases was a tripod leveling base. It basically levels the tripod without having to adjust the individual legs on your tripod. I have found this really helpful when shooting several images panning in a sequence later to be stitched together creating a seamless panorama like the landscape image above. That final image is a composite of 12 images (6 across x 2 high) stitched together in Photoshop CS6.
About now you are probably agreeing with my use of the term “grudge” purchase when it comes to camera support. You are right, it won’t get you any closer to a wildlife subject or provide more pixels and the potential for higher ISO’s like a longer lens or upgraded camera body will. However, I can tell you that there is no other single investment that you can make that will have as much of an impact on the quality of your images. A good set up will allow you to capture crisp images with slow shutter speeds as well as track moving subjects with ease.