If you have a digital SLR, there are some great tools, software or hardware, out there that are either free or won’t totally break the bank. Of course, photography can be an expensive hobby, so your mileage may vary here.
In the Field
I bought an iPod Touch as a handy field computer when taking pictures in the great outdoors and this, alone, is pretty handy because you can store all sorts of reference material on it. I don’t use it for music (I have another iPod for that), I use it for photography. That brings me to a very handy application for it if you like nature photography: DoF calculator. This little app for the iPhone/iTouch allows you to select your camera model (or enter the baseline information directly), specify distance, focal length, and aperture to get not only the depth of field but also the hyperfocal distance. There are two or three other DoF calculators, but I found this one to the best. It’s also a massive $1.99 to buy.
I like doing nature photography and spent a fair amount of last summer wandering conservation areas taking a variety of pictures. At one point, during a camping trip, I got an opportunity to take some pictures of a great blue heron catching dinner. The pictures came out okay, but the problem was my telephoto is only 300mm maximum and I really needed a bit more than that. Needless to say, once bitten, twice shy, I don’t want to be caught with some awesome opportunity and no suitable lens to capture it, but the price of telephoto lenses above 300mm gets pretty expensive… There is a solution, though, and it’s significantly cheaper: a 2x teleconverter. Okay, at $370 it’s not cheap, but an 800mm lens is $7800! The doubler takes my 300mm telephoto to a 600mm telephoto, which isn’t quite 800mm, but it also didn’t cost me close to $8000. You can also get a 1.4x teleconverter for a little less money and little less range.
Bear in mind that a teleconverter will have some effect on the overall quality of the result, but it’s generally minimal and there are ways to deal with it after the fact. Also, a lot of lens faults are more to the edges and the average dSLR has a smaller sensor than standard 35mm film, thus dropping off the outer edges of the circle.
Get a good carrying case! I got a Lowepro Slingshot 300 that allows me access to a variety of compartments without removing the backpack from my back. A very handy thing when it’s not always feasible to take it off.
Get a tripod! Now, getting a good one can be expensive, so you’ll have to balance your needs with the price you can pay, but a tripod is essential to outdoor photography. Remember, a lot of outdoor shots will be taken with a telephoto and that makes camera shake much more likely and that includes cameras with shake reduction. A good rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be no slower than the reciprocal of your lens length. So, for example, with a 200mm focal length, go no slower than 1/200th of a second. Better yet, just put the camera on a tripod. So, which tripod? Well, in the wild, you want to get something that is both light and sturdy. Mine is a 4 segment carbon fibre from Manfrotto, but there are very good cheaper options out there, so shop around. Just make sure that you can carry it for extended periods of time and that it has a hook for weighing it down in windy conditions.
That’s the tripod, but what about the head? Most consumer tripods come with the tripod head already, but most of these aren’t really the best option for nature photography. It’s okay when you have plenty of time to line up the shot, but most wildlife aren’t anywhere near that patient. So, a good tripod head can make a world of difference and so some features to consider are:
- Quick release – allows you to remove the camera from the tripod without fuss.
- Easily adjusted – I have a “joystick” style head that allows me to freely and quickly move the head by just gripping it.
- Levelling bubble – useful if you want to make sure you’re square.
That’s the basics, but you’ll probably accumulate more stuff as you go. I’ve been adding to my field collection with plamps, translucent filters, small reflectors, etc. The hardware is the expensive part, you get hooked and then you start adding to your collection so that you can do more.
On more thought, don’t discount the use of a flash in the field. Mine, sadly, is a little under-powered, but it is still handy for filling in where the shadows are quite deep. The little flash on the camera itself is often useless in this role, so it’s worth looking for something a bit more powerful.
Back at the Computer
Lets face it, the best piece of software for post-processing your digital images is Adobe Photoshop (I have CS3), but it comes with a hefty price tag. There are, however, some alternatives that will let you get the job done and done nicely. Before I get into those, you are shooting in RAW format right? If you aren’t, then get a bigger storage card and find out how to do it for your camera model. If you shoot in JPEG, you’re giving up enormous control of your image for absolutely no gain, so switch your camera to RAW and forget it ever had a JPEG setting. Now onto the tools…
Raw Therapee is, by far, the best piece of software you can get for RAW image processing outside of Adobe Photoshop. It supports a huge variety of formats, can create JPEG files from your source (which is why you don’t need your camera to do it for you), and gives you a lot of fine-tuned control over white balance, exposure, colour balance, and more. The best part? It’s absolutely free and runs on Linux and Windows.
The GIMP (aka Gnu Image Manipulation Program) is the closest you’ll get to Photoshop without having Photoshop. It does a ton of stuff, is constantly being worked on, has a huge array of plugins and enhancements, and can be used for much more than image processing. Best of all, it’s free and runs on absolutely everything.
In terms of printing the final result, inkjet printers have come a long way. Yes, you can take your SD or compact flash card off to the nearest department store or photography place to get them printed, but if you’re like me and bought a dSLR because you were unlikely to take your film in for development, then a printer is a must. As with most things, price often determines quality and that’s basically true for inkjet printers as well, but it also very true for the paper you use. Avoid printing on regular paper, it’s just a waste of your ink because the final result will look like crap regardless of how good your inkjet is. Get proper paper.
For the printer, what you get will determine a lot of what you can print. Your basic point and shoot can, usually, print a nicely bordered image on 8.5 x 11 stock, anything larger will require software scaling and that can be iffy at best because the software has to “guess” (interpolate) the each new pixel being added. It’s easy to artifact as a result. On the dSLR front, the resolution of the camera will somewhat determine the approximate native size of an unscaled print. Mine, which is 10.1 megapixels, is about an 11 x 17 print unscaled.
So, based on what you want to print, pick your printer. Personally, I highly recommend the Canon Pixma Pro 9000, which is what I have. It has 8 ink tanks and will print upto 13 x 19 inch output. The tanks have a reasonable life and are individually replaceable and not too badly priced. The output quality is superb, Canon claims photolab quality and I believe it. Mind you, this the higher end of the pro-sumer market, and there are excellent alternatives for the less avid for a lot less money. Shop around.
By the way, don’t buy a printer under the assumption you’ll save money. You probably won’t. The advantage of your own printer is time and instant gratification, along with a lot more paper options, it’s not money.
Okay, dSLR photography isn’t cheap, especially if you want to get out there and take great shots of our wilderness. However, if you have reasonable financial means, you can do some really great stuff and not break the bank doing it. Build up your collection slowly and have fun.