‘All the gear, no idea…’ a popular adage in today’s kit rich world of outdoor pursuits. In an article originally written for Love Nature, I wanted to delve into the world of the wildlife photographer and flip the famous quote on its head. Whether you’re up to your waist in mud, employing all of your field-craft to get closer to that perfect full frame deer shot in the fields at the end of your garden, or trekking through a tropical jungle melting in the sweltering heat and looking for a needle in a haystack – having the right idea about the right gear can make or break your next wildlife shoot. Every shoot has different goals, different challenges and requires a different bag of kit, but to keep things simple I’ve broken it down into what I’m going to call ‘backyard photography’ – something closer to home and a little more accessible, and ‘expedition photography’ – remote trips requiring a little more effort to chose the correct lightweight and versatile kit. With a sprawling and seemingly endless list of options, what are the key components of the Ultimate Wildlife Photographers Kit List?
- Something to take your picture with.
Backyard – As a self confessed Canon fan-boy, I never leave home on a shoot without my trusty Canon 5D DSLR. It’s weather sealed and durable magnesium alloy body can withstand the rigors of nature, whilst the colour rendition and pixel-for-pixel resolution of the full frame sensor is a no brainer for capturing an image of your chosen subject in all it’s detailed glory.
Expedition – Expeditions are often expensive, planned long in advance, and far from help. Because of this, one has to consider the eventuality that your main tool – your camera – could stop working. For this reason, I always take a spare body with me on my far flung trips. I find the Canon 7D is a great little brother for my main camera. Sacrificing the full frame resolution not only gives you a lighter and smaller backup, but the crop factor of the sensor gives you an additional 60% reach for those long distance shots. It’s all about versatility!
- Something to see your animal with.
Backyard – A great camera is only as good as the glass you put on it. For me the ultimate in optics makes Canon’s L Series of fluorite coated super-telephoto lenses a no brainer. Working closer to home with the luxury of being able to carry more, I like to use the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L USM and the 800mm 5.6 L IS USM. From tiny insects to bounding deer, this combo has it covered.
Expedition – Trekking long distances, not to mention excess baggage fees often means frugality is key when choosing your expedition kit. Space is money. For this reason, I forgo the 100-400mm from above and opt to take the 70-200 F2.8 IS USM with a 2 x teleconvertor. It gives me the same reach in a much smaller and lighter package, with the added bonus of a wider F Stop for those beautiful shallow focus shots. If there’s space, I’ll often chuck in my 16-35mm MK2 to get those stunning context shots of the landscape.
- Something to hold your camera with.
Backyard – The Manfrotto 055 in all its versions is the stalwart of stills photography tripods. It’s often been imitated and it’s been redesigned more times than I’ve taken photographs but the current 055X Aluminum model is a fantastic balance between weight and stability. Coupled with a Wimberley WH200 Gimbal, this is perhaps the ultimate combo in stable and moveable camera support.
Expedition – On expeditions, as we’ve already discussed, weight and space saving is everything. I’m a huge fan of Manfrotto’s superlight compact Befree Carbon tripod. It’s tiny, and yet surprisingly stable and coming in at 1.1kg it barely weighs a thing. On top of this, I like to combine two options of a Benro GHA Gimbal – one of the lightest semi-gimbal heads on the market – with a straight up ball head for those shots where weight can be saved if I’m not planning on panning.
- Something to find your animal with.
I wont even bother splitting this one down into two options, because for the ultimate wildlife photographers kit list, there is only one serious choice, and that’s Swarowski Binoculars. Waterproof, Dustproof, Fogproof, Rainproof – pretty much everything proof – and with the sharpest and brightest optics on the market, the Swarowski EL 8×42 Bins are the ultimate in wildlife tracking tools if you can afford the hefty price tag. As their slogan says, ‘see the unseen.
- Something to carry it all in.
A photographer can spend a lifetime trying to find the best bag for the job, and like many of my pro friends, I’ve got an entire garage full of camera bags that weren’t quite right. Until recently… A new brand of camera bags called F-Stop have begun to filter out onto the market. It’s a simple concept really. Make the backpack and the camera bag two separate things. This modular system offers the perfect versatility for both backyard and expedition wildlife photography. My personal favourite is the F Stop Loka. Coupled with a Medium Internal Camera Unit (ICU) for smaller kits, or F Stop Shinn and an Cine Pro ICU for big lenses and spare bodies. It still has space left for clothes, food and extras whilst being incredibly comfortable for long treks and made of tough and weather resistant fabric that keeps all that expensive kit safe in the worst of conditions.
For full disclosure, as a wildlife photographer and cameraman I am sponsored by F-Stop and a member of their staff pro photographer scheme.