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The myriad choices of camera equipment available to the beginning photographer can be bewildering. Today's cameras feature such an extraordinary range of options that it's often difficult to know where to begin your research. It helps to remember that the camera is just a tool, a way to help you apply light to film.

So before investing in your first piece of equipment, ask yourself a few questions. What type of pictures do you want to take? Do you like photographing people, or are you anxious to try close-up photography? Are you looking forward to wildlife photos? Your answers will give you a foundation from which to begin.

You don't have to worry about addressing all possibilities right away. But beginning with the right system will ensure that you will have the opportunity to build your camera outfit over time.

THE CAMERA

*Note - Though this was written for the 35mm it also applies to digital cameras.

Your first consideration is which camera to buy. If you're pretty certain that you're going to make this your hobby, you should begin with as good a 35mm camera as you can afford. The most versatile type of 35mm camera is the SLR, or single-lens-reflex camera. Unlike the typical point-and-shoot camera, which uses a separate viewfinder for composing pictures, the SLR employs the same lens for viewing the scene as it does for recording the image on film. This gives you more control over composition and focus, because the scene that you record on the film is exactly what you see through the camera's viewfinder.

The 35mm SLR is especially versatile because you can change lenses to suit your specific needs. With the more sophisticated models, you also have the options of changing your viewing screen and adding motor drives and other accessories.

Today's SLRs range from the basic, manually operated type to highly sophisticated models that have electronic controls for everything from exposure and focus to built-in film advance. Consider how much control you wish to have over your images when choosing which features are important to you.

Exposure Control

The camera's method of handling exposure is the first thing you'll want to consider. Do you want manual exposure control, or are there times when automatic exposure (AE), or automatic metering, will best suit your needs? The primary consideration is how much control you want. Some photographers consider manipulating exposure an essential part of their work-they want complete control over factors such as motion, depth of field, and color. But if you enjoy composing and shooting without having to fret too much over settings, you may find that the automatic option is right for you. Or if you do a lot of action photography that requires speedy shooting, a fully automatic option may suit your needs. Many of the fully automatic models come with a variety of exposure modes: one mode selects your aperture as well as your shutter speed; other modes allow you to choose the desired aperture while the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed; or you can select the right shutter speed and let the camera select the aperture.

Keep in mind, though, that automatic settings are not foolproof. Because complex lighting conditions, such as bright sunshine and deep shadows, can fool a camera's meter, automatic metering provides an accurate exposure only about 80 percent of the time. You'll still need a good understanding of f-stops and shutter speeds, so that you can override your camera's choice when necessary. Automatic-metering cameras generally include a manual option, so you have complete control whenever you wish.

Metering Methods

It's important to know what metering method your camera uses, so that you can understand how it arrives at its choice of exposure settings.

Center-weighted metering measures all the light in the viewfinder, but concentrates 75 percent of the meter's sensitivity to the center portion of the camera's viewing area. This is great when the subject is in the center of the picture.

Spot metering is more specific, concentrating the meter reading to a center circle that ranges from 3 to 10 percent of the viewfinder. This type of metering is handy when you want to precisely measure a portion of the scene: a spot meter can read the light off an animal in the field without incorporating any of the background light into its calculation. This ensures that your main subject is properly exposed.

Matrix metering considers brightness, contrast, and distance to determine the best exposure for the image area. This method of metering probably provides the highest degree of accuracy, even in complex lighting conditions.

Whatever method your camera uses, you alone are the judge of what exposure is best for your subject. The keys to successful exposure are to know in advance how you want the photo to look, and to understand how your camera arrives at its suggested exposure reading.

Shutter Speeds

You'll also want to know what range of shutter speeds is available on the camera. Most cameras have fast shutter speeds that are adequate for most applications-1/1000 will cover nearly all of anybody's needs. But if you intend to capture special subjects at close range, such as racing cars or galloping horses, you may want to have shutter speeds that go higher.

Take a close look at the slow end of the camera's range, however, to make sure you have the versatility you need for low-light conditions. Some cameras only go down to Ya second. We don't feel that this is slow enough for many of the shots we like to take; many of our photos require shutter speeds of 1/2 second or longer. We like shutters that will provide an accurate exposure to 4 seconds. Many cameras have a "B" setting that allows you to open the shutter for as long as you hold down the shutter release. These are fine for very long exposures, but when you want an exposure of only 1 or 2 seconds, they're not accurate enough.

Focusing Screens and Viewfinder Accessories

The focusing screen is the piece of glass inside the camera on which the image is viewed. Take a look at the screen inside the camera you're considering. Most cameras come with a split-image screen, which works by aligning the image in the center of the viewfinder as you turn the lens's focusing ring. Most cameras come with a stationary focusing screen that can't be changed, so be certain you're comfortable with it before you buy.

Still, some cameras do offer interchangeable screens. With this option you can choose from over a dozen different screen types. We prefer a clear matte screen for many field situations, because it lets us view the entire image without distraction. Or you may find it easier to compose and focus using another type of focusing screen-for example, some have grids that help you line up horizons and vertical lines. While we don't change our screens much, we like having the option to customize our cameras to suit our preferences.

If you wear glasses, you might also benefit from an eyepiece correction lens, an attachment that screws onto your viewfinder to help you see more clearly. Some manufacturers make adapters for a wide range of eyesight requirements, so ask your camera shop's staff what's available for your camera.

Manual or Auto-Focus?

The new auto-focus options let you shoot quickly without fussing with fine focus. This is especially handy if you're shooting moving subjects, such as children and wildlife. We use Nikon's automatic-focus tracking, which automatically engages when the subject moves, and locks onto the subject even if something else momentarily gets in the way. Also, the autofocus feature can give you an accurate reading in low-light conditions where your eyesight may fail. And all auto-focus lenses give you the option of switching to manual focus for tighter control of your subject.

Depth-of-Field Preview

Make sure your camera has a depth-of-field preview button. This button stops down the lens to the designated aperture setting so you can see exactly how you're shooting the scene. When you view the scene with your lens wide open-the typical procedure-you don't get a good idea of your depth of field. The preview button shows you how much of the scene is in focus before you shoot.

Motor Drives

Motor-driven film advance is also built into many of the new cameras. Some cameras offer a range of film advance speeds, which allows you to set the speed that's right for your situation. A simple I-frame auto-advance conveniently moves your film ahead after each shot. A low-speed advance shoots 2 frames per second-perfect for filming a sequence of events. High-speed advance shoots 4 or more frames per second, to maximize your chances of capturing that peak moment of action.

LENSES

As wonderful as all these camera options are, it's your lens that'll really tell the tale when it comes to the quality and appearance of your images. Since you can use your SLR with an extraordinary range of lens options, it's important to understand some of the basics of lens construction before you select the lenses that are right for you.

Angle of View

Lenses are described by their angle of view, the amount of area that they show in front of the camera. Angle of view is determined by the focal length of the lens, measured from the optical center of the lens to the film plane.

Chances are that your new camera came with a 50 or 55mm lens; these are called normal lenses, because they provide an angle of view that's close to that of the human eye, about 45 degrees. They're good all-purpose lenses, so start shooting with this size before you decide what your next purchase will be.

Wide-Angle Lenses

Lenses with short focal lengths are called wide-angle lenses. These show more of the scene than the eye would normally see if looking out of a simple viewfinder frame. A wide-angle lens accomplishes this by bending the light that passes through it, optically shrinking everything it sees and fitting more onto the viewing screen. The extreme end of the wide-angle spectrum is the fish-eye lens, which optically distorts a wide area and fits it into the viewing area. These lenses can practically see backward-a 6mm version can take in as much as a 220-degree angle of view. Fish-eyes are fun to play with but impractical to own: their application is very specific to scientific and architectural types of work.

A practical choice of wide-angle lens for your basic outfit starts at 24 or 28mm; these provide you angles of view of about 84 and 75 degrees, respectively. They're the lenses of choice for landscapes. But they're also handy when you're shooting on the run: the picture angle is large, the depth of field is wide, and you can shoot fast without a lot of worry about focus. And because the optics usually offer larger aperture openings, you can shoot in a wide range of lighting conditions.

Remember, wide-angle lenses shrink everything, so your subjects can disappear if you're not close enough! Wide-angles also distort the images somewhat, so certain features can appear disproportionate: if part of your subject is closer to you, it will appear oversized compared to the rest of the subject. This is well illustrated with the "trophy fish" shot: a fisherman holding his fish in front of a normal 50mm lens will have a nice fish; but take that same photo using a 28mm lens-now that's a fish!

Short Telephoto Lenses

A short telephoto lens (85 to 135mm) is a must for candids or family portraits: it lets you fill the frame with your subject without having to get too close, so you eliminate any perspective distortion. These lenses also have a shallower depth of field, letting you put distracting backgrounds out of focus, and more easily isolate important details in the landscape.

Long Telephoto Lenses

Long telephoto lenses are used for wildlife photography and sporting events. They pull in distant scenes, allowing you to bring in subjects that would be out of a normal person's range of view. There are a number of telephoto lenses on the market, with a wide range of price tags. The quality of the optics is crucial, so buy the best you can. Note the aperture opening: lenses go up in price significantly if they can open I or 2 stops wider than others. For wildlife, you'll want to begin with a 300mm or 400mm lens. A 300mm is about the longest lens you can hand-hold, and anything 400mm or over will require tripod support. Serious wildlife photographers also have super-long (over 400mm) telephotos in their gear bags. These are expensive and heavy, but if you become serious about wildlife photography you may eventually want to add one to your outfit.

Zoom Lenses

There's a range of zoom lenses on the market, and they make a handy alternative to carrying a lot of different fixed-focal-length lenses. But because the optical requirements of zooms are more complicated, make sure to buy the best you can afford, or you may be disappointed by the image quality. Keep in mind that a zoom lens is a little heavier than a fixed-focal-length lens, so it may be harder to hand-hold. It also may have a larger minimum aperture than you could get with a fixed-length lens; this can be a problem with wildlife photography, where your best shots often come at the beginning or end of the day when available light is limited. A fixed-length 300mm f2.8 lens may be affordable, but a 75-300mm f2.8 lens may be impossible to find, or out of your price range. You're more likely to find a 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 lens, but this will cut your ability to capture available light in half.

Eventually, you'll want a range of lenses that are roughly double one another. A great all-purpose field outfit would probably include a 24mm lens, a 50mm lens, and a 105mm lens. From there you should decide what lenses best fit the type of photography you like. Our next purchase was a 300mm lens, because it's more useful for wildlife than a 200mm is. Every photographer's ideal field outfit is different. Don't hurry with your decisions. The more you shoot, the better you'll understand your own needs.

CAMERA SUPPORTS

A tripod is the single most important piece of equipment, after your camera and lens. Mounting your camera on a tripod is absolutely essential for shots that require a long lens, a slow shutter speed, or close focus. But we also find that using a tripod all the time improves every shot we take: there is no question that we improve the sharpness of our photos because we're not trying to hand-hold the equipment. Common wisdom says you can hand-hold a camera if the shutter speed is at least as high as the length of the lens you are using-for example, you can hand-hold a 125mm lens if you're shooting 1/125 second or faster. But if you have to shoot with that same lens at 1/60 second, you'll need a tripod to prevent blurriness due to camera wobble.

We have long thought that the real reason for the improvement in our images is that mounting the camera on the tripod forces us to take our time. We set up the shot better, we compose and focus better, we're probably more careful with the exposure, and we're more likely to bracket questionable lighting situations.

Buy the sturdiest tripod you can afford that fits your weight requirements. We often travel with two tripods: one is a little lighter and can be packed easily; the other, our standard tripod, is heavier and more stable. We really prefer this heavy one and carry it on virtually all our trips. To make it easier to carry, we wrap the legs with insulating foam so it can sit atop our shoulders comfortably.

There are two major choices when it comes to tripod heads. Pan/tilt heads have separate handles for every direction of control. They provide precise movement of every camera direction, but tend to be heavier and more time-consuming to use. They're useful when you want to lock in one axis of adjustment while still being free to move the others. For example, you can position a precise vertical line, lock it in, but still have the freedom to swivel and tilt up or down.

The ball-and-socket head is lighter, more compact, and a little faster to use, because one handle moves the camera in all directions. This means that every time you loosen the handle, all movements are free. We generally prefer this option for field-work.

If you do close-up work, you'll need a tripod that works close to the ground. There are tripods with center posts that invert, so you can get the camera to ground level. But we've never gotten used to working upside down. Both our tripods collapse all the way to the ground, so they can be used for close-up work when we slip in a short center post. There are also a number of mini tripods on the market, and while we can see the advantage of using them, they've never given us the feeling of stability we want. But try one and see what you think.

There are also other types of camera supports designed specifically for use with long tele-photo lenses, which are great for sporting, action, and wildlife photography. You can buy shoulder gun stocks, or stocks that are supported on the chest. A simple monopod may be enough support in certain circumstances. See chapter 6 for more information on supports for wildlife photography.

FILTERS

Filters are glass disks that attach to the lens to absorb or modify the transmitted light as it enters the camera. There was a time when purist photographers refused to use any filters, believing that they should try to capture the essential light just as it appears, rather than correct it or enhance it in any way. And it's still true that special-effects filters or those that radically change the natural colors don't play a role in traditional nature photography. But there's another category of filters that should be an essential part of every field outfit. These correct the light so that the film sees what you see, and help by bringing out rich colors or eliminating the glare from bright reflected sunlight.

Skylight Filters

Many people use skylight or UV filters religiously: skylight filters reduce the bluish cast on a bright day; UV filters supposedly reduce the effects of haze, although we prefer the results we get with a polarizing filter (see below). These filters are also recommended for protecting the lens from scratches while you're in the field. But we generally prefer not to have these filters on our lenses: they just add an extra layer of glass that can get dirty or smudged. Keeping your lens cap handy seems a good enough way to care for your lens.

Polarizing Filters

On the other hand, the one filter we could not do without is the polarizer, which eliminates glare from reflective surfaces and reduces the effects of haze. Colors are more saturated-skies are bluer and grass is greener-because you have removed glare that your eye might not have even noticed. The polarizer works best when your camera is pointed at a right angle to the sun. Just attach the filter to the lens and rotate it until all unwanted reflections or glare are gone. The one filter you cannot do without is the polarizer, which eliminates glare from reflective surfaces and reduces the effects of haze.

Warming Filters

Another filter you may want to keep with you is an amber-toned warming filter, designated for increasing strength by the terms "81A," "81B," or "81C." These are light-balancing filters that adjust for the amount of blue and make colors a little warmer, and are excellent for shooting in shady areas that tend to be much cooler because of the higher percentage of blue light. If you only carry one, try the 81B: its midtone amber color covers most situations.

Neutral-Density Filters

Neutral-density (ND) filters control the amount of light that enters the camera, and are used when you want to slow shutter speeds or open the aperture. We especially like a graduated neutral-density filter, which is half skylight and half neutral-density; it allows us to give a landscape the exposure it needs for full saturation while toning down the sky a bit, so the intensity of the light doesn't burn out cloud detail.

MOTOR DRIVES

Motor drives advance your film automatically. Many of the new automatic cameras have built-in motor drives that can be adjusted to advance film from I frame per second to as much as 5 frames per second. If your camera doesn't have a built-in motor drive, it may be capable of accepting an external drive.

There are certainly times when this feature will come in handy-animal and sporting-event photography, particularly, are enhanced by the ability to move quickly. But if you're more interested in landscape photography or close-ups of flowers, you might consider skipping this option. For one thing, a motor drive makes the camera significantly bulkier. The other factor is that speedy film advance can make it easy to burn through a lot of film! Sure, there are rare moments when a burst of shots will help you capture the desired image, but there are many more circumstances when a shot or two would serve the same purpose. After all, even 5 frames per second isn't that fast when you're shooting at a shutter speed of 1/250 second. Be aware, too, that the motor drive can actually add complications if you're working in hot or cold extremes (see chapter 9 for more information about these conditions).

OTHER ACCESSORIES

There are a handful of other accessories that will round out your field outfit. The first is the cable release, a small push-lever cable that screws into your shutter release and allows you to squeeze off a shot without touching the camera. This prevents you from causing any accidental camera shake. These devices are inexpensive and very handy, particularly in close-up or low-light conditions.

A set of extension tubes is an excellent and inexpensive way to get close-ups of your subjects. An extension tube is a hollow, fixed-length accessory that fits between your camera body and your lens; different lengths provide varying amounts of magnification. We find them to be the most cost-effective way to get sharp close-up images.

We don't go anywhere without a little set of reflectors and diffusers. There are a number of products on the market for bouncing a little light onto your subject, but we usually make our own easy-to-pack versions.

We also keep a small flash in our gear bag, just in case we need a little burst of light. We only use this flash if it's absolutely necessary, because bouncing a little reflected light creates a better, more natural effect. But every once in a while the flash comes in handy. See chapter 5 for more information on these and other close-up accessories.

 

 


For more information on Yellowstone National Park and
the surrounding communities visit these helpful sites:

YellowstoneNationalPark.com
- YellowstoneLodging.com
YellowstoneFlyFishing.com


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