Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

October 2007

What Equipment do we usually take afield?

We own a lot of camera equipment, and we've purchased every piece of camera equipment we own. We shoot Canon, but the lens recommendations we'll be making here would apply equally well for Nikon shooters, or virtually anyone using Sigma or Tokina or Tamron lenses. We've almost always used camera-brand name lenses because the durability of the brand name lenses are generally very sturdy and durable.

On trips, we usually take 5 camera bodies with us. Two for each of us and one as a backup in case something goes wrong with one. For couples or spouses that shoot together we'd strongly recommend that they shoot the same camera brand for that reason, otherwise each couple would either have to settle for having only one camera as a backup or carrying three cameras each for insurance of that type of event. Our rule, should a camera 'go down' is that the first to do so get's the backup camera. If another camera 'dies,' then, of course, we're short a camera and the last shooter with the broken camera ends up with just one camera -- unless serious begging or pity gets involved.

So here's the equipment and our reasons for using it:

Cameras - Canon 1D Mark II N and Canon 1D Mark III
At home I often use a Canon 1Ds for the full-frame sensor, especially if I'm doing wide-angles.

500mm F4 L - Although we own a 300mm F2.8L, a 400mm F2.8 L, and a 600mm F4 L, I love the 500mm best because of the combination of magnification and lightness. Previously I'd said that the 400mm F2.8 lens was the most versatile over-all lens, since it focuses close and worked well with converters. However the 400mm is heavy, almost as heavy as the 600mm. The 600 is great for birds, and great if you're shooting from a car, but I've actually grown tired of carrying the heavy lens and the effort required for picking it up and moving it around quickly. When we followed a red fox in Yellowstone recently I really appreciated the weight and the ease I could move that lens around.

28-300mm F3.5-5.6 L - Although some folks say that this lens isn't razor sharp at 300mm, we feel that it is sufficiently sharp throughout its range that it is one of our favorite lenses, covering an enormous focal length. In Antarctica, when we're riding in a zodiac and changing lenses is difficult or impossible, this lens shined. It focuses really close as well - less than 2' at 300mm, so it's a great macro. Tamron I believe makes a similar focal length, although the aperture is a bit slower - 6.3 I believe. With Nikon, the 18-200mm would fill a similar role.

16-35mm F2.8 L - Although we don't use a super wide-angle too frequently, the optics of this close-focusing extremely sharp lens are just superb, so we generally carry it along to have it if we need it.

If we have room, we'll carry one or more of the following lenses as well:

100mm F2.8 macro - Because its smaller than the 180mm macro the 100 is easier to carry and pack, so I'm more inclined to carry it when I'm not sure whether or not I'll need a macro lens. When I'm using the Canon 24EX Macro Twin Flashes, I love using this lens because the working distance, and over-all effectiveness of the flash, is enhanced.

180mm F4 macro - If I only had one macro lens, however, I'd buy this one for the working distance and narrow angle of view. Having a lens tripod collar really helps, too, for changing compositions.

90mm Tilt/Shift - T./S lenses maximize depth of field, but this lens really maximizes the opportunity for depth of field. I use it for insects, salamanders, snakes, macro plants, mini-landscapes, and I'll carry it whenever I can.

24mm Tilt/Shift - All T/S lenses maximize depth of field at a given f-stop, but I don't use this focal length as often as the 90.

Wimberley Gimbal Head - Both the old version and the new type 2 are wonderful, and we absolutely love these heads. The new version is lighter and has locking knobs for panning and tilting and we believe it's worth the upgrade. The Wimberley head is designed for longer telephotos, but we use it with any lens we own that has a lens tripod collar, including our 28-300 and our 70-200.

Really Right Stuff BH-55 - We use both styles - the panorama version and the standard, and these ballheads have never locked up on us. We used to be big fans of the Arca-Swiss ballheads, but they often locked up or froze. When we don't have enough room to carry both the Wimberley and the RRS head we'll just take the RRS head since this head is designed to hold cameras and long lenses. However if you do use the RRS head with a long lens, be careful that the locking knob isn't too loose because you might have a big, heavy lens 'mouse-trap' your fingers or hand. I drew blood twice on my last trip to Yellowstone when I didn't have time to switch to the Wimberley and used the RRS head instead. The BH-55 will support a big lens, but you just must be careful about not getting caught by the lens if the locking knob is loose.

580EX Flash - A good TTL flash is essential. On most trips we also carry a Visual Echoes (Better Beamer) tele-flash, and I don't think any field photographer should be without one of these tele-flash accessories. We feel so strongly about this that it is one of the few accessories we stock and sell from our office.

Molar Bag - If we're shooting from a car, safari vehicle, or tundra buggy, we shoot from this beanbag that resembles the tooth of the same name. The bag doesn't fall off the window since the bag's roots overhand each side. It is the other accessories we stock and sell.


Previous Questions of the Month

Digital Questions

What is our initial Digital Workflow?
What is our Digital Workflow in the Lab?
 How do I keep track of Digital Files?
Is Shooting in the RAW format worthwhile?
What is the Difference?
How can you capture a sharp image and angel hair on a windy day? 
Can you match the Histograms?
How do we meter White?

 Is the Mark II the ultimate wildlife digital camera?
What is DEC? 
 Wildlife Models - Is there anything new to shoot?

Do You Need a Big Printer?
Can a Wimberley Head be used with small lenses?
 What is Reality? Adobe's powerful LIGHTROOM Program
Why must you have at least 2 digital backups?
 Is Digital Manipulation - a benign alternative to interacting in the natural world?
 Film or Digital? - Why you should shoot film!
 Does the Visibledust cleaning system really work?

Camera Techniques

Does the AutoFocus on the EOS 1D Mark III work?
Which Macro Lens is for You?

What is the Most Important thing you can do before a Workshop?
How many Flashes do you need to effectively illuminate hummingbirds?
What is the best shutter speed for panning running mammals?

Is there an easy way to level a camera for panorama shots?
Is the New Wimberley head worth having?
Is an L-Shaped Camera Bracket worth the Money? You bet it is!
Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?

Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?
What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?
What is the Best Composition?
Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?

 How do you determine distances?
Hyperfocal Distance
Apertures for Macro


Flash and Tele-flash Techniques
What is the best flash for closeup and macro photography?
What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?
How do you shoot high-speed action images?
How did I shoot the gliding Sugar Glider?
How did I photograph that flying wasp?
What the heck is a Plamp?


What I did on my summer 'vacation.'
Why is Yellowstone the best for wildlife photography in the US?
Is a Trip to Antarctica Worth it?
What is the best season to do a photo safari in East Africa?

What is the Big Lie? The truth about Kenya's Tourism--it is SAFE!
Which Mountain Park is better for wildlife - Denali or Torres del Paine?
What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales?

How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites? 
How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?

What is the best Car Window Mount?
How can you save your shoulders?
How can you reduce contrast and the effect of wind for flower and macro photography?
How can you reduce contrast and the effect of wind for flower and macro photography?
What is the best Game Caller?

How Easy is Whale Photography?
How Easy is Whale Photography?

Why Can't You Feed A Bear?
What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?



Contact us by e-mail: