4.4 Other Accessories

A number of other accessories, while in most cases rather mundane, are worth mentioning very briefly at this point.  These cluster roughly into two groups: those used for powering the camera system (i.e., batteries and their associated gadgetry), and those used for protecting equipment from damage or loss.

4.4.1 Battery Accessories

It goes without saying that spare batteries, both for the camera and the external flash unit, are essential for any extended shoot (i.e. one lasting more than a few hours).  Fully-charged camera batteries tend to last longer in the field than flash batteries (if you're heavily using the flash), and for some camera models a battery change is only necessary once per day.  My
pro camera's battery lasts all day long, though I keep a spare in my accessories bag just in case I forget to recharge the main battery overnight.  For the non-pro models that I’ve used, the spare battery has proved more essential, since they’ve rarely lasted through an all-day shoot even if fully charged the night before.  Note that for a number of consumer-grade and prosumer models, spare camera batteries are available from third-party manufacturers at much lower prices than from the camera maker; though I’ve never used one of these, there are persistent rumors that these don’t last nearly as long in the field as the real versions, and that their ability to hold a charge gradually deteriorates after some number of months.

Fig. 4.4.1: Some batteries last longer than others.  The battery on
the left is from a pro camera, and typically lasts all day long, whereas
the battery on the right, from a prosumer model, typically has to be
recharged after a few hours of intense shooting in the field.

    Batteries for flash have already been discussed in section 4.3.  To that discussion we’ll merely add here that some third-party high-voltage battery packs are available (such as those offered by Quantum) which can power both the camera and an external flash.  It’s worth reiterating here that the use of these high-voltage third-party units will typically void the warranty on your camera and flash unit, so that if the third-party unit fries your camera or flash unit, you may be unable to get the camera fixed for free by the manufacturer even during the warranty period.  Also, as mentioned several times already, when working with third-party accessories, compatibility issues can be a nightmare to resolve, since the two companies may simply blame each other, leaving you in the middle with a non-working, or even damaged, camera system.  This has happened to me twice now, and is one of the main reasons that I now rarely buy any electronic gear from a third-party manufacturer.
    One external
gadget that I do recommend for consumer/prosumer models is the external battery grip, such as the one shown below for the Canon 30D/40D/50D.  This unit allows you to deploy two camera batteries at once, significantly lengthening the time before a battery change is needed in the field.  It also permits the use of standard AA batteries to power the camera, in place of the camera’s proprietary battery, which can be useful in emergencies—i.e., if you forget to recharge your camera’s battery overnight, you can simply pick up a pack of AA’s from a Quickie Mart on the way to a shoot.

Fig. 4.4.2: Prosumer camera with a battery grip attached
to the bottom.  This grip has room for two batteries, though
only one is installed here.  At the bottom right are several
buttons which make it easier to operate the camera when
shooting in portrait orientation (i.e., vertically).

    The external battery grip provides one more significant advantage: it makes the body much easier to grasp in the field, especially when shooting in portrait orientation (i.e., turning the camera 90 degrees so that the image frame is vertical rather than horizontal).  Most battery grips provide an extra set of controls (including an extra shutter-release button) which are conveniently positioned for use in portrait orientation.  Photographers with small hands or who are weight-limited do sometimes complain that the battery grip makes the camera too large and/or heavy.  Note, however, that most pro bodies come with the battery grip integrated into the camera, so that those having issues with camera size or weight will necessarily have to confront these problems if and when they upgrade to a pro body.
    As a final note concerning batteries, for those who opt to use AA’s either for flash or when using an external battery grip that supports the use of AA’s, note that there are a number of issues regarding the quality of AA’s and their chargers that might be worth researching before making a bulk battery purchase.  Obviously, differences in charge capacity are worth considering for the batteries themselves.  What may be less obvious is that the choice of charger can affect the longevity of the batteries, since some chargers are
smarter than others.  The least intelligent of the chargers currently available simply continue trying to recharge the battery for as long as the battery is in the charger, so that if you don’t remove the battery after the proper amount of time, the battery will begin to heat up and may get damaged through overheating.  Smarter chargers will not only detect when the battery is fully charged and shut off accordingly, but may also intelligently manage the charging schedule (i.e., re-charging the battery more slowly) so as to avoid memory build-up or overheating.  The more expensive chargers also typically monitor each of the four batteries separately, while the cheaper units charge all four the same, even if they currently have different charge levels. 

Fig. 4.4.3: A battery charger (AA) with a cigarette-lighter
adapter.  This model is made by Energizer, and can
charge four AA’s in 15 minutes.  It also shuts off when
the batteries reach full charge, to avoid overheating.
The unit also plugs into standard electical outlets.

    Finally, note that AA’s with higher energy ratings (i.e., milli-amp hours, or mAh) may actually perform worse, in terms of the number of flashes which they can power, than lower mAh batteries, since the higher mAh batteries may have higher internal resistance and may convert more of their current into heat.  Since new models of batteries (and their chargers) are constantly appearing on the market, it’s worth taking a half hour to Google some information about the most recent models before making a purchase.  At the present time, Sanyo Eneloops seem to be very popular among flash photographers, though I currently use Energizers (2000mAh to 2500mAh), which I charge in the Energizer 15-minute recharger (which can be plugged into the cigarette lighter in your car, so you can recharge on your way to a shoot).  The rechargeable Energizers seem to be reliable, and are sold in many big-name grocery stores.

4.4.2 Protective Accessories

Since cameras and lenses (especially the big lenses typically used in bird photography) tend to be extremely expensive, it’s worthwhile looking into ways to protect your investment.  As we’ve already noted in sections 4.1 and 4.2, a sturdy tripod and tripod head rated for the proper weight are essential in this regard.  Here we consider a few other accessories that can help to protect your equipment from accidental damage (or outright loss).
    For hand-held rigs, you’ll obviously want a strap that isn’t likely to either break or to slide off your shoulder in the field.  In terms of the latter, a rubber backing can obviously help by providing additional friction.  Unfortunately, product descriptions on web sites are rarely useful in assessing differences in this regard, so I’ve found it necessary to order several different models and keep the one that works best for me.  In terms of a strap’s tendency to break, an obvious red flag is the use of plastic
quick-release clasps.  These clasps allow you to rapidly detach one camera and attach another.  Unfortunately, they also increase the likelihood that your camera will be unintentionally detached in the field and fall onto a hard surface (or perhaps into a river, or an enormous canyon).  Given that a quality strap can be had for perhaps $25 or $30 (US), it would seem more prudent to instead keep separate straps attached to individual cameras, rather than swapping out different cameras with one strap using quick-release clamps.  Also, since these clamps are typically made of thin plastic, there’s the possibility of the clasp cracking slightly without your noticing it, and then breaking the rest of the way when you least expect it.

Fig. 4.4.4: A fairly good quality camera strap.  Despite not having a
rubber backing, it does tend to stay on the shoulder quite well.  This
strap cost about $24 (US) in 2008.  Avoid cheap straps!

A new option in the strap department is the so-called sling strap.  A popular brand is Black Rapid.  These straps leave the camera dangling at your hip, but allow you to very rapidly raise the camera up to your eye for sudden shooting (see section 3.12 for an illustration).  A number of photographers have recently started to use this system even with big 500mm f/4 lenses.  I myself now use this system with my 500mm f/4 rig (with 1.4× TC attached) and find it to be extremely efficient, permitting much greater mobility than with my tripod-mounted 600mm rig.  Unfortunately, the sling straps that are currently available are technically not rated for the weight of a large telephoto rig, so the hardware does wear rather quickly, and there could be increased risks of equipment damage. (Translation: use at your own risk).
    Another obvious accessory in this category is the bag or case in which you keep your camera and/or lens when you’re not actively using it.  Although most cameras don’t come with any type of bag, most big birding lenses do come with a bag or even a hardshell case.  I virtually never use either of these accessories, but others have found them useful.  Backpacks designed for carrying big lenses would seem to be especially useful when hiking to remote locations with heavy rigs.  Bags for carrying tripods are also available.  During long road trips, packing your lenses and cameras into bags or cases is highly recommended; I don’t do so only because I have a compact car.  Their use in air travel is a more complicated issue.  For checked baggage, the use of a hardshell case with Canon or Nikon written in large letters on the outside can of course attract the attention of thieves; also, these large cases may not fit in the overhead compartment of whatever aircraft you find yourself on.  A padded bag without external markings may be better for carry-on of large lenses, while for checked baggage it may be worthwhile to pay the extra freight charge and use a nondescript chest padded with clothing.  A popular brand of lens bags is Lowepro.

Fig. 4.4.5: A hardshell lens case.  This case is for the
Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens, which packs quite small
when the lens hood is removed.  The case came free
with the lens, but sees little use.  Any case that looks
like it contains expensive tech gear is likely to be stolen
if left unattended (such as at a baggage claim).

    Although many pro bodies and pro lenses are advertised as being weatherproof, it’s still worthwhile to try to protect them from rain; this of course goes doubly so for non-pro models (or pro models lacking full weatherproofing).  Weatherproofing typically just involves the use of rubber seals around all openings in the camera or lens body, such as around the openings for buttons and dials, or around the lens mount.  If any of these 15-cent pieces of rubber just happened to be installed improperly in the factory, you may end up with a ruined unit after just a few minutes out in the rain.  In the case of a simple downpour—i.e., not in a blowing storm with water spraying in all directions—protecting your gear from water damage can be accomplished with two simple accessories: an oversized umbrella, and a large, heavy-duty garbage bag.

Fig. 4.4.6: Yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata) in the rain.
Shooting in gentle rain is quite feasible with a reliable umbrella mount.

    In terms of the umbrella, the main problem is how to attach it to your tripod so that you still have both hands free to operate the camera.  Unfortunately, the solution to this problem will be different for different models of tripod head.  For the extremely popular Wimberley head, a dedicated umbrella mount can be purchased, though they tend to be ridiculously expensive.  Two options which are far cheaper (and usable on any brand of tripod/head/lens) are duct tape, and plastic clamps.  I’ve successfully used duct tape to attach an umbrella in the field; the only drawback is of course that when you remove the duct tape there will be a sticky residue left on your gear.  Plastic clamps, together with mini-bungee cords, can work in some cases, and are available very cheaply at stores such as WalMart and KMart

Fig. 4.4.7: Cheap implements for mounting an umbrella on a tripod.
Both were found in the automotive section of WalMart.  The mini-
bungee cords are also useful for stabilizing custom flash extenders.

In terms of trash bags, these are simply a highly portable and effective means of protecting your gear when you’re far from your car (and umbrella), or when the wind starts to blow rain up under your umbrella.  Keep in mind that any gear that you keep in the pockets of your photo vest (e.g., teleconverters, wide-angle lenses, even cell phones) can become damaged if you happen to get caught in a fierce storm far from shelter and end up getting soaked.  For this reason, I always keep at least two or three large trash bags folded up in my vest pocket, as well as some ziploc sandwich bags for smaller items.
    No matter how hard you work to keep your gear safe, there’s always a chance that something unexpected will happen, resulting in damage or even total loss of expensive gear.  For this reason, I highly recommend insuring at least the most expensive of your lenses and/or cameras.  Many homeowners’ insurance policies have provisions for personal possessions damaged or lost while in the home, due to fire or theft, and in many cases a rider can be purchased which covers specific items from theft when used away from home.  Geico, for example, offers a very affordable
no-fault rider that will cover items against even accidental damage (e.g., due to your dropping it from a tall building or into an alligator-infested lake).
    Even if your equipment is insured, it’s always best not to tempt thieves by leaving your expensive equipment out where they can see it, such as in the front seat of your car while you’re taking a restroom or lunch break.  Keep in mind also that if you’re constantly seen going in and out of your home with expensive equipment, unfriendly eyes may eventually take notice and target your residence for burglary.  Though in nice neighborhoods you’ll likely have nothing to fear from your neighbors, other passers-by (i.e., strangers) are another matter.  Whenever I’m not shooting birds, all of my camera gear stays locked up in a large gun safe, which I purchased new for a little over $1000 US (plus a few hundred for delivery and installation).  A typical 40-gun safe will provide more than enough room for not only your cameras but also your binoculars, laptop computers, and most important personal documents.  Many safes also provide protection against house fires, and may also allow you to negotiate a lower rate when insuring your gear.

Fig. 4.4.8: My personal Fort Knox.  This safe was relatively inexpensive, and
affords me peace-of-mind when I have to leave my camera gear at home.  A
camera safe is also useful for protecting other valuable items, such as binoculars,
spotting scopes, backup hard drives, wills, deeds, birth certificates, and passports.
This unit also provides protection in the case of a house fire.  It's drill-proof and
virtually impregnable to all forms of attack except for some of the larger nuclear
missiles (primarily those with multiple warheads).

4.4.3 Miscellaneous Accessories

A few final accessories bear mentioning.  The use of a many-pocketed photo vest has already been alluded to; these of course make it easier to carry large numbers of extra gadgets and other accessories while in the field—i.e., cleaning fluids and cloths, teleconverters, extension tubes, trash bags, memory cards, lens caps, spare batteries, and even business cards. 

Fig. 4.4.10: A remote shutter release.  The button
works just like the shutter-release button on your
camera.  Using a remote button can reduce camera
shake and improve sharpness.  Nikon’s remote
is wireless, while Canon’s is rather more primitive.

    One final accessory that I keep in my vest but almost never use is the remote shutter release.  This device attaches to your camera at one end, while at the other end is a shutter-release button; this allows you to snap a photo without actually touching the camera, and has traditionally been used to reduce blurriness due to camera shake.  In most cases, these gadgets are simply not useful when photographing birds.  Since most birds are constantly moving, there’s little time to point the camera and wait for its vibrations to settle.  Instead, the use of image stabilization (IS), or at the very least a firm grip on the camera and lens, is preferable when tracking subjects that are either in motion or likely to move at any time.  One exception is when using extreme focal lengths to photograph highly stationary birds in little or no wind, such as at a nest site.  For the shot of the eagle nest shown below, I was shooting at 1200mm, with IS turned on and with the shutter triggered via a remote release cable.  When the wind later picked up, however, I had to abandon the remote and use my hands to stabilize the lens.

Fig. 4.4.11: Bald eagle family in North Carolina.  This photo was taken at a whopping 1200mm
focal length, requiring the greatest care to avoid camera shake.  A remote shutter release was used,
in conjunction with image stabilization.  Focus and exposure were set manually.