Photography

Great Gifts for Photographers (Under $100)

GREAT HOLIDAY GIFT IDEAS FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS

There are a lot of these “Great Gift Ideas for Photographers” listicles out there, so I was reluctant to write one. What I finally decided is that most of them didn’t actually list items that are all that useful to serious photographers or the items they list are just plain kitschy junk. I mean we’ve all seen the camera lens mugs that look cool, but in practice are pretty crappy vessels for the all-important-coffee-break when in the field. This list of gift ideas is full of things I actually use frequently, or I would like to have myself, as a working photographer. No kitsch…just real practical gifts that the photographer in your life will use and enjoy for under $100 USD.

Peak Design Leash Camera Strap ($39 or less)

I own two camera straps by Peak Design. They make solid products. The “leash” is my favourite. Whether you’re shooting a small mirrorless camera or a large pro DSLR, the leash works great. Their ingenious system for fastening the strap to your camera provides versatility and supports up to 200 lbs of weight! It’s also easily adjustable and very comfortable to use in the field. I used mine the entire time I was travelling in Europe last summer. Visit https://www.peakdesign.com/ for more info. Check the price on Amazon.

Also consider the Peak Design Slide Summit Edition (which I also own) for heavier camera and lens combos ($65 or less):


Think Tank Photo Retrospective 10 Shoulder Bag ($100)

Think Tank Photo makes awesome shoulder bags. The Retrospective 10 shoulder bag is great for carrying one large camera body and up to three pro-lenses (with other accessories). I own the larger Retrospective 50, which is bit overkill for my needs. The Retrospective 10 is a much more reasonable size and carries the essential needs of a travel photographer. These bags are well-made and very comfortable. I really like that is doesn’t really look like a camera bag, and thus draws less attention. Check the specs, price, and see more images on Amazon.


Think Tank Photo Holster 30 V2.0 Camera Bag ($80 or less)

Walking around with larger lenses is tricky. You don’t always have time to go digging around your backpack for your 70-200mm lens when an elk walks out in front of you or when you’re walking around a city and something interesting happens. Sometimes you need access to your longer lens for more reach on the fly. Think Tank makes solid products that a lot of pro-photographers love. I have one of their shoulder bags, and it’s great (but cost more than $100, so I didn’t list it here). I don’t own the Photo Holster 30 V2.0 by Think Tank, but I can see it being something that I’d use frequently on those shorter walks in the woods when I only want minimal gear and need a telephoto lens close at hand. Think Tank Photo also makes smaller versions of this bag. For more info visit www.thinktankphoto.com.
Check the price on Amazon.


Tenba Protective Wrap Tools 16in Protective Wraps (various sizes $14 - $17)

I own and use several Tenba Protective Wraps. They’re great for wrapping up your lenses for extra padding in transit. They’re available in several different sizes and colours. Most lenses and camera bodies fit into the 16 inch version, but I own a few 20 inch ones as well. I’ve even used these to line my messenger bag for extra padding, affectively making it a camera shoulder bag. Check the price on Amazon.


Giottos AA1920 Rocket Air Blaster ($8 - $15)

This silly looking little thing is one of the most important things a photographer can own. I’ve had mine for many years and use it daily. Essentially it’s used for blowing dust, dirt, lint, and sand off your camera body and lenses. It can also be used (when used properly) during the process of cleaning dust from camera sensors. I use it to blow away dust and debris before wiping the glass components of my camera and lens. It can be purchased alone or in a cleaning kit with other accessories.
Check the price on Amazon.


Water resistant memory card case ( $10 or less)

There are many waterproof and water resistant card cases for memory cards out there. They’re all very similar. The one listed here is a popular product on Amazon and the one that I use. It holds 12 SD cards. There is a version for CF cards available and a few other configurations as well.
Check the price on Amazon.


OP/TECH Rainsleeves - 2-Pack ($7 or less)

These very inexpensive (less than $7 for two!) rain covers work great at keeping your camera gear dry. I used them while photographing grizzlies in the rainy Khutzeymateen wilderness in northern British Columbia. They worked great, even with my Nikon 200-500mm VR lens! They are very easy to use and even allow your zoom lenses to zoom out without slipping off. I’d recommend these to anyone who shoots outdoors. I prefer them to more bulky and expensive options. Check them out on Amazon.


Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge DVD Box Set (Entire Series $70 or less)

Travels to the Edge is an excellent television series featuring world renowned travel and nature photographer Art Wolfe. If it doesn’t get you motivated to get outdoors and make some images, nothing will. Art’s photos are amazing, and the videography of the awesome places he visits on the show is top quality. I own this set and rewatch my favourite episodes often. It is both entertaining as well as educational for the aspiring outdoor photographer. Check the price on Amazon.


Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Photography
($16 or less)

This guide, written by one of my favourite travel photographers Richard I’Anson, taught me a lot of what I know about travel photography as both a hobby and business. It’s packed full of great images and lessons for the aspiring travel photographer. Even though I’ve read it twice over, I still reference it time and time again in preparation for trips abroad. Check the price on Amazon.

Looking for more books on photography? Check out my favourite photography books by
clicking
here.

5 More Awesome Photo Locations in Banff

Photographers are getting ever more stingy with their “secret” spots lately. It’s for good reason. The impact of tourism (including us serious photographers) on the land has become a burdon for our natural areas and wildlife. It’s ironic that in an effort to spend time in, and gain greater appreciation for, the great outdoors we’ve actually been causing loads of damage. The instagram culture of “influencers” has spawned a new kind of 21st century gold rush. Instead of searching for valuable metals and gems, people now flock to National Parks for pictures and likes and attention. For serious nature photographers, the crowds of selfie-stick wielding tourists are annoying, but we are responsible for much of the damage too.

The locations I mention in this post are well-known and easy to get to from the Banff townsite. No secrets here. Like many, I reserve some special places for myself, but I believe in sharing locations that are less vulnerable and can handle the foot traffic. Make sure that if you visit these amazing places, you leave no trace of your presence, respect wildlife and give them space, and take nothing but pictures.

1. Castle Mountain

 Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Castle Mountain towers over the Bow River Valley. If you’re driving along the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) near Banff you can’t miss it’s looming spires. It’s a great subject year-round. My favourite spots to photograph it from are along the rocky banks of the Bow River. A popular access point is Castle Junction, located at the intersection of Highway 1 and the Bow Valley Parkway just north of Banff. There’s a fence to block wildlife from getting onto the road. Visitors are allowed to open the gate and enter at the bridge over the Bow River at Castle Junction, but make sure you close it behind you after entering and exiting.

2. banff viewpoint

 Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Want that epic postcard-ass shot of Banff townsite from above? Banff Viewpoint is an official “park and peek” along Mt. Norquay Road just north of Banff. It takes only 10 minutes to reach this spot from downtown. Just know that the road is steep and windy. It can be very slippery in winter. The view is one of the best in the Banff area (without having to hike half a day up a mountain). This point provides great views of the town, surrounding mountains, and Vermillion Lakes.

 Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

3. two jack lake

 Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack lake is a popular spot for landscape photographers. When I was there, I was the first to arrive at twilight. Soon there were several others sharing the same small stretch of lakeshore. It’s popular because it’s very close to downtown Banff and provides excellent (and relatively easy) compositional opportunities for photographers. There is an island of spruce trees that gives much needed visual interest when framing Mount Rundle on the horizon. On clear winter mornings, expect a bit of alpenglow on Mount Rundle’s peaks. In summer the mountain can glow from base to peak when the sun is very low. This is great spot at either sunrise or sunset.

4. bow valley parkway

 Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

The Bow Valley Parkway runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway north of Banff heading in the direction of Lake Louise. I suggest taking it to Castle Junction. Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled; this is a great area to spot wildlife. There are several road-side pull-offs where you can watch wildlife like elk, moose, and deer graze. Occasional grizzly and wolf sightings are also reported along this route in spring and fall. Wildlife often use the road as their own highway for convenience, so make sure to drive the speed limit or less.

The Bow Valley Parkway also holds opportunities for landscape photographers. There are several spots along the route that provide great views of the surrounding mountain ranges as well as the railroad, which runs along the Bow River. In early autumn, birches and aspens can be photographed in full golden colour.

5. waterfowl lakes

 Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

The Icefields Parkway is famous for awesome scenery. One of the most convenient stops is Waterfowl Lakes, which is a few large iridescent blue lakes surrounded by epic mountains. The pull-off is right by the road, no hiking in, which makes this a convenient stop for sunrise or sunset.

I photographed this scene on a whim. I was leaving Banff with my wife, and we happened to be passing Waterfowl Lakes around sunrise. For a few brief minutes a pink column of cloud lit up the otherwise monochrome sky. I pulled over, hopped out of the car, and took two quick shots by the lakeside before the light faded. Sometimes things just come together.

To read the original post, 5 Awesome Photo Locations in Banff, click here.

Alberta's Elk Island Bison

Somewhat ironically, Alberta’s Elk Island National Park is more famous for its bison than elk. I’ve been fortunate enough to spot the elusive elk on a few occasions (there are approximately 400-500 elk in the park and yet they are rarely seen by casual visitors), but it’s the bison herds that make themselves known with their gigantic bodies dotting the landscape. They are often hanging out in herds of several dozen in the open fields and along the gravel roads that penetrate the dense boreal forests. I’ve made many trips to Elk Island NP, it’s located only a 40 minute drive from downtown Edmonton, Alberta. I love it there in all seasons. It provides me with necessary breaks from city life, for which I may ultimately be ill-suited.

A Brief History of Elk Island

Elk Island National Park is located just east of Edmonton, Alberta. It is composed of 194 square kilometres of boreal plain, forest, and wetland. Several large lakes are in its protected boundaries, as well as seemingly countless smaller lakes and ponds. The area was established as a big game sanctuary in 1906, after several Albertans petitioned the government to protect some of the last remaining elk herds in Canada. It is also the first federally protected wildlife area in Canada. In 1930, Elk Island became a national park. The name “Elk Island” refers to the elk for which the area was established to protect, as well as the islands that dot Astotin Lake.

In 1906 there were only 24 elk, a few moose, and a dwindling number of mule deer within Elk Island’s boundaries. Bison were reintroduced from Montana and arrived in Elk Island in 1909. The eradicated population of beaver was also reintroduced in 1942. Thanks to conservation efforts, populations of wildlife proliferated. Elk Island National Park is a conservation success story. Today thousands of visitors come from all over Canada to enjoy birding, camping, canoeing, hiking, northern lights viewing, and to see bison in the wild. The elk population has rebounded to over 400, and moose are a fairly common sight near the lakes in fall and winter.

There are two major herds of wild bison in Elk Island: plains bison and wood bison. The plains herd is located in the northern section of the park, north of Alberta Highway 16. The wood bison herd is located in the woodland to the south of the highway. This separation keeps the two groups from interbreeding. At present there are around 400 plains and 300 wood bison in Elk Island. Elk Island’s population has helped repopulate bison in other parts of North America as well; they were recently reintroduced in Banff National Park and have been used to increase herds in the United States. According to Parks Canada, “If you see a bison in Canada, chances are they came from Elk Island National Park at some point!” For more information on the parks history, visit the Elk Island National Park webpage.

Photographing Bison in Elk Island National Park

Despite their size and relative abundance, bison can sometimes be hard to find in Elk Island. The roads and trails within the park only provide visitors with easy access to a small part of the protected area. Most of the time a large herd of plains bison can be spotted grazing in the fields near the gravel road labelled “Bison Loop.” They are also often seen near the forest edge in the newly opened turnout across from the Bison Loop. I’ve had much better luck locating plains bison than wood bison, as they are usually out in the open. Wood bison can only be accessed by a trail that loops through the forest (accessible on the south side of the highway).

The plains herd can often be photographed from the safety of a vehicle. You don’t want to approach bison (approaching a bull is illegal). It is against park regulations to get any closer than 100 metres on foot. Bison will often get pretty close to your vehicle. They don’t seem to be very skittish of cars, but people on foot can freak them out. They seem docile, like cows grazing in a field, but they are very dangerous and surprisingly fast animals. I’ve watched a spooked herd of a few dozen bison cut and run in a thunderous dusty rumble across the fields and roads of Elk Island simply because a person got out of their car. You don’t want fifty 2,000 lb bison running at you!

For the best photographic results, I use either a 70-200mm or 200-500mm lens. Often large bulls will be hanging out alone near the road sides, so the shorter telephoto is sufficient. My bison portraits have been made using the Nikon 200-500mm VR, most of them handheld from my SUV. I’d like to point out here that I’m very ethically conscious when it comes to photographing wildlife, especially in winter when animals shouldn’t be stressed out because their energy and food supply is low; a picture is never worth disturbing the subject. The few times I’ve photographed bison on foot were from a safe distance on a hiking trail or a stand of trees at least 100 metres away from the nearest animal. Don’t make a lot of noise, sudden movements, and never approach directly. If an animal changes it’s behaviour at your presence, you’re too close!

Go Out, Stay Out

Elk Island National Park is an amazing place. It really is a privilege for me to be so close by. Some of my favourite images that I’ve ever made were made there. I’ve had many wonderful experiences, from listening to loons calling and elk bugling while the northern lights dance above me, to watching large bison walk across vast frozen lakes. It’s a special place.

Want to see more from Elk Island National Park? Here are a few other articles I’ve written:
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
A Frozen Landscape: Winter in Elk Island National Park
Elk Island National Park Mini-Guide

Budapest by Twilight

It seems the latest trend in landscape photography is to capture scenes during “blue hour.” That’s not sunrise or sunset, but the time just before sunrise and just after sunset. Essentially twilight: the time between night and day when the sun is below the horizon and the sky is dark blue, but not black as night. When in the field, I always used this time to prepare for the sunrise or hike out of the woods in near darkness while I could still just see the path. On my recent trip to Budapest, Hungary, it was my favourite time of day to shoot.

Twilight is the best time to capture cityscapes when the lights are on. This isn’t night photography. By the time the sky is black it is difficult to get good exposures. The city lights can be blown out and the sky and shadows can be plunged into the blackest part of the camera’s histogram. At twilight, it is much easier to get even exposures. This time of day only happens briefly, just as sunrise and sunset do. When it comes to photographing cities and architecture outdoors, one can still capture great images even if sunrise and sunset are a bust. City street lights are typically turned off just before the sun comes up and turned on just after the sun goes down when there is no colour (except that ethereal blue cast) left in the sky. So, it’s worth getting out earlier and staying out later.

During my trip to Budapest, I was struck by the architecture and how photogenic the city is. There is an amazing view of Budapest’s grand architecture from any point along the Danube. Most of my images were made during twilight from Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda Castle, or the banks of the river near the famous Chain Bridge. I experienced some great light during sunrise and sunset, but when the city lights were on at twilight (“blue hour”), that’s when the magic really happened.

 View of the Danube river, Chain Bridge, and Hungarian Parliament from Buda Castle.

View of the Danube river, Chain Bridge, and Hungarian Parliament from Buda Castle.

 Boats on the Danube and Hungarian Parliament at twilight.

Boats on the Danube and Hungarian Parliament at twilight.

 Hungarian Parliament just after sunset.

Hungarian Parliament just after sunset.

 The Chain Bridge and Hungarian Parliament by the Danube at twilight.

The Chain Bridge and Hungarian Parliament by the Danube at twilight.

To find out what’s in my camera bag, click here. To view my Travel Photographer’s Master Packing List, click here. Thanks for reading and best of light.