Articles

Tips And Gear For Jungle & Rainforest Wildlife Photography

Southern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina) in the rainforest in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

Southern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina) in the rainforest in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia.

I’ve spent a lot of time photographing wildlife in the rainforest. I’ve done hikes and camping trips in Borneo to see rare monkeys and orangutans. I’ve trekked for five days through the jungle of Sumatra, where I was growled at by a tiger and walked over elephant tracks. These treks have been some of the most memorable experiences of my life, but also some of the most challenging.

I’ve compiled a list of some gear I recommend having if you decide to go on a photoshoot in the rainforest, combined with some tips I learned along the way.

Monopod

If you are only doing wildlife photography and not planning any landscape shots, I recommend skipping the tripod and going with a more lightweight and portable monopod. I use a SIRUI P-326 with a Really Right Stuff MH-01 tilt-head. I keep this in a side-pocket of my backpack while I walk, or use it as a walking stick for the up- and downhill portions of the trek. For animals that are moving around a lot I prefer a monopod as it makes it easier to move around and get different animals while still keeping the camera steady.

A Waterproof Backpack

When I did the five day trek in Sumatra I brought a Peak Design backpack, which is waterproof on the outside. I thought that would work well since it is waterproof without needing to carry an extra rainfly. I was so wrong. By the time I walked out of the jungle it was soaking wet all the way through. It took a lot of detergent and scrubbing in the river before I got the smell out. Next time I would bring a dry bag like the Itinerant backpack from The North Face.

A Packable Clothesline

I recommend bringing a small clothesline like the Sea-to-Summit Lite Line, which I mentioned in my article on travel. It packs down to almost nothing (about half the size of your palm) and comes in handy at the campsite when your clothes are soaked with sweat, river water, rain, and dew at the end of every day. Don’t expect your clothes to dry in the jungle because they won’t. They may even be wetter the next day if you don’t hang them by the fire. But a clothesline will at least keep them off the ground and free of dirt and most bugs.

Only Two Outfits

I recommend you take 2 outfits - one you keep in a plastic zip-loc bag inside your backpack and wear only at night after you have bathed in the river (or wiped yourself off with a towel at least) and one that you wear every day during your hikes. You can rinse the latter in the river every day to keep it clean. But never rinse the former or you will be lounging in wet clothes for the remainder of your trip.

Vibram Five-Fingers

If ever there were a pair of shoes built just for jungle trekking, the Vibram Five-Fingers V-Alpha are them. I have walked through rivers, mud pits, solid ground, rocks, any type of warm-weather terrain you can think of in these and they have been amazing for all of it. When you get home just throw them in the washing machine with a bunch of detergent to get out any smells and they are as good as new. No need to take your boots on and off when walking through the water anymore.

And that’s it. I think it goes without saying that you should bring lots of batteries, a weather-sealed camera, and the right lenses. You might need to bring a tent or something to sleep in, but I’ve always gone with a guide who provided everything necessary.

Have you ever been on an extended jungle tour? Was there anything you brought that you found invaluable?

Cheap Unlimited Cloud Storage WIth Google Drive

Young Bornean bearded pig (Sus barbatus) searching a sandy beach for food in Bako National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia.

Young Bornean bearded pig (Sus barbatus) searching a sandy beach for food in Bako National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia.

As photographers, one of our most pressing concerns should be the safety of our photos. We spent time and money to capture our photos and they are now worth something more themselves, so it is important to keep them safe at all costs. We could use external hard drives, our computer’s internal hard drive, or even an expensive RAID server if we can afford it. But, all of these options could crash or go down in a house fire or flood.

The safest option for storing important data today is the cloud. If you don’t know what the cloud is, just think of it as a fancy term for a RAID server (a lot of hard drives linked together so if one goes down the others are still there with the data) with multiple copies stored in separate warehouses all over the world and owned by huge corporations that are entirely unlikely to fail overnight. It’s incredibly safe, especially if you pick to host your data at one of the more reliable companies, like Google, Dropbox, or Amazon.

For a long time, unlimited cloud storage was incredibly expensive. Now, with a Prime account you are allowed unlimited photo storage on Amazon Drive. This is the cheapest option if you are already a Prime member, so I recommend starting there. Unfortunately, the interface of Amazon Drive is not nearly as intuitive as Google Drive, which is why I switched.

For $11.98 per month I am subscribed to a G-Suite account, which is basically a Google Business account. It allows me to get my email from my web domain in a nice window like any other Gmail address, gives me access to Google support, and provides me with unlimited Google Drive Storage. I started looking into it for the email, and bought it because I couldn’t believe how cheap it was for unlimited storage.

If you would like to store an unlimited amount of data on the cloud, I highly recommend looking into opening a G-Suite account. Unlike Amazon Drive, Google Drive isn’t offering unlimited storage just for photos, but for ALL files. That means you can back your whole hard drive up to it to make sure you are safe even if your entire computer crashes.

Don’t get stuck in a house fire trying to save your computer, or stay in a city that is about to be hit by a hurricane because you don’t want to leave your RAID server. Get unlimited cloud storage for less than $12 per month and sleep in peace at night knowing that if anything happens your photos will be safe.

Really Right Stuff BH-55 Review

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) walking across a fallen tree trunk in Occoquan National WIldlife Refuge in Virginia, USA.

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) walking across a fallen tree trunk in Occoquan National WIldlife Refuge in Virginia, USA.

I have owned the Really Right Stuff BH-55 for about six months now so I think it might be helpful for anyone looking to purchase a new ballhead if I write a short review. The bottom line, if you prefer not to read any further, is that you should stop what you are doing and buy it. I will even give you the direct link: http://bit.ly/RRS-BH-55

I had a pretty good ballhead that came with my Vanguard tripod, but it was not arca-swiss. I’m not sure why anyone makes mounts that aren’t arca-swiss anymore (I’m looking at you, Manfrotto). Just about every L-bracket and universal mounting plate is arca-swiss. Anyway, I ended up having to purchase a part to convert my Vanguard ballhead to arca-swiss. When I did this the screw did not get tight enough and it would always come loose after a few days so my camera would start turning slightly when I had it on the tripod. Not good.

On my next trip I decided to take a small, lightweight ballhead to cut down on weight in my bag. This ended up being even worse, as the ballhead could not handle the weight of my camera. It would tip over as I tried to take photos. Again, not good.

So, when I went home for a short time last year, I decided to say fuck-it and follow my new rule of only buying the best quality items. I went to the Really Right Stuff website and purchased the best ballhead they sell, the BH-55 with a panorama mounting plate for a cool $640. It’s a ton of money, but it is one of the best buying decisions I have ever made.

The RRS BH-55 is heavy. It definitely did not help to cut down on the weight in my bag. But when you hold all five pounds of it in your hand you can immediately tell that it is sturdy. You could throw it through a window and off a cliff and still get stable shots when you put it back on your tripod.

The BH-55 is huge, with a large base that fits perfectly on all of the best tripods, like the Gitzo GT5543LSUS. This means you will be taking advantage of every bit of stability your tripod has to offer. Also, the version with the pano head that I got is great. Once you level the ballhead horizontally and vertically you will be able to take perfect pano shots just by turning the mounting plate, which is also labeled with a guide.

Last but not least, the knobs are amazing. The BH-55 looks like a Little Tikes My First Ballhead due to the massive silver knob that loosens the swivel ball. However, this turns out to be incredibly convenient and easy to find and turn while your eye is in the viewfinder, even if it is minus twenty degrees out.

And definitely get the quick release latch. This is a signature of Really Right Stuff and well worth the slightly higher price. I’ve never had a ballhead that allows me to attach and detach my camera so quickly and still maintain full security.

Overall, the BH-55 with the quick-release latch and panorama head is the best ballhead on the market today. If you spend the large sum of cash on this ballhead you won’t even consider purchasing another for fifteen or more years. This beast will last you basically forever and will always do its job well. Really Right Stuff is one of the best companies out there for camera accessories and this ballhead is no exception.

Bring Your Camera Everywhere

Cream-coloured giant squirrel or pale giant squirrel (Ratufa affinis) on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

Cream-coloured giant squirrel or pale giant squirrel (Ratufa affinis) on a tree branch in Borneo, Sepilok, Malaysia.

Always carry your camera. This is some of the best advice I can give anyone, especially those in their first few years of learning photography. Carrying your camera everywhere will not only insure that you always get a great shot when you happen to pass by it, but it will also make you a better photographer.

When I first began in photography I shot only landscapes with no people in them. Then I moved on to wildlife photography. Both of those, I thought, did not require me to carry my camera unless I was going out on a specified shoot. If I was going to a beach at sunrise I would bring my camera, or a national park at sunset. I got some great shots doing this. But I missed a lot, too. And more importantly I missed out on the opportunity to familiarize myself with my camera.

When I began shooting stock photography in addition to my passion projects to earn some real money, I decided the best thing I could do was carry my camera everywhere. Some of the most mundane photos I take turn out to be best-sellers on stock websites. What I didn’t know would happen by bringing my camera out every day is that it would become like another body part. Using it feels as natural as using my arm and wearing it as comfortable as moving my legs. Now I feel weird when I don’t have it, like I’m missing something.

By carrying my camera everywhere I started to take so many more pictures. Most of these I delete in Lightroom when I go through them later. But it doesn’t matter. Each photo was an opportunity to feel the wheels of my camera spinning beneath my forefinger and thumb as I changed the aperture and shutter speed. Each was an experience in finding the AF-Point button without looking and scrolling in the right direction to move it across the frame. Every photo I look at reminds me of an exact moment--a specific time and place in my history--and the emotions of that moment come flooding back.

Another benefit is increased sales and therefore increased income that allows me to continue progressing in this field that I love. Carrying my camera everywhere allows me the opportunity to expand my focus and discover new areas of photography that I may not have explored otherwise. It gives me a taste of the life and struggles of a portrait photographer, a street photographer, a macro photographer, a travel photographer. All of these disciplines then come together to form my style when I return to wildlife photography. All of them improve my photography and my skill as a photographer.

Now, do you have any excuse to not carry your camera with you next time you go out, and every time thereafter? Bring it to the park when you walk your dog, bring it on your walk to the corner store to buy deodorant, bring it to the Roman ruins on your vacation to Italy, and bring it to your dentist appointment. Bring it everywhere and you’ll never say, “Wow, that’s beautiful. I wish I had my camera.” Plus, you’ll become a better photographer.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever brought your camera? Let me know in the comments below.

Top 6 Apps For Photography

Rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) perched on a tree branch on the island of Borneo in Sepilok, Malaysia.

Rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) perched on a tree branch on the island of Borneo in Sepilok, Malaysia.

These are the best six apps I use for planning and executing my wildlife (and occasionally landscape) photography. Enjoy!

1. Clear Outside - Android / iOS

This app is incredible. It is the first and often only app I open when I am deciding whether to go out to take photos or stay in bed for a bit of extra sleep. It tells me the temperature, how much wind there is, the wind direction, and most importantly for me, the cloud coverage of low, mid, and high clouds. If you don’t know already, a lot of high clouds and little to no low and mid clouds make the best sunrises and sunsets. This app will also tell you sunrise/sunset and golden hour times. And the best thing is Clear Outside is free on both iOS and Android.

2. Easy Release - Android / iOS

I shoot some stock photography. Although I am typically uploading editorial photography since I do a lot of traveling and have several tourists, brand names, or recognizable architecture in my photos, I do occasionally require a model or property release. This is in the hopes of selling the image to a wider audience at a higher price. For this I keep Easy Release on my phone. The releases from Easy Release are accepted on almost every stock image platform as official release forms, so I find it to be worth the $9.99.

3. The Photographer's Ephemeris - Android / iOS

TPE is an app that shows the sunrise/sunset times, moonrise/moonset times, as well as the exact direction/location of both. To be honest, I find myself using this app less since I picked up Clear Outside, however I still refer to it often when I am in a new location and want to know exactly where the sun will be rising or setting. If you are on Android as I am, you are in luck. It is only $2.99 on Android but $9.99 on iOS.

4. Tides Near Me - Android / iOS

This app is pretty straightforward. It shows the tide times at your location. Incredibly important when taking photos at the ocean or sea. I use this all the time when I go to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Reserve in Virginia as the tide in the bay changes the water level in the marsh. I’ve also seen animals like foxes running along the shore at low tide. These are all things I can consider when checking the tide along with the temperature and conditions from Clear Outside and sun direction from The Photographer’s Ephemeris. I also used to use it in Fiji to check when it was safe to make the three hour walk along the coast to the bus stop.

5. My Gear Vault - Android / iOS

If you know FroKnowsPhoto on YouTube then you probably know this app. You enter all your gear, its value, and serial numbers, and then you are able to purchase insurance for said gear. As I travel full-time, I am not able to be covered by their insurance. However, I still use this app to keep a list of my gear in one place with the serial numbers in case anything ever gets lost or stolen. It’s also cool to see how much all of your gear is worth.

6. My Aurora Forecast & Alerts - Android / iOS

This is an app that I have never used properly, so I can’t say much about it. But at first glance it seems to do its job, and I have it on my phone just waiting for the day I finally make it to a place where I can see the Aurora (Borealis or Australis, I’m not picky). When I do, this is the app I will use to track its power and visibility.