Tools of the Trade

© Mike Spinak

I often use tools for nature photography.


Most dedicated photographers will already be familiar with tripods, tripod heads, neck straps and wrist straps, lens filters, flashes, perhaps flash extenders, cable releases, and so on. Those aren’t the kinds of tools we’ll be discussing, today.

Taking pictures of the natural world, as you find it, where you find it, can sometimes be an endeavor fraught with minor difficulties. In many cases, the best solution to overcome some issue you’ll encounter will be to bring, find, or make an improvised tool to solve the problem. If I don’t need to walk too far to get to my destination, I’ll often carry a lot of odd little tools with me. If I know I’ll be encountering a particular problem, I usually carry a specific tool to address it.

I wouldn’t know where to begin to catalogue them all, but here is a quick list of some of my more common tools for nature photography:

• Something tall to stand upon

There are times when I need to get up high, to shoot over something, such as a palm frond, or fence, or bushes. Footstools, ladders, and hard camera cases are common choices for nature photographers to stand on. Also, many outdoor photographers make a platform to stand upon, on top of their car. Ansel Adams did this. So did I, with the refurbished, retired Federal Express truck I used to use for my nature photo expeditions.

• Mirror

The hummingbird picture at the top of this post was lit with two added sources of light, one of which was a mirror, a few inches across, attached by a small pivot to a small rod. In this case, it was attached to a fence, about 25 feet away, and it was used to reflect direct sunlight onto the nest.

© Mike Spinak

The mirror also comes in handy for looking at the underside of  things low to the ground.

• Small foam pad

Foam pads serve several purposes. They allow you to kneel more comfortably on hard, jagged ground. They can serve as a dry spot to sit on, or on which to put down your gear. They can be used for extra gear padding in rough terrain. They can be used as “gobos” to block direct sunlight from your subject, when you want to shoot small plants and the like in shade.

• Wooden shish kebab skewers

Two or three of these, driven into the ground at opposing angles, can often be used to immobilize a plant stem, just out of the frame, to help get still photos of wildflowers, when the weather is windy.

• Clear plastic picture frame

Clear plastic frames are sometimes helpful for floating on the water in a tidepool, so you can shoot your pictures through them, and not have to deal with ripples on the water surface. Acrylic petri dishes work well, too.

• Flashlight

Sometimes, when doing extreme macro photography, at small apertures, in the dark woods, conditions can be too dim to see what one is doing. A small flashlight, lighting up a plant, fungus, or whatever else, from a few inches away, can make it much easier to see well enough to set up the shot.

OK, those should be enough examples. The point isn’t to give you a comprehensive list of tools – what works for me, for the kinds of problems I often encounter with what I do, isn’t the same as what will work for you, for the problems you’ll encounter while doing what you do. So, you’ll need to work out your own solutions.


The point is to show you how everyday items make helpful tools for accomplishing nature photography.

We humans don’t have sharp claws, big teeth, or thick fur; we don’t move very fast, can’t jump very high, can’t fly, and can’t hold our breath for very long underwater. Instead, we have the ability to make and use tools to allow us to accomplish our aims. This applies to nature photography as much as anything else. When some obstacle stands in the way of getting the shot you want, don’t forget to consider your options to overcome the dilemma through tool use.

Thanks for reading.

Anna’s Hummingbird Mother (Calypte anna), Feeding Chicks, U.C.S.C. Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.

  • naturography - What unusual tools do you use for nature photography?ReplyCancel

  • Jonathan Kibrick - I’m still trying to figure out how to make a tripod out of trekking poles. No way can I lug a tripod on some of the 1 to 2 week backpacks. I’ve been thinking of using some small 2″ long pvc pipes to form the apex of a tripod formed with the trekking poles upside down with the tips sticking into the glued together pvc pipe. Just don’t know how to make such a contraption particularly rigid.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Jonathan,

    That’s a noble goal we all strive for. Unfortunately, you’ve hit on the one tool-topic I can’t openly discuss (yet), since it somewhat relates to a product I’m trying to bring to market. :) ReplyCancel