Category Archives: Gear

Comfort Zones & Proper Equipment – Part Two

(Note: Part One is just below this post.)

When we left off, I discovered I didn’t have the right lenses nor the right techniques for capturing birds and critters. But that’s not the end of the story. Hence, Part Two.

As I briefly mentioned in Part One, I also quickly discovered a geared tripod head can be next to worthless for moving subjects. My usual head is an Arca-Swiss C1 Cube, which I absolutely love. Its extreme precision results from its fine-tooth gears that separately control up-and-down (pitch) and side-to-side (roll) motions.

Here’s the beauty of a geared head. Let’s say something’s perfectly aligned from edge to edge in the viewfinder, but is a tad low. Rotating the proper knob will raise the front of the lens without affecting the side to side tilt at all.

Sunrise at Anhinga Trail

By contrast, loosening the tension on a ball head allows it to move freely in any direction, and may reposition the camera in a way you don’t want. To add insult to injury, many ball heads shift by even the tiniest amount when they are locked back down. You finally get the image perfectly aligned in the viewfinder, but then it moves when you lock the ball head down. Frustrating.

What makes the geared head so perfect for stationary subjects makes it completely worthless for moving subjects (glaciers excluded). By the time you crank the adjustment knobs to capture that bird taking off, it has migrated to another state. But you can precisely frame where it was! Continue reading

Comfort Zones & Proper Equipment – Part One

Thanks to Bill Lea, in February I visited Everglades National Park for the first time as one of the co-leaders of the NANPA Regional Event there. This is the first of two posts about what I learned during that trip.

Before I saw Bill’s photographs for his forthcoming book, I hadn’t thought too seriously about shooting in the Everglades, despite how relatively close the Park is to Atlanta. It seemed like a flat, grassy, swampy area, where the big attractions are birds and critters. I don’t typically shoot birds and critters, nor flat, grassy, swampy areas. It didn’t sound like much of a destination for a landscape and travel photographer. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Fortunately, for several days before the Event, Bill gave us an extensive (and photographically rewarding) tour of the Park, based on his five years of photographing there. I would never have figured out nor enjoyed the Everglades as quickly without Bill’s expert guidance. I found birds and critters fun and challenging to shoot (especially with my equipment), and found the landscape remarkably variable and beautifully photogenic. Now I can’t wait to go back.

As an aside, living with Atlanta traffic, I misunderstood the concept of traveling to a park to shoot birds. During any given rush hour here, you could see so many birds shot within such a short time that it gets old pretty quick. But I get it now.

Believe it or not, just like in many other parks, there are signs denoting elevations in the Everglades. Unlike my experiences in some of the Western parks, however, it wasn’t any harder to breathe even at the highest elevations. I felt pretty much the same at the Elevation 4 Feet sign as I had earlier at the Elevation 3 Feet sign. Guess I’ve stayed in pretty good shape.

My first morning in the Park started with a sunrise shoot over Florida Bay at Flamingo. So far so good. I’m in my comfort zone with my lenses, geared tripod head, focusing cloth, remote release, and the rest of my usual landscape kit.

Sunrise at Flamingo

Sun’s fully up now, so landscape photography is done. It’s off to nearby Eco Pond to shoot birds. Hey, these bloody things move! What’s up with that? And they’re relatively small. And relatively far away. And just as soon as I compose my shot, it’s either changed or gone. There goes my comfort zone. Continue reading

Using a Focusing Cloth

At a workshop in Redwood National and State Parks back in 2003, Jack Dykinga gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received for getting better images in the field: Use a focusing cloth. It was simple, had been around just about as long as photography itself, yet was rarely used by anyone but large format shooters. I adopted it back then for use with my DSLR, and have been using it ever since. For me, it has become as essential as my tripod and cable release.

It helps me compose and focus, both physically and mentally. With it, I can easily see anything on my LCD, regardless of the ambient light. It helps keep wind, sprinkles, and even flying bugs out of my eyes while I’m shooting, helping me concentrate on my subject. With it, it’s much easier for me to check the corners and edges of my frame, and to look for merges throughout the image. It even allows me to use the Depth of Field preview function, regardless of how dark the image becomes when I push the button!

It’s become so important to me, that I bring a spare when I travel in case something happens to the first one in the field. And as a final bonus, many of my shooting buddies have encouraged me to use it all the time—even when I’m not shooting. They say it’s a fantastic fashion accessory that looks great over me.

My original focusing cloth, also known as a dark cloth, was a 36″x48″ Toyo-View focusing cloth that I got from B&H. After using it for a few years, I wanted something waterproof, breathable, darker, and more versatile. Besides, B&H no longer carried the Toyo-View cloth. After six months of testing various combinations of fabrics and Velcro placements, I now use my own Tom Vadnais Photography 36″x48″ waterproof focusing cloth. It’s an improved design that’s handmade right here in the USA, and is available only from me. Please e-mail me at if you’re interested in ordering one directly (US$84 + US$5 shipping and handling to a US address). It’s black on the inside, to give you a dark area to shoot from, and white on the outside to reflect heat. There are strips of Velcro on both sides of one end that cinch the cloth around your lens, making it fast and easy to attach and remove when changing lenses in the field.

Focusing Cloth in the Field

After wrapping one end around your lens, the rest of the cloth simply drapes over your camera, your head and shoulders, and partially down your back. This eliminates most of the stray light around you, allowing you to see much better through your viewfinder. You can’t believe how much easier it is to concentrate on your composition and focusing when surrounded by relative darkness. It also allows you to see everything on your LCD, even in the brightest sunlight.

As you can see from the photograph below, it can also help you blend in with any ghosts you may encounter when out shooting.

Focusing Cloth and Ghost

Now, do you have to spend US$84 on a commercially available waterproof dark cloth with Velcro. Of course you do—-if it’s one from me! Not really. A US$5 black bath towel from a discount store works just fine. You can drape the towel over your lens, camera, and head, as my friend Sue is doing during a workshop in the Smokies. (Her towel is dark blue, but is still effective. In general, though, you want a black cloth or towel, so you don’t have any visual color contamination while you’re shooting under it.)

Sue with Dark Towel

Like any other new tool in photography, using a dark cloth takes a little getting used to at first. Think back to when you first used a tripod, remote release, or any filters. But almost right away, you’ll likely find the benefits so outweigh any learning curve that you’ll adopt it full time. I did.