Outdoor Action & Adventure Photography: Protecting Yourself and Your Gear
Securing the camera
When people talk about camera security, they usually mean keeping it from being stolen. I’m talking about not dropping it and having it go careening down the cliff while you watch little bits of metal and glass fly off before it finally explodes into a thousand pieces. (I’ve seen this happen.) Or watching it disappear into the snow. (I dropped a piece of gear last winter and never found it.) Or watching a gust of wind blow your tripod off the cliff into the ocean with your DSLR still attached. (This happened to a friend of mine. I wish I were kidding, but I’m not.)
There are a million ways to destroy or lose a camera, and I’ll bet that you have no desire to experiment with any of them. The way to prevent total camera demise is to come up with a simple way to secure your equipment when you’re shooting in high-angle or exposed situations. Whenever I’m up on a rope or climbing with my camera, I use a webbing sling and a locking carabiner to secure my chest pouch and lens cases to my harness. If the bag somehow gets unbuckled, it won’t go anywhere.
Also, you don’t want to be fiddling with your gear while you’re shooting from an exposed position, so before you go vertical, assess the situation and figure out what gear you’ll need and what you can leave behind. Going minimal in these kinds of environments is key. Opt for zooms over primes, because changing lenses on the rope is always a bit hair raising. Take it from a guy who shoots mostly with primes.
If you think you’ll shoot different angles, it might be a better idea to go with two cameras: one with a wide lens and one with a zoom. This will eliminate the need to undo anything while you’re up there, although it will make things a bit more cumbersome around your neck. This is when using a compact camera as a second body really makes sense.
Please don’t be the one who watches your expensive tripod and camera go tumbling into the ocean. Tie the thing to your car bumper if you have to. Anything to make it so you’re not THAT GUY.
Protecting your gear
Cameras are both tough and fragile at the same time. They’re made to be used, and even abused, and some of them can take quite a beating. Most higher end pro cameras are built with magnesium alloy chassis, rubberized grips, and weather-sealed buttons and knobs. Pro lenses are made with metal mounts and barrels and heavy-duty glass.
As you get lower in the range, you’ll see more plastic in the bodies and lenses, even in the lens mounts. Obviously, entry-level camera gear won’t stand up to nearly the same amount of punishment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them in challenging environments. The best advice I can offer is to be careful and try not to smash it or get it overly wet.
As I mentioned in the lens section, get yourself a good camera bag and consider using UV/skylight filters and lens hoods on your glass. And if you can’t stomach the thought of putting a cheap piece of glass in front of your really good glass, then at least go with the lens hood. Every dent in your hood is a dent that didn’t damage your filter threads or ding the front element of your expensive lens.
When I’m traveling, I usually pack my gear into a camera bag or photo backpack and carry it with me. Or I shove it into the hatchback, the truck bed, the back seat, the trunk, the duffel bag, etc. If more protection is required, that’s when I turn to hard shell Pelican Cases. Pelis are gasket sealed and come with customizable foam inserts that allow you to pack your gear the way YOU like. They’re also durable enough to send through as checked baggage on the airlines.
Every day, thousands of photographers, cinematographers, and camera operators send millions of dollars worth of gear through the airlines and transport them on jeeps, trucks, buses, trains, speedboats, camels, horseback, and pack mules inside Peli cases, and most of the time, their gear arrives just fine. Some Pelis are even configured like roller bags with handles, which makes them even easier to transport.
Above all else: keep your camera dry!
Sometimes it’s all about the misery. Want to make great imagery? Don’t put your camera away when the weather gets bad. Let’s face it, in this genre, the best pictures are made when your subject is suffering under the anguish of utterly horrible conditions. Nothing screams “Adventure!” like a shot of someone fighting against a wall of blowing snow or enduring torrents of driving rain.
Of course, nothing will make YOU more miserable then having your camera fail just when the action is getting good. Cameras and water don’t mix, and short of smashing it into a thousand pieces, nothing will cut your photography session short like soaking your camera to the bones. In fact, the only thing that’s worse is soaking it in salt water.
I’ll stress again, if you’ll be shooting in rainy or wet conditions, you should get a weather-sealed body. Even if you do have one, you should take extra steps to protect it from excessive moisture, because water can go just about anywhere, and once it gets in, it’s going to mess things up. Modern cameras are full of tiny circuit boards and electronics, and water will short things out in a big hurry. Salt water will coat and corrode all those little chips, screws, and gears, even when the H2O evaporates. Soak your camera in the rain, and you may be able to dry it out. Dunk your camera in the ocean and you’ll turn it into a worthless box of junk. A paperweight. A doorstop. You get the idea.
If conditions are wet enough, loosely covering or placing your camera inside a plastic bag might help protect it from a heavy deluge. You can even go the extra step of tucking the entire camera into a bag and then duct taping the opening to your lens hood. A hood will even help keep water off the lens, but keep checking to see how many drops are accumulating on the glass. A couple drops might make for a cool effect, but a big drop in the wrong place will ruin your photo.
Keep a cotton cloth or bandana handy so you can wipe the water off both the lens and the body. If the lens is too wet, synthetic fabrics will just smear things around. You might need to use both; cotton to get the big drops and a lens cloth to do the finish cleaning.
If you shoot in really wet conditions all the time, then you might consider getting an underwater housing, especially if you kayak or go rafting with your camera. Compared to some cases that cost over a thousand dollars, Ewa Marine makes affordable housings for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. You can also use a housing to shoot those cool, half-submerged water shots in lakes and streams.
Always carry a second body in these situations, especially if you’re shooting on someone else’s dime. Sure, it adds weight, but if your main camera goes down for any reason, you can be back up and running almost immediately.
This happened to me recently. I’ve shot for years with a weather-sealed DSLR that had never let me down, even in the worst conditions. Then, on the first day of a big assignment, it got wet and locked up with error messages. With no hesitation, I pulled out my backup camera and shot the entire rest of the assignment with my second body. On a side note, this is why you should be completely familiar with ALL of your gear. Trying to learn a piece of gear that you don’t use very often is not an option when you’re under the gun.
Drying it out
If you do get your camera wet enough that it stops working, turn it off immediately and remove the battery. Bring it inside and blast it with a hair dryer on LOW for a while before putting it in a warm dry place overnight. Or stick it inside a bag of rice for a day or two. (This usually works with mobile phones.) If you’re able to get all the moisture out, the camera may come back to life. If it doesn’t, you’ll probably have to send it in for repair. Ugh. Like I said, don’t get your camera wet!
Outdoor clothing and equipment
Adventures aren’t supposed to be comfortable. They’re supposed to be one part fun, one part hardship, and one part total suffer-fest. That’s why they make for such good stories later on. They’re not meant to be easy, they’re specially designed to test the limits of your resolve and your endurance. And your clothing.
Just as you’ll need camera gear that can handle any type of shooting situation, it’s equally important to have outdoor gear that will handle any kind of atmospheric conditions. Remember, when it comes to adventuring, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
I almost didn’t include this section; I figure that most of my readers will already know this stuff. However, since getting it wrong can easily cause you your life, a few digits, or at the very least a few hours of misery, I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to go over it again. If you’re new to adventuring, please take careful note.
• Base and middle layers: The best way to keep yourself warm, comfortable, and dry in the outdoors is to dress in layers. Start with base layers made from synthetic material that will wick moisture away from your body. Add mid-weight fleece layers as needed, depending on your activity.
The worst thing you can do is wear cotton in high-exertion or cold weather activities because if you sweat, it will stay wet and won’t insulate at all. They say “cotton kills,” and while you probably won’t die if you wear a t-shirt in the outdoors, under the wrong circumstances, it will make for an extremely uncomfortable day. If things go really wrong, you might get hypothermic, which actually might lead to death. Please don’t die because you wore too much cotton. There are much better ways to risk your life.
• Outerwear: Depending on the conditions, you should always have at least one or two extra jacket options, a windbreaker and a rain layer. Most modern windbreakers are so light that there’s no reason you can’t have one with you at all times. They even shed light rain, but if you think you might encounter a real downpour, bring along a breathable Gore-Tex™ or similar type layer to keep you dry.
• Insulating layer: If you think it might get chilly, consider bringing a light puffy vest or jacket made of down or synthetic insulation. Even if you don’t think it will be cold, if you’re heading into the mountains, bring one anyway, because mountain weather often changes quickly. Also remember you’ll probably spend a lot of time standing around waiting for the good light, and that puffy will make your quality of life that much better when things cool off.
• Hat: Always have one. At least one.
• Gloves: This is tricky, because cameras can be hard to use when you’re wearing gloves. The tradeoff is often frozen/numb or very slow fingers, so you can decide which is worse: warm hands or getting the shot. I like wind block fleece gloves that have at least some grippy friction material on the palms and fingers.
If it’s really cold, I prefer double-layer gloves over mittens. I also like to use chemical hand-warmer packs. You should always carry a few of these with you at all times in the wintertime and in the transition seasons. Keep a spare set right in your photo pack.
Bottom line: overdress a little bit, knowing that you’ll probably be standing/ hanging still for periods of time while you’re in picture-taking mode. You can always shed a layer. If you’re not sure what to wear, talk to your athletes or visit your local outdoor specialty store.
Keeping you and your models safe
As adventure photographers, it’s almost expected that we create images that communicate concepts like extreme, dangerous, perilous, hair raising, etc. I recently saw a blog post that was titled “30 Death-Defying Photos,” and many of the photos were of subjects like climbing and kayaking that were shot by pros, guys that I know personally.
Of course, before you try shooting from a rope, or in any kind of high angle, exposed, or dangerous situation, you should be very well versed in these kinds of techniques. If you don’t know EXACTLY what you’re doing, seek expert training and instruction before tying yourself to ANY rope, no matter if it’s on a cliff or on the tree in your own backyard.
Also, take into serious consideration the safety of your models, who may or may not be quite as well versed in these techniques as you are. Even if they have a competent level of experience in the activity that you’re shooting, keep in mind that people sometimes do crazy things when the camera comes out. Whether we’re talking about you or your athletes, you need to balance the safety of the situation against getting the shot. In the end, no shot is worth a serious accident.
In other words, don’t do anything stupid, and please don’t hurt yourself or anyone else in the name of photography. There. Consider yourself warned.
Excerpt from Outdoor Action and Adventure Photography by Dan Bailey © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
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