Taking your equipment out in the field means not only carrying it, all of it, with you, but learning how to use it while out exploring and photographing in all types of weather and locations. Working in a rain forest is a bit different than working in desert conditions. We can’t cover all of the conditions you may find out in nature, but here are some of the basics to help you no matter where you are.
Holding the camera
A tripod is the best support for a camera. If you must handhold your camera for a photograph, the best body position is to place the heel of your left hand under the base of the camera, fingers supporting the bottom of the camera lens. Place your right hand around the camera grip (provided on most advanced camera bodies), finger on the shutter. Brace your right thumb against the back of the camera body. Your wrists may touch, depending upon the width of the camera. Tuck your elbows in as close to your chest as possible and place the viewfinder up to your eye and the camera against your face, your nose angled to the left (for using the right eye through the viewfinder). Focus and meter your subject. When you are ready to press the shutter, take a breath, release it and then press the shutter after you exhale and before you inhale again. This is generally when the body is the most still. To stabilize yourself more, lean against a car, wall or post. In general, avoid hand holding at low shutter speeds.
Using a digital camera with an optical viewfinder, brace the camera as described above. Holding it out in front of you, using the LCD screen as a window, increases the movement and camera shake. Check your exposure and fine-tune your composition through the screen. Take the picture through the viewfinder when possible as the contact with your face against the viewfinder increases stability and will improve the quality of your photos.
Whatever the weather, rain, sun, wind, snow, or other, be prepared for it when you are out in the elements. In many mountainous areas, the weather can change from minute to minute, while in many parts of the world, the weather is consistent all the time. But you never know, so plan ahead. In general, here is some “weather-proof” advice:
- Shower Caps
- We always carry extra shower caps with us. Not only do they cover the camera body and lens to protect them from rain, sun, and wind, their bowl-like shape also makes them convenient to carry small items in. They can be bunched up and stuck into the pocket or a corner of your camera bag without taking up any space or adding weight.
- Plastic Trash Bags
- We use these like the shower caps, but they cover larger items, and at the very least, they can carry out the garbage with us when we go.
- We always wear and carry hats. These not only cover our heads, but also shade the camera when necessary. When fighting with sun flares, hold your hat near your lens, but out of the picture, to shade the front element of the lens.
- Bring Your Towel
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had it right: Always carry a towel. Towels are great for drying off photographers and their equipment when caught in the rain. They can act like blankets, pillows, and cushions for sore bottoms, and provide shade when you need it. A rolled up towel can be used as a camera support on a window or against any hard surface.
- Bean Bag Supports
- A favorite for the traveling nature photographer is a bean bag. These are commercially available (or make your own) so they are resealable. Traveling with the empty bag takes up little space. When you need it, fill it with inexpensive beans or rice and it is ready to use. The bean bag fits under your camera to support it against hard surfaces or along a window.
In intense sunlight, a hat can block the sun entering your viewfinder and stop the sun from influencing your meter reading.
- Metering and the sun
- The sun can influence your camera’s meter even when it is behind you. The more sensitive a camera’s meter is, the more likely sun entering from the viewfinder will influence your meter reading. Try it. With the sun to the side or behind you, look in the meter and put your hands up to shade your eye and the viewfinder. Then remove your hands and shift your head so a little light comes through the viewfinder. Does the meter reading change? You might even see several stops of light difference. If so, it’s time to wear a hat and make sure to shield your viewfinder from the sun.
- Keep it Cool: Batteries and Film
While newer batteries can withstand extreme conditions, leaving batteries out in the direct sun can cause them to explode or at least leak. Heat can also influence unprocessed film. Both batteries and film need to be protected from excessive heat. Keep your film and other perishables in an insulated lunch pouch or ice cooler. Add some watertight ice packs sealed in zip locks if the temperatures are really soaring.
The car is often thought of as a cool, shaded place to store your equipment and film, yet the ambient temperature in a car parked in the sun can rise to even higher than the external temperature. You can also get a “greenhouse” effect inside the car; moisture and condensation will form inside your camera and lenses as it changes temperature and “sweats”. Occasionally this results in a fungus growing on the inside of your camera and lenses.
Manufacturers have long decided that black camera bodies sell best. Elementary science class taught you that darker colors absorb heat and light colors reflect heat. Therefore, logic follows that black camera bodies attract heat.
Built with the new plastics, the heat typically won’t hurt the camera but may heat up the film – or be hot to the touch. If it will be sitting in the sun for long periods of time, keep the camera covered up. Large Domke wraps are easy solutions to cover your gear. Extreme temperatures can soften the cements and glues used to bond glass elements in your lenses, causing further damage.
Sun wears down almost everything manmade when exposed over long periods of time. Substances most intolerant to excessive sun exposure include rubber and cloth. Rubber lens hoods and rubber viewfinder eye pieces may dry out and crumble over time. Cloth will bleach and disintegrate. Camera bags and packs will discolor. Newer fabrics such as 1000 denier Cordura Plus hold up extremely well under such tortures, but they will fade out under long-term exposure.
Our own human bodies need to be protected from the sun as well, but the chemicals in sun lotion and bug sprays can damage cameras and lenses. Even if your hands are clean, sun lotion on your face smears along the back of the camera as you look through the viewfinder. While changing rolls of film, you may touch greasy fingers to the film plate or anywhere inside the camera causing damage to the camera’s innards and the film. The chemicals will eat away at the protective coating on your lens front element and dissolve polycarbonate camera bodies. You may end up with your fingerprints permanently impressed on the camera grip, as happened to me.
If sun lotion and bug spray are required, we highly recommend clear glass lens filters (skylight or UV) to protect your front lens element from greasy fingers. Bring a damp towel or pre-moistened travel packets or soapless hand cleaner for washing off your hands when you are away from soap and hot water.
Working out in the sun for long hours, many photographers forget to take care of their bodies as well as their equipment. Drink lots of water to keep hydrated. Cover your arms and legs to protect them from the heat and sun. Dress cool by wearing hats and light cotton and thin fabrics which cover your body and yet still allow the air to cool your body.
Useful Extras in the Field
We also carry a wide range of items used to help improve the quality of our images. These include string, rubber bands, paper clips, and garbage ties which we use to hold back grasses, tree branches, and other things which get in the way of our composition, especially when we are doing closeup work. Plastic garbage bags are also useful for carrying out the garbage left behind by others that is also spoiling our scenic image.
To protect our bodies from wet, cold, or uncomfortable conditions, we will also carry kneeling or sitting pads for working on the ground. Umbrellas also provide shade for the body and camera gear when working under the intense sun. A solar blanket is light and small and helps to keep you warm under cold conditions. Make sure your personal equipment and clothing are adequate for the situation and in good condition. The more comfortable you are in the field, the more attention you can give to your photographic subjects.
As you are working in the field, make note of the little items you wish you had brought with you so you will be more prepared on your next excursion.
For more tips and tricks for working in a variety of weather conditions, visit www.cameraontheroad.com/learn.html#weather.
Staying in Touch
Brent and I work in a team. Often you will find me with or without my camera wandering and crawling around inspecting the area. Attached to my head is a headphone walkie talkie. Voice activated and extremely quiet, I can whisper alerts and information to Brent to help him anticipate wildlife opportunities.
Whether you choose to use a walkie talkie, radio, or cell phone (which can be expensive), look for one that is quiet. It should not feature loud alerts or rings which can disturb wildlife. It should feature a sensitive microphone that will pick up a voice speaking low and an earphone so that the receiving voice isn’t heard. Most new communication devices will work across about 2 miles (4 km) of open space, less with interference from structures and hills.