Backcountry Photography Tips

My Faithful Marmot Tent












Hello, I am writing from the confines of my tent and listening to the sharp staccato of raindrops pelting the fabric just inches from my ears. It has been raining for the last three days, with only brief and intermittent breaks in the precipitation. I have been camping on the North Fork of the Sacramento River for over three weeks now (the same place I camped for five weeks last Summer), and I am wanting to photograph this special area that has been my home for several weeks. Backcountry photography requires the right gear, and experience using that gear. Equally important is the willingness and mental preparedness to endure Mother Nature’s sometimes lengthy inclement bouts, for they almost always provide outstanding photographic opportunities, but patience and a sense of humor is key.

Staying safe, warm, and dry is primary. Your comfort will dictate how productive your photo efforts will be. Shelter for most people means a tent. Choose a small, quality, lightweight model—large enough to accommodate you, your pack, and your camera gear, yet light enough that you’ll actually carry it. Condensation on the tent’s interior is a natural occurrence and poses a challenge to staying dry, even when it isn’t raining. The ability to vent the space can help to alleviate this problem. Keep clothing and sleeping bags away from tent sides, and avoid bumping the fabric as much as possible. Dress in layers—and absolutely NO cotton! Cotton retains moisture and has no insulating value. Be prepared for any kind of weather regardless of the season. Don’t rely on forecasts. Mount Shasta has seen snow on the Fourth of July.

North Fork, Sacramento River, Northern California

With today’s sophisticated electronics, camera’s are far more vulnerable to the elements than the manual film cameras of old. Even with a weatherized pro-level camera system, precautions need to be taken. Weather-resistant carrying cases add a level of insurance. I have a Lowepro Toploader Zoom 50 AW II for my Canon EOS body and moderate zoom lens. I also have small protective soft cases for each of my lenses.

I am a minimalist in everything I do. I rely on experience more than gear, particularly when camping in the backcountry. Unless I absolutely need it, I don’t carry it. I have the same attitude regarding camera gear. I bring only what I need to do the job. That means a camera body and two lenses—a 10-18 mm ultra-wide zoom and an 18-55 mm zoom. This covers the majority of shooting situations and keeps weight and space requirements to a minimum. I also carry a fully-charged spare battery and second memory card. Occasionally I use a circular polarizer or neutral density filter, but I find with digital photography that I am less prone to using filters.

Maidenhair Fern, Northern California
Maidenhair Fern, Northern California

A tripod is an essential piece of equipment. Some of the most compelling image-making happens after sunset. Many fine, lightweight tripods are available. I recently purchased a Davis and Sanford Traverse with a BHQ8 Ball Head. Turn off any image-stabilization when using a tripod. Use a remote shutter release or self-timer to avoid camera-shake. Use a lens hood to protect the front lens element from precipitation, as well as the occasional bump.

Sometimes it’s the little things that mean the difference between an enjoyable outing and a disastrous one. I always carry a large, heavy-duty trash bag in my pack. They’re light and offer excellent rain-protection in the event of a sudden downpour while hiking on the trail. That has kept my pack, clothing, and camera gear dry on numerous occasions. Also, pack a couple of one-gallon zip-lock storage bags for water-proof security. They serve as a rain-guard in drizzly conditions. Plastic film canisters are one of the greatest storage containers ever conceived. They are water-tight and pack easily. Keep memory cards, lens tissue, and/or your Bic Mini safe and dry.

Accidents do happen! When I recently purchased a new Canon system, I enrolled in the SquareTrade 2 Year Drops and Spills Protection Plan. At $92 for the two years, it’s cheap insurance. Canon will repair or replace damaged equipment, as long as the item isn’t lost or stolen.

Please contact me with any comments, questions, or suggestions. Until next time, happy image-making!


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