How to Photograph in Challenging Environments

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The only downside to taking images in natural places is the beauty can often be replaced with poor weather and an unexpected, challenging environment in which to photograph.

If you are anything like me, then you look forward to these little adventures. However, it is always good to remember that whether or not you are visiting your local national park for the day, or going on an expedition to a far off distant land, it is important to look after yourself and your gear so you both come home safely.

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Photography in challenging environments

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in many different environments, each with their own unique set of challenges and considerations, based on the specifics of the local environment. Let’s have a look at some of these, and what you should keep in mind if you’re considering visiting them or a similar location.

There are a couple of key messages I will refer back to during this article, most notably to do with looking after yourself, looking after your gear, and the logistics of traveling and taking images in these environments.

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Get the right backpack

If going on a trekking holiday, be sure to always have a comfortable backpack to carry your gear, preferably something that is designed for carrying loads over uneven terrain. Backpacks designed for trekking do have features that specifically suit this type of activity and are different to those designed for urban traveling.

Comfort is key if you still want to have energy at the end of the day to pull out your camera and take one more shot. It is also worth noting that backpacks can be compared to shoes, in that, one size does not fit all. The best thing to do is to try on different options to see which one fits best while also meeting the needs of your activity.

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Also, if you are traveling or trekking for an extended period of time, be sure to have a bag that will accommodate other items you will need during this time. For example, depending on where you are, you may also need a weather proof jacket, some snacks for the day, some first aid supplies, as well as other possible essentials like a phone/satellite phone, maps, compass, GPS, water bottles, etc.

If you are carrying everything yourself on an extended remote trek, then clothing, sleeping bag and mat, and possibly a tent will also need to be considered. Be sure to have a comprehensive gear list for any activity that is away from easy access to supplies. Your safety should always come first.

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Protect your gear inside the backpack

Protection of your gear while in your bag is also of key importance, especially when working in wet environments. An outer bag cover will not only help to stop rain making its way inside, but keep your bag dry, and a dry bag does not increase in weight.

If you are traveling in very high rainfall areas, it is also worth considering a variety of smaller roll top dry bags for the interior of your bag. While working on Kokoda in Papua New Guinea, I learned that when there is enough rainfall, eventually, it will make its way into your bag. Having a double layer of protection is never a bad thing, especially as dry bags don’t add much weight to your overall kit.

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Weather protect your camera

It is also a good idea to have weather protection for your camera in case you are presented with a great image opportunity and it begins to snow or rain. Options are far and wide and can include anything from a plastic bag and some good quality cloth tape to a dedicated rain cover designed for your camera and lens. Of course, the latter option will be more costly but will also be more reliable and far easier to use, as well as being able to withstand any bad weather for extended periods of time.

Damage to your camera due to it getting wet can happen quickly, so be sure to take care and precaution should the need arise. It’s also worth having some travel towels handy in case your gear gets wet so as to dry it off quickly.

Another potentially wet environment is working on oceans or around small boats. During my expeditions in Antarctica and the Russian Arctic, I learned very quickly the importance of having a quick and easy setup to be able to access my camera gear while working in small zodiac style craft, often in rather cramped conditions with nine other people sitting next to each other.

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Roll-top bags

For this situation, I found the roll-top style dry bag (with shoulder straps for carrying) to be invaluable. While they are simple in design, their durable, waterproof fabric was all I needed to keep the elements at bay while working in that environment. It allowed me to quickly and easily board the craft, find my seated position and be at the ready for any photographic opportunities that presented themselves.

The harness for carrying this type of bag, while basic, was comfortable enough to carry around my gear for the amount of time I generally had it on my back. It also allowed me to be less concerned with sea spray, snow, rain, or rogue waves as the roll top type design was a more secure option than a conventional backpack with a rain cover. These types of bags are available in a variety of styles and sizes to perfectly match your equipment, protection needs. I have seen several cameras stop working because of lack of care around sea water.

Always take a conservative approach and have a backup option.

Here is a sample of what it’s like working on Zodiacs:

The only limitation with this type of bag is it generally does not come with any type of padded protection for your cameras. It is possible, however, to purchase a type of padded cell separately, and specifically designed for camera gear which can then be used within the bag for added protection.

Cold environments

Traveling and taking photos in cold environments can also present you with its own unique set of challenges. It is also worth noting that the nature of the trip or place you are visiting can have an affect on what precautions you need to take within cold environments.

For example, if you are trekking in the Himalayas, you are also exposed to mostly cold environments. At night of course, while staying in lodges, there is the opportunity to warm up around the lodge heater, often in the middle of the eating room. However, your room and the general environment you are in will always be on the cold end of the spectrum. Generally, I have found that cameras are fine as long as they are not quickly introduced to rapid changes in temperature or humidity.

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For a situation like this, having your batteries in a small bag, placed at the bottom of your sleeping bag will help to minimize the effect the cold has on them, especially at night. Also, if you are outside shooting at night or first thing in the morning at sunrise, be sure to have a couple of spare batteries inside your jacket and kept warm in case your battery in the camera decides to go flat. This is also a good time to have some type of protection for your camera if there is a risk of frost on the outside of your camera.

Temperature change

I learned how rapid change in temperature can be a challenge when working in Antarctica. Going from a warm cabin or interior to a cold exterior quickly can be a recipe for disaster with internal fogging and condensation on the camera and lens highly likely. This is not a good scenario to be in for the internal electronics of your camera. The same issue arises when transitioning from a cold environment (outside) to a warm environment (inside) quickly.

The key consideration here is to slowly introduce your camera to this new environment. If you are taking your camera outside onto the deck of a ship in a polar region, leave it in your bag for a period of time so that it slowly acclimatizes to the new temperature and humidity level. I have found 10-15 minutes is generally enough. Consideration should be given to the difference in temperature and relative humidity. For example, if you are entering an ice skating rink and it is very warm outside, it may take extra time for your gear to acclimatize.

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I have found cameras can cope with extremes in weather, humidity, and temperature fairly well. What they don’t handle well, is extreme changes quickly. I have had my cameras at -20c in the Himalayas, through to +30c in the jungle of Papua New Guinea with 90% humidity and they are all still working fine with no issues.

Dry and dusty conditions

Traveling and taking photos in dry, dusty desert type locations can also have its challenges. As mentioned earlier, looking after yourself first is of key importance. Sufficient sun and weather protection, as well as water and food intake, are important when working in any challenging environment.

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Be sure to protect your camera gear as best as possible from dust, dirt, and sand. A camera cover may help with this, as well as daily cleaning with a damp cloth to remove the build-up of dust and grit over time. A bag that is easily accessible and comfortable to wear is also high on the importance list.

As mentioned earlier, your bag choice should be based on what type of activity you are doing. If for example, it is a multi-day trek, comfort and functionality should be at the top of your list. Depending on how bad the environment gets, you may consider a roll-top type waterproof bag to remove the possibility (as much as possible) of anything making its way into your bag. If you have good vehicle support, a hard case may also be an option.

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Takeaway lessons

I have listed below some takeaway points for consideration base on different natural environments and the potential effects on your gear.

  1. Be sure to have all necessary protective clothing to keep yourself safe while traveling. A rain-proof jacket is a definite must as well as first aid supplies, quick dry clothing, and sturdy shoes or boots. Be sure to research the area you are traveling to so you know exactly what you will need to take with you.
  2. A comfortable backpack is a must if you’re walking on uneven terrain for extended periods so be sure to invest wisely.
  3. If you’re going to be working on small boats on the ocean, a roll-top type waterproof bag may be the best option. Practice using this type of bag and what it means to gain access to your gear.
  4. A rain cover for your backpack, as well as a selection of dry bags for your gear inside, are important if there is heavy rainfall and you are using a traditional trekking style bag.
  5. Weather protection for your camera is handy if the weather goes bad and you wish to keep taking images.
  6. In cold environments, be sure to keep your batteries as warm as possible at night and when shooting during colder parts of the day.
  7. Gently introduce your cameras to changes in temperature and humidity in order to avoid condensation forming on the inside of your cameras and lenses.
  8. Have some quick-dry towels with you while traveling in order to remove water and dust from the outside of your cameras and keep them maintained and cleaned.
  9. Always have a backup camera with you – always.
  10. Stay healthy and fit to take advantage of where you are as well as being able to keep going at the end of a long day if photo opportunities continue to arise.
  11. Before you go traveling, get outside and take photos, even if the weather is not perfect. The more you are able to deal with adverse weather conditions, taking into account all of the above, the more you will feel comfortable to keep shooting even when conditions are not ideal. This will always mean you come home with unique images that others may not be prepared for or able to capture.

Conclusion

So no matter what conditions you’re heading into or how challenging the environment is – being prepared for anything will allow you to keep shooting and come home with great images.

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Damian Caniglia

is a full-time photographer and graduate of Griffith University. His work has seen him travel to all 7 continents including both the Antarctic and Arctic. At present he spends 3 months of the year guiding both commercially and photographic based tours internationally, as well as commissioned film and photographic projects both within Australia and overseas. He is a qualified trainer and is committed to helping people understand the process and power of photography.

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  • Leyden

    Can you point to a picture of a “roll top type bag”

  • Damian Caniglia

    Hi Leyden. No worries at all. The middle image under ‘Temperature Change’ with the person wearing a red jacket and with a grey bag is an example of a roll top type bag. The bag essentially rolls down to create a water proof seal which is then secured with either velcro or a buckle type system. If you hover over the image is is no 32.
    Cheers
    Damian

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