As a fine–arts photographer, my summer fieldwork is critical to photographing enough images for a successful year. Last year I completed two trips: the first in July, when I was up in the far northwest corner of California, and the redwoods were my subject matter. For the second, in August, the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains in the eastern Sierra and the rock formations in Lone Pine played through my lens.
My approach to photography is influenced by the work of aeronautic innovator Kelly Johnson, the legendary leader of the Lockheed Skunk Works. Johnson was responsible for coining the term “KISS”—an acronym for “Keep it simple, stupid.” Every occasion of my fieldwork brings me back to understanding what Johnson meant.
The field is hostile
We may live in a world of safe buildings and manicured lawns, but thank goodness there are still many wilderness areas left in the world where one can readily kill himself or herself through carelessness, and nature still sets the rules.
If you want to photograph in such an environment, expect it to be a dynamic experience from moment to moment. Clouds do not wait for your setup. When the wind blows, it blows hard. Perching on the side of the mountain for a shot may mean standing at the edge of a precipice.
It is way too easy to sit back in the comfort of one’s home gawking at the latest photo equipment and thinking about how much more pleasing one’s pictures would be if only for getting a new gadget. None of us as photographers is immune to the lure of new glass, better camera bodies, and fancy supports. Such an adventure is part of the fun of photography and being a photographer.
But the field of photography is cruel. It does not care if you like your new gadget. It will try to break it, disable it, and prove it worthless. Even worse, it will try to prove your work as a photographer inept.
Every photographer needs to discover and ref ine his or her own tool set. What works for me is not likely to work for you. But in sharing with you my gear choices, it might help you in approaching your own setup differently.
For me, the essence of photography is the lens. It is the optical signal-processing device that transforms a three-dimensional world in front of the lens into a two-dimensional image behind the lens. The quality of the lens is paramount to performance.
I only take one lens into the field at a time. (In fact, at the moment I only own one lens—a Zeiss ZM 2/35. I know this lens like the back of my hand. When pressed into service in f luctuating f ield conditions, I can predict instantly what I need to do with it to make the shot.) Changing lenses in the field guarantees dirt and dust in the camera. Lugging extra glass around in order to have the perfect lens at the right time does not make sense to me. I find it extremely rare when a shot gets away from me for lack of a different focal-length lens. And even if it does, the next image is just around the corner; I never am far from exciting subject matter to fill the frame.
Get a great fixed-focal-length lens (not a zoom lens), and know your lens. Leave the rest of the glass at home. If you want variety, on another adventure use a different lens throughout the trip.
I am a hybrid film photographer (film for the fieldwork, and digital postproduction), so my choice in camera body is the Leica MP (Figure 2). After 50 years of continuous development, this all-mechanical camera operates in extreme environments, is simple to use, and is tank-tough in the field. Its small size makes stuff ing the camera into a backpack a simple task. Photographing in the wilderness is often decisive-movement photography, and this camera is superb in delivering images quickly and without complex thought, allowing total concentration on the subject matter.
Digital camera bodies certainly are amazing in their function, but so too are their complexity. Try to look at your image or histogram in blazing sun, on white rock, at high altitude (such as in the White Mountains), and I think you will be disappointed at your inability to do so. LCD hoods might be a keen idea—save for the 40- mile per hour wind that has just blown it into the next state. It all seemed so easy back in the camera store.
When histograms become viewable as a viewfinder function, digital cameras will take a great step forward toward practical use in the field. The fact that a viewf inder histogram display is not available in current generations of DSLR cameras makes me think that the engineers need to get out more in real-world conditions and photograph. There is no time to examine shots in the field, and the light will swamp out any camera-back display. Histograms should be in the viewfinder and viewable under all external lighting conditions.
Tripods and monopods
Camera support is an important consideration, but one that is often misdirected in common practice. Tripods have great appeal, but I find them to be the true ball and chain of most photographers. I cannot count the number of times I have seen photographers sporting a fully deployed tripod while painfully walking the whole setup down a trail in an effort to relocate for a shot. Even with a ballhead mount, a tripod is not agile, fast, or oftentimes necessary at all.
Monopods deploy extremely quickly, require only a single point of contact with terrain, and provide amazing function for a majority of wilderness shots. High up in the mountains, I often have no space for a support beyond a monopod anyway.
I use a Gitzo GM-5540 Mountaineer 6× Carbon Fiber Monopod with a Bogen/Manfrotto 234 Swivel Tilt Monopod Head, attached to a Really Right Stuff B2 LR II Quick Release Clamp (Figure 3).
Tripods are sold and promoted by tripod companies. They make far more money in selling you a tripod then a monopod, hence a predisposition for doing so. Monopods are really underrated, and their proper use is rarely discussed. Switch to a monopod and remove a ton of weight from your pack, and you will prevent a real time waster in the f ield. We learn by doing, so try a monopod and use it until you get it figured out—I doubt you will go back to a tripod except when needed for extreme shots (such as night photography).
As shown in Figure 1, during my recent shoot deep in the California redwoods, I made a 1/4-second exposure using nothing but my monopod and a log for leveraging the leg tight. The image is tack sharp. Using rocks, logs, and material found in the field can amplify the monopod’s ability to deliver the goods under almost any condition. It just takes a little imagination and ingenuity by the photographer to make a monopod a great support.
Storing a camera properly is essential in the field. If you pack your camera into deep wilderness, it is going to get banged, and perhaps in a hard manner. Proper camera care comes in layers. Figure 4 shows my setup.
First, I wrap my camera in a protective cloth before the camera goes into the camera bag. The Domke Protective Wraps work great for me. Second, the camera goes into the smallest camera bag that will house my camera. In a jam and for lighter loads, I can throw just the bag in my backpack and be off photographing in moments.
I use a small Tamrac bag, which sadly appears to be out of production. But I am sure there are many choices that would work just as well, and your choice will be camera and lens-specific.
I can sink the entire camera pack into a Pelican 1300 case. This allows me to have a rock-proof exoskeleton for my camera when needed. I also can attach a rope to the handle and haul my camera up a rock face when free climbing is the only way to the top. Being watertight, the Pelican is all good news when a photographer works around or hikes through water—and it gives great peace of mind in snow or rain. It also functions as a great transport case when I have to fly on commercial jets—though I have found the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) constantly interested in its contents (a sign of the times).
Deep in the wilderness, there is no one to impress with fancy photo gear—save for the bears and a few mountain goats. Leave the gear at home. Strip down your field gear to the minimum; use one lens of superb quality, a camera body that is simple enough to do the job, and a monopod for support. Getting a great shot means getting to a great shot. Weight, complexity, and time are the downsides of having too much of the wrong gear. Prune your load down to the essence of photography, always starting with a great lens.
Photography in the f ield is about “feeling” through the lens, not “thinking” about how to make an image with an overly complex camera system. Most photographers never go more then a few hundred feet from their car, so the results—both with their images and the gear—are not surprising. Get rid of the photographic ball and chain. Break out of the norm. Be free!