Karen Foley is a freelance photographer who draws inspiration from travel, food, nature and the beauty of everyday life. She’s also a very well versed extreme weather photographer and has some tips on how to keep you and your gear safe in all types of severe environments:
[REWIND: Into nature? Check out these 20 Perfectly Timed Wildlife Photos]
Regardless of the climate you will be shooting in, taking basic precautions with your gear is always a must. Photographers of old mostly had to worry about protecting the lens glass. And while that is still important, today’s DSLR’s contain more circuitry than early day computers. Manufacturers have long been concerned with improving the ruggedness of their kit, it is still up to you as a photographer to take these basic steps:
- Use the proper bag. Carrying your camera and lenses in an unpadded case is simply asking for disaster. Entire articles could be written around the advantages and disadvantages of each bag type (case vs backpack vs tote), so I’ll leave that for another time. At a minimum, your equipment bag should have padded compartments for each lens you intend to carry as well as a strong external shell. And make sure you have room for all the extras you’ll need as we discuss below.
- Filters for protection. While many photographers eschew the use of UV or Haze filters because of their tendency to distort natural light, if you are heading into environments where dirt or moisture could damage your lenses, the consequences of not using them far outweighs the minor differences you will see in your images.
- Don’t pack light. Always have extra batteries, memory cards, and cables with you. You will never regret having them with you, but could rue the image that got away because you didn’t.
- You know that lens hoods are a must for shooting in direct light, but they are also very useful when the weather turns moist. While they won’t protect in a hurricane, they will provide a decent cover during a light rain storm.
- It is quite simple and inexpensive to make a lightweight rain hood for you and your equipment. Use a large, plastic garbage bag and simply cut a hole in one corner large enough to fit the end of your lens through. Slip your camera into the bag pointing the lens out through the hole. Your camera will stay dry while shooting in the wettest of weather. A good hat or the outer edges of the plastic bag can help keep you dry as well.
Expect the Unexpected
Because we know that weather forecasters are not always 100% accurate, it is always best to pack for the unexpected.
- Sunny forecast? Pack a rain poncho for yourself and one for your camera. I always carry a lightweight, foldable rain poncho in my camera bag and cannot recount the number of times I’ve had to use it to keep myself and my kit dry during unexpected storms. They can also be used to protect yourself or your gear when shooting on damp grass or soil.
- Calling for rain? Don’t forget the lens hoods and sun screen. Knowing that you are going out to capture the dramatic skies during a storm is sure to bring the sunshine. Don’t be caught with sun flares in all your images because you forgot the lens hood.
- Calm seas? Bring wind guards and Dramamine.
A good rule of thumb is to pack a basic camera care kit with your gear. Mine includes watertight bags for my camera body and all lenses, basic lens brush and blower, larger plastic bags to sit or kneel on, non-abrasive absorbent cloth, and emergency sensor cleaning kit.
Extreme Heat and Humidity
Knowing you are going into extreme conditions can be a real advantage in planning for success. Are tropics your cup of tea? Here are some tips:
- Humidity will cause extreme condensation on your lenses when traveling in and out of air conditioning. Placing your camera in air tight bags and allowing the camera body and lens to adjust to outside temperature before removing from bag will minimize fogging.
- Use moisture absorbing packs inside camera bags if you are going to be exposing your kit to humidity for extended periods. Keep unused equipment in airtight plastic bags.
- Try keeping your kit out of harsh sunlight when not shooting, and NEVER leave your gear inside a car or trunk. Temperatures can reach damage causing levels quickly in hot environments.
- Wear lightweight, breathable fabrics and don’t forget the sunscreen and bug repellant.
Prefer a colder climate? Here are a few things to know before you go:
- Know your Camera and Lens ratings. If you are planning on going to an area with low temperatures hovering under 0 degrees but your camera is only rated at freezing –IT WILL NOT WORK. Okay, maybe it will work sometimes, but do you really want to take that chance? Always check that your equipment is rated for extremes outside of those you are expecting.
- Even if your equipment works in the extreme cold, there is no guarantee your batteries will. Cold temperatures zap your batteries of their charge at an alarmingly fast rate. Always take lots of extra batteries and recharge whenever possible. Do not leave the batteries in the camera between shots – remove them and keep them in your gloves or next to your body. Carry extra batteries in a pocket or pouch close to your body. This will help them perform better.
- Fingerless gloves and warm outer mittens are essential. You cannot operate the controls of your camera with frozen fingers or bulky warm gloves. Being able to quickly put your hands into and out of mittens provides the best solution.
- Layers are essential to keep your body warm in extreme temperatures. A moisture wicking inner layer, a heat capturing middle layer, and warm thermal outer shell will keep your body temperature warm while shooting in to cold. A warm hat and thermal socks round out the requirements.
Blowing Sand and Dust
Enemy number one for DSLR sensors is dirt and sand. Having a dirty sensor can ruin that otherwise perfect beach picture. While precautions should be taken in any outside environment to avoid contaminating your camera body, shooting in a desert or a beach requires extra consideration.
- I know this sound obvious, but NEVER change lenses in a dusty or sandy environment. If you think your will want to use more than one lens during your shoot have an extra camera body for each one. If you find yourself in a situation where you must change lenses, do so completely within an airtight bag to simulate a clean environment.
- Fine sand and dirt can infiltrate even the tightest of seals. In extreme situations it is wise to keep your camera in an airtight container at all times. Underwater casings can be used for this, or you can fashion a casing yourself using zip-type plastic bags.
- If you intend to shoot a lot in such conditions, you will inevitably get dirt on your sensor. It would be wise to invest in a sensor cleaning kit. Several good ones are available on the market – but they should only be attempted once you have educated yourself on their use as the risk to permanently damaging the sensor does exist. An alternative is to find a good camera repair shop that is qualified for this.
Shooting in precipitation provides two challenges. First to protect your equipment from damage, but also to keep the lenses clear enough to continue shooting.
- Zip type plastic bags or plastic wrap are essential. They will protect the equipment from damaging moisture when not in use.
- Use inexpensive UV or Haze filter which can be wiped clean of moisture frequently. While this may damage the filter, it is better than risking the same damage to expensive lenses.
- Underwater casing are a good investment if you are planning on shooting in the elements frequently. An inexpensive DIY watertight kit fashioned from plastic wrap can fill in for the one off or emergency situation.
- Always carry non-abrasive water absorbent cloth for that quick one off drip clean up.
But the most important tip I can give for photographing in the elements is to maintain your sense of humor. Remember, the discomfort you may feel is temporary but the images you will capture can last forever.