There’s nothing quite so invigorating as being outdoors, and no better place to be motivated to take great images than when surrounded by the splendor of nature. From sunsets to surfers, the variety of outdoor subjects available is nearly limitless, and when you’re done photographing everything on God’s Green Earth, you can point your camera upward and master astrophotography.
It doesn’t matter if you’re going to photograph at a local park or a national park, there are some tools of the trade that can make outdoor photography easier, safer and more productive. Our sister publication Outdoor Photographer regularly covers the latest and greatest outdoor gear, so digging through archives (outdoorphotographer.com), talking with the OP editors and drawing on my own history as an adventure sports photographer, we’ve assembled this guide of essential gear for the outdoor enthusiast.
GEAR FOR THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Like any good Boy Scout (and Girl Scout), the outdoor photographer needs to be prepared. Sometimes that means being prepared to take a leisurely stroll in a park with comfortable shoes, and sometimes that means being prepared to survive a freak winter storm.
Without going into this topic too deeply—as it’s the most common advice for being outdoors—dress in layers and wear clothing that doesn’t lose its insulation when wet. It’s always better to have too many layers and be able to remove them than to have too few layers and suffer hypothermia.
Cotton sucks heat from the skin when wet, so despite its comfort, it’s better to choose wicking fabric like wool or synthetic fabrics. A number of companies make clothing with built-in sunscreen protection. Look for clothes with a UPF rating (which is the same as SPF) at an outdoor store.
A well-designed outer shell made with GORE-TEX® is a must, and will nicely complement any other lower layers for a waterproof, windproof cover. Get a shell with internal zippers for layers, and you can go from blustery to blizzard in a few seconds.
If you’re venturing out for an extended time or where you can’t get to shelter quickly, be sure to bring extra gloves, socks and hats. When those things get wet, life gets pretty miserable. For those in a region where Lyme disease or mosquito-borne disease is an issue, the University of Rhode Island Tick Encounter Resource Center is a great place to find out about tick-proof clothing and sprays (tickencounter.org/research/summer_clothing).
Speaking of hats, there’s a reason why photographers (like Ansel Adams) are rarely seen without a hat—they’re crucial when working in the outdoors. Hats keep you warmer, of course, but they also shield your head and neck from the sun, and keep the rain off your face. Also, they look cool.
A big problem with wearing gloves and taking photos is that it’s hard to reach the controls. A few companies make gloves where the fingertip portion pulls back so you can get your finger on the control dial without accidentally tripping the shutter. The AquaTech Sensory gloves are a favorite of mine, and I’ll often wear a thin glove liner under them so that when my fingers are exposed they’re not too cold.
What to put on your feet is a big debate with outdoor photographers, and the right solution depends on what you’re doing and where you’re going. While old-school photographers opted for stiff hiking boots, the advent of trail running shoes has made this lighter shoe popular with hikers and photographers. Obviously, these aren’t a great choice if it’s going to be raining heavily or snowing, or if you’re in an area of the world with rattlesnakes, but the comfort of a good pair of trail running shoes means a day with a heavy load is a lot more comfortable. Outdoor Photographer has a great piece on outdoor footwear, which you can find at outdoorphotographer.com/gear/more-gear/summer-hiking-footwear.html.
Hydration is crucial, and many people venture out with too little water. To solve this problem, buy a hydration bladder from CamelBak or similar companies. Even if your camera bag doesn’t have a slot to route the hose, you usually can poke it out a zipper hole or just unzip your pack to get a drink. The insulating hose covers and a bite-valve with a lock are nice upgrades.
To carry all of this gear, a good outdoor camera backpack is a must. Shoulder sling bags throw off your balance and weigh too heavily on one side of the body for extended use. There’s no one perfect bag (trust me, I have a closet of camera bags), but many companies specialize in gear for extended outdoor use. Tamrac, for example, has a line of Anvil expedition bags that come in a variety of sizes. I’ve used a number of bags from MindShift Gear recently, including the roation180º, which puts the camera gear in a small rotating pouch for quick access while the bag is connected. The Lowepro Pro Trekker series of bags is also popular with outdoor enthusiasts.
Some photographers like to use a monopod as a walking stick, and that’s an okay idea, but it doesn’t give the stability of a tripod (more on that below) and usually isn’t comfortable when walking. For my money, nothing beats a collapsible hiking stick and a tripod, too.
If you’re camping during your shoot, it’s often better to purchase a dedicated hiking bag with an internal or external frame and to use storage pouches for camera gear. I sometimes hike with a frame bag, even if I’m not camping out, just due to the comfort. I connect my camera to one of my backpack straps with a B-Grip UNO or a CapturePRO quick-release camera clip from Peak Design.
Entire magazines have been filled with suggestions for tents, backpacks, sleeping pads, etc. The perfect camping gear depends on where you’re going, what the weather is going to be like, how many people you’re traveling with and how long you’re going to be there. Always check out a tent before you buy it—ease of setup and breakdown being key. Beware of tents that feel like they’re a bargain, as they often skimp on features. There’s no substitute for a long conversation with an expert at a camping store when outfitting your fabric-based lodging.
For winter hikes, a good pair of snowshoes has a great return on investment. It’s possible to get out in the powder in sno
wshoes to capture pristine and glistening landscapes.
Any trip outdoors isn’t complete without a knife and a set of tools. Swiss Army knives are popular, and one lives at the bottom of my camping packs and camera bags, and the Leatherman tools are popular, as well. The Gerber Suspension multi-tool is well reviewed and was featured in Outdoor Photographer.
Many of the items that are in this “survival” category are just basic supplements to any outdoor trip, but some are particularly useful for extended stays out of doors. Most of them are recommended to live in your car, too. I keep a small zipped bag with essentials in my car, and when I hit the trail, they go with me into the woods.
A small first-aid kit is pretty key, and very inexpensive. Since they tend to be lightweight, I opt for the largest one I feel like carrying, especially because I often hike with my son and with friends. I’d rather have too much gauze than too little.
Other important items are a lightweight Mylar blanket, matches, a lighter (so much easier than matches, but less dependable), a snakebite kit (if that applies to your region), water-purifying tablets, a compass and some sort of stable food. Next to my Swiss Army knife in my pack you’ll find a few energy bars and a bag of nuts. Both will last for a long time and provide long-lasting energy.
While every phone has a GPS, if you’re venturing off the beaten path, a handheld GPS is a great investment. Aside from their greater accuracy, by using one, you won’t run down your phone’s battery. My favorite is the Garmin Rino series, which includes a two-way radio. The Rino 655t has a glove-friendly touch-screen, barometric altimeter, electronic compass, built-in maps, NOAA weather radio and unit-to-unit texting, and multiple units can be tracked using Garmin’s software on a laptop.
For serious trekking, though, the SPOT satellite devices are quite literally lifesavers. The portable devices can send a call for help at the push of a button, transmitting your location via satellite and calling for help or sending messages about your status to friends and family.
If your camping may take you from potable water for a long time, and you don’t like the taste of purifying tablets, CamelBak makes a water bottle with a UV light in the lid. Fill it up, push the button, wait 60 seconds, and drink.
It’s also important to keep things dry and to dry out wet things. I like to carry silica gel (those small packets that say “do not eat” found in some packages) to dry out items. A friend of mine (a contributor to this magazine and Digital Photo Pro) created a product called Clip-n-Seal, which was designed originally to seal potato chip bags, but makes a waterproof seal when placed across a bag. I carry around a 3mil plastic bag large enough for my camera and lens, and it can stand up to the strongest downpour. Need to dry something out? Just throw in those silica packets.
Every good outdoor photographer needs a good tripod. You don’t need to carry it on every trip, but you need to own one, or two, or three. There are lightweight tripods, super-sturdy tripods, special-purpose tripods—collect them all! Some of our favorites come from Benbo, Benro, Cullmann, Davis & Sanford, Giottos, Gitzo, Induro, Manfrotto, Novoflex, Really Right Stuff, Sirui, Slik, Smith-Victor and Vanguard. For a good look at various styles and purchasing suggestions, go to outdoorphotographer.com/gear/more-gear/gadget-bag/gadget-bag-landscape-tripods.html.
To keep your camera gear as dry as your feet and torso, rain covers are key, and we’re partial to the Pro Light E-702 PL cover from Manfrotto and the Think Tank Photo Hydrophobia series, with models to cover lenses ranging from 70-200mm to 300-600mm. Those who remember loading film in dark bags will feel right at home reaching into a rain cover.
Some photographers also like the idea of wrapping their lenses and tripods so cold weather doesn’t make them uncomfortable to hold. The wraps from LensCoat and AquaTech are popular. Delkin also makes a Snug-It camera skin for several camera models that wraps around the body and gives some added splash and scratch protection.
Since it’s nearly impossible to get to a service center, carrying basic cleaning gear is a good idea. I don’t travel without a Giottos Rocket Blaster, great for cleaning sensors and blowing sand out of crevices. (Beware, though: I’ve had mine confiscated by TSA.) Bring a cleaning cloth for eyeglasses (not your T-shirt) to wipe down your lens optics when dirty.
For longer trips, it’s important to take enough electricity to keep going. Always pack multiple batteries for your camera, especially if you’re shooting in the cold, where batteries charge down faster. There are a number of external battery packs that will help keep your iPhone charged, and even will charge cameras that take power over USB. Makes, models and pricing are always changing, but a quick search for “external USB charger” will reveal plenty of choices. I’ve also used portable power solutions from Goal Zero. They make everything from a portable USB charger that’s waterproof to solar-powered portable power stations. Their solar-powered kits include devices that can charge a phone all the way to units that can power laptops and charge DSLR batteries.
Finally, it’s a good idea to bring lots of extra memory cards for your camera—having your only card fail on you is a perfect way to ruin a trip.
Of course, there’s no end to the useful, practical and just whimsical gear that’s available to the outdoor photographer. Take a walk through an REI store or any other outdoor shop, and you can probably rationalize the purchase of everything from camping stoves to hammocks, but this guide is a good starting place for the intrepid photographer.
You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss.