Earthbound Light - Nature Photography from the Pacific Northwest and beyond by Bob Johnson
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On Location

I sometimes get asked for tips on how to efficiently shoot on location in nature. For those new to all this, it can seem quite overwhelming. Here are some pointers.

The first point worth mentioning is that your preparation should begin well before the time you arrive on location. For starters, you should have a reasonably good idea where "on location" will be. If you expect to be shooting at sunrise, you'll need to be travelling to your destination while it's still dark. As such, it will be a lot easier if you already know your way around the area. There's nothing more frustrating than wandering around in the dark trying to figure out where you are while the minutes to sunrise count down. I try to visit each location the day before I plan to actually shoot there. Scouting around in this way can make things go much more smoothly when the minutes really count.

That's not to say that the weather will always cooperate of course. Not everything is within our control. If you plan to shoot somewhere at sunrise and you wake up the next morning to find no stars in the sky and little chance of sun it can be helpful to have a backup plan. I've written before too that despite all planning that once you arrive at your destination you should dispense entirely with what you thought you would find and react solely based on what is actually there. Plans are one thing. Reality can sometimes be something else.

I'm sure you'll agree that it can also help to have the right gear with you. The subject matter you expect should play a major role in determining what lenses and accessories you take with you. Bring what you need for your backup shooting plan as well. And since you never really know for sure what you'll encounter once you get there, make sure you throw in enough to cover general shooting needs regardless of your expected subject. Depending on whether you will be driving all the way or hiking to your destination, some items may need to be sacrificed based on weight alone. Everything is a trade off of course and I full well expect not to use everything I take with me but do my best to avoid leaving something that would prove useful behind. Even though you will sooner or later find a need for something you didn't bring, your odds of covering your bases improve if you put some thought into things when you pack.

I don't want to dwell on packing for a trip in general, but the same considerations apply here. There are certain essentials you should always bring. A flashlight, water, clothing appropriate to the weather, and so on. If you're going alone, it can be a good idea to let someone know where you're headed just in case.

In terms of flashlights, I prefer ones with LED bulbs, both because they don't use up batteries as quickly as traditional bulbs do, but also because they are more durable. Especially when shooting at sunset away from the car I will take a couple of flashlights with me, just in case. If I'm hiking somewhere in the dark for sunrise and my flashlight fails I can always just sit down and wait for the sun to come up. I may miss what I was hoping to shoot, but I can't get stranded. When shooting at sunset though, a dead flashlight could spell disaster. Once the sun goes down, it won't be coming back up again for quite a few hours.

All this is just preparatory of course. The real fun begins once you get to your shooting location.

I usually carry everything in a LowePro backpack style camera bag, both because it distributes the weight better when hiking and because when I get to where I'm going I can unzip the bag completely on the ground and use it as a working area. Everything is easily accessible. These bags always come with way too many foam dividers. I remove as many as I find superfluous and leave them at home in case some day I feel an urge to put any back in. Due to the depth of the bag, I can sometimes stack things in which case I place a washcloth between them. I went to a dollar store long ago and bought a number of black washcloths specifically for this purpose. I don't suppose most people want black washcloths but for this purpose and my preferences, they are ideal.

When the light is changing quickly, it can be a challenge to efficiently deal with changing lenses. Every minute you take fumbling with gear is a minute not spent shooting. Since every lens I have must fit the bayonet mount on the camera I'm shooting with, I know all their rear caps must be the same and are thus interchangeable. Many Nikon lenses have the same 77mm filter threading so front caps are interchangeable in such cases as well. Whenever possible, I take the caps from the lens I am switching to and put them on the lens I am taking off the camera. This avoids at least some of the cap juggling inherent in changing lenses.

Memory cards have gotten progressively bigger in recent years but it is still possible to fill them. To avoid any possible confusion, I always keep unused cards in my left pants pocket, transitioning them to my right pocket once they have been filled. I don't want to run the risk of accidentally reformatting a card I haven't backed up the contents of yet.

I have a small zippered bag with repair tools that I take with me just in case. I carry wrenches, screw drivers and so forth to fit all the joints on my tripod. There's only so much you can do to your camera in the field, but I do carry a couple pieces cut from waffle-textured rubberized carpet padding material that work wonders to get a better grip if I have a stuck filter or similar. I don't go anywhere without aA few plastic bags of various sizes. A big one can make a great ground cloth to keep my pants dry. A small one can serve as a container in case I do lose a lens cap or something. I don't want to take up too much space with tools but even a small bag just might save me if I have a problem in the field.

Anyway, you're probably already doing at least a few things to make shooting on location easier. Hopefully this article will give you at least something you hadn't thought of for how to streamline things more. Every little bit helps.

Date posted: October 2, 2011


Copyright © 2011 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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