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Using What You Have On Hand

When you park at the trailhead and set out on foot with your camera, there's a limit to how much you can carry with you. Invariably, you'll end up needing something you left back in the car or at home. Sometimes, you have to improvise.

Who hasn't needed a lens they left behind? If you're a photographer, this experience will eventually happen to you if it hasn't already. Those things are big and heavy. Simple weight and volume calculations impose some serious limitations. You can sometimes find a workable alternative using one you brought. Add a teleconverter and tweak the ISO, and you can make a service telephoto from a macro lens. You get the idea. Sometimes, you can't and have to chalk things up as a learning experience and remember to pay more attention when packing next time.

But that's not what I want to talk about now. Instead, I aim to focus this week more on the little things we find ourselves missing at the worst possible time. Sometimes, we could have brought things but didn't think we'd need. Occasionally, we don't even think of them until we reach into the camera bag, only to realize we left something on the front seat of the car.

And just like lenses, sometimes we can find a workable alternative on location. I figured it was time to celebrate these sorts of unsung solutions.

Suppose you get mud on your hands while in the field. There isn't likely to be a sink nearby to wash them, and nobody expects there to be. I have no qualms about wiping my hands on my pant leg in a pinch. I doubt you would either. But what if your lens is dirty and you don't have a lens cloth with you? I wouldn't trust my pant leg, but I probably would a cotton t-shirt. Underneath a few other layers of clothing, there's bound to be some part clean enough. Some condensation from breathing hard on the front element can serve as cleaning fluid.

Or, if you find yourself without a tripod, you can brace your camera or yourself against a rock or a tree. You may not look very elegant, but all that's necessary is that the camera doesn't move for a brief period. I want to take every picture from the stable perch atop a tripod but have been caught off guard. I can remember bringing my camera on a scouting hike one afternoon to document likely places to come back to later. The light wasn't good for most serious photography, but I found myself stumbling on an expanse of Avalanche Lillies under the forest canopy. I knew that if I came back another day, they would already be past their prime and wilting, so I had to act then, if at all. It took me a while to find an appropriately oriented branch, but it served in a pinch. The mottled lighting through the trees worked out pretty well, and even at a small aperture, the results are sharp.

When shooting close to the grounds, there are even more options. I love to work as close to the ground as possible. The typical tripod won't go lower than a few inches, but many wildflowers are even shorter. I've put a lot of thought into the best way to get lower, yet one of the best remains one of the simplest. And you don't need to lug any heavy equipment. A couple of well-placed twigs are all you need to go all the way down to the ground. It takes a bit of care to set things up, but otherwise, it works exceptionally well.

While we're covering tripod hacks, you can sometimes get by with a more flimsy tripod than otherwise by adding weight. Look for a way to hang your camera bag from the underside of the apex. Gravity will pull on the extra mass and add rigidity. If you're desperate, use a long-sleeved shirt as a makeshift rope to create a suspension. Add even more weight by temporarily adding a heavy rock to that hanging camera gag.

A lens hood can work wonders to block stray light from hitting your lens and causing flare. But if you forgot to bring one, all may not be lost. If you can tell where it's coming from, you can sometimes shade a random shaft of light with an outstretched hat or other obstruction. Holding it in the right place while pressing the shutter release can feel a bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head, but both are doable with practice.

If you can't see the camera back LCD because of glare, try throwing your coat up over your head. It makes you feel like one of those old-time photographers with a large-format camera, but the same principle still holds. Photographers got out of the habit of doing this when through-the-lens reflex mirror viewfinders took over from composing off ground-glass camera backs. Still, the situation is not that different now that everyone wants to take full advantage of that large LCD back found on digital bodies. Give it a try sometime.

Duct tape can come in handy in countless situations. I've used it to repair a camera bag, hold a broken tripod leg from slipping, temporarily fix a zipper on a coat, and, yes, repair the hinge on my sunglasses. I may have looked like a dork, but it worked. Using what's available on hand can sometimes mean making sacrifices.

They say mud as a sunscreen, but I'm not sure I've ever been that desperate. In retrospect, perhaps I should have tried it. I sunburn easily, but it's just not something I easily think of when hitting the road before sunrise. It's only when the sun makes its appearance that I realize I forgot sun protection.

With a bit of ingenuity, you may find a workaround when you don't have the perfect tool on hand. See what you can improvise. What have you got to lose?

Date posted: December 5, 2021


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Related articles:
Shooting Into the Sun
Holding Your Camera

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