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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Prepare For A Photo Expedition

Tom Bol offers his insight on how to get ready when you’re going to be out for more than just a day hike

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Tom Bol is a veteran trekker who logs weeks at a time deep in the backcountry. While we don’t all have the kind of freedom to backpack with a camera for such extended periods, many of Bol’s lessons and much of his advice are useful for even weekend treks away from home. Above: Float planes from above: Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park, Alaska.

"ONE MORE STEP." This mantra is bouncing around in my brain as my body tries to follow suit. Normally taking one step wouldn’t be a big deal, but at 21,000 feet ascending an icy ridge with a huge pack strapped to my back, “one more step” takes on a new meaning. Of course, a lot of my pack weight is photography equipment I think I’ll need to capture a career-defining image. Isn’t backcountry and expedition photography supposed to be about pain and suffering? Not exactly. But one benefit of backcountry photography is the chance to capture an original landscape few others have seen.

My photography career started with documenting extended expeditions to the far reaches of the globe. One month I might be photographing a sea-kayaking trip in Honduras, the next month documenting a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas. Packing for a two-month expedition is an art by itself. Clothes, food, climbing gear, camping gear, medical supplies and communications fill countless duffle bags. And then you start to pack your camera gear—bodies, lenses, backups of both, flash cards, hard drives, tripods, strobes, stands, batteries, filters, cases—the list is huge! But in the end, it’s worth it because you get so far off the grid that you know you’ll have original images.

Grizzly and cub: Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Many of us don’t have the time to spend multiple weeks in the field to photograph. Nowadays I don’t either. Most of my trips are under a week in length, and that’s all it takes to find incredible images. Instead of thinking of a weeklong trip, try planning a weekend overnight adventure. Following are some planning tips for backcountry photography excursions. Don’t let a heavy pack intimidate you. You may be surprised at how light you can go, and the rewards are worth it! Just remember this one motto for backcountry photography: “Every ounce counts when you’re carrying it on your back.”

Embrace Camera Technology
On my early expeditions, I carried five or more lenses. Why? Because at that time, single-focal-length lenses were optically superior to zoom lenses. Times have changed. Now I carry only one or two lenses on weekend backcountry trips. Many zoom lenses today outperform single-focal-length lenses at the same focal length. I often carry a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm as my two lenses. These lenses will cover 90% of my needs on a short backcountry trip for general shooting. If I know I’m focusing on wildlife, I’ll carry a teleconverter or a 70-300mm.

Another variable to consider is the aperture of the lens. While ƒ/2.8 glass is very bright and offers great low-light focusing, ƒ/2.8 lenses are heavy. Lenses that have a variable aperture like ƒ/4-5.6 are lighter than their ƒ/2.8 cousins. Instead of carrying a macro lens, I carry extension tubes to achieve macro results from a lens I’m already carrying. Extension tubes are a lot lighter than a macro lens.

Camera bodies have the same considerations. Rather than haul a large, heavy pro DSLR into the field, I carry a midrange model instead. It’s much lighter, smaller and a better choice for backpacking. The midrange DSLR may not be as durable, but with a little care, it performs great in harsh conditions and saves a lot of weight.


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