How to Protect Your Camera: Outdoor Photography 101

Professional photographer Dan Holz shares his hard-won tips on how to protect your camera while backpacking any weather, even without a waterproof camera.
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Professional photographer Dan Holz shares his hard-won tips on how to protect your camera while backpacking any weather, even without a waterproof camera.

This post brought to you in partnership with Tandem Stills + Motion, an outdoor photo agency and community for adventurous souls.

You’ve scouted the prime location and calculated when the sun will embrace the surrounding peaks in warm, glowing light. You’re ready to take your beloved DSLR into the high country. It’s sunny this morning, but there may be buckets of rain and fields of mud in a few short hours. Perhaps harrowing winds will coat everything you own with waves of spindrift. You just never know! But hey—if you want to get the shot, you should never let challenging conditions sway you. Sometimes you just have to earn it.

On one of my first commercial assignments nearly 13 years ago, I brought a non-weather sealed camera up Mt. Rainier. After two days of working on the glaciated peak, the cold and wet conditions had completely fried the camera’s sensitive electronics. Luckily, I pulled off all the images I needed in those 2 days–and learned lesson #1: Get the right gear for the job.

Here are a few tips that I’ve picked up over the years that have kept my camera equipment functioning in even the most challenging situations:

Buy weather-sealed gear.

Nowadays, camera manufacturers understand that not all photographers are safely locked away in a hermetically sealed studio all day. We like to get out there, revel in the outdoors, and drag ourselves (and our gear) through the muck. When shopping for a camera, be sure to choose a weather-sealed camera body with comparable lenses. It may seem a little pricey at first, but in the long run your camera will have a much longer lifespan.

Make sure you have a padded bag.

how to protect your camera

A padded organization system, like this Trekpak organizer added to an Osprey Kode 32 backpack, will help protect your camera gear. Photo by Dan Holz

Having a padded organization system for your lenses and accessories is necessary when crashing around in the backcountry. Keep in mind that easy/organized access for speedy lens changes can make difference between getting the shot or regretting the day. My go-to gear hauler is a customized Osprey Kode 32 with a Trekpak organizer insert—it’s bomber! It has just enough capacity to take your personal gear and a handful of key photography accessories out for a day of shooting, and the ski-carry system can pull double-duty as a tripod carrier.

how to protect your camera

The Osprey Kode 32's ski-carry systems doubles as a tripod holder. Photo by Dan Holz

Use inner bags to keep everything organized.

If you’re heading out for a multiday adventure, consider compartmentalizing your gear by using smaller, padded blocks. By ‘bricking’ your gear, you distribute the weight in your pack while maximizing your storage capacity. My go to bag for internal organization is the Clik Elite Traveler paired with a neoprene lens case. But I’ve spent countless hours researching and trying different combinations of bags/inserts. It might take some time to figure out what works best for you, but the right system is well worth it.

Upgrade your strap.

You can’t take any photos if your camera is in the pack. In order to use your equipment in precarious situations, I found it’s best to upgrade your camera strap to something more secure. The Black Rapid Sport is my strap of choice—it keeps my camera close even when I’m jugging lines 300 feet off the deck.

Plan out your shoot ahead of time.

Gear is heavy and seems to get inexplicably heavier at elevation. While it’s impossible to plan for every frame, try to get a sense of what you are really getting after that day. Select your main subject and pack your gear based upon it. Decide if you’re going super-wide or telephoto. Do you really need bring that 100mm prime or can you allow your 70-200 to pull double duty? Remember, saving energy is the best way to keep both you and your gear safe.

Learn to deal with wind.

Extreme wind has been both a blessing and a curse on so many shoots. On one side of the coin, we’re given the opportunity to capture wispy clouds and blowing sand as it rips across the landscape. On the other, changing lenses or securing a tripod is often impossible if there is no shelter in site. The solution: change lenses under your jacket. It may take a little practice, but going through the trouble of swapping lenses beneath a layer of Gore-Tex is better than filling your camera body up with debris. As for the tripod, secure your hefty camera bag to it for added stability. For bonus points, equalize your tripod using cordage and a snow or rock anchor to secure your three-legged system.

Prepare for wet weather.

Ironically, the worst weather typically makes for the most magical light. But what if your camera isn’t weather sealed? There are plenty of accessories on the market to waterproof your camera, but unless you plan on submerging it, you can probably get away with just cutting a hole in a freezer bag and shooting through that. Also: Your lens hood isn’t just for protection from sun flare, it also works great for keeping the elements off your prize glass.

Clean your lens—gently!

More often than not, using your clothes to clean or dry your sensitive glass is a sure way to send it into early retirement. The delicate coatings on your lens are prone to scratching. Using an actual lens-cleaning cloth is key to keeping your optics clear. Remember to remove any heavy particulates from the lens before wiping by using an air puffer. They are light, small and can be a game changer when shooting in sandy or dusty locations. I prefer the Foto Tech Deluxe Dust Blower. At less than 2 oz., you won't even notice it's in your pack.

fototech_dust_blower

Never store wet gear.

Even if your gear is weather sealed, it’s not immune from fungal growth. To prevent your lenses from becoming expensive petri dishes, dry them off as much as possible before packing them back up. Then, toss a handful of moisture-absorbing silica packets in your camera bag. They are a cheap/free solution to extending the life of your gear.

Keep your camera cold when it’s cold out.

You may be tempted to put your camera under your jacket just to warm it up a bit. This may cause unwanted condensation to form, rendering your camera useless for quite some time. Also, falling snow will have a tendency to melt on a warm camera, making it more of a chore to clean compared to frozen snow.

Protect it from heat in the summer.

The average camera has a high-end temperature rating of about 115*F. Leave your black, heat-absorbing camera baking in the sun, and the internal temps can far exceed this limit and damage sensitive camera and lens components. When setting up for a timelapse in extreme temps, you may want to cover the camera with a protective towel while it fires away. Also limit the use of the Live View option while shooting to minimize heat produced from your LCD and camera sensor.

All things considered, your camera gear is pretty tough. When the conditions get harsh, don’t be afraid to take it out of the bag.

Adventure Photographer Dan Holz

Photographer Dan Holz. Photo by Kaare Iverson

Photographer Dan Holz. Photo by Kaare Iverson

Holz, based in Durango, CO, has been an adventure photographer since 2002.

Find him online: website | twitter | facebook

How did you get started in photography?

I first fell in love with photography in the sixth grade. I would disappear into the darkroom for hours at a time, ripping through as many sheets of film paper as I could. From the click of the shutter to the mixing of the chemicals, the whole process was one part science and one part magic for me. I suppose that my first ‘professional’ gig was in 2002 when I shot for an outdoor equipment company on Mt. Rainier. This was probably the game changer for me, leading me to work towards becoming a full-time active lifestyle and mountain sport photographer in the following years.

What do you shoot with?

Canon MkIII and L-series lenses. The consistency, quality and weather sealing are a must in the sometimes ‘challenging’ conditions and locations to which I’m assigned.

The one thing I never go into the field without is my Canon 14mm f/2.8 L-series prime lens. Shooting wide is such a big part of my style and that lens always delivers. The optics are tack sharp and always consistent. Whether I’m shooting landscape, action sports or just life as it happens, this lens has me covered.

What photo are you the most proud of and why?

I can’t say that I’m ever really ‘proud’ of the images I’ve captured based solely on their quality. For me, it’s the subjects of my images that transform a photo into art–the innate qualities of our landscapes and fellow humans (and animals) that elicit reactions or inspire us to connect. But there is one particular image that stands out among the rest–and not because it’s what most people consider to be a classic, wall-hanging piece of fine art. It’s not a captivating landscape, nor an alpinist teetering on the edge of oblivion. It’s a simple black and white of some farmer’s kids, dressed in tattered clothes processing sugar cane high in the western foothills of the Ecuadorian Andes.

Dan Holz image from Ecuador

This photo of children processing sugarcane in Ecuador is one of Holz's favorites. Photo by Dan Holz

I was in South America a couple of years ago shooting for a NGO, helping to tell the story of a responsible community enterprise formed by small-scale sugar cane farmers who produce organic, fair trade alcohol and distribute their product globally. They were nearly priced out by the competing, giant mega-corporations who were taking the area over by storm. I spent a little over a week getting to know these villagers and visiting their farms. This particular scene put a face on the organization for me and how they are a true David in the world of Goliaths.

Tell us about your most epic fail.

Dan Holz Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier, looking like not a fun place to weather a storm. Photo by Dan Holz

The more time you spend in the backcountry, the greater your chances of having a close call. I’ve definitely had my share, but there was one trip up Rainier that was closer than most. A couple of (very experienced) buddies and I decided to take a run up Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier. We conservatively planned on a three-day climb/shoot. Six and a half days later, we found ourselves bivying on a frozen ledge deep in the heart of a crevasse, waiting out an unexpected and enormous storm system that battered us all the way up the mountain. We ran out of fuel and food, I lost about 15 pounds, and we even got separated from one of our climbing partners during the worst snow and wind. I’ve had a lot of close calls, but that was by far the most intense.

What are you working on next? What is your dream?

I love adventure photography, it’s my passion. Heading out to the mountains with friends and pro athletes to work is amazing! But, it sometimes feels a little self-serving. Granted, it’s a ton of work, more than most people realize–but at the end of the day, I’m taking photos and shooting video of people having fun in the mountains. I’m not exactly saving lives, here. (At least, if all goes according to plan.)

I feel the next step would be to incorporate more conservation-based projects into my work. I believe it’s our duty as humans to help make this planet better for the next generation whenever we have the opportunity. I have a few larger dream projects that align themselves with this philosophy. Though I can’t really go into the specifics at this time, when the project launches, you’ll know!