Gear and the Woods: Camera Survival 101

Sometimes it's not enough if you're the only survivor

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A little change today from the morbid themes of death and disaster:

I’m taking off this afternoon for three days of hiking around Cedar Mesa Archeological District in Southern Utah, to photograph remote Anasazi ruins and rock art. And the windy spring weather we’re currently getting in this sandy country has me thinking about survival — Not my own, my camera’s. Not coincidentally, I also found out yesterday that I’ll be climbing Alaska’s Mt.McKinley this June on assignment (again). That’s got me wondering whether I should take my digital Nikon D200 SLR (which worked well for shooting time lapses on the lower mountain last spring), or if summit region cold means I need to bust out my all-manual Nikon F10 film camera and get back to basics.

In the interest of helping us all avoid photo frustrations as we launch into our spring adventures, here’s a few camera survival tips I’ve formulated over the years:

[] When conditions are iffy, with sand or rain, you can always put your camera and lens in a Ziplocbag. I generally carry a 1- or 2-gallon ziptop bag rolled up in my camera case. That way I can seal up the camera, suck air out of the bag, stick it back in the camera case, and carry my rig safely through the worst weather.

[] Don’t leave your camera gear at ground level, that’s where dust and sand blow. Whenever you’re temporarily setting gear down, like around camp, keep it about chest level or higher, away from ground blizzards of stuff like mud that can quickly foul your camera. Better to hang it from a tree limb or tent pole, or use your tripod as a camera stand.

[] Carry your camera in a quick-draw padded case, preferably one that can be sealed with a zipper, not just a flap and buckle. The padding protects your gear from bumps and grinds, offers quick access for fast-moving photo ops, and also insulates against cold, reducing condensation during rain, humidity or sudden temperature changes.

[] I usually carry a large silnylon stuff sack, sleeping bag sized, with a trash can liner rolled up inside it. When I’m storing my camera around camp, I’ll put all the cases and lenses in these two bags and cinch ‘em up. The gear stays a lot cleaner, and it’s cheap insurance against sudden thunderstorms or rogue wind gusts.

[] The outdoors is dirty, so I always take a squeezy rubber blower ball, a lens brush, and some microfiber cleaning cloths, like you use to clean sunglasses. The whole cleaning kit weights 4 ounces, but it can really save your photos, and your gear, and means you’ll be more likely to shoot in challenging conditions.

[] If you’re carrying a digital camera, with interchangeable lenses, on a lot of multi-day trips, you should also carry a sensor cleaning kit, in order to remove dust spots that can weld themselves to your camera’s CMOS sensor and create spots on every single photo you shoot. Practice cleaning your sensor at home before trying it in the woods. The process consists of an ultra-pure, streak-proof alcohol solution, and lintless paddle-like swabs, sized to fit your camera’s sensor. It’s not hard to do, and a very common need. Just read the directions first and proceed carefully.

[] When weather’s really ugly, like Olympic rainforest downpours, steamy Everglades humidity, or frozen Boundary Waters winters, it’s smart to carry some packets of dessicant, which can suck moisture out of air, and camera gear. Keep them sealed until needed, then throw them in the aforementioned ziptop bag, with your wet or frosted camera and lens. Suck as much air out of the bag as possible, then seal it, and warm the package. This procedure can often revive a previously deceased camera.

[] In winter cold, when temperatures plunge into the teens, I keep two batteries on me at all times; one in the camera, the other in a warm pocket next to my body. If the camera quits, it’s not due to cold componentry, it’s cold reducing the battery output below your camera’s operating threshold. Installing a toasty warm battery often lets your camera shrug off some truly polar temperatures.

[] In winter cold, carry about twice the batteries you’d use for the same time frame in summer. Whenever temperatures drop below freezing, you’ll be amazed how quickly batteries, even lithium cells, can be used up.

So, hope that helps.

Now get out and take some photos.

–Steve Howe

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