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Backcountry Photography

Out in the Cold: Down the Trail

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

Frosty RiverFebruary 3, 2009

Winter in Canoe Country can be a stark season, but the frozen landscape holds many surprises. Favorite summertime haunts are magically transformed. With so many trees stripped bare by the autumn winds, the earth's bones are revealed for all to see, and the commonplace becomes noteworthy. Stillwaters slumber under white drifts, while rivers run noisily through crystal caverns. The Old Woman mutters and grumbles in the tall pines, wind-driven snow hisses through the cedar thickets, and chickadees flit purposefully from branch to branch, chattering cheerfully even as the weather worsens.

But winter's beauty remains unknown country to the armchair explorer. You can't experience it from inside your house. You have to seek it out. And what better way than stalking the perfect picture with your camera? Despite the low temperatures, photography doesn't have to be drudgery. Dress warmly, protect your gear, and play it safe—these are the keys to a successful winter photo shoot. Last month I outlined the first steps. Now we're ready to…

Hit the Trail

There's no need to go far afield. Even if you live in the heart of a big city, chances are good that you'll find wild land or flowing water nearby. As luck would have it, I've got The River on my doorstep, and it takes no more than 10 minutes of walking to reach the trailhead. Now I have a decision to make. I can follow the beaten path along the riverbank, with spectacular views of staircase falls, bony rapids, and sheer cliffs. Or I can bushwhack over a wooded ridge to a frozen swamp, crossing several free-running streams and skirting a snow-shrouded pond in the process. This route lacks the high drama of the river trail, but there's a much better chance that I'll meet up with one or more of the wood's winter residents as I walk along. Either way, I can't lose.

Icy Drop

 

Use a LanyardUnless I'm careless, that is. This is winter. It's not a good time to cut corners. Gloves don't improve your dexterity, and dropping your camera in a snowbank won't enhance its performance one little bit. A lanyard or neck strap is a must, as are thin glove liners. The photo on the right shows how I tether my Canon A550. The short loop of yellow cord joins the camera to a lanyard that's large enough to sling over my head. (I discarded the original wrist-strap. Too small.) The interchangeable lenses of SLRs present further challenges to the fumble-fingered, as do filters and lens covers. Meticulous attention to detail is a must. Yet all your precautions will be wasted if you tumble down a snowy slope. So watch where you put your feet whenever you climb or descend.

That said, taking a header on a snowy slope is only one of the many dangers that confront photographers in winter. There are also…

Water Hazards

Surprised? You shouldn't be. You're a paddler, right? Scouting is probably second nature by now, at least when you're on a river. Well, here's a news-flash: Scouting is a very good idea any time you have to cross a frozen pond or stream, too. (The best course is to find another route, but that's not always an option.) There's water under that ice—cold water. You can take it from me that it's no fun going for a swim in January. Caution is key in crossing frozen waterways, and Farwell has already written a series of articles on this vital subject. I think they're must reading for winter walkers. Begin with "Is it Safe?" then follow up with "Stepping Out." But what if you obey all the rules and break through, anyway? Then you'll be glad you've read "Self-Rescue," won't you?

Is It Safe?

 

Once you're back on solid ground, you'll still need to…

Look to Your Feet

I've touched on this point already, but a reminder won't hurt. Snowdrifts hide many unpleasant surprises from the winter wayfarer. Things like tangles of logging slash, gaps between rocks that are just large enough to trap a booted foot, and the seemingly bottomless hollows that sometimes form under the low-hanging boughs of snow-laden spruce trees. Falling face down in the snow is bad enough, but falling on your camera is worse. The moral? When you venture off the beaten track, whether you're postholing through the drifts or stepping out on snowshoes, move with deliberate speed. And don't try to shoot on the run. Protect your eyes from stray branches, too.

Most important of all, don't get so involved in framing your shot that you lose sight of your surroundings. Serious photographers will know what I mean here, and even casual shutterbugs have probably stepped back off a curb at least once while trying to get all the heads in a family portrait. If you're on the edge of a cliff overlooking a roaring river, that sort of misstep can be a memorable one. Farwell once perched on a ledge on a cliff face while he followed the flight of a soaring hawk in his binoculars, his legs dangling over a sheer drop of a thousand feet. Suddenly, without warning, the hawk he was watching folded its wings and plummeted down. Farwell leaned forward, struggling to keep the bird in sight. Then he felt his rump start to slide over the lip of the ledge. Though Farwell was glassing the bird and not photographing it, he'd nonetheless allowed himself to get "lost in the shot" and momentarily forgotten where he was. Only a lively scramble kept him from following the object of his attentions all the way down to the talus pile at the foot of the mountain. He would have beaten the hawk to the bottom, I suppose, but there's no doubt who'd have landed more gracefully.

 

Of course, you don't want to concentrate entirely on where you're putting your feet, either. It's also important to…

Mind the Overhead

Snow and ice don't just collect underfoot. A lot of the snow that falls on the forest gets held up on its way down. Viewed from a distance, snow-draped limbs and branches are scenery, but they're something else when you're standing under them. All that icy stuff doesn't hang around forever. Sooner or later it completes its journey, falling to the ground with a great Whoosh! Don't linger beneath a potential snow bomb waiting for the big chill to hit. Move on before you and your camera get nailed. Or if that's not practical—if you have to stay where you are to get your shot, for example—consider using an umbrella to protect the camera. (A parka hood will keep snow from sliding down your neck, but only a climbing helmet can protect your noggin from falling ice.)

A further word of caution: Sometimes just moving on is enough to trigger a bomb, especially if you knock into a snow-laden branch as you go. This can also be done deliberately with a ski pole or ice ax. It's a good way to clear an icy hazard from a safe distance.

Mind Your Head!

 

And once tree branches are cleared of snow, they can be your friends. If you're not standing right under a potential snow bomb, a sturdy branch makes a great holdfast, and a holdfast is the outdoor photographer's best friend. When you're shooting from some high vantage point—a cliff, say, or even up a tree—a well-chosen branch can keep you from going over the edge, literally or figuratively. It can also steady your hand, something that's especially important when you're panting from the effort of postholing through the drifts.

Tailor Made Safety Prop

The photo above shows a textbook case. I wanted to shoot a series of shots of the cataract at the bottom of an undercut bank. Ice made the footing treacherous, and to make matters worse, the approach to the bank grew steeper as I edged closer. But these two hemlocks gave me all the propping up I needed, while simultaneously keeping me from going into the water. Needless to say, I thought this was a pretty good bargain.

 

Do you think I'm making too much of my need for support? I'm not. Unwanted motion is the bane of photographers, and it's critically important that you win…

The Battle of the Blur

Sometimes blurring can be used to your advantage—to convey a sense of speed in action shots, for instance. Most of the time, however, you want your shots to look sharp. The problem is especially acute in low light, and while high-ISO settings and "image stabilization" technology can limit the damage, prevention is always better than cure. A good stance helps—I carry a foam mat for prone shots—but a holdfast of some sort is often essential. If there's no tree handy, and if you've left your tripod at home, you can usually make do with an ice ax, ski pole, or trekking pole. These versatile monopods are the photographer's answer to the gamekeeper's shooting stick. Lacking anything better, you can even use a companion's shoulder. If you're shaking from the cold, though, a holdfast won't be enough. Luckily, the remedy is simple: warm up. Put on another sweater and have a high-energy snack, or pour a hot drink from your thermos. It's also necessary to keep your breath from fogging the lens of your camera. A scarf, neck gaiter, or balaclava does the job.

Good form is always important, of course. Learn to hold your camera steady. If you're using an SLR (film or digital), use your left palm and fingers as a rest for the lens and camera body. Don't grip the lens barrel too tightly, however, particularly if it's an auto-focus lens. On the other hand, if your camera is a point-and-shoot model, brace the camera body against your face and use the viewfinder rather than the LCD to frame your shot. (Not all point-and-shoot cameras have optical viewfinders. Check before you buy.) If you must use the LCD screen—if, for example, your camera is one of the ones without a viewfinder—hold the camera as close to you as possible and brace your elbows against your sides. It helps to take one or two deep breaths after framing the shot, and then hold your breath while you squeeze the shutter. Photographers have a lot in common with competitive marksmen. "Hold 'em and squeeze 'em" is good advice, whether you're on the range or in the field.

Back to tripods for a minute. Some photographers like to carry a mini-tripod in their packs. I'm not a fan. When I need a tripod, I need a real tripod. My old Slik U-112 is both heavy and bulky, but it's bombproof—even snow-bombproof. Here it is in action, keeping my Pentax DSLR and its long lens rock solid, while an umbrella provides shelter from stray snowflakes.

Rock Solid

 

Bottom line? Winter makes the photographer's job harder, but good technique rises to the challenge. The rules are simple. Watch where you put your feet, stay out of the way of snow bombs, and grab a little support wherever you find it. Now just hold 'em and squeeze 'em. Your camera will do the rest.

Next month: Going the extra mile. Until then, happy shooting!

Frosty Morning

The winter landscape is stark. There's no gainsaying that. But it can also be beautiful. Slumbering the season away under wraps is great for chipmunks and bears—but they miss a lot. So don't hibernate through the off-season. Bundle up and hit the trail, instead. Who knows? The end result might just be picture-perfect.

Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
















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