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Backcountry Photography

Too Much Choice? Box Launch

By Tamia Nelson

July 2, 2013

A great thinker — her name was Mary Jane West, though she was better known as Mae — once opined that "too much of a good thing is wonderful." It's a catchy tag, but I can't entirely agree. Sometimes too much of anything is just that: too much. It's good to have a full boathouse, for example, with a craft suited to every occasion, but if that means you have to hold down three jobs to pay your credit card bills, you may never get to dip a paddle in the water. And while it's nice to own as many bikes as there are days in the week, if you end up spending more time tinkering with them than you do riding, you're worse off than someone who owns only one. It's a question of balance, the balance between means and ends.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in photography. A casual shutterbug with just a single point‑and‑shoot camera to her name never has to worry about what to take — or which lens to use. But she misses a lot of shots that the pro with a bag of lenses and a battery of camera bodies could easily get. On the other hand, the pro is sometimes caught changing lenses (or swapping bodies) when a once‑in‑a‑lifetime shot presents itself. This could be called …

The Curse of Complexity

Which is why many serious amateurs — and some pros, too — frequently succumb to paroxysms of indecision when packing their camera bags for a shoot. They agonize endlessly over what to take and what to leave behind, and even when they reach a decision and head out the door, they continue to be plagued by nagging doubts. Will they wish they'd brought their long, long lens when they spot a pair of courting eagles in flight? Would the little waterproof point‑and‑shoot now lying on a table in the workroom be just the right camera for that never‑to‑be‑repeated shot from behind the falls? Will this be the day they miss the picture that might have made them famous, only because they didn't bring the best lens, or the right camera?

Choice can be a terrible burden.

And it weighs heavily on all photographers, from novice to expert. It can even affect folks who are just thinking about becoming photographers. More than one neophyte has succumbed to LBS (lens‑buying syndrome) before she took a single shot, spending thousands of dollars in the process.

Sadly, as Hilaire Belloc observed in a very different context, there is no cure for this disease. But in common with many chronic afflictions, the symptoms can be managed and the course of the illness made less debilitating. How? By thoughtful planning, that's how. And it begins when you're …

Selecting the Gear for a Trip

Start by answering the following questions:

  1. What subjects interest you most? Birds and wildlife? Close‑ups of insects and tiny plants? Landscapes, riverscapes, or skyscapes? Action shots of your buddies doing wild and crazy things, swiftly and with style? If you have one overriding interest, you're in luck. Choosing the right kit should be easy. But if you're a Jack (or a Jill) of all photographic trades, you'll have to make some hard choices. Zoom lenses make the job easier, particularly if they're bright lenses with a wide focal range, but such lenses don't come cheap. And unless you're traveling in a big freighter canoe, you'll still need to leave some of your favorites behind.

  2. Do you have money to burn? Backcountry photography is hard on gear. Blowing sand and sucking mud, pouring rain and driving spray, not to mention the swirling, corrosive mist from the deep, salt sea — none of these will do your cameras and lenses any good. And if you drop your camera in the drink… The more gear you take, the more you have to lose. Think about that before you pack the heirloom Hasselblad.

  3. Are you a photographer first and a paddler second? Or is it the other way round? If your trip will keep you on the water from dawn to dusk, and if you'll stop paddling only to gulp some water and tear off a chaw of jerky, you won't be taking many pictures. A battery of six lenses and two camera bodies is almost certainly overkill. But if you're planning to be up before dawn, camera in hand, and a good day's paddling will only add up to a couple of hours, you might be unhappy to bring anything less.

  4. How big is your boat? And how big are your waterproof bags and dry boxes? You have to have a place for every item of equipment you add to your kit. Don't skimp on protection. But don't overload your craft, either. Camera bags, even bombproof, "guaranteed waterproof" camera bags, are no substitute for flotation.

OK. You've answered these questions to your satisfaction. What's next? Let's look at …

A Few Practical Examples

Make no mistake. The specimen gear lists I'll be showcasing reflect my experience and interests. I haven't conducted a survey of other paddling photographers. So feel free to pooh‑pooh what you read here. These are examples, not imperatives. I'll probably be doing things differently in a month or two myself. Moreover, my choices are shaped by what I own, and my kit isn't extensive: a couple of sister Canon point‑and‑shoot cameras, a weather‑resistant Pentax digital SLR (powered by AA batteries), four lenses (none of which claims to be weather‑resistant), a close‑up conversion lens, three tripods, a selection of polarizing and neutral‑density filters, and a motley collection of maintenance supplies and other odds and ends.

What lenses do I have? My digital SLR came with an 18–55 mm medium‑range zoom "kit" lens, and I added a 50–200 mm telephoto zoom soon thereafter. In subsequent years, I bought an ultra wide‑angle zoom lens and a longer telephoto zoom. There's a considerable overlap in focal range, as an annotated lineup shows:

Toeing the Line

Serious photographers (and LBS sufferers) will regard this as a bare sufficiency. Still, I have too many lenses to fit inside the modified ammo can that serves as my waterproof camera safe. (My little Otter Box holds only one point‑and‑shoot camera and a few other small items.) As a practical matter, therefore, I'm limited to three of my four lenses and the one body.

The bottom line? Even if I wanted to, I couldn't bring every item of photographic kit I own along on a trip. Nor would I want to. Each additional item of gear needs looking after, and it's also good to know that a worst‑case scenario capsize won't leave me without a camera (or lens) to my name. Having once lost all of my possessions in a fire, I'm keenly aware just how hard it is to start over again with nothing.

Now let's get to those specimen gear lists that I mentioned a while back, beginning with the kit I'd bring on a …

Photo Expedition by Pack Canoe. When photography is the main goal, I don't plan to travel far on any given day. (In fact, I probably spend more time on land than in the boat.) Since my interests run the gamut from macrophotography to birds and wildlife to landscapes — I'm one of those Jill‑of‑all‑trades photographers, I'm afraid — I pack accordingly:

  • Digital SLR body
  • 10–20 mm ultra wide‑angle lens
  • 18–55 mm kit zoom
  • 55–300 mm zoom telephoto
  • Close‑up conversion lens
  • Tripod
  • Spare batteries
  • A somewhat variable collection of odd and ends, most likely including a cable release, some cleaning supplies, and a selection of filters (in addition to the UV filters that live more or less permanently on all my lenses)

I may even take one of the point‑and‑shoot cameras, too — just in case Old Faithful fails to perform. This inventory of gear weighs a fair bit, to be sure, but if photography is the primary reason I'm on the water, it's a burden I'm happy to shoulder.

On the other hand, photography may be incidental to the trip, in which case I'll pare my kit considerably. After all, I'm …

Just Paddling. Weather, terrain, and time of year will all influence my selection of lenses, of course, but this list is typical:

  • Camera body
  • 18–55 mm zoom lens
  • A second lens (paddler's choice)
  • Spare batteries

The medium‑range zoom kit lens lets me shoot everything from landscapes to wildflowers, while also allowing me to capture the character of country rock (once a geologist, always a geologist). It will handle camp scenes and action shots with reasonable aplomb, too. The second lens could be either the longer of my two telephotos — if I expected to see plenty of wildlife — or — if the country or the skies promised high drama — the ultra wide‑angle glass.

Of course, not all paddling trips are equal. Some are leisurely. And some are not. If I'm looking ahead to long days in rough water (or long portages), weight looms large on my planning horizon, and I'll want to …

Go Light. Then it's back to basics:

  • Camera body
  • 18–55 mm kit lens
  • Spare batteries

I'll probably miss some shots, but not because I'm changing lenses. And who knows? I might enjoy the holiday from "serious" photography.

Then again, it's one thing to go light, and another thing altogether to go light. More and more often these days, I'm opting for no‑octane "amphibious" treks. In part, this is because it's eminently practical. Amphibious jaunts are easy to arrange. I don't have to catch flights, endure body searches, organize shuttles, or worry if the car I left at the put‑in parking lot will still have four intact tires when I return. Moreover, the holiday begins and ends right at my doorstep, and it can be just as long (or as short) as time allows.

And the other part of the story? I suppose you could say it reflects both ethic and economy. I like to tread lightly in my journey through life. Bucket lists are all the rage nowadays, it seems. But my bucket list is very short: I want to leave as much as possible in the bucket for our fellow travelers on planet earth. If that means that I must log fewer miles and travel more slowly, so be it. It's not a hardship. Far from it. Thoreau wrote that he had "travelled a good deal in Concord," the little Massachusetts village where he lived and worked, and he wasn't voicing regrets. He was giving witness to the enormous depth and variety of his experience. He seldom traveled far from Concord, but he missed very little that went on around him. Many of his neighbors, men and women "that travel[led] sitting," with their "legs … dangling the while," covered far more ground than Thoreau did during his short life, but they saw (and learned) far less.

On the other hand, amphibious journeys necessarily impose tight discipline on the trekker. When you're hauling your boat and gear behind you on a bike (or carrying it on your back), in terrain that ranges from rolling to steep, every ounce makes itself felt many times over. The upshot? If I feel I simply must bring my digital SLR along, it will be the "go light" kit and nothing else. But it's far more likely that I'll make do with one of my little point‑and‑shoot cameras, along with a few spare batteries. Or — and this is my preferred alternative — I'll leave all of my cameras at home, replacing them with brushes, paints, and paper, along with a pencil and sketch pad. And in many ways, this is the most versatile kit of all.

~ ~ ~

It's time to reexamine the bottom line. Every journey is unique. Destinations differ. Goals vary. Terrain and weather set limits on the possible. Deciding what photographic kit to take and what to leave behind is always difficult. But you can't take everything. You must choose. And whatever your decision, the day will come when you'll regret it. This, too, is unavoidable. You can rail against implacable fate, if you want, but it's wiser to acquiesce to the inevitable with good grace. The result will be the same either way. You'll miss shots from time to time, but you'll retain images fixed in the emulsion of your memory for as long as you live.

And that is what really matters.

I Am a Camera

Whether you're a shutterbug or a serious photographer, you'll often have a hard time deciding what gear — cameras, lenses, and accessories — to take on a trip. There's no universal formula, and there are no guarantees. Weight and complexity are always at war with function and versatility. The ideal photographic kit may be both simple and good, but what is simple isn't always good, and what is good is seldom simple. Still, with a little forethought, you can improve your odds of getting most of what you want, much of the time. And there's no better deal on offer.

I hope I've helped you strike the balance that suits you best. It's never easy, but it's worth the effort: You'd rather have too much choice than no choice at all, wouldn't you?



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