Dealing with Weather and the Environment

Some of the most beautiful photographs are made during bad weather. There is beauty in all weather, and raindrops, snowflakes, and fog can add to your photographic adventure. Think of the atmosphere in photos of a fishing village on the coast of Maine or snow-covered buffalo roaming the plains of Yellowstone National Park. Bad weather may be a challenge, but it does not mean you can't make good photos. No-matter how well prepared you are, the one thing you can never control is the weather.

If you are going to a rainforest you can expect it to rain during some part of your trip. If you are hoping to photograph polar bears in the snow, you know what I mean. Planes may be delayed, cars may get stuck in mud, and wind may blow a gale. These can change your photo plans but they do not end them.
With the likely possibility of bad weather, you can arrive at a destination prepared for the elements. Make sure you have clothing to keep yourself comfortable. When you get cold, sunburn, or wet, your spirit and desire to take photographs will be dampened as well. Pay attention to pre-departure information a tour company sends you. Do your own research about what to expect.

Water

Water in the form of rain, snow, fog, or the iced tea your buddy just spilled on your camera bag can ruin your camera. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can say that will help you prevent your buddy from spilling his tea; he's your friend so deal with him. Rain, snow, and fog, on the other hand, are a little easier to prepare for.

In the case of an unexpected spray of water, the best you can do is have fast reflexes and quickly wipe off your gear before the water does any damage. I carry a small camp towel to deal with such an emergency. The kind sold in sporting goods stores for backpackers come in various sizes, but a small one is all you need. They absorb large amounts of water quickly and after ringing them out they dry fast as well. They suck in water that a regular towel would miss. Camp towels are great also in fog where a light mist can accumulate into a substantial amount of water coating your camera. Wipe the camera off every once in a while to prevent big drops from running into spaces in the camera. Extend the lens to remove any water that may have found its way onto unexposed parts and hold the camera in a way to allow the water to run off, not into your gear.

Humidity

Another way to deal with moisture is to cover your gear with a protective shell. There are commercially-made products, from a simple rain cover to a plastic housing with which you can submerge the camera underwater. Unless you are planning to photograph subjects underwater, the latter is a bit extreme. But a simple rain cover is an excellent way to protect gear in the field. Specially made covers for lenses are available, or you can make one yourself. Anything that repels the water will work. A plastic bag and some rubber bands will do in a pinch, but if you want something more durable and reusable, be creative with a pair of rain pants or a poncho; you can make a shell for your gear that will be the envy of all the photographers. I made one for my longest lens and camera combination by cutting off the leg of an old pair of rain pants, keeping the elastic at the bottom of the leg to cinch around the end of the lens. At the other end, I cut the seam to give me more room to drape it over the camera but still be able to look through the viewfinder. I glued Velcro tabs to seal it. With my gear protected from the elements, I can stay out in the rain or snow without fear of ruining the equipment.

Humidity is a tough problem. You can't always feel it or see it, but it seeps in like some villain in the night. If you are traveling to a tropical rain forest for a week or two, and are fairly careful, chances are the humidity will not have long enough time to damage your equipment. If, however, you are spending an extended time in the jungle or the wilds off the beaten path, like Florida, there are precautions you can take.

To prevent damage, simply wipe down your gear after each photo session. Store your equipment in a good camera bag that is dry (a wet bag is no protection against humidity). Silica gel packs or other types of desiccant work well as long as they are not saturated, but in the tropics they quickly absorb as much moisture as they can hold. Unless you are able to dry them out in an oven or other container, they no longer will do any good. If you live in Florida or are staying in well-equipped lodges, the air conditioning will keep the humidity from doing harm. Unfortunately, many jungle lodges do not have electricity, never mind air-conditioning.

I know a photographer who figured out that he could dry his camera out by placing it on the door of an open oven. He kept the oven at a low temperature and knew just how much heat his camera could handle before it began to melt. This was done without film in the camera and it took time and constant monitoring. Unless you have an extreme situation, this is not the most practical method, but it did work.

Dust and Sand

Dust and sand are problems, too, especially in places like Africa where, during the dry season (often the most popular time to be there) there is dust everywhere. It is a double-edged sword; on one hand the dust creates magnificent sunsets because dust particles are suspended in the air, on the other hand it creeps into every small cranny it can find. All of a sudden you will hear a grinding noise when you are focusing or you will notice your aperture ring is hard to turn or sticks. These are signs of dust or sand in your camera and lens. It is especially important for digital photographers to avoid this because the sensor in the camera body is electrically charged and acts as a magnet for every dust particle out there. Be very mindful of this when changing lenses; keep your camera body protected. The best way to guard against dust is to keep your gear covered when you are not photographing. I know this goes against my suggestion to be prepared and ready, but covered is not hermetically sealed in a watertight box. It may be that all that is needed is to put a bandana over the camera as you drive along looking for animals, or you may need to place it in your camera bag or pack to keep it from the dust. If you do put it in your camera bag, make sure the bag is accessible and your camera is ready to use when you can grab it.

This is easy with smaller lenses attached to the camera, but what about long lenses that won't fit into camera bags without being dismantled? On safari I use the Lowepro Lens Trekker that is made for carrying long lenses. It will fit up to a 600-millimeter lens with camera attached. I strap it to the seat in front of me so it is sitting ready for use when I need it. With my lens hood attached, the camera sticks out the top, but this is easily taken care of with a draped bandana or rain jacket. A daypack or other pack can work just as well if you use a little creativity. Cover your gear and wipe it off periodically; you should be OK. The biggest threat with sand is not blowing sand you are aware of, but sand clinging to your clothing or skin that you don't realize is falling onto your camera when you stand after sitting or lying on a beach. Be aware, get up carefully, and brush yourself off with your camera safely away somewhere, not close to you.

Cold

Photographing in the cold presents some problems, but nothing too difficult to overcome. The biggest problem is not with the camera, but with the battery inside the camera. Cold causes a battery to drain faster than normal, so bring extra batteries. Don't be fooled, when you get back to your room you might discover that your battery has new life and is working just fine, but change the battery anyway. As your battery warms it will have renewed life, but as soon as it gets cold again it will fail once more. Keep the extra batteries in your pocket to keep them warm until you need them. Since you may be traveling in remote areas where they do not recycle batteries, do the planet a favor and bring used batteries home with you and dispose of them in the proper place; better yet, used rechargeable batteries.

Moisture on the lens is another problem. If you are in below-freezing temperatures and get moisture on the lens, it will freeze on the glass. If you need to clean your lens in the cold, do not use a liquid or your breath; instead, clean it with a dry lens cloth or tissue.

The most valuable advice I can give you here is that once your camera becomes cold, let it stay cold. When you take a cold camera into a hot place, condensation will form both outside and inside the camera. The electronics in your camera could be ruined. To prevent this, put your cold camera in the camera bag or pack (or even a plastic bag) before bringing it into a heated room. It is fine to go from cold to cold, hot to hot, or hot to cold temperatures, but never cold to hot. Many people try to keep a camera warm by sticking it inside their coat between shots, but this is the worst thing you can do. Not only are they putting the cold camera into a warm place, they are also putting it in a place with lots of moisture. When you bring a nice warm, moist camera out into the cold again, it will freeze.

The last advice about photographing in the cold is to make sure you are dressed appropriately. If you are uncomfortable, you will not want to take photos. Being prepared for the elements makes the difference between an adventure and an ordeal.

Heat

The biggest issue with heat is having a camera and/or film in the sun for long periods, notwithstanding that a camera on a tripod for extended periods is necessary in many situations. The problem occurs when the camera becomes hotter than the temperature around it. Simple precautions can put your mind at ease. A bandana draped over the camera will shade it from the sun and keep it from overheating. Never leave a camera or film in an enclosed car, where the temperature can be compared to an oven. Normally when using film in the desert or other hot place, I keep my film sealed in a zip-lock bag and stored it in a cooler. Your camera bag is a good defense since the padding acts as an insulator. If you are staying in an air-conditioned hotel or lodge, you may find the cool camera lens fogging when you bring it into the heat of the day. It is hard to believe you need to worry about cold on a hot day in the middle of desert, but all the rules about cold to hot apply if you are staying in an air-conditioned room.

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