The Ten Photo Expedition Essentials

All 225 lb (102kg) of gear packed up, ready for international departure!

All 225 lb (102kg) of gear packet up, ready for international departure!

Photographing wildlife in your local state park is one thing, traveling across the world to try and capture images of elusive species in remote areas is another. You have to start thinking beyond picture taking to managing staying out in the field for ­extended periods of time. Convenience stores aren’t around every corner and if you are missing something you may just be plain out of luck. Though the list of things to bring is extensive I wanted to explain my top ten essentials that I take every time I head into the field.

1. Camera Gear

About half the photography equipment I bring on assignment (not counting camera traps)

About half the photography equipment I bring on assignment (not counting camera traps, for those multiply everything by four)

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: without camera equipment you wouldn’t be doing much photography. Having multiples of items, especially cameras, is essential. This way, if something breaks, you don’t have to give up shooting altogether. I have had two cameras break on me while I was on location, though inconvenient, it didn’t halt my photography as I could just keep going with the back-ups.

2. Paperwork

Passport, immunization records, photography permits, and tickets.

Passport, immunization records, photography permits, and tickets.

In most foreign countries you can’t just show up, pull out your camera, and start shooting — especially not for extended periods of time. Many countries require you to get visas before you even depart your home country. Others require you to provide your immunization history to make sure you aren’t bringing in any disease or may be contracting on during your stay. Finally, if you are working in any public areas, you most likely need a permit to conduct your photography project from the governmental department responsible for the environment (sure makes shooting at home sound way more appealing, doesn’t it?!).

3. First Aid Kit

The first aid kit I bring (make sure yours is waterproof as well)

The first aid kit I bring (make sure yours is waterproof as well)

Alright, so you have made it to your remote location finally. You are pumped up and ready to conquer all photography challenges when a major bout of diarrhea leaves you weak and lying in bed for days. You get a bacterial infection and have no way of treating it. A simple injury can all of a sudden become life threatening. All of these scenarios are quite possible, and could have happened to me, if I did not have a first aid kid to nip the problem in the bud right when the issue started to present itself. It’s not much to carry, but it can literally save your life. Check out the CDCs website to see what health issues you should be prepared for at your destination.

4. Water Purification

Water filtration system including a pump and steripen

Water filtration system including a pump and steripen

That brings me right to my next item, well items really. We take clean water for granted, but guess what, in most parts of the world that is simply not the case. So will you just bring gallons and gallons of water with you? Carrying the extra weight is just not feasible. So you have to be able to purify the water you naturally encounter in the environment. A water pump (for sediment extraction) along with a steripen (which kills the bacteria and viruses) are essential to alleviating any kind of water problems.

5. Rain Protection

Osprey raincover - perfect for most rain situation. If its a storm, I place items in waterproof bags.

Osprey raincover – perfect for most rain situations. If its a storm, I place items in waterproof bags.

Talking about water, in the tropical environments I have worked in the most, finding water is no problem, simply because it rains in these ecosystems almost daily. Great for drinking water, not so great for keeping your photo and traveling equipment dry. I always carry raincovers and waterproof bags with me, so if a downpour comes in, I know all is safe.

6. Silica Gels

Silica Gels - I have even needed these in the desert

Silica Gels – I have even needed these in the desert

Related to the waterproof bags are silica gels. In tropical environments, even when it isn’t raining, the humidity is absolutely absurd (my baseball hat was growing three different species of fungi the last time I was in Borneo), which can lead to health issues and fungus growing inside of your photo gear. To ensure that the air within your bags is less humid, silica packets are absolutely essential.

7. Pocket Knife

Most important item I own (partially due to sentimental reasons) -- my grandpa's pocket knife

Most important item I own (partially due to sentimental reasons) — my grandpa’s pocket knife

Another duh item really. It allows you to eat food more easily, cut most anything, and repair a lot of your kit. I use my pocketknife daily when I am in the field and it is the item I would least want to lose.

8. Hand Sanitizer and Toilet Paper

TP and Hand Sanitizer - explanation is hopefully unnecessary

TP and Hand Sanitizer – explanation is hopefully unnecessary

Going to the bathroom in the wilderness is somewhat of an acquired taste. Whether you hate it or don’t mind it, you won’t get around it when you are in the field for extended periods of time. To do things properly though, both toilet paper and hand sanitizer are required. If you don’t have toilet paper, you can always use a leaf, but grabbing the wrong kind of vegetation will guarantee that you won’t forget the tp in the future.

9. External Hard drives

External hard drive - I have two of these that are clones of each other

External hard drive – I have two of these that are clones of each other

All is well, you are safe, your equipment is safe, and you are having amazing experiences taking amazing pictures. Life couldn’t be better. You are filled with happiness as you see your pictures loading onto your computer and there is no sense of nervousness as you do so because you thought ahead and brought plenty of external storage. When I am in the field, each photograph I take is stored on three different devices, so even if one fails, I still have two back-up copies. I would recommend doing the same for you.

10. Compass and GPS

GPS - life saver (literally)

GPS – life saver (literally)

Assuming that you’d like to return from your adventurous journey, I would recommend bringing both a compass and a GPS to lead you back to civilization. Having worked in the desert and the dense jungle now, I can attest that these two items are probably the biggest life savers. When you are totally away from civilization it is incredibly easy to get turned around. I have stepped 10 feet off the trail in the jungle, closed my eyes, spun around, and had no idea where the trail was when I open my eyes again. You may think all you need is a GPS, but that would also be incorrect. My good friend Andy Hearn and I have walked in circles in the rainforest in Borneo trying to go straight, even while looking at the GPS the whole time. Using the GPS with the compass allowed us to get a proper bearing and get back to our camp.

Food: I didn’t list food as a top ten essential because it isn’t something I bring from home; I buy the necessary supplies locally before heading into the field.

Power: If you are out in the field for more than a week at a time, I’d highly recommend setting yourself up so you can charge your camera batteries with solar power. Otherwise you are carrying a ton of batteries around. (Batteries would have made the list if I didn’t take them out before traveling due to weight restrictions — trust me paying for an extra 175lb in excess baggage fees is not fun, so any weight you can lose is worth it).

As mentioned this list can go on and on, but I think this is a good start. Am I missing something on this list that you think is essential? Let us know in the comments!

Do you want to know less about the gear and more about how I take my pictures? Join me on one of my workshops!

Is it possible to combine adventuring with photography?

Simply put, yes!

Most of us outdoorsy people like to get in a little bit of adrenaline here or there. This is easy for wildlife photography since the adrenaline starts kicking in every time you get close to a wild animal, but when adventuring is the first reason for the trip, is it still possible to combine it with photography?

I am no expert on hardcore adventuring but I definitely enjoy strenuous trips hiking, biking, kayaking, and what ever else my friends or I can think of. Since these trips are generally always focused on an outside location I always get the urge to bring the camera just in case an animal shows up or a landscape screams to be photographed. To make these trips a success it is extremely important to make conscious decisions about what gear you bring. If you have too much you get slowed down and start seriously worrying about your gear getting damaged, if you have too little you may not get a shot. (let’s just say I struggle with this a lot). To help you make better decisions check out Jeff Bartlett’s Blog, who writes extensively on the subject of adventure photography (I will need to follow his advice more) and packing for a trip.

Just to give you some examples of small adventures that have provided for excellent photographic opportunities.

Kayaking in Elkhorn Slough – Equipment Brought: Canon 30D, 100-400mm Lens

I somehow always make funny faces when doing self portraits...

I somehow always make funny faces when doing self portraits…

Taken from kayak, still better picture than anything I have taken from land

Taken from kayak, still better picture than anything I have taken from land

Riding Bycicle Across the US with Best Friends – Equipment Brought: Canon 5D, 24-70mm, 100-400mm, 580Ex Flash, Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Bicycle Route Across the US

Bicycle Route Across the US

All the camera gear is in the back in one pannier

All the camera gear is in the back in one pannier

Lily Pads on Lake in Pennsylvania

Lily Pads on Lake in Pennsylvania

Great Horn Owl Roadkill, this was one of the most 'intact' dead animals we saw

Great Horn Owl Roadkill, this was one of the most ‘intact’ dead animals we saw

Coniferous Forest Panning Shot

Coniferous Forest Panning Shot

Reeds reflected in water, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Reeds reflected in water, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Grand Tetons at Sunrise, Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming

Grand Tetons at Sunrise, Grand Tetons National Park, Wyoming

So the lesson I have learned is to not choose but to smartly combine photography with outdoor adventures!

Utilizing your Local Botanical Garden or Arboretum

Botanical Gardens and Arboretums are amazing places to not only visit but also to photograph. It is always fascinating to me to see plants from all around the world in such a small area. How amazing is it to wander from South Africa to Australia in just a few yards. From Proteas to Pincushions. It doesn’t even matter at what time of year you go, something will be in bloom.

Living in Santa Cruz provides the amazing opportunity of visiting the UCSC Arboretum, a deeply under-appreciated place. It contains the largest concentration of southern hemisphere plants in the northern hemisphere. When I photograph in these floral collections I tend to shoot in a macro-style, concentrating on single plants, often on single flowers. This is mainly to eliminate distracting backgrounds and since the plants are not in their native habitat showing the landscape in the background is not beneficial most times.

Here are a few examples of the types of pictures I am talking about:

Pincushion (Leucospermum sp), UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Pincushion (Leucospermum sp), UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Pincushion (Leucospermum sp), UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Pincushion (Leucospermum sp), UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Pincushion (Leucospermum sp), UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Pincushion (Leucospermum sp), UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Still unknown plant to me...., UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Still unknown plant to me…., UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla), UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla), UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Then you always have the option of getting more abstract pictures. This is the advantage of plants over animals, they don’t move too far. The picture below was taken at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. I loved how the light was coming through the fern fronds. I first took images that were in focus but I really liked the shape of the leaves so I decided to manually put them out of focus, having nothing in the image be sharp. It’s different, but I like it.

Fern fronds out of focus, Berkeley Botanical Garden, Berkeley, California

Fern fronds out of focus, Berkeley Botanical Garden, Berkeley, California

Finally, all the plants attract wildlife as well, so keep an eye out for movement. Hummingbirds are frequent visitors to gardens so they are attracted to these ‘super gardens’ in even higher numbers. This male Allen’s Hummingbird was photographed in Santa Cruz. He would continuously land on this perch and then chase off any other males intruding into his space. Every time he was off chasing a rival I crept closer, stopping when he would arrive back at his perch. I wanted to still include some of the amazingly colorful background created by all the plants so I stopped when I was about 10 feet away. It is one of my earliest photographs, but I still love it.

Allen's Hummingbird calling, UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

Allen’s Hummingbird calling, UCSC Arboretum, Santa Cruz, California

So go out and find your local botanical paradise, you will be amazed by what you find!

SLR Camera Trap Photography

Photographing wildlife with a SLR camera trap seems easy in concept. Place a camera trap in the wilderness, let it sit there, and have it take amazing pictures while you rest at home. This isn’t quite the case. One of the hardest parts about camera trap photography is getting your set-up to work like you want it to. The camera and flashes have to be ready to take a picture at moments notice, but need to also conserve batteries enough to last for an extended period of time. And then everything has to be safe in a serious down drench. Finally the biggest challenge of all is that you can’t buy professional camera traps at a store, ready to use out of the box. Even national geographic cameras use customized set-ups.

For inspiration, visit two of my favorite blogs. Chris Wemmer’s blog Camera Trap Codger which is not only filled with witty, educational, and fun writing but also accompanied by great camera trap images; as well as Jake Kirkland and Christian’s Camera Trapping Campus blog, filled with great stories and it hits close to home for me since I also got my degree from UCSC. All of them ‘hack’ much of their equipment to function for the camera trapping needs!

Once you have the equipment figured out the really fun part starts. Its time to hit the field to select your location for your camera trap. Natural game paths are always a perfect option, they provide ample chances for wildlife to walk by. During set-up, take the appropriate time since there can’t be any quick adjustments made once the camera is in place. Using yourself always works:

Myself, getting some test shots in - reminder, comb your hair next time...

Myself, getting some test shots in – reminder, comb your hair next time…

After you are done setting up you want to leave it be, it will take a while for your smell to be masked by nature’s more natural smells and some time for the animals to get used to the new objects in their environment (don’t think they don’t know its there).

After some time you will get your first shots. In the beginning most likely just your neighbors pet:

Neighbors dog checking out the camera

Neighbors dog checking out the camera

Maybe even some behavioral images:

Mule deer buck licking front leg

Mule deer buck licking front leg

Of course many times you will get another curious human:

This one is having quite a lot of fun!

This one is having quite a lot of fun!

In the end though, when you get a shot like this, you are quite the happy camper:

Juvenile Mountain Lion at Night

Juvenile Mountain Lion at Night

When ever you go to check the camera and replace batteries its like Christmas. You don’t know what you will get except a bunch of happy surprises. Camera trapping is a great way to get an intimate view into the lives of animals you may hardly see. It is something I very much cherish.