**** EDIT – Updated 5/9/2016 – See bottom of post ****
I’m a location photographer, and that means that I spend a lot of my time dealing with the various elements that are thrown at me by the great outdoors. This winter in particular has been wetter than usual, so I thought it would be useful to share some tips things I’ve learnt shooting in the great outdoors. None of it is rocket science (few things in photography ever are….) and mostly it comes down to the old adage of being prepared, but hopefully it’ll be useful.
First things first – keeping the camera dry. Pictured above are 2 solutions, the one on the left is a KATA raincover, and the one of the right is an Optech, which is essentially a plastic sleeve with a drawstring at one end. Both of these do a decent job of keeping the camera dry, however, neither is perfect. For that you need to upgrade (as I have done very recently) to one of these. The big advantage the ThinkTank one has is in the addition of an eyecup. Even the expensive KATA one doesn’t have one of these, and it make simply looking through the viewfinder very tricky indeed – imagine adding a layer of thick plastic that’s always several mm away from the viewfinder and you’ll see what I mean.
The Optech bags are useful in a pinch, but by design they’re not very well sealed, and water will get in if you’re out in the rain for more than a few minutes. On the plus side, they’re dirt cheap, and light enough and small enough to live in the camera bag all the time.
The best solution I’ve found for flashguns on location is simple zip-lock food bags, or sandwich bags – inexpensive, light, and very quick to fit. Seen here in action on an old Army train in Salisbury Plain, moments before a deluge started. I keep several of these bags in the side pocket of my portable flash kit. For bigger lights, you just need more plastic:
This Bowens head has simply got some clear plastic sheeting wrapped around it, as well as visi-vest in a vain attempt to stop people walking into it! It was being used to replicate daylight on a shoot last Autumn, and stayed outside in the rain for several hours quite happily. Do remember to waterproof any power cables too though. I’ve started using the clear plastic bin-bags my local council provide for recycling to cover any big flashes, as they’re free, and large enough.
In general, keeping stuff dry on location can become quite a task. Water has this uncanny habit of just seeping in everywhere, and wherever possible create sheltered areas, or use covered areas as close to where you’re shooting as possible. Try and be strict about these areas though – delineate between a wet and a dry area, so that things like laptops, or spare clothing don’t end up getting inadvertently soaked every time you come and go from the shelter. I always keep an old army poncho in the car boot for just this purpose, as well as a smaller one in my tool bag – they can be draped over things, or even used to lay down on to try and keep me dry. I also make sure there are a few towels around, as wet hands can very quickly spread the damp everywhere!
Here you can see a car full of gear, with some of it sheltering beneath the poncho, and some of it getting soaked, as someone’s left the boot open. You can also see Dean Macey stealing the food I always keep in the glove box.
For this shoot I had to have the camera low down, and looking upwards, and keeping rain out of the lens in this situation is almost impossible. Originally I enlisted the help of the lovely Claire to hold a golf brolly over the top, but eventually I rigged a magic arm up so she could go and do more important things.
Which brings me on to an often overlooked point – keeping yourself dry and warm in these situations. I’ll be the first to say that I’ve often suffered physically for my “art”, but ideally you should try and keep this sort of thing to a minimum. Besides the general unpleasantness of being wet and cold, there’s the fact that if you’ve ended up like this, you’re probably not going to be producing your best work – your mind will be too focused on how crap you feel, rather than the job in hand.
Besides splashing out (do you see what I did there?) on some decent waterproofs, gloves, hats etc, I’d always recommend taking with you a dry change of clothes (I keep a set permanently in the car), and invest in little details like Sealskinz socks and gloves. Always dress in a layering system, as this will help to wick moisture away from the bottom, avoid cotton next to the skin, and bear in mind that you may have to balance the needs of being on the move a lot with periods of standing around waiting for stuff to happen! I can remember a particularly unpleasant half-marathon I shot last winter during some heavy snow – I was on a bicycle to allow me to get round the course, and had equipment hanging off me, so couldn’t wear too many layers, otherwise I’d overheat in minutes once I started pedalling. However, I was only shooting 5 specific people during the race, so I’d get ahead of them, then stand, waiting in the cold for them to come past. At this point I desperately needed more layers, as my temperature predictably dropped very quickly indeed. The only solution is to carry extra clothing, and add/remove it as required, but of course, this adds to your overall bulk!
Shooting events like the Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest often entails getting wet even when it’s not raining, and I’ve started waterproofing my cameras even on dry days for these sort of events. 2 years ago, after shooting 5 in a row I noticed that both my 24-70 and 70-200 were making very unpleasant noises when the zoom ring was rotated. Cue a very expensive trip to the repair shop to have them serviced and cleaned out. A bit of clear plastic would have saved me several hundred quid, but because it wasn’t actually raining at the time I didn’t think to use it!
If gear does get soaked, at the earliest opportunity, open as much up as you can (i.e. take lenses off, open any dust covers etc) and allow it to dry out naturally. DO NOT aim a hairdryer at it, or leave it on top of a heater/radiator etc. Likewise be very careful when bringing cold equipment into a warm environment, you may need to warm it up in stages to avoid getting condensation in places you don’t want it. If you have some silica gel knocking around from the last time you bought some new gear, by all means leave a sachet sealed in a bag with the wet kit – I’ve been told Rice will do a similar job, but not tried it myself. The watchword here is patience – drying stuff out naturally is going to take hours, not minutes.
There are many aspects where professional camera gear is worth the extra cash, but one that’s overlooked is it’s general build quality and weatherproofing. In my experience, no pro DSLR bodies are truly waterproof, but they are pretty resilient to dust, water, sand etc, and consumer level bodies are often very vulnerable indeed. I’ve fallen in a river with a Nikon D700 and a 24-70 2.8 strapped to me, jumped out immediately, laid the camera and lens out in the shade, and everything was fine 10 minutes later. Worth the extra cash in my opinion. Of course, even more worthwhile would be not falling in in the first place…….
The real challenge comes when you actually NEED the weather to turn nasty, say, you’re shooting a load of waterproof clothing or something, and you’ve now got the challenge of keeping yourself and your gear dry, whilst ensuring the talent and the clothes look like they’re taking on the worst nature can throw at them. I find in this situation that a couple of people with buckets of cold water come in very handy:
UPDATE – 5/9/2016
Just want to add a little addendum, after shooting the Rat Race Man Vs Mountain on Mount Snowdon at the weekend. The forecast before the event was pretty appalling, and on the morning of the event the organisers were advised to alter the route to avoid the summit, as winds were predicted to reach 60+ mph up top. I was shooting the whole event, from the start, through to the stage across the mountain, down the opposite side to the “Vertical Kilometre”, and finally the obstacles and finish area. This meant a 7am start, and a roughly 4.30pm finish, along with around 10 miles of hiking with 2 camera bodies, and a small rucsac with spare kit, food, and water in.
Expecting the worst, I put both my cameras into waterproof covers as soon as I headed up the mountain. Without wanting to over dramatise, it rained incessantly from about 9am until 4pm, and at times was very heavy, accompanied by strong winds. Probably not the best time to be on the summit of Snowdon! Whilst the covers did a pretty good job keeping the important parts of the camera and lenses dry, they’re not great at protecting the front of the lens, and the viewfinder. Due to needing to bring the camera to my eye quickly and frequently, these areas can only be covered up some of the time. To make matters worse, I’m moving around a lot, which means the front of the lens is sometimes exposed to rain being blown straight into it. The upshot is that after a few hours, I’m getting images like the one shown here.
Since EVERYTHING I had was now soaking wet – despite wearing a decent waterproof, and waterproof boots – I ran out of options to wipe the lens dry with. I eventually resorted to using my Buff, as at least it’s made of microfibre, so has some absorbency, and can be wrung out. The only lasting solution was to return to the event village, get under cover, and pinch some paper towels to dry things off with. Problem is, the event is spread over quite a wide area, and I can’t really keep heading back to the bottom of the valley every 10 minutes! I think in future the answer will be to carry several packs of tissues, accepting the fact that as soon as I’ve opened one pack, it will become sodden. Any other suggestions gladly accepted, unless those suggestions are unhelpful ones like “Don’t shoot adventure races up Snowdon when the forecast is appalling.”