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Backcountry PhotographyRainy River

Snapping in the Rain

By Tamia Nelson

August 4, 2009

Be honest, now. When you daydream about a paddling trip, is it raining? Probably not. But once the much-anticipated day arrives, the reality may not match the dream. That's how it's been in my corner of Canoe Country this year. To make a long story short, dry days have been as scarce as following winds. If I waited for good weather before heading out the door, I'd never leave home. So I've adopted a confrontational mindset. Each morning, as I survey the lowering clouds and watch the water drip off the eaves, I ask myself if I'm going to let a little rain stop me. And the answer? No way. Bring it on! I'm waterproof. Of course, a lot of my gear isn't. That includes my cameras. But this, too, won't keep me indoors. It needn't hold you back, either. You just have to…

Keep Your Eye on the Dry

That's Job One. Easy to say, right? But harder to do. Harder, mind, not impossible. Some paddlers have it easier than others. If—unlike me—your camera is one of the growing number of waterproof models, or if you have the sort of gasketed housing used by diver-photographers, you're all set. But what about the rest of us? Most digital cameras don't even claim to be "weatherproof" (whatever that means), let alone waterproof. Luckily for us, it's easy to keep our camera gear dry in the boat, on the portage trail, or in camp. Just store it in a waterproof case or dry bag. I use an OtterBox for my small point-and-shoot camera, while a modified ammo can protects my digital SLR and kit. Both do the job. Still, I have to open the box (or bag) and take the camera out sooner or later. After all, I don't need too many photos of the inside of an ammo can. And that's when the trouble starts.

I opt for a situational approach. Let's begin on shore. I find it cumbersome to haul rigid boxes around on photo shoots, so I zip my cameras and lenses inside freezer bags, then stuff them in a lumbar pack (also called a fanny pack, bum bag, waist pack, or kangaroo pack), where they're protected, yet get-at-able. Here's my SLR (I removed the protective freezer bag before the shot) and a second lens, along with my Canon point-and-shoot and a dry bandanna, all nestled inside the pack:

Bagging It

If I'm shooting as I walk along, I wear the lumbar pack clipped around my waist, back to front, with the bag riding on my belly for easy access (and to protect my gear if I should stumble and fall). This may not look very elegant, but it passes a more important test—it works. At other times, when I don't need to resort to a quick draw, I carry the lumbar pack inside my rucksack or JanSport daypack:

Double Bagged

That creates a defense in depth. In the photo above, my daypack has just gone through a cloudburst, but the lumbar pack and its contents stayed dry as a bone. And if your rucksack has a zippered front panel, as this one does, you'll get a bonus: The open daypack provides a dry workspace in the wet woods, a place to change lenses or replace dead batteries. A compact umbrella offers additional shelter, and the handy bandanna mops up any stray droplets which somehow breach all the defenses. More about both later.

Risk management also extends to my choice of tools. Despite its "weather-sealed" body, I don't often subject my expensive digital SLR to downpours. Instead, I rely on the less expensive Canon point-and-shoot camera. It's also appreciably smaller and easier to carry in a pocket of my jacket or PFD, splash-proofed with a freezer bag. Unless rain is really bucketing down, I leave a small gap in the freezer bag's zip-seal to allow passage for the camera's lanyard, which I then loop around my neck. This compromises the improvised weatherproofing to some degree, but it protects the camera from hitting the ground if it slips out of my cold-numbed and rain-slick fingers.

Zipped Up

All defenses involve trade-offs, of course, and increased protection usually comes at the expense of easy access. (Truly waterproof cameras are the exception here.) A freezer bag is far from bombproof, but it doesn't offer much of an encumbrance. I've even been able to wriggle my camera out of the bag to get off a quick shot from the hip…er…chest, firing away through the gap in the open front of an unzipped jacket. In fact, I've gotten some surprisingly good pictures that way, like this one of a portage trail during a steady rain:

A Wet Day on the Trail


Most of the time, though, whenever it's raining or dripping from overhead branches, I…

Look for Cover…

Before snapping a shot. This is a rather ambiguous lead-in, I suppose. Former Marines will know at least three meanings for the word "cover," but the one I'm thinking of is associated with the words "starched" and "blocked." That's cover as in "cap," in other words. And a cap or hat is much more than a head covering. If it has a good-sized visor or brim, it's a shelter, too. A brim keeps light rain off a camera when it's held up to your eye. Even after the rain stops, a well-chosen hat continues to do double duty, providing a dryish (and reasonably clean) worktable in a muddy world. A hat can also substitute for an umbrella, shielding a camera and lens from swirling drizzle when shooting with a tripod:

Keep It Under Your Hat

Or you can go the whole hog, using a real umbrella to shelter both camera and photographer:

Under Cover

No, I'm not joking. A compact umbrella is a very useful tool for any backcountry shutterbug. It can be carried in your pack when not needed, tucked in a ski-sleeve behind a pack pocket, or even wedged between your shoulder blades like the shaft of an ice ax (see the photo below). And you don't need to pay top dollar for a special "trekking" model. I got mine for less than five bucks at the local BigBox, and it's holding up fine. I've even used it afloat, covering the open ammo can while I snapped shots from my drifting pack canoe in a driving rain. A couple of fairly obvious caveats: I don't recommend deploying an umbrella in a gale, and since you can't both hold an umbrella and paddle, it's best to keep the umbrella in your pack anytime you may need to take quick evasive (or corrective) action. Golden Pond is probably a safe place to unfurl your brolly. The Silver Staircase is not, though if you're agile you may manage a quick between-the-strokes shot by using your hat or even your parka hood, instead.

Brolly Backup

An umbrella's utility extends well beyond its role as a pedestrian shelter and photographic aid. It can also serve other purposes, like keeping your gear dry while you tend to calls of nature:

Time Out

Better be sure that the Old Woman won't get up to any tricks in your absence, though. If you have any doubts on this score—and you probably will, since wind and rain are frequent companions—an aluminum tent stake driven through the umbrella's wrist loop and into the ground will provide some peace of mind.


Let's recap. In my search for ways to keep snapping in the rain, I've already employed a strategy of escalation, upping the ante from a brimmed hat to an umbrella. Now I'm ready to make the next big move—to an improvised shelter. This is an attractive option when you want to hang out in one place for a little while. Perhaps you're planning to take some "flow-motion" photos of moving water, or eat a leisurely lunch while waiting for a moose or beaver to put in an appearance. If so, you'll need more than an umbrella over your head. But you don't need a tent. Just string up a tarp or poncho and you'll stay dry while the rain patters cheerily on the taut fabric . Here's one such makeshift poncho shelter that I rigged to weather a passing shower:

High and Dry

It doesn't look like much, but my camera (you can't see it here; it's on a tripod under the umbrella), my rucksack, and I each stayed dry while the rain clouds passed overhead. Best of all, it took me almost no time to set up, and I didn't need anything that I don't normally carry in my pack. (Want to know more? Then come back next week to see how you can rig a poncho shelter in less time than it takes you to tie your shoes.)

  Dew Drop In

OK. That pretty much covers the ground. But maybe you think it's silly to shoot pictures in the rain. If so, you're not alone. On more than one occasion, I've been asked…

Why Bother?

And my answer? Well, for one thing, as I've already mentioned, there are weeks when I'd never set foot outside my door if I waited for the sun to shine. But that's not the only reason. Rain clears the air of many biting flies, and empties campsites and trails of noisy groups of fair-weather partyers. It also makes it easier to move quietly through the woods. Wildlife watching then becomes a bit less of a long-odds gamble. The main reason, though, is the color. Gray days aren't necessarily dull days. Rain makes colors richer and more vibrant. In shutterbug-speak, they're more saturated. The effect can be spectacular—think of a flame-colored hillside glimpsed through a swirling autumn mist—or subtle. Take the droplet-bejeweled spiderweb in the photo above. It was shot during a steady but gentle rain, and if you look carefully, you'll see the unfortunate, pea-green aphid trapped in the sticky threads. One more example: I took the photo below in a downpour. The daisies bowed their heads under the rain's relentless onslaught, while the gunmetal surface of The River was pockmarked by repeated liquid hammerblows. Sky and water were both gray, but the scene certainly wasn't devoid of color.



This was indeed a hard rain. Yet my little Canon stayed dry under my umbrella as I framed the shot, while my lumbar pack protected my SLR. Even so, I made sure to…

Dry Off Afterwards

No matter how careful you are, there's always a chance that a few errant drops will get through all your lines of defense. So it's a good idea to give your equipment a thorough going-over at the end of every wet day. Moreover, if the weather's been cool and damp, airing your gear in a warm and sheltered place gives any internal condensation a chance to evaporate. It doesn't take much effort on your part. Hang up your wet clothes, pack, and umbrella. Swab off your tripod. Now inspect your camera. If condensation has formed on the lens, you can bet that there's more inside, where you can't see it. Wipe away any water you find on the outside of the camera body—the outside only; and leave the optics alone, too—then set camera and lens aside to dry out. This is easier at home than in a riverside camp, obviously, but a roomy, well-ventilated tent can pinch-hit for your living room in all but the most sodden climates.

Mopping Up

Once your camera gear is warm and dry, use a bulb blower and camera brush to clean away dust and foreign matter. Don't forget to elevate the flash element and look inside its recess, a cozy hideaway for all manner of gunge. Lastly, check the lens surfaces to be sure that they're free of smudges and smears. If they're not, clean them, following the manufacturer's instructions to the best of your ability—if you can find any instructions, that is. As coatings have gotten more sophisticated and manufacturers more liability-conscious, lens-cleaning guidelines have become mighty scarce. In any case, the difficulty of cleaning optics without scratching them or abrading coatings is a strong argument for fitting a clear UV filter to each of your lenses. It's less costly to replace a filter than a lens, after all!

Now it's time to download your pictures to your computer and begin the happy chore of sorting and editing. Unless you're on a multi-day trip with no computer ready to hand, of course. Then you may want to swap memory cards, instead. The old adage of not putting all your eggs in one basket is equally true of photos and cards. An extra memory card is cheap insurance. It's no fun losing half your photos to some technical glitch or trailside mischance, I admit, but it's a whole lot better than losing them all.


What do you think? Does it seem like this rain will never end? No matter. The backcountry is waiting. Let's go!


Wet Rose-Breasted Grosbeak


The songwriters got it wrong. If you're a paddler, rainy days and Mondays needn't get you down. OK. Maybe Mondays will always be a downer. But rainy days? No way! And that goes double for paddling shutterbugs. Has it been raining for the last two weeks? So what! There are still great shots to be had wherever woods and waters meet. Getting them is just a matter of being prepared. Do that, and you'll be snapping in the rain before you know it. Promise.

Want to see more examples of wet-weather photographs? Then check out "When Are We Gonna Get Our Summer?" and "Why I Like Wet Hikes."

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

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