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Backcountry PhotographyStill Life With Ammo Can

Bringing it All Together for Beginners

By Tamia Nelson

January 5, 2010

When I started writing the "Backcountry Photography" series a year ago, I wasn't sure how far I'd take it. I figured I'd let readers decide. And they did. Every article generated mail, and many of the letters gave me ideas for new topics. There were a lot of questions in each week's mailbag, too. I tried to answer every one, and I hope I succeeded. Still, some cropped up again and again. A few of these found their way into "Our Readers Write" — along with my answers — but the same questions kept resurfacing, nonetheless. Which isn't all that surprising. A year is a long run for any series of articles. That being the case, maybe it's time take a look back, to sum things up, and to answer the questions that most often bedevil paddlers who are new to the digital photography game.

It's a big job, no doubt about it, but I've got plenty of help: I have your letters to guide me. So let's get started, beginning right at the beginning with…

The Question

While the emphasis in "Backcountry Photography" has always been on technique, rather than gear, one of the most often asked questions concerns hardware:

Do I need an expensive professional digital camera to shoot good photos?

Luckily, the answer is easy: No! If you're ready to retire your tried‑and‑true 35mm film camera, but you don't want to invest a big chunk of your paycheck in professional gear, you won't go far wrong if you start out with a simple point‑and‑shoot camera. You can always move up. Or, if you're the type who likes to take control, and if you want the flexibility and versatility of interchangeable lenses, look for an entry‑level digital single‑lens reflex (DSLR). Here's a checklist of points to consider in weighing your options:

  • Cost
  • Battery type and longevity
  • Type of media card
  • Resolution (number of pixels)
  • Manual settings
  • Weather sealing
  • Availability and quality of auxiliary lenses

Sundry cautions and reminders: Cost involves more than the price sticker on the box. Many digital cameras use proprietary rechargeable batteries. These aren't cheap, and you'll probably want at least one spare. The same holds true of media (memory) cards, though the cost of the ubiquitous SD and SDHC cards has plummeted in recent years. Resolution is an even trickier call. More pixels are better than fewer — you can print larger pictures, for one thing — and technology has certainly moved on since the days when the 0.5 megapixel Canon PowerShot 600 represented the state of the art. But image quality isn't determined by published pixel count alone. The online reviews at sites like The Imaging Resource (see link below, under "More, Please!") will help you navigate these uncertain waters, as will the comments of fellow paddlers in the Reviews.

By the way, a Manual option makes sense even for paddlers who are usually happy to let their cameras call the shots. Sometimes you just have to take charge. And weather sealing? That's a no‑brainer for folks who shoot in rain, fog, or dust. (NB A weather‑sealed camera body does not mean the camera is waterproof. Showerproof, maybe, but certainly not immersion‑proof. This distinction is important.)

More, Please!


OK. Now that you have your camera, it's time to…

Start Shooting

Most digital cameras have an Automatic mode. This makes all the decisions for you. You point the camera at your subject and press the shutter. The camera does the rest. That's what "point and shoot" means, and it's fine if all you want to do is capture snapshots for a blog post. If you plan to do more, however, you'll have to override the camera's built‑in brain from time to time. So it's a good thing that most digital cameras — even point‑and‑shoot cameras — give you an alternative to Automatic mode. But you have to know how to use it. And you have to start making decisions for yourself even before you shoot your first shot. In fact, one of the most important comes right at the start, when you program your camera's resolution, as the following question highlights:

I'm not sure I understand what "recorded pixels" means, but I guess it's important if I want to make prints. What do I need to know?

A digital photo is really just a computer file, and the larger you make the file, the more information in the form of picture elements (pixels) it can hold. This translates into a more detailed image. If you constrain file size unnecessarily, therefore, you limit image quality. Bigger is definitely better here. After all, you can always throw away any information you don't need, but you'll never get more than was saved when you took the original shot. You can't add back what wasn't there to begin with.

Why is this important? It comes down to how you use your pictures. If you're shooting for the Web, you can often get by with low‑resolution images, but if you plan to print some of your shots, you'll need all the pixels you can get, particularly if you want large (8 x 10 or larger, say) prints. Low‑resolution images yield grainy prints. It's as simple as that. You'll also need high‑resolution images for things like printed t‑shirts, mugs, and other items offered by your local custom print shop or sold through online galleries like Printfection, CafePress, and Zazzle.

My advice? Read the manual that came with your camera. Scan the index for phrases like "picture quality," "recorded pixels," or "compression settings." When you find the relevant section, follow the instructions and choose the highest setting. Of course, this means that individual shots will take up a lot of space in your camera's memory, reducing the number of pictures you can take before you have to download them to your computer and then delete them from your camera's on‑board memory. So buy the highest capacity media (memory) card that your budget permits — and while you're at it, buy a spare.

More, Please!


Now, with that behind us, we're really ready to shoot. Or are we?

I'm confused about aperture and how it relates to depth of field and shutter speed. Can you help?

Here's a brief summary: Exposure is determined by the interplay of aperture and shutter speed. Aperture is indicated by ƒ‑number. The higher the ƒ‑number, the smaller the aperture, and aperture dictates the size of your camera's window on the world. Large windows let in more light than small windows, so an aperture of ƒ/5.6 lets in more light than an aperture of, say, ƒ/22. Aperture also determines depth of field, the distance between the nearest and most distant points that a lens can simultaneously bring into acceptably sharp focus. The higher the ƒ‑number, the greater the depth of field. The inverse is also true: the smaller the ƒ‑number, the narrower or shallower the resulting depth of field.

Shutter speed is more easily grasped. Whereas aperture determines how large a window your camera throws open to the world, the shutter controls how long this window remains open to the light. A fast shutter speed freezes action; a slow shutter speed does the opposite, cumulating movement into a formless, fluid blur. Together, aperture and shutter speed determine exposure. Confused? The following photo pair should bring aperture, depth of field, and shutter speed into better focus:

Aperture in Depth

Note how a small ƒ‑number (larger aperture) permits a faster shutter speed than does a high ƒ‑number. Or, to put this another way…

  • Small ƒ‑number = Shallower depth of field (faster shutter speed needed to preserve exposure)
  • Large ƒ‑number = Deeper depth of field (slower shutter speed needed)

More, Please!


Resolution. Shutter speed. Aperture. Depth of field. Each of these topics is important in itself. But the real test comes when you put them all together…

In the Field

Or on a river. And it's there, where theory and technique meet, that many questions arise. Like this one:

I want to shoot close‑ups of flowers, butterflies, and spider webs. What's the best way?

You're in luck. Most digital cameras, even many point‑and‑shoot models, have a Macro setting. (If you don't know if yours does, check the manual.) Macro mode allows you to get close to your subject. Really close. So close that you can capture larger‑than‑life‑size images of the smallest blossom or beetle. But Macro mode is just the start. To shoot good close‑ups, you have to understand depth of field. You'll also need to know how to compose the shot, and how to keep your subject from being eclipsed by your own shadow. The articles listed below will help.

More, Please!


It's always sunny in our dreams. At least it never seems to rain in mine. But unless you paddle only in the high desert, you can bet that it will rain when you're in your boat — some of the time, at any rate. And even when it isn't raining, the landscape will often be shrouded in fog. Which makes the following question of particular interest.

It rained every day on my last paddling trip, and when the rain stopped the fog rolled in. I didn't want to get my camera wet, so I left it in the dry box almost all the time. Now I realize I'll probably never go back there, and I wish I had some shots to jog my memory and show my buddies. Should I buy a waterproof camera to shoot pictures in wet weather next time?

It depends. If you plan on taking action shots in mid‑rapids, a waterproof camera is the way to go, though you can also buy waterproof housings for some digital cameras. There's a price to be paid, however, either in up‑front cost or a limited feature set. On the other hand, if you have more modest goals, you can probably get by with what you've got. "Weather‑proofed" cameras are nice to have, but they're not absolutely necessary. A few common‑sense precautions will keep you shooting in the rain. Buying an umbrella is a good place to start. It's not one of the Ten Essentials, and it will probably make you the butt of a few jokes on the river, but just be patient. The jokers will be lining up to borrow your umbrella every time the rain starts to fall.

You'll find more hints for staying dry in wet weather elsewhere…

More, Please!


It's a fact. Rain's not rare in Canoe Country. It even falls in winter. But the sun is certain to put in an appearance from time to time. And that's when you'll start discovering some odd artifacts when you review your shots at the end of the day — like the ones mentioned in the next question, for instance.

I sometimes find strange‑looking colored blobs in my pictures. What are they, and how do I get rid of them?

Without seeing the original I can't be 100 percent sure, but it's a pretty safe bet that those "blobs" are signs of lens flare. Here's an example from my own collection:

Lens Flare

There's no missing it, is there? In fact, some photographers purposefully court lens flare for its dramatic effect. You can even get image‑processing plug‑ins to add flare to photos that didn't have it to begin with. But flare is more often a distraction than an asset. The cause is usually a bright point‑source of light just outside the shot. And the cure? Simply keep the light from hitting the lens. Use a lens hood. One may have come with your lens. If not, you can often buy a suitable hood from a photo shop. Failing a lens hood — and they're hard to find for point‑and‑shoot cameras — just shield the lens with your hat or hand. (You'll want to keep these out of the frame, of course!) Or rethink the shot, composing it so as to bring the light in from a different angle.

More, Please!


Don't get me wrong. Light isn't the enemy. It's the sine qua non of photography. No light, no images. But as we've just seen, light can also hinder the photographer if it's in the wrong place. Or if there's too much of it, as this question illustrates:

I'm having a lot of trouble with glare. I wish I could put sunglasses on my camera! Seriously, though — what can I do about it?

Sunglasses? Why not? And the closest thing to a pair of sunglasses for a camera is a polarizing filter. They're readily available and fairly cheap. But if your camera won't accept a polarizer — and many point‑and‑shoot models won't — you could try holding your polarizing sunglasses in front the lens. It works, but it's much better to use the real thing. A polarizing filter cuts glare without compromising image quality. It will even allow you to see below the water's surface on a still day. Shop carefully, though. Polarizers can be either "circular" or "linear." Digital SLRs require circular polarizers, while many point‑and‑shoot cameras do not. Check your owner's manual and follow the manufacturer's recommendations for your camera or lens. And don't make the mistake of thinking that every round polarizer is a circular polarizer. Most common polarizing filters are circular in shape, to be sure, but only some of these are true circular polarizers.

More, Please!


Your camera is certainly the most important part of your photographic kit, followed closely by extra lenses and filters. But there are other items that more than repay the added weight and bulk, as the next question makes clear. It's short and to the point.

Do I need a tripod?

Need? Probably not. But a tripod is almost always worth bringing along. And if you're serious about macrophotography (or wildlife photography), it is a necessity. Unfortunately, good tripods don't come cheap. Nor are they light, though some featherweight mini‑tripods have a devoted following. I'm not a fan, I admit, but I can't deny that these diminutive props are much easier to carry and stow than larger models. That said, size does matter here, as does weight. A large, heavy tripod is less likely to be swayed by gusty winds, or toppled by a heavy DSLR with a long telephoto lens. One caveat: Don't bother to use a tripod in a boat. A tripod is only as steady as the surface it's placed on, and not even a freight canoe qualifies as a fixed platform — no, not even on Golden Pond.

More, Please!


Whether or not she choses to use a tripod, every paddling photographer has a favorite subject. Some of us get up extra early to catch the summer sun just as it's rising over the lake. Others stay up late hoping for a glimpse of the northern lights. And a lot of folks go wild over the rugged scenery in mountain country. Then again, still others — I'm one — think photography's strictly for the birds. Well, maybe not strictly, but…

I've always loved watching birds, and I'd like to get better photographs of them, but I'm not having much luck. Any tips?

Whew! That's a pretty tall order. Birds are among the most challenging of subjects. They're almost always in motion, many are quite small, and they usually like to keep their distance. Still, anyone can take good bird photos. If you're a keen birder to begin with, you've got a head start. You already know something about bird habits and habitats, and you're accustomed to long hours of fruitless waiting. When all is said and done, stalking birds with a camera is no different than any other kind of hunting. You've got to get inside the head of your prey — learn to anticipate its every move. And you have to be lucky. But you can't rely on luck alone. As Louis Pasteur once observed, "Fortune favors the prepared mind." This is probably the best tip of all, though it helps if you have the right tools, as well. A long telephoto is a good place to start. Don't get discouraged if there's no place in the household budget for a 500‑dollar lens, however. Just keep your eyes open and your camera ready. Sometimes you get a wholly unexpected opportunity. Like this shot…

White Feather

On the day I took it, I'd left my telephoto at home, and in any case the mallards congregating on The River saw me coming long before I saw them. By the time I reached the water, they were halfway to the horizon. But they left a lone straggler behind, and I didn't have any trouble capturing it on my media card. The result isn't your typical bird shot, but I like it anyway. It tells a story, and that's enough for me.

More, Please!


Of course, a lot of Canoe Country birds are just summer visitors. And once fall has given way to winter, the woods and waters can seem empty places indeed. But as the hairy woodpecker just outside my window reminds me, it ain't necessarily so…

It's winter and the snow is piling up outside. The paddling season's long gone. One gray day follows another without respite, and all of summer's colors have leeched away, to be replaced by a somber monoscape. I can't see any point in shooting pictures these days. Can you?

Yes, I can. I'd be the last person to extol the pleasures of freezing your fingers in a sleet storm, but winter offers plenty of photographic possibilities. Dress for the weather, outfit yourself for travel on and off the beaten track, and protect your camera gear from the assaults of snow and cold. Then head out to see what your corner of Canoe Country looks like without her party clothes and paint. You won't regret it.

More, Please!

Cold Duck


There you have it — my best shot at answering some of the questions I've gotten over the last year in response to the "Backcountry Photography" series. This time around, I've concentrated on the problems that beset beginners. Next month I'll tackle the stumbling blocks that torment old hands. Stay tuned!

Paddling and photography are natural complements, and the advent of the digital camera has made the water‑borne shutterbug's life easier than ever. But "easier" isn't quite the same thing as "easy," is it? No technology can guarantee that all your photos will turn out just the way you hoped. Only you can do that. Whether you're a beginner or an expert, you are the brain behind the lens. So don't leave all the decision‑making to your camera. Take control yourself, whenever and wherever you can. That's what's meant by bringing it all together.

Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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