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10 Essentials for the Outdoor Photographer

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography

In the world of hiking, camping and backpacking, there are the “10 Essentials.” It’s a universal list of 10 things you should always have with you when setting out to explore the wilderness. It includes things like a first aid kit, water, food, a map, sunscreen, matches, etc.

If you plan on heading into nature to take some pictures, you should keep the 10 essentials in mind — even if it’s just a short local trip. Things can turn bad in an instant and many people who die or nearly die in the wild were no more than a few miles from the nearest help.

But in addition to the 10 essentials, I thought I’d share with you my list of “10 Camera Bag Essentials” for the outdoor photographer. These are items gleaned from 11 years of shooting that I’ve found to be invaluable for outdoor photography. Some items will stay in your bag all the time while others you can throw in at the last minute.

So in no particular order, here they are...

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - Lens PenLens Pen

Whoever invented this thing is a genius. A lens pen is a $7 item that’ll last you years and will come in handy more times than you can count. It’s shaped like a thick pen (wouldn’t you know it) and consists of a retractable brush on one end with a soft chamois pad on the other. The brush is great for sweeping dust off your lenses and filters while the chamois pad will buff out finger prints and smudges. With a handy clip built in, this thing slides nicely into a shirt pocket so it’s always at the ready.

Lens Cloths (lots and lots of lens cloths)

Put a lens cloth in every main compartment of your bag, inside and out. It seems every time you really need a lens cloth, the colors in the sky are at their peak and you only have about 90 seconds before the moment is gone forever. You don’t want to be fumbling around trying to find that one pocket where you keep your lens cloth, so just stash one in every single compartment you can, then you’ll always find one no matter what pocket you check first. And if you have some extra cleaning cloths from your sunglasses, just throw those in — they are the same ones you buy at a camera store.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - Multi-ToolMulti-Tool

Two words: 127 Hours. If you saw that movie, you know what I’m talking about.

...alright that’s not the real reason you should have a good multi-tool in your bag. You should invest in a decent multi-tool with pliers and screwdrivers because they are an endlessly valuable tool to have at hand when dealing with mechanical equipment like cameras and tripods. They can be used for everything from fixing a loose tripod screw to extracting a fishbone lodged in your brother’s throat (which is something mine has been used for). Also, throw any allen wrenches into your bag that may have come with your tripod.

Handkerchief

You could also pack a small towel in your bag, but I like handkerchiefs because they fold up small, they’re lightweight and they can be used for a multitude of tasks. If your camera gets drenched from a rogue wave, it’ll mop up the seawater. If you find yourself in a light rain, you can drape it over your camera for some basic shielding. Or if it’s just too damn hot out, you can soak it in a creek and wrap it around your neck for some good relief.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - Flashlight and HeadlampFlashlight/Headlamp

I’d recommend bringing both a headlamp and a flashlight. An LED headlamp is great for keeping your hands free while you work in the dark. A flashlight with better reach than your headlamp is good for the walk/hike back to the car. I use a Petzl headlamp and an LED Mini Maglite flashlight myself, but there are tons of great brands out there.

Warm Clothes

Weather can change in an instant, especially once the sun drops, so I rarely leave for a photo shoot without a jacket in my bag — even in the summer. In fact, I leave gloves in my camera bag at all times. Gloves are the kind of thing that hardly ever come in handy, but when they do, they really come in handy...uh, no pun intended. But get some gloves with a good grippy palm so you can still handle your camera.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - CompassCompass

Aside from the obvious “find your way out of the wilderness” implications, a compass is a great tool to have in your bag so you can better predict a sunset or sunrise. It’s easy to get turned around as to which way is west when you’re in a new location, especially in the middle of the day. A compass will aid you in figuring out where to be for when the sunset or sunrise rolls around.

Smart Phone

With thousands of comprehensive apps out there, a smart phone is a smart item (haha - I kill me...) to keep with you on a shoot. I have apps for checking the tides, the sunset and sunrise times, the moon phases, moonrise times and more. Also, you can take notes about what filters you used, what your thought process was or any little tidbits you want to remember when reviewing the pictures later. But don’t rely on your smart phone for something more important than just tide information or sunset times. Don’t count on it for a compass or GPS because your smart phone has batteries, and batteries die.

Cash

Many places you’ll want to shoot require a parking or entrance fee that must be in cash. Of course, when you show up, that’s the one time you forgot to get cash. So, you may want to just leave $20 in your camera bag at all times. Break it up into some ones and fives, too, so you can cover those $3 honor system parking fee drop boxes.

10 Camera Bag Essentials for Outdoor Photography - BatteriesBatteries

Yeah. This is a no-brainer. But it’s so important that I’m pointing it out anyway. Make sure your camera batteries have a charge before you go out and bring some extras if there’s any risk they’ll die before you can get back to a wall outlet. But make sure to bring batteries for any other powered devices you might have with you. That includes batteries for your flashlight, headlamp and GPS unit.

So there you have some good “10 Essentials” type basics to think about when packing your camera bag. I keep these in mind even if I’m just hitting a local beach that’s no more than 3 minutes from civilization.

I also tend to bring water with me no matter how long I plan on being out. You’re usually out longer than you intended and you’ll burn a few more calories than you thought you would. Nothing sucks more than leaving a good sunset early because you just couldn’t take the thirst anymore. Same goes for a snack. Throw some trail mix in your bag and never miss the good light because you were starving.

Image Stabilization Video

Ever wonder how Image Stabilization works inside your Canon or Nikon lens? Check out this interesting video.

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DIY: Tripod Leg Pads

I've had padding on my tripod legs for at least 7 years now and I am thoroughly hooked. They're great for protecting your hands against the biting cold of the aluminum or carbon fiber and they make throwing your tripod and camera over your shoulder a lot more comfortable.

Now, you could spend around $25 plus shipping for some pre-made tripod leg wraps that may or may not fit your tripod perfectly, but that's way more money than you need to spend and, honestly, it just ain't custom enough. You need to make your tripod YOURS. It's gotta be like an extension of your own body - a piece of equipment that you know better than the back of your own hand. Like an emperor penguin identifying its offspring in a sea of black and white, you should be able to know your tripod just from the squeak of its joints. That's why you need to MAKE your own tripod leg pads.

Okay, maybe that's a bit extreme. But making your own tripod leg wraps is much cheaper and you'll probably really enjoy doing it. This post breaks down how I do it with about $10 worth of materials and an easy half hour in front of my TV. Don't glaze over this post if you want to make your tripod leg wraps right, there are some very important details you won't want to screw up.

First off, get your materials. You'll need some foam pipe insulation (found at most hardware stores) long enough to cover all three legs and wide enough in diameter to nearly make it all the way around. You want the foam padding to be just a little bit narrower than the legs - too wide and they will rotate around too easily and drive you nuts. I purchased a single 6-foot piece of foam insulation made for pipes 3/4" wide for $2.99 at Ace Hardware.

Foam Pipe Insulation

You'll also need a couple rolls of athletic tape - the kind of tape they use to wrap grips for hockey sticks. This stuff can be found at almost every sporting goods store and runs a few bucks a roll. I went ahead and bought the 6-pack for a better price per roll (you'll want to replace these pads after they start to wear out anyway). You'll also need some scissors to cut the tape and a razor to cut the foam insulation. Other than that, you're good to go.

Your materials

First, cut the foam pipe insulation to the desired length. You'll want it to fit perfectly over the top leg section (from the joint to the first leg lock). You can do this by first marking your cut line. Hold a pen against the foam insulation and rotate the foam around (not your pen) so the pen line circles the entire foam cylinder - kind of like a wood worker using a lathe.

Mark your line

Then take your razor blade and insert it into the pen line. Rotate the foam insulation around again, causing the blade to make a full circle clean cut. This method works far better than scissors or trying to cut straight down through the foam. Then slide your razor down the seam going lengthwise on the foam so that it splits open into a "C" shape. Test the pads for fit and cut more if necessary.

Insert razor into mark line and rotate foam to cut


Then cut down the pre-scored seam

With the foam pads OFF the tripod, you're going to wrap athletic tape around the bare tripod legs in three places - towards the bottom near the leg lock, towards the top near the joint and another right in the middle. Only wrap it 1 strip wide and no need to overlap much. This tape isn't meant to protect the legs, it's simply put there to give the foam insulation (that will be on top of it) something to grip to so that it doesn't rotate around a lot. You should have 3 strips of athletic tape around each leg.

Wrap tape around bare tripod legs


Wrap in 3 spots for a good grip

Now, place the foam pipe insulators on the legs right over top of the athletic tape you just applied. Line up the seams towards the insides of the legs.

Line up seams towards inside

Now you're going to take your athletic tape and wrap around the foam insulation in the same 3 spots you applied tape to the bare legs. Only wrap 1-strip wide and make only 2 or 3 overlapping passes. Wrap it real tight. The idea here is these strips will apply tension to the foam pads right over the tape you put under it. This will create enough friction to keep the pads from rotating and will keep the pads in place for the next step.

Wrap strips of tape around foam...

Again, you should have 3 strips of tape going around the padding - towards the bottom near the leg lock, towards the top near the joint and another right in the middle. All three legs should have the padding on with 3 strips of tape around each.


...right over top of the strips underneath

Now it's time to seal off the padding by wrapping it entirely in athletic tape. This will create a good, soft grip around the foam, it will protect the foam from ripping, keep it from rotating and will give it one hell of a professional look.

To do this, you're going to take your roll of tape and just wrap the tape around the legs in somewhat of a spiral shape. It's just like if you were wrapping the grip for a tennis racquet, golf club or hockey stick. The important thing here is to START AT THE BOTTOM OF THE FOAM PADDING AND WORK YOUR WAY UP! This will cause the overlap to point downwards - just like shingles on a roof - which helps with water resistance and overall comfort. DO NOT START AT THE TOP - you will regret it when your tape starts peeling off the foam.

Start off by making 2 turns around the very base, then bend the tape to start wrapping around the legs at an angle so that it proceeds in a spiral. Overlap each pass by about 25% until you get to the top.

Bend tape to start upward spiral

Keep a tight, even pressure on tape as you make your way up.

Finish it off by straighting out the tape and making 2 turns around the very top. Cut the tape so the end of it stops towards the inside of the legs - not the side or outside. Keep the tape wrapping real tight around the foam the entire time! Repeat this process for the remaining legs and you're done!

There you have it! Now your tripod has some awesome new pads and you're wallet ain't too much worse for the wear!

The tape might fray a bit, but just rip the strings off as they come. These pads will last quite a bit longer than you'd think. I've had mine on for over 3 years and they're showing no signs of breaking down. When they finally do wear out or just get a little too dirty for your liking, switch 'em out for some new ones for only another $10.00!

Thanks for reading!