A big part of my day job is about managing risk and while I’ve learned to bring a lot of that discipline to my photography, it hasn’t been without hard lessons along the way. This piece isn’t going to focus in on data backups because others have more than covered that off, this is about how and why I buy the kit I do and what can happen when you haven’t entirely thought it all through. The is actually my 100th blog post on this site and while I should probably use that opportunity to fanfare some images or something I’m going to use it instead to pass on what I feel is some pretty sage advice…
If you’re anything like me it’s really easy to get excited about big photography excursions, long weekends away and the pre-visualisation of how you’re going to bring home boat loads of images that will define you as a landscape photographer. We maticulously plan our locations, where we’re staying and even the opportunities for where the best light may be at any given point in the days ahead. But how many of us consider what happens if we fall over and break our number one camera and lens in the first hour once we’ve arrived at the location it’s just taken us five hours or more to drive to? Well it’s time to start thinking differently if you haven’t born in mind at least the possibility of this happening.
My approach to the tactical management of the overall risks within landscape photography has taken time to build up, some years in fact. This has mainly involved purchasing lots of kit which will work together which I’ll cover off throughout this piece, but before we get into all of that I thought I should set the scene with one or two stories from the darker side of landscape photography first to remind you why all of this is worth considering.
The first story involves yours truly. Frankly I could write at least five or more significant tales of woe from down the years, but the most recent I’ve already reported here and at the risk of repeating myself I’ll provide the high level version again quickly because all of this is very relevant:
I was up for a long weekend in the Lake District and had taken the opportunity to do some hill walking with King Of The Mountains, Greg Whitton. On the Saturday morning we headed out early to some woodland for a dawn warm-up shoot and after we spread out a bit I found a riverbank which I was particularly taken with. I was pretty excited by the light (the image in the header at the top of this piece was what I’d just captured before everything went Pete Tong) and was dashing back to find Greg and the others to show them my discovery.
As I moved through the wood in my haste I lost concentration and tripped on a very hard and uneven cobbled path and landed face down. I had my Nikon D810 and Nikon 70-200mm f/4 swinging around my neck and I landed square on top of it with a loud crunch. This was to be my ‘go to’ kit for the weekend – shooting on the fells without a telephoto option would deny much of the point of being up there for me and of course my D810 was my primary choice for landscape where a camera body was concerned. Miraculously I (almost) got away with it – my lens was still fully functional (if somewhat filthy) though I had cracked the lens hood, but my D810 was wearing a set of deep scars, all of which I repaired later once back after the weekend. Apart from the considerable physical injuries I had also picked up, it reinforced my whole approach to this kind of disaster scenario and I actually said to myself out loud “this is why you bring the kit you do”. The truth is while I was still upset with the situation, I knew that even if my D810 decided to pack up later during the weekend I had other options available which would mean I could continue to enjoy the main purpose of the weekend. More on that further below.
Story two however has a less happy outcome and involves one of my favourite landscape photographers; Joe White. Now Joe went even further afield than I did recently and had made the considerable effort to visit the remote island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides during the recent holidays. At this point I’ll hand over to Joe to tell his story:
This was my third Easter in a row up on Harris but I haven’t been satisfied with many of the images I’ve captured. I felt like I was just beginning to capture the feel of the place at the very end of my last trip so was keen to return. I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve on the trip and was planning on concentrating my efforts on two or three stretches of coastline with huge potential and compositional variety. It rained for the first 36 hours but I am much more patient than I used to be and I knew the weather would improve. And it did. I had a few shots in mind for sunrise and conditions were good. I had a shot completely pre-visualised, about a 10 minute walk from the car, so I marched over to the location could see conditions and the tide were spot on so didn’t take enough care on the rocks and my feet went from under me. All my equipment was in my F-Stop bag apart from my tripod which was in my hand. I landed directly on the bag and rolled into the water, so jumped back up straight away. It hurt like hell but I knew the camera had broken my fall as I heard it on impact.
I retreated to a safe place opened my bag and tried to switch the camera on, adrenaline running a bit. No power. Changed the battery, removed the memory card, removed the lens. Nothing. Fuzzy through the viewfinder. Felt totally gutted. My girlfriend was asleep in the car, so I walked back up to the car in case she had seen me fall and was worried. I was a bit shaken and pretty wet. I knew she would be gutted for me but we had driven a long, long way, (it’s about 14 hours with the ferry) and I knew it had the potential to ruin the holiday – I get pretty dark moods sometimes. So I told her and said straight away it would be a good opportunity to scout new locations without the weight of the camera bag and that we could come back the following year. She is very supportive and agreed, I was more worried about ruining the holiday with my mood, so it actually felt quite good to look at the positives.
I had a pin-hole camera my parents bought me for my 30th, but only one roll of film. I thought it would be a good idea to get twelve amazing shots with that which I’ve tried to do, but I had planned on using my Nikon D800 to meter so the exposure times were a bit of a guess. I have a decent smartphone but don’t get much pleasure from shooting with that. I had a Nikon D300 at home which I have taken on previous trips – for some reason it just didn’t enter my mind to pack it this time. Partly due to complacency – I really look after my gear and hadn’t had any issues in the past, I knew the locations well. Looking back I hadn’t taken the trip seriously enough, which I regret now.
There was nowhere on the island I could have got a loan from. Justin Nugent got in touch and offered to post me his backup, a very generous offer, but I knew by the time it arrived on the island I would only have a day with it and we had already changed our plans to catch up with some family who live on the other side of Scotland instead of camping for two nights in Torridon. I think I had resigned myself to the situation by then. I’m looking at the positives, I had a decent sunset at Elgol on Skye and hoping I got something there, as well as a decent sunrise. And I’ll go back to Harris. Just need to decide what to do with the camera now, I was waiting to upgrade to whatever succeeds the D810, but no sign of that at the minute. Hopefully my insurance will come through.
I feel your pain Joe, but thanks for letting me tell your story. So how to counter very real situations like these? Hopefully some of the advice below will help everyone to consider things a little differently;
STEP ONE – SHOOT WITH A SINGLE SYSTEM
Well I can hear that massive exhale from here already! This is not about to get into Fuji & Sony bashing, far from it. But I think you should probably make a choice. Dual system ownership is ridiculously expensive if you want to use a decent range of lenses – to me it’s ludicrous given the time, effort and expense to build up a single camera system if you then set about replicating it with a different manufacturer. I’ve been around the rigging with this too. Pretty much everyone knows I chose Nikon years ago, I’ve flirted with Fuji twice, looked Sony options up and down, but ultimately it comes back to broad considerations on compatibility and resiliency. Naturally I own a set of F Mount lenses for Nikon and no less than three Nikon DSLRs (until recently it was actually four with the Nikon Df!). But when I’m operating out in the field and the sort of situations described above occur, this pays dividends… Clearly it’s pointless if the lens I want to use is Nikon but my backup camera is a different manufacturer, yes there are more options with certain types of adapters these days but there is nothing like the results from cameras and lenses which are made for each other in my view. Why complicate matters?
My main landscape DSLR is my full frame Nikon D810. It’s stable mates are a 720nm infrared converted full frame Nikon D800 and a crop sensor Nikon D500. The benefits are very easy for me to articulate: each camera brings something very different to the table but they also share critical common ground; lens selection, use of ports such as 10pin cable connections, all take exactly the same battery, their button configuration and lay out are near identical (making usability an absolute breeze between them) and are even built with the same round interchangeable viewfinders. On any significant photography trip I will take all three DSLRs with me.
I do have one more thing to add here – I know others will start flagging a smartphone as an alternative but personally I can’t agree. Maybe you can get away with the likes of an iPhone for abstract and close up views but for anything approaching the level of quality of a DSLR has for a landscape scene I do not personally consider it to be a viable alternative. Obviously other views apply, and much of this is down to my own competency unquestionably – clearly if you consider your smartphone to be the answer to your backup concerns then you’re sorted but it looks like both Joe and I fundamentally agree on this one.
STEP TWO – DUAL CARD SLOTS
Once again, this is a feature on all of my DSLRs, and an important one to me. Unfortunately this feature tends to sit at the professional end of the camera market so expect to pay to access it. However not only do I not utilise massive capacity cards in my cameras (if I ever corrupted a card with a significant photography trip on it I think I would cry like a baby) but they are pretty inexpensive these days. Of course as soon as you take a card out of your camera you are increasing the risk of losing it altogether so make sure you have a secure system to deal with this. These days it’s even possible to back up your output from a camera like the Nikon D500 to the web via an app (the much maligned Snapbridge) so there are additional options available to consider now, other manufacturers may well offer similar options.
STEP THREE – PRIMES AND ZOOMS, NOT PRIMES OR ZOOMS
I know it’s dead easy for me to sit here and tell you that you need to buy a full set of professional lenses. Realistically very few people have the financial means to do that or it takes literally years before it’s possible, but there are low cost backup lenses that you should probably think about if planning important trips away from home, as I hope the stories above already illustrate. Here’s my current kit list at the time of writing:
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 VR, Nikon 70-200mm f/4 VR.
Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZF.2, Nikon 45mm f/2.8 Tilt Shift, Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, Zeiss 100mm f/2 ZF.2
If you’re a Nikon shooter, consider older AI-s primes as nice light solid options or the very highly acclaimed f/1.8G series of lenses. Alternatively a slower cheap kit zoom might suddenly save your bacon – if you’re just going to shoot in the f/8-f/11 range, there are some fantastic options out there to be had for very little money.
My strategy here is I will take along reasonable cover should I lose access to a zoom, or indeed if I have different purposes in mind. An easy two lens kit for me is now a 24-70mm accompanied by a 70-200mm for landscape, but the Zeiss 100mm f/2 offers a wonderful alternative in the telephoto range while my Zeiss 25mm f/2 does the same at the wide end of a 24-70mm or indeed the Nikon 45mm f/2.8 Tilt Shift which is slap bang in the middle of the 24-70mm range. When you throw in the natural 1.5x crop factor of the Nikon D500, that 100mm Zeiss becomes 150mm and that 25mm becomes a 37mm. Can you see how all of this can start to work together yet? And before anyone suggests otherwise, no I don’t carry it all with me in one go…
STEP FOUR – SPLIT YOUR KIT
I own two Billingham shoulder bags – one larger and one smaller while I utilise a Lowepro 500AW backpack for my main bag. This makes it easy to split my DSLRs and lenses into ‘kits’ so that should I do anything like Joe unfortunately did all will not be lost or damaged together. Depending on what I’m doing on any given day, I might leave one of those bags back at base in my hotel when travelling away in case my car gets broken into.
STEP FIVE – DON’T NEGLECT YOUR FILTERS
In the days I used to shoot a lot of longer exposures, my Lee Big Stopper was a critical part of my kit. I once went to Hartland in North Devon, some 225 miles door to door to drop my Big Stopper on the rocks in less than 30 minutes of arriving. I had no spare. I made the decision to immediately go online and see if I could get hold of one, but this was back in the day when they were near impossible to source, so no dice. After phoning around a shop in Bristol offered an alternative Hitech resin filter for the same money.
I jumped into the car and drove a 5 hour, 250 mile round trip like a mad man to find that the Hitech filter was the most utterly appalling POS ever made by man. Due to my paranoia I had even bought two of them at that shop! There’s a moral to the story here somewhere… I now have two of a couple of filters that I regard as critical. For ease of use I chose the Lee 100mm filter system when I use them, I have two Lee filter holders and duplicate filter rings for my most popular filter sizes such as my 67mm which fits my Zeiss 25mm, Zeiss 100mm and Nikon 70-200mm.
STEP SIX – STAY FOCUSSED
Honestly this should be so easy to deliver but it’s impossibly hard because we all get distracted a lot of the time. I can say this however; in all of the years I’ve been shooting my tripod has never blown over with a camera attached to it and that’s because I don’t let go of it in even a moderate breeze! When I ran workshops this happened to people a LOT. I also have a very specific process for swapping lenses. This is where it’s easy to get very complacent on things we do a lot of the time but these are the real danger moments when there is elevated risk to dropping or damaging something. Pay attention!
There is one strong link between my story above and Joe’s – we both skipped through the landscape so sure of our footing, too focussed on the end goal, possibly too excited by what we were doing in that moment. Coastal areas in particular can be death traps, we all need to slow down and look where our feet are going a bit more.
STEP SEVEN – STOP BEING LAZY!
When I damaged my camera in the Lakes I had been lazy. I really should have just stopped for one minute extra and put my camera back in the bag before going back to find Greg and the team. But no, I chose to let £3000+ worth of camera and lens swing from my neck like it was £20 neck tie from M&S and I paid the price. All too often I see photographers do this when climbing over rocks, moving around beaches and rivers. There is a very high chance that you are going to fall sooner or later and if your kit is swinging around freely you are on a loser. I think Joe was REALLY unlucky – I would have been very upset if my kit was in a quality bag and still got damaged.
That’s it for now so here endeth the lesson. Carrying extra kit might be seen as somehow unfashionable or even paranoid but I doubt Joe will make similar errors of judgement in how he approached his trip in future. I’ll leave you with a D500 image which I bagged on my rather painful Lake District weekend hopefully proving that ‘backup’ cameras are very much worthy to providing different options but still high quality outcomes: