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Protecting your camera backpacking Stirling Range Ridge Walk

Camera protection backpacking

Stirling Range Ridge Walk

Protecting camera gear backpacking is essential if it is to remain usable when traversing rugged environments. As you can see from the image below of the Third Arrow, the Ridge Walk terrain is challenging with a heavy pack. You should have a modern backpack with shoulder and hip harness. My advice is that all your gear should be stowed within your backpack.

I would avoid attaching bags or items on the outside of a backpack. In rougher terrain you may occasionally slide a pack down a slope in front of you or need to move down a slope with rocks jutting outwards into your pathway. Either way you do not want anything to snag on your pack or break. Worse still is unexpectantly falling because you to become unbalanced when turning your back.

Attaching gear to the outside of your pack moves the pack's centre of gravity further away from the body. This can result in addition strain on your back or again could cause you to lose balance. A simple rule of thumb, if you can't pack it in your backpack then you can't take it.

Stirling Range The Arrows
Stirling Range Third Arrow 4x5 field camera Velvia 50.
Protecting your camera backpacking
Protect your camera gear when backpacking

8 tips to protecting camera gear backpacking

Some of the techniques I find useful when backpacking with camera gear are:

  1. minimise weight: plan the photographs you are most likely to make and reduce your camera gear to the bare minimum
  2. do not attach bags or other items to the outside of your pack, keep centre of gravity close to body
  3. hand carry a light weight tripod - use it a hiking pole when necessary
  4. use colour coded waterproof inner bags to keep like items together in your backpack
  5. place camera gear at the top of backpack to minimise damage and give faster access
  6. use padded wraps with velcro access around lenses and camera body
  7. take lens cleaning tissue
  8. try to take items which can serve more than one purpose eg you might use your rain shell to double as a focus cloth, reducing weight and volume.

What would I change all these years later?

There have been massive changes in technology since my earlier ridge walks. There are mobile phones -although I am not suggesting you rely on them in the Stirling Range, there is GPS navigation, personal EPIRBS and of course there are digital cameras. Given the new professional quality digital cameras and software available there are more choices available for such arduous journeys.

If I was not making images for the calendar, the obvious choice to me would be one of the new mirrorless digital cameras with interchangeable lenses and a tripod. The later would benefit from being carbon fibre and therefore light weight. This would be far lighter than a current 35mm dSLR. If you are not concerned about the combination of electronics, cold, rain, grit and jarring, then by all means get out your scales and weigh up the options with a medium format digital such as Phase One.

If I wanted to use film in preference to digital it would be hard to go past the 4x5 sheet film format. Its camera system is simple and robust, able to withstand wet weather and dirt. Best of all it does not require batteries. Medium format film is also an option. The other alternative  35mm film camera. A tripod is still, in my opinion, essential for quality work. Galen Rowell made wonderful mountaineering photographs with 35mm Nikon and Kodachrome 64 (and then later Velvia 50).

 

Stirling Range Coyanarup Peak Western Australia
Grass trees below Coyanarup Peak Stirling Range

Navigation aids for Stirling Range maps compass

Navigation and Safety

Regardless of mobile phone and GPS I would still carry my maps and compass. With a map and compass you read the landscape that you are moving through rather than rely on a digital signal confirming where you have been. Given the affordability and compactness of new technology you should really have a mobile, GPS, maps, compass and these days a personal EPIRB with you, as well as a letting someone responsible know of your plans and when you should get back.

My final word on safety is that if you are planning to hike the Stirling Range Ridge Walk, do some research of the route first. You may want to look at the publications by AT Morphet. Use minimal impact bushwalking techniques which includes not lighting fires and disposing of your human waste properly. Go with a walking colleague of equal or greater experience than you.

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Back beach south coast Western Australia

coral vine beach Denmark Western Australia

 

Nearly every coastal town has a back beach, the one that is less popular with the visitors, but well known to the locals. It is usually accessed via a dirt track off the bitumen leading somewhere over the dunes.

Unlike the local surfers and fishers, I don’t use a 4WD, so I hike along the coast with my camera and tripod in my backpack. It takes a bit longer to get to my destination (OK, sometimes several hours longer), but in that time I get to see and appreciate a lot of things on the way.

Like the subtle changes in the landscape, the way the foliage and bush changes as I slowly advance towards the coast. Or perhaps which wild flowers are out and what bushes, trees and shrubs are flowering. The direction of the wind, the sun on you skin, the quality of the light, the softness of the sand beneath your boots, and the general quietening of your mind. These are all factors in influencing your mood, your perception for photography.

As you walk, you build up to a moment where a photograph presents itself to you, like a bubble that has risen to the surface. On a beautifully calm morning, how could I resist the intense red of the sprawling coral vine, with distant surfers riding the waves? Back beach Denmark region, south coast WA.

wooden folding wista  field camera 4×5, with 6x9cm roll film back, velvia 50ISO.

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Early morning photography Pemberton Western Australia

Lefroy Brook Pemberton

Early morning photography

Early morning photography provides the photographer with many opportunities. One such opportunity is this image of Lefroy Brook near Pemberton. It was the pay off for leaving my warm sleeping bag early, hiking along a dark track through karri forest with only my head lamp, until I came to my river location.

Scouting

When I headed out I new exactly where I was heading. My location was predetermined from the previous day’s walking and scouting for images. When I passed by this location the previous day the light came from behind me illuminating the scene. The direct sunlight made the shape and composition look too harsh in contrast.  To retain as many visual elements successfully in this composition I new I needed a quieter light. I was anticipating a sudden drop in the overnight temperature and combined with the body of water was expecting the possibility of mist rising from the river through the forest.

6×12 Roll Film Back

The evening before I selected equipment for the next day’s early hike. In my back pack I carried my 4×5 wooden field camera, two lenses and a 6x12cm Horseman Roll Film back loaded with Velvia 50 ISO. If the conditions were right I was planning on a double page spread image for my book, and the 6x12cm frame was the ideal format for this. This format allowed me to avoid the sky, the reason for which I’ll explain a little later. Other basic photo gear included my light meter, focus cloth, tripod.

The first dull blue-grey hues of morning light were barely perceptible when I arrived at my location. No real mist here, but there was a cool, calm stillness of the forest as it enveloped the steady sound of the brook. It was cold in the valley, and there would be no direct sunlight streaming through the forest canopy for several hours.

Leaning against my tripod surveying the scene before me, I could see some boulders near the river’s edge that could provide a good vantage point. In the dull glow of daybreak I picked my way carefully through undergrowth towards the rocks. Jamming my tripod legs at various angles onto the rocks, I confirmed my composition I had in mind. There would be no mist in this picture. Expectations had not matched what I was being presented with, time to let go of preconceptions and reconsider what is in front of me. I now wanted an image preserving the cool hues of this winter’s early morning photography.

Setting Up

I unfolded my wooden camera from my backpack and attached it to my tripod. The 90mm lens was chosen as it would give me a sufficient angle of view and afford me reasonable depth of field stopped down to f32. In this light with 50 ISO Velvia this was going to be a long exposure. With my head under the focus cloth I tried to focus the barely discernible image that projected upside down and back to front onto the ground glass. Under the focus cloth the ground glass fogged from my breath, obscuring my view.

Satisfied with my set up, I closed the lens shutter and set it to “B”. I read the scene in front of me with my one degree spot meter, allowing for adequate exposure in the low to mid tones. The 6x12cm format allowed me to compose an image avoiding expanses of sky which would have exceeded the film’s exposure latitude. Sometimes the best way to control excessive exposure latitudes is to exclude either the brightest or darkest elements from the composition. In this case I wanted to retain the darker, shadow details.

I don’t recall the exact exposure, but it would have been at least 60 seconds. Velvia, during exposures longer than one second displays a distinct colour shift towards blue-purplish hues. This film characteristic would enhance the coolness of the image.

The Final Spread

The image was published as a double page spread, with good shadow detail whilst retaining its “low light” atmosphere. With very little movement in the foliage and the lens stopped down, focus was maintained from the foreground rushes into the distance. The large film image holds plenty of detail and would work well in a larger image. If you are one who spends your mornings sleeping in you must try some early morning photography once in a while.

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Animal tracks Donnelly River south coast Pemberton Australia

Animal tracks Donnelly River
Animal tracks late evening

Animal tracks Donnelly River south coast Pemberton Australia. If possible I like to spend a bit of time in a location so that I can observe it at different times of the day and under different weather conditions. Several days and nights spent on the remote south coast near Pemberton gave me a chance to explore a section of coastline. Sections of the coast are lined by limestone cliffs and just behind the sand dunes are wetlands, sedges and paperbarks. Beyond the paperbarks the landscape becomes drier and an ancient marri forest extends inland towards the rich loams that support the karri forest. These landscape transitions between beach, fresh water, sedges, wetlands and forests provide a rich ecosystem through which a variety of animals move. Early morning and late evening are good times to observe that movement as the animal tracks become visible.

The almost pure white sand takes on the pink sunset colours reflected off clouds above. The sun’s low rays accentuating the sand’s wind swept pattern cutting diagonally across the animal tracks.

Velvia 120 roll film in a 6x12cm back and my wooden 4×5 field camera.

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Skink Bluff Knoll Stirling Range Western Australia

Skink Bluff Knoll Stirling Range. Beautifully camouflaged against the orange lichen flecked rocks, a skink warms itself on the summit of Bluff Knoll. The morning had started off with relatively clear skies, with the rocks receiving plenty of sunshine right up until mid afternoon. With diminished direct sunlight from the approaching cloud cover this skink was making the most of the latent heat stored within the summit rocks.

Bluff Knoll is the highest peak located within the Stirling Range National Park, about 90km north of Albany and the Southern Ocean. Bluff Knoll, at just over 1000m above sea level occasionally gets a very light dusting of snow. The Stirling Range National Park is a botanical island of worldwide significance.

On the day I made Skink Bluff Knoll Stirling Range I had with me a 35mm film Olympus OM4Ti with 24mm Zuiko lens and Velvia 50 ISO transparency film. I published this popular image, first in my Stirling Range postcard series and then later as a poster in 1995. Like my cards, the poster was printed here in Perth at a time when I was trying to make use of recycled paper stock. It was an exciting time to be making such a large drum scan and film separations from the relatively new 35mm Velvia.

For most publications and publishers, colour slide or transparency film was the standard as it was easier to compare the original with the colour image off a printing press. Velvia, with its fine grain, high resolution, colour saturation and convenient E-6 processing turn around time made it a hugely popular alternative to Kodachrome, which had to be sent to Melbourne for processing. I didn’t think I had any posters left, but during a recent rearrangement of my studio I found just a handful of 70x48cm posters in a folio case all in excellent condition.

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Thrombolites Lake Clifton Yalgorup Mandurah

Yalgorup National Park Australia

The thrombolites Lake Clifton  in Yalgorup National Park are about 100km south of Perth. These rock like structures, a form of microbialite, occur in rocky clumps which look similar to the famous strombolites found within Shark Bay’s Hamelin Pool, some 800km north of Perth.

Strombolites are examples of one of the earliest forms of bacterial life presently known to man and reside in salty water. Thrombolites on the other hand grow best in fresh water. The bacteria within them are photosynthetic and create calcium carbonate which is basically what limestone is made of. Apparently the largest known population of living marine microbialites in the southern hemisphere are found at Lake Clifton in Yalgorup National Park.  They require fresh water and monitoring of Lake Clifton’s fresh water is highlighting a decline in fresh water run off to the lake. There are other populations in nearby Lake Preston and further south in Augusta and Esperance.

Thrombolites are at risk by increasing water salinity, which stops them growing. Water salinity at Lake Clifton is affected by reduced fresh water run off from climate change and groundwater changes from urban and agricultural uses.

The day I made these photographs of Lake Clifton Thrombolites Yalgorup Mandurah I took my metal wista 4×5 field camera with 4×5 sheet film and a 6×12 film back. (The Horseman 6×12 back is quite thick and puts pressure on the ground glass springs of my wooden field camera). The film stock I was using for both was 50ISO Velvia. I timed my arrival for the mid to late afternoon, giving myself time to scout for potential compositions, although on an earlier visit I had already decided on a dusk composition (pictured above).

With the setting sun, the trees and reeds fringing Lake Clifton were lit with a warm orange light and the shapes of the thrombolites stood out in high contrast against the water. Using the reach of a longer focal length lens the  6x12cm back allowed me to fill the frame with thrombolites and the lake’s edge. It also allowed me to create several exposures in close succession, each one being a potential in camera duplicate should one be damaged by the handling of a publisher.

The image above was a timed exposure of several seconds made on 4×5 film after the sun had set. One of Velvia’s characteristics with long exposures is to develop a purplish magenta colour cast. For comparison I have included an image made on Velvia just before sunset (below). You can see how different the colour temperature is recorded by the same film type.

Lake Clifton Thrombolites Yalgorup National Park has been published in the 2015 Australian Conservation Foundation Diary. By purchasing it directly from Rob Blakers’ web site you can support the Australian Conservation Foundation and enjoy a yearly supply of wonderful photographs of Australia’s national parks.

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Donnelly River Pemberton

Donnelly River sunset

I was weighing up whether I should go or not, stay put and relax as the day draws to a close or get my backpack and tripod ready and head out?  The cloud had been building steadily all day with an increasing south westerly wind and now, in the late afternoon it was completely overcast. This was my last night at the mouth of the Donnelly River, in the D’Entrecasteaux National Park of WA. I could either stay put and get myself warm and settled for the night or I could use this last evening of this trip and see if there was an opportunity to make a final sunset photograph. The wispy high level clouds had all but disappeared behind darker, lower clouds marching over the horizon. I stared upwards trying to read the sky, watching the two layers of high and low cloud travel in opposite directions, as if to collide with each other. Definitely a cold front on the way. With the fast moving cloud thickening, and the western horizon becoming steadily darker I didn’t have high hopes of making an image before the end of the day, if anything it looked like I was going to get wet. But one thing is for sure, if you don’t go out and try then the result is definitely no photograph. But it is in exactly these unpredictable weather conditions that you can witness some of the most spectacular changes in light.

I grabbed my camera bag and tripod, put them in the dinghy and travelled down river to the wide sandbar that partially blocks the flow of the Donnelly River into the Southern Ocean. I anchored in the crystalline white sand and studied the limestone cliffs hoping to find a reflection in the tannin stained river if the sun should re-appear. The wind was picking up making it difficult to keep the camera gear clear of fine sand particles. Looking back towards the dinghy, I set up my Wista 4×5 field camera and a Calumet 6×12 roll film back loaded with 50 ISO Velvia. The roll film 6x12cm format suited the composition best and would possibly allow me 2 quick exposures in relatively short succession. Setting a pre determined aperture and shutter I then covered the camera in a plastic bag to protect it from the wind borne sand, and waited.

It was getting late with the sun setting and it looked like my chance of capturing some dramatic light was fading with every second that passed. Then the unexpected happened, for a brief moment a break in the cloud let a small sweeping sliver of light trace a path down along the coast. Removing the bag I cocked the shutter and waited for the sweep of light to hit the sand dune mound in the middle of the bar. I released the shutter,  exposed the film for one second, replaced the double dark and wound on the next frame. By then the light had gone completely, there would be no second image and sheets of rain were coming.

That night back at camp I cleaned my camera gear by candle light. In the relative quiet between the showers of rain I could hear various frogs calling in the dark and the lone call of a mopoke owl. Tired, I settled into my sleeping bag with the satisfaction of knowing that I had not foregone an opportunity to make a final image during my stay,  by making the effort of  being ready and just being out there.

Are you creating similar opportunities for your photography? Twelve months later I published this image as a double page spread.

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Long exposures film or digital?

Lefroy Brook Pemberton Western Australia

Long exposures film or digital? When film exposure becomes greater than one second, you begin to enter the world of long exposures. Apart from the need to steady your camera, usually with a tripod, images created from long film exposures start to behave differently to shorter “regular” exposures and this requires a modified approach to successfully anticipate their outcome. Take the above example of three images which I made late one evening along the Lefroy Brook near Pemberton. The sun had set and the brook was deep in shadow with the light coming from directly above in a break between the karri forest canopy. I was exploring along the shallow pools of the brook which was now flowing at a pre summer low. The river’s bedrock was exposed in parts, but where the rocks remained wet they were slippery and they trapped the fallen leaves from the forest in a scattered pattern across their dark surfaces.

I set up my tripod and 4×5 wooden field camera. The best composition and most comfortable subject working distance was achieved with my Nikkor 210mm lens. I was using a Horseman 6×12 roll film back loaded with Velvia transparency film, rated at 50 ISO. The 210mm lens is slightly longer than normal focal length for 4×5 (and certainly for 6×12). It’s depth of field is shallow and with a close subject this characteristic becomes magnified. If I focused on the nearby leaves the remaining image was so blurry you lost the pattern of the leaves and their relationship with the moving water. If I focused on the far leaves, the foreground image suffered the same blurring, and again I lost the visual relationship I was after. Stopping the lens aperture all the way down to f64 is one way to increase this depth of field, but at the cost of introducing unwanted softness through diffraction. Even at f64 I could not achieve enough depth of field for the image I had in mind. One of the major advantages with the 4×5 is that I am able to alter the plane of focus so that a greater perception of sharpness is achieved in both the foreground and background. Coupled with a moderate aperture of about f22 this would afford me just sufficient depth of field.

But the rapidly fading light was adding to my problems. Not only was it becoming so dark that seeing any image on the ground glass was becoming seriously difficult (it’s already upside down and back to front), but the exposure was going to be long. According to my spot meter the brightest leaves had an EV of about 6, the darkest about 4, representing a 2 stop difference. The white water was slightly higher at around 7 EV. The base rock was mostly very dark and barely registering on my meter with EVs in the 2 to 3 range. My meter indicated an exposure of about 1 minute would be required at f22 with ISO 50 film. I added another 20 seconds to account for lens bellows extension and then I immediately doubled that to about 2 minutes 40 seconds,  to take into account my experience with the reciprocity effect in long exposures with Velvia film. In addition to reciprocity, I knew that there would be an increase in contrast in the final transparency compared to what I was seeing on the ground glass which I wanted to use to my advantage. By the time I had completed all three images in the fading light my exposures were getting up into the 5 minute range.

Film has to receive a base threshold amount of light energy before it can begin to record an image from very dark regions within an image. The contrast of the film increases in long exposures because, proportionately, less of the light energy received by the film in the shadow or dark regions of the image is available for image making, compared to a greater portion of image making light energy received from the brighter areas within the image.  That is to say that even though the film receives reflected light from both light and dark objects for the same amount of time, the resulting film density is not proportional in both light and dark regions, as the image highlights activate disproportionately more image forming silver halide crystals than the darker, shadow regions. This characteristic forms part of a film’s sensitivity curve:  a curved “toe” at the base, a relatively straight line mid section and a curved “shoulder”. Each film has its own exposure index /curve/ developer combination.  In this low light situation photographing Lefroy Brook,  Velvia’s contrast response to long exposures matched my vision to bring attention to the leaves whilst maintaining a dark background.

Had I used a digital camera to attempt these images the resulting raw files would have been quite different to film, there would have been an almost normal appearance of the brook and leaves as if it was photographed in full daylight. Low light exposures with digital cameras sensors coupled with their particular algorithms can give a greater perception of overall scene brightness, indicating a much more proportional exposure response than film (ie more straight line than toe or shoulder).  From my experience, this is one instance where film, by virtue of its inherent characteristics, behaves quite differently to digital. In this series of prints of Lefroy Brook I was able to achieve, in camera, with transparency film, the desired contrast of a long exposure and the necessary adjustment of the plane of focus afforded by a 4×5 field camera.