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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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Stirling Range Ridge Walk Western Australia

Stirling Range Ellen Peak Pyungoorup The Arrows Australia

Stirling Range Ridge Walk with a field camera

Stirling Range Ridge Walk Bluff Knoll from eastern peaks

Horizon Calendar

In 1997 I was publishing my large format Horizon Calendar of West Australian landscapes. I had been photographing and hiking in the Stirling Range since the early 1980s with a 35mm film camera. But the Horizon Calendar images were all made from my 4x5 camera field camera using Velvia 50 iso sheet film. The calendar was printed on A1 paper stock here in Perth. The colour reproductions were superior to pro lab prints and the detail exceptional. Placing 35mm images along side 4x5 images in a calendar would harm its production value. I needed  to make 4x5 images on my hikes in the Stirlings. This was the dilemma confronting me on my in the pre-planning stage for a Stirling Range ridge walk in 1996.

Horizon Calendar Stormlight Publishing Alex Bond
Stirling Range images published in the Horizon Calendar

Stirling Range Ridge Walk

The Stirling Range Ridge Walk is a challenging walk even for experienced bushwalkers. It is an unmarked route through mountainous terrain with very limited water supplies. Weather conditions can change rapidly and visibility reduced to less than a metre if clouded in. There are many mobile phone black spots due to terrain and remoteness. Before undertaking the ridge walk you should have highly developed navigation skills, have a high degree of self sufficiency and be using appropriate outdoor gear. Research the Stirling Range ridge walk before attempting it. Be a competent maps and compass reader. Obviously a GPS now days would be a good idea and you should carry some first aid.

Preparations food water shelter

Hiking the Stirling Range ridge walk  requires some serious forethought in your pre-planning stage. Some hikers use caves for overnight shelter. My preference is a light weight alpine tent. This gives me further reach onto the ridge than where the caves are. Planning includes three days of food and fluids. I hope to find additional water en-route. Water cannot be guaranteed and if no water can be procured then it probably means abandoning the  walk at the first Arrow. You can also climb down to a spring and then climb back up with water.... if the spring is running.

Add a 4x5 field camera and a tripod into the above mix of prerequisites and your problems multiply. A heavy backpack can slow you down, is less manageable in rough terrain and tires you more quickly.

Working with a field camera presents its own unique set of challenges of volume and weight. The obvious concern is about camera weight. This is certainly a consideration, but you may be surprised to learn how heavy modern dSLRs and their lenses have become. A Canon EF 70-200mm digital zoom weighs 1.54kg. My 4x5 field camera weighs just 40 grams more! By comparison a 300mm Nikkor lens for 4x5 weighs about 390 grams, nearly the same as a Canon EF 50mm f1.4.

I restricted my food to 500 grams dry weight per day. To supplement the water I would need to find en-route I carried another 7 litres. Water was without doubt the single heaviest item I carried.

large format camera Stirling Range
1996 Author at Bluff Knoll on completion of ridge walk.

Camera basics

When using the 4x5 in this environment I cut down the camera gear to its bare minimum. I  study maps, estimate times of day and my position and think about the photographs I hope to make. What lens is needed? What is absolutely necessary and what can I leave at home?

My 4x5 kit consists of two lenses and two film backs. That is a maximum of 12 exposures on 4x5 inch film. So you are not going to blast those off in the first hour of hiking. I take a  light meter and focus cloth. Plus of course a tripod. It's rather pointless to make all this effort to walk the ridge if you can’t make the most of the photographic opportunities it presents. Up until the mid 2000s  I was using an aluminium Manfrotto 190. These days the price of light weight carbon fibre tripods has come down which I would certainly use in preference now.

In the next post I will give 8 tips to protecting camera gear when backpacking on extended camping trips.

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Smiths Beach Yallingup Cape Naturaliste sunset

Smiths Beach Yallingup Cape Naturaliste Western Australia
Wista field camera Rodenstock Grandagon 90mm lens 4×5 velvia 50 ISO f16 1 second.

I was reviewing some of my data files from film scans and came across this image of Smiths Beach Yallingup. It was made at sunset with my wooden field camera back in about 2002. The composition I envisaged was of the panoramic proportions above, although the actual film was a full sheet of 4×5 velvia. My initial plan was to publish the image in my Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park postcard series. Although I don’t normally crop my 4x5s this was the only camera I was using on that day, so I made a decision to “waste” half my potential film and make a panoramic from the final image.

I recall that the biggest concern at the time of making this photograph was trying to minimise the lens flare from the setting sun. The acute angle of the sun hitting the lens front element set up internal lens reflections taking on the form of the lense aperture blades. Under a focus cloth I carefully positioned the camera lens at the smallest angle to the sun that would just allow me to avoid the flare.

Checking my focus, I then stopped the lens down, closed and cocked its shutter. I placed a Grafmatic film holder in the camera back containing my 6 sheets of 4×5 velvia. Carefully pulling the double dark up from the Grafmatic back and then returning it. This moved an unexposed sheet of film to the front of the pack, ready for exposure. I waited momentarily by my tripod watch the surf and waiting for what I guessed would be the right sequence of waves.

Pressing the cable the shutter clicked and whirred for its one second duration. The exposure over, I pressed the lock catch on the Grafmatic insert, raising and lowering the internal film compartment. This action effectively shuffles the exposed sheet of film to the back of the film pack, leaving a fresh film on top for the next exposure.

What I had’t accounted for was that at such an acute angle to the horizon the sun’s position moves significantly in a relatively short period. 60 or 120 seconds later from checking my focus and positioning on the ground glass was sufficient time for the sun to move and cause lens flare.

I guess that is one of the difficulties in using a camera where you can’t continuously view the image through the viewfinder or in this case, ground glass (by virtue of the fact the film back has to be in position to make the exposure thereby obstructing and possible view). A possible fix is to use photoshop to edit the sun flare out, although this makes it a little too perfect for me. Although not initially intended I can live with the lens flare. It’s an authentic lens artefact from photographing into the sun and forms part of the quality of light that attracted me to make this image of Smiths Beach Yallingup in the first place.

For one reason or another the image was never used in my south west postcard range, although I have made custom prints of it.

Smiths Beach Yallingup: Wista field camera Rodenstock Grandagon 90mm lens 4×5 velvia 50 ISO f16 1 second.

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Surf Rabbit Hill Yallingup Leeuwin Naturaliste Series Postcards

Yallingup Surf Rabbit Hill Leeuwin Naturaliste Postcards

When I commenced publishing the Leeuwin Naturaliste Series of postcards back in 1989 I started with just 11 cards. By the following year I was needing more new images.  In particular, I needed images made in the 35mm film format I had designed my postcards around. As I explained in “25 years of south west postcards” cropping images from other camera formats that did not fit the 2:3 ratio posed a bit of a problem. I had been using 645 medium format and 4×5 inch large format well before 1989. Both have a similar aspect ratio and when I composed an image for that format it did not necessarily crop well into a 2:3 image for postcards.

So in 1990 I set about hiking about the south west with the only 35mm camera I had and a 28mm wide angle. The majority of the postcards I made over 25 years were produced with this single combination. Although I did own a 100mm short telephoto for my 35mm Pentax LX, I can’t recall taking it on a hiking trip with me. This may sound contradictory it was just a little too short for landscapes.

I arrived at Yallingup to a cool crisp winter morning, well before sunrise. There was a faint yellow glow in the east and a deep violet earth shadow descending across the western horizon. A light offshore breeze felt cold on my back as I set my camera up on a tripod and pointed it towards the west. In the distance far offshore the breaking surf was lit up by the first of the sun’s rays.

Early morning light Yallingup 1990 Leeuwin Naturaliste Postcard
Early morning light Yallingup 1990 Pentax LX tripod 28mm lens Fujichrome 50 Professional RFP

In the foreground slanting rocks facing the sun stretched out in small parallel lines into the ocean, drawing the eyes towards the breaking surf. The sun was slightly diffused through some cloud as it first lit the scene. I managed a few frames with the distant break working, before the sunlight broke through the cloud completely and the contrast became too high turning the shadow details to black.

Placing my camera inside my backpack and shouldering my tripod I continued my coastal walk to see what else might be around the corner. The light at this stage was fast losing its morning warmth and the movement of cloud predicted an overcast day was soon to follow. As I walked below Rabbit Hill at Yallingup beach the steeply angled light hit the plumes of spray blown off the tops of the waves.

I attached a zoom lens which I had borrowed from a friend. It was an odd 3rd party lens -I can’t remember its make- of around 140mm maximum focal length. At its maximum I managed to compose a small section of water below the cliffs in which the waves were breaking. Timing is everything in photographing breaking waves. The shutter speed has to be fast enough to “freeze” the image while the success of the composition is totally dependent on the placing of the waveform. Each sequence of waves offers a different image potential, no two sequences are the same. So I made a series of exposures from the same tripod position until the sun faded under the clouds and the lighting effect lost.

Both images were made on the same morning within an hour, yet show vastly different views. The Surf Rabbit Hill Yallingup, postcard was published in 1992, two years after I had published Yallingup Sunrise. Although it was made with a short telephoto lens it still required some cropping in the final drum scan. It became a hugely successful postcard card. Both images were made on Fujichrome 50 Professional RFP  35mm ISO 50, which I used up until the introduction of Velvia 50 ISO film not long after 1990.

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Contos spring Contos Beach Margaret River region

Contos spring contos beach

Contos Spring flows when the local limestone caves have received enough underground water. The spring seeps up out of the beach sand at the southern end of Contos Beach. Overhanging limestone cliffs dominate the beach and create a colourful and dramatic back drop especially towards evening.

On this particular evening there were several parties spread out on the beach enjoying the late sun and solitude. You can just make out a small dot on the far beach of one individual.

The foot prints in the foreground are testament to the beach’s popularity that day. Nearby is the Contos Beach camping ground and the Cape to Cape trail.

During this visit I made this image on 4×5 velvia film at 50iso using my wooden field camera. No filters required, image is as it appears on the transparency.

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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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Tracks Donnelly River south coast Pemberton Australia

Animal tracks Donnelly River

D’Entreacasteaux National Park

Tracks Donnelly River south coast Pemberton Australia was made at sunset. When you head south from Manjimup on the South Western Highway you cross the  Donnelly River.  It’s a short bridge barely wider than the highway.  Blink and you’d miss it. But downstream the Donnelly River is majestic. It passes quietly through dense tea tree before snaking around limestone cliffs to meet the Southern Ocean.

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 at this remote spot on the south coast near Pemberton gave me a chance to explore a section of coastline.

Sections of the coast are lined by limestone cliffs. Just behind these are sand dunes, wetlands, sedges and paperbarks. Beyond the paperbarks the landscape becomes drier. Here ancient marri forest extend inland towards the rich loams that support towering 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. Tracks Donnelly River represents on one hand the emptiness of the coast. Yet on the other hand there is clear evidence of life, even if it’s not always observed.

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

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Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse Australia

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse is perched at the very tip of a rocky peninsula that pokes out like a little finger off Cape Leeuwin near Augusta. It is the most south-westerly point of the Australian mainland and as such is the first landfall to obstruct the wind, rain and storms generated deep within the southern ocean.

Made with my digital Canon 5D2 in 2012, it was published later that year to replace an earlier lighthouse image of 1997-98. That image had been published in 1998 and was a popular postcard, with tens of thousands being sold. It had also appeared in several publications and a book. However, I felt it was time for a new image. The early photograph had been made on velvia 50 iso film using an Olympus OM4Ti and a 300mm lens. Made in the evening, so I could photograph the lighthouse with its light on, the exposure was over several minutes. By comparison, the more recent image made at sunrise took only a second.

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse was one of the last in the world to be manually operated until 1982, using a clockwork mechanism and kerosene burner. Its height is 39 metres and elevation 56 metres above sea level.

Both cards have since sold out.

Cape Leeuwin  Lighthouse Augusta

 

 

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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.