Words and pictures Jack Jackson
The Sahara desert and Arabian Empty Quarter, The Rub' al Khali, are typical of hot, dusty deserts but dust inevitably accompanies hot climates so most photographers who travel will experience these conditions at sometime. Be prepared, all deserts occasionally experience rain and I have encountered snow in the Sahara and hailstones the size of tennis balls in the Empty Quarter.
Dust on lenses or filters causes low contrast pictures while within the camera it scratches film and often causes seizure. Clean everything inside and out including the battery contacts as often as possible. If you don't have an 'O'-ring sealed case, get a quantity of polythene bags and keep all equipment in them when not in use, renew the bags every day if possible.
Camel-hair lens dusting brushes tend to be loaded with fine dust, so it is better to use rubber blowers.
Even if you have the most expensive cameras that have extra 'O'-ring seals, how you carry them makes all the difference if you want them to work when that shot-of-a-lifetime appears.
Don't leave cameras or film in a vehicle in the sun. In direct sunlight, plastic behind glass can melt but even when not in direct sunlight, the temperature can become high enough to affect film and electronics.
Many modern cameras are black and have electronic circuit boards below their top covers. Uncovered in the sun, e.g. carried around your neck while walking, the circuit boards get hot and the electronics or LED displays fail until the camera cools down again, you may have to remove batteries from the camera to reset the electronics. Batteries discharge quickly, colour film changes colour and may tear during winding or rewinding.
On the move
Ever-ready cases trap dust, your camera bounces around in its own private dust storm, use padded camera bags or pouches that can be washed in a washing machine. For extreme conditions, and when using pack animals use indestructible plastic 'O'-ring sealed, padded cases such as Pelican Cases which have the strongest hinges.
When travelling on foot, camel or horseback I keep cameras and lenses in shaped protective pouches made by Lowepro and Camera Care Systems fitted to my waist-belt or rucksack waist-strap.
Avoid air conditioned vehicles. When you alight the heat hits you, you feel lacking in energy and your cameras and lenses become covered in condensation, so you will not be able to use them for ten minutes.
The vibration in basic four-wheel drive vehicles, helicopters and older aircraft causes screws to work loose so carry jewellers' screwdrivers and check the screws regularly.
Whichever lens you use, skylight filters will protect the front glass and are much cheaper to replace when scratched. If you want to use other filters during the day, be careful that you do not over-tighten screw-fitting ones when the lenses are cool or you will never get them off again when the lenses have warmed up. Carry a plastic filter wrench to remove tight filters. Polarizing filters will improve the colour and contrast where mist is present, but give horrible results if the air contains dust.
Large polythene bags are good for operating in rain or sandstorms. Cut a hole for the lens and fit the bag to it with a rubber band. Keep a filter over the lens, then operate through the bag by feel. If the bag is big enough and you are using a reflex camera, you can get inside the bag with it but beware of suffocation, keep your elbows pointed out to let in air. There are ready-made, glass-fronted plastic camera bags by Ewa Marine but they are expensive.
In very hot climates it is best to keep your spare film and batteries in an air-tight insulated box. If the climate is dry, it's worth estimating the next days film requirements and taking them out at night, rather than opening the box during the heat of the day. If you do not have an insulated box, wrap your spare film in your sleeping bag or clothes and keep it in the centre of your pack or case.
Think about your photography before you start an excursion, it may be impossible to change film or lenses in dust storms.
Black & white films are little affected by heat and negative colour film can be corrected for changes in colour balance during printing. Kodachrome has relatively few layers of emulsion and does not suffer as much from heat as E6 process films, whose extra layers of emulsion make them less pliable. Film tearing out of the cassette is common so carry a photographer's black changing bag, to get it back into the cassette, failing this, you can improvise after dark with a sleeping bag.
Films marked Professional should be stored below 13 degrees Celsius, for short trips there will be little change in its colour balance but for long trips it is best to carry amateur film.
Leave the outer paper film packaging behind, mark film containers with the coloured spots sold for freezers, different colours for different speeds. When you use a film, removing the spot identifies it as used. Number film cassettes with waterproof marker pens and note down some of the shots taken on each film, you will never remember everything when you get hom
Some popular modern transparency films are very high contrast and cannot handle white clothing and black skin together, in this situation, despite photo-libraries requirement for Fuji film, Kodachrome is the best film to use.
Exposures are rarely straightforward. Automatic or through-the-lens exposure is fine for print film but not always for transparency film. Programmed for an average reading, if you wish to select a dull subject from a bright scene or a bright subject from a dull scene you should take a close reading from the subject itself.
Incident light readings are best for scenery, but light is absorbed by brown and black skin so careful readings are necessary for close-ups of people. In this case a spot-meter reading from the skin is preferable. If you cannot get close enough, place the back of your hand in the same direction as the subject and take a close-up reading off of it, then open up one-half of a stop for brown skin or one full stop for black.
Time of day
Some of the best travel photography is taken before 10am and after 4pm, start early to avoid crowds at busy tourist sites.
Ideally you should not photograph when the sun is too high in the sky, the short shadows have no modelling light and peoples' eyes will be shadow especially if they are wearing a hat. In the case of people that you have permission to photograph, fill-in-flash (synchro-sunlight) will improve close-up shots.
Long-lens candid photography of people has its limitations. The light is usually wrong, hats or high sun place faces and eyes into shadow and subjects may object. Make friends and ask first, subject's will often stand rigidly to attention so waste a shot and then quickly take another as they relax.
For faces use portrait lenses or 80-105mm on zooms at wide apertures to throw messy backgrounds out of focus.
Focus on the eyes and if these are in shadow add some flash. In poor light, on-camera flash produces red-eye, reflections from the retina. Some flash guns reduce this by emitting a series of pre-flashes that cause the subject's pupil to close but this takes time, expressions change and the moment is lost. A separate, dedicated flashgun well off the camera is the best solution.
One causes distress by photographing people against their will and it is particularly important to observe decorum at religious sites. Dress conservatively, especially in Islamic areas and remember that women should never pass in front of Muslim men when they have washed before prayer. The question of semi-nudity mostly comes up in the west, if nudity is normal in an area then the local people will be quite happy to be photographed that way.
Landscapes and architectural subjects do not move so where possible choose the right compass bearing and time of day for the correct angle of sunlight. The amount of dust in the sky will be least in the early morning and worst after the wind gets up in the afternoon, if the area has a rainy season, the atmosphere will be clearest after rain.
Most wildlife photographs are taken with long telephoto lenses but many animals and birds can be approached closely by vehicle. Switch off the engine but remain in the vehicle. Use a tripod, beanbag or plastic bag full of sand to steady the camera and further steady long lenses with a bag of sand on top of the lens. If the tripod is lightweight, steady it by attaching a rucksack or bag of stones.
Selective wildlife and flower close-ups have impact but there is a requirement for careful inclusion of some background to show habitat. Knowledge of animal behaviour is helpful, on safari, animals collect around water-holes at dawn and dusk and will be concentrated around fewer water-holes in the dry season. Most deserts have a couple of days of flowers in bloom after rain. Windbreaks facilitate flower and plant photography.
Macro lenses are useful for small creatures and flowers, longer focus models allow more comfortable working distances and reflectors or flash may be required to improve the lighting.
Flash is useful in forests but on-camera flash may also produce red eye with animals and birds. Powerful flash guns deliver over ten metres and specialist fresnel lenses will concentrate flash as a narrower beam over longer distances.
Many deserts have ancient rock paintings (frescoes) and these are often so faded that you may have to stare at the rock for several minutes before you can make anything out. With transparency film you can take better pictures of frescoes by increasing the film's contrast. Uprate the film by one or two stops and when processing it increase the first development by the required amount.
Hot, dusty climates are physically exhausting. When walking, carrying too much becomes hard work but the time that you leave equipment behind is sure to be the one when you wish you had not. Think about what you carry, 90% of luck occurs when preparation and opportunity coincide, the adage is F8 and be there!
About the Author
Mountaineer, diver, photographer, lecturer and author, Jack Jackson has travelled the remoter areas of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Far East since 1967. Regularly photographing in extreme conditions from the heat of the Sahara Desert to the cold of the Arctic and from high mountains in the Himalayas to the depths of the sea where he specializes in shark photography. Nikon Cameras (UK) staged an exhibition of his underwater photography in 1989.
Author of 14 books, Jack has won several photographic awards and two book awards. He is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a member of the Alpine Club, the Climbers' Club and the Scientific Exploration Society and is a consultant to the Expedition Advisory Centre.
You can see more of his work on http://www.jackjackson.co.uk - best viewed with Internet Explorer Version 4 or above.