Practicing Safe Photography Outdoors
The Coronavirus is certainly in the news of late. Regardless of our own personal risk factors in the upcoming apocalypse, we outdoor photographers need to take safety precautions for other things too. Safety matters.
By way of background, I live in King County, Washington, home of the Coronavirus epicenter. I see a doctor based at the hospital in Kirkland featured in many of the news reports about the situation. Suffice it to say, things have gotten very interesting over the past week or so. Granted, real lives have been affected, and some even lost, but for most of us at this point, the problem is that there's just no good way of knowing how far to go in taking precautions, and what constitutes going overboard.
But as photographers who work outdoors, there are more things to worry about than infectious diseases. As a basic rule, expect the unexpected. It may not happen, but prudence dictates that we at least give some consideration to what we would do if it does.
When packing your camera bag, be sure to include basic survival gear appropriate to your surroundings. Even if you stick to well-marked and well-traveled trails, at least be sure you have enough water to avoid getting dehydrated. Everything becomes more difficult if you allow yourself to become dehydrated.
Even if going out for the afternoon, be sure to dress for the weather. Also be sure to bring along enough clothes for what the weather might become. It's all too easy to go out on a sunny day and get caught off guard when the sun starts to get lower in the sky. The same holds for precipitation. The weather can change quickly, especially in the mountains. A passing rain shower can do more than complicate your dream of shooting the perfect sunset shot. Hypothermia sets in when the body can't produce enough heat to make up for what it is losing, and you can get cold in a hurry if you unexpectedly find yourself wearing wet clothes. Check the weather forecast before heading out, and plan for the worst. Better safe than sorry.
Watch where you are going. It can be a lot of fun looking at the world through a wide-angle lens while walking around, but be careful not to trip and fall. Trust me, not only is this result possible, it can also be painful. No need to go into detail how I found out, but I can tell you it was no fun. Luckily, it hurt my pride more than my body and joints, but it taught me a lesson. It could have been much worse. A twisted ankle might have made a short hike back to the car suddenly seem much longer. And it's not just tripping over your feet or a tree root that leaps at you out of nowhere that can ruin your day, stray tree branches and other obstacles exist even at eye-level. Horror stories about distracted driving are common, but distracted photography can cause problems too.
Common sense dictates that you carry a map and compass with you. Thankfully, this is easier than ever today with the ubiquity of GPS and mobile phones. I bring my phone with me, even when no cell service exists for making calls. It has a built-in compass and GPS, and I load it with detailed topographic maps of the area before I head out. On one trip, the trail I was on petered out into nothingness as I entered a wide expanse of meadow. With a GPS, I easily was able to find where it continued on the other side. Even if I don't get lost, it gives me the ability to make sure I am where I think I am. And it lets me be more flexible if I feel like changing my route. I was hiking near Oregon's Mt. Hood one time and ran into a section of trail that was closed for maintenance. A quick check on my phone and I was able to take a different trail safely, without knowing in advance that it even existed.
When shooting wildlife, keep distance. Everyone's heard stories of tourists walking right up to bison in Yellowstone National Park. Some of them get gored and end up in the hospital. Many more get at least startled when a thousand-pound animal starts taking more than a passing interest and moves in their direction suddenly. And that would be a small bison. In other parts of the country, it might be rattlesnakes or other dangerous animals and predators, but the same advice holds true. Even when photographing less dangerous species, please be considerate and give them some space. If they appear concerned about your presence, you may be too close.
Do a bit of research before your trip, so you know what you might be getting yourself into. It's easier than ever these days with so much information available online. I no longer feel a need to collect every book published on an area since I can find details on the web. Online sources tend to be more up-to-date than printed books, anyway.
How far you go in terms of taking safety precautions when out with your camera gear ultimately comes down to a matter of choice. Oddly, this is not too dissimilar to my current predicament with the novel COVID-19 virus. None of us want to end up lost, cold and shivering overnight after wandering off the trail, but then again most are unlikely to pack a fire-starter, tent and change of underwear on an afternoon walk near a National Park visitors center. Somewhere, there's a happy medium. And while it makes sense to listen to experts, you should evaluate your own circumstances and act accordingly.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go wash my hands again and disinfect my keyboard. Stay safe out there.