Running With a Camera
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, December 2001

A National Geographic photographer once confided his desire to do a spectacular feature on the American wilderness, waiting until the last page to reveal that every image had been shot out his car window. He mused how such an article would follow the magazine’s mission of diffusing geographical knowledge, showing Americans how many classic natural landscapes have easy access.

The idea didn’t fly. The mystique of the National Geographic photographer would have suffered. If anyone can drive there to photograph similar scenes, what’s the big deal? The magazine is about creative photography that communicates what we’ve never seen in the same way before. And that holds true for all photography.

While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with shooting “wilderness” landscapes from vehicle turnouts, the results often scrape the bottom of the creative barrel when they trigger memories of famous images from the same location and come up wanting.

Well-executed photos of familiar scenes predictably fill up months of Sierra Club and Audubon calendar and put bread on the table of the chosen photographer, but the question a dedicated nature photographer should be asking is, “Do I want to be a content provider or a visual artist?”

Though I can’t resist shooting magical light from vehicle turnouts, I consciously hold back from too much recycling of scenes that everyone has seen before. In fact, so many of my best wilderness pictures have been made from unique points of view that I’m often asked if they were made from locations only accessible to mountain climbers. While this has been true of some magazine features about climbing, it is the rare exception among my work chosen for gallery prints. People are quite surprised to hear that many of my seemingly wildest images involve a wilderness activity rarely associated with photography.

Trail running has had a tremendous positive effect on my results for decades now, greatly upping the quantity, quality, and originality of my work. Most all my best images have been shot from on or near trails where any reasonably fit person could walk. So why not walk?

Consider an example in the Eastern Sierra. Long Lake is 3.5 miles of almost level trail from a paved roadhead at 10,200 feet. Any reasonably healthy photographer can walk there with a pack of equipment to shoot reflections of Bear Creek Spire surrounded by meadows and wildflowers, but the few who do usually return with pictures made in mediocre mid-day light. The ideal situation is alpenglow on the peak in the first minutes of dawn, but hiking to the far side of the lake takes well over an hour, requiring a start in the dark or backpacking in the evening before.

While backpacking over passes and through valleys for days may reap spiritual rewards, carrying a tent, sleeping bag, stove, food, and photo gear for a single night out on a quota trail where Wilderness Permits are required for overnight stays rarely passes the gumption factor of being worth the effort. If clouds block the alpenglow, you feel cheated out of parts of two days. And how would you have known know where to camp for the best pictures?

I singled out several prime locations on a casual jog around the lake weeks before the peak July wildflower bloom. One morning, I awoke in a comfortable bed, drove to the roadhead 40 minutes before sunrise with just enough daylight to see. I jogged to the lake at a moderate pace with five minutes left to set up the three pounds of gear in my chest pouch–a Nikon N80, 24mm lens and a couple of graduated ND filters. I had carried a featherweight Gitzo tripod in one hand. After catching the short window of fine light, I jogged back in time to meet my wife for breakfast. Even if the light hadn’t cooperated, I would have come back renewed by the morning exercise.

This process of anticipating the moment and spending very little actual time at a field location is the opposite of how the public perceives nature photographers. Ads and TV documentaries make it seem as if we are an extraordinarily patient lot, sitting in one place for days meditating about the meaning of life until it appears before our eyes well after we’ve left the wilds on our light table as we review the hundreds of images we shot to capture the right moment.

Do I take a camera everywhere I go in the wilderness? No way. I’m highly selective about when and where I’ll burden myself down with even three pounds of equipment. If it’s two hours after sunrise hiking with my wife where I’ve been before, the camera stays back. If I’m traveling somewhere new, I’m likely to pore over maps the night before to chose where and when I’ll start running with my camera to combine the chance of a fine image with healthy exercise and a personal glimpse of a new wild place. Other times, I run without a camera and keep eyes open for likely places to come back to at just the right time of day.

When I first tried running with a camera, I always returned with a sore neck. The single most important piece of equipment for combining photography with any wilderness sport is a flexible neck strap that lessens the force of bouncing by more than half. OP-Tech makes the best ones I’ve found out of something similar to wet suit material. The wide, soft straps never chafe, so long as they run over a shirt collar.

The next critical piece of equipment is a chest pouch that will close with the straps coming out of either side of the top flap and fit the camera tightly enough to keep it from bobbing around.

In the eighties, I worked with Photoflex to design the ideal belted pouch for a single camera and lens, plus modular pouches that attach on the belt for extra lenses, film, or filters. I carry the pouch in front when actively shooting or moving slowly, but slip it behind onto one hip when running, skiing, or climbing. I’m often unaware it’s there.

Don’t ask where to buy one (photographers who bought them a decade ago and have worn them out are constantly e-mailing for a new source) because the company has discontinued my signature camera bag line, which also included a modular waist pack with detachable backpack that I continue to use for all my conventional shooting with more gear.

Sagging sales brought us to the conclusion that the general photographic marketplace is not the best venue for these products. Dealers and their salespeople rarely have the outdoor background to promote or explain the virtues of either of my camera systems. Most initially ordered only the waist packs without the backpack attachments, something akin to only selling running shoes for left feet.

I’m convinced that the outdoor industry, not the camera industry, is the proper marketplace. Such companies know how to produce rugged equipment that lasts, and the crossover between outdoor enthusiasts and outdoor photographers far exceeds that of any other user group, such as climbers, skiers, cyclists, or birders. Promising negotiations with The North Face to take over the line ended in a downturn of company fortunes. Marmot Mountain Works is interest, but unsure of enough demand among core customers. If you are a likely buyer, I’d love to receive a brief explanation at galen@mountainlight.com of what you’re looking for and why you can’t find it elsewhere. Until the pouches and packs are in production again, I’ll run, ski, climb, and yes, even hike, with the ancient chest pouch I guard with my life.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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