Mummy - © Keith Muscutt Photography, Work and Writings in Other Areas

Expedition Photography

The most frequently asked question when I give a talk about the Chachapoya is not about the Chachapoya; instead, it is "How did you take the pictures?"

In terms of equipment, minimum weight with maximum versatility and reliability are the major criteria for adventure photography. I have to be able to hand carry everything I need to survive in the field, as well as the photographic equipment. So everything has to fit in two duffel bags, a day pack, a fanny pack, and weight around100lbs. That effectively dictates 35mm format photography. Most pictures in this volume were shot with relatively low-tech, Nikons (FE, FE2) with interchangeable lenses. Two camera bodies are essential, partly to ensure a spare if one breaks, and also so that I can shoot important scenes with two different emulsions. Two bodies also enable me to be prepared for a range of situations I might encounter in the course of the day by having one camera loaded with a faster film than the other. When both cameras are working, I end up with more diverse material to select from; if one turns out to have malfunctioned, or if I have a spoiled roll of film (not uncommon in the tropics), I have "insurance." I prefer prime lenses to zooms for precision, but carry a zoom for the unexpected as well as to back up prime lenses if they malfunction. Zooms also incorporate useful "macro" features. I pack an assortment of lenses (27mm, 50mm, 105mm, 300mm and matched tele-extenders). For telephoto work I always want bigger, faster lenses than I can afford or would have room for. For "candids," an inconspicuous snapshot camera is a very useful addition (I rely on a trusty old Olympus XA). I also use this to take portraits which I give away on my next trip through the area.

Relatively few accessories are necessary, although the possibilities seem endless when I'm in the process of packing. I use a polarizing filter frequently, but discriminatingly, to reduce glare from the sky as well as reflections from water, polished rock and vegetation. At higher elevations I sometimes employ a UV filter. Split or graduated density filters, which reduce the brightness of the sky relative to the ground, are quite useful. Since I take a lot of telephoto shots, a very solid tripod is indispensable and accounts, to the chagrin of my companions, for almost half the total weight of my photographic equipment. I use a Bogen with a universal ball head, which doubles as a candlestick, microphone stand, and emergency tent pole. When using telephoto lenses, I fill stuff sacks with rocks and drape them over the camera and tripod to add mass and stability.

All photographic equipment is subject to horrendous abuse. In transit, I pack it in layers of clothing and shoes. I find thermal mugs very handy for protecting lenses (as well as keeping soup hot on a chilly evening). Vibration from trucks bouncing over rough roads, or the flapping saddlebags of a runaway mule, are particularly deleterious to cameras. I once had a brand new Nikon spontaneously self-destruct in a matter of days (its missing screws and springs will baffle future archeologists at Las Quinuas). I pad all camera cases and bags with closed cell foam from old sleeping pads for shock absorbtion. In the jungle, waterproof bags designed for use in whitewater rafting, are useful, but care should be taken to let equipment breathe .

In the field it is essential to have your camera available for use at a moments notice, since some of the best images are captured under unanticipated, or even emergency, conditions. It is axiomatic that the best "photo ops" will occur when you are least prepared, travel weary, and poorly motivated to raise a loaded camera to eye level. I carry a camera in a fanny pouch (which slides round to the front) and a camera vest packed with accessories (spare rolls of film, grey card, filters, flash unit, spare batteries, etc.) virtually 24hrs a day, continuously trying to anticipate what might happen next, adjusting shutter speed and aperture as environmental conditions change, and adding flash attachments as I move indoors or at dusk. On the trail, a mid-range zoom is a useful tool, but I don't delude myself that hand held shots at long focal lengths and/or slow shutter speeds will be sharp enough for publication. The tripod is always close at hand (usually dangling from a saddle horn). The Olympus XA lives in a vest pocket, ready for rapid deployment. Almost as important as the camera equipment is a microcassette recorder (an Olympus Pearlcorder) which enables me to dictate field notes, including information to identify and connect documentation to the photographs I have taken.

Film characteristics (speed, grain, color balance, susceptibility to heat, etc.) change so rapidly that whatever advice is true today is of dubious value tomorrow. The only thing that remains constant is that all commercially available emulsions intensify, and greatly exaggerate, the colorfulness of most subjects, making them more glamorous than honest. The photographs in this book were taken with various Kodak and Fuji transparency emulsions, using the slowest, finest-grained, film practical for the situation.

Many problems I encounter relate to extremes, and changes, in the climate in the Andes. Film is sensitive to heat and needs to be protected, especially after it has been exposed. Refrigeration is obviously impractical, so I use as much passive insulation as possible (e.g. storing stock and exposed film inside layers of clothing or in sleeping bags, and keeping loaded cameras away from direct sun). Conversely, when temperatures drop camera shutters may become "sticky," so it is good practice to try to keep cameras warm as well as dry and to exercise shutters between rolls.

I often descend from frigid mountain passes into warm, humid rain forest in a matter of hours. As temperature and humidity fluctuate, moisture condenses inside completely inaccessible lens elements and fogs them. This can be extremely frustrating because it is hard to avoid and impossible to rectify quickly. The best you can do is to let the temperature of the cameras continuously equalize with that of the surrounding atmosphere instead of keeping them too well insulated before suddenly exposing them to different conditions.

"Heat haze" is another persistent adversary. When I use telephoto lenses to capture images of cliff tombs, sometimes over a kilometer from my vantage point, the shimmering effect caused by dynamic changes in the atmosphere, and distortion of light passing through it, is a severe obstacle to obtaining sharp images. Similarly, wind buffeting the camera is a constant problem. The slightest breeze can blur photos taken with telephoto equipment. At some sites I have spent days waiting for atmospheric conditions to stabilize, or returned year after year, in the hope that the wind and heat haze would abate and the lighting conditions would also be ideal. Unfortunately, interesting light almost always seems to coincide with wind and heat haze. Thus, what you see in this book is the best I could achieve under trying conditions - a trade off between sharpness and documentary value.

Finally, a few miscellaneous tips. Maintain and test all equipment before going into the field, making sure that meter readings and shutter speeds are accurate and linkages with lenses are precise. A thousand dollar camera system is worthless if it is not properly calibrated and aligned. If your single lens reflex camera has a mirror lock up feature, find out if it is desirable to use it to avoid vibration caused when the mirror swings out of the light path immediately before the shutter opens. Shoot "dupes" in the camera (much cheaper and better than paying for them later), shoot both vertical and horizontal format, and bracket exposures. I usually take at least a hundred assorted 36 exposure rolls of film for each month in the field.

And remember, exposed film is irreplaceable. By the end of the trip it will be more precious to you than the equipment. Entrust exposed film to no-one, distribute it in your bags and on your person so that it can't all get lost or stolen at once, hand check it through airport X-ray security (just insist!) and don't give it all to the same lab at the same time for processing.

© Keith Muscutt 1998

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