Technique, skill, creativity, and yes, gear can all affect the quality of your photographs. But there's one thing many photographers overlook when out in the field that will quickly improve your photography without costing you a dime or requiring any practice or specialized skills.
Comfort. It sounds simple, but it's easy to overlook your personal comfort when you're out on location. And when you aren't comfortable, it's difficult to keep your attention focused completely on your photography. If you're shivering from intense cold, you may struggle to operate your camera's functions and you may wind up missing shots because of camera shake. After all, if you're shaking, so is your camera.
Spring in New England can sometimes be the most difficult season in which to maintain relative comfort while shooting outdoors since it's so easy to misjudge the weather. I recently was out along the coast shooting some surfers taking advantage of a Spring swell, and when I left my house, the temperature was cool, but the wind was calm. The sky was cloudy, but it was dry. I had on a long-sleeve shirt and felt pretty comfortable as I put my gear in the car. But I knew better.
Not to be fooled, I ran back inside to stock up on some comfort items — an extra weatherproof layer, a light pair of gloves, and a baseball cap. When I arrived on location, the wind was whipping at 20-30 mph, a light rain began to fall, and the temperature was 7 degrees colder than when I left. The jacket kept me dry and warm, the gloves (with flip-back fingertips) kept my hands functioning, and the hat kept the rain off my head. Chalk one up for preparedness.
There's no substitute for being prepared, but sometimes you have to adjust on the fly as well. Here are a few tips for ways to stay comfortable when shooting outdoors:
Keep an Extra Weatherproof Layer in Your Vehicle or Even Your Bag
If you can spare the extra weight, having a water-resistant windbreaker (preferably with a hood) in your bag or car can help you stay dry and warm if windy or wet weather pops up unexpectedly. You can even use it to protect your gear in a pinch.
Always check the weather before you head to your location so you know what to expect, but bring along what you might need if the unexpected occurs. Assume that 10 percent chance of precipitation is 100 percent, you'll never get caught out in a downpour.
Use Your Surroundings to Your Advantage
While I was perched atop the 20-foot cliff overlooking the ocean to photograph the surfers the other day, my back was fully exposed to the high winds. I had a jacket to help keep me warm, but the wind was making it difficult to keep my tripod steady. Instead of trying to power through it or packing up my gear and leaving, I carefully climbed 8 feet down the side of the cliff to a solid ledge where the wind was blocked by the ground above. Earlier this year, during a stretch of frigid, windy weather, I used a building on the beach to block the wind while made some images of of sea smoke and frozen ocean. You can just as easily use trees, stone walls, hills, bushes, fences, or other obstacles to block the wind and stay comfortable.
Make Sure Your Footing Is Solid
Aside from safety concerns, such as ledges you could fall off of or that may crumble underneath you (which you should always avoid), finding good footing is imperative to making good images. If you're off-balance, your attention will be at least partially focused on maintaining your balance, rather than composing your image. It will also increase camera shake. Having a strong base is crucial to handheld photography. And if you're set up with a tripod in a spot where you'll be standing for a while, you'll want to avoid setting up on a side-hill stance, if possible. Your feet will quickly tire of adjusting for the slope. Find a flat spot, with no slope, roots, or rocks that you'll have to stand on. Soft ground is also preferable if you plan to be in one spot for a long time.
Have a Snack in Your Bag
Again, if you're thinking about your discomfort — if you're hungry or thirsty — you aren't thinking about the images you're trying to create. Keep a good snack and a bottle of water with you so you can take a quick break to eat or have a drink and then get back to shooting. I like to keep a Clif Bar or some trail mix with me, as they are lightweight yet filling snacks. A bottle of water is almost always in the side pouch of my backpack.
Keep a Hat Handy
Even if you're not someone who normally wears a hat, they're really good to have with you for many situations. A baseball cap can keep the sun out of your eyes or the rain off your head. A full-brimmed straw or mesh hat can keep you cool and keep the sun off your neck as you lean forward to put your eye to the viewfinder. A winter hat will keep your head and entire body warmer on a cold day. I rarely shoot outdoors without some type of covering for my head.
These are all pretty common sense tips to stay comfortable, but they're easily overlooked if you're in a rush or simply not thinking about them. But if you're able to keep yourself comfortable, you'll find it easier keep your focus on the images you're creating, instead of thinking about that cold wind blowing down your back.
How do you stay comfortable when you're on location? Drop a comment below and tell us how you keep your focus on your photography instead of your discomfort.