Photographers Have to Sleep Sometime

Photographers Have to Sleep Sometime

Who knows how many new videos and articles are put on the line each day talking about the gear you should own as a photographer? And, more importantly, when was the last time that you read an article about gear that promised to get you closer to the action, help make you more energetic, and it can charge all of your batteries too?It might sound like I’m talking about some newfangled device but I’m really talking about some of the options for a home away from home when you are out in the field. Some photographers spend days, weeks, or even months at a time driving, hiking, and camping to get some of the amazing shots you see today. I personally spend about two weeks on the road, nine months out of the year, shooting and hosting workshops in the southwest, northwest, and Hawaii. My time away from home has taught me some valuable lessons about the best way to live, and my favorite option might even surprise you.

Hotels and Motels

An easy option for any photographer living a semi-nomadic life is to check in to a hotel for the night. You usually get a decent bed, a warm shower, and full-on electricity. Along with those amenities, you also usually get a hefty charge on your credit card. While hotels are convenient and can offer a bit more civilized living, they can also be cost prohibitive and a bit sterile when it comes to having a feeling of connecting with nature.

Tent camping along the Payette River in Idaho preparing for the 2017 total solar eclipse to happen.

Tent Camping

When we’re talking about connecting with nature, unless you’re hopping in a sleeping bag and crashing under the stars there’s nothing that will get you closer to the ground, literally, than camping in a tent. They come in all shapes and sizes from one-person to family size, and multi-room too if you really want to go big. And, for the most part, tents are a very economical way to go too. For a few hundred dollars, if that, you can get a tent, pad, and sleeping bag.

Another nice benefit of tents are they usually pack up small so they don’t take up a lot of room in your vehicle. Unlike hotels, you can generally be very close to where you’re shooting so you can hit the trifecta of sunrise, sunset, and the Milky Way from one convenient location. While tents may sound like the perfect option there are a few downsides to consider.

First, they don’t do much to keep you warm at night. That is probably okay since your sleeping bag can handle that task. Second, they don’t have much in the way of restroom and shower facilities. If you’re staying at a park with a campground, this probably isn’t a big deal. If you’re out in the wilderness, you need to make other arrangements and come prepared. Finally, tents give you a level of privacy that you’ll appreciate, they don’t have much protection value from wildlife and crawly things in general. One other possible negative is that tents can be tricky to setup, especially the first few times. Once you see where the rods and tie-downs go, it becomes easier, but you should plan to practice at home if you go the tent route for your in-the-field accommodations.

Rooftop tents have some good advantages over a ground-based tent, just make sure you get the right one for your vehicle size and structure.

Rooftop Tents

One variation on the traditional ground-based tent is a rooftop tent. These are mounted on top of your vehicle’s roof and give you better protection from critters that might look at you as their next meal. They also elevate you off of the ground so if there is heavy rain, you will likely stay dryer and more comfortable. One word of caution on rooftop tents, however, is to ensure that it is properly installed, balanced, and loaded for your vehicle. I have personally had a bad experience with this type of tent coming unmounted while miles from paved roads and cellular phone coverage. Fortunately, I always carry a satellite communicator with me and was able to send text messages for help.

Car camping right on the desert playa while the sun makes an appearance above the escarpment of the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon.

Camping in Your Car

Like a tent, camping in your car allows you to be much closer to where you’re shooting. It may not be as spacious as a tent but a car has some distinct advantages that, for me, have it win out over pitching a tent. The first is that there is very little setup involved. Drive to where you’re going, lean the driver seat back, and snooze away. If you want to get fancier, and you have an SUV, keep the back clear enough for a pad and sleeping bag. And, if you really want to go all out, be sure to bring some fluffy pillows from home too!

That’s really your only investment with car camping so it is very affordable. Sleeping in your car can also be a bit warmer on those cold nights, especially if you don’t mind firing up the engine for a bit. You might not be popular with those around you if your motor is going all night, so be considerate. Plus, mind your fuel so that you don’t accidentally strand yourself trying to stay cozy. For me, I also like the added protection that a metal car provides over a nylon tent. I can rest easy knowing that the pack of coyotes that I imagine is stalking me can’t easily chew through aluminum.

A starry sky hangs over Monument Valley as seen from the Muley Point Overlook in Utah. The Airstream Basecamp is an easy-to-tow, very comfortable way to rough it in the wilderness.

Bringing a Trailer Along for the Ride

Perhaps the most luxurious option for being out in the field is to pull a trailer wherever you go (or drive a motor coach). They can give you the closest at-home experience with a bed, sink, microwave, running water, heater/AC, and perhaps even a bathroom/shower. Trailers typically also have some storage space which allows you to schlep even more photography gear that you won’t actually use. The nice thing about a travel trailer is that you can drop it off at a campground and still have use of a proper overland vehicle. Many times, a motor coach is just not going to have the ground clearance or maneuverability to get into some of the interesting places.

A Surprise Ending

This isn't meant to be a comprehensive list of sleeping options for out in the field, I just wanted to cover a few of the options that I have tried to make life a little more normal while traveling. As for what my favorite option is, even though I have an Airstream Basecamp that I now use regularly, I honestly prefer the flexibility and no-fuss of car camping. It is simple, safe, and reasonably comfortable. Let me know how you set up camp for the night when you are out in the field, I’m sure there are more than a few opinions on this subject.


Steve Cullen's picture

Steve Cullen is a photographer and videographer based in the Pacific Northwest. He's a professional wanderer and night sky nerd trying to capture the spirit of the places he explores through his nightscape, landscape, and aerial work.

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I am a tent camper and I recently bought a foldable cot to put in my tent. It has made a world of difference for sleeping comfort. I recently camped up in north Texas in the cold and I mostly slept through the night.

I'll second that. We bought some "comfort cots" from REI a few years back and they're night and day more comfortable than an air mattress. They take up more room than some other options but are totally worth it in my opinion.

Sleep is for the weak 3:)

I'll sleep when I'm dead ;)

These guys take it up a notch...

I did a five week photo safari to Namibia a few years ago, the last two weeks of which involved tent camping along the Skeleton Coast up to the Kunene River. I would do it all over in a heart beat.

Is that Alu-cab bolted directly onto the surface of the Jeep? Aren't those things like, a bazillion pounds?

The Alu-Cab rooftop tent is secured to crossbars on the rack. The tent itself weighs 167lbs.

Is it some sort of aftermarket rack / rail then? I ask because I zoomed in on the left side and it looks like a type of rail I've never seen before, supporting the crossbar, and it's just bolted directly to the metal surface of the car roof. So, I assume that is the point at which you "had a bad experience" lol.

I've always been curious about roof-top tents; a friend has a CVT on their CRV and it looks /significantly/ less aerodynamic than an Alu-Cab, but I know Alu-Cabs cost a fortune and all I've got is a stock Subaru with zero rails or crossbars, just the screw-holes for two cross-bars w/o any side rails.

I'll likely just get an ordinary streamlined rooftop container, and put all the ultra-lightweight stuff in it, sleeping bags and pads and stuff. That'll clean up enough space maybe to make road trips comfortable for 4 people instead of cramped for just 3 people. And we'll go on sleeping on the ground. Half the time we wind up sleeping next to a camera in the field, anyways, so I'm actually more tempted to just try out a bivy sack at this point...

It must be an aftermarket rack. There are lots of aftermarket products available in the overlanding world nowadays. It may be something from Front Runner. It looks like it's bolted into the factory roof rack mounting points. I have something similar on my Toyota 4Runner. I removed the factory installed rack completely and replaced it with a low-profile rack from BajaRack.

I have a rooftop tent from the James Baroud company. I've had it for a few years now and so far have over 100 nights in it. It's easy to setup and very comfortable. It makes a great place to grab a quick nap in the middle of the day or to get a good rest during the night. I did lose about 1.5 miles per gallon after installing it on my vehicle.

I found more info about this vehicle, its rack, and the other overlanding gear in it. Link:

The rack was a Front Runner system and it was installed at the factory mounting points. That said, it completely failed and caused the tent to end up on the roof of the Jeep. There was a lot of debate between the installer and Front Runner as to who was responsible. Front Runner said the installer used the wrong rail system and didn't load it properly, the installer said Front Runner's product was defective. Neither really wanted to fess up. In the end, the installer refunded me the money for parts and labor so that was good. I still had to send the damage to my Jeep through my own insurance. Blah. The ALU-CAB and the other items on the roof weighed nearly 300lbs (that's with no water in the tank). I will never do a RTT again, just don't trust them when I am out in some of the very remote places I go.

That's my main concern about anything being roofside, at least on my Subaru where I'm not likely to approach a roll-over angle / speed unlike in say a Rubicon or something.

On some trips I'll put 50-100+ miles on dirt roads, sometimes bad washboard, sometimes not. So I'm likely never going to put anything on top except an aerodynamic container that has just sleeping bags and pads and such.

It definitely looks to me like installer error; I don't know where the "factory mounting points" are on cars, but on mine there's actual bolt holes, and they're within the factory rail zone. Pretty hard to miss.

Stay safe out there!

Yes, it *was* an ALU-CAB on the top of the Jeep. Unfortunately, the mounting system failed and caused me to be stranded in Death Valley for 12 hours waiting for the rangers and a tow truck. Luckily, I always carry a satellite communicator with me so I was able to text my wife to arrange for help!

hey my mind jumped to this :) when I was catching up on some of my offroad youtube channels

head to about 16 min in (you might already seen this or follow him)

I almost put a front runner on my 4runner I had a gobi on my FJ that did well but no RTT

not sure if you are on the expo forum ? (expeditionportal)

I used to have one of the original conqueror conquest trailers (white ones) in the US years ago and think on those the RTT tents work but on vehicles not a fan

these days my gear is getting lighter and lighter as I downside and simplify

also like Ronny Dahl channel

Yep, and that tiny Airstream BaseCamp trailer is $40k. I'm going to have to step-up my game before I can afford one of those!

The Basecamp is an awesome trailer. Airstream has definitely had some issues with them out of the gate. I suspect they don't do any serious in-the-wild testing of their products or they would have discovered the issues before bringing them to market. The design of the venting and the refrigerator is terrible. They have had some service bulletins to try to "patch" the issue but it is still a cludge if you ask me. I also believe they have a serious issue with the door system. If the main entry door swings open too fast and hits the side of the trailer, it will shatter the front window. I had this happen to me (a strong gust of wind took the door right out of my hand) and I know of 4 or 5 other Basecamp owners who have had this happen. Airstream won't admit that it is a design flaw, and it is an expensive repair. I would still buy the Basecamp if I were doing it all over again but I'd also strongly look at the new Airstream Sport. It may not have quite the off-road capabilities of the Basecamp but I think the layout may be better. The main advantage that I see is that it has a seating area and a bed that are available all the time. With the Basecamp, the seating area doubles as the sleeping area.

I converted a small delivery van. Got a decent bed, a solar panel on the roof to recharge batteries and the ability to transport all the gear for jobs. : )
More about my van on ✌️

I have learned that if I do astro I don't bother getting up for the sunrise. I don't like feeling like zombie the rest of the day. Usually sleep in my car after shooting the stars unless I'm out backpacking then if I wake up I will shoot the sunrise then back to the tent. For this year I bought a 1 man Fly Creek HV UL tent, a new backpacking quilt, and a couple other lightweight pieces of gear so i can get out for 15-20 miles days backpacking get photos other local Seattle landscape photographers aren't willing to get. If you are willing to travel the distance with me, feel free to come along if you in the Pacific Northwest.

Thanks for the invite Randy. I am not that extreme of a hiker but I may take you up on it sometime. The allure of getting to some spots that others can't get to intrigues me. For example, I am presently about 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Canada's Northwest Territories shooting aurora. :-)