Staying warm or dry can be a challenge for photographers that spent most of their taking photos outdoors. For those shooting in studios or doing weddings it is much simpler, you just have to look professional and be comfortable for those long sessions.
You can have the best photography equipment and eye for composition in the world, but I staunchly believe you can’t become a pro-level nature photographer if you don’t have the right clothing and accessories. If you’re not comfortable, you’ll lose motivation to leave the selfie-obsessed crowds behind and reach the lesser-visited vistas and wildlife hotspots. If you don’t make it safely back to your digital studio, nobody’s going to know that you got a non-blurry shot of a wolverine, or photographic proof of Sasquatch that doesn’t require the notorious “look here” red circle.
Nature and wildlife photographers have to pack for long flights, overland travel, and treacherous terrain. Everything you bring with you has to count. So I will devote this chapter to those intrepid souls who shoot outdoors, such as nature, landscape, and adventure sports.
Nature photography clothing: What to look for
Most outdoor photographers picked up their hobby after earning experience on the trails, so I’ll skip the basics of layering, durability, and weather-resistance. You already know how important these are for a successful expedition, whether it’s an afternoon in a county park or a month-long photo safari on the Serengeti. Here’s how to fine-tune your outdoor photography wardrobe.
You don’t have to wear a ghillie suit or dress head-to-toe in camouflage to conceal yourself from shy wildlife species. Earth-toned outdoor clothing and packs work just fine in any season. Black clothes stand out more than you’d think, and some wildlife can see bright colors better than you’d expect.
Black and white starkly contrast with your surroundings, and even if you’re in an arctic setting it’s best to mimic dormant vegetation or exposed ground rather than snow or even basalt outcroppings.
Full range of motion
You’ll be climbing, squatting, kneeling, and shifting position, and (trust me) you don’t want your clothing to give you a wedgie or your pants to ride up or chafe. Look for articulated and reinforced knee and elbows, and extra panels in the crotch.
Lots of pockets
Avoid fumbling around in your camera pack for the little things. Stash memory cards, your favorite filters, lens cloths, and batteries in your pockets, and stay consistent with your on-body storage arrangement. Opt for men’s convertible pants with side pockets, as you’re less likely to crush them when you’re sitting.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not a huge fan of photography vests. While they’re great for fudging airline carry-on restrictions, they’re awkward and noisy in the wild. On the other hand, you might want to try a high-quality fly fishing vest if you’re not lugging along a ton of lenses and extra camera bodies. Be sure to pad your equipment (I like neoprene drawstring pouches) as you would with any dedicated photo vest and don’t bring any lenses bigger than a pan-sized brook trout.
From your outer shell down to your snake gaiters, you’ve got to eliminate what I call the “zook zooks”—the sounds your clothing makes when subjected to friction, wind, and motion. Soft textures make less of a racket, and modern all-weather layers no longer have to sound like cheap plastic tarps.
All outdoor enthusiasts know that moisture-wicking, breathable fabrics protect against hypothermia and chafing, but most outdoor adventurers don’t spend much time lurking in wet grass or lying still for hours on the cold, hard ground. Water-repelling outer layers year-round, mid-layers that insulate when compressed, and wicking layers that keep you cool and dry as you wait along a game trail under the summer sun as much as they do while you’re snowshoeing after Canadian lynx.
I’m a huge fan of the Merino wool base and mid-layers. It’s lightweight, keeps you warm when it’s wet, and doesn’t retain odors the way many fleece materials do.
Visibility when it counts
Neutral-colored clothing and photography gear will prevent flighty wildlife from spotting you, but it’s not exactly ideal if you’ve triggered your rescue beacon or you’re out photographing the elk rut at the height of hunting season. I’m partial to safety orange vests used on construction sites and road crews—those with a ton of reflective details—but in a pinch, you can pick up a plain ol’ safety vest at most sporting goods stores.
Sun-safe clothing (breathable shirts with UPF and DWR)
It’s important to keep up with sunscreen discipline, but you’ve got another weapon against skin damage. Take advantage of long-sleeved shirts, pants, and neck gaiters made with UV-blocking fabric technology. Choose clothing rated with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of at least 25.
Gear notes from an outdoor photography veteran
I’ve learned the following from a ton of old-school photographers and backcountry guides, whether I joined them on expeditions or field-tested their advice from nature photography magazines.
“Chase the light” also means “streamline your sh*t”.
The outdoor photographer’s motto has more than one meaning. Ever hike 15 miles with an overloaded camera pack, only to be so tired and burned out you start to think game farm photography is your new jam? Lighten up with multi-purpose gear and accessories.
Choose wading and walking staffs with camera attachments. Even if you have a lightweight tripod, a convertible monopod is easier to deploy for those spontaneous shots.
Ponchos or spare clothing in stuff sacks will stabilize your camera if you’re lying prone. A poncho and walking staff can make an impromptu shelter or blind; the latter will help break up your silhouette.
Hang a full, reusable water bottle (also taped, if it’s metallic) from your tripod’s center post to add stability by lowering its center of gravity.
Pick up a pair of hybrid mitten/gloves. These are fingerless with a half-mitten that flips over your fingertips—fantastic for winter photography trips when you need dexterity in a flash, but ultimate warmth during the wait. Most hunting outfitters sell them; I prefer camo for these accessories because I’m convinced they make hand movement less noticeable.
Glare is a giveaway
Shine belongs in your belly when you get back to camp—not on your equipment.
Neutral-colored (or, better yet, camo-patterned) tape wrapped on your tripod legs and center post reduces metallic glare—something to which birds are especially sensitive. It also tones down the silhouette; there are very few straight lines in nature.
Don’t forget to swap out those aviator sunglasses for non-reflective frames and lenses. I’d go into my story about how those little bridge pads always get tangled in my hair at the wrong moment, but I’ll give you the summary: It involves a lot of bad language, a little pain, and once (and only once) missing the moment: That time when an elk calf stood nose-to-nose with its mom in a field of bright orange hawkweed.
Tone down the noise
Every nature, landscape, and outdoor photographer has their own checklist of lenses, camera bodies, lighting, and accessories. I call mine my “battle rattle,” a term I borrowed from my military buddy, but the actual rattle is something you want to avoid. You’ve already picked up quiet outdoor clothing, but be sure your gear doesn’t give you away as you head down the trail.
Except if you’re in bear country. If you surprise a bear, you’ll have a very bad day.
Replace metal zipper pulls (KÜHL Radikl pants, for example, have a cell-phone pocket without zipper) with ribbon or cord loops; stuff extra space with soft, lightweight padding (here’s where extra socks, blankets, and gloves play double-duty); and repack snacks and beverages in crinkle-free containers. Speaking of beverages, if you don’t have a bladder-style hydration system (which I highly recommend) always combine partially-full water bottles to eliminate sloshing.
Quality outdoor clothing is important to outdoor photographers
There’s a bonus when well-made, durable items hold up over time: You can create an outfit that lets you grab that accessory relying on habit and muscle memory without performing the Maracrena pat-down. Nature photographers have to adapt to spontaneity, but a routine and consistent packing list keep you ready for anything, at any moment. We consider it as much a part of our technique as choosing the right camera settings and composition.
Handling Cold Climates
When it comes to being able to withstand cold temperatures the right materials and the way you layer are crucial to comfort. Keep in mind that clothing isn’t the only thing to consider in cold climates.
6. The Base Layer
The purpose of this innermost layer (underwear layer) is to wick away moisture from the body. As it is the closest layer to your body it should have a snug fit in to do its job well. When shopping for top and bottom base layers, opt for synthetic fabrics or merino wool.
If you choose the wrong material, such as cotton, you could end up in a dangerous situation.
Cotton is not recommended, as it is terrible at wicking away moisture from the body. In extreme situations it could lead to hypothermia.
Base layers come in different thicknesses such as lightweight, mid-weight, and heavyweight. Lightweight base layers are best for moderate temperatures.
A base layer can be briefs, sports bras, long underwear tops and bottoms, tights and T-shirts. It’s up to you if you like it to fit snugly or loosely.
For very cold temperatures, thermal underwear is available in light-, mid- and expedition-weights. Choose the weight that best matches your activity and the temperature.
Mid-weight base layers are good for cold temperatures. And heavyweight base layers are ideal for below freezing temperatures. The type of base layer you choose will be dependent on where you are shooting. In freezing temperatures you should wear an ultra-lightweight base layer, followed by a mid-weight base layer.
5. The Middle Layer
The purpose of the upper middle layer (insulating layer) is to help your body retain heat. This piece generally consists of either a fleece, down or synthetic insulated jacket. And, of course, each option has its pros and cons. If you opt for a fleece, keep in mind a wind-resistant outer layer will be necessary—as fleece tends to breathe well.
While this feature helps to keep you from overheating, and thus drier, it does not retain heat as well as a down or synthetic insulated jacket. Despite the fact that down offers the best option for warmth, it loses that feature when it becomes damp. It can be great for situations where you will be sitting for long periods of time waiting for wildlife. Synthetics might not be able to compete with down’s ability to retain heat. But they do offer better heat retention when they become damp.
Again it all depends on the situation. You may have noticed when you wash a fleece, it tends to come out of the washing machine dry. If you need to exert a lot of energy to get to your shooting location, you might want to consider how much you sweat. For those who sweat a lot, and plan to exert a lot of energy, a fleece might be the right fit.
Fleece is usually the best insulating layer because it stays warm even if gets damp, and it dries fast. Fleece also breathes well, so you’re less likely to overheat in it.
The breathability of fleece is great, but the downside is the wind blows right through and takes away the warmth. That’s why you need to have a shell layer with you if you’re going with a fleece middle layer.
MID-LAYER TOPS: Fleece jackets, pullovers, or vests will keep you warm when it’s wet and wick moisture away from your skin and base layers. Add a soft-shell jacket or a down or synthetic fill vest for a bit more warmth. MID-LAYER BOTTOMS: Fleece pants are breathable and form-fitting. They are water and wind resistant but not waterproof or windproof. The main function of the soft shell layer is breathability. Add soft-shell pants for a bit more warmth.
4. The Outer Layer
This layer (shell layer) is the last barrier between you and the elements. The outer layer keeps the rain and wind at bay. As someone who spends a lot of time outdoors, it really doesn’t make much sense to have anything but the best materials.
Most allow at least some perspiration to escape; virtually all are treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish to make water bead up and roll off the fabric.
An outer shell is an important piece in bad weather, because if wind and water are allowed to penetrate to your inner layers, you begin to feel cold. Furthermore, without proper ventilation, perspiration can’t evaporate but instead condenses on the inside of your shell. Fit is another consideration.
Waterproof rather than water-resistant materials are preferred, and windproof instead of wind-resistant. Anything labeled waterproof will also likely be windproof. Keep in mind the outer layer should also be breathable. When it comes to rainwear, shells are available in 2, 2.5, and 3-layer designs. And once again there are trade-offs to each. The 3-layer design is the most durable and breathable—albeit the most expensive. But, it is not as quiet as the 2-layer shell, which we know is quite important in wildlife photography.
Your shell layer should be roomy enough to fit easily over other layers and not restrict your movement.
WATERPROOF/BREATHABLE SHELL: The rain pant helps shield you from high winds and sustained rainfall, and traps the heat held by your mid-layer garments. Look for waterproof, breathable shell jackets with an integrated adjustable hood and at least two exterior pockets to stash hats and gloves. Find waterproof, breathable shell pants that have zips at the bottom of the leg so you can put them on or take them off without having to take off your boots.
WATER RESISTANT/BREATHABLE SHELL: The water resistant, breathable jackets and pants are best for light precipitation and high activity levels. They’re usually made of tightly woven fabrics (such as mini-ripstop nylon) to block wind and light rain.
SOFT SHELL: Soft shell jackets and pants emphasize breathability. Most feature stretch fabric or fabric panels for added comfort during aerobic activities. Many offer both shell and insulative properties, so they in effect combine 2 layers into 1. Soft shells include cold- and mild-weather options.
INSULATED SHELL: Insulated jackets and pants offer the best protection for extreme cold. Some outer shells have a layer of insulation built in—such as fleece—making them convenient for cold, wet conditions, but not as versatile for layering in fluctuating temperatures.
The insulated jackets at Columbia are amazing! The TurboDown and OmniHeat products really do keep you warm. And that’s saying something from someone who gets cold so fast. Columbia is my go-to jacket every time!
When you’re taking a break during a winter hike and have stopped moving, it’s best to pull a big puffy insulated jacket out of your backpack and wear it over your other clothes to stay warm.
3. Hands and Feet
Keeping your hands and feet warm can be tricky, especially when sitting for long periods of time.
For extreme temperatures, mittens are your best bet for keeping your fingers warm. Opt for mitts that zipper open at the knuckles, and wear a thin fleece glove beneath for operating your camera.
If you do this and still have a difficult time keeping your extremities warm, you might want to consider chemical hand warmers. These pouches provide lasting warmth when exposed to air, and can also be added to your boots.
Mitts provide more warmth that gloves, but gloves allow individual finger movement. If it’s extremely cold, use an insulating glove inside a waterproof shell mitt to provide dexterity and warmth.
Soft-shell gloves are lighter weight and best used when body movement will heat up your hands and keep them warmer.
Fleece and leather gloves are not recommended for outdoor hiking or photography in the winter.
SPECIAL PHOTOGRAPHY GLOVES: When you operate a camera in cold weather, you quickly realize that fingers are very vulnerable to the cold, and it’s hard to control settings on a camera while wearing heavy gloves.
Special photographers’ gloves provide protection while being thin enough to allow you to operate your camera. Some have fingertip covers that can be opened briefly to allow you to open the battery-compartment door, change memory cards or make camera settings, then resealed to continue providing warmth. Dave finds it hard to operate the camera buttons when using the new touch screen gloves with the rubberized pads at the ends of the fingers.
The topic of warm socks is really a matter of personal preference.
The important thing with socks is to make sure that there is plenty of space in your boots to wiggle your toes around as this increases blood circulation and foot warmth.
Things to consider with socks:
Not all socks are created equal. Find the socks that best meet your needs and personal preference to minimize the stress on your feet. Merino wool material is not the scratchy material you typically think when you hear the word wool. Merino wool is made of fine, itch-free fibers that are temperature-regulating, so your feet stay comfortable in a wide range of temperatures. Wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water, which helps feet stay dry in most conditions.
When it comes to keeping your feet warm, consider footwear that goes well above the ankles and is waterproof. Wearing a thin wool sock beneath a thicker wool sock will provide you with the most warmth. Again opt for wool as it has the best wicking properties. If you’ll be encountering more than a few inches of snow, waterproof gaiters are a must. But gaiters can also help protect your feet against downpours.
They come in a variety of sizes, such as: over-the-ankle, mid-calf, and knee. It all depends on how much protection you need. And lastly, microspikes are one of my favorite winter accessories. They allow me to glide effortlessly over icy, uphill terrain. They are lightweight and are very easy to attach to the bottom of your boots.
Insulated winter boots should be rated for 20 below zero Fahrenheit or colder. Single layer insulated boots with the equivalent of 400 grams of Thinsulate insulation or the equivalent are recommended.
Be sure to size your boot by wearing a thicker sock or sock liner to make sure blood circulation isn’t compromised.
Some winter conditions won’t be so extreme in temperature, and waterproof boots will suffice. We always recommend the waterproof boots for all hiking needs that don’t require additional insulation for extreme winter temperatures.
2. Head and Neck
We all know that most of our body heat escapes from our head. As such, I generally recommend wearing a knit hat, balaclava, neck gaiter, and sunglasses in extreme temperatures. Mix and match to see what works well for you.
Select a winter hat based on the temperature and length of any hiking you may do.
A lightweight wool or synthetic hat is best for warmer days or if the hike will require high exertion.
A warmer, heavier weight hat is best for later in the day or if temperatures are very low.
I find that hats don’t always stay over my ears, especially if I have my hair in a pony tail. I like to wear a Buff headband under my warmer hat. This way, my ears and the top of my head stay warm, even if the hat rises over my ears.
1. Keep Your Gear Lightweight to Stay Cool
Staying Safe in Warm Climates
Keeping comfortable while shooting in warm temperatures can be as tricky as staying warm in cold temperatures. While one could argue that it is easier, there does come a point at which we can’t remove any more layers! Therefore, picking the right materials is also important in warm climates.
5. Base Layer
As mentioned earlier, cotton is excellent at soaking up moisture, is slow to dry, and will keep you cool. However, all of that sweat won’t keep you very comfortable.
Synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester are definitely the way to go even in warm climates. Opt for clothing that features mesh pits and pockets, which will help keep the air circulating. Having zippered waist and knee pockets can be helpful for miscellaneous items such as lens caps and cloths. Many nylon pants now come with the option to turn pants into shorts via zippers.
4. UV/Insect Protection
Long-sleeve shirts and pants might not seem ideal in hot weather, but they add a layer of protection from injuries, sunburn and insect bites. They also help you blend into your surroundings better. Outdoor clothes are available with built-in UV and insect protection. This is ideal if you are spending long periods of time in the wilderness.
The use sunscreen can be problematic, since it can transfer onto the front elements of your valuable lenses.
It is preferred to where lightweight, UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) materials that breathe. If I do wear sunscreen, do so only on the sides of my face and ears.
Where polarized sunglasses and a lightweight, mesh cap. If you will be shooting in an area with lots of insects you may want to consider investing in an insect net hat.
3. Quick Dry Towel
Carrying a quick dry towel can be super useful for hot days. Let’s face it perspiration and electronics don’t mix. A quick dry towel is also great to have after drying off from a much-needed dip in a river or lake.
In hotter climates, it can be tempting to wear improper footwear to keep your feet cool. No one likes hot, sweaty feet. Wool socks might seem counter-intuitive, but remember wool wicks away moisture and keeps your feet dry. Always opt for sturdy shoes with a good amount of grip. And regardless of whether you are in a cold or warm climate be sure to break them in before heading out to avoid blisters.
1. Keep Weather Fluctuations in Mind When Packing
Certain regions can have four seasons in a single day, while other regions such as deserts can have major shifts in day and night temperatures. It’s important to be aware and prepared for these sorts of things. Look into the possibilities and pack accordingly.
How Clothing Color Can Help You Get Better Images and Stay Safe
The colors you choose to wear can impact your chances of creating great images. White clothing is great for snow-covered landscapes. And neutral colored clothing is ideal for the other seasons.
While it might seem like common sense to dress according to the environment in which you are shooting, there are some other things to also consider.
2. Hunting Seasons
Be aware of the different times of the year when hunters about. If you must go into areas where hunting takes place, please do so in bright colors to identify you to hunters. While wildlife will no doubt see you, it’s better to be on the safe side during this season.
1. Camera Camo
While you might be well camouflaged, your camera bag and equipment might not be. For an added layer of disguise, consider dressing your camera and its bag in its own camouflage gear.
It might seem excessive, but those that photograph birds will understand. Birds have excellent eyesight, particularly when it comes to colors. The slightest reflection or color from the camera body will give away your position. Covers for camera bodies, lenses, and bags are available at most large camera shops and online.
You don’t need to spend much time photographing nature or wildlife before you’ll come across a situation where it would be extremely helpful to have waders. Much landscape photography involves water, and there will certainly be times when it would be helpful to be able to wade in the water, even when it is cold. Waders can also come in handy in mud and other conditions where you want or need to protect your clothes.
Neoprene waders are generally the best option because it’s easier to move in neoprene as compared to rubber. You can get chest waders that will give you a lot of protection, or the ones that will just cover your legs.
Much landscape photography is done around the time of sunrise and sunset. That often requires hiking before sunrise or after sunset to reach your destination or to return to your vehicle. A flashlight is a must-have, but a headlamp can prove to be an even better option. With a headlamp, you can keep your hands free.
Sometimes a photographer’s vest can be as helpful as a bag or backpack for carrying your gear. Bags and backpacks are better for large lenses and other big items, but vests are great for carrying filters and other small accessories. You may find that a vest is a nice supplement to your bag/backpack, or that it can carry everything you need.
Knee Pads or Kneeling Pads
I like to get low to do a lot of my shooting, so this means getting down on my knees. After a while your knees will get sore. If yo are going to remain in one place then a kneeling pad like the
Proaim kneeling pad makes sense, if you are however going to be moving around quite a bit then knee pads are a better choice. The kee pads shown below are the 24/7 comfort-Tuff knee pads. They are quite expensive, but they do look comfortable. I spent less than $10.00 on my and are from Harbor Freight.
Light weight Water-proof tarp
While this item is not something you wear it will keep not only you but your gear dry if the ground is damp. I bought several of them from Walmart and I keep them in all of my bags that I use for outdoor photography. It is 6×8 fet and costs just $5.00. It also makes it easier to keep track of your smaller items, especially if you are a bit clumsy. A good one is made from nylon ripstop.
These silver mylar blankets are extremely lightweight and they really work at keeping you warm, they can also be used to protect you from a very hot sun. They cost under $3.00, so it makes no sense to bring one.
Biting insects can be a game changer, why not be comfortable, deet really does work.
What is DEET insect repellent?
DEET (diethyltoluamide) is a commonly used broad-spectrum ingredient that is effective against mosquitoes, biting flies, fleas and ticks. In most situations, an insect repellent with up to 10 per cent DEET will prevent mosquito bites.
They pack nice and small and can really come in handy, if you are toting a backpack, get one that is made for them. If none are available, just buy the largest poncho you can find and it will cover all but the largest backpacks. They come in all price points, but they all will keep you dry and because they are water proof they are also wind proof as well so they can double as a wind breaker.
Wildlife and nature photographers are vulnerable to many variables. Thus making the right clothing choices is of paramount importance to your success. Whilst outdoors, it is best to prepare for the worst. At the end of the day, fancy camera bodies and lenses mean nothing if you can’t withstand the elements because of poor clothing choices.
expertphotography.com, “How to Dress Properly for Wildlife and Nature Photography.” By Joanna Lentini; photojeepers.com, “Winter Clothing Guide for Outdoor Travel and Photography.”; kuhl.com, “A GUIDE TO NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY CLOTHING & PERSONAL GEAR.” By Kuhl Editor;