Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints


Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” Over time, the origins of that quote have become muddy. Some attribute it to the Baltimore Grotto, a caving club whose members feared their activities would mar the landscapes they so enjoyed. Whatever the origins, it has come to stand for an ethos encouraged by many outdoor organizations that promote responsible recreational uses of our outdoor spaces. One activity that does not alter the scenery is photography. All you are doing is capturing the essence of an area—the blues, greens, reds, and yellows, all of the hues with which Mother Nature paints the terrain. As long as you practice responsible hiking techniques by staying on the trail, there is almost no evidence of your having ever been there.

Sensory cues have the ability to awaken memories and the emotions associated with them. A certain smell takes you back to your mother's kitchen, eagerly awaiting pancakes on a Sunday morning, while their scent lingers in the air. The subtle warmth of a gentle southerly breeze caressing your back awakens thoughts of summer and the carefree days spent interpreting the shapes of clouds overhead. The sound of rushing water evokes the image of a small mountain stream, gently meandering through an alpine meadow. As much stimulus as our other senses provide, people tend to rely on their vision to interpret the world. It provides the most helpful information when it comes to navigating our surroundings, so it’s really no wonder we rely on it so heavily.

Photographs have the unique ability to transport you back to a moment in time. Just glancing at that still image brings forward more than just a visual depiction of a scene; it causes all of the emotions from that moment to flood back to you. You remember how happy you were, how striking everything felt, how excited your friends were. You can feel the sun beating down on you, you can smell the salt air of the ocean, and you remember how small you felt standing on that peak. Although we discuss their existence in megapixels or as a print process, there is something significantly more to a photograph that somehow makes it feel real. As the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams once said, “A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.”

Pelicans on a bait pen, San Diego, CA

Perhaps you have heard of the book, A Sand County Almanac? That volume was written by Aldo Leopold, a naturalist who was ahead of his time when it came to predicting habitat loss. In Leopold’s day, it was the axe that gave way to the plow to alter the landscape. Now it is often urban sprawl, with fields and forests giving way to parking garages and subdivisions, or the perfectly manicured lawns of a golf course. Our wild places are disappearing under the guise of “progress,” at a sometimes alarming rate. Now is the time to enjoy these rugged gems, because they may not be here for long. If no one appreciates them in their rugged beauty, no one will truly know their value. Without people who care, these places are doomed to fall victim to development. Getting out and taking some photos is the one of the best, and least invasive, ways to enjoy these places. As a bonus, you can share them with others later. And even though you may be stuck in the cube farm Monday through Friday, those pictures will remind you of the fun you had exploring the more rugged expanses.

I do not consider myself to be a photographer, but rather someone who enjoys taking pictures. I have not had any formal training; instead, what I have learned was through trial and error. In the beginning I used film, often burning through many rolls a day as I excitedly snapped away. Then came the long wait while the film was being processed, anxiously awaiting the results. The digital era rushed in, and with it my learning curve dropped off sharply. The ability to see the picture immediately showed what I was doing right—and wrong—right in the moment, so I could adjust and try again. I was able to feel my way through, first relying on the camera’s automatic setting, then working my way up to manual settings to get specific results.

I am an avid fly fisherman and a fearless wader. Unfortunately, I lack the skills to go along with that confidence. In the process of going over the tops of my waders, I have destroyed a number of cameras. Luckily, today’s series of ruggedized cameras can withstand such mishaps that often occur in the out-of-doors. These models are small, unobtrusive, and only add mere ounces to your pack. Most are water resistant, with many models being waterproof to several feet. Many are shock resistant, and can handle freezing temperatures for your sojourns in the snow. The Olympus Stylus TOUGH TG-4 Digital Camera has recently become my go-to for time in the outdoors. It is waterproof to 50', works down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and can survive a 7' drop. It also features GPS and an electronic compass to add to the outdoor tool kit. Built-in Wi-Fi lets you use your smartphone as a remote with a live view screen showing you exactly what the camera is seeing in real time. There is even a microscope mode that you can use to focus on objects as close as one centimeter away, perfect for flowers and insects!

Salmon boat, Prince William Sound, AK

For those who are already on the DSLR bandwagon, there are many options to weatherproof your favorite model for use out in the field. These range from foam-filled cases that will float if dropped overboard to housings designed to be taken down to Davy Jones’ locker to capture images of aquatic life. I keep my DSLR, extra lens, filters and charger in a Pelican 1450 Case for both for travel and storage. This rugged enclosure soaks up the bumps and bruises that the bed of my pickup and the deck of my boat dish out. This box is always with me when I am out on the water, and fends off salt spray and the occasional rogue wave with no ill effects, while keeping my camera handy for those once-in-a-lifetime shots. A desiccant packet ensures that any moisture that may be on the camera when I put it away is safely absorbed.

Such a case is not really practical out on the trail, however. No one wants to carry that much additional extra weight if they can avoid it. Fortunately, the B&H inventory includes a number of waterproof enclosures that are compact enough to be stuffed in a daypack. Models like the DiCAPac WP-S10 Waterproof Case are small and lightweight but still provide all the protection you need in the event of a downpour. In fact, this case is rated to be waterproof to a depth of five meters, so you can be confident it will fend off plenty of rain, or a splash from an errant wave. It has a comfortable strap so you won’t get fatigued as it hangs on your neck all day.

Black-Legged Kittiwake Colony, Shoup Bay, Prince William Sound, AK

A small tripod is an invaluable addition to your kit. It permits longer exposures than could be accomplished holding the camera by hand, which is useful when photographing moving water. By mounting your camera on a tripod, you can easily include all of the members in your party using the camera’s self-timing feature or a remote release. Many point-and-shoot models now feature star modes and, to get the most out of these, using a tripod is paramount. The Benro A1192TB0 Travel Flat II Transfunctional Tripod Kit with Ball Head is an extremely versatile choice. With an innovative design, this tripod folds flat for storage to minimize its footprint in your bag. One of the legs detaches from the unit and combines with the ball head to create a handy monopod. The Travel Flat II also has screw-in spikes for additional traction on rough ground.

Another element to take into consideration is wind. A steady breeze can make it difficult to get a good shot, or can topple your tripod altogether. The simplest solution is to add weight to your tripod. Of course, when you’re out on the trail, ounces matter. Luckily for us, there is a workaround. A device like the Oben Tripod Hammock lets you use scavenged materials to provide additional weight when you need it. Simply attach it to your tripod and place a few rocks to get the steadiness you need for that great shot.

American Alligator, Everglades National Park, FL

You may already have a backpack that you love. If that’s the case, there are many inserts available that will cushion your equipment while in your pack. The Mountainsmith Kit Cube Micro is an excellent choice for those with a mirrorless system or a smaller DSLR. The cube features a couple of dividers and has a roll-top closure that is extremely water resistant. If you want to take more on the trail with you, like a full-size DSLR with multiple lenses and a flash, then you should consider the Mountainsmith Kit Cube Bag. It has all of the great features of the Micro, but in a larger size. And both are covered by Mountainsmith’s limited lifetime warranty, so you are covered against defects.

Backpack selection can be a very personal choice. A number of factors must be considered when deciding which bag is right for you. One of the most important considerations is how easy it is to access your camera. This is where models that were designed for photography excel. The Clik Elite ProBody Sport Backpack has a complete harness system, like you would see on a technical daypack. It has a wide hip belt to help distribute the load and minimize sway, and provides quick access to your camera through a side panel. A rain cover is attached to keep your gear dry in the event of a storm. For those who want to take more gear, try the Vanguard Sedona Backpack series. There are a few different models in various sizes, so you can choose the one that is right for you.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Those great words are from Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, which arguably launched the environmental movement when it was released in 1962. Through the power of photography you can find that strength every time you walk past that frame in the living room, or log on to your desktop. A picture of a sea lion colony that I took in Alaska meets my gaze first thing every morning, and my day is so much better for it. So grab your gear and head out on the trail. Your next great picture is waiting for you out there.