The Outdoor Photographer’s Toolkit

I’m kneeling on a wet rock, tripod legs wedged between river rocks in the swirling current, trying to get the perfect angle.

Paul Kuthe plunges his kayak over Sunset Falls on Washington’s Lewis River. The Lewis’s steep tumble off the slopes of Mount Saint Helens makes it a perfect spot for downriver whitewater racing, through Class 4-5 rapids and over waterfalls. For the photographer, it’s difficult to shoot: it’s fast, wet and camera positions are tough.

Outdoor photography is part technical knowledge, part creative vision, and a lot of being cold, hot, thirsty, and sore while waiting for the right light and the right action. It’s hard on the joints and on the gear as well. Cameras and lenses may be solid, but if tripod joints and human joints break down, you’ll miss the shot. Here’s what lives in my camera backpack, aside from cameras, lenses, memory cards and batteries.

Microfiber Cloths and Lens Brushes

The outdoors is not the studio. Water splashes onto lenses, sea fog drops moisture, and everything gets gritty. Cleaning the lens is a constant process, and you really can’t have too many cleaning cloths stashed everywhere.

Lens Spray

This is for both cleaning glass and removing salt (I do a lot of sea kayaking photography, so salt is everywhere); as well as the occasional clumsy thumbprint.

Microfiber Towels

I bring two hyper-absorbent towels for different purposes: one to dry my wet hands, and the other to drape over camera gear if it starts to rain. When I’m traveling by boat, I’ll wrap gear in towels inside dry boxes for cushioning and in case of a leak.

Gorilla Tape

You always need it for something. Cracked tripod legs, dropped lens shades, attaching a reflector to something, or making a snoot on a flash to focus light.

Leatherman Squirt

Tripod and ballhead joints are constantly in need of tweaking. They’re subjected to much stronger forces than they are indoors. You’ll need a multitool that can tighten and loosen screws and joints, and has a good scissors for cutting tape. For me the Squirt fits the sweet spot, as well as being compact.

WD 40

A tiny can of WD40 can help loosen tripod joints that get jammed with sand, salt, and who knows whatever else.

25 Cents

Quick release plates that screw into the base of cameras and lenses always work their way loose. The best tool for tightening them? A quarter. Don’t spend it all in one place.


For protecting human joints, a cheap pair of volleyball kneepads is great for taking the pressure off when you’re kneeling on rocks or bumpy ground. They’ll wear out quickly, but they’re cheap to replace.

Fingerless Gloves and Liners

You’ll need your fingers free for adjusting camera settings. Liner goves inside of fingerless fleece gloves is the best all-weather option.

Down Mittens

Your fingers will still get cold quickly. A pair of down mittens lives in my camera pack so during breaks I can shove my hands in them to warm up. When it’s really cold I’ll stick batteries in there along with my hands, to get them warm enough to function.

A Hot Drink

If you have to wait around in the cold, you might as well enjoy a hot beverage of some kind. Bring a thermos. It adds too the weight of what may be an already heavy pack, but it’s worth it.

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