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How to take Photographs from a Camel, and other Desert Expedition Tips
Introduction - I am a big fan of camels, and especially enjoy camel expeditions through the desert. The gentle plodding of a camel over the sand dunes, the chance to watch the ever-changing light and color, the skill of learning the tricks of desert survival from the locals, and the amazing inky blackness of a desert night with its many millions of stars: these all make travel in the desert a very special experience. As a travel photographer, I like to capture images of the things I see, but photography in the desert, and especially from the back of a camel is not as straightforward as it seems, so I thought it would be useful to share a few camel photography tips for any other photographer planning to journey by camel, whether for a short day ride or for longer desert expeditions.
Preparing to Ride and Photograph from a Camel - When preparing for a long ride by camel, it is important that you have all items necessary for the day within easy reach. Suitable head covering is very important, as the desert sun can be most unforgiving and punishing. Sunstroke is very easy to get, and its effects are most debilitating. A large broad-brimmed hat is best, which should have a chin strap to stop it blowing off in the wind. Some hats designed for desert travel include a flap of material that covers the back of the neck - an area that is very susceptible to damage from the sun. The locals will usually wear some form of headscarf - its exact style and method of fastening will vary from region to region, and your guide will be very pleased to show you how to tie it. You will certainly need a water-bottle - this should be easy to open and drink from using one hand if possible, and easy to extract and replace in its storage position whilst moving. Many people prefer to use the aptly named 'Camel Back' water system, where a short tube is used to drink form whilst the main storage pouch stays in your day pack or harness.
Packing - Belongings should be split between your main bag, which will not be easily accessible during the day, and a smaller daypack which contains items needed throughout the journey. Specialised camel saddlebags are best suited for packing your equipment, though a soft kit bag or holdall will do as well. Your camel guide will be well used to roping all manner of items to the various mounting points on the average camel saddle. He may also provide a smaller saddle bag for your daypack, and will advise whether it is suitable to wear a day pack whilst travelling. It is usually possible to keep a daypack fixed to a mounting point or pommel on the saddle, though care must be taken that it does not get in the way, or fall off when trotting or galloping.
Camera Protection in the Desert - It should go without saying that the number one enemy of the camera when in the desert is sand, which comes in many shapes and sizes, and can easily ingress and damage camera equipment. You should be specially careful whe photographing from the tops of dunes, as the upcurrent of air keeps a continual cloud of tiny sand particles in the air. All cameras and lenses should be stored in padded sand-proof camera bags - I use LowePro, but there are many others manufacuters of similar quality. As additional protection, especially for items in reserve or that won't be used so frequently, it is sensible to place items inside an additional ziplock bag inside the case, as even the most expensive zippers will allow dust to pass through at times. Every evening, you should knock all dust and sand from camera bags: some will always have crept in! It is very useful to carry a small makeup-brush to clean the dust off your camera body and lens exteriors, but on no account use the same brush to clean the glass surface of the lens as well, as this can easily lead to scratching or the transfer of small amounts of oil and grease.
Point and Shoot Cameras in the Desert - Over the years that I have been travelling in desert regions around the world, I have seen many cameras succumb to dust and sand damage. This is especially a problem for the 'point and shoot' camera types which automatically extend their lens barrel when the camera is switched on. Dust and sand will lodge in the tiny cracks between the lens barrel sections and stop them from further movement. The small motors will keep trying to extend the lens to its normal operating position, unaware that this is no longer possible. This force will soon strip the tiny plastic gear wheels and render the camera as only suitable for the trash can. If this happens to you, and you find that the lens barrels jam and do not extend correctly, it is reccommended that you should switch the camera off immediately, remove the battery, and get the camera cleaned in the next big city camera store. On no account should you keep switching the camera on and off: such actions are unlikely to clear the dust and will generally make matters worse. DSLR cameras do not suffer from this problem, though can still be damaged in other ways from dust and fine sand.
Safe Camera Use from your Camel - As with all forms of animal transport, it is necessary to be in control of your camel at all times. If you wish to safely use your camera whilst riding, you must anticipate and prepare for the typical movements you will make when extracting the camera from its case, adjusting the settings, and taking the shot. I would recommend a camera bag fixed to a strap that is long enough to pass over your head and one shoulder before hanging down in a comfortable position just above the waist. A top-loading bag is best, as it will securely hold the camera even when the cover is unzipped. The zipper or cover fastening mechanism should be easy to operate, with one hand. Lens caps are a special problem when trying to use a camera with one hand, and are all too easy to let go of and drop to the ground. The smaller 'point and shoot' cameras will often have an integral lens cover that is opened automatically, but on the larger SLR cameras this will be separate from the lens and it is only too easy to drop. You can purchase an adhesive button that attaches the lens cap with a short cord to the body of the lens or camera, and these are useful if you prefer to use your camera with a permanent neck strap. I like to keep my camera in a neck or shoulder bag whenever I am not using it, so dispense with the lens cap altogether and keep a soft cloth at the bottom of my camera bag to stop the lens glass from scratching on the bottom of the camera bag. It is obviously important that you do not drop your camera at any time, even when your camel makes a sudden movement, or unexpectably breaks into a gallop or canter. Even if you keep your camera in a waist pouch or shoulder bag, you can also keep the camera on a long strap around your neck. An alternative is to fasten your camera to its bag with a strong lanyard, that should be thin enough not to impede normal camera use but strong enough not to snap no matter what force is applied. Parachute cord, obtainable from most outdoor shops, is ideal for this.
Mounting and dismounting - The most surprising aspect of camel riding to the newcomer is the way that the camel stands up and sits down. The height of a camel means that it is impossible to mount a camel whilst it is standing, and so therefore it must be encouraged to sit down. A gentle downward tug on the reins is generally sufficient to persuade the camel to assume its sitting position, which its does by folding first its front legs, and then its rear legs under its body. For the passenger already sitting on a camel this can be a surprising manoeuver, and unless you are holding tight to the saddle, you will feel that you will be catapulted over the camel's head and on to the ground. If you can remember in time, you should lean back to counteract this movement. It is very easy to drop belongings, especially cameras, at this point, so the photographer should be sure to take a tight grip of his camera before the camel is induced to sit. Better still would be to return the camera to its bag, and fasten the zipper securely. The best advice to someone getting on to a camel for the first time is to make sure your camera is securely fastened to you by strap or bag, and then to hang on tightly when the handler persuades the camel to rise. A camel does this by extending its front legs first, so you should lean forward. Do not be the first of your group to get on a camel, and watch what happens to others so that you can prepare yourself for when it is your turn.
Types of camel saddle - Depending on the part of the world you are travelling to, you will encounter a variety of different types of camel saddles. They may be made of wood or metal, may have frames and a variety of padding, and can be of simple, traditional or complex construction. There are even saddles for two people. Some camel saddles have a pommel, which can be very useful to hold on to when the camel is galloping or trotting, and provides a useful point to hang a camera bag or daypack on to as well. Its also a handy place to hang your whip whilst you are taking photos with camera in the right hand and reins in the left. You can see a variety of camel saddles at the camelphotos.com website, plus many more tips on camel handling.
Comfortable riding positions - The camel has a very broad body, much wider than the average horse, and so if sitting astride a camel all day this can be very painful on the inner thigh muscles. The best way to sit on a camel is to watch the way that your guide sits on the particular type of saddle in use. Generally he will move into different positions throughout the day, sitting astride, or side-saddle, or with legs crossed over the saddle pommel as the fancy takes him. Extra padding is always welcome, so you may wish to bring an extra wool or fleece blanket to sit on. It will be useful at night, too. It is surprising how cold a desert can be after the sun has gone down.
Camel control - The photographer will find that it is much easier to take photographs from a camel than from a horse. When walking, the camel's gait is slow and measured, with a minimum of bounce. The camel is much less likely to shy or jibe suddenly at objects than a horse will, so it is not as necessary to keep as close a watch whilst holding the camera. It is important to note, however, that the reins do not exert such immediate control as a horses' reins, and so care must be taken that the camel does not start to deviate from the current path without check. The camel's reins are fastened to a single tether point in one nostril, and so the degree of control that a horse rider is used to will not be available. Changes in direction are signalled by moving the reins to the left or right, and require a greater arm-movement than for a horse. This is something that the photographer will have to get used to. It is important not to let the reins get too slack, as the camel will interpret this as either a signal that you wish to stop, or a signal that you are not as tightly in control as is necessary. Camels are very intelligent animals, and will quickly take advantage of any lack of control. They may suddenly jerk their heads to snatch and nibble at a passing branch or bush. If the photographer is using his camera at that moment, he may be startled into dropping it, so should always be aware of the tendencies of his particular camel in this regard, and pay special attention when travelling through an area containing vegetation that a camel is fond of. When riding an unknown camel for the first time, assume that the worst actions are likely to happen!
Shooting Photos on the Move - A camel's reins are usually attached to the right hand side of a camel's face, and so it is usual to hold the reins in the right hand when riding. This is not convenient for the photographer, as most cameras are designed to be operated with the right hand as well, and cannot be properly used with the left. It is therefore necessary to transfer the reins to the left hand when you wish to use your camera, but as mentioned above, care must be taken not to let the reins get too slack. A jerk on the reins may also be interpreted by the camel as a command to change direction, which can be disconcerting to the photographer who has already started to shoot photos. As with any types of animals, do not divert your full attention to your camera, and always keep a watchful eye on the animal. Experience takes some time to acquire, and an appreciation of how your particular animal will react to a variety of events and movements is very important. Some camels may need a short whip or crop to encourage them to progress. Your guide or camel master will tell you if this is the case. The whip is usually held in the left hand, and will have a short wrist loop so that it won't be dropped to the ground. When using a camera you will need your left hand to control the reins, and should hang your whip from the pommel, if available. You are unlikely to need to use the whip and the camera at the same time.
Dealing with Emergencies - If you drop something from a camel, you should immediately notify your guide, and ask for help. They will be much quicker at dismounting from a camel than you will, and more experienced at controlling the camel whilst they are off it. If you do get off your camel by yourself, make sure that you always keep a tight hold of the reins, or securely tether it to a nearby tree. It can be very difficult to run after and catch a camel that does not want to be caught!
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