Feet are an under appreciated photographic accessory. Feet get you to that spot with the perfect perspective -- be it alongside your car or several days beyond trail head. Feet wait for hours for the perfect image to emerge. Feet get you back to the car. If terrain is gentle and weather kind, feet are generally content and often ignored.
Yet feet demand careful attention as conditions become more demanding, we venture further afield for unique images, or Mother Nature taunts us with blistering heat, rain, or mud. Failure to prepare feet gear as carefully as you prepare your photo gear can cause missed photographic opportunities. Let's consider the problems and challenges outdoor photographers commonly encounter in the field, and the most practical solutions available.

Backpacking in the Painted Desert Wilderness Area.  Petrified Forest National Monument, AZ.  (c) Rob Kleine.  GentlEye ImageryNice Weather. When the temperature is moderate, weather is cooperative, and terrain is neither challenging nor boring, allow comfort to guide your foot wear selection. Retired running shoes, well broken-in hiking boots, boat shoes, sport sandals, thongs, even Birkenstock sandals (a personal favourite) can all work well when photographing under smiling conditions. Trail shoes, called cross-trainers or trail-runners, have become my default footwear for nice weather photo excursions. Trail shoes offer running shoe comfort but feature a thicker sole that affords excellent grip when I step off the pavement and additional protection from sock-soaking puddle water. Whatever shoes you choose make sure they fit properly.

Smiling conditions can and do yield surprises. On a clear-skied day last fall, while wandering the Luckey Fall Festival in search of interesting compositions, my left foot imprinted a fresh pile of horse manure. Distracted, my right foot landed in an ankle-deep puddle. My right foot squished the rest of the afternoon. The afternoon would have been more pleasant had I thought through the following when selecting footwear for the outing:

  • Look beyond the moment; consider recent and anticipated weather. Might the ground be still muddy from recent rains? How might the weather change while I'm out? Might a clear day turn stormy? Are brief summer squalls common? Will livestock be roaming the place?
  • What will you be doing: sitting or standing, hiking to a blind than waiting, walking sidewalks, hiking trails, or wandering off-trail?
  • What will the terrain be like: flat, hilly, mountainous? Do you need protection from critters or plants?

Footwear that is perfect for a low activity photo session, like shooting wildlife from your car, may be inadequate for climbing a bluff that promises a superior perspective. A little forethought can save a lot of aggravation later.


A muddy LL Bean Maine Hunting Boot.  (c) Rob Kleine.  GentlEye ImageryWet Conditions and Mud. The ideal wet conditions footwear allows you to step in and out of water or muck as needed to achieve optimal framing and use available light to maximum advantage. You also want to keep your feet comfortable, warm, protected, and possibly even dry. Nothing beats the feeling of sand between the toes when shooting on a beach in warm weather. Unfortunately, conditions often render shooting barefoot around water unwise. Rocky beaches and pebbly and stream beds can torture or injure bare feet.
Sport sandals (e.g., by Teva, Merrill, etc.), with their grippy soles and quick-drying nylon straps, are ideal for situations where you step in and out of water frequently. Sport sandals are also an excellent alternative for photographers who work out of watercraft like canoes and sea kayaks from which embarking and disembarking requires dunking feet in the water.
If your photography finds you standing frequently in cold water calf-deep or deeper, consider hip boots or waders, as used by fly fishermen. Light weight low-bulk models are available from leading outdoors shops and catalogues.

Avoid wading streams in knee-high rubber boots as they may fill with water, creating a safety hazard. Sport sandals paired with neoprene socks (see The Outdoor Photographer's Socks sidebar) provide a safer alternative as they can't fill with water, no matter how deep you wade. Whatever you wear when wading streams, do beware of the current, it may be stronger than you think!

When walking through fields of grass saturated with morning dew, exploring cranberry bogs for splotches of colour, or anytime it has rained or rain threatens, I reach for my "Bean Boots." My favourite multipurpose footwear, Bean Boots have rubber soles that keep feet dry from external moisture and leather uppers, which I find more comfortable than the uppers found on rubber boots. Treated with Sno-Seal, the leather repels water with vigour.

Boat decking, concrete, marble foyers and wood floors become very slippery when wet. Proper footwear could help you avoid a slip that could cause considerable harm to you or your equipment. I find the "squeegee" soles found on leather-upper preppy-standard boat shoes to provide secure footing on slippery wet surfaces. Canvas upper versions are also available for photographers who prefer an athletic shoe look. Photographers who desire additional protection might consider knee-high rubber boots that have the same squeegee-style non-skid sole.

A discussion of wet stuff isn't complete without mention of mud. Shallow mud puddles, like I encountered at the Luckey Fall Festival, are easily handled with Bean Boots. But oozing ankle-deep mud -- the kind encountered when photographing wildlife in coastal salt marshes, in corn fields (which I find perpetually muddy), and cranberry bogs -- demands knee-high rubber boots to keep feet clean and dry. Rubber boots clean easily with a garden hose.

Two backpackers decending the Tanner Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.  (c) Rob Kleine.  GentlEye ImageryHeavy Hiking. When foot-travel gets challenging or heavy terrain separates me and my subject--as on my photo expeditions into the Grand Canyon--I turn to my well broken in hiking boots. The 80's was a period of rapid evolution as running-shoes inspired the creation of myriad new boot designs. Light boots with nylon uppers and weightless flexible soles became the norm. The 90's find boot manufacturers returning to traditional heavy leather, heavy sole hiking boot designs. I, too, have ditched my lightweight boots and returned to beefy leather boots for my backcountry photo adventures. Why heavy leather boots?

  • Heavy leather protects my feet and ankles from bruising rocks, tumbling logs, and overlooked rattlesnakes.
  • Thicker soles are reinforced by a steel shank. This shank eliminates foot fatiguing flex in the instep, a vexing problem for those carrying heavy loads as when photo-backpacking.
  • Their deep-lug Vibram soles provide maximum traction on many surfaces.
  • Thick soles provide superior insulation from the heat and cold.

Heavy leather hiking boots do require a considerable break-in period before they are expedition ready. Once broken in, leather boots provide many years of faithful service and can be resoled/rebuilt by a local cobbler as needed. (Howard Rothman reviews back country footwear in the Fall 1996 issue of ONP.)

"It is now 111 degrees in the Valley of the Sun," concludes the DJ as I turn off the car at trail head one August afternoon. I shoulder my photo pack and head down the trail. On negotiating a tricky manoeuvre, I grasp a rock for a hand hold. "Ouch, that's hot!" Examining my fingers, I find them blistered from the hot sun-exposed rock. No wonder my feet are hot!

It's counterintuitive, but I find heavy leather hiking boots ideal for hiking in desert summer extremes. Why heavy leather in the desert? The thick soles, and my standard two-layer sock system (see Sidebar), insulate feet from the ground heat. Thick soles and stout uppers also provide extra protection from cholla cactus spines and other desert hazards.

Pausing along the Red Canyon Trail.  Grand Canyon National Park, AZ.  (c) Rob Kleine.  GentlEye ImagerySock it to me! Socks are nearly as important to foot comfort as your foot wear. Consider the following tips based on personal experience:

  • Thick cotton or wool socks ensure maximum comfort for casual use in nice weather.
  • Wet wool dries faster than wet cotton. If your feet get wet often, synthetic socks like those made by Thorlo or Ultimax, dry faster still.
  • If you anticipate standing in cold shallow water consider neoprene socks. Made of the same material as wet suits, neoprene socks help keep feet warm when standing in cold streams.
  • Make sure all sock seams are flat, with no protrusions that can cause blister-generating hot-spots.
  • When purchasing shoes or boots ensure a proper fit by taking with you the socks you intend to wear with them.
  • Whatever the temperatures, try a double layer sock system: a thin synthetic inner wicking sock (made of a hydrophobic synthetic like polypropylene, Thermax, or Coolmax) paired with a heavy wool outer sock. The inner sock wicks sweat away from your feet to keep them dry. Double socks prevent formation of blister fostering hot-spots.
  • Experiment, try several kinds of socks to find the socks that work best for you. When you find that ideal sock, buy a bunch. You may never find them again. Sock shopping isn't as much fun as shopping for a new lens, but it is worth making the effort to locate the best socks you can find that fit your feet.

Photographer atop a windy summit in New Hampshire. (c) Rob Kleine.  GentlEye ImageryYet more tips to ensure comfortable feet:

  • Toenail hygiene shouldn't be overlooked. Long toe nails shorten the life of socks, can seed blisters, and generally make your feet uncomfortable. Keep toe nails trimmed for maximum comfort.
  • If working out of your car in muddy conditions, bring an extra pair of shoes to wear in the car. Put your muddy boots in a plastic bag so they don't soil the car's interior. Alternatively, bring a plastic sheet or large plastic trash bag to put under your muddy feet while driving.
  • Proper care will extend boot life. Dry wet boots thoroughly away from heat sources and direct sun. Use waterproofing treatments like Sno-Seal, Aquaseal, or Nikwax often to condition boot leather.
  • Caught in wet conditions with dry-time footwear? Put plastic bags over your socks and under shoes. Shoes will get wet but socks and feet stay dry.
  • When possible, remove boots and socks and dry feet, socks, and boot linings. Blisters form easily in hot conditions. Occasional drying of feet and socks will prevent blisters.
  • Sand destroys the effectiveness of the hook and loop (or Velcro TM) closures found on many sport sandals. If you frequently work in sand, look for sport sandals that secure via quick release buckles or laces.
  • Gaiters are essential items. Gaiters prevent debris from entering boots, provide additional protection against rattle snakes, and keep laces from becoming mud encased. I find 6" gaiters ideal for general wear.
  • Footbeds or insoles are an overlooked foot-aid. Inserted into boots, insoles provide an extra layer cushion and insulation between you and the blistering ground. A variety of footbeds and insoles are available on the market, but don't overlook the footbeds in your old running shoes! They are free and already well broken-in.

Conclusion. Photography is about seeing. Remember to include your feet in that vision! Dry, warm, comfortable feet aren't of much use if you don't pay proper attention to where you put them and place yourself in a situation that compromises the safety of you or your gear. Check your footing always. Keep a wary eye for loose stones, buried roots, critters in ground cover through which you walk, or other footing hazards unique to the outdoors in which you are photographing. Be especially wary when photographing in areas in which you have little personal experience

Click Here!


Add a Comment

GentlEye Home | Photo Home | Enthusiast Center | Photo Articles | Footwear