|| 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
- 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.)
Heat. "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
it to me! Socks are nearly as important to foot comfort
as your foot wear. Consider the following tips based on
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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.
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