Locations; Rust And Swollen Film; Avoiding Destruction In The Rain Forest
The trip began poorly. The remote, unmaintained road dropping from the Andes
to the Amazon was a mess. All day we had struggled to prevent the bus from becoming
fossilized in the muck. Hours of labor, and we were covered in a thick layer
of red, Amazonian mud. After dark, it started to rain. Huge drops pounded our
hair, arms, and soiled clothes. Someone pulled out soap, another shampoo, and
the storm washed us clean. Then as quickly as it started, the rain stopped and
stars appeared overhead. I had arrived. The rain forest.
As a biologist I've learned to write my notes on rain-proof paper, use waterproof binoculars, and do my best to ignore it. As a photographer, a few more precautions are necessary. Our camera bags may be "water-resistant" but with few exceptions are not adequate to protect our equipment from the moisture extremes found in the tropics. This perhaps is the reason we see so few images of rain forests that reflect the true nature of the region...rain.
The forest canopy gives a few seconds of protection; time to get your camera back in its bag, but only just. If you have no rain gear or umbrella you will be drenched. Coping with these downpours is fairly simple: seek cover. If you do happen to be caught out in a storm, pack covers, plastic bags, and an umbrella are all that is required to ride out a short tropical storm.
...It's The Humidity
Ironically, it is not usually the rain itself that kills equipment in the tropics, but something far more insidious, humidity. This often forgotten aspect of the tropics has probably ruined more rolls of film and electronic cameras than all the storms combined. Humidity will permeate the most water-resistant of packs, the most durable of camera bodies. In time, it corrodes, swells, or shorts out, virtually every piece of equipment we use. It is extremely difficult to fend off.
The best investment a rain forest photographer can make is a waterproof case. These tough, airtight, plastic cases keep sensitive equipment safe. With the addition of a desiccant, they will not only protect, but also actively dry wet equipment. Photographers are often guilty of carrying an immense amount of equipment. In order to store all of our gear, some of us would require several cases. For the traveling image-maker this is not practical, and luckily, not necessary. I carry a single mid-size Pelican case, one that can fit into a large rucksack with most of my personal equipment. This case is large enough to hold a camera body, three or four normal lenses, and a few small items. Since not everything will fit in the case at once, I rotate through lenses and bodies. To facilitate air movement within the case, I remove all dividers and foam, except for the outermost layers. The padding can be replaced for traveling. I try to keep each piece of equipment in the case with desiccant for at least 12 of every 48 hours, longer for delicate electronics like camera bodies. Other equipment is stored in my "water-resistant" camera pack and kept in a dry place. Using this method, I have not had problems with fogged lenses, corrosion, or electrical shorts.
On The Trail
For those of us who like to venture away from lodges and hotels, however, carrying the extra weight of a Pelican is not justified. For this reason, there is the Zip Loc bag. I carry a selection of one and two gallon size bags. Whenever the equipment is not in use it goes in bags with desiccant. Since Zip Locs are prone to leakage and tears, a chemical dehumidifier is an absolute necessity.
Though great for river trips, I have had little success using river rafter's dry bags in the tropics. Effective at protecting equipment against short-term immersion, in time, these bags allow humidity to permeate through the "waterproof" seal. Against humidity, our best lightweight defense is the Zip Loc.
Cooking Up The Desiccant
On a sweaty, humid evening at a remote Amazonian field station, I was hunched over a hot stove, cooking. The sounds of frogs and insects could just be heard over the sizzling from the pan. I wasn't preparing dinner, but slowly stir-frying what looked like a few handfuls of pink stones. As they were sautéed the pebbles were slowly turning blue. I was actually recharging Drierite crystals. Drierite is, in my opinion, the best desiccant available. It is available in pebble-size blue crystals that turn red as they become saturated with moisture. When all have changed color it is time to change or recharge them. Recharging is what makes Drierite superior to other chemical dehumidifiers. When the crystals become saturated, they can be baked in an oven, or even stir-fried, to remove the moisture. Some precautions are necessary because if they get too hot, Drierite can be scorched and ruined, so when possible follow the manufacturer's instructions for recharging. There are numerous other dehumidifying agents on the market, available at hardware stores. Most will do an adequate job, but watch out for those that generate liquid as they remove humidity. This nasty fluid is not something you want to have to wash off your lenses if it spills.