Getting Muddy - Off-Roading at AOAA

Ever since we purchased our 2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon “Lola”, we’ve been itching to take her offroad and into the wild…. but we wanted to also do so safely and confidently. Enter Kyle from Offroad Consulting, who led us through the trails of Anthracite Offroad Adventure Area (AOAA) while teaching us about proper 4x4 technique. We learned how to handle off camber situations, airing our tires down, using traction control, disconnecting the sway bar, and navigating challenging obstacles like steep climbs, descents, and rocky terrain.

We escaped the day with a few bumps, a lot of mud, and a bunch of video!

Mounting a Rooftop Tent on a Rhino Rack Pioneer Platform

Welcome back readers!

We run a Maximus-3 Rhino Rack Pioneer Platform on our 2019 Jeep Wrangler, which is a fantastic rack setup…. cannot recommend it enough!

For a quick background, the Pioneer Platform is a heavy duty rack that mounts onto the fiberglass roof of a Jeep by drilling through the roof, and then attaching supports that mount to the body frame of the Wrangler. While it’s a bit of work to install, the result is an incredibly versatile roof rack that can hold up to 900lbs static weight! It’s also incredibly low profile…..

…. which is a problem if you want to mount a rooftop tent!

“Lola” the Jeep waiting for the tent to be installed onto the roof rack. As you can see, the rack sits very flush to the roof.

“Lola” the Jeep waiting for the tent to be installed onto the roof rack. As you can see, the rack sits very flush to the roof.

Most rooftop tents are designed to mount to a traditional roof rack consisting of two bars that run in parallel. But the Pioneer Platform doesn’t have this sort of arrangement.

After some initial struggles, we identified a mounting solution that allows us to mount our rooftop tent to the top of the Pioneer Platform. It’s very low profile, easy to install, and requires roughly $20 worth of hardware from Home Depot.

The basic idea is that we installed new hardware on the tent in place of the rails that came on the tent. Our inspiration for the design came from this YouTube video; we took his design and tweaked it for our specific tent.

Just like he did, we drilled new holes in the bottom of the tent that were 36.5” apart (corresponding to the width of the bars on the platform) and installed some new hardware. One difference in our setup is that our particular tent — a CVT Mt. Shasta — has little plastic pieces on the bottom that protrude down slightly, so we needed the tent to sit 1/4” off the top of the rack. The solution was to stack 13x metal washers until we had the proper raise.

The finished hardware setup used the following:

  • 3/8 in. x 2 in. Zinc Hex Bolt (x4)

  • 1/2 in. x 2 in. Metallic Stainless Steel Fender Washer (x64)

  • 3/8 in. Strut Channel Spring Nut (x4)

  • 3/8 in lock washers (x4)

  • 3/8 in neoprene washers (x4)

The new hardware threaded through the bottom of the tent.

The new hardware threaded through the bottom of the tent.

Notice how little space is left — this provides enough room for the channel nut to fit into the tracks on the roof rack and tighten down. The tolerance here is tight, and we had to use extra washers to close this gap.

Notice how little space is left — this provides enough room for the channel nut to fit into the tracks on the roof rack and tighten down. The tolerance here is tight, and we had to use extra washers to close this gap.

Installation Instructions:

  1. Remove the rooftop tent from the vehicle and place on the ground or a safe work surface

  2. Remove any pre-installed rails or hardware from the bottom of the tent. Also remove the bolts that hold the ladder. You want the tent to have nothing on the bottom of it.

  3. Decide what direction you want the tent to open, and if you want the tent to be perfectly centered on the rack, or slightly off center. We opted for a slight off-centering, but it’s not terribly noticeable. These decisions will depend on your vehicle and personal preference, so give some consideration to them before you start drilling.

  4. Once you have identified the desired location for the tent, mark two holes 36.5” apart on one end of the tent. Take care to make sure the center of the hole is exactly 36.5” apart. This spacing corresponds to the width of the rails on the Rhino Rack platform. We used blue painters tape to mark the holes on the bottom of the tent.

  5. Measure holes to match on the opposite side of the tent. You should have four holes that will line up to where you want the tent to mount on the rack. Measure twice!

  6. Drill through the tent to make the four bolt holes. Be sure to have help! You don’t want to drill into the tent fabric or mattress, so you might need to prop the tent up while you drill. We recommend starting with a pilot hole and then using a bigger bit to drill the final hole.

  7. Slide the hardware into the holes. Inside the tent, you will have one large spacer washer and a lock washer, along with the bolt head. As the bolt comes through the tent, mount one neoprene washer, 13x flat washers, and the channel nut. (see above pics).

  8. Re-attach the tent ladder, and (optional) fill any old holes with clear silicone. This will help keep bugs from entering the tent floor.

  9. With help, lift the tent onto the roof rack. Once all four channel nuts are in the tent, you can open the tent back up and crawl into the inside. From the inside, use a socket wrench to tighten down the hardware.

Tightening the hardware inside the tent…. You can see Kristen’s legs sticking out the bottom of the tent as she makes final adjustments to the hardware inside the tent.

Tightening the hardware inside the tent…. You can see Kristen’s legs sticking out the bottom of the tent as she makes final adjustments to the hardware inside the tent.

We installed the tent onto the roof exactly the same way as shown in the video posted by Sketchy Jeep. Our setup differs slightly because our tents are different, but the concept is the same.

We’ve loved this setup, and it’s extremely secure. We had no issues using it in the field, and are very happy with how the whole thing came together.

Good luck in mounting your tent!

A look at the hardware sandwiched between the bottom of the tent and the top of the rack. You can see how we used a stack of washers to raise the tent slightly off the platform to account for some straps that are permanently attached to the bottom of our tent.

A look at the hardware sandwiched between the bottom of the tent and the top of the rack. You can see how we used a stack of washers to raise the tent slightly off the platform to account for some straps that are permanently attached to the bottom of our tent.

All mounted up and ready to go!

All mounted up and ready to go!

(White)stone National Park

When I planned my fall trip to Yellowstone National Park, I had certain expectations for the types of art I would have an opportunity to create: fall colors, wildlife, spectacular sunsets, etc.

So much for planning. Mother Nature, it seems, had another idea.

Snow.

We had heavy precipitation every day that we were in the park, with five days in a winter weather advisory. Areas of the park accumulated over 10" of snow in one night, closing many roads and restricting travel through the park for a number of days.

In the midst of this surprise cold, there was still a great opportunity to capture some landscape images.... just not the ones I had planned on! With the sky hidden behind low, snow-filled clouds for days, I focused on more white landscapes to capture the essence of Yellowstone's first snowfall of 2017.

These photographs were all made with the Leica SL. Steam from active geothermal features and snow melt where warm ground met frozen tundra can be seen in a number of the finished prints.

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Behind-the-Photo: Eclipse Over Washington

Yesterday I shared a remarkable experience with millions of Americans... I joined them in looking up at the sun and enjoying a breathtaking display of the 2017 solar eclipse. During the eclipse, I made a series of images that were later merged into the following photograph (Buy a copy):

The final composite photograph of the August 2017 solar eclipse over the Jefferson Memorial.

The final composite photograph of the August 2017 solar eclipse over the Jefferson Memorial.

Today I am going to break down that photograph to share insight into the capture... part of my process to decelerate from the excitement of seeing the eclipse!

PLANNING THE SHOT

The eclipse came as no surprise - unless you have had your head buried in the sand, you probably knew for weeks (or months) that it was coming. While I knew the eclipse was coming far in advance, it was only in the last three weeks that I started to really plan my photograph.

Unlike many other photos, this is a 'one time only' shot. The next eclipse that would cover the Washington, DC area won't be for at least seven years, and that will no doubt look different from this one. Where the sun will set again tomorrow, offering another chance to re-do a sunset image, the moon and sun won't repeat this alignment every day. One chance. Had to be prepared.

NASA compiled a number of great resources, including some interactive maps that let me calculate the exact time the sun and moon would position themselves over Washington, DC. Using that map, I determined the maximum eclipse coverage over my area would be around 2:45pm EST.

A screenshot of the NASA interactive map, where I could determine the time of the eclipse over Washington, DC.

A screenshot of the NASA interactive map, where I could determine the time of the eclipse over Washington, DC.

With the time and date of the eclipse known, I went to one of my favorite apps for planning shots - the Photographers Ephemeris ("TPE"). The TPE app is wonderful because it lets you place a pushpin anywhere in the world and adjust the time and date to see where the sun and moon will align relative to that location. I normally use this app to plan sunrise and sunset shots because I can determine the exact location of the sun rise/set in advance and position myself and my camera for that event. 

This was the first time I'd used TPE to calculate a photograph at mid-day, but the app responded beautifully. I changed the date to 21 August 2017 around 2:45pm EST and looked at the alignment of the sun and moon to find a location in the DC area that would offer a nice alignment. Many people would photograph the sun that day, so I wanted my final image to include a foreground element that was clearly "DC" - something that gave context and location to the sun images I would also capture.

A quick look at the TPE app and I found my location.... there was almost perfect alignment between the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. Shooting across the Tidal Basin would offer a wonderful alignment for the elements I wanted in my final composition.

A screenshot from the Photographers Ephemeris app, showing the alignment of the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. In the bottom right corner, the app also displayed the lunar coverage of the sun in a small animation, providing exact information for me to use in planning the shot.

A screenshot from the Photographers Ephemeris app, showing the alignment of the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. In the bottom right corner, the app also displayed the lunar coverage of the sun in a small animation, providing exact information for me to use in planning the shot.

I started to imagine the image in my head - a spectacular composite showing several stages of the solar eclipse staged over the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin.... I may not get totality in DC, but I would have a chance to make a beautiful image anyway!

At this point I had a mental construct of the final product, and it was time to deconstruct the image into its individual elements to plan. The first step was to calculate if it would be possible to get all of the elements in the scene in the camera at the same time, or if I would need to shoot everything as individual elements and merge it later. I suspected it would need to be a composite, but still wanted to do the math to be sure.

Based on the information I had, I put together the following sketch:

SunHeightCalcuator.jpg

This sketch depicts the information I had - the relative sun angle above the horizon (57.5 degrees), my calculated distance from where I would stand along the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial (1,200 ft) and the height of the Jefferson Memorial (129 ft). From there, I needed to calculate the height of the sun over the memorial. 

Ouch.

It's been awhile since I did geometry, but Google is a great resource for those of us who have forgotten how to do math! I calculated a height of 1,754 ft from the top of the monument to the sun, and my sister, who also happens to be a high school math teacher, confirmed my work. Phew.

After putting down my calculator, it was clear I would have to shoot this as a composite - each element would be a separate image and I would merge them all in Photoshop to create the product I envisioned.

THE EQUIPMENT

With my plan in hand, it was time to get the equipment needed to create my image. Through my math and mental deconstruction of the final image I wanted, I determined there were two different elements I would need to photograph: 1) The Jefferson Memorial and 2) The stages of the solar eclipse.

Those two elements would require completely different equipment, so let's look at each one in turn:

The Jefferson Memorial

Normally, this is a very easy photograph. Point camera at memorial and click, right? Not so fast.... I am taking this photograph at 2:45pm remember. The sky will be a light blue, there will be harsh light and no bright colors. A yellow sun on a baby blue sky will look....out of place. The solar eclipse is also going to darken the sky, so it would be more appropriate to depict the solar elements on a darker sky. But it's still 2:45pm.

I solved this problem with the help of several neutral density filters, which allowed me to darken the sky and create the impression that it was closer to dusk than it really was. Normally I wouldn't employ this tactic during a mid-day shot.... I would just wait until dusk (no filter replaces the real thing), but I felt like this was an acceptable time to use the filters.

I decided that I would get my shot of the Jefferson Memorial before the solar eclipse show started so that I could be totally focused on the sun during the eclipse. 

To get the photograph of the memorial, I used the following equipment:

  • Leica SL Type 601

  • Leica 24-90mm Vario-Elmar lens

  • Gitzo Tripod

  • Acratech ballhead and leveling base

  • Several stacked neutral density filters and a polarizing filter

The Solar Eclipse

The images of the solar eclipse were the ones I was more nervous about getting correct; I have never shot directly into the sun during mid-day, so I needed to get smart in doing so! Thankfully there is no shortage of websites from astrophotographers who explain their techniques!

The longer the focal length, the better. I have a Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens that has a modified Leica R mount that I got to photograph wildlife with, and figured that would be a perfect choice. Even at 400mm, the sun would be fairly small against the sensor - this really is a time for big glass to shine. So I got a 2x teleconverter - which made this lens the equivalent of an 800mm monster! Normally the teleconverter offers a major loss in light reduction, but I knew that wouldn't be an issue when shooting straight into the sun!

The next thing I needed was a solar filter for my lens to protect it and the camera from the harmful sun. The lens is over 6 inches in diameter, so my best solution was to use a piece of solar film and cut my own filter.

I found a piece of solar film on Amazon and used the shipping box and some gaffers tape to engineer a removable holder for the film to sit in front of the lens.

The following equipment was used for each of the solar shots:

My camera rig pointed up at the sun during the eclipse

My camera rig pointed up at the sun during the eclipse

The homemade solar filter mounted to the front of my lens

The homemade solar filter mounted to the front of my lens

GETTING THE SHOT(S)

Alas, eclipse day arrived and I packed some gatorade, a beach towel, and my camera gear for an Uber ride to the Tidal Basin. I setup in the grass in the area I'd pre-determined was the right spot for my final shot.

As previously discussed, I planned to shoot the Jefferson Memorial element first, which I did. But the one I ended up using in my final image came last; scattered puffy clouds earlier in the afternoon meant I'd have to contend with a cloudy sky when placing the sun elements in the composite. Since clouds always cover the sun (and never the other way around), I could not place the sun on top of a cloud.... but by the end of the eclipse, the cloud situation had stabilized and I only needed to contend with a few puffy guys over the horizon. A storm cell had moved in, darkening the scene (which I was already going for with my filters), and the uniform grey sky provided a better and more realistic location to place the solar elements.

Because I had planned so meticulously, I was ready the instant the first bit of the moon started to move across the sun. Since I had never photographed the sun, I used these first few moments of eclipse activity to test my settings and focus, ensuring everything was exactly as I wanted.

All of the solar images were shot at an ISO ranging between 100-400 at f/11. Shutter speeds varied based on the amount of sun visible.

Shooting the eclipse at the base of the Tidal Basin.

Shooting the eclipse at the base of the Tidal Basin.

By the end of the afternoon, rain and storms were starting to move into the area, so I packed my gear and returned home to finish building the final image in Photoshop. I was confident that I had all of the elements needed to build the final image, it was just a matter of assembling them all correctly....

BUILDING THE FINAL IMAGE

The final image would require a composite of several solar elements from various stages of the eclipse overlaid onto my foreground shot of the Jefferson Memorial. In terms of complexity, this is probably the most challenging image I have ever assembled - everything had to look like it was real - the assembly had to be seamless. We've all see poor Photoshop hack jobs - this could not be one!

Is This a FAKE Photo?

Some people will accuse me of making a fake photograph. Sure - the sun never looked like this over the Jefferson Memorial - so in that regard, the photo is a fake. But that's not the point. The point of my artwork is to share an experience. This image is an accurate depiction of my experience - I watched phases of the eclipse move across the sky above the memorial. The photograph I created and shared is an accurate capture of the feeling, emotions, and experience I had. Every element is genuine - there was nothing I created that is not authentic, it is only the combination of those elements that is not genuine.

Assembling the Solar Elements

The photographs of the sun, while the trickiest to get, were actually the easiest to edit. I cropped them all to 1x1 squares (each one in the sensor was the same size since it was a fixed focal length) and adjusted the exposure slightly to correct any over/under exposure. I shot the sun at 10 minute intervals during the early stages, then at 2 minute intervals during the periods of maximum obscuration. The images used in the final shot were taken at the following times (as derived from my in-camera GPS):

  • 21 August 2017, 13:36:10 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 13:51:35 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:02:50 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:14:39 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:28:56 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:39:30 EDT

These images were not selected for the precise interval separating them (clearly!) but rather because they were good images depicting the various stages of the eclipse. In other words, it was an artistic decision, rather than scientific decision.

Each of the six solar elements that would appear in the final composition were then exported at high resolution to be merged with the foreground shot of the memorial.

One of the six solar elements used in the composite image

One of the six solar elements used in the composite image

The Foreground Image

The photograph of the Jefferson Memorial proved a trickier prospect than initially expected. I thought I might present the whole capture in black and white, but the sun started to look more like the moon when done in black and white. Having the sun remain a brilliant orange was the only way to convey to the viewer that it was actually the sun.

That meant the foreground also needed to be in color. I went through several iterations of how this should look before building one that looked correct. In each iteration, I found the balance between the brightness of the solar elements and the brightness of the background sky to be the most challenging element.

Finally I adjusted (and re-adjusted) until I had a foreground image I was happy with. Below is that image before I cleaned it up in Photoshop and added the solar elements.

The early version of the Jefferson Memorial image that was used to create the final composition

The early version of the Jefferson Memorial image that was used to create the final composition

Before adding the solar elements to the composition, I also went through and 'cleaned up' this photograph. There were many dust spots on the sensor, and I didn't like the distraction of the people on the stairs (although I did like the blur of the people on the paddle boats). So I removed each of those things and made slight lighting adjustments to the rest to bring out the best colors across the image.

I brought the final foreground image into Photoshop and then created several layers with each of the solar elements. Using the 'lighten' blend mode, I brought each into the foreground shot and started to build the composite.

I will spare you all of the Photoshop clicks - partially because I don't remember them all and there was a lot of trial and error - but the end result was six solar elements and one background image layered together. 

The next step was to adjust the size and location of the solar elements. For this, I drew a hot pink line across the sky, and used the Photoshop ruler and measurement tools to align each sun at equal intervals along that line. The line trick was a lifesaver - it made the alignment so much easier! I also used this to ensure each solar element was sized similarly.

A screenshot from Photoshop of my final image coming together. Notice the pink line I drew the align each of the solar elements as I built the final image.

A screenshot from Photoshop of my final image coming together. Notice the pink line I drew the align each of the solar elements as I built the final image.

THE FINAL PRODUCT

After weeks of planning, the final product had come together. The weather cooperated. The equipment all worked. The planning paid off. 

I let out a huge sigh of relief when I had finished assembling the final image. Unlike most of my other photographs, I was not confident I would be able to pull this off until the very end, and it was a huge relief to finally celebrate the success. Without a doubt, this was not only the most technically difficult photograph I have ever captured, but it was also the one with the slimmest margin for error; failure to capture the solar elements meant there would be no finished product!

Thank you for taking the time to read this behind-the-photo entry, and leave me a comment if you have any questions about the final image!

You can purchase a copy of this photograph for your home and have it delivered framed and ready to hang!

Behind-the-Photo: Elakala Falls

Photography is more than just the 'click' - there is a lot of planning and editing required to make a spectacular photograph. I recently posted about my revisit to Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia, where I photographed Elakala Falls. This photograph was particularly difficult to create, so I wanted to deconstruct the image into its raw parts and share the creation process with you. It's like a chef showing you the recipe...

PS - this technique is *exactly* the same as the technique I used to create this waterfall photograph at Great Falls. Once you know the technique, you can apply it anywhere!

The Equipment

Obviously the first step to taking a photograph like this is having the correct equipment. The basis of this image is a long exposure at the base of a waterfall, which requires two fundamental pieces of gear: a tripod and neutral density filter.

In this case, I was using my Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens. I use a Really Right Stuff L-bracket on the Leica SL and mounted that via an Acratech GP bullhead with leveling base to my Gitzo tripod. I use a funny combination of filters and mounts for my neutral density filter - it is greatly oversized for this lens, but that results in no vignetting, which can be a problem with filters. Here's a quick iPhone photo of me with my gear for the day (note the boots so I can stand in the water):

So, to recap, we have the following equipment in use on this photograph:

The Secret Sauce

There are two secrets to this photograph: 1) the neutral density filter and 2) the leveling base. Let's explore why...

To create the flowing water effect and the swirl in the bottom of the image, I need to take a long photograph. That long image exposure will allow the sensor to see things - like the swirls - that are not really perceptible with the human eye. It takes some practice to spot things like the pools of water that will swirl in a long exposure, but it is doable with the naked eye. Anyway, in daylight, the only way to get the camera to take a long photograph and not have the image washed out is by putting a pair of sunglasses on the camera - known as a neutral density filter. Like sunglasses, this darkens what the camera sensor sees, and thereby makes the exposure time required to get a properly exposed image longer. I stacked two filters to give a really dark effect - resulting in exposures of over a minute.

Not all tripods are created equal, and this photograph is a great example for why investing in good gear matters. I knew this was going to be a panorama, and the only way to ensure a level plane as you rotate the camera is with a leveling base. Let's explore.... Set up your tripod in your house and purposefully make it a little uneven by putting a book under one leg of the tripod. You can remove that un-level-ness by making the ball head level. But now if you loosen the rotation on the tripod head and move the head left to right, you'll see that the head doesn't stay level.

A levelling base sits below the ball head on the tripod. Once you level that, you can rotate the ball head portion and the whole things stays flat. Compared to the price of a great tripod and head, the leveling base is cheap, and it's a must have if you plan to shoot panoramas.

Planning the Shot

The goal was to get a swirl of water at the base of the waterfall - the trick was how. I walked around the falls taking some test shots for a few minutes before eying this pool of water. I knew it'd be prefer to make my swirl, so I setup my tripod. 

Unfortunately, there was no way I could get the image I had in my head in a single capture. The 24mm focal length of my lens meant I'd have to aim down toward the pool of water, and I wanted the image to feel more straight on. Thankfully there is a solution to this problem - shoot the image as a vertical panorama.

When most people think of making a panorama, they mistakenly orient their camera horizontally because they want the final image to be wide. But you actually get a better final product by taking vertically oriented images and stitching those together to get a wide final image (see photos below to illustrate this point).

The five photographs that were stitched together to make the final image. They are intentionally underexposed to preserve shadow detail.

The five photographs that were stitched together to make the final image. They are intentionally underexposed to preserve shadow detail.

The next challenge was lighting. It was a cloudy day, and the sun would pop out of the clouds to create a harsh light, then would duck behind a cloud and generate a soft diffuse light. I wanted the later. So I waited.... a lot. Every time the cloud went in front of the sun, I triggered the shutter and waited for the 60 second exposure to complete. Unfortunately this process isn't scientific, so the end result was that there were some images that were just brighter than others. 

In the images below, you can see how the rocks in the foreground are brighter in one shot and darker in the next. I knew I could resolve this in post production, so I didn't stress over this - as long as the waterfall was evenly lit between images, I knew I could adjust the foreground.

Two images showing a big change in the lighting as I shot the panorama

Two images showing a big change in the lighting as I shot the panorama

Post Production

I don't do a lot of 'chimping' (aka looking at the back LCD screen), but I gave a quick scroll through my results and determined they were satisfactory for my final product. The rest of the image would wait until I got home.

Back in my studio, I downloaded the original RAW files to my backup and primary hard drive and imported them into Adobe Lightroom. Before creating the panorama, I did some minor adjustments on the individual files to make them uniform in the lighting. In other words, I reduced the highlights and exposure values for the 2nd image slightly.

I then asked Lightroom to turn the five images into a panorama, and this was the result:

The panorama resulting from the five images - notice there is some distortion, which I resolve by cropping.

The panorama resulting from the five images - notice there is some distortion, which I resolve by cropping.

I cropped the image to remove the distortion and to crop out the branches in the foreground. Next was to go in with the spot removal tool and clean up that sensor dust (I am very anal about sensor dust!). 

Finally, it's the fun part! I used the sliders to adjust the image to bring it back to what I had in my mind's eye. Remember, I intentionally underexposed the images as I shot them so that I could revive some of the shadow detail, so the final product was always going to look more vibrant than the RAW files. That is why we shoot in RAW, so we can have all that dynamic range to play with!

The biggest adjustment I made was a selective whitening on the pool in the foreground to really enhance the swirl.

And there we have it - the final product. I exported it in several sizes - one suitable for printing, another suitable for the internet, and a third suitable for mobile devices.

This technique is a process I use all the time - including with this other waterfall photograph. There are dozens of images on my website shot like this, so I hope this little tutorial helps! Ask questions below....

To Hell And Back: How Durable is the Leica SL?

In the year and change that I've owned the Leica SL Type 601, I've taken it around the world and tormented the camera in dozens of cruel and unusual environments. From the scorching heat of the Jordanian desert to the -20*C of Arctic Sweden (and then -10*C in Finland), the camera has seen it all.

I recently returned from the Scenic Traverse Road Trip, where I spent a month living in a van and photographing the American landscape with the Leica SL. While it never got as hot (though it did get nearly as cold) as some of our previous adventures with the Leica SL, this trip was the true test for the durability of the Leica SL.

I do not believe in babying a camera. American street photographer Jay Maisel once gave me the following advice when asked the best way to improve as a photographer:

Always carry a camera, it’s easier to take pictures that way.
— Jay Maisel

His advice is dead on, which is why I don't carry my Leica SL in a bag. I don't even use the lens cap. I took the lens cap off the Leica 24-90mm lens as soon as we got to Los Angeles for the start of the Road Trip and I didn't put it back on for 30 days and 3,682 miles. I expect my camera to be ready to shoot when I'm ready to shoot, and I am not going to coddle it along the way.

I don't even use a strap all that often, though that's partially because I don't like the strap attachment points on the Leica SL. There were days where I didn't use a strap to protect the camera from accidental falls and drops.... even when I was hiking in the middle of the river (the Narrows hike in Zion National Park). 

Look ma! No strap as I carry the camera through the famous Virgin River hike in the Narrows. Also, this drysuit isn't the least bit flattering. Photo by Seth Hamel, http://www.zion-photography.com.

This is all to say that, despite the camera and lens combination running upward of $12,000, I don't baby it or treat it any nicer than I would a $100 camera. The camera is a tool, designed to be used, and I can't be afraid of it getting a little beaten up.

Here's a quick snapshot of the abuses subjected upon the Leica SL during the Scenic Traverse Road Trip:

  1. Extended exposures to temperatures well beyond the operating range recommended by Leica Camera.

  2. Repeatedly soaked in heavy rain, without any protection or removal of collected rainwater.

  3. Banged against rocks, scraped against rocks, and otherwise brutally impacting rock.

  4. Rolling around the floor of the camera van as we drove, with no protection on the front lens glass.

  5. Completely submerged in fine sand in Death Valley's sand dunes.

  6. Caked with coarse salt in the salt flats of Badwater Basin.

  7. Coated in a fine dust from Arizona / Utah desert sands

  8. Splashed with ice cold river water while hiking the Narrows

Oops..... Hiking in Death Valley, I slid on a sand dune and landed camera first in the fine sand. The camera was 100% submerged, and this was taken while I'm still laying on the ground, but just after digging the camera out. A little shake off and we're back in business.

So how does the Leica SL hold up to the abuse? In terms of camera function, perfectly. The Leica SL has never once failed to shoot, slowed with startup or experienced any other issue. It is rock solid reliable. You want photo, you get photo. Done.

Arguably it is the function of the camera we're most concerned with. A camera that fails to turn on, stay on, or gets upset by a little weather isn't what a landscape photographer wants to use. So where it matters most, Leica delivers. The weather sealing is remarkably good. I have accidentally dropped my camera in water and totally buried it in sand, and none of that has penetrated the outer protections of the camera body. We spent an hour shooting in a heavy downpour - where the only protection I gave the camera was to use my hat to cover the lens between photos to keep water spots off - and still, it performed perfectly.

It was pouring - really pouring - in Malibu, California as I shot long exposures of waves. I had to use my hat to cover the front of the lens between shots to keep it from getting coated in water drops, but the SL stayed on and exposed the whole time. No problem.

But that's not to say it's perfect....

Considering how much the Leica SL costs, I am rather disappointed by the durability of the finish. I have lost a ton of paint, including white paint in the 'C' of the "LEICA" logo on the front. There are huge gashes on the side of the body and several dings that expose bare metal. Every edge of the camera has a heavy silver from loss of paint. And today I discovered some of the rubber on the grip is starting to peel and tear. 

I have attached some photos showing the dings in my Leica SL as a reference for what you can expect if you are a user of your cameras. I converted them to black and white to help with the contrast of black paint vs exposed silver metal.....

For comparison, I owned a Nikon D800 for several years and never had the finish on the body get damaged. I didn't treat the D800 any better or worse than the Leica SL, but I was able to resell it in great condition. I have had the Leica SL for 13 months, but it looks like it's been 13 years.

I don't know what Nikon and Canon do for a finish that is different from Leica, but this painted aluminum needs to be revisited before the SL 2.0 is released. The paint on my Leica M240 (black paint) and Leica Monochrom are both holding up better than the SL, so Leica's engineers need to revisit the finish. 

Would I still recommend the Leica SL? As long as you understand this camera will look used if it is actually used, then yes. But if you want a camera that can be put in a box a few months down the road and be sold for "like new" despite some use, then this isn't your camera.

Those who value performance in all weather will find it with the Leica SL. Those who value looks ought to keep shopping.

Review: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About an Escape Campervan

This will be a living blog post - so if there is something I didn't cover, send me an email and I'll update it! Last updated: 7 Jan 2017

Be sure to watch this video tour of the van that I recorded, as it covers some of the same information and provides a visual to accompany this!

Take a tour of our Escape Campervan - home to the Scenic Traverse Road Trip for the past month. More information about the trip, including photos and other videos can be found at www.ScenicTraverse.com

Greetings! Chances are, you Googled and came to this article, which professes to be everything you need to know about Escape Campervans. That is a half truth. Really the article should be titled “Practical things that people who are thinking of renting an Escape Campervan ought to know” - but that seemed a bit long.

Anyway, welcome. Let me first introduce myself for the uninitiated in the group - I’m Kristen Meister, a professional photographer and Scenic Traverse is my domain. In December 2016, I rented an Escape Campervan for a month, and drove over 3,682 miles in it. I spent 27 nights sleeping in the van, and I feel that has earned me ‘expert’ status in the art of road tripping in one of these vans. I rented the Mavericks model, which is the bigger of the vans rented by Escape, and is built in a Ford chassis. 

Who should rent a camper van from Escape?

Other than the obvious qualifiers of someone who likes to be outdoors, explore, and isn’t afraid of a little adventure….. for a trip of this length, I would not recommend more than two adults in one of these vans. In the summer, if we had the roof top tent thingy equipped, I could argue that one or two other passengers could attend, but it’d get really cozy, really fast.

The van, which I nicknamed "Sulley" on Malibu Beach

What is the van? How does this work?

This is basically a 12 passenger van - like the airport shuttles - modified into a camper. It has a convertible bed/sitting area, a pull out kitchen, and enough creature comforts to feel homey for a long trip. You don’t need special driver’s licenses to drive one.

I picked up our van in Los Angeles, California, and the awesome staff was happy to let me choose from an assortment of vans on the lot. Since I were going to be gone so long, I prioritized van ‘newness’ and tire tread above all else. I found a nice van with only 77,000 miles and almost brand new tires painted in an Avatar theme - which happens to be my favorite movie - and were set.

After a quick introduction to the van, I moved in and was off….. 

Sulley, the neon mushroom van!

What does Escape provide?

For the money, a rental from Escape is an extremely good value. Not only are you renting the van, but they include a lot of the basic gear you’d need anyway, which minimizes overhead for trip planning. They include (in no particular order):

Kitchen:

  1. A small pull-out drawer refrigerator. If you are well organized and play Tetris, then you can easily fit 4-5 days worth of food in there. We even managed some craft brews amongst the meals. See note below on electricity.

  2. A standard propane gas two burner stove and two tanks of propane.

  3. Some basic pots and pans, cups, cutlery, cutting board, and a towel.

  4. A sink that is vacuum pump operated. The fresh water tank on board holds a little more than 5 gallons. There is also a dump tank for holding sink waste water. This isn’t sewage - just sink water.

  5. A battery powered light useful for cooking in the dark (this is mounted to the roof, so you can’t use it around the campsite).

The back of the van opens to reveal the kitchen area. The bottom right drawer is a small fridge. There is a stove on the left side.

Fully stocked with a week of groceries and the all important craft brews (don't drink and drive, enjoy your brew after parking for the night!)

The pull out camp stove

Electricity

  1. There is obviously the normal car battery deal to start the car. We can skip that.

  2. What you care about is the plug-in electricity and the solar electricity. Let’s start with solar…. on the roof, above the crew area of the van, is a solar panel that collects sun and charges the onboard battery that powers the refrigerator and cooking lamp. This is all done automagically! You will hear the faint sound of the compressor for the fridge turn on in the middle of the night, but it’s incredibly quiet.

  3. Depending where you camp, you may have the option for plug-in power. Essentially they provide a long extension cord and a plug adapter (should you need it for the campsites). You have to crack a window and run it in that way. They also provide a power strip so you can charge cameras, laptops, phones, etc. It also powers the heater….. (see staying warm).

  4. There are three cigarette lighter things in our van - two up front and one in the passenger area (near the table). A cigarette to USB lighter adapter thingy is a must-have, and Escape sells them for like $5.

  5. I used a power inverter to plug in laptops and other electronics and charge them via the 12V cigarette lighter for the days when electricity was not available at the campsite.

Ok, not the best photo ever, but you can see the solar panel on the roof of the van

Ok, not the best photo ever, but you can see the solar panel on the roof of the van

Running the extension cord up in the window of the suicide doors

The all important (at least in winter) space heater. Provided by Escape

The all important (at least in winter) space heater. Provided by Escape

Bedding

  1. The camper van comes equipped with a flip down convertible bed / dining area. When in bed configuration, it’s roughly the size of a queen bed.

  2. Escape provides some linens for use in the van - thats two pillows, a fitted sheet, and a comforter / blanket. They are clean and 100% came from Ikea.

The empty main seating area. The bench folds flat (like a futon), the table breaks down, and there are spare cushions (not seen) that create the final bed.

The empty main seating area. The bench folds flat (like a futon), the table breaks down, and there are spare cushions (not seen) that create the final bed.

Staying warm

  1. This was a great concern of mine, particularly since I went during the winter and it often hovered near freezing at night. Not to worry - Escape will send you with another comforter for the bed, and you have a small space heater that can be used at campsites with electricity. I found that placing it in the kitchen area and using the auto thermostat mode was very helpful - it kept the camper comfortable at night by automatically turning on and off.

  2. I would also recommend traveling with layers for bedtime. This is particularly handy when you inevitably have to pee at 1am and need to leave the warmth of the van.

  3. Finally, I also brought our camping sleeping bags in compression sacks and a small blanket to add to the warmth.

Storage

  1. This was my greatest stress before I arrived. Would I have enough storage space? I actually rented the roof top storage box and ended up not needing it, so I never had it mounted.

  2. There are a few tricks to storage - the first is to pack into luggage that collapses and can be left at their depot. Second, you get a huge storage space if you stack the small thin pillows for the bed. Third, you have a big storage bin behind the kitchen. And finally, collapsable cloth storage buckets are your friend.

It may not look very organized, but the buckets on the ground under the table helped hold all the cameras and electronics. There are similar bins behind the couch holding clothes.

It may not look very organized, but the buckets on the ground under the table helped hold all the cameras and electronics. There are similar bins behind the couch holding clothes.

This is why I had to get organized - thats all my camera gear for the trip!

This is why I had to get organized - thats all my camera gear for the trip!

It may not look it, but the van is super clean. The orange towel on the ground served as a doormat. You can also see where I stacked the cushions on the right to create more storage area in the wooden box below.

It may not look it, but the van is super clean. The orange towel on the ground served as a doormat. You can also see where I stacked the cushions on the right to create more storage area in the wooden box below.

Modifications and Van Hacks

Here are a few recommended ‘hacks’ for your van - designed to help make living in it as comfortable as possible. Have a hack I didn't list? Email me and I'll add it (and give you credit!)

  1. Get organized. Seriously. I brought (and then bought) a few collapsable storage boxes and that made a huge difference. Walmart sells these for a few bucks each - they are a god send. I stored clothes, camera gear, food… you name it. The buckets make it easy to move things around the van - like moving daytime gear into the front seat during nighttime bed configuration.

  2. Buy $10 in egg crate mattress toppers for the bed. As is, the bed is very comfortable. But you can feel the seams where the pillows merge, and a quick foam topper will resolve that issue and make it even more awesome.

  3. You can bring some simple rope and craft a rigging line in the back to hold lanterns, keys, watches, headlamps, etc at night. I used what is called “550 cord” and is sold at most outdoor stores. Mine was an X shape and made it easy to have lights and accessories at hand.

  4. REI and outdoors stores sell microfiber towels that are nice and small. I had two in the back for drying dishes, one in the main area that served like a doormat, and one in the front to wipe condensation from the windshield in the mornings.

  5. Clothespins are great for helping to keep the blackout curtains in the van closed.

  6. Bring a laundry bag to shove dirty clothes in, as that helps keep the clothes piles organized

  7. Use a spare plastic grocery bag as a trashcan for the front driving area

  8. Download some audio books to listen to during your drives.

  9. Leave the freshwater tank drain opened at a slight crack as you drive, so the water can slowly drip out.

  10. Buy a cheap pair of gloves (like dishwashing gloves) to keep your hands clean as you handle the water tank drain.

  11. If it is well below freezing overnight, the water tank can freeze. If there is something you want to keep from becoming frozen, pull it out and place it near the heater overnight. This was never really a huge problem - I just had to defrost our Dawn dish soap and some jars of Nutella.

  12. Keep your van clean, because random strangers will ask to look inside. I was stopped at gas stations, parking lots, and at restaurants and asked to show off the inside. Don't have a pair of underwear sitting someplace you don't want people to see, because they will peer in the windows in the parking lots. It's alright, it's also good security. No thief will break into a van that has that much attention.

  13. In the summer, I would recommend renting an extra table from Escape so you have more workspace. In the winter it was too cold to ever eat outside the van.

  14. If you don't need the extra seating space, you can pull one of the bed cushions out of the storage box and double stack them, allowing you to have a ton more storage space (see the video above to understand this).

  15. The van will get roughly 16 miles per gallon, which isn’t bad, all things considered. I know this isn't a 'hack' but it's still good to know!

  16. If you are traveling for any length of time, you will need more propane tanks. I used four during the month.

  17. Having a pair of spare shoes besides hiking boots is nice for driving and those 1am bathroom trips. I had a pair of slip-on TOMS.

  18. It pays huge dividends to be organized. I cannot stress this enough. I carried a moleskin book that contained our itinerary, locations of grocery stores, recipes, addresses, and trip diary.

  19. Tools like carabiners, mutli-tools, and pocket knives have about 100,000 uses in a van like this. I used a carabiner to hang the car keys up at night so I didn’t loose them amongst all the bedding.

  20. You can run the extension cord in the small window on the suicide door, or up the back through the rear doors.

Some road trip games

Some road trip games

I had to add air to the tires when the cold weather dropped the tire pressure. Most gas stations will have pumps, but it's another reason to have some quarters on hand.

I had to add air to the tires when the cold weather dropped the tire pressure. Most gas stations will have pumps, but it's another reason to have some quarters on hand.

That's five days of groceries. I paid a little extra at stores to buy pre-chopped veggies and fruits to save on the amount of prep and clean up required for meals.

That's five days of groceries. I paid a little extra at stores to buy pre-chopped veggies and fruits to save on the amount of prep and clean up required for meals.

Recommended packing / shopping list

OK, this is a stretch. I’m not going to tell you to pack underwear - this list is the extras that you’ll want or need to make your trip awesome.

  1. Clorox disinfecting wipes for the kitchen

  2. A collapsable water jug (many water fill stations wont have a hose for you to use to fill the van’s tank).

  3. A set of small quick-dry travel towels. I used two in the kitchen for drying pots and one in the front to wipe condensation off the windows. They will get fogged up overnight as you sleep.

  4. Your own set of pots / pans / dishes. If you like to cook, and if you already own a set of camping pots and pans, you may want them. What Escape provides is fairly basic. We had a set from REI that was two big pots and a skillet, plus a smaller pot for boiling water for coffee, etc.

  5. Your own set of plates and bowls - again, what they give is fine, but I already had some of this and it was worth bringing. For instance - I have Yeti cups and tumblers with lids that were great for drinking hot coffee / tea.

  6. Your own kitchen knife. I bought one at REI for $15 that was awesome. The one they give isn’t very sharp, and if you are cooking and chopping a lot, you’ll appreciate your own.

  7. A lighter / matches

  8. If it will be cold, suggest bringing a sleeping bag to use with their blankets.

  9. You may want an extra pillow - available for $3.44 at Wal-mart

  10. Lanterns and lights. They don’t supply anything besides the back cooking one. Headlamps and little lanterns are a must-have.

  11. Basic cooking tools - an extra spatula, slotted spoon, bottle opener, chip clips, measuring cups…..

  12. Trash bags. I got small ones in a 36 pack that let us throw away the trash every day and keep the camper smelling lovely.

  13. Roll of quarters to do laundry

  14. Clothes pins (in case you want to do some sink laundry, or for the aforementioned hack)

  15. A multi-tool

  16. Car GPS

  17. Laundry bag

  18. Water bottles

  19. Aux input cable for the stereo

  20. Cord / rope for a rigging system

  21. Laundry detergent and dryer sheets

  22. Paper towels

  23. Dish soap

  24. Spare batteries for lanterns, flashlights, cameras, etc

  25. Wet wipes

  26. Hand sanitizer

  27. Aluminum foil

  28. A small tarp (in case it rains and you want to cook, you can rig it over the kitchen area)

  29. Flip flops (to wear in the showers at campgrounds)

  30. Towels

  31. Re-usable grocery bags (California charges per bag!)

A pair of microfiber towels from REI for drying dishes

A pair of microfiber towels from REI for drying dishes

Your imagination is the limit when it comes to van dinners. I steamed a pot of crab legs and shrimp, along with drawn butter and a local California wine!

Your imagination is the limit when it comes to van dinners. I steamed a pot of crab legs and shrimp, along with drawn butter and a local California wine!

Have fun! Van life is incredible, and will take you to some amazing places!

Have fun! Van life is incredible, and will take you to some amazing places!

What did I forget? If you have rented a van, send me your hacks to include!