Rider’s Lens: Expedition Conservation with Joel Caldwell

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Joel Caldwell is an expedition photographer and writer based in New York City. He often uses outdoor adventure to tell conservation stories from around the globe. In this edition of Rider’s Lens, he shares some of his favorite images from the field…

Words and photos by Joel Caldwell (@joelwcaldwell)

I was led to Expedition Photography as a way to fuse my interests in travel and conservation. I traveled a lot in my early twenties but it was a bit aimless, I was getting to know myself more than anything. As I’ve gotten older and developed opinions about the world, I’ve also developed a sense of responsibility—not only to enjoy natural places but also to do what I can to see to their protection. I have found travel with purpose to be far more rewarding, essential to my happiness, and full of opportunities to connect with people around the world over a shared sense of giving-a-damn.

Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Kokopelli

  • Joel Caldwell's Expedition Photography
  • Joel Caldwell's Expedition Photography

I love telling stories of human change. Over the past three years I’ve been documenting snow leopard conservation in Central Asia and witnessed, first hand, a shift in local perspective. Pamiri people who once viewed the leopard as a threat, nothing more than competition for survival, now view the elusive predator with real reverence, respect, and a sense of pride. Correspondingly, I’ve witnessed people transition from poacher to ranger, protecting the species through the prevention of over-hunting of its prey. In the process, I’ve learned about ecology and the tricky balance of improving conditions for wildlife while also appreciating the challenges faced by people and their desire for a better quality of life.

  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography
  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography
  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography

Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography

Traveling by bicycle is the best. The low speed of travel and inherent vulnerability has forced me into unexpected situations, experiences I wouldn’t have were I simply hopping from destination to destination. I often find the in-between places to be the most interesting, the interactions along the way are the most rich. Forced from my comfort zone, I have a much deeper experience. Somehow, the ups and downs of bicycle travel, the suffering, and earning the miles seems to squeeze years into months and months into days. It’s like time travel.

  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Kyrgyzstan
  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Kyrgyzstan Tea

Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Mongolia

  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Mongolia
  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Mongolia
  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Mongolia

I hope that expedition photography will continue to take me to remote, off-the-beaten-path places and to stories worth telling. I love the contrast of spending time somewhere intensely rural and then returning to the big city. It’s like an ice bath – living within these two extremes helps me better understand the world. I’m currently working on a trip to western Africa, which would be my first time to the continent.

  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Tajikistan
  • Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Kyrgyzstan

Joel’s Expedition Photography Kit

One body (typically Canon 5D). Two to three lenses (50mm, 24-105, 70-200 if I can handle the weight/space). I always have a camera strapped to my chest using Peak Design’s amazingly durable Capture Clip. Unfortunately, I typically carry the other lens or two on my back.

Photo Breakdown

Alai Valley, Kyrgyzstan, 2016. I was photographing Kyrgyz rangers of the Saidi-Tagnob Conservancy. They train dogs to detect bits of ibex antler, snow leopard pelt, and other animal artifacts to catch poachers and smugglers along the Tajik border. This girl and her brother were sneaking around, shyly watching us work. I love this image because of the contrast of the girl, the dress, and the surroundings. I love her mischievous expression, and the fact that she was trying to slip away while clearly wanting to be photographed.

Joel Caldwell Expedition Photography Kyrgyzstan

Joel Caldwell

About Joel Caldwell

Joel Caldwell is an expedition photographer and writer based in New York City. He often uses outdoor adventure to tell conservation stories from around the globe. Find more of Joel’s work at JoelCaldwell.com or on Instagram @joelwcaldwell.

  • I was glad to see that last photo in the breakdown… that’s one of my favorites of yours!!

  • Dan Bader

    Hey Joel, I am currently packing and planning for my first bike trip, 2.5 weeks in west and central Cuba. I would really love to bring my DSLR and 2 or 3 lenses but am paranoid about damage/theft and right now leaning towards bringing my Cyber-shot instead. I will not be carrying a backpack – do you have recommendations on packing lenses in a pannier and how do you find riding with such a heavy camera on your chest (I assume you’re only riding with the 50mm on there….)

  • Hey Dan. I’ll chime in here as I carried a DSLR across Cuba with a minimal bikepacking setup. I used a backpack and the Peak Design chest mount. I brought a 35 f/1.4 and a 135 f/2. Both are brick lenses and I had no problem. If you are going to put a camera on the bike (and not in a backpack), beware that vibrations can damage it over time. I killed a Canon 6D doing that in Africa (I used a Porcelain Rocket DSLR Slinger). That said, a 5D is tougher than a 6D and Cass Gilbert has had good luck carrying his padded with a sleeping bag in a handlebar mounted long-flap saddlebag. There are a lot of option—and I have tried many—but, unfortunately, none of them are perfect. I would recommend looking into the Crumpler Haven (M or L) as an insert though… I use the M in my backpack regularly.

  • Dan Bader

    Thanks Logan, I’ll check those out. I would be carrying a 7D mk2. I had been considering just trying to lash my lowepro topload to the bars somehow, which basically is what the PR slinger has done I guess. Backpack seems ideal, but given the heat in April, I’d really love to do without one.

  • You could always do something like this to modify a bag, too: http://www.bikepacking.com/gear/camera-handlebar-bag-diy/

  • Mark Troup

    The “where to carry my camera” question seems to have as many answers as people that you ask. The setup I’m messing with at the moment is to carry my camera in an Arcteryx Lunara 10L sling pack. I can comfortably carry it on my back while riding, and if a shot opportunity comes up I can just twist the pack quickly around to the front, without taking it off. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best system I’ve found for me so far.

  • Skyler

    I really think hip packs (aka fanny packs) are the option to beat when it comes to carrying a camera while riding. You can spin it around and get at the camera quickly (I even do so while riding), it’s on your body and insulated from vibration, and it avoids the considerable back/shoulder sweat of a backpack. Look for the bigger ones to fit a DSLR and a lens or two.

  • Doug Reilly

    Your photographs are excellent, Joe, and you have a new instagram follower! I love that out of the small portfolio here, there are so many faces…along with the parts of the earth we get to see, it’s the faces that make travel so worthwhile. Long before I cycled I discovered that traveling out of the way was the most rewarding thing. In Sivas, Turkey, which is not particularly remote but not considered noteworthy either, someone asked me, “Why did you come to Sivas?” I struggled to come up with a quick answer, but later I thought, “Because you asked me that!” There was a great caravanseri covered in blue tile that was in no guidebook, and I spent the day with a pair of guys who taught me basic Turkish. It was a great experience and a powerful lesson…going where you are not expected is a lot of fun, and it throws off the normal routines for everyone, which allows for moments of connection to happen.

    On the camera front, I am curious why I don’t hear as much about mirrorless cameras and Bikepacking, as they would seem to be a great combination. A kit consisting of an Olympus or Panasonic m4/3 body and three tiny prime lenses takes up about as much space as a full frame body, and probably weighs less. I use a Canon M3 (I guess it’s like the Sivas of cameras, not really noteworthy but takes fine, fine photos) with a single prime and it fits in a pocket or a feed bag. Anyway, just a thought, I spent a lot of years with the m4/3 system and it’s really great.

  • Cass Gilbert

    I’m not a fannypackfan myself for camera use. Maybe if it’s a more minimal mirrorless camera. But for a DLSR and a relatively chunky zoom lens, they don’t feel stable enough and put too much weight on my belly (for light stuff, they’re great).

    Gorgeous pics! Love the Kyrgz portraits.

  • Cass Gilbert

    IMO… as good as M43 is, especially when teamed with nice primes, it’s just not a match for a pro DSLR body. Not to say there’s not a bunch of other advantages, but for IQ alone, full frame cameras still rules. I’m assuming Joe puts that at the top of his list of requirements. And the gear you have is the gear you use.

    I think most bikepackers have moved over to mirrorless though, be it M43, Sony, or Fuji. For lightweight trips, I now use a Fuji XT-2… but I still love my Canon 5D if I can bring myself to lug it around.

  • Kevin Machtelinckx

    Logan’s got a good point about the vibrations if storing the camera on the bike. If doing that, I’ve found the best is to store the camera in some sort of bag that rests on top of or in front of a handlebar harness. Ideally, the harness is housing a tent/sleeping bag/pad or other soft stuff. The bag with the camera can then comfortably rest on top of the soft harness contents, mitigating vibration damage. On my Salsa Vaya, I’ve packed a soft handlebar roll, then used the MOLLE straps of an F-Stop Navin to wrap around the handlebars and rest on the handlebar roll (see photos).

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c1aedd25ab73234144b5067c235d407fb2a9b160ce2ed15f4d21b79d08340973.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/08fff316599b00dd9e3f7223d6d133b0cb6f35a11eea5cdc413fa68f7dc97585.jpg

    On my Salsa Fargo, the cable routing doesn’t allow me to do that so much. I’ve now reverted to a Porcelain Rocket Horton harness, with the waterproof accessory pocket to store the camera and a lens. For a small mirrorless set up (I’m using an a6500 + 16-70mm), it fits nicely. I’ll be testing this set up in Morocco over the next couple months. If you don’t see any photos from me… well I guess you’ll know it didn’t work out. Fingers crossed.

  • Dan Bader

    Great set up, thanks! I’m not using a front roll on this trip as we are not camping. I will be running a RD Egress on the bars, so maybe mounting the camera bag on top with my rain jacket inside will help.

    I really just want it to be easy access. If it goes in a pannier it may as well stay at home I think.

  • NezaP

    These are great, Joel you are a big inspiration!

  • Dan Bader

    My RD Pocket came in yesterday, and the toploader camera bag fits nicely in front of that and rests comfortably on my shoes lashed to the top of my Nice front rack. Looks good, feels stable and should be relatively insulated at both contact points. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • I arrived at that idea for carrying a Leica M4-2 and 35 f2 lens. I have a Porcelain Rocket booty bag (which is the funniest name I can come up with for fanny/hip packs) that fits the camera, a light meter, small (dyneema!) bag of film and some other junk. It was branded with a Hunter Cycles patch, but I removed that.
    I started with Newswear pouches, which come from my photojournalism work, but discovered a whole world of booty bags from within the bikepacking community and the overlapping periphery. So far, the bag is perfect and it just disappears when I pedal, and when I use it for photography work away from the bike.

  • Stephen Poole

    For travelling I can’t face carrying anything bigger than a Panasonic GM5, which fits into a Revelate Egress pocket with a couple of extra lenses. If I was going to carry something “heavy” it’d still be M43…

    Capture Clips work well on backpack straps for trekking or skiing, but I’d be bashing the camera with my knees if I tried that cycling; YMMV. If the camera is actually inside a backpack it tends to stay there, so no pics, and not much point lugging the weight. In nasty conditions something small and waterproof that’s easy to access is useful.

  • Joel Caldwell

    Hey Man,

    I keep lenses in my backpack within a padded case and then the camera itself strapped to my chest or in the backpack. My thoughts are, yes the gear could get damaged/stolen, but if you don’t take it with you then it’s just collecting dust at home. Roll the dice!

  • Joel Caldwell

    Thank you!