The Backpacking Photographer

I have been hiking/backpacking in Washington, Oregon and Idaho all my life.  Reaching some of the most remote places on Earth with only you and your camera gear is a rewarding experience shared by few.  Sharing the moment, telling the story of your adventures and sharing them with others is equally rewarding and possibly one of the many reasons photographers travel to some of the most remote places on Earth, to tell their story. Reaching these remote destinations requires skill, discipline and unfortunately good gear.  Selecting the right camera gear along with minimizing weight for the long hike ahead is challenging, requiring careful preparation and planning.

Love It When A Plan Comes Together

For those who Remember the A-Team, the character John "Hannibal" Smith was famous for saying "Love It When A Plan Comes Together".  Hannibal and his soldiers of fortune  used their military training to devise ingenious plans to fight oppression or injustice.  Hannibal's plans rarely worked out the way he intended, but they did work in the end.  For the backpacking photographer, there is no substitue for planning.  Everything from planning your route, understanding the weather will directly impact the type of gear you bring, and yes even camera gear.  Additionally set goals for the trip.  If your goal is to capture amazing landscapes, it might be worth the weight to pack a super wide angle lens.  Or will there be macro photography opportunities, such as flowers or insects?  How about astro photography.  You can see where this is going. There are so many opportunities and your backpacking gear in addition to what you put in your photography kit is important.  But the point is, make a plan, but also make a plan that works including contingencies for things like weather.  

Additionally you will want to put together a backpacking gear check list.  This is critical especially if you have not gone backpacking in a while.  A gear list first and foremost identifies all the gear that you bring with you.  As part of a gear list, I even attach weights to each item so I know roughly how much I am packing.  All this can easily be done in your favorite spreadsheet program.  For me personally, the weights help me identify what is important and what is not.  

Route planning is another important aspect of backpacking in general.  Plan your route, where you will be staying and for how long.  This is not only important in order for you to reach your photography objectives, but you can share this information with a loved one and in case of emergency is useful for assisting emergency responders.  

The 10 Essentials Plus More

There are certain items that you need before you even start out on your next adventure.  The Ten essentials are considered by many the bare minimum for any forray into the outdoors.  Although I would agree with the list provided below, I would also say that everything is situational but I usually include some additional items, which I consider essential. 

  1. Map (Topographic map)
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp/flashlight
  6. First-aid supplies
  7. Firestarter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food

Additional Essential Items:

  1. Parachute cord
  2. Knife, but even better, a multi-tool such as a leatherman
  3. Hydration (you can live three days without water...)

My Gear

The Pack

The backpack is an important part of any backpacker's ensemble.  I would say if you have to make an upfront investment, this is one of them.  A backpack that fits improperly or is uncomfortable can create a bad overall experience.  I have really enjoyed packs from Osprey with their countoured straps, and customizable hip belt.  Osprey puts a lot of effort into creating comfortable packs.  Here is a tip, you dont need the latest and greatest packs.  You can find these packs at a variety of stores, used or last years model, so shop around.  A good pack can be expensive but worth it in my opinion.  Additionally one thing I like about this pack is the top comes off to make a fanny pack.  While I don't promote fanny packs from a stylistic perspective, they definitely have their utility.  

 

Find this Pack on Amazon.com

Cook Stove

I use the JetBoil.  It is compact and light.  I usually bring dehydrated meals, such as Back Pantry, Mountain House or similar brands. Simply boiling water in about a minute and enjoy a hot meal.  Everything with the JetBoil is self contained, compact and fairly light weight.   A fuel canister can last several meals if you are doing nothing more than boiling water.  

Check out the JetBoil on Amazon 

Hydration

There are a lot of debates among backpackers about how to properly treat water and what works best.  I believe some of the decision comes down to personal preference and your destination.  For most areas in the Pacific Northwest, a simple filter will suffice.  Other options include water treatment chemicals, which arguably are lighter, but sometimes the flavor left behind a bad taste.  That is why I prefer a filter.  I have tried many other filter systems, but these inline filters are the most compact.  Each person in the group can carry one of these.

Sawyer Products SP105 Mini Water Filtration System, Single, Black

Sleeping Bag

 I am a big fan of Mountain Hardware gear, especially their sleeping bags.  They provide really great value for the price.  I happen to own two Mountain Hardware sleeping bags, but the one I use the most is my light weight summer sleeping bag.  It is reasonably light and compact.   

Tent

I still remember backpacking with a canvas tent.  Fortunately my dad carried it and I am convinced that humans in the 19th century were born with abnormal strength.  However for us weaker generation of humans, we can rely on technology to make our backpacking trip feasible.  Ultralight tents are now on the market and they are very light.  I like the Big Agnes Fly Creek tents because they are super light.  I went on a hike a few summers back with some friends and most of them were using this same tent which created an interesting campsite situation...

Big Agnes - Fly Creek Ul 2 Person Tent


Sleeping Pad

This is one luxury item I usually dont compromise on.  I like my sleep and unfortunately sleeping on the ground leaves me grumpy and sore in the morning.  I usually spare my compatriots a morning of the grumpies by bringing the appropriate sleeping pad.  I like this particular pad because it is insulated and it is fairly thick.  I like to sleep on my side, so this pad has plenty of depth to prevent my shoulder dislocating from sleeping on the hard ground.  

Nemo Cosmo Air Sleeping Pad (Skyburst Orange) 25L

First Aid Kit

 No adventure is complete without a first aid kit.  Although a lot can go wrong, I usually bring a first aid kit to treat common issues such as blisters, mild sprains and cuts.  

Camera Gear

 Choosing the right camera gear is essential.  It is easy to pack too much gear.  What type of camera do you bring?  What about lens selection and finally for the landscape photographer, a tripod is necessary for those early morning and late evening shots, during what most photographers term the golden hour.  The best strategy is to do your research.  Figure out what you hope to acheive and select the best equipment for the job.  For example, a long climb up Mt Rainier, you might carry a smaller camera, with a more versatile lens, suited for capturing the breath taking views from the top of the mountain, or alternatively you want to capture your fellow commrads as they endeavor to reach the summit.  Both those types of situations require different types of lenses.  Landscapes, are typically suited for wide angle lenses which are good at capturing the entirety of the landscape.  While capturing members of your expedition team might require a heavier 70-200mm lens.  You may not be able to carry all these lenses and reach the summit.   

My current strategy is to use one camera body combined with three manual focus prime lenses, 21mm, 35mm, and 85mm.  The total weight of my camera kit comes in at 1,953 grams or 4.3 pounds.  This does sound like a lot of weight and I do give up flexibility of a zoom lens.  I have chosen not to use "all in one" zoom lenses because the image quality suffers, but that is also another option.  And I stay away from lenses like the Sony 24-70 f/2.8 GM series lens because they are just plain heavy at 1.95 pounds or 886 grams.  

Camera Body

I prefer to keep my camera kit small.  I have found mirroless cameras to be the best in terms of performance, price and weight.  Camera systems such as Micro 4/3 are also good choices, but the sensor tends to be smaller than even the APS-C cameras such as the Canon EOS lines.  

For landscape photography I prefer the  Sony mirrorless camera systems.  These systems provide a fairly compact package with all the pixels you will ever need.  And for landscape photography, especially high dynamic range photography, the Sony A7R/A7RII are spectacular choices. 

Sony a7R II Full-Frame Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera, Body Only (Black) (ILCE7RM2/B)

Lens Selection

I prefer fixed focal length or prime lenses because usually their optical quality is exellent in addition to smaller sizes and reduced weight.  I find this optimal for most of my landscape compositions I am interested in.  However many photographers may prefer autofocus lenses and there are certainly many options available.  

Wide Angle Lens

The Zeiss Loxia 21mm is an excellent lens that I take with me when shooting landscapes.  It is not super wide, but wide enough for the majority of shots I take.  This is a manual focus lens made for the Sony E-mount cameras. While I do like autofocus lenses for many situations, when shooting landscapes I prefer the additional control manual focus lens provides.  I get to decide what is in focus not some silly sensor.  

Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 Lens for Sony E Mount

Normal Lens

The Zeiss Loxia 35mm is also an excellent lens.  I prefer this over the 50mm because I find it more practical for a lot of photography I do.  The added bonus of this lens is that it has a short focus distance so it can do some close up work in a pinch.   Like the 21mm sibling, this lens is built very well.  I prefer this lens over the 50mm because it is wide enough to still take some amazing landscape photos while still capable of being used in a variety of situations.  Usually when hiking, this lens is on my camera the entire time.  

Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2 Biogon T Lens for Sony E Mount & Alpha 7 Cameras

Telephoto Lens 

The Zeiss lineup also has a new addition, the Zeiss Loxia 85mm.  While a bit heavier and maybe not the best performer in terms of Bokeh or depth of field, it is a smaller lens and performs excellent in terms of sharpness.  I enjoy this lens for capturing people shots or certain lanscape shots.   In these situations, the depth of field, f/2.4 is not a limitation for my compositions.

Zeiss Loxia 85mm f/2.4 Sonnar T Lens for Sony E Mount 

Conclusion

Weight is an obvious consideration when backpacking with a camera.   There are lighter options including many fine point and shoot cameras.  For a long time I used the Sony NEX 7 with the 18-55 kit lens with great success.  I have since adopted the aforementioned kit as I have acquired different gear.  However just know everyone is different and this is one of many options available when combining photography and backpacking.