Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Trail Photography

There are a number of options here, and your choice will depend on why you take pictures – and the extent to which you want photography to dominate your backcountry experience. The variables – and to some extent they are mutually exclusive – are price, optical quality, versatility and features, size and weight.

A warning… or perhaps an invitation? Backcountry photography can easily come to dominate your packpacking experience if you begin to slip past merely taking snapshots to record your adventure. On the plus side, it focuses (unintended pun) your attention and awareness much more deeply than might otherwise be the case – you begin to notice every little shape of cloud, texture of rock, color of plant, line of ridge and so on. I see much more and much more intensely when I’m carrying a camera and on the prowl for images. On the other hand, you may find that this interferes with other parts of the backpacking experience. First, and significantly, you will carry pounds – possibly many pounds – of extra stuff. Once you slip over the edge and become a tripod-toting, multiple-lens using photo-freak your pack weight will increase significantly. And, in order to keep the equipment handy you are likely to end up with gear hanging from your neck, belt, and pack. And your mileage will diminish. On average, I think it is fair to say that I cover about half the normal distance when I’m focused on photography (another bad pun!) and sometimes less. It is even possible to spend an entire day exploring a single lake. But maybe that is a good thing…

I have come full circle over the years. Many years ago photography was almost my primary reason for backcountry travel. In fact, there was a time when my wife and I took long Sierra trips and carried two cameras, multiple lenses, close-up extension tubes, tripods, filters and perhaps 20 or more rolls of film.

Eventually I got tired of carrying all the extra gear and of feeling obligated to record every experience, and I began to take fewer photos. I reduced my backcountry photo kit to a single miniature Rollei 35 camera and later replaced it with a small Olympus Zoom camera, either of which could be carried in a small bag on my belt.

Lately I’ve been focusing on photography (bad pun!) again during my backcountry travels and adopting the habit described above.

Here are some equipment options to consider.

  • Some people don’t take a camera because they feel – with some justification – that it can interfere with the full experience of the backcountry. I sympathize, but I still virtually always carry a camera.
  • Friends of mine sometimes carry small disposable cameras. The quality is pretty poor but you can record your adventure on them, and they are small and light and it isn’t a tragedy if you damage or lose one.
  • I used to carry a small 35mm SLR camera with telephoto, macro tubes, and a small tripod. This was a great setup and I have lots of great (and lots more not-so-great) slides from trips going back many years. However, this eventually ended up being too much trouble (and weight) and I gave it up.
  • Later I got a very small Rollei 35 camera – a very small, completely mechanical camera that almost fit in my pocket – a backcountry photography classic.
  • Later I replaced the Rollei with a very nice little Olympus compact film camera.
  • A few years ago I made the switch to digital and I haven’t looked back. My first good digital camera for backpacking was an Olympus D-40 Zoom, a small 4 megapixel camera that runs on 2 AA batteries. This camera takes surprisingly good pictures – most of the photos on this site prior to April 2004 were taken with this camera.
  • Though I don’t use one, I’ve seen quite a few people using very compact digital cameras – tiny enough to fit in a pocket. Given their small size and extremely light weight, these can be great cameras for recording your adventure – though they fall a bit short for creating images that can be enlarged and hung on the wall. Battery life also tends to be somewhat short with these models, a problem that is compounded by their reliance on odd proprietary rechargable batteries. If you go out for a weekend and take a few shots this won’t be a problem. If you go out for a week or two and take lots of pictures you are going to need lots of batteries.
  • In April 2004 I purchased a very nice Canon Powershot Pro1 digital camera. It is a bit larger than the D-40 but smaller than a 35mm SLR. It weighs a bit more than 1 pound. Its 8 megapixel images are very good and the 7:1 zoom covers plenty of ground. The only downside is that it requires proprietary batteries and will not run on AA batteries.
  • In early 2005 I joined the digital SLR movement by purchasing the Canon Rebel XT (a.k.a. 350D).
  • Two years later, in early 2007, I threw caution to the winds and acquired the full-frame Canon 5D.

My lightweight 2004 backcountry photography kit (which I still use on occasion) included:

  • Canon Powershot Pro 1 camera with neck strap and lens cap
  • Small padded LowePro camera bag for camera and a few accessories
  • Multiple 1 GB compact flash cards
  • Extra rechargable battery with contact cover for longer trips
  • Clear UV and polarizing filters, kept in small case attached to my belt or inside a belt pocket pack
  • Velbon Maxi-sf tripod
  • Lens cleaning fluid and cloth
  • Remote control for camera
  • Small semi-hard case for small accessories, extra memory cards, and extra batteries

In 2005 I moved to a DSLR system that has largely supplanted the one described above. Before long it included:

  • Canon Digital Rebel XT 8 megapixel DSLR
  • Canon EF 17-40 f4L lens, Canon EF 24-105 f/4 L IS lens, Canon EF 50mm f1.4 lens, Canon EF 70-200mm f4 L lens – or a subset of these lenses.
  • Velbon 540 Carmagne tripod (“Carmagne” = carbon fiber and magnesium)
  • Acratech Ballhead
  • Polarizing filter
  • Many CF cards – up to 7.5 GB (about 800 images shooting 8 megapixel RAW images on the Rebel XT)
  • Batteries – up to 3
  • Canon wired remote
  • Assorted cleaning and maintenance products
  • Extra lens cap and body cap
  • Small Tamrac Zoom or Lowepro Toploader bag for camera – worn under pack sternum strap

Since that time I have begun to take my photography more and more seriously, and it has become a (the?) major focus of my backpacking. Consequently my gear has undergone another series of changes:

  • Canon Digital 5D 12megapixel full-frame DSLR
  • Canon EF 17-40 f4L lens, Canon EF 24-105 f/4 L IS lens, Canon EF 50mm f1.4 lens, Canon EF 70-200mm f4 L lens – or a subset of these lenses.
  • Induro C313 carbon fiber tripod or the Velbon mentioned above, especially on longer trips and where weight/bulk are otherwise issues.
  • Acratech Ballhead
  • Polarizing filter
  • Many CF cards – up to 20+ GB
  • Batteries – up to 5
  • Canon wired remote
  • Assorted cleaning and maintenance products
  • Extra lens cap and body cap
  • Lowepro Toploader bag for camera – worn under pack sternum strap. (It holds the 5D and both lenses, just barely.)
  • Additional Lowepro lens cases – if I carry more than my basic two lenses.

I have not weighed this setup yet but the full kit is certainly well beyond the 10 pound range. Sigh. However, the image quality is noticably better and I can produce gallery quality prints at rather large sizes.

On the trail

  • I carry the camera in the Lowepro Topload case attached via a chest harness. I tend to run the bag’s straps underneath the sternum strap of my backpack to help keep the camera close to my body. I keep one extra memory card and the electronic remote in this bag with the camera.
  • I carry the small bag containing the filters, lens cap, and lens cleaning cloth in a small bag attached to my pack belt. Alternatively I may carry filters in a small filter case attached to the camera bag.
  • Additional lenses live in padded cases inside the backpack.
  • I keep the tripod attached to the backpack. I wish I could keep the tripod more accessible since this system pretty much requires removal of the pack. I do not have a good solution to this yet – so I make do.
  • A small pack or pack pocket containing extra accessories such as batteries and additional memory cards rides in the top pocket of my backpack. (Be careful to bring some of this equipment along on long day hikes. It won’t do you any good if you leave it back at your base camp.)

A hint for those who wish they could be Ansel Adams but who don’t want to carry view cameras: With a decent digital camera that will shoot in RAW mode (uncompressed format) and a small tripod you can stitch together multiple images to create very large and high quality images. I sometimes shoot exceptional scenes as 2 or more overlapping exposures that I can stitch together in Photoshop. Be sure to use manual camera settings – rather than automatic – to ensure consistency of color, exposure, and focus among the shots. The quality can be quite good, but there are some downsides to be aware of. You will consume the storage capacity of your memory cards much more quickly. You’ll need to carry extra batteries. The process is time consuming in the field and back home in front of the computer – this is not for snap-shooters.

Film or digital camera?

I suppose my answer is obvious by now. At this point in time I really believe that digital has the advantage for almost all users. Two exceptions are, oddly enough, found at opposite ends of the photography spectrum: users of cheap “disposable” film cameras and those admirable characters who tote large format view cameras into the backcountry. (Who also, by the way, typically scan the resulting film images into their computers before using digital techniques to prepare and print them.) One situation that may demand film is a trip so long that you cannot possibly carry sufficient batteries for digital photography. The advantages of digital photography in other cases are compelling.

At the low end, an inexpensive digital camera with a couple of memory cards will let you take hundreds of photos and free you from ever having to buy film again. You can probably afford to share your results with more people electronically than if you had to print pictures for all of them. If you will only make small prints or, more likely, post pictures on the web or email them, a simple 3 or 4 megapixel camera may be all you need.

Ultra-light backpackers who want to record their experience will find that the lightest and smallest options are now digital. Some of the newest compact cameras are incredibly tiny, and the best of them take quite decent photos.

Those with more serious aspirations can use one of the “prosumer” “digicams” which, like my Powershot Pro 1, can take very good pictures indeed. These cameras are so versatile that they may eliminate the need to carry extra lenses or close-up lenses. (For example, the built-in lens on my Pro 1 covers a 35mm-equivalent range from a 28mm zoom to a 200mm telephoto.) Such cameras are also small and light, at least in comparison to SLR models. Many of them will let you shoot in uncompressed “RAW” mode so that you’ll have the best possible images to work with when you return home.

Digital SLRs with 8-10 megapixel cropped sensors are replacing SLR film cameras for quality photography. Those with investments in film SLR cameras may find that they can at least bring their old lenses into the digital age by using them on one of the new cameras. The sky is the limit in terms of quality… and price. Photographers with deep pockets and the willingness to carry the weight can get SLRs that will produce up to 21+ megapixel images. Medium format digital backs with 20 to nearly 40 megapixel resolution are available – for about the price of a new car. (In some cases, a rather expensive car.) But beware – head too far down this path and your focus may shift from backpacking to photography as the weight of your pack doubles.

One of the biggest advantages of digital photography is that the cost of film is not an issue once you purchase enough memory cards. This allows you to take many more pictures and to learn from experience. On a day-hike I may shoot the equivalent of two rolls of 35mm film. I could never have afford to do that with film. I can transfer the images to the computer as soon as I get home and immediately get to work on the pictures while the experience is still fresh in my mind. On several occasions I have noticed something about such a picture, lamented the fact that I could have taken the shot differently, and then gone back the next day to try again.

A bit more about my choice of digital SLR (DSLR) cameras…

First, I am uninterested in debates about which brand to buy. As I write this, there are excellent DSLR systems available from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, and probably others. Since I happen to use Canon, my perspectives are based on the equipment that they offer.

Most current DSLRs are “crop sensor” cameras, which use digital sensors whose surface are is somewhat smaller than that of 35mm film. These crop sensor cameras can produce outstanding image quality – most photographers agree that it will be better than 35mm film. My first DSLR was the Canon Rebel XT (a.k.a. 350D), which has since been supplanted by the XTi/400D – the former being an 8 megapixel camera and the latter a 10 megapixel camera. I looked at the more expensive (and somewhat larger and heavier) Canon 20D (eventually replaced by the similar 30D and now the 40D) but chose the Digital Rebel instead because it is significantly less expensive, it has virtually the same image quality, it is smaller and nearly a half pound lighter, it has all the features I really needed, and it works with the same high-quality Canon lenses. (Another factor is that digital camera bodies are, in a sense, disposable. In the days of film cameras, nothing much changed that would compel one to replace cameras very often. However, now that the “film” is a digital sensor built into the camera, the rapid pace of improvement in sensors leads to more frequent camera replacement. I’d rather replace a $880 camera body than a $1320 camera body in 18-24 months. And right now I’d rather invest the cost difference in good lenses.)

Since that time I have upgraded to a full-frame Canon 5D. This camera uses a larger sensor than the crop-sensor camera, a sensor that is essentially the same size as 35mm film. For a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, this camera lets me capture higher quality images. Unfortunately, it is also heavier and larger… and much more expensive.

In my dreams I imagine a very small medium-format view camera with a 25-35 megapixel back that would only weigh a few pounds. It could happen.

Of course, there is more to becoming the next Ansel Adams than acquiring a fancy camera…


1 Comment

  1. […] When I wrote my earlier post – before coffee, I think – I completely forgot that there is an extensive page right on this site that addresses a bunch of backpacking photography stuff. If you want to find out more, take a look. […]

    Pingback by dan’s outside » Trail Photography Pages | December 7, 2007

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