My Backpacking Photography Equipment

Posted on 26 August 2007

(Note: I have updated this article periodically since I originally wrote it a few years back. See a note at the end of the post for update info and other notes.)

I do a significant amount of backpacking every summer. Almost every season I spend three weeks or more on the trail in the Sierra Nevada in addition to other non-backpacking trips to the Sierra and elsewhere. (It helps to be a “gainfully unemployed” college faculty member for a couple months each summer. :-) I’ve been a backpacker for nearly five decades, and I’ve evolved (and continue to evolve) an approach to backpacking photography that works well for me.

Decades ago, I carried a couple of small 35mm film cameras and a few prime lenses on the trail. (I think my favorites were a Pentax ME Super and a Pentax MX with a small set of primes, a tele-extender, and some extension tubes. But I digress….) Some years later, when I first used a digital SLR,  I worked out a pretty good back-country photography kit based on a small “Rebel” style  Canon 350D/XTi. For many photographers there are real advantages in using one of the smaller cropped sensor bodies – less bulk, less weight, smaller lenses, and quite fine photographic quality. One of the four-thirds system bodies can also be a great compromise for some. However, before long I switched to full frame, and acquiring a full-frame 5D forced me to think more carefully about what I carry.

(Update: In early 2013 I acquired the Fujifilm X-E1 Digital Camera along with a few of the excellent Fujinon lenses. This is a rangefinder-style mirrorless camera with an APS-C cropped sensor. The camera body is very small and light, and the lenses tend to be smaller as well. Camera and lenses are of very high quality and this rig can produce great photographs. This could be a very viable back-country camera kit for lots of photographers. The Fujifilm X PRO-1 could be a slightly more versatile alternative to the X-E1. Perhaps the only real downside to these bodies is that the batteries don’t last as long as those on typical DSLRs – and that they have cropped sensors, which are fine for almost all users, but not for some of the most critical photographers who are willing to carry more weight. Update 4/9/14: Fujifilm continues to update and introduce new cameras, so there are now more lenses and newer bodies including the X-E2 update to my X-E1 and the reportedly-excellent X-T1.)

While I would like to have all of my gear with me, the load would be unmanageable. (At least at this stage of my life. When I was young, strong, and foolish in different ways than I am now, I would sometimes head out onto the trail with loads weighing up to 75 pounds. No more!) Ironically, while I have lightened my load of backpacking equipment considerably during recent years – moving more in the “ultra-light” direction – my photographic equipment load has increased. The bottom line is that I consider very carefully what I carry, considering the upsides and downsides of each piece of equipment and occasionally making compromises if I think a piece of gear can be left behind on a given trip.

Here’s what I might carry these days:

  • Canon 5D Mark II (Canon has replaced this model with the Canon 5D Mark III. I previously used a Canon 5D) – Heavier and bulkier than the cropped sensor bodies, but worth it to me for the higher resolution and the better small aperture performance. If I were replacing it today (June 2013) I would get the newer Canon 5D Mark III or the Nikon D800 if I were a Nikon shooter.  (Canon 5D Mark III at B&H)*
  • Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS L lens – This is a great standard lens for my purposes. If I’m willing to forego a bit of reach the 105mm can be enough for most shots. The 24mm wide end is also wide enough for many situations. The inclusion of image-stabilization (IS) means that I can more successfully shoot handheld when necessary – as can be the case when I’m on the move. The f/4 aperture is fine, especially in combination with the IS. For this type of lens, the weight and size are not too bad at all. When I need to really keep the weight down I may take only this lens. (I also have the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L II, but I would generally prefer the 24-105 for back-country use—though there are some possible exceptions.) (Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS at B&H)
  • Canon 17-40mm f/4 L lens – While the 24-105 stays on the camera most of the time, the 17-40 is my preferred lens for some types of landscape work, often done early or late in the day when I’m not carrying the backpack and can therefore more easily work slowly and with a tripod. Since I generally shoot this lens in the f/8-f/16 range it provides great sharpness and DOF. When I take two lenses – my most common set-up – either this lens or the 70-200mm f/4 accompanies my 24-105. (Canon EF 17-40mm f/4 L at B&H)
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS Lens – This is a wonderful and very useful lens. Not only does it provide almost twice the “reach” of the 24-105, but it is an admirable lens for close-up work where the longer focal length can provide narrower DOF and good bokeh. I hate to leave this lens at home on longer trips, and I often carry it on trips of a few days or base camp trips mostly devoted to photography. This lens gets its own padded Lowepro case and usually rides inside my main backpack. The IS feature allows me to more successfully use this lens hand held – though I’m perhaps less likely to do that in the back-country than in more civilized circumstances.  (I used the non-IS version of this lens for many years, and it is also a great performer, especially since I most often used it on the tripod. Also, I have the f/2.8 L II version of the lens. It is excellent for many things, but it provides no benefits for back-country photography and the significant downsides of much greater weight and much larger size. I cannot imagine carrying it into the back-country.) (Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM Lens)
  • 77mm circular polarizing filter – This size fits the 17-40 and the 24-105mm lenses and will work on the 70-200 with a step-up ring.
  • 77mm 9-stop neutral density filter -  This is a useful filter for certain types of images that require longer daytime exposures.
  • Batteries – I take a lot of photographs sometimes, and I also like to do night photography. I don’t want to be caught short, so I typically carry at least three batteries and sometimes more, especially if I think I’ll be doing night photography and/or using Live View a lot on the 5D2. Despite the cost of additional batteries, for my purposes this is still a better bet than carrying fewer batteries and adding a solar charging system. (Keep in mind that reliable solar charging systems are not inexpensive, weigh as much as several batteries, and still require you to bring alone your charger. The charger solution likely makes a lot of sense once you get to the point where you might have to carry more than a half dozen batteries or if you are simply going to be “out there” for a very long time.)
  • Multiple 16GB or 32GB CF cards - I carry a lot more than I think I’ll actually need since cards are light (and relatively inexpensive these days) and I’d rather not run out of storage capacity. As card prices continue to decrease and capacities increase, I would consider moving to larger cards. (In fact, I have moved to larger cards for my smaller Fujifilm camera.) Some people like to use fewer cards, offload images to portable storage devices, and then reuse the cards. My thinking here is perhaps similar to that for batteries in that I would generally prefer to carry enough cards that I don’t have to do this. Cards have become quite inexpensive and they are very small and light. External storage is not cheap nor is it light, and it has its own significant power requirements.
  • Tripod - A backpacking tripod almost by necessity requires some attention to compromises among size, weight, cost, reliability, and stability. For non-backpacking use I prefer a very large and rather heavy tripod that I would not want to carry or try to attach to the pack I use for backpacking. So while I miss the solid functionality of that tripod, issues of weight and packed size lead me to use smaller and lighter gear in this case. Photographers will be comfortable with different types of compromises here, so the choice of the right tripod will be a very individual and subjective one. The story for me recently (2011) changed, so I’ll break it out into two sections:
    • Gitzo 2542L “Mountaineer” Tripod - Although not every backpacking photographer needs such a large and expensive tripod, I prefer this relatively tall Gitzo model. With four-section legs it packs to a reasonable – though not exactly tiny – size, yet when legs are fully extended it holds my camera at eye level. I use a center column so that it will go even higher or accommodate uneven ground. The Gitzo Mountaineer models have a well-deserved reputation for great construction and for providing stable camera support. After using it extensively during the second half of 2011, including an 8-day backcountry photography trip in the Yosemite Sierra, I can recommend it without hesitation.  (Gitzo GT2542L Tripod at B&H)
    • Velbon El Carmagne 540 carbon fiber tripod legs – (I’m very unlikely to use this for my purposes now that I have the Gitzo tripod mentioned above. However, since it an example of a viable and less expensive alternative I will leave the description here for informational purposes.) While this setup is smaller than what I prefer to use in other situations, it provides a workable combination of decent height, stability, light weight, and small packed size for backpacking. Because it has four leg sections it packs fairly small and easily stows on the outside or back of any of my packs. (By the way, this brand and model of tripod might seem like an odd choice for someone doing the sort of photography I do, but the darn thing really does work well, pack well, as is light.)
  • Acratech Ultimate Ballhead – This tripod head weighs only about one pound and works very well – this is a great backpacking ballhead, and one that I can use for some of my “regular” photography as well.
  • Lowepro Toploader Zoom AW bag – I use this with a chest harness to hold the 5D plus the 24-105 (with hood), along with most of the other photo gear. The bag is sturdy and includes a rain-cover – though the whole thing can go into my main pack in case of truly bad weather. (The 17-40 could ride in the backpack in a smaller Lowepro lens case, but most often it fits crosswise into the bottom of the Topload bag.)
  • Canon remote release
  • Assorted accessories – Lens cleaning cloth, sensor brush, blower, Philips wrench, etc.

I never have had the courage to weigh the whole mess, but I think it is somewhere in the 12-15 pound range. By the standards of my ultra-light backpacker friends (whose total base load may be 12-15 pounds!) this is an outrageous amount to carry. On the other hand, fellow photographers may be wondering how I managed to get by with only limited lenses and a small tripod! (In August 2008 I met a fellow at Moraine Lake in SEKI who was carrying two Nikon DSLR bodies and four lenses! Later that summer I met an experienced Yosemite back-country photographer equipped with three complete systems: full-frame DSLR, medium format digital, and large format film! Not surprisingly he had arrived with the assistance of a pack train. I have several times met another well-known and highly regarded black and white photographer and his wife in the backcountry, and each of them carries more than 30 pounds of medium format film gear. I guess all of this makes me a photographic wimp!)

There area some things that I do not take:

  • I do somewhat miss my full size Induro C313 tripod, but not nearly as much as I expected – and certainly not enough to carry the extra bulk and weight. My Gitzo mountaineer is perhaps a tiny bit more spindly, but it really is a solid tripod.
  • I usually do not miss my longer and heavier 100-400mm zoom. I may have missed a very small number of shots by leaving it at home, but I’m generally more interested in short telephoto to wide angle in the back-country. (As I mentioned above, I do often take the 70-200mm f/4 on shorter trips when I’m willing to carry a bit of extra weight. I might take the 100-400 instead of the 70-200 if I were headed into an area where knew that the extra reach would be needed – for example, if certain wildlife opportunities were my goal – but I would begrudge the weight!)
  • I do not take large aperture f/2.8 zoom lenses. I own the excellent Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II and the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II… but I prefer the 24-105 and the f/4 70-200 in the back-country.
  • I do not carry primes. Although I own more primes than zooms, the zooms provide excellent image quality, far more flexibility, require fewer lens changes, and are probably not really much if any heavier than carrying an equivalent range of high quality primes.

The large Lowepro Topload bag with the chest harness is (pardon the awful pun) a mixed bag. It really is a fine product and the chest harness system is effective. You can even use it as a virtual shoulder bag by disconnecting a couple of the four strap attachment points. It is great to be able to fit much of my photo equipment into one sturdy, weather-resistant, manageable and accessible bag. There are downsides, though – not the fault of Lowepro, but just the result of trying to accommodate all of the needs of the backpacking photographer with one bag. One unavoidable issue is the size of the bag, especially when carried on the chest. In rough country it is a disadvantage to be unable to see your feet! I have become adept at looking around the sides of the bag in many situations, though I have to be more careful of my footing in when traveling cross country. Trekking poles become even more useful. During extended cross country sections (such as class 2-3 routes) I sometimes feel more comfortable removing the bag and carrying it inside my main backpack. Having issued these disclaimers, I still rely on this bag and recommend it strongly.

I’ll add that while carrying the larger full-frame camera is worth the extra bother (and size and bulk) for me, many photographers will be very well served by a good crop sensor camera, particularly one of the smaller ones like the Canon “Digital Rebel” series or current versions of such cameras from other manufacturers. Frankly, unless you regularly make prints in the 20″ x 30″ range a good crop sensor camera is capable of producing excellent results, especially if you use a tripod, fine lenses, and careful technique. (If you don’t use a tripod and all the rest, the odds that you’ll get photographs that will stand up to such large print sizes diminish greatly, no matter what format you shoot.) Not only are these cameras potentially lighter and smaller, but equivalent lenses can also be smaller and lighter, too. There have been times when I wished for a digital version of one of the old high-end rangefinder cameras with a couple small lenses. (Here I originally wrote: “I still hope that we’ll eventually see a high quality, affordable APS-C sensor rangefinder camera with either a good zoom or a few good primes. Along these lines, some of the newer fourth-thirds system cameras could be a great option for many back-country photographers, though I have no personal experience with them yet.” Update: My hopes are being answered by the developers of new and quite fine “mirrorless” cameras using the 4/thirds or APS-C sensor formats. The Fujifilm X-E1 and X-E2 Digital Cameras now seems to more or less provide the light, high quality rangefinder camera that I mention here. For many backpackers this could be a really great choice. I have this camera, though I have yet to use it on the trail.)

All of this having been said, am I contemplating any significant changes to my backpacking setup? In a word, no. For my purposes this system works very well.

One More Thing

As photographers who are willing to go to great lengths to carry ourselves and our gear into beautiful and wild places in order photograph their beauty, we have a special obligation to protect these wonders and the solitude that surrounds them. We should be careful to minimize our impact on these places, and once there we should treat them with care and respect.

In addition, I think it is worth striving to reveal through our work the deeper and more fundamental beauties of such places. While bagging another shot of a familiar icon has its appeal – and yes, I do photograph icons sometimes – inventing a visual world that seems to consist of such unusual and often expected things presents a false view of the subject and misses the opportunity to look for something deeper in our own photography. Much of the best back-country photography that I have seen reveals things that are only known to those who spend long, quiet time in these places, returning over the years to develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of their subjects.

Finally, I have become increasingly aware of the (often unintentional) role that photographers can play in encouraging the overuse and over-popularity of certain fragile and special places. I’m not one to try to keep “private places” for myself – they aren’t mine anyway – but I think we all need to exercise a great deal of discretion about saying too much about places that might not be able to handle even a few more visitors. This has been difficult for me, since I love to share my stories about the places I visit, but I’m now convinced that it is more ethical to concentrate on the photographs and the experience while saying no more than necessary about the geographical specifics.

Questions, comments, observations? Feel free to post below!

Notes:

  • Most recent (minor) update on April 9, 2014.
  • Product links in this post go to site-sponsor B&H photography.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.


50 comments to My Backpacking Photography Equipment

  • [...] I may try to post something else about my approach to hiking, packpacking, and other forms of outdoor photography later. In the meantime, you can read about my current backpacking photography equipment list. [...]

  • Ah, so you DO use the Topload bag from Lowepro… I was gonna ask you how you do it. In Torres del Paine, I’ve been fighting to figure out a way to do it so that I’m not walking around with the big pack and the camera swinging from my neck or held in hand if I don’t have hiking poles. My gear is similar, although I have the 20D (40D’s in the mail!) with the 10-22 and the 70-200 f4. Before I had the 10-22, I used the 17-40 on the trail, but nothing beats super wide angle for landscape work. Since some of my work involves taking pix of people on the trail, I also carry out a 430EX flash and the extra ounces of AAs for fill-flash work.

    Anyway, I’m waiting eagerly for my topload harness to come in the mail, to go with my recently purchased Topload Zoom 2 (non-AW).

    cheers from Patagonia,

    gabriel

  • Gabriel: Thanks for writing… from Patagonia. I would love to visit there sometime!

    It is really tough to figure out the best way to handle significant amounts of photo equipment on the trail. I can’t say that I’ve discovered a perfect way yet, but the current system seems to work pretty well. When I travel light (relatively speaking) I carry the 5D with the 24-105 attached in the Topload bag with the chest strap. I reverse the hood so that I can fit my 17-40 in the bottom of the bag. These are my two primary lenses for landscape photography – and often all I take for longer pack trips. With both of them (and filters, an extra CF card, and an extra battery) in the Topload I can shoot without stopping to remove any gear when necessary. Issues remain…

    In very rough terrain I’m uncomfortable with the large Topload bag on my chest. For one thing, I cannot easily see my feet. While that might seem silly to some, anyone who has travelled cross-country over difficult country (say class 3 alpine passses) will understand. In these conditions I’ll remove the Topload and stash everything in my pack.

    In addition, I prefer to use my tripod for landscape work. While I can get decent shots without it, I’m more likely to get very sharp results with it. Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with a good way to carry it besides strapping it to the sides or back of my pack – and this means I have to stop and remove the pack to use the tripod. Ah, well.

    I also carry a small fanny pack. Between the Topload and the fanny pack, I can do some pretty extensive travel and photography on non-hiking days as long as I’m willing to hand carry the tripod.

    Can you point me to some of your photography?

    Take care,

    Dan

  • dahveedNo Gravatar says:

    I have backpacked with my DSLR and there is surprising little info out there about this. My original plan was to use my Lowepro Rezo 170 AW bag attached to the front backpack straps by faux barbiners. Instead I used the strap and let it dangle from my neck in front of me. Not good. 6 hours of irritating swinging camera bag and a sore neck.

    Instead of batteries, have you tried the solar rechargers? I have been tempted, but my luck there would be no sun that week or a surprise shower would soak it while it was in the sun charging…

  • I’ve seen the rechargers but haven’t tried them yet. I figure that the weight of the charger would have to be less than the weight of the batteries I carry for a week’s trip, and I don’t think we’re there yet. But I could easily be wrong, seeing how these things progress…

  • [...] described my current backpacking photography setup in detail elsewhere, so here I’ll focus on describing one key element in my solution, a Lowepro [...]

  • [...] have written elsewhere on this site about the gear I use, including the setup I use for backpacking, so I thought it might be interesting to show a photo of the gear in action, so to speak. This [...]

  • [...] Since the summer backpacking season is upon us – though it will be at least a few more weeks before I’m out and about in the back-country – it seems like a good time to post a pointer to a post I wrote earlier (and update every year) about my backpacking photography equipment. [...]

  • Hey, Ernie (“websailor”) got a photo of me in full “would-be-ultralight-but-I’m-a-photographer” mode. Camera in the front, fully loaded backpack behind and (though you cannot see it here) tripod on the back of the pack.

    There is another photo of me with backpacking camera gear – but no backpack – on top of Mount Whitney:

    G Dan Mitchell with (some) trail photo equipment on the summit of Mt. Whitney.

    Dan

  • websailorNo Gravatar says:

    I hope Dan doesn’t mind, but here is a picture of his backcountry hiking mode with his Lowepro Topload…..

    http://www.websailor.org/twg14/pictures/Mt_Whitney_August_2008/mt_whitney_august_2008_0406.jpg

  • Arun SNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Dan,
    Thanks for this great site. I have read your posts on pnet before, but I just came across this site through the sharpening page. Thanks for sharing your experience and the setup. I would like to share mine for the benefit of others.
    I recently upgraded to the D700 (a full frame Nikon) and although I am only a daypacker (in fact, on many occasions I end up driving to the spot and hike the last bit) I have been trying to solve the weight puzzle too.

    (Please allow me to clarify for the benefit of others, why a non-backpacker like me needs to be weight conscious: I either travel with the family (a child, an infant, strollers, baby bags, etc. included), or travel for work and extend my stay at the destination by one extra day (i.e., very light weight, air traveling). So right now lightweight daypacking is all I can do).

    As new Nikon bodies allows one to use older primes, I have taken the lightweight, inexpensive, older-primes route. Among the 10 or so lenses, I carry a 20mm/3.5, 24mm/2.8, a lightweight 28-70/3.5-4.5 consumer lens that is slow but a surprisingly good performer, and a 135mm/2.8 on my trips. Amongst these, I found that I use the 20 and 24 extensively – and if I need the 35mm angle of view, I select the crop mode in the body while using 24mm. Currently I do miss the 50mm/1.4 or 1.8 prime, so the next time I travel, I may replace the only AF zoom with the 50mm prime, or carry both. I haven’t found much use for the tele’s but one never knows.

    I carry filters, lens cleaning kit etc., but I never attempt to clean sensors during my trips – I save it for when I am back at home. I don’t carry my flashes on my trips either. However I do carry an external (small-ish) hard drive, ipod classic, cell phone, tom-tom gps, etc. on the trips. I selectively offload them at the hotel depending on the nature and duration of the outing (dawn/dusk/trails/mountains/ocean/whatever).

    I currently have the manfrotto 055xprob and the 486rc2 combo for my tripod. It is super sturdy, but it is LARGE and HEAVY. And I have the lowepro Compu Trekker Plus AW to lug these around. The tripod is larger than the bag so I strap it on to the outside of the bag, but I am not always happy these days. I am also conscious of the attention these camera bags with strapped on tripods get.

    Of late, I have been considering the benro travel angel series tripod, tenba messenger bag large, or the tamrac messenger 7 (i think). The Travel angel tripods folds down to 13-14 inches, weigh 2-3.5 lbs (depends on CF or aluminum), come with a small ball head that seems to be surprisingly stable with the d700 body and an older prime. (I don’t know about the holy trinity zooms though). The messenger bags can, in theory, hold a 15″ or 17″ laptop too.

    My plan is to fit the body and lenses in the bag, keep the tripod on top of camera body and strap the cover shut. I intend to use additional velcro to secure it in place. If this works out well, ALL I will have to carry is one messenger bag that weighs about 10-11 lbs (as against the 20ish I do now). Of course, laptop is not included in this estimate. If this works out well, I may even rip the label off of the bag.

    I will share my experience once I get the upgrades. Till then, I hope my research helps others in similar situations.

    Thanks and best regards,
    A.

  • Your idea about using non-photo bags is one that I think about as well – not in the back-country but when I shoot in urban environments and when I travel.

  • ForrestNo Gravatar says:

    How many batteries go with you on a typical trip? That’s something I always wonder about, and usually overdo. I tend to bring two or three spares, and on most camping trips it’s a 50/50 chance whether I’ll need to use a second. The BP-511s really are good…

    Also, what do you do about water? It’s been a while since I’ve been in the Sierra; I remember there being lots of water, but not always being able to predict where it might turn up. I got a purifier this past fall, and have been loving it … I still carry a bit of drink, in case I don’t run across a stream before I get thirsty, but much less now.

    I typically have no problem heading out with just an ultrawide ( currently a 15 to 30, but this lens has seen better days ). It’s pretty rare that I find myself wanting something else out in the bush, although occasionally I’ve been able to put my 300/4 to good use. I find some of this depends on the setting – “Glacier for the scenery, and Yellowstone for the wildlife” – but for the most part, it comes down to mindset. If I set out looking for landscapes, that’s what I tend to notice.

    • Hi Forrest :

      I usually use fewer batteries than I expect to. When I shot a 5D (with the PB 511 batteries) I would carry as many as four batteries – but I rarely if ever went through more than two, even on some quite long trips. That said, I’d rather carry the weight of an extra battery I don’t need than end up unable to shoot! Two things can increase battery use for me. First, I sometimes do some night photography in the back-country, and the long exposures eat up battery power very quickly. Second, I like to use the live view mode on my 5D2 for manual focus for many landscape shots – but this also creates a tremendous battery drain. It is easy to go through a battery in half or even a third as many shots with live view.

      During most of the season water is rarely a problem – it would be rare to go more than a mile without seeing a lake, a creek, or a small rivulet. Later in the season some water sources can dry up in the Sierra, so it is a good idea to check local conditions at that point. (For example, Rafferty Creek, along a popular trail to the Vogelsang High Sierra camp in the Yosemite high country , often goes completely dry late in the season.) A filter is standard equipment these days.

      The lens or lenses you’ll want, as you point out, depend a lot on your own personal preferences and what compromises you are willing to make – and how much weight you will carry. If I’m traveling very light I might use only a 24-105 on my full frame DSLR, along with a tripod and so forth. More likely I’ll also have the 17-40 along. On shorter trips and those where I want a bit more reach I add the 70-200mm f/4 lens.

      Dan

  • Curious – anyone seen a dedicated camera stroller? I took my Nikon 400mm to the Zoo in DC yesterday – up and down the hills – seems that someone could make a simple (would look geeky no doubt!) stroller for big lens that you could pull camera in and out all day with ease to shoot?

    If not there might be a good opportunity for a product – limited market – but a product.

  • [...] At about this time every year interest increases in the question of what equipment can work well for back-country photography. Over the years I’ve working out an approach that seems effective for my photography. A few years back I wrote an article here describing this, and I just made a few minor updates to it this morning. If you are interested, take a look at this description of my “Backpacking Photography Equipment.” [...]

  • [...] I’ve updated my description of the equipment that I use for backpacking photography: See “Backpacking Photography Equipment” at my photography [...]

  • Nice list Dan, it would also be nice to what has changed if anyone over the years?
    Steve

  • Hi Steve: Some of what has changed in the last decade is in this piece, but let me go back further – a LOT further!

    Way back, my dad let me use some of his cameras when I was quite young. I can’t recall the name of the main one I used but it took 120 film and opened up with a bellows affair (really – that long ago!) and had, of course, only one focal length and required manual focus. I did some of my first black and white work with this camera, and my dad taught me to develop and then print the photographs in our home darkroom. (Actually, it was the bathroom – my mom allowed him to turn it into a darkroom on occasion.)

    I can’t put my hands on the photos right now, but I ran across some of them in the past year and was surprised certain parallels to what might define at least part of my style today. There is a photograph of an oak tree in an open field with clouds, a photograph of North Dome through some trees, and a close-up study of a rusted gate latch and fence.

    The first camera that I bought with my own money was a Minolta SRT-101 with a 50mm lens. I used this through high school and into college – where I majored in music. About the time I got married in my early twenties I moved to a Pentax system selected for use on the trail – a ME and a MX body with three or four lenses, a TC, and some extension tubes. I shot a lot of 35mm slides with that setup… but eventually my interest in outdoor activities (climbing, backpacking, XC skiing, cycling) began to trump my photographic interests. I started to feel that the photography was more of a burden than a joy.

    Over a period of time I gradually moved away from using this gear and used lighter stuff that was not of the sort of quality I would use today. I did use a Rollei 35 for a while, but eventually more or less stopped photographing in the mountains. Really.

    Then, about a decade ago, I made the first of two trips to Alaska, ultimately spending a full month up there hiking and cycling. On the second trip I took a basic 4MP digital camera, and from that point on my passion for photography was rekindled. I went through a series of digital camera as I reconnected with my inner photographer. After that first fancy but early point and shoot I moved to:

    1. a Canon Pro 1 – which is still sitting on my desk next to me as I type this. (Something like this could be a truly fine camera for lots of backpackers who aren’t going to make giant prints but want some control.
    2. a Canon XT – a fine little 8MP DSLR, preferable to the larger cropped sensor bodies with the same sensors for much of what I did. With some good lenses this camera could produce images that I could print and sell at up to 16″ x 24″ sizes.
    3. a 5D – obviously a much more capable camera for the type of shooting that I do.
    4. my current 5D2.

    It still amazes me that the digital capture technology went from nothing to excellent so quickly. It completely changed my approach to photography, not just in the back-country but especially there. While I could make quite good photographs with my 35mm film gear, I can do much better today with the equipment I currently use.

    How about you, Steve?

    Dan

  • By the way, my backpacking gear has also changed in some amazing ways since my first pack trip in something like 1968 or so. I used an external frame pack, slept in a tube tent, work wool, and put on a poncho when it rained. By my mid-twenties I was heading out on two-week self-contained Sierra pack trips… carrying up to 75 pounds of gear. Scary!

    Dan

    (You can snoop around at my Dan’s Outside web site to read more about the “bad old days” of outdoor gear.)

  • [...] The article that was found at this address is now quite dated! Please see my more current article describing my photographic equipment for backpacking. [...]

  • [...] covers focal lengths from 17mm to 400mm. While I sometimes work with less than the full kit (when backpacking, for example), when I’m not constrained by weight or other limitations I carry lenses to [...]

  • Hi Dan,

    Read with interest your comments on gear. I have a Canon 5D Mk2, and use a 17-40mm for landscape photography. I fully recognise the issues you have raised with regard to carrying the equipment. Life’s a compromise, and photography is no different! I did try carrying a Lowe Pro Rucksack with a 50mm, 85mm and a 70-200mm lens, together with a tripod and all the other bits and pieces. I now take selected items. I don’t routinely carry prime lenses, just the 17-40mm on the body, and sometimes the 70-200mm lens. Carrying a smaller tripod, I found that I was always having to kneel, bend or lie down, so I bought the Canon Angle Finder, which saves quite a bit of back ache. I can recommend this piece of kit and it weighs mere ounces. The other item that I find useful is a cable release, and I lock up the mirror.

    I’ve been admiring your work, and I’m hoping to do a three week trip to a few of the National Parks next autumn (fall), so I hope I get good weather, light and colour.

    Regards,

    Tony Gensler

  • Hi Dan,

    I am always interested in how fellow backpacker/photographers carry their gear. Have you ever tried a Cotton Carrier? Over the years, I have tried just about everything, including home made clips and snaps. I realized that there are three important components in carrying a camera hands free over long distances:

    1. Must be easily accessible. That means right in front where the camera traditionally hangs around the neck.
    2. Must be stabilized from swinging. Anyone who has thrown a camera over his neck and gone for a walk knows this annoying bumping of the camera into the stomach over and over. Compound that by 10 miles and it is a no go.
    3. Get the strap off the neck. The weight of the camera MUST be moved off of the neck and onto the shoulders with the rest of the pack weight. This is far more comfortable over many miles.

    After much trial and error from different products, I have settled on the Cotton Carrier and used it this past summer of several backpacking trips (note that I have nothing to do with the company!) It solves each of the above issues, and attaches the 5D MkII right to my chest, which I can easily remove with one hand. I ended up liking it so much, I now use it whenever I do any landscape shooting with a tripod.

    Every summer you can find me bumping around the High Sierra. Maybe we’ll meet up on the trail some day….

    Hank

    • Hi Hank, and thanks for writing! I hope we do meet up on the trail some time – so do let me know when you’ll be out and about. I will probably start making firmer plans in the spring, but I also pick up and just go spontaneously during July-September.

      I have not tried the Cotton Carrier. I had heard of that product before, but never had seen it. I just took a look at their web site and it does look like an interesting and viable option. I go for a bit more protection, keeping the camera inside the Lowepro Topload pack, but like you I much prefer to have the camera carried in front of me where it is accessible, to avoid having it swinging around, and to not have a strap over the back of my neck. The only downside to the chest carriers that I’ve encountered is that they can impede your ability to see your feet. Normally that isn’t an issue, but in very rough terrain I sometimes move the camera to the backpack. (It would probably be less of an issue with the Cotton Carrier since it isn’t as large and bulky as what I use.)

      I probably wouldn’t use it for backpacking myself, since I’m on the paranoid fringe when it comes to keeping the gear in a bag, but I think that a lot of people would agree with you and like it a lot. It would sure be a ton better than leaving the camera to dangle over a shoulder or around the neck as some do, and the accessibility of the camera looks to be superb.

      Take care,

      Dan

  • [...] I’m not going to go into all of the details of this point, but I have previously posted about my own backpacking photo gear, and I’m sharing that link again for those who might be [...]

  • Thanks for posting the link Dan – I hadn’t seen this before. Good information, and I just wanted to add that I’ve had some recent experiences that made me reconsider the virtues of APS-size sensors. With some recent workshop students I’ve made 16×20 prints from APS-size sensored cameras, one Canon, one Nikon, both 12 megapixels, and I was really impressed with the results – very sharp, and little noise. I told both students that they could make 30x40s from those files, and I meant it. I attribute this to the new sharpening and noise-reduction algorithms in Lightroom / Adobe Camera Raw. With the right settings you can pull amazing detail out of these cameras – assuming a sharp lens, and proper technique to ensure depth of field and camera stability. At some point I’ll write a blog post about this…

  • Michael, you make a very important point. Let me expand on it a bit.

    When I first contemplated moving from 35mm film SLR cameras to DSLRs I first purchased a “test camera,” one of Canon “Rebel” models. To be precise, it was the 8MP Rebel XT, which was roughly contemporary with the 20D and the 30D “high end” cropped sensor bodies. Using that body, I discovered a few things pretty quickly:

    1. The image quality was equal to that of the more expensive and larger 20D and 30D cropped sensor bodies. This can be extrapolated to the current crop of cameras – the best of the “Rebel” style (though no longer known by that name) DSLRs, and the equivalents from other manufacturers, can equal the image quality of the larger, heavier, and more expensive cropped sensor DSLRs when it comes to most landscape and nature shooting. For those who shoot landscape and decide to go with the cropped sensor format, their isn’t a lot to be gained from the larger and heavier bodies for this kind of photography. (“Your mileage may vary” if you shoot action sports, etc.)

    2. The image quality from these cameras is, in most ways, equivalent to that produced by 35mm film cameras. For anyone still contemplating a transition from film to digital, there shouldn’t be any real concern about getting lower quality results by going to the smaller format. (There are, of course, some differences, including some related to the effects of selecting particular apertures.)

    3. The vast majority of people shooting DSLRs – including quite a few who are fond of landscape subjects – will never print larger than 16 x 20 or perhaps 16 x24. And, as you point out, truly excellent results can be obtained in these print sizes from cropped sensor originals. (I recall using that Rebel “test camera” long enough to make a few photographs worth selling as prints at up to the 16 x 24 size – and my standards for print quality are pretty rigorous.) I need to see those 30 x 40 prints before I’ll be ready to believe that such sizes are consistently obtainable… but if you say so I’m inclined to believe it.

    4. The size and bulk advantage of these smaller “low end” cropped sensor DSLR bodies really makes them excellent choices for backcountry use. Weight is not the only issue for backpackers – the size of the gear is also a significant issue, and these bodies are noticeably smaller and lighter. As well, smaller lenses may be usable with the cropped sensor bodies.

    I haven’t tried them yet, but I’m guessing that the four-thirds bodies might be an even smaller and lighter option for some folks who want the same quality they got from 35mm film in the past.

    Dan,

    who will continue to schlep large bulky gear into the backcountry. But at least I’m not Keith Walklet, if you get my drift – one DSLR system is sufficient for me, thank you very much!. :-)

  • Dan,
    Enjoyed your blog about backpacking I am new to photography and started two years ago because of backpacking. I chose the Canon Rebel series because of weight and size. I often hike with only the 15-85 lens I use a Fiesol carbon fiber tripod. Because of age I recently acquired a couple of pack goats. They are cheap to feed, are easy to manag e on the trail, can go anywhere I can and more, and when in shape can carry up to 50# each. They carry most of the gear and I carry the photo gear in a f-stop Tilopa pack. It takes all of my camera gear plus still has room for several more lenses, lunch, rain gear, binoculars, light weight tarp and more. I am sure I could do an overnight summer backpack with my photo gear along with just this pack. It carries like a dream and is lighter than most photo packs.

    • Thanks for writing, Chad. You touch on a couple of interesting points. I have to say that you are the first person I’ve heard of using pack goats – I didn’t realize goats were used for that purpose! However, there is a long tradition of photographers using pack animals in the back-country that continues today. I haven’t used them myself, but I have shot with folks who were packed in to a base camp from which they did their work. Your use of a small Rebel series body and a single lens is an idea that more people might want to explore. Those bodies can produce excellent photographic results, especially for typical backpacking photography, and their smaller size and bulk are certainly welcome.

      Dan

  • DanNo Gravatar says:

    I also hike with a full frame camera and was surprised to read that you take the 24-105 in addition to your ultrawide (17-40) and telephoto (70-200) lenses. I personally find that the gap between 40mm and 70mm is of little consequence and not worth the weight (of carrying an additional lens) when hiking. I personally hike with just a 16-35 and a 100-400 (sometimes substituted for a 70-200), and find that only rerely do I wish I had something to fill the middle focal length void. I’m thinking that a super-lightweight 50mm f/1.8 might be just the ticket.

    • Hi, Dan. Thanks for writing and sharing your solution to the “what to take on the trail” question.

      Your solution, and other variations on it, make a lot of sense. The range of variation that I’ve seen includes those who take only the 16-35 or 17-40; those who combine one of those with a 50mm prime and a 70-200mm zoom; and other ideas as well. Other things probably make a difference, too, including the extent to which either wildlife or landscape or macro or people might be a major focus for the photographer, the photographer’s ability or inclination to carry lots of additional weight, and personal preferences as to focal length and so forth.

      Like you, I’m a big fan of using longer focal length lenses for landscape and related work, and I rely on the 100-400 a great deal. While I do carry it on long day hikes, I don’t carry it on backpack trips for a few personal reasons: wildlife photography is a very small component of what I typically do on pack trips, the weight/bulk of that wonderful lens seem daunting, and 200mm is almost always long enough.

      Your point about the “gap” is also a great one. I know of others who either live with the “gap” and don’t find it to be an issue or who fill it with a 50mm prime. (The latter idea also adds a large aperture and very high resolution lens to the mix, and does so with little weight or bulk.) I’ve thought about that, but decided that it isn’t the right solution for me. Although my landscape and related work is done from the tripod in a relatively methodical way, I also work handheld while “on the move” – that’s one reason I carry that chest-strap-mounted front pack – and for this part of my trail photography I want the versatility of the 24-105 and its image-stabilization and focal range from with to short tele.

      In the end, your post serves to remind me and others that there is no one right way to outfit for backpacking photography. The best approach is for the photographer to balance weight, bulk, available subjects, approach to shooting and all the rest to figure out what works best for him/her.

      Take care,

      Dan

  • Interesting additional discussion here. As Dan says, what to carry with you in the back country always comes down to a personal decision about how you photograph, how much weight you can justify carrying, and which types of photography you typically focus on. I always hike with a full frame camera and the 24-70mm lens. I find this offers the greatest flexibility for “on the go” handheld photography. For around camp, I bring the 17-40mm lens and tripod, as that suits my typical landscape aesthetic the best. When using this wide angle lens, I typically create “near/far” photographs, emphasizing an interesting foreground. This is not practical on the trail while hiking, as I’m usually close to the ground and using a tripod. In addition, I sometimes bring the 70-200 f/4, depending on the location and hiking partner. If I’m going to have more time for photography, that lens will join me.

    I have considered bringing the 100-400L as a wildlife lens many times, but every time I talk myself out of it. This is not so much due to weight considerations as the fact that in most back country wildlife situations, the photographer has only moments in which to capture the shot. That really means that when wildlife presents itself, you must be ready to go, which implies either hiking with this lens on your camera, or bringing a second body with the lens fixed. I have tried different methods of attaching my 7D to my waist (sort of like a holster), while keeping my 5DMkII attached to my chest for easy access. However, I have not found a solution that works well with hiking – the 7D + 100-400 just gets in the way too much. Each time I consider a solution, I end up talking myself out of it, and missing my wildlife shots.

    Hank

  • [...] Backpacking and Photography This is the time of year when many of us find our thoughts turning the the upcoming backpacking season. (My home range is the Sierra Nevada, where I have backpacked for decades.) During the past week or two I’ve seen an upsurge in discussions of and questions about photography and backpacking. Several years ago I began posting annual updates on my approach to photography in the backcountry: “Backpacking Photography Equipment.” [...]

  • [...] article on backpacking photography discusses how I combine the 24-105 with other lenses to produce a very viable and reasonably light [...]

  • [...] frame cameras. For my primary uses it is a great performer. It is almost always in my kit when I backpack, and I often use it for a range of other types of [...]

  • Bret EdgeNo Gravatar says:

    You’ve offered some great advice here, Dan. You and I carry a similar kit on forays into the backcountry. I always carry my 5DII in a Lowepro Topload Zoom chest pack, whether day hiking or backpacking. It allows me to quickly access my camera without having to take off my backpack, which means I’m less likely to pass up a potential photo because I’m too lazy to lose the pack!

    I also carry a Gitzo Mountaineer CF tripod w/ an Acratech Ultimate Ballhead. The whole thing weighs just 4 lbs. but is as burly as anything I’ve ever used.

    I carry the 5DII and 24-105mm lens in the chest pack, and my 16-35mm lens & possibly the 70-300mm lens, as well as the other small stuff, inside an f-stop gear Internal Camera Unit (ICU), size small. That gets stuffed at the top of my pack so it’s easy to access. It does a good job of keeping the lenses and gear organized and well protected.

    Thanks for the informative post, Dan. I’m sure lots of folks will find it quite useful!

    • Bret, it really does sound like you and I use almost exactly the same approach, aside from a few minor differences in specific lenses and so forth. The keys are:

      1. We’re both using the 24-105 as the “standard” lens, partly because it can work for a wide range of opportunities from tripod-based stuff to “grab the camera from the front load pack and make the shot” stuff. The ability to pull that camera/lens combo out of the chest pack and shoot quickly has turned out to be very useful for me on many occasions.

      2. We use pretty much the same chest-mount pack for the camera. I’ve also found that I can attach the Lowepro lens bags that I use for the 17-40 and the 70-200 to the sides of this bag and sling the whole thing over my shoulder when I’m shooting around camp in the evenings.

      3. Our tripod solutions also sound very similar. I think I may be using a slightly taller tripod, but I can see going in different directions on that issue. We both use that fine Acratech bullhead. It is really a fine piece of equipment and not only on the trail.

      4. Like you, I also carry the “extra” lenses (typically a 17-40 and a 70-200) inside the main backpack on the trail.

      Dan

  • [...] someone recently asked about the subject, I thought I’d post a link to my article on backpacking photography – equipment, how to carry it, some techniques, and so [...]

  • Very nice article Dan, that was really informative. I did one trip last summer with my photo gear (I’m a new photographer) and am looking at doing a lot more. Thank You!
    dd

  • [...] someone recently asked about the subject, I thought I’d post a link to my article on backpacking photography – equipment, how to carry it, some techniques, and so [...]

  • [...] Link: My Backpacking Photographing Equipment. [...]

  • [...] seems like a good time to once again share my Backpacking Photography Equipment post, since summer is nearly upon us, and many of you will soon be joining me to head into the [...]

  • Matt PayneNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Dan, great post. I recently upgraded to a D800 from a D7000 and will be using the venerable 14-24 f/2.8 for most of my landscape work. I will eventually get a nice 16-35 f/4 for landscape work that requires filters (stupid no filter solution for the 14-24…) and probably some longer length gear too down the road (70-200 or 80-400).

    I currently use the smaller Lowepro toploader 55 with the D7000 and was highly considering getting the Lowepro 75 to use with the 14-24 and the D800. I actually enjoy using a W/A lens as my go-to lens on backpack trips although you do miss quite a few shots that way.

    Anyways, wanted to say I enjoyed the read. Will probably get the Lowepro 75 and use a tamrac bag for internal use in the backpack.

  • Hi Matt:

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your perspective/experience on this. I’m always intrigued by how photographers seem to eventually adopt their own particular solutions, both to the photographic choices and to the ancillary stuff like how to carry things. In our case, it sounds like we at least partially arrived at a similar solution with the Toploader bags – I’m really a very big fan when it comes to backpacking.

    Dan

  • GoncaloNo Gravatar says:

    Heloo im backpacking in asia for 6 months maybe less and my main bag is a 75 litter backpack, my biggezt oncern is what to choose as my second bag or day bag. I love the new lowepro photo sport 200 whic have quick access and a lot of space that will surely fulfill my need in a everyday ituation. BUT i will have to carry my main bag a lot to travel from one place to another. I can fit the lowepro in my main bag but i will lose the easy access to camera :( and walking around with two bags is a no go. Anyopinions?

    • Boy, that is a tough question. I’m afraid that I don’t have a good answer for you right off the bat. When I’m carrying a full backpack, I like to use a chest-harness mounted Lowepro bag that sits in front of me, but I don’t think would be ideal for your purposes.

      In a way, you don’t really have much choice but to either carry two bags at times or put your second bag and camera into the larger pack. You might be able to get some sort of small shoulder bag (I have a small Crumpler model like this) and sort of slight it over you shoulder once you have the main backpack on.

      Dam

  • Nicely done G. Dan.

  • VytasNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for article. While I’m mainly shooting landscapes, this article provided for me some thoughts about which lenses should I choose for that.
    Previously I was thinking that for this type of photography I would need wide angles mostly/only. But I see, that 50 % or more of my landscape photos are made with >=100mm or more. Sometimes I even use my 300 F4. So now You “confirmed” for me, that such lenses also are usual case when talking about landscapes. Thanks.

    Vytas

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