(Note: I update this article periodically. See the end of the post for update info and other notes.)
I do a significant amount of backpacking every summer. Almost every season I a few weeks 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, and the newer mirrorless cameras offer some very interesting and lighter possibilities — though check their battery capacity first. However, I eventually moved 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-E2 is the updated version of my camera and the Fujifilm X PRO-1 or Fujifilm X-T1 could be a slightly more versatile alternatives. 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.)
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 EOS 5DS R — (Until recently I carried a Canon EOS 5DII — which Canon replaced with the Canon 5D Mark III — and 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. The Nikon D810 would be an alternative if I were a Nikon shooter and Sony photographers might choose the a7RII Mirrorless Digital Camera.
- Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS L lens or EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens— This first of these is a great standard lens for many 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. On the other hand the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens offers somewhat better image quality across its range and is a fine lens for tripod-based photography in situations where I’m willing to carry a bit more weight. (Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS and EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II at B&H.)
- EF 16-35mm f/4L IS lens — For many years I relied on the fine Canon 17-40mm f/4 L lens to cover ultra-wide angle photography. It is still a fine lens and an excellent value, but the newer 16-35mm f/4 surpasses it in just about every way. While the 24-105 or 24-70 will stay on the camera most of the time, the 16-35 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. When I take two lenses – my most common set-up – either this lens or a 70-200mm accompanies my 24-105 or 24-70. (EF 16-35mm f/4L IS lens and Canon 17-40mm f/4 L lens at B&H.)
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS Lens or EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens— These are wonderful and very useful lenses. Not only does they provide almost twice the “reach” of the mid-range zooms, but they can work well for close-up work where the longer focal length can provide narrower DOF and good bokeh. I almost never to leave such lenses at home on longer trips, and I often carry them on trips of a few days or base camp trips mostly devoted to photography. The 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 the f/4 lens for many years, and it is also a great performer, especially since I most often used it on the tripod. The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II version of the lens is excellent for many things, but its heavy weight and large size can make it less ideal for backcountry photography — so I only carry it when weight is less of an issue, for example when I go in with pack-animal support.) (Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II at B&H)
- EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens — I own this excellent but very large and heavy lens, too. I rarely carry it when backpacking, even though I love it for many landscape and other purposes. There are a few situations where I might consider carrying it. One would be if I were going into an area with excellent wildlife prospects. Another option would be to carry it instead of a 70-200. And I will carry it when going into the backcountry with pack animal support.
- Teleconverter — I often carry a Canon Xxtender EF 1.4X III, a 1.4x teleconverter than gives my 70-200mm lens the reach of a 280mm focal length. This modest increase is sometimes very useful, and the weight of the extender is barely noticeable. A slightly larger and heavier and more expensive Extender EF 2X III is also available, and it gives the 70-200 a 400mm maximum focal length. (Extenders also decrease the maximum effective aperture, and those considering the 2X model should verify that it will work correctly with their cameras, since not all bodies will autofocus with lenses that don’t have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or larger.)
- Circular polarizing filters — These filters are useful in many ways. They can control reflections when photographing water and foliage; they can increase the definition of clouds; they can function as a sort of stand-in neutral density filter.
- 9-stop neutral density filter — This is a useful filter for certain types of images that require longer daytime exposures. (To be honest, most often I do not carry it into the backcountry.)
- 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 often more, especially if I think I’ll be doing night photography and/or using Live View a lot. Despite the cost of additional batteries, for my purposes this is still usually 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 large capacity CF cards — I carry a lot more card capacity than I think I’ll actually need since cards are light and relatively inexpensive these days, and I’d rather carry too much than run out of storage capacity. As card prices continue to decrease and capacities increase, I continue to move to larger cards, with 64GB to 128GB probably being the current sweet spot. 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. In the backcountry I use a Gitzo GT2542L “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 since 2011, including an multiple backcountry photography in the Sierra, I can recommend it without hesitation. (Gitzo GT2542L Tripod at B&H)
- 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 backpacking 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 Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens. 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 usually 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 often still use the 24-105 and the f/4 70-200 in the back-country — though that is changing, especially if weight isn’t as much of an issue or if I’m using pack animal support.
- I do not carry primes. 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″ and larger 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, X PRO-1 or X-T1 now seem 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 on of these cameras, though I have yet to use it on the trail. Update #2: Some photographers are now using the full frame Sony Alpha a7R Mirrorless Digital Camera, which provides a high MP, full frame, and lighter option.)
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!
- Most recent (minor) update in August, 2015.
- Product links in this post go to site-sponsor B&H photography.
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist 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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