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2011 Favorites

It is always very difficult to select a set of my annual “favorite” photographs. I inevitably find that I have left out photographs that others like a great deal, and I know that I include some that I like but which may not appeal as much to others. And I always want to include more! :-)

With that in mind, here is a group of slightly more than twenty favorite photographs that I made in 2011. Criteria for inclusion, loosely and subjectively applied, included: a desire to include a wide range of my work, what others told me they liked, photographs that have positive personal associations for me, and element of randomness.

There is a story behind every photograph that I make. (As anyone who has talked to me about one of my photographs probably knows – I can go on… and on… and on… about any of them!) If you want to know more about any of the photographs, you can click on them to go to the original posts here at the blog. And I’d love to hear your reactions to the set, along with any questions you have – there is a place for comments at the bottom of the page.

I hope you enjoy my 2011 Favorites!


(There is also a gallery version of 2011 Favorites – which may be better for low bandwidth connections.)

Yellow Buildings, Shadows, Moving Clouds - Night photograph of two large yellow buildings, shadows, and streaks for clouds moving across the sky above the Mare Island Naval Ship Yard, California.
Yellow Buildings, Shadows, Moving Clouds - Night photograph of two large yellow buildings, shadows, and streaks for clouds moving across the sky above the Mare Island Naval Ship Yard, California.

Continue reading 2011 Favorites

Photographing the Moving Rocks at Racetrack Playa

(Note: Originally posted in January, 2008.)

Earlier this week I posted an older photo from Racetrack Playa at Flickr and got a lot of comments and a few questions. In response, I said that I would post something here about this location – so here goes…

The Racetrack Playa is in Death Valley National Park in south-eastern California. The Playa is the site Death Valley NP’s famous moving rocks (a.k.a. “sliding rocks”) phenomenon. Rocks, some of which are television-sized, have left tracks behind them as they have traveled across the surface of the playa. (See a post from earlier today for one photograph – there are more in the Death Valley section of my Gallery.)

No one has actually seen the rocks move, but there has been a lot of speculation about the process by which the rocks manage to travel across the playa. I’m no expert on this, but here’s some of what I’ve heard. First of all, while you are free to have a different opinion, I’m not convinced that aliens did it. (Though it would be a heck of a good joke on us.;-)

One theory involved a combination of wind and water. While you might wonder how water could play a role in a dry place like Death Valley, it most certainly can. In fact a playa is a feature formed when water washes sediment down from surrounding hills into a lower basin. The water spreads onto the playa and drops its load of sediment. When the water dries it leaves behind an extraordinarily flat surface. The thought was that rocks sitting on a very slippery surface of the playa might be moved by strong winds. Observations tended to make this scenario unlikely. For example, it was calculated that the winds necessary to move the largest rocks would have to be several hundred miles per hour. It gets windy there, but not that windy.

A refinement of the theory adds ice to the mix. Imagine a thin layer of water on the playa with the slippery surface underneath. Now freeze a thin layer of ice on the top of the underlying water in this shallow “lake.” (And, yes, it very definitely gets cold enough there to freeze water.) Now the winds would not have to work directly on the rocks themselves, but could instead act on the whole frozen surface, much as they act on the arctic ice pack. As the ice moved, the rocks embedded in the ice would be dragged along. This seems to make sense given the observation that groups of rocks often follow parallel paths across the playa surface.

The rocks seem to come from a low rocky hill at the south end of the playa. While they can be found in many other areas of the playa, the greatest concentration is near this formation.

Access to the Racetrack Playa is typically by way of an awful 27 mile gravel road that starts near Ubehebe Crater. (I’m no expert on desert travel or on these roads, so consult the Park Service for current and more reliable information if you go.) The road has been badly washboarded every time I’ve been on it – some people are so distressed by the conditions on the road that they turn around after a few miles of driving. For most drivers this makes for very slow going and it can take up to about two hours to get out to the playa. I met one driver of a very large truck who was convinced that “once you get above 30 mph the road smooths out.” I don’t recommend that approach. Slow and careful is probably a lot safer, especially for those without extensive experience driving roads like these. I know that I sit back and take it slow.

The last time I checked the Park Service recommended a “high clearance vehicle” for this road, and I concur. I have seen some vehicles without such clearance and it seemed to be pretty rough going, not to mention that you increase the risk that the undercarriage will be damaged by rocks. (If it has rained or snowed, all bets are off. Best to stay away. You certainly aren’t going to walk on the playa when it is wet anyway, are you!?)

Soon after you pass Teakettle Junction you will catch your first view of the playa ahead and/or to the left. You still have a ways to drive before you arrive at the playa and drive along the right side. You’ll want to keep going if you plan to see the best rocks, though it is worth stopping at the Grandstand, a large rock formation in the playa not far from where it starts. I’ve had good luck photographing this feature during the late afternoon.

Continue on to pull-outs near the far end of the playa for closest access to the rocky hill and the largest number of moving rocks. You’ll need to leave your car and walk a good distance out onto the playa. (Don’t even think about walking on the playa unless it is completely dry. Foolish and inconsiderate visitors have done so, and their footprints mar the scene for years afterwards.) Before long you’ll start to see the rocks. One plan is to head for the low hill where the rocks originate and then explore outwards from there.

There is a small “camping area” a short distance beyond the end of the playa. It is very primitive, consisting of little more than a couple of wide spots in the road and one dilapidated outhouse. There is no water whatsoever. I have camped there and it is very quiet and peaceful. I’ve also see people sleep in their cars back at the turnouts right at the playa.

My ideal trip works something like this: Go during the cool season. Almost no one would want to try to visit this place in the summer. Most visit in late fall, winter, or very early spring. My visits have all been during the first week of April. Drive out to the playa in the afternoon, arriving a few hours before sunset. If you have time, stop to photograph the Grandstand in the afternoon light. Then head on down to the south end of the playa and figure out where you’ll sleep that night.

By the time the light starts to become interesting you’ll want to be out on the playa, perhaps with a few shots already scoped out. Shoot like crazy for the next few hours as the sun drops and finally sets, continuing on after sunset as long as the light is interesting. Head back to your car and grab some dinner. (The last time I visited I met some fellow photographers and we had a great time sharing food and drink.) If there is a full moon (or maybe even if there isn’t) head back out to do some night photography. This is a wonderful place to photograph star trails, and there are a ton of interesting opportunities on full moon nights once the moon finally makes it over the ridge located to the east. Finally, completely exhausted, head back to your camp for the night.

Rise early the next morning – well before sunrise. You want to already be out on the playa before the interesting light starts. The morning lighting is interesting and somewhat challenging. All I’ll say is that there are mountains to the east that block the first light, yet the very earliest light will illuminate some interesting subjects.

Soon, most of the playa is in full sun. I generally shoot a bit more, but by this time I’m running out of gas – and getting hungry for some real food. I head back to the car, say goodbye to the playa and start the long drive back to the paved road that begins near Ubehebe Crater. (Don’t pass up on photographic opportunities as you drive this road though.)

Finally, a few random thoughts – some in response to questions I’ve received.

  • Someone asked how often the rocks move? I’m not sure but not often – the interval must be measured in years.
  • Someone else asked how they keep visitors from “tracking it up” when it is wet? Good question, and an important one to mention. There are footprints on the playa left by inconsiderate visitors who wandered about when the playa was muddy. Their footprints remain for years. If you visit when the surface is wet please do not leave tracks on the playa, even if that means coming back a different time. Fortunately, the road is so long and so bad and there are no services out there – all of which drastically limit the number of visitors. I’ve seen perhaps as many as 20 people out there at once, but on one other visit there were only two of us.
  • Another photographer asked about the effect of the eastern ridge on sunrise photography. I touched on that above, but there is indeed a very tall ridge to the east that keeps the area with the concentration of rocks in the shadows until later in the morning.
  • And what about the ridge to the west at sunset? There is also a large ridge to the west of the main part of the playa, and the road past the playa runs along its lower east edge. This feature casts a shadow on the northern portion of the playa well before actual sunset. My advice it to photograph there a bit earlier – I’ve had good luck photographing “The Grandstand” in the late afternoon. The sun hits the southern portion of the playa later in the evening since the valley opens to the west from there.

Lens Protection: Ultraviolet (UV) Filter or Lens Cap and Hood?

(This has become one of the most-read articles at this site. For some reason, the question of whether or not it makes sense to add these little filters to your lenses generates a lot of interest… and sometimes a lot of lively debate. From time to time I make small unannounced updates based on new information or questions that have come up. Note that there are links to a couple of related posts listed near the end of the article.)

Sellers sell, and many buyers buy, UV (ultraviolet) filters for their DSLR and other cameras. The main advantages are said to be twofold: some reduction of haze that is invisible to the human eye but which the camera purportedly might register, and some protection for the front element of your lens.

On the other hand many photographers wouldn’t think of putting an extra layer of unnecessary glass in front of their lenses. They would rather accept the (rather small) possibility of a scratch on the front element of a lens than possibly reduce the quality of their images, and/or they prefer to protect the lens by using a lens cap and lens hood.

I’m in the latter camp. I don’t own any UV filters* and I can think of darn few situations in which I’d want to use one. (One possible exception being the use of some of Canon’s sealed lenses on which the seal is completed by adding a front filter – and here only if I were to use the lens in an extremely hostile environment, and with a fully environmentally sealed camera body such as that of the Canon 1 series.) My preference is to handle my camera and equipment relatively carefully, keep the gear protected when not actually using it, use a lens cap, and to almost always use a rigid lens hood. Continue reading Lens Protection: Ultraviolet (UV) Filter or Lens Cap and Hood?

DSLR Sensor Cleaning – My Approach

When I got my first DSLR (1)  I was very upset if I got any sensor dust in a shot. I was also very paranoid about cleaning the sensor (2), having read too many posts about how one can damage the sensor during cleaning. Now that I’ve used digital cameras for quite some time I’ve gotten over it and life is much, much easier.

Here is a summary of my approach (3) to dealing with sensor junk…

Rule #1: Modern cameras typically include dust-reduction systems that vibrate the sensor to dislodge dust particles. I set mine to operate automatically each time the camera is turned on or off. In addition to ensuring that the process runs regularly, this automatically runs it after every lens change, the time when you are most likely to pick up dust. You can also manually trigger a dust-reduction system cycle from the control menus, and I do this if I notice a dust spot while shooting. (If you have ever shot for a day or a few days without checking, only to realize that you had picked up a big dust bunny on day one and that it appears in all of your several hundred or more photographs, you will adopt this practice!)

Rule #2: I don’t worry too much about a small amount of dust in my images. I rarely can get a sensor clean enough to get perfect, dust-free shots at smaller apertures, and when I do the dust will soon return. Rather than obsess about dust-free perfection I quickly fix most small spots in post-processing. I can usually deal with most dust spots in a matter of a few seconds in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) or Photoshop. (My preference is to do this in ACR during the raw conversion process. This fits better with my workflow which relies on the use of smart layers in Photoshop.)

Rule #3: When the dust gets to the point that dealing with it in post is no longer efficient, I try the easiest thing first. I use a blower to try to clean out the worst of the stuff. More often than not this is enough and I can go back to relying on rule #2. Point the tip of a good blower bulb into the chamber but keep the tip itself just outside. As you blow a few dozen puffs into the chamber and toward the sensor, change the angle of the bulb to ensure that you get full coverage. It is probably best to hold the camera with the open chamber facing down. (Don’t overdo it, since the blower can move some dust onto the focus screen of some cameras, leaving annoying bits of dust that do no real harm and will not affect your photographs but which are very difficult to remove.)

Rule #4: Sometimes rules #1-#3 aren’t enough and a more direct cleaning of the sensor itself becomes necessary. At this point I used to try a static charged sensor brush, being very careful to avoid letting the brush touch anything but the sensor* glass itself. Yes, the brush can pick up other stuff in the chamber, and I have learned from experience to avoid this. I still occasionally use the brush, but with the availability of the sensor gel products (4), these days I’m more likely to try them before I try a brush, though the brush can still be useful sometimes for stuff caught right up against the edges/corners of the sensor.

Rule #5: On rare occasions rule #4 fails, too. If the contamination is adhering too firmly to the sensor surface I resort to wet cleaning with Eclipse fluid and PecPads. I can rarely get it right in one attempt, so I plan on having to work at this a bit, but eventually I get a reasonably clean sensor with no streaks. Be very cautious to not use pressure, to not “scrub” the sensor glass, and to not use too much liquid. Let the fluid loosen and/or dissolve the material and gently wipe it off with the pad attached to the “spatula” tool. Read the instructions for this cleaning method very carefully before attempting it. It isn’t terribly difficult but there are a few ways you could go wrong including: pressing too hard and damaging the coating on the sensor glass, transferring lubricants to the sensor from other parts of the camera chamber, leaving streaks on the sensor.

Rule #6: On very rare occasions a combination of methods is required. Often the wet cleaning works well for me but leaves a few spots of dust on the sensor. For this reason I frequently follow the wet cleaning with a quick once-over with the static charged brush and/or the sensor gel stick.

From all of this, it might sound like I’m sensor-obsessed. I’m not. Remember rule #1 is the one I follow most. I usually go many months between real sensor cleaning sessions, and it is very rare for me to have to resort to a wet cleaning.

In my opinion, it is not necessary to fear the sensor cleaning operation as long as you are reasonably careful. Once you do it a few times it becomes quite quick and easy. Taking your camera to the shop or sending it to the repair facility is going to cost you a significant sum, take considerable time, and probably not result in a cleaner sensor in the end.

However, one photographer pointed out that he has a service plan that includes six free sensor cleanings per year. A few years ago, I would have counseled against relying on this – since early cameras without sensor cleaning systems often needed to be cleaned frequently and on short notice. However, the newer cameras rarely need a serious sensor cleaning – and in this case I can see how simply sending the darn thing in (while you keep shooting with your backup camera) could make sense for some people. (I still feel that you should be able to clean the thing in the field if necessary.)


(1) Interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras have become widely available since I first wrote this article about sensor cleaning. I use one along with my DSLR system, and both need occasional sensor cleaning — to the techniques described here are also broadly applicable to mirrorless cameras, too.

(2) I’ll anticipate that someone might feel obligated to write, “You aren’t really cleaning the SENSOR! You are cleaning the glass cover over the sensor, you nitwit!” Yes, I know that. It is just easier to refer to the whole assembly as “the sensor.” :-)

(3) Disclaimer: This report describes what I do, but I am not any sort of certified expert on these things – as I wrote, this is “my approach.” I strongly urge you to seek out and learn from other official sources of information on sensor cleaning and related issues. The inside of your camera contains fragile and sensitive electronic and mechanical components and it is possible to cause damage while working there. You should read and carefully consider warnings from the manufacturer of your camera and any accessories and tools you use on it. If you are not convinced that you are competent to do this work on your camera, you can always take it to a professional. I do not claim that my methods are the best or most appropriate, nor that they meet the standards of the manufacturers of the camera equipment nor do I recommend that you use my methods in place of manufacturers’ official recommendations.

(4)  The Sensor Gel product (available here) is a cube of a sticky gel attached to the end of a plastic “wand.” The gel cube is placed in contact with the surface of sensor’s glass cover, and the dust adheres to it. Since the cube is smaller than the sensor, this process is repeated across the sensor surface. Press the cube against a supplied sheet of “sticky paper,” to clean it. I tried the Sensor Gel Stick partially out of desperation, as my aging Canon 5DII had picked up a ridiculous number of dust specks that were resistant to other methods of cleaning. After the first cleaning there were no noticeable spots left on the sensor. I continued to use it during a four-day shoot in Death Valley, a location known for dust—and, again, the result was impressive. The product is not cheap, costing about $50 for the gel stick and the sticky papers. Frankly, I think it is overpriced—but because it works so well I was willing to pay the price. I have recently seen similar products online from other distributors at lower prices, though I cannot vouch for their quality.  I understand that two versions are currently available. One is the “blue” version that I have. The other “pink” version is apparently designed for certain camera brands, particularly for some Sony cameras. Check the product descriptions and make sure you get the right version for your camera.

(Most recent update: August 2015)

Articles in the “reader questions” series:

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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My Backpacking Photography Equipment

(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, and almost every season I spend a few weeks on the trail in the Sierra Nevada, in addition to other non-backpacking trips to the Sierra and elsewhere.  I’ve been a backpacking photographer for nearly five decades, and I’ve evolved (and continue to evolve) an approach to backpacking photography that works well for me.

Ascending to Kaweah Gap
Ascending to Kaweah Gap

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. Note: I made the following photograph using this system on a Yosemite high country day hike.)

Subalpine Meadow, Summer
Midday summer sky reflected in a subalpine tarn, Yosemite National Park

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 do carry it when going into the backcountry with pack animal support.
  • Teleconverter — I often carry a Canon Extender 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.
Fractured Granite, Reflections
Fractured Granite, Reflections

I never have had the courage to weigh the whole mess, but I think it is somewhere in the 12-15 pound range… or more. By the standards of my ultra-light backpacker friends (whose total backpacking base load may be 12-15 pounds… or less!) 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 prime lenses. 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+ 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.

Submerged Boulders, Lake, and Cliffs
Submerged Boulders, Lake, and Cliffs

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-E2X 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.

File Storage

Several important issues come up when we consider the safe storage of digital images on the trail. The most obvious concern is that you carry enough storage card capacity for the number of photographs that you intend to make. The second concern, and it is arguably just as important, concerns how you will store and back up your precious files on the trail.

Fortunately, memory cards are relatively cheap and have very large capacities these days. Available capacities can store thousands of files on a card. Most photographers won’t make so many photographs on one trip that they won’t fit on a single card, though carrying at least one extra is wise in case you encounter a problem with your primary card.

If you anticipate making more photographs than you can fit on a card, it usually simply makes sense to bring more cards! Again, they are small, light, capacious, and inexpensive these days.

Ensuring the security of your files on the card is a bit more complicated on the trail. You probably aren’t carrying your laptop, so you can’t backup to that. (On stock-supported trips I do sometimes bring a small laptop and a separate external drive for backups.) A first-line of defense is to use a camera with two car slots and set it up to write duplicate copies of each photograph to the two cards. This provides a backup in the event of a card failure. When your cards fill you may considering storing them in two different locations, or having a friend carry one set.

There are small external drives that have built-in card readers. Given their costs and power consumption issues, I don’t carry them.

The Issue of Power

Digital cameras use electricity. I’ll bet you knew that already! Batteries have a finite life and then they need charging. On short trips this isn’t an issue, but if you go out for more than a few days it is important to plan and consider the options.

If you tend to shoot handheld and use a typical DSLR, you may get many hundreds or even a few thousand photographs from  single battery. Unless you are a very productive photographer, a single battery — probably with a backup — will likely get you through most trips.

However, the battery concerns loom larger if you don’t fit that description. For example:

  • If you use a mirrorless camera you may only get a couple of hundred frames per battery.
  • If you use “live view” mode (as I do) you may get only a couple hundred or fewer exposures per battery.
  • Extensive review of your photographs draws more power.
  • If you do any night photography you can use up more than one battery in a single night.

If the trip isn’t overly long, the most effective solution in terms of both cost and weight is simply to carry more batteries. I often carry four or more, and this can get me through a week of photography in many cases.

On longer trips or if you consume batteries at a prodigious rate, you may need to use a charging system. Given their cost and weight, carefully consider the first option of carrying more charged camera batteries — it takes quite a few camera batteries to add up to the weight and cost of the solar chargers. Also keep in mind that the high power chargers tend to keep you (or at least the charger system) in camp, as they need to sit out in full sun for hours.

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 March, 2016.
  • 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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | | LinkedIn | Email

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.

Sharpness and Aperture Selection on Full-Frame DSLRs

(Note: This article was originally posted in 2007 and I should probably update the test using newer gear – though the point of the test and the post remains.)

Last month I wrote about a set of tests (“Full Frame Lens Test“) that I conducted with my lenses and my Canon 5D body. My object was simply to better understand how the camera/lens combinations would behave so that I could make better decisions about appropriate lenses and apertures while making photographs.

One discovery was that, compared to using a crop sensor DSLR, I can get excellent results when I shoot at smaller apertures with good lenses on the full frame body. I tended to avoid apertures smaller than about f/8 on the crop sensor camera, but there seems to be little or no real liability in using f/11 or even f/16 on full frame.

To illustrate I put together the following composite image. (The image appears in reduced form on this page. Click the link to see the full size version.)

Diffraction Blur Test Image
A sequence of text photographs illustrating diffraction blur at several apertures on a full frame camera

The example includes five versions of a small section from near the center of a photograph taken with the Canon EOS 5D using the EF 24-105mm L IS lens at a 50mm focal length. The camera was on a tripod, MLU and a remote release were used, and the AF was turned off. The images are 100% crops – in other words, actual pixel size is displayed in these tiny excepts from the much larger original images. (You would virtually never view a print at this magnification. These are equivalent to tiny sections from a print that might be about 5 feet wide!) The images have been slightly sharpened in post-processing, but are otherwise unaltered.

I shot at apertures of f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, and f/16. In terms of the sharpness of this portion of the image, I am quite certain that all five examples are plenty sharp for making prints. That said, there are some differences. To my eye:

  • The f/4 and, to some extent, the f/5.6 versions are slightly but noticeably softer at this magnification.
  • The f/8 and f/11 versions seem to me to have approximately equal sharpness. Some parts of the f/8 image seem slightly sharper, but other parts of the f/11 image seem sharper. In the end they are pretty darn equivalent, though I’d maybe give the f/11 a very slight edge overall.
  • The f/16 image may be slightly less sharp than the f/8 and f/11 versions, but the difference would not be noticeable in a print, even a rather large one. In any case, f/16 appears sharper than either f/4 or f/5.6.

After doing this test I no longer hesitate to shoot at f/11 or f/16. Not only does this give me the possibility of getting greater depth of field when I need it, but it also means that I can compensate for corner softness on some lenses (e.g. the 17-40mm) by using a smaller aperture without fear of losing center sharpness.

(Addition: 4/23/07 – Other Canon L lenses seem to give similar results, including my 17-40mm f/4 L and my 70-200mm f/4 L.)

Added 2/23/08:

In response to a question in a photo forum I put together a sample image showing corner sharpness from the same original images used in the example above. (The earlier example shows 100% crops from near the center of the frame.)

(image temporarily unavailable) Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens corner sharpness test

Technical info: Shot using a Canon 5D with the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens at a 50mm focal length. In aperture priority mode, the aperture was changed manually between shots. Initial focus was with AF, which was then switched off before shooting the series. Camera was on a tripod and MLU and remote release were used. Shots were converted from RAW with ACR and no additional post-processing applied. Print made at this resolution would be approximately five feet wide. The crop is from the far lower left corner of the frame.

In addition to noting the softer image in the corner at f/4, also note that the image is a bit darker due to the expected increase in corner light fall-off (“vignetting”) at the largest aperture. Sharpest version in this series shot with a FF body seems to be at f/11 as in the center crop example above. But note that f/8, f/11, and f/16 are not very different in overall sharpness – and in the end any of these apertures would produce a very sharp print.

In response to another forum discussion, I have added another example, this time using the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens and showing performance at f/5.6, f/8, f/11, and f/16. In other respects the test is the same as described already in this post. This image is seen to the right and below.

(image temporarily unavailable)

Conclusions: Based on this set of images and other taken with different lenses under similar conditions, I have come to some conclusions that work for me with my Canon lenses and full-frame Canon 5D body.

  • In general the sharpest whole aperture seems to be around f/11.
  • It is very difficult to distinguish any resolution differences at f/8 or f/16 – there are subtle differences when viewing the test images at 100% magnification on my monitor but these are essentially invisible in prints.
  • f/5.6 or f/22 will tend to be a bit less sharp, though perhaps not for the same reasons. At f/5.6 I begin to notice a bit more of the diminished sharpness as a lens is opened up – more on some lenses than on others. At f/22 the effects of diffraction become just a bit more noticeable. However, if the shot demands it I do not hesitate (much) to use either of these apertures as the very slight decrease in sharpness is quite tiny if visible at all in a print and both provide some other advantages in certain situations. (I’ll even use the largest f/4 aperture on the test lens when isolating the subject is important or when low light demands it – and the results will typically be just fine.)
  • At larger apertures the performance becomes more tied to the particular lens so it is more difficult to make any generalizations beyond the fact that vignetting increases and sharpness will be less optimal.
  • The smaller apertures decrease any corner light fall-off (“vignetting”) or softness, generally to a point where both are insignificant.
  • With all of this in mind, unless I have a reason to select some other aperture I typically use f/11 as my general starting point when shooting with my full-frame DSLR body.

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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | | LinkedIn | Email

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.