Update 5/4/2015: An upcoming trip on the John Muir Trail prompted me to go with the Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras. Read about the weight-saving decision in this post.
I love backpacking and I’m a camera gearhead. Unfortunately, these two don’t mix well. Here’s some tips I’ve learned through thousands of miles of sore shoulders and worn-out feet. The most important thing to remember:
LESS IS MORE!
That is definitely true with the rest of my backpacking gear.
1) Ditch the tripod
Ditch the what?! I know this won’t work for every situation, but a tripod is probably the single heaviest piece of equipment that photographers carry. If you teach yourself to shoot sharp pictures without a tripod you won’t always have to carry one. And you’ll probably find you shoot more photos when you aren’t constrained by a tripod.
You have to ask yourself: will I use the tripod enough to justify the weight?
Three things to help with handheld shots:
- Bump up the ISO. You don’t always have to shoot at ISO 50! Many new cameras will still shoot fine up to ISO 800.
- Image stabilization. This will let you set a longer shutter speed by a few stops.
- Shoot in Burst. If my shutter speed is near the inverse focal length of my lens (i.e. slower than 1/20 sec at 20mm), I shoot multiple shots in burst mode. One of them will come out sharp, especially with image stabilization.
- Posture. I’ll take a deep breath, rest my elbow against my chest, and click away.
When you do need stabilization in the middle of nowhere:
- Use your pack for stabilization.
- Your trekking pole is a monopod! Flip your trekking pole upside down. Some tips fit perfectly in the 1/4″ mounting hole on the bottom of the camera.
- Always use a cable release or the camera timer 2-second delay. If your camera has a mirror lock-up function, that will reduce vibration even more.
Yes, there will be times when you want a tripod. My choice is the Sirui T-005KX. You can read more about this and other great tripod options in my Five Best Lightweight Tripods for Backpacking and Travel.
Weight Savings: one to three pounds.
2) Evaluate which lenses you really use
You really want a wide-angle lens for the landscapes, a telephoto zoom in case you run across a bear or see a bald eagle, and a prime lens for a portrait or two. How much do all these lenses weigh?!
Ask yourself: What do I really need? What will I use the most based on my subject matter?
Plan ahead and really think about which lens you’ll be using the most. Be practical about it. If you’re going to carry a telephoto lens for that chance wildlife encounter but you’re mostly shooting landscapes, will you be ready to swap lenses before you miss your opportunity? Because if not, you’re carrying another couple pounds for nothing.
Go through EXIF data from all of your backpacking & hiking trips.
What’s the most common focal length range that you use?
I found that I rarely used the 70-200mm lens that I had been carrying on these trips. That’s two pounds I schlepped around for hundreds of miles to only capture a dozen shots. Two pounds is a lot for someone trying to keep their total pack weight under 30 pounds!
If you don’t have a history of EXIF data or just aren’t sure, carry your camera on day hikes with a few lenses and see which one you end up enjoying & using the most. That’s your winner!
If all you shoot is landscapes, then something in the range of 16-35mm (full-frame sensors) is a good range. If you want to be able to shoot a little tighter, 24-70mm is good, and you can always stitch together multiple shots for those sweeping landscapes you’d only be able to get with a wider angle.
If you want maximum versatility, you can get a lens in the 18-200mm range, but these lenses are usually heavier and sacrifice image quality.
Weight Savings: one to three pounds.
3) Get creative with lighting
Most photographers throw in a shoe-mounted flash or two into their kit without giving it a second thought. With this comes ETTL cords, gels, light modifiers, stands, triggers, and so on.
Going back to rules 1 & 2, will you really use it?
If you’re with a large group and plan on doing portraits and/or action shots, then you’ll probably want one high-powered speedlight and a way to get the flash off-camera. And probably some gels and a portable diffuser as well. I like the Honl system for its versatility. The small stand included with the speedlight and some bungee cords may be necessary to keep the flash where you want it. Total weight: less than two pounds.
For those times when there’s a small chance you’ll need to manipulate light, I always carry a Cowboy Studio Portable Reflector in my pack. It has a handle, white balance assistance, and two reflecting materials (silver and gold). This 24″ reflector folds down to 10″ and weighs less than eight ounces.
Weight Savings depend on what you used to take with you, but I cut down between one to three pounds.
4) Keep the camera at the ready
It’s true: if you keep your camera in your backpack, you’re less likely to take pictures.
Who knows what you’ll miss! The best camera bag for backpacking is one you can wear in front of you. You’ll also want easy access to extra batteries and lens cleaner.
For bigger DSLRs, a chest-mount system works the best. I like the Lowepro Toploader All-Weather.
Put this on first, then your backpack. It’s comfortable and everything you need is right in front of you – camera with lens, speedlight, cleaner, memory cards, and spare battery. Maybe even a snack! It also has a built-in rain cover for protection from the elements – an essential item. This pack also has shoulder and side-mount wearing options for use on other days.
For smaller systems like mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, I have to go with Think Tank Photo’s Hubba Hubba Hiney with Thin Skin Belt. I’ve always loved Think Tank’s products because they’re functional and durable. This bag can fit a mirrorless camera with lens, extra lens, batteries, cleaner, and even a small flash unit. It’s a low-profile belt pack that I put on before my backpack. It also comes with a rain cover and a shoulder strap for other daily use.
Weight Addition: 1.5 pounds.
5) Embrace iPhoneography
There, I said it. I feel like I need to go to confession now.
But no matter what your beliefs are, the Instagram age is changing photography. Art galleries now feature prints of solely Instagram snaps.
Despite the advances in camera technology, making them smaller and lighter, it might still might be a few pounds that you can’t afford.
You’ll probably already be carrying your phone anyways, and you don’t have to account for the weight and space required of a dedicated camera.
Even though you’ll miss out on RAW output, a number of post-processing apps allow you to take a stunning phone camera composition and turn it into an even more stunning visual masterpiece. You’ll still have the memories, you won’t be able to make super-sharp 20″x30″ prints of them, but you won’t spend hours on the computer when you get home.
Jack Hollingsworth is an accomplished photographer who has embraced iPhoneography. He offers his thoughts on the subject in an interview with The Beginners Lens.
Weight Savings: two to ten pounds.
So we’ve cut down between roughly four and ten pounds by using these tips. That could be anywhere between 10-50% of your base pack weight! Your shoulders, knees, and feet will thank you.