Backpacking & Photography Pt.2 – Camera Equipment

In Articles On Tuesday, April 24, 2018

If you are reading this article you probably have a camera already – you don’t need to buy a new one. Don’t spend £1000+ to save a kilogram on your back; that’s crazy when you are starting out!

With that out the way let’s look at the factors you should consider when selecting a camera setup for backpacking.

You’d have to be fit to backpack with a large format system, but it can be done!

Camera Choice

Resolution, Dynamic Range and High ISO performance

Don’t stress too much about image quality. Yes, it matters, but there is far too much emphasis placed on the output – the image – without considering usage. Any Digital SLR or Compact System Camera (mirrorless camera) is going to be great. Enjoying your photography is far far more important unless you are a professional. Even then it’s highly debatable whether image quality is worth worrying about anymore. I have never had an old image taken on my Canon 20D or Canon 5D (original) rejected by anyone and I still use those images today. Modern cameras are much better across the board.

Reliability and Durability

If you’re backpacking for number of days you need a camera that isn’t going to fail half way through. My Sony A7RII has alarming ‘hiccups’ where the camera crashes or the memory card database has to be rebuilt. It’s no fun in the middle of nowhere. I sent back a Sony RX100IV (high end compact) because the lens protector kept getting stuck.

I often hike with my camera either around my neck or attached to a Peak Design clip. Naturally I’ve fallen a couple of times and my camera has taken the occasional bump on a passing tree. After years of use I’ve never had a problem with my Canon cameras and I suspect the same would be true of Nikon. These cameras are heavy, but they are professional tools built to last. (The same sadly can not be said of lenses, which have required professional realignment on a few occasions now!)

Usability

Start up time, shutter lag, menus, customisation options, buttons and ergonomics all play into how effectively you can operate your camera. In my experience SLRs, particularly those from Canon and Nikon, have a lead here. These factors matter more to me than image quality. Content is king – if you miss the shot it doesn’t matter how good your camera is! If you plan to skip the hiking shots and just set up methodically on a tripod then speed may be less of a concern, but some of my best shots have come “off the hip”.

The familiar Canon menu system – plenty of manufacturers still have ground to make up!

Weight

It’s tempting to compare the weight of cameras and pick the lightest one; after all you already have plenty to carry. However it is the weight of the camera SYSTEM that really matters. Often lenses for smaller mirrorless full frame cameras can weigh as much or more than their digital SLR equivalents. If your camera and lenses together are going to weigh around 3kg does a 200g weight saving on the camera body really make a difference? That said if you do spend your time looking at system weights across brands then you might find that a Micro 4/3rds system weighs as little has half of a Nikon D850 based set up. That might save you 1.5kg, a noticeable difference, particularly if you are smaller or less active.

Camera equipment isn’t light but switching to mirrorless or micro 4/3rds could save a reasonable amount of weight

Andy’s Olympus Micro 4/3rds setup was tiny and produced beautiful images.

Battery Life

Mirrorless cameras get through batteries much faster than Digital SLRs. The capacity of the battery itself is smaller but perhaps more significantly, if you forget to power the camera off the LCD will stay on until ‘auto power off’. With my A7RII I need to be rigorous about turning the camera off but then if I see a fleeting image I have to wait a couple of seconds for the camera to power on again. This kind of delay won’t matter to most photographers but it bothers me, particularly when taking hiking images. (see the Power section below for my advice on batteries)

Lenses

If you can face it I would restrict yourself to just two lenses – a wide angle zoom and a telephoto zoom. For most photographers this will offer maximum flexibility for a sensible weight. I’d aim for a 16-35mm and a 70-200mm (or equivalent for a crop sensor). You might also consider stopping the gap with a lightweight 50mm prime which can produce beautiful hiking shots.

Several top manufacturers offer premium f2.8 and f4 versions of their zooms. There can be a massive weight difference so ask yourself whether you really need that extra stop of light! For wide-angle shots of the stars a 16-35 f2.8 is certainly a big advantage (although star stacking can be a great fix), but otherwise there really is no reason to buy the heavier and more expensive lenses. If you really want to go light a 24-70mm or 24-105mm zoom is an excellent single lens option.

For some having just a 16-35 and 70-200 at your disposal might seem like a restriction. If you are used to carrying around an additional 14mm, 24mm Tilt-Shift, 24-70mm and 1.4x converter then it’s a big change. However with these two lenses you can realistically cover 14-300mm with a mixture of panorama stitching and/or cropping (ideally with super-resolution techniques!)

On the subject of lens hoods, I don’t take them with me. Their main purpose is to stop light hitting the front element when the light source is out of frame. You can use your hand to do the same job on the rare occasion that this is a problem! This saves a small amount of weight and bulk.

My two ‘Go To’ lenses. The 16-35 stays attached to my camera, the 70-200 sees only occasional use on most trips.

Filters

A polariser is essential. Personally I would suggest buying one for each of your lenses. They can cut through haze, darken blue skies, remove reflections and enhance rainbows. A 6 or 10-stop neutral density filter can also be nice to ‘smooth’ water or clouds in midday sun – just please don’t overdo it or use it as an excuse for bad composition!

Many photographers are very attached to their graduated neutral density filters, some even choose to backpack with them. My personal recommendation is to leave these at home. Bracket your images and ‘Merge to HDR’ in Lightroom – it’s much easier than messing around with filters in the field and you can save 500g or more. The processing side used to be quite difficult, now it is easy.

A 6-stop usually makes it into my bag. Polarisers are permanently on both my lenses, I only take them off when shooting into the sun or at night.

Memory Cards

Bring more memory than you could possibly need. That’s all there is too it!

Shooting time-lapse when backpacking gets through a lot of memory. I have, on occasion, shot 0.5TB in a week!

Tripods and Ballheads

A good carbon fibre tripod makes a lot of difference when you are backpacking. It’s the one bit of kit that you should spend money on early on, even before cameras and lenses. A good tripod will last many years. When I started backpacking Gitzo were the only real option but now there are a whole host of tripod manufacturers offering cheaper carbon fibre models. The ultimate tripod for backpacking is still the Gitzo ‘1 series’ traveller – I have the G1545T. My second choice would be Sirui, their tripods are just as good and only a little heavier, have a look at the T-2204X. Aim at a tripod that is 1 – 1.5kg. Don’t go too light or it will be useless in wind. One issue with Gitzo Tripods is there continued reliance on magnesium alloy castings which corrode easily once the paint coating has gone. I had a tripod leg snap with 5 days left of a Greenland backpacking trip. Sirui, RRS and many other brands use machined aluminium which is far better in this respect and less brittle at only a small weight increase.

I’d recommend a ball head for backpacking and again there are lot of great options now that didn’t exist 10 years ago. I use an RRS BH-40 and I would suggest looking for something of a similar or slightly smaller size and weight. The Sirui ballheads are again very nice and much cheaper!

Gitzo and Sirui tripods side by side. The Gitzo is a little taller and a fraction lighter but the Sirui is half the price!

Camera Pouches and ICUs

(Unbelievably!) The most regular kit question I am asked is: ‘How do you store your camera kit in your backpack when hiking?’ – there are two answers.

One option is to use an Internal Camera Unit (ICU). This is a light padded case that would fit all your camera gear. It can be removed from your backpack ‘as one’ so you have all your gear in one place. You will have to find an ICU that is small enough to fit comfortably in your backpack or you are going to have packing issues! In my experience this method uses too much pack capacity for longer trips but otherwise it works great. I also occasionally hike with an additional lightweight backpack like the Exped Summit Lite 25. The ICU I use fits inside this creating a fantastic system for longer walks from camp, you can even rig it with cord to carry a lightweight tripod.

The second option is to store your lenses and camera in separate padded pouches. This is the method I use most commonly. I’m often taking two camera systems with me so I can shoot time-lapse and stills simultaneously. This puts packing space at a premium and separate pouches allow better packing efficiency it seems. When its raining a lot I slot all my camera gear into a dry bag.

A cheap ICU, a couple of camera pouches, a Canon lens bag and a glorious carpet backdrop.

Power

If you are backpacking for a week or more then it’s tempting to think that you need a few camera batteries and a solar panel/power bank. In my experience it is much better to carry fully charged camera batteries. It’s the more expensive choice but also the lightest and most reliable. Manufacturers original batteries are (in my experience of Sony and Canon) generally better performing but more importantly far more reliable. I would rather have five original canon batteries than ten 3rd party batteries. Its really important to me that I KNOW how much battery power I have left as I come to the end of a trip. With my 5DSR I take one battery per day, with my A7RII I take 2-3 batteries per day depending on whether I am shooting video.

Unless I was hiking in guaranteed sunshine I wouldn’t consider solar powered charging – it’s a massive faff and for the weight of a solar charger you can carry quite a few extra batteries.

My solar charger was great in Greenland when the sun was out, but it was a faff I wouldn’t repeat.

Maintenance

Bring a Allen Key (Hex Key) for your camera brackets. Gitzo tripods also need Torx Keys to tighten the legs. Lens cloths and lens wipes keep your lenses in check. Particularly obsessive photographers might want to hike with a sensor cleaning kit or rocket blower, but I think that’s overkill!

My simple maintenance kit. Zeiss lens wipes are particularly good for backpacking because you can guarantee they are clean out of the packet!

My Setup

For clarity here is my preferred backpacking setup and a weight breakdown.

  •  Canon 5DSR with mounted 16-35 F4L IS, battery and RRS L-bracket – no lens hood – 1697g
  •  Canon 70-200 F4L IS, Canon bag – no lens hood – 843g
  •  Canon 50mm F1.8 “nifty fifty” – 135g
  •  Gitzo GT1545T with baseplate removed – 1045g
  •  RRS BH-40 Ballhead with Lever Release – 477g
  •  Tamrac Camera Pouch – 257g
  •  Batteries x6 at 77g each – 462g
  •  Memory cards (0.5TB) in pouch – 56g
  •  Filters – 77mm and 67mm polariser, 77mm 6-stop ND – 150g
  •  Lens cloths and tools – 70g
  • Total Weight: 5.19kg

This is a full SLR setup so it should be entirely possible to get the weight below 5kg for and mirrorless or 4/3rds setup. Nikon D850 based setups are usually a little heavier because the equivalent lenses are heavier across the board.

When I am shooting time-lapse I carry a lot more batteries, an additional A7RII and a custom designed time-lapse slider and associated electronics. This approximately doubles the total weight.

Canon and Nikon out in force in the Drakensberg.

Comparison Tool

If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of weights and specs when choosing a backpacking camera system then check out Matt Payne’s excellent blog and tool here:
http://www.mattpaynephotography.com/choosing-sony-full-frame-camera-equipment-for-backpacking-and-weight-calculation-tool

 

19 Comments

  1. Great blog Alex, really help valuable advice there. I can agree to your point about a tripod being too lightweight. I have a SLIK Sprint tripod which weighs 500g and unfortunately, a lens took a tumble at full height due to the wind! My fault though, shouldn’t have put the tripod at full height in crazy winds still a weighty tripod would have probably saved it, I actually wrote about it on my blog 🙂

  2. Interesting article, Alex. Being in the mountains a lot, i try and keep my kit to a minimum; Sony A7, the original one and smallest and lightest and cheapest. Zeiss Batis 25 and 85mm lenses, a few filters and Benro TMA28C tripod. The latter is perhaps overkill but enables me to get the most out of the relatively small megapixels of the A7 and also I stitch a lot of photos.

    Personally A7 has been perfect for me and a real breakthrough compared to Canikon offerings I’d used previously( 5D mk3, D3x); a fraction of the size and weight. Obviously less robust but never had any problems and I’m out in the Cuillin hills/mountains on a daily basis as a mountain guide and photographer. No problems but do take care in damp conditions and taped up hot shoe to prevent water ingress. Battery life limited but generic batteries are small and cheap so always take plenty. Start up times and AF could be better but never found them to be limiting. If money was unlimited I’d upgrade to A7R 2 or 3 but to be honest A7 is such a break through to me that it’s not a high priority. Happy to use best possible shooting practice to maximise output so good tripod, shutter release, stitched shots.

    Had large prints/canvases up to 120cm wide done and amazed by the detail. No turning back to a DSLR for me. If people are interested then check out my website.

    • Thanks for the comment Adrian. I think for short trips the short battery life problem is less of an issue. Incredible image of the Cuillin in the snow this year by the way – that shot has really stayed with me.

  3. Great post Alex. I agree on almost everything. Personally, however, to lighten the backpack on long walks, I prefer to leave the wide at home, and bring a medium lens (24-70) to be added to the lens that I use more, the 100-400. A medium-sized lens is very usable, even compositionally, and in most often photographic competitions do not accept crop of more than 30%. All of this obviously depends on your photographic approach, and also on the landscapes that you frequent; In my last release for example I have brought exclusively Fujifilm x100 (35mm) and 6D + 100-400. Greetings to a great photographer Alex Nail 🙂

    • Thanks Antonio. Yes certainly a 24-70 is a perfect all rounder and many people don’t like those ultra-wide focal lengths (11-24mm). I do think lenses longer than 200mm need excellent technique, lower wind speeds and often great atmospheric conditions to justify. But you can certainly take spectacular abstracts and I have from time to time wished I had something longer!

  4. Nick Monk 25th April 2018

    Well written Alex!
    I agree on pretty much everything you said. The only real point of difference for me is on graduated ND filters – you’d have to pry them from my cold, dead hands. But that is a personal choice, and on saving weight you can certainly do without them if you don’t mind bracketing or pulling shadows up.

    • Thanks Nick!
      I think one really important point to make is you have to carry what is going to bring you the most enjoyment almost at any cost! I can’t imagine backpacking without fresh coffee for example, but its certainly a weight I don’t need!

  5. Nick Monk 25th April 2018

    What is very important, however, is that you don’t take an extra lens at the expense of other equipment that will keep you safe.
    Better an extra set of dry thermal underwear and an emergency meal than a case of hypothermia.

  6. I’ve came to the same conclusion about taking a 16-35 and 70-200 (or 70-300) as the main hiking lenses and then bridging the gap with a small 50mm. Looks like I have the same mid and telephoto lens choices as Matt Payne on his blog. Great minds.

    I use an Aquapac DSLR stormproof pouch to carry my gear whilst hiking so I can quickly get the camera out for those special moment shots. I find if the camera is buried away in my pack it is too much effort to get it out and those opportunities are missed.

    • Thanks Luke and I’m totally with you on the camera being buried away. If shooting with a large SLR this is one of the hardest problems to solve in my opinion since they are a bit heavy to be hanging off a shoulder strap etc. But we make do!

  7. Having been a long time Canon user of around several years, I’ve seen the Sony mirrorless FF cameras evolve from the original A7R to the A7RIII. At times I bought the A7/A7R only to eventually sell them on after a few months. I just couldn’t get on with the colours and didn’t have the knowledge on how to manipulate them in post to get them to look like Canon’s. In the end I bought an Olympus Micro 4/3 camera system as a backup, much lighter and smaller and colour reproduction is fantastic. With 5-axis IS built into the sensor I could get sharp handheld shots down to 1/6 second. 16mp image resolution was fine for hiking photos and it doesn’t have an anti aliasing filter which makes the images sharper still, but I would still take the Canon kit where the opportunity for landscape shots was greater.
    These last few months has seen the sale of all of my Canon equipment and I’ve now fully invested in a Sony mirroless system (A7RII). The main difference I’ve noticed over my Canon 5DMKIV is the image resolution. Whilst the real world differences are only applicable when printing the images, it’s immensely pleasing to see super sharp and high resolution images when processing and knowing that all of the money I’ve spent has gone on a system where IQ is regarded as an important factor without the introduction of an AA filter as with the Canon 5DMKIV, which slightly takes the edge off the sharpness. It also has great dynamic range and I can positively say that my handheld images have a much higher sharpness hit rate because of the 5-axis IS built into the sensor. Colour reproduction has also improved, though still not as good as Canon’s but I can now get similar results after some post processing.

    Battery life, start up times and the menu are all relevant issues and I imagine vary depending on who the user is. The A7RII does have a 10sec power off mode, which might help save battery when shooting off the hip?!

    The menu or rear LCD aren’t as good as on the 5DMKIV, but they are more than good enough. The A7RIII has made improvements in this respect and also has a touchscreen and a much longer battery life as well as dual card slots, faster power up times and a joystick for changing the focusing area as with the 5DMKIV, so the gap is closing, but I can’t really justify around a thousand pound price difference from the A7RII just now.

    One issue that is very relevant is the ergonomics and useability of the camera. You can’t get away from the fact that you can work faster with a DSLR camera due to its size and speed. No doubt being able to use a DSLR with gloves in Winter is a big advantage, especially in extreme environments. It all comes down to compromises for now. If after a year’s worth of use I get on well with the A7RII I will be upgrading to the A7RIII for the benefits mentioned above.

    Weight isn’t a huge issue, but a little saving does make me feel better about going mirrorless. The size difference is noticeable however, especially when trying to cram everything into a rucksack.

    All in all I’m pleased I made the change. I feel Canon have been very slow to respond to end users requests and haven’t yet broken into the FF mirrorless market, instead focusing on their EOS M systems, which size and weight wise are significantly smaller than DSLR’s. But given Sony’s success in the FF mirroless market, they’ve definitely missed a trick. I would rather have kept my Canon lenses had Canon released a FF mirrorless body with an EF mount. There have been rumours of this for the last 18 months but nothing has ever materialised, hence the move to Sony.

    • Wow thanks for the detailed commend Harsharn. As you know we’ve had plenty of discussions about Canon’s strategy – I still feel that they are better than everyone except when it comes to image quality and it’s really nitpicking at that end as far as I am concerned! It’s a shame that Canon don’t have a mirrorless option to save a bit of weight, or even a camera that can shoot full frame 4K but on the whole I think they are still fantastic cameras. As you can see from the comments below, most people are happy with the system they have and that is perhaps the biggest take away here!

  8. It’s really interesting to see what a backpacker who’s focused mostly on photography carries. Must admit I’ve slimmed my kit down considerably – I now aim to carry no more than 1kg of electronics and camera gear in total. Don’t always manage it though!

  9. I still carry my Gitzo 00 mountaineer tripod on hikes, but these days 95% of my shots are handheld. The importance of tripods are exaggerated imo.

    • Wow there’s a surprise Arild – I must admit I’ve shot a few bracketed sunset images handheld before after lending my tripod to a client, but I can’t imagine going without one entirely!

  10. Andrew Wilkin 26th April 2018

    Hi Alex,

    Another great read with content gained from first hand experience. I’ve just purchased a MindShift Holster 20, fits my 5DsR + 16-35mm comfortably and has a multitude of ways to wear & attaching to yourself and backpack
    https://www.mindshiftgear.com/products/multi-mount-holster-20
    Cheers
    Andrew

  11. ben marar 4th May 2018

    Keeping weight down is really important, I just found out what tripod I am going to get; Feisol CT-3442, considering its size it is the lightest tripod on the market and affordable.

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