Wild Camping and Landscape Photography

In Articles On Monday, October 24, 2011

Wild camping offers many benefits to the landscape photographer. I have wild camped many times in Dartmoor, Snowdonia, Scotland and Iceland, and I am yet to regret a single trip. Not only have these trips been great experiences, they have also produced some of my best images. Below are a few reasons why you should consider camping and wild camping in particular!

Be on location at sunrise/sunset and at night and get more sleep!

Massive hikes before sunrise or after sunset can be a real issue, I should know, I’ve done them. In the summer its almost impossible to be shooting sunrise and sunset and get enough sleep and its even more of an issue if you are eating away at your time in bed because your location is miles from the car! I regularly set up my tent within meters of my planned shot for the following morning although on occasion I have still had a moderate hike.

If you want to do astrophotography you just need to crawl out of your sleeping bag!

Get unique images

Most photographs are taken at the road side, or on short walks. If you count the number of images taken at sunset on mountaintops there will be ten or one hundred times as many taken at the bottom. It can be a bit difficult being in the middle of nowhere at sunrise or sunset and as a result the majority take the easy route and spend more time in bed. If you are prepared to go camping and go the extra yard it will open up doors for your photography and you won’t be like the many hundreds of other photographer who only shoot roadside views.

Do it for fun

Camping can be a lot of fun, even on your own. If you’re a sociable person then go with another friend or photographer.

Camping with a friend is great and adds a degree of safety for risky pitches like this one on top of Suilven.

Save money (in the long run)

Camping gear can get very expensive, but if you regularly head away from home on photography trips the savings on accommodation can be significant. Even a youth hostel costs £20 a night and it doesn’t guarantee you a good nights sleep. If you only want to camp in nice summer weather then camping can be extremely cheap. £200 should buy you everything you need. My equipment is going on for 10 times as much, but that really isnt necessary at all, my early camping was all done with budget gear and I was perfectly happy!

Increase your understanding of the landscape and weather

It goes without saying that the more time you spend outdoors the more you will understand it. You might even grow to love it. When I started photography I loved spectacular views, but I wasn’t particularly enthused by nature itself. That couldn’t be further from the case now. I have no doubt that camping wild is largely responsible. There is something totally magical about camping out in the winter on a freezing cold starry night in total silence and solitude.

You can wild camp all over the highlands of Scotland, here I am with Guy Richardson at the Quirang

Streamline your camera gear

One of the photographers I chat to occasionally on-line recently informed me that he took 15kg of camera gear up Snowdon. You simply wont be able to take that much gear with you wild camping, but rather than being restricting you may find it actually helps you to focus on what is really important, the images. You will start to realise that you don’t need multiple overlapping zooms, or additional primes for that last bit of sharpness. 3 lenses is all you need, I usually take 2.

Get fit

Obviously lugging camera gear and camping gear around on your back is going to get you fit and that’s a great way of banishing photographic laziness!

 

Tiredness is a regular companion when mountain climbing with 20kg on your back but with it comes huge satisfaction

 

What camping gear do I need?

This really depends on where you want to camp and in what conditions! You will certainly need: a shelter, sleeping gear, rucksack, food and suitable outdoor clothing. The gear list below might set you back around £300-£400 (exc. clothing) but you can get almost the same performance for less money, particularly if you buy second hand.

A geodesic tent like this Terra Nova Ultra Quasar is excellent in the wind but very expensive!

Shelter – You can use either a bivvy or a tent. I have never used a bivvy so I will talk about tents instead! General factors to think about are weight (aim at around 2kg for a 1 to 2 man tent, or 3kg if it’s a mountain tent), internal space (most 2 man tents are only really big enough for 1!) and wind performance (you don’t want your tent to collapse!). If you are on a budget then in the UK Vango is a good brand to look at. I have an old Spirit 100, it’s a fantastic tent and I picked it up for £80 on eBay. I’ve used it in 50mph winds on top of a mountain before, and although noisy, it stood firm. Coleman also make some decent well priced tents. If you live in the US then you are spoilt for choice! If money is no object then Terra Nova and Hilleberg are pretty hard to beat. I use a Terra Nova Ultra Quasar when I camp with my girlfriend or sometimes with another photographer, it is fantastic even in horrific weather. It cost me £450 though, so it wasn’t cheap in the slightest!

A warm sleeping bag is worth its weight, its wonderful being swallowed by a mass of down!

Sleeping Gear – Make sure you have a sleeping bag that is warm enough for the expected overnight temperatures. I would give a strong recommendation to Alpkit bags, if you can get hold of them. They are the best value bags out there. I have used my Skyehigh 1000 in temperatures which froze the water inside my tent solid! It’s not the lightest bag in the world at 1.8kg but it’s a great bit of luxury to have. In future for my summer camping I will be picking up a bag from Peter Hutchinson Designs to half the weight. Sleeping mats are just as important. I use thermarests, but you can now buy excellent inflatable mats from vango and alpkit for around £30. The cheapest of all is the rollup closed cell foam mat, but these are only good as a supplement to inflatable mats in my opinion! In the winter you may need 2 mats, good ground insulation is critical in the winter.

Rucksack – If you don’t care to much about the latest and greatest you can save a lot of money here by buying a second hand bag. I used an old lowepro bag that cost £40 on ebay for 4 years, and never had problems. I have since upgraded to an Osprey Aether which saves a bit of weight and carries a little better, but there isnt much in it!

Crackers, cheddar and salami, a frugal lunch, but when you’ve earned it nothing tastes better!

Food – You aren’t going to get luxury meals when you go camping, but food never tastes better than when you have earned it. A hot meal at night is great. I usually have noodles (from a Chinese supermarket), pasta (which is more of a pain to cook) or couscous (which is very very quick). If I am just doing an overnighter then I will sometimes carry dinner from the night before to reheat. Of course, if you want a hot meal then you will need a pan and stove. For a long time I used a simple lightweight aluminium pan and a ‘can stove’ which I made at home. It’s a great way to go and ultra cheap. The stove is made from aluminium coke/beer cans and burns meths. There are lots of designs online. It does take longer to heat the food that the gas stove (MSR pocket rocket) I use now, but it never let me down. For breakfasts I eat muesli. For lunches I usually have salami, cheese and crackers. For snacks I have nuts, dried fruit and sometimes chocolate. As a general rule I bring more food than I think I will need and I always manage to eat it all!

Water – Water can be a significant weight, if you are happy drinking from unpurified mountain streams then you may be able to save a couple of kilograms, but obviously there is a level of risk that you could get ill (I haven’t yet). To purify it you can ise iodine or chlorine, or you can bring a filter along. Please research different purification methods because they don’t necessarily make the water completely safe! I use empty plastic bottles as water containers.

Outdoor Clothing – This is a tricky one because photographers aren’t doing the same activity as most hikers/campers. Standing more or less in the same place for an hour in a biting wind to take a photo will mean you need more insulation than an active walker would! Most of the year you can get away with a baselayer, microfleece and waterproof shell to keep your top half warm, although you may need 2 fleeces! In the winter you will almost certainly need a down jacket (or down vest at the least) as well. Alpkit make cheap down jackets that are worth considering. Baselayer wise you can get away with almost anything that isnt cotton! I swear by merino wool now, but it is extremely expensive. You need a hat for sure, even in the summer, and in winter you will also need gloves and a scarf/buff. Trousers wise I use the same standard hiking trousers year round. I put fleece trousers underneath in the winter from time to time. Footwear is worth investing in. My Meindl Vacuums cost £160 but they have lasted 4 years or heavy abuse and are still going strong and have never let a drop of water in. You will need good hiking socks, wear lines socks as well if you are worried about blisters.

Other things you might need – Don’t forget first aid, toothbrush, something to do, eating utensils, a lighter, etc. Make sure you really figure out what you need. Don’t bring things that arent useful!

With EVERYTHING I needed for 4 days hiking and photography on my back. Space and weight are at a premium!

Camera Gear

Camera– You probably arent going to buy a new camera just to go camping but it might affect your future buying decisions! Obviously you don’t want to compromise image quality just because you are going camping. There may however be a significant weight difference between two cameras that take more or less the same quality of image. In my case there was a point where I could choose between a 5DmkII and a 1dsmkIII, apart from the price difference the lighter weight of the 5DmkII made more sense from a camping perspective.

Lenses – Less is more here. I usually only take a 17-40 and a 70-200, both f4 lenses. Faster f2.8 zooms might seem like a better choice but the weight difference could be significant. You might be wondering how I fill the gap between 40 and 70mm…..On the rare occasion where the old ‘foot zoom’ technique doesn’t work, I just shoot a panorama or vertical frames with the 70-200 and then crop to get the final shot. I don’t bring my 400mm because I rarely use it. If I am going to use it in 1/4 trips then it doesn’t warrant a place in my bag. That said I will bring it if I expect to b able to use it!

Tripod – Don’t compromise too much to save weight but really you should be looking at a sub 2kg tripod and a 500gram head. I use a Gitzo Explorer and a RRS BH40. It’s a lightweight combo that gives me massive flexibility in camera placement.

Extras – I am sure you can figure out what you need here, but its amazing where saving can be made. I actually left my camera pouch at home on a recent trip to Iceland. Instead I used my fleece hat with an added drawstring as a camera bag. It worked great and saved a massive 500g!!

Where to pitch your tent

Anyone with a level head on their shoulders can work out where to pitch a tent but think about the following things:

  • Can you get the pegs in?(you cant set up your tent if you pegs wont go into the ground! Geodesic tents are better in this regard because they require fewer pegs to stay standing)
  • Is the ground dry? (groundsheets should be waterproof but don’t test them unnecessarily). Don’t pitch in a dip that could fill with water overnight!
  • Are you sheltered from the wind? (even on top of a mountain you may be able to find good shelter)
  • Is the ground level? (if it isn’t make sure you set up the tent so that your toes point downhill, maximise your chances by looking for flat ground on the map before you set off!)
  • Are you near your planned location?

This set of criteria might be hard to meet sometimes and you may need to compromise. However I have always managed to find a good pitch more or less where I expected to find one, although on a couple of occasions it has been tricky!

It might be easier than you think to find a good pitch, look for flat areas on the map!

9 Comments

  1. A great set of tips and gives me a bug to visit scotland, which is something ive never done! I did think while reading about the tent tips – don’t set it up in a depresssion in the ground that could fill up with water. It’s never fun waking up in a puddle!

  2. Glad you liked it Richard. I have edited my tips to include your suggestion. Not something I have suffered from but I can see how that could be a problem!

  3. I hate it!…..I can’t sleep in tents anymore I just spend the night trying to go to sleep. It never used to bother me.
    Great article Alex good to see a few shots of our trip. I will do it again but not winter and not miles from anywhere, I’m a whimp I’m afraid….

    • I was like that at first Jake. You just have to get used to it or put up with it! Hopefully you can make it on another trip at some point!

  4. Now IM 60 ( ina few months) I just can’t take much wheight very far at all so if Im going UP at all, I trim my photo gear down to 17-40, and 15mm f 2.8. If pushed , But to be frank when walking/hiking, with non photogs (which is most of the time) I dont get time to stop and wait for ages for the right light, Im far more inlcined to grab the shots as they come. Also true as the weather is so changeable (UK) so often you set out ona sunny day and you’re in mist or rain half the time once you get up there. Thus I usually i only take the 17-40 and thats it. The weather (rain and freezing hands) and time contraints make it too compliacted to cahnge lenses.

    I have tried taking a gitzo monopod and that worked fairly well keeping it extended as a walking stick when not using it for shooting. I lie the gitzo one as it has a good sized and soft grip area. and its robustish, not designed as a walking stick though so I doubt it’ll last long!

    Clothing – one tip – I have found that as the temperautre changes so much I generally find: head- use a buffy over the head, rather than a hat and put hood up when too windy or wet, otherwise you’re always taking your hat ona nd off as you get too hot or cold

    use a wool scarf to protect your front from the cold . I find having an extra layer when walking into cold wind is too much heat for the rest of my body but needed for my chest. A sacrf is so asy to adjust when it warms up and cools down again

    Alway keep some nosh in an accessible pocket – you get hungry fast trudging in the cold windy weather and it’s not always convenient to stop just when hunger strikes:)

  5. Stuart Moverley 6th November 2012

    Good article but I would dispute your suggestion about making camp on level ground. Personally, I’ve always looked for a slight gradient and pitched my tent with the opening facing downhill. That way any overnight rain naturally flows away from the opening with far less chance of it encroaching into your temporary home.

  6. Wow. I’ve never seen such camping advice written so well. Glad I stumbled on your blog. Thanks for the tips man. I’m heading to colorado in less than a week and this advice will help.

  7. Jo Lynch 9th January 2015

    Mate! This is an excellent article for handy tips and has really made me excited to get out there, hike and camp under the stars to take some awesome photos! Thanks!

  8. Plenty of great advice and a wonderful collection of images.

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