The longer I’ve been a fine art nature and landscape photographer, the more I hear the same statement. “All the good places are overrun with photographers and Instagrammers”. While it’s true for many locations accessible by car and short walk like Horseshoe Bend, many locations are still out of reach for the average person. If you put in the work to get on location, the rewards are stunning scenery and very few people.
Fine art nature photographers want to stand out from other photographers. We want the “hero” shot and for good reason. But the downside is all the shots look the same. Maybe the sky or the sunrise location is different, but your “hero” shot is like everyone else’s. So, trying to stand out may take effort and spending money to be homeless, I mean go backpacking. You know, eat freeze-dried food, sleep on the ground, get cold, wet, bathe in alpine lakes, and everything else that’s fun about backpacking photography. View some images of my backpacking trips in the Mountains and the Night Sky gallery.
WHAT CAMERA GEAR SHOULD YOU TAKE?
And that’s a tough question. After one trip, I weighed my camera gear and it was 15 lbs. Well, that’s dumb. I use a 16-35 lens, 100-400 lens, tripod, 6 batteries, 6 filters, remote shutter, and a handful of other gear. The 16-35 lens, 3 batteries, tripod, polarizer, remote shutter, and the light pollution filter for astro photography are the only gear I actually use. Using 8 of the 15 lbs. of gear makes one realize how little gear you should take . The extra weight isn’t a problem until the distance get longer. My 55 lb pack was heavy by mile 10 and often we hike 15 to 20 miles a day to camp. Some gear is required so added weight will happen. During the last backpacking trip, my camera with the 16-35 lens, tripod, remote shutter, 3 filters instead of 6 (light pollution filter, polarizer, 10 stop ND), and 3 SD cards (super small and don’t add weight so bring lots of those) was the only gear. The smaller camera kit lowered the weight of the backpack and miles were easy. Remember, I’m a nature and landscape photographer. I’m not photographing wildlife so carrying a telephoto lens isn’t with the effort. My main struggle is choosing the 16-35 or 24-70 lens. I'm not taking both. The 24-70 is more versatile, but the 16-35 is better for astro. Most of my backpacking trips are focused around the new moon so the 16-35 lens is the better choice for me. You may want something different so take some short trips and learn what works for you.
REALITY OF HOW MANY PHOTOS YOU TAKE
I bring my gear thinking about the images I want to make. But, reality differs greatly from your plan. Fine art nature and landscape photographers don’t take photos just to hear the shutter click or to fill up the memory card. Our images have a purpose. From the parking lot to camp, you may shoot 2 images. It’s the middle of the day, the light is harsh, surrounded by trees, what's the point of taking a photograph. If I want to take a photo, I will use my phone with the gaiagps.com app so I remember the location for later. Once you get to camp, set up the tent, eat some food, and get ready to shoot sunset. Unless you planned your trip around the new moon, you’re not shooting the Milky Way, so go to bed and get up for sunrise. This is how it goes every day during the backpacking trip. In recent years, there has been a lot of smoke in the air, so shooting sunrise and sunset may not be an option. Like I said, you planned on shooting lots of photos, but you have a few from sunset and sunrise. But maybe you want to document the trip and make a slide show for friends and family. Well, think about taking a GoPro for those images. They won't be large, gallery style prints so using a camera with large file sizes isn't the best option.
On a recent trip to the Wind River Range, I actually took lots of photos. We're working a photo book of the trip. Throughout the days I was capturing images of the group hiking, the scenery, and anything else I thought was interesting. These were daytime photos so the light was harsh but that's ok. The images are for a book of our trip, not fine art prints. The downside to the Wind River Range, is we don't think we can top the scenery. All of our trips in recent years have been amazing. But the Wind River Range is absolutely stunning. I think everything will be downhill from here.
CARRYING YOUR CAMERA
Every time I’m out hiking or backpacking, I see people carrying a camera with the strap around their neck. The camera’s swinging so one hand is used to stabilize it. Not very practical, since people want to use trekking poles. But everyone does this when starting out hiking and backpacking with a camera. At least the camera is easy to use but annoying as it swings. You can carry it in the backpack. Oh wait, I want to get a shot. Stop, take your pack off, dig around inside for the camera, take the shot, now reverse the process to get moving again. Not practical if friends are with you and there’s a destination in mind. So what are the options for carrying the camera while hiking and backpacking? Let me introduce you to the Peak Designs Capture clip. I found it to be the best camera carrying clip made. It’s small, lightweight, easy to use, and has an Arca Style plate for most tripod mounts. The Capture clip fits on the shoulder strap of your pack and the plate mounts to the bottom of your camera or L-bracket. You then attach the camera to the clip on the shoulder strap. Your camera is always in the front ready to use and doesn’t swing. The issue I have is with the camera mounted to one side. Any backpacking trip over 10 miles a day, make sure you carry something of similar weight on the other side to balance the pack. I put my camera on the left shoulder strap and the tripod in right side pocket. Otherwise, the shoulder with the camera gets tired and sore.
STORING YOUR CAMERA AT NIGHT
This depends on the weather. If I know it will be fairly warm at night, I leave my camera inside my backpack. If I know the temperature will drop, I keep everything in my tent. Well, not my tripod because that doesn't care if it gets cold. It may be a good idea to keep the batteries inside your sleeping bag to stay warm. This helps keep the charge up. Especially if you're like me and have the Sony A7Rii. Those batteries are horrible when it gets cold. If you bring spare lenses with you, those don't need to be in the tent. Only parts with batteries should be in the tent. If you keep your gear in your backpack, make sure the bag is lined with a 3 mil garbage bag. Those are a standard when backpacking in the Pacific Northwest. You never know when it will rain and you want all your gear protected. This goes for all your camping gear. Everything is in the 3 mil bag inside the backpack.
When I started hiking and backpacking, I was wearing heavy, goretex boots thinking that was the way to go. Of course, this was long before trail running shoes were a thing. Here are a few things I've learned in the last couple years. The weight of heavy boots adds up over the miles. People only focus on the weight of their backpack but you need to think about the weight of the shoes. Every time you take a step, you're lifting the weight of the boot which wears out your legs. Waterproof boots are great for day hiking, but overnight trips, I'm not a big fan. Goretex keeps water out but also keeps it in and take much longer to dry out when you get to camp. Try a pair of goretex socks instead of boots if you're concerned with water on the trail. Obviously if you're in the snow, the boot choice is different. Goretex and stiff boots are what you want.
The Altra Lone Peak boots are great but they don't last very long. Super lightweight but I only got a few hundred miles out of them. This year, I'mm trying the Salewa Dropline Mid. The construction appears much more durable than the Altra's so hopefully they will work out. Just make sure the shoe or boot has a large toe box so your feet can swell throughout the day.
Do not get a camera bag thinking it will work for backpacking. Well, it will work but not very well. I'm a fan of Osprey backpacks and use the Exos 58 but this is personal choice. Some like frameless packs like the Hilltop Packs Raven UL or something from Zpacks.com. Camera backpacks are designed to carry camera gear and not for long days in the backcountry. By the time you have everything in your backpacking checklist, it won't fit in a camera bag. Make sure the bag isn't too big. The bigger the bag, the more stuff you carry and won't use. How the bag fits your body is the most important. Backpacking backpacks have many straps to tighten or loosen for the proper fit. Find a professional at a quality store to help with the fit. Using small stuff sacks inside allow you to carry the backpacking essentials like a chair, chocolate, toilet paper, bug net
Starting the journey into backpacking with photography will be a learning experience. What gear do you need, what can be left behind, what do I want to photograph? It will require a few trips into the backcountry to get this dialed in. You may need a long telephoto lens and not a wide angle like I use. It’s all about what you like to shoot. At least most of the places you backpack into will have very few people and not the crowds of Tik Tokkers and Istagrammers. Every image in this blog post was taken while on a multi-day backpacking trip. Some of the images were taken after a 20 mile, one way trip to camp. But, we were the only ones in the area for multiple days. Well worth the effort. Check out my Mountains Gallery to see some of the backpacking areas I have been to.