Photography in the Backcountry

2:41 p.m. on December 27, 2010 (EST)
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I wanted to get some insight from some folks on photography in the backcountry. I've been an avid amateur\consumer photographer for several years since picking up my first generation Digital Rebel back around 2000.  Historically I was mostly point-shoot but in the last couple years I've started to move into more serious photography and upgrading both my skills\knowledge and my equipment. I really gravitate towards nature, wildlife, and landscape photography  but I'm finding it comes with some challenges. 

Lens Selection - Last year I replaced my stock lens that came with my Canon T1I with a Canon EF 24-105mm F/4L IS USM. I'm very happy with this as my standard "walk about" lens but it doesn't have the reach I want\need so I've been saving up for an additional lens.  I've been looking at the the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM and the EF 100-400mm IS USM but weight and size become a great issue with lugging around the larger lens (especially the 100-400). Does anyone have any experience taking lenses such as these onto hikes? I've tried to find some local places where I can rent a lens for a weekend to try it out (raleigh,nc) but I've had no luck. I'm also concerned about changing lenses too much and getting crap\dust in the frame so although it would nice to carry a lens for each scenario, the weight and potential damage swapping lenses is a concern.

Tripod - Any suggestions on a lightweight but sturdy tripod that's hiking\backpack friendly?

Camera\Lens Care - I carry a LowePro TopLoad Pro 70 AW on my hikes which has some good padding\protection and a nice all weather cover but I still get concerned. I typically carry a large plastic ziplock bag for wet days and all my lenses have filters. I plan to upgrade in the future to a Canon 5D Mark II frame which has a more rugged frame (among other perks) then my T1I but does anyone have any general suggestions on camera care and packing?

btw - It would be great to have an outdoor photography section on the site :)

Sorry for such a long laundry list of questions but I appreciate any advice. Thanks!


3:21 p.m. on December 27, 2010 (EST)
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312 forum posts

Hello Josh


A 70-200 2.8 is too heavy for the trail or backpacking. I would go for a longer and necessarily slower standard zoom, which would remain on the camera for most of the time, say 28-300 (4.5 - 5.6?), as well as a standard macro at 50 or 60mm (f2.8?). Unless, of course, you intend to shoot a lot of wildlife. My experience has told me that the longer lenses do not earn their place and that lighter gear makes the trip more enjoyable.

I think the high iso performance of digital makes a lot of 'slow' lenses more useful. A shallow depth of field, and the ability to shoot in low light, and the ability to stack filters and still get a nice bright viewfinder, is overrated, especially for backpacking/moving fast/going far. Outdoors, you can always get closer to the subject (wildlife notwithstanding) using your feet.

There is a technique that you can pick up or develop one of your own, for changing lenses outdoors, so it shouldn't be a problem if you are careful. The more universal your primary lens, the better. Carry a blower if you are worried or even consider switching to another brand with anti-dust sensors.

Manfrotto/Bogen are widely respected for value carbon-fiber tripods, though I am of the opinion that an aluminum one is adequate and that weight even helps. Look for a hanging hook. Made in China tripods such as Giottos are also good value. Add a good, made in USA, ballhead (Kirk, Acratech) and a few arca swiss type plates.

For protecting gear from the rain, I would suppose the better Canon (I shoot Nikon) DSLRs have enough weather sealing to make the Lowe AW bags an adequate choice. But if you are worried, companies such as Ortlieb make very good waterproof bags. Really though, the new gear is very well sealed.

I have tried all the carrying options and now I think just having a lens case for the additional lens and putting this, together with a waterproof bag for the bits and bobs, inside a normal daypack, is the best option. My camera is usually outside over my shoulder on a wide Optech strap with grip dots and the case for the camera is usually put in the daypack, though often I won't take a camera case and just put it inside some clothing, inside the daypack, if the rain doesn't stop. My tripod is usually in my hand, unfolded and doubling as a walking pole for the tricky terrain, or over one shoulder when the terrain is smooth. There are so many straps and bungees hanging off day packs these days that if I need to strap it to my pack, then I can.

And don't forget some plastic bags when you go from cold to room temperature to reduce condensation.

In winter, good windproof gloves with silicone palms etc, or some foam on your tripod legs at least, is also essential.

Check out Galen Rowell's books if you can. John Shaw as well.



3:44 p.m. on December 27, 2010 (EST)
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 I carry a 100-400L everywhere I go.  Mainly because I love to photograph wildlife. I've heard some whine about the 3 lb. 5oz weight, but I like what I get from it.  Guess it's just a matter of priories and what it is that gets you outdoors.

I have a Keyhole Camera Harness that attaches to both my daypack and backpack. So the camera sits on my chest while hiking. 

Took this a few days ago.
The 100-400 goes into my pack if I'm wanting my wide angle lens on the camera for landscape.  Not sure I want to trust the water bottle webbing on the sides of the packs with an expensive lens.

I personally wouldn't trust a lightweight tripod with a big lens.  If I think I need more stability, I'll carry my nice monopod.  If I need a tripod, I'll carry a good one.  But that is very rare.  I save the tripod for short hikes from the road.

As far as care goes, I keep the glass clean.  I've never fretted over dust much.   If it gets dirty, I'll wipe it down.   If at some point the sensors get dusty, I'll just take it in and let a pro clean it.


1:16 p.m. on December 28, 2010 (EST)
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Thanks for the feedback. Looks like a couple different (both valid) viewpoints on what lens(s) to carry.  Randy makes a good point as its a matter of priorities, some days I'm out for the hikes and a minimal setup is perfect other days I'm out for the pictures where I can justify the weight.  Luckily I finally found a lens rental shop in Raleigh so I'm going to rent a couple of them and see what my tolerance threshold is. I saw some video on the 100-400 and that guy truly is a beast of a lens but that really is a gorgeous shot .

Jon - I checked out some of the Manfrotto/Bogen tripods and they look like quality tripods with a good reputation, I've been using some cheap walmart\china tripods and my biggest complaint has been the  garbage tripod heads - I think I want to try out one of the ball heads (is that what their called?) with some sort of quick release. I also hadn't considered a monopod - that may be a good choice for a light day - do you have any brand suggestions randy? That Keyhole Camera Harness system looks pretty usefull as well, can't count how much I lean over something with only one hand because the other is on my camera to keep it from dangling around smacking things.

I also just ordered John Shaw's Nature Photography Field Guide so I'll be itching to read that - thx for the book suggestion.

As always the community on Trailspace just rocks! Thanks for the suggestions and sharing your experience guys.



2:06 p.m. on December 28, 2010 (EST)
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There are some very nice quality monopods out there.  I was on a budget when buying my gear and went with an aluminum one.  It's a Giotto MM9170.  It's sturdy, reliable, and does what it needs to do.  I've even used it to pole-vault over a small creek.

I have a Giotto MT 9251 Aluminum tripod and use the Giotto MH-1000 head on both.

There are better quality pieces out there, but after shelling out the bucks for the 100-400L, I had to budget the accessories.


8:06 p.m. on December 28, 2010 (EST)
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I used to haul around 4X5 cameras – just the camera weighed a lot, and then there was the lenses, film handling accessories, meter, and the required tripod.  (No wonder I use Nikon Coolpix now a days.)  To reduce this weight I fashioned a device that could be screwed into the tripod receiver on a camera that also sported a clamp that could be secured to a pack frame, walking stick, or anything less than 2” dia.  The gadget also had a lag screw I could use to attach it to wooden objects too big to grasp with the clamp.  It was absolute rock solid, could be tilted and panned, and was a fraction of the bulk and weight of conventional mono and tripods. 

As for transporting the camera and lenses, I used one of those plastic 5 gallon buckets, placing lenses and camera in the bucket, and padding it with my sleeping bag.  If your camera has detachable lens I STRONGLY advise transporting them decoupled, as it takes just a little force applied to a big lens to knock the lens docking plate on the camera out of alignment.  I also advice you store your camera and lenses in thier own dedicated transport cases when driving or jetting to/from your home and destinations, for the same reason.


11:33 p.m. on December 28, 2010 (EST)
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I never got into telephoto photography much, I shoot a 18-55 lens on my DSLR. I do mostly landscapes and close-ups.  I use cheap aluminum tripods and have a monopod that doubles as a collapsable lightweight hiking stick. I shoot lots of panoramic shots by shooting images side by side then photostitching them together at on my laptop. I use a Lowepro camera bag and almost always use a polarizer on my lens. I also use large Ziploc bags to keep my camera and lens dry when hiking slot canyons, quicksand areas and general wet weather hiking.

And yes a daily photo section would be nice, but most members post pictures at anytime anyway.
One of my favorite landscapes showing the Sagebrush and the Grand Tetons of central Jackson Hole, Wyoming from the summer of 2008.

12:08 a.m. on December 29, 2010 (EST)
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300 forum posts

The biggest problem I have is carrying my DSLR gear into the mountains, as the backpack is heavy enough as it is.  I have decided to get a lighter weight camera for those overnight trips.  The one I like is the Sony Nex-5, which will get me some nice pictures and although you can't get a really long telephoto it will work great in most situations. 

As far as tripods are concerned the Gitzo GT-0541 Mountaineer 6X Carbon weighs 1.7 lbs, while the Benro C-068M8 Travel Angel Carbon Fiber weighs 1.43 Lbs, and a real cheap solution is the Ultra-Pod.  Although the Ultra-Pod has no real legs, they are a great way to get a steady shot if you are not using the longer lens.  I use that with a electronic cable release and the swivel LCD on my camera.  I can also strap it to my walking stick for a quick shot.

5:43 p.m. on December 29, 2010 (EST)
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172 forum posts

When going on overnight trips I keep it down - few months ago I got the canon 18-135 and I like it a lot. Till then I was using my 18-55 plus an old 75-300 and a 500mm...all sit in an old lowepro bag that I hooked infront of me. But it's heavy setting so my new one is with the 18-135, and I just ordered a soft-pouch from OP/Tech USA, and if needed I'll take the 75-300 in a case when I want it...going for more then 3-4 days I wouldn't take a tripod, so I use my pack as one, but I think that the gorillapod are nice and I know they work.

I use a sea to summit drybag inside my lowepro bag when it rain, and now with the new soft pouch I think I'll have to put it inside the drybag.

One thing - I don't know where you take your photos at, but I found circular polarizer filter to be of a great help when taking photos outdoor

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