Ask Me: What Camera Equipment Do You Carry in the Backcountry?
Been following you for a while, great site, great articles and amazing photography. I’ve been a lifelong outdoorsman and really enjoy hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and fly-fishing. I am also a professional photographer, working as a newspaper photographer. My question is: How do you juggle the obvious needs of equipment, time, and enjoyment of photography while doing things outdoors? I know you make your living this way, but I have been struggling with the choices of how much equipment to take, how much time to spend shooting images, and how much time the photography takes from my enjoyment of the outdoors.
To make a long story short, I’ve gone from carrying a DSLR and several lenses to pretty much only carrying a high-end, point-and-shoot camera when I go on my adventures. While I love shooting photos, I go hiking, backpacking and fly-fishing to get away from work. Of course, while cruising down the trail with just 25 lbs. on my back, I’m loving the point-and-shoot, but on every trip I find myself wishing I brought the DSLR along because of some incredible image that presents itself
Just wondering what your basic “I’m going for a few day backpacking trip” load out is like and how you decide when to take the cameras out, and maybe more importantly, when to put them away and just enjoy what’s happening.
All the best and keep up the great work!
Thanks for writing. Your question is one I have wrestled with many times over the years. There are certainly times when I don’t bother carrying my usual camera setup, but those are rare, and usually only when I’m revisiting a place that I already have a lot of good photos from, and I don’t expect to have the time to shoot or I don’t expect good light in the short time I have. Sometimes I just want to get in a trail run or quick hike and not carry a camera.
There are also plenty of times on the trail when the light just isn’t good and I tuck my camera away for a while and not think about it until the good light returns. Sometimes I just want to hike and talk with my family, or just enjoy the scenery and quiet.
But to be honest, I’ve had the experience too many times of coming upon a scene I really want to photograph and not having my DSLR with me. I may grab a photo with my iPhone, which is okay for, say, sharing on social media, but of course it doesn’t create an image that compares to what I could have shot with my good DSLR.
So I virtually always bring my DSLR and two lenses with me, certainly when backpacking, backcountry skiing, for a trip on water (which presents the challenge of protecting gear)—or even when taking a long dayhike or ultralight backpacking trip, when I’m walking a lot of miles every day and trying to go as light as possible. I shoot with a Nikon D7100 with Nikkor 18-140 and 10-24 zooms. I previously used a Nikon D90 and a Nikkor 18-200 zoom and a Sigma 10-20 zoom; many photos at The Big Outside were shot with that setup. Sometimes, as when rock climbing, I may only carry an ultra-wide zoom—the 10-24, or previously the 10-20—because that’s all I’m likely to use in those circumstances. I really like the ultra-wide for the three-dimensional depth and unusual perspective it lends to landscapes and outdoor-recreation images.
There are some great point-and-shoot cameras out there today. But even the best are still limited in their lens versatility and the sensitivity of their light sensor, and I would miss having a high-range zoom or an ultra-wide-angle lens.
I suppose my answer is that I’m enough of a photography geek that I consider my DSLR and two lenses critical gear on virtually every outdoor adventure, despite the fact that they add four pounds to my load—which isn’t too bad, given how much more photographic versatility it gives me. (I haven’t convinced myself to carry a third lens; the only reason I can imagine doing that would be to have an ultra-long telephoto zoom for wildlife photography.) Besides the fact that I make a living doing this, shooting and bringing home good photos from a trip are a big source of pleasure for me, so it doesn’t feel like work. Still, as I wrote above, it’s important to me to find times (when the light isn’t good, anyway) when I tuck the camera away inside my pack and just enjoy being out there.
Some readers have asked me how I carry my camera equipment in the backcountry and what I carry for a tripod. The About page photo of me, and the lead photo at the top of this story (from Glacier National Park), were both taken when I used a LowePro chest pack large enough to hold a DSLR and two lenses. LowePro and other companies make a variety of models in different sizes. They’re good, but I eventually wanted to find something that wasn’t so obstructive on my chest; I can’t see my feet when I’m hiking with a chest pack. A few years ago I found the Ribz Front Pack, and it’s what I use almost all the time to carry my DSLR and a second lens when hiking and backpacking. I don’t completely fill each side of it because I don’t want it bulging out too much—which impedes natural arm swing while walking. But it’s a good size for my camera stuff plus map, snacks, gloves, hat, etc., keeping everything handy.
As for the tripod, most of the time I’m primarily concerned with minimizing weight, so I carry a Joby Gorillapod that is designed to hold the weight of a DSLR with a zoom lens, weighs just seven ounces, and is fairly versatile; its major shortcoming is the lack of extendable legs, of course. But when I want the kind of photos you can get only with a “real” tripod, with extendable legs and a head that lets you point a camera in any direction, I carry my Oben AC-1400, which weights three pounds, seven ounces—so you can understand why I don’t always carry that.
You may be interested in my “12 Simple Tips For Taking Better Outdoor Photos.”
I hope that answers your question. Thank you for following The Big Outside, I hope you continue to enjoy it. Get in touch anytime.
Thanks for getting back to me, Mr. Lanza. Great info, I have been considering purchasing one of the “all-in-one” type zooms such as the 18-200, maybe now I’ll make the investment. I agree there are many times when the light is incredible or there is a bear, otter, or some other thing that I need the longer lens for. Actually saw a red wolf in the Smoky Mountains two years ago, only had the p&s.
All the Best!!
In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at email@example.com, message me at facebook.com/TheBigOutside, or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission. I receive a high volume of questions, so I cannot always respond quickly.
I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.
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