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Lightweight Backpacking Photography

Nature photographers often carry a heavy pack containing a big full-frame camera, multiple large zoom lenses, and a sturdy tripod. The weight of the photography equipment alone can reach 30 pounds, on top of which hiking gear is added. In addition, nature photography of the traditional fashion requires substantial time per shot: to set up the tripod, attach the correct lens, frame the composition, screw on filters, and wait for the perfect light. This approach isn’t possible on the PCT, because hiking 20 miles a day over mountain passes, for five months, requires a light pack and continuous motion.

Fortunately it is possible to create excellent photographs quickly, with light, small gear. Here are some tips for lightweight backpacking photography equipment:

  • Carry only a small high-quality camera with a single lens.
  • Megapixels don’t matter. Sensor and lens quality do.
  • Good manual controls will help you adjust quickly to the situation at hand.
  • Use RAW format instead of JPEG for increased image quality and flexibility.
  • A viewfinder is useful in bright light, when the camera display is hard to see.
  • Image stabilization reduces the need for a tripod in low light.

That said, the most important preparation for any nature photography expedition is to deepen one’s vision. A photographer must always be on the lookout for moments when the light and landscape meet to form a compelling composition. These are the moments where the photographer has an opportunity to communicate something powerful, via his or her art. Even with the best equipment, a photographer cannot create good art without a thorough knowledge of composition and light. Here are some tips in that area:

  • Light is often exciting near sunrise and sunset, and before, during, and after a storm.
  • On overcast days, subtle subjects and intense colors work well.
  • On bright sunny days, harsh light and harsh shadow are powerful compositional tools to play off each other.
  • Strive to create strong geometry in your compositions: triangles, squares, circles, parallel lines, repeated forms.
  • Arrange rivers, canyons, branches, and other strong lines to lead the eye through your photograph in a pleasing way.
  • Remove all unnecessary elements from your composition.
  • Be attentive not just to the arrangement of your subject, but to the space around it.

Above all, follow your intuition. Rules are important, but simply following rules cannot lead to art. Express your passion for the natural world!

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Remove all unnecessary elements from your composition.”

    Like people?

    October 19, 2011
    • People are only allowed if they are wearing animal costumes.

      October 20, 2011
  2. Okay I quit shooting in RAW because of the big files and the hassle of editing and converting to JPEG while in the middle of a trip. On the other hand my Panasonic LX5 takes amazing photos in RAW. You have convinced me to rethink. Ideas on quick processing for on the trail?

    October 26, 2011
    • That’s a good question, and I’m still trying to figure it out too. I can’t figure out how to get my iPhone to read SD cards. The PhotoForge and PhotoGene apps can edit RAW files, so I was planning to use those. But that won’t help if I can’t get the files onto the phone in the first place! Do you have any thoughts on that?

      October 31, 2011
      • I don’t think the technology is there yet. I tried using Eye-Fi SD card (which in theory should have worked) and after many calls to customer service it really doesn’t work for on the trail away from your home computer. After taking photos in RAW format last weekend and then taking the time to edit was a big bummer. After thinking about the trail, photography, and time constrains my new plan is to continue using the best in camera settings possible (I rarely need to edit) and using RAW format when that once in a lifetime shot comes along. A good compromise.

        The last 2 summers I used the iPhone 3 and iPhone 4 for on trail journals. The photos were okay. I am so hoping the new iPhone 4s will do a better job for posting online. :)

        November 3, 2011
  3. Hi guys, a quick questions about blog photography in general. Do you take any preventative measures in regards to people downloading or using your images without permission? Do you find it to be an issue? What are your thoughts on the matter…?

    March 28, 2013
    • Oh, and I hope you’re having an great time on the AT despite the knee :)

      March 28, 2013
    • We only upload smaller versions of our photos to the blog. These are suitable for web viewing but not for printing. We haven’t had a problem with this approach.

      Also, my best PCT photos are not on the blog. Instead I saved them for the Pacific Crest Trail photography book which we’ve now published.

      March 28, 2013
  4. Hey,

    great Blog you have!
    May I ask which tripod you used? As I am looking for some lightweight stuff for hiking…

    Cheers,
    Chris

    March 26, 2014

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