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!