Last month, I did my 23rd overnight backpack in Grand Canyon National Park. The first was in 2006, an experience that forged a lifelong connection to the most spectacular of America’s national parks. During the years since, I have hiked nearly 1,160 miles and camped 109 nights below the rim. From Nankoweap to Crazy Jug north of the river and south from the Little Colorado to Bass, I’ve walked through every side canyon that empties into the mighty Colorado.
What motivates these treks is two-fold. First, is the deeply spiritual experience of hiking in Grand Canyon. It is a feeling and place like no other. Second, is the opportunity and challenge of using my camera to capture the magnificence of this natural wonder. This recent trip confirmed my thinking about the equipment and techniques essential to making a successful photograph in a wilderness environment. In short, you need to get back to basics.
Wilderness backpacking is an activity where success or failure rests on your ability to manage resources. The resources include the gear you bring, the food you eat and the water you drink. Successful management of these items rests on your ability to prioritize, to identify those things which are essential, of value or merely trivial.
Water is essential, something you need to consume every day to maintain physical and mental well being. In a desert environment such as Grand Canyon, you had better have it or know with confidence where it can be found. Food is essential. Your pack, clothing, safety gear and first aid kit are essential.
A camera and tripod, while of value, are not essential. Neither are critical to day-to-day survival. Neither is a tool that helps you get from point A to point B. Neither provides shelter from the elements or assistance during an emergency. For most backpackers, these would be considered trivial items. Most people would bring a smart phone as a resource for communication with family and friends, during an emergency. At other times, it can function as a camera. Some hikers would bring a point & shoot – something lightweight that fits nicely in a pocket – or perhaps a small tripod or Gorilla Pod.
As a dedicated landscape photographer, the camera and related equipment – while non-essential – are highly valued by me. Two years ago, I replaced and upgraded several critical pieces of backpacking kit with the goal of reducing weight while maintaining performance. The items included my backpack, shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and water treatment kit. The net result was a reduction of nearly five pounds in my backpacking base weight. (Base weight is the weight of the pack and all non-consumable contents.)
What did I do with those five pounds? Did I walk a bit lighter and quicker down the trail? Of course not. I reassigned it to photographic equipment. Instead of hiking with a crop format camera body, I now bring a full-frame sensor body. I also added a lightweight but full-size travel tripod to my kit. These items added a bit over four pounds to the weight of my pack. They also significantly increased the enjoyment I get from doing photography while backpacking.
Here’s the complete list of photographic gear I brought on a recent eight-day Grand Canyon backpack:
- Nikon D610 camera body (w/ two spare batteries and two spare 32 GB SD cards)
- Nikon 16-35mm f/4 wide angle zoom lens (w/ lens cleaning cloth and wipes)
- Benro A1690T aluminum travel tripod with Benro B0 ball head (w/ backpack straps)
- Peak Design Capture Camera Clip Pro mounting system
- Peak Design Slide camera strap
Almost any camera (smartphone, point & shoot, etc.) can make an excellent picture in the full light of day. The equipment I packed allowed me to make excellent photos in any lighting, even at night. The D610 is a top-5 ranked camera body when it comes to the combination of resolution, dynamic range and low light performance. That 24 megapixel Sony sensor is a beast. The 16-35mm zoom lens allows me to capture awe-inspiring wide angle views. An equivalent lens on a crop-frame body would have a focal length in the 10-11mm range. No smart phone or point & shoot comes close to delivering such a wide angle view.
The tripod enabled me to capture quality exposures during the golden hour and at night. Without the tripod, I would have had to shoot with wide open apertures and high ISO’s to keep exposure times reasonable. With the tripod, I could use the base ISO, a small f/13 aperture and capture tack sharp landscapes during twilight. I could also make longer 1-second exposures of a waterfall to give the flowing water that silky smooth quality. Or, I could make 30-second exposures of the night sky at very high ISO to record a stunning image of the Milky Way rising over Grand Canyon.
Equally important, was what I did not bring: no backup body; no second (or third) lens; no filter(s); no speedlight(s); no reflector. Under different circumstances, I would normally have brought all these items. However, in an environment where every ounce and each square inch of space matters, these accessories are non-essentials.
I know a lot of landscape photography enthusiasts will question the decision not to bring even one filter. After all, filters are relatively small and light. Surely, I could have fit a neutral density filter, a graduated ND or a UV filter in my kit? Well, I could have. I also could have used that weight or space for more water, more food, rain gear, another clothing item or some other even more essential item.
The bottom line reality is that much of what filters offer can be achieved in Adobe Lightroom. Shooting in RAW combined with good decision-making about what to photograph and judicious use of exposure compensation allows me to capture original exposures that can be edited in Lightroom to optimize exposure, details and highlights in any area of the final photograph. All this can be accomplished in a few minutes or less. Filters, while definitely of value, are non-essential.
The 24 MP sensor combined with Lightroom’s single button click tools correcting lens distortion and chromatic aberration give me the option of shooting at 35mm in the field, then cropping to 50mm or even 75mm during post-production. In short, image processing offers the option of converting a wide angle image into a photograph captured with a standard focal length lens.
Of course, the real fun during the hike was making images that take advantage of what a true wide angle lens offers. Of the more than 1,000 photographs I took during the eight-day trip, only a handful have been cropped more than about 10% during processing. Ninety percent or more have not been cropped, at all. Some may view shooting with just one lens for a week as limiting. I saw it as both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity was to make dramatic wide angle landscapes in a truly stunning natural environment. The challenge was to be creative with my use of the lens throughout the week.
In hindsight, it wasn’t a challenge, at all. It was easy. Throughout the week, there was only one time when I missed not having a long telephoto lens in my pack. (We were standing at the edge of the Tonto Plateau looking into Vishnu Canyon and found the remnants of an old miner’s cabin. The ruins were about half-a-mile distant and, while plainly visible through a 10X monocular, were simply beyond the reach of a 35mm lens.) But for that, it was a genuinely enjoyable week of hiking in and making landscapes of Grand Canyon National Park.
You don’t need to spend a week backpacking in a wilderness area to experience the joys of shooting with a minimal kit. You can do it, any time you wish. All it takes is the willingness to leave all but your most basic and necessary gear at home. This weekend, choose one camera, one lens, a tripod, a couple of spare batteries and media cards, and allow yourself to spend an entire day taking and making great photographs with just that essential equipment. Get back to the basics.
Go ahead, get out there and shoot.
Bill Ferris | April 2015