Going Lightweight for Photography Expeditions

It’s the middle of the night and still bright outside. I’m in Iceland a few weeks after the summer solstice, and I just finished the longest hike of my life – a nine-day version of the Laugavegur. I’ll have several photos and articles to publish now that it’s done, including this first post about the process of going lightweight on such a long hike. How do you trim your camera setup for such an ordeal?

How to Lighten Your Camera Kit

A heavy bag is never fun to carry along. For the trip I just finished, at its heaviest, my bag weighed just under 40 pounds (18 kilos). It got lighter as I ate food, but that’s still nowhere near what most people would consider lightweight. The big problem? Camera equipment. If I had taken my typical kit, the total weight would have been even higher, and likely completely unmanageable. It is only thanks to the tips in this article that I was able to carry it along in the first place without having to leave most of my camera kit behind. After all, I wanted this to be a photography centered expedition, and I didn’t want to skimp on the quality of camera equipment.

Lightweight camera equipment
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/8, f/16.0
Taken a few years ago near the same area as the Laugavegur – I haven’t yet processed any photos from this trip so far.

To end up with a reasonable pack, you must be very deliberate about what you carry. The bottom line is simple: You have to become an ultralight hiker, packing as little as possible – and, once you’ve done that, pile your camera equipment on top.

When you add together a minimalist backpack and the weight of a good camera setup, you’ll end up carrying a bag with a relatively normal hiking weight. (My bag, as heavy as it was, still weighed less than that of a few hikers I met on the trail who didn’t have nearly as much camera gear.)

For typical hikes like this, a seasoned ultralight hiker might be able to get away with twenty or twenty-five pounds at the most, around ten kilos, not counting camera gear. That’s especially true if you are travelling with a companion, as I was, who can help spread out the weight of things like a camp stove and a tent. Always hike with someone else, if possible! It can save a good 20-40% of the weight of your backpack compared to carrying everything on your own.

The rest of the tips below cover choosing a camera kit for this type of photography. Note that this article is not about going on a hike and carrying a camera – it is about going on trips where your main goal is to take photos, which means your priorities will be different. When you aim for top image quality, you can only shed so much weight in camera equipment.

Still, it is possible to help yourself out by picking your camera gear carefully. Here’s a look into the type of kit I recommend, which won’t sacrifice image quality, yet is light enough to carry on a longer hike:

1) One Camera

I have a backup camera that I like to bring along while traveling. I actually have two backup cameras, just in case something goes especially wrong. But when your goal is to go light, this is overkill. I don’t recommend carrying more than a single camera on a long hike, without any backups.

If your camera malfunctions, that would be a frustrating situation. But the odds of that happening are low enough that it doesn’t matter for a single day, or even for multi-day hikes – low enough that you shouldn’t break your back over it.

Which specific camera should you bring? That’s up to you. Some people prefer the lightest possible mirrorless cameras, but it’s also true that today’s DSLRs are often quite lightweight. Unless your only camera is a massive Nikon D5 or Pentax 645z, you’re probably fine to bring along something that you already own.

On the Laugavegur, the most popular camera kit I saw was the Fuji X Series of mirrorless cameras, which does have a weight savings over other cameras on the market. I brought my Nikon D800e, which some would say is far too heavy for such a trip, but it’s what I owned and I didn’t want to skimp on quality. (Confession: Seemingly against the point of this entire section, I actually did bring two D800e cameras, but for an entirely different reason that I will cover in a future article; under most circumstances, I wouldn’t ever do that on a hike like this.)

The takeaway? Bring a backup camera on normal photography trips if you can. Sooner or later, one will break, and you’ll be stuck if you don’t have something in reserve. However, for long hikes and multi-day photo treks, this is overkill. Bring a single camera, and make it a good one.

2) Two Lightweight Lenses

You never need more than two lenses on a long hike.

Okay, never is a bit too strong – perhaps very rarely is better – but the advice stands. Do what you canto shrink your kit down to just two lenses.

Two lenses may seem restrictive, as if you are likely to miss a good photo in front of you if it is of the wrong focal length. That may be true for some photographers, but I find that it is rarely the case for most. To get in the right mindset, go out and shoot some sunsets with just a single lens, even a prime. After you do this a few times, I think you’ll be impressed by the results, and it will be easier to make the same psychological leap at a later date when weight is of top importance.

Photographers are incredibly adaptable people. If you only have a couple lenses in your kit, your eye will focus on scenes that work for those particular focal lengths. You’ll get creative when something amazing happens, and you’ll end up with fantastic results.

Defining landscape photography waterfall
NIKON D800E + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1.6 seconds, f/16.0
When I took this photo, the only telephoto lens I owned was a 105mm prime (and that had been the case for a couple years). But it didn’t harm my creativity – if anything, it simplified the process and helped improve my composition skills. This photo is actually a three-image panorama to simulate a wider focal length. Taken three years ago in a similar area to the Laugavegur.

What lenses do you need? That’s the fun part: It doesn’t matter. I prefer a wide-angle prime or zoom and a telephoto zoom, but other photographers will differ vastly. Do whatever fits your style.

I’ll stress again that this advice doesn’t apply to normal nature photography, where weight isn’t as much of a concern, and you should feel free to take along any lens that you might need. Even if you’re going on a day hike, it doesn’t necessarily apply, depending upon the length and difficulty. Instead, this is advice for photography expeditions where every ounce matters. In cases like that, you don’t need anything else.

I own seven lenses, but I never bring more than two on a long hike – one of which is usually a lightweight 20mm or 35mm prime. The lighter your lenses, the better. If you have something like an 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 and a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, that’s great. If you have a 35mm f/1.8 and an 85mm f/1.8, that might be even better.

With two lightweight lenses that cover relatively different focal lengths, you can photograph nearly every scene successfully. Compose your images creatively, move around, create panoramas, crop if you must, and look for different subjects to photograph. A few missing focal lengths, or even many missing focal lengths, is not something to worry about.

In fact, if you’re really daring, you can pack just one lens. A lot of photographers might suggest a wide-to-medium or wide-to-telephoto zoom for this purpose, but, in some sense, it doesn’t matter what you choose; your eye will adapt to fit it, and you’ll rarely miss a shot along the way.

I’m not that daring, so I brought two lenses on my trip, but you still can get away with less weight than you would expect. Just carry prime lenses when possible, or pick zooms that have smaller maximum apertures. This is when it pays to use “consumer” lenses that weigh less and frequently have quite good image quality at landscape apertures like f/11.

3) A Tripod

Tripods remind me of those massive, puffy jackets that people wear in the winter. They’re large, expensive, and annoying to carry around. They also save your life.

I don’t want to bring a heavy chunk of carbon fiber everywhere I go – especially on multi-day expeditions where every ounce matters. Still, there’s a reason why I carry a tripod on even the craziest hikes I do, including nine days on and around the Laugavegur. (Granted, I wasn’t climbing Mount Everest, in which case I might have needed to be a bit pickier.)

The simple fact is that tripods offer unparalleled flexibility in your photography, improving the image quality of practically every photo you take. On top of that, they let you capture certain scenes that would be impossible handheld, and they give you a solid mental state upon which to start constructing an image. I know some photographers who can’t even begin to take pictures until their camera is on a firm tripod. It’s step one.

Tripod for long hike
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/15, f/11.0
Step one, bring a tripod. Step two, shadow selfie.

So, should you bring a tripod on a photography expedition, where you’re trying to slim down all your equipment as much as possible? My answer is that it depends. It depends upon the length of the trip and the types of subjects you want to capture. It also depends upon how much you think the tripod will slow you down, and if you’re willing to accept that trade-off.

If you’re on the fence, I would say this: Don’t carry a tripod if you’re only taking pictures during the day, and you have no plans for sunset, sunrise, or nighttime photography. But if you do want to take high-quality pictures at the edge of the day, you’ll likely regret not bringing one along. Tripods are the easiest way to improve your image quality and expand the range of subjects you can capture. They increase your flexibility tenfold.

For what it’s worth, you might consider bringing along a lightweight, hiking tripod rather than your heaviest version. If you have one, that’s generally what I would recommend. My full tripod kit is two kilos (4.5 pounds), but there are travel options that weigh around half that. Lighter tripods definitely aren’t as stable as heavier ones, but even a featherweight tripod is far, far better than none at all, and you can improve their stability by using them intelligently. (See this article on improving tripod stability in windy conditions.)

We’ve written much more about tripods if you’d like to learn in-depth how to use them and buy the right one. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that tripods are critical to landscape photography. If there is any feasible way to bring one on your travels, I recommend it.

4) Other Camera Gear

When you pack light, keep all your other camera accessories to a minimum. Bring a good lens cloth, a few extra batteries (more than you think you’ll need), and a polarizing filter. Unless you have a very specific reason to carry anything else, that’s all that matters for most hikes. I’m a camera accessory junkie, and I didn’t bring any extras on the Laugavegur. I didn’t miss them, either.

Is This Still Too Much Weight?

Some long-distance hikers will find these suggestions surprising, to say the least. A camera, two lenses, and a tripod? If you’re not careful, that weight can get out of hand. Why not just bring along a good point-and-shoot, or even your phone, and shoot handheld? You’ll end up with equipment that weighs much less, and still gives you solid images.

From the perspective of holy-cow-my-shoulders-hurt, I agree. A bag of camera equipment isn’t awful on its own, but when you add in a tent, a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, water, extra food, safety equipment, and so on, it gets heavy very quickly.

But, from the perspective of a landscape photographer, I disagree. No doubt, many people hike just out of enjoyment, and bringing along a camera is secondary. I do that all the time myself. But when your goal is to capture the highest quality images, it’s worth the effort to bring something you won’t regret.

I’ll also point out that you can go relatively lightweight without compromising on quality. Once you slim down to just a couple light lenses and a travel tripod, most cameras on the market, including the vast majority of DSLRs, are surprisingly manageable. Sure, leave behind as much as possible – your backup camera, extra lenses, and most accessories – but keep what you need in order to photograph what you want, no compromises.

Photography expedition
NIKON D800E + 20mm f/1.8 @ 20mm, ISO 100, 2 seconds, f/16.0
Did I like carrying my full tripod and full-frame camera kit through this river in Zion National Park? Nope. Will I leave them at home next time? No way!

Conclusion

A lot of photographers have I-left-it-at-home-phobia. It seems that the worst feeling in the world is to need a piece of equipment but not have it.

Turns out, it isn’t actually so bad. If you didn’t bring a telephoto lens, your brain just won’t look for telephoto landscapes. If you didn’t bring a wide-angle lens, your brain won’t look for wide-angle landscapes. Pretty simple.

But that doesn’t mean you need to pack the most minimal of bare-bones kits, especially if your goal for an expedition is specifically to take pictures. Give yourself the gear you need to capture the shots you’re after, and don’t compromise. If you’d like to photograph the Milky Way, bring along a lens that works. If you want high-quality sunset photos, carry a tripod. You’ll feel the pain of a missed photo long after your sore feet have healed. (And I don’t write that lightly; my feet need some serious R&R right now.)

For every choice you make, there’s a trade-off between weight and flexibility. If your bag weighs less, you’ll feel better, and your photos will improve as a result. At the same time, it’s better to carry ten pounds of useful equipment than five pounds of junk. This isn’t an easy balancing act to negotiate, but, when you get it right, the results are worth the effort. Once you choose the right lightweight camera kit, your portfolio and your shoulders will both be better off.

One thought on “Going Lightweight for Photography Expeditions”

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