My older brother was the first person to introduce me to photography about 12 years ago when he asked me to take photos of him and his fiance with his old film camera. That was also my first hard lesson in photography seeing as when we got the film developed, all of the photos were out of focus. My brother is a professional photographer so needless to say, I had very humble beginnings.
11 years later, I decided to give photography another try and worked up the courage to ask my brother for advice on my shots, composition, and editing. He was really helpful, humble, and forthright with information for someone at my skill level. Over the course of a year, I learned more about photography and slowly increased my skill (which isn’t saying much considering I was starting from a humiliatingly basic level of photography). Then, a few weeks ago, my brother invited me to go with him to Death Valley National Park for a backcountry photography trip. I was honored, excited, and nervous all at the same time but it was not an opportunity that I wanted to pass on.
This was my first backcountry photography trip and I must say that I was surprised at how different the circumstances and conditions are when you are removed from civilization. I learned a TON and will share my biggest takeaways below for backcountry adventure photography.
1. Be Humble or Be Prepared to Be Humbled
Setting up in a studio with access to all of your photography equipment, electricity, and software, it is easy to get lost in the amenities and forget about the sheer skill that goes into photography. Being out in the field, literally carrying everything you need to survive AND all of your camera gear, things are much different and it is just you and your shot; there is nothing there to help you out except for what you brought. Everything has to go right because you may have only a second to catch the right light coming over a sand dune or to capture a bird diving mid-flight. Because of this, NEVER think you are too skilled or cool to check basic things like if your batteries are charged, if you forgot to adjust your ISO, if your shutter speed is still set at 30″ from astrophotography the night before (yes, these are all mistakes I made on the Death Valley trip). In a studio, that doesn’t matter because it is a controlled environment. In the field, every second counts, so be humble or be prepared to be humbled.
2. Get In Shape
If you are a pretty active person who climbs or runs or lifts or does any other sort of routine exercise, you might do exactly what I did approaching a backcountry photography trip and say to yourself, “Well I am somewhat fit so I think I will be fine.” Word of advice. DON’T. No one is above physically preparing for a trip. Every trip offers a different environment, unfamiliar conditions, and is never going to be like going to the gym. Furthermore, you all are most likely much smarter than I am and realize this, but another to take into account is the extra weight that you will have to be carrying just from all the photography equipment. I go climbing a lot so I am pretty used to carrying a lot of weight on long hikes, but photography equipment adds a LOT of weight very quickly.
When I was shooting in Death Valley, my camera setup was pretty minimalist and it added at least an extra 5-10 lbs to my pack. With the body of my mirrored DSLR, a few lenses, a tripod, extra batteries, and a variety of small accessories, my bag got heavy quickly which made a huge difference in my hiking ability. 5-10 lbs more at the beginning of a hike seems somewhat unnoticeable. After hiking 6 miles of hard terrain in 100-degree heat all day and then going for another 3-mile hike in sand for evening shots, you really start to feel that extra 5-10 lbs. Don’t assume that you will be okay.
At the end of the day, the alertness of your mind and how tired you are can affect your photography. To keep your shots clean and your mind sharp, train and prepare your strength and condition your body for the environment for much better photos.
3. Keep your Camera on Your Tripod
Unless you have a photography-specific backpacking bag like the ones from Clik Elite (which, by the way, I HIGHLY recommend. My brother uses their bags and I was super jealous at how much they could hold and that he didn’t have to worry about his camera gear knocking around and getting damaged. More about that later.), packing your tripod into or onto your bag after everytime you take a shot gets super annoying. It is a huge time suck and makes getting the shot you want that much more difficult. I learned very quickly that the best method for access to quick shots was to simply keep my camera mounted on my tripod and carry it by hand. Sure, it doesn’t look that cool and your hand gets sweaty but here is some quick math for you:
Digging your camera out of your bag: 30 seconds
Unstrapping or digging tripod out of bag: 30 seconds
Repacking camera and all other items into bag: 1 minute
Strapping or repacking tripod: 30 seconds
Total time per shooting session for repacking if you don’t keep your camera mounted: 2.5 minutes
Let’s say I take 400 shots a day on a trip like that with about 10-15 separate locations for shooting. That is between 25-37.5 minutes per day just spent on unpacking and repacking your camera and tripod.
To me, that is worth the sweaty hand and not looking super cool. Plus, it makes it so easy to setup quickly if a shot is time-dependent. Unless you know that you aren’t going to take any shots before the start of your hike and your destination, leave that stuff in your hand.
4. Invest in Good Gear
Okay, so I am about to do something that I thought I would never do. Personally, it drives me crazy when people feel obligated to have the latest and greatest piece of gear when what they already own will be perfectly fine. However, at least within the realm of photography, having great gear makes your life a whole lot easier when in the backcountry. I will outline my setup vs. my brother’s setup and note the clear advantages of his.
Chad’s Setup (The Amateur)
Camera: Canon 40D DSLR
Lenses: 28-135mm Canon zoom lens and Canon EF-S 10-22mm wide-angle
Tripod: POS $20 from Best Buy
Shutter Release: POS $9 from Best Buy
Bag: Old 60L Kelty backpacking bag and Patagonia Stormfront waterproof bag
Matt’s Setup (The Professional)
Camera: Sony a7s Mirrorless
Lenses: To be honest, I don’t even know. Dude has like 10 custom lens setups with all of the adapters to fit his a7. He buys really nice old glass from the 70s and 80s and adapts it to his body. Pretty incredible really
Tripod: MeFoto GlobeTrotter
Shutter Release: Vello ShutterBoss II
Camera: There really is no beating the a7 right now. It is top of the line in terms of graphics and performance. Probably the biggest pros from my brother using this camera, aside from the obvious photo quality difference are the following:
- Weight/Size. Like I said before, at the end of the day, saving weight in any way possible makes a huge difference. Not having a big bulky camera body to lug around is really great especially in these backcountry scenarios
- Long Exposure Processing Time: This may be a setting somewhere on my camera or it may just be new technology but the difference in time for processing a long exposure was staggering. On my brother’s a7 the image was processed instantly no matter how long the exposure. On my camera, my camera processed the image just as long as the exposure was. So for astrophotography, this was very annoying. When you are dealing with exposures of up to 7-10 minutes, it was very clear who the winner was. My brother could literally take twice as many photos as me and his setup time was much shorter. Getting focused on my foreground object took forever because I had to wait 3 minutes just to see if it was in focus.
- Lens Compatability: My brother was describing a little bit of this to me and why the a7 is so cool. My brother buys glass from the 70s and 80s at prices in the $100-200 range when back in the day it was a $1,000 lens. He can take that same lens and mount it to his a7 with adapters and get about 3-4 times buying power for other lenses with how much money he saved. I just bought a used wide angle zoom for $500 because that is what was compatible with my camera. Sure, you spend $2,000+ on a new camera but you save a ton when you buy the lenses.
- Size/Weight: My brother has a carbon-fiber tripod that packs down to the size of my forearm but can be as tall as any tripod you need. Better yet, it is super light-weight and makes for easy long hikes.
- Image Stabilization: I know what you might be thinking: “I mean a tripod is just a tripod. All I need is something to hold my camera.” For most of the time, you are probably right. To be honest, that is how I approached buying a tripod for this trip. I got the cheapest tripod I could find at Best Buy and do not regret it for one second. However, seeing the difference in the field was pretty eye-opening. My brother’s tripod, with excellent hardware, provided supreme image stabilizations. For any portraits or shorter exposures, this isn’t super necessary. But, for something like astrophotography where you are taking exposures of many minutes, any tiny vibration will show up in your shot. To give you an example, because my tripod hardware was cheap plastic and didn’t really tighten down, even moving my shutter release cord a tiny bit when I set it down caused my camera to shake just a tiny bit. Then, my 12-minute exposure and 12-minute processing for a total of 24 minutes of my time, came out blurry in photoshop. Bummer.
- Material: Being a Materials Scientist by trade, I always look to material choice first. This is a very specific note but very important. The hardware on my camera was all plastic except for the legs which were tubular aluminum. Shooting in a sandy environment was extremely problematic for my tripod because any tiny piece of sand that would get into the plastic hardware would wear it down so quickly. At the end of 4 days, my brand-new tripod was in much worse shape just from sand wear. Something with at least metal hardware is best.
- Material/Construction: Speaking of sand, it comes up again here. I bought the cheapest shutter release from Best buy which was just a plastic slider button. This material and construction proved super annoying in a sandy environment. Sand got lodged in the slider button and would cause the button to stick in the open position. Then, when I would go to release the button when my exposure time was up, it would stick. Then I would have to very gently try to unstick it while also trying not to shake the camera, meanwhile, the clock ticking on my exposure. Moral of the story, get a shutter release that doesn’t slide and get one that is cordless.
- Compartments/Waterproof: I must say that purchasing the Patagonia Stormfront Pack was one of the best decisions I made for photography. A lot of my shooting is of fly fishing and in wet conditions. Having absolute 100% confidence that my camera gear won’t get wet is so amazing. However, it does have its downsides. The interior is completely open so packing your camera gear is reduced to buying individual cases for every component so they don’t get damaged knocking into each other. For me, this means I have a padded top-loader and a padded single lens case. So, while I do love the waterproof feature of it, it would make shooting a lot easier and faster if I just had padded compartments in there.Conversely, my brother uses the Clik Elite bag which is built for photography so his camera compartment was super easy to access and it was padded. The balance that I think a lot of photographers face is having the flexibility of an open bag not necessarily designed for photography and having the correct amenities for all of your camera gear. Yes, it is expensive to invest in good gear but in some areas, it is totally worth it because you will get better shots and have fewer headaches with the process.
All in all, this was an incredible trip and I learned a TON both about gear and photography. I hope that my discoveries help to streamline your process as you approach backcountry photography.
See below for my favorite shots from the trip!