Backpacking Gear – Part 1 Photography Gears

As my picture seems to make their way a bit farther on the web, I am getting a growing amount of questions on my equipment. While I don’t think that the gear is what really matters in photography (more about that in the conclusion), I am going to play that game. Note that unfortunately I am not sponsored by any of those brands :D.

I will later post about what else I carry while backpacking as that might interest a few people. I usually try to keep my bag under 30lb for two days with about 15lb of camera gear, here is what the 15lb are composed of as for camera gear :

Camera 

Canon Eos 5d Mark IV

I carry a Canon Eos 5d Mark IV with me, I don’t doubt that there are lighter better camera out there but Canon has serve me well and is the only brand that I have yet to see fail by -50F. I like the way it fits in my hands, even with gloves and well I am the one limiting it’s capabilities not the opposite so even though it doesn’t have the best sensor out there… I am really happy with it. I hesitated for a while with the Canon Eos 5DSR but I do not need 50 Megapixels as I rarely prints and I am shooting sled dogs race which require really good ISO capabilities, which is not the 5DSR’s strong suit. It is multipurpose/versatile enough and allow me to shoot in any conditions with good results, a good balance of resolution, ISO capabilities, Focus accuracy and weather sealing. I upgraded from a Canon Eos 6D a year ago and I haven’t regretted, the 6D is a pretty good camera for it’s price and I should have kept it as backup.

Moonrise over Seward - Julien Schroder
In extreme low light condition when you can’t rely too much on long exposure, the ISO capabilities of the 5D are a nice help.

 

Lenses

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens

I like this range as it allows me to play in the mountains even if I am really close to the peak, like a lake with a tall peak behind, 16mm allows me to include more foreground and make the composition a bit more interesting. When I was in Fairbanks I was usually a bit further from the mountains and so I could shoot most of my pictures with a 24mm. I choose the F4 version (there is a 2.8 version) for its IS capabilities, sometimes I don’t feel like pulling the tripod out for a water smoothing long-ish exposure, the IS help with that. Also with those big Megapixel cameras it is always nice to have a bit of help to stabilize the shot and get sharper results. Last, I usually carry a prime 24mm F1.4 or 14 f2.8 if I suspect night shots so I am covered on that end.

Rabbit Lake in Black and White - Julien Schroder
Here the wide angle allowed me to grab some nice foreground. I crop at 16:9 as I prefer this format but it allows me to choose what I want to include within the frame

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens

I admittedly rarely use this lens, but hiking in Alaska you have high probabilities to run into some amazing wildlife. Leaving this lens at home would mean missing those bears/dall sheep/marmots/moose shots which would be a shame. I thought about buying a prime 300mm but the weight wasn’t much less so I sticked with the big zoom. If probability of wildife are low, like in the mountains in winter, I leave it at home but otherwise it is always in my bag.

Baby Dall Sheep - Julien Schroder
In those situation, you appreciate the reach of the 100-400

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

A really light lens with decent sharpness and super fast. I use this lens to fill the gap between the two zoom, I sometimes like to put it on to take a more artistic approach, trying to walk around and find interesting composition at 50mm, which is a good exercise. It is also a great lens for panorama as it doesnt have much distortion or vignetting at F8.0.

Kenai sunrise - Julien Schroder
The 50mm as its best : low light panoramic in an early morning

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM

This is mostly a winter lens, or astrophotography lens, I bring it when there is a change of northern lights or Milky way (well I wish.. the core of milky way is invisible most of the year in Alaska). It is a really fast and sharp lens allowing me to take short exposure for norther lights and thus capturing their motion more accurately

Northern light - Julien Schroder
Here the northern lights were moving really fast, shooting at F4 would have forced me to increase the ISO way too much and get a noisy shot.

Samyang/Rokinon 14mm F2.8

As the Canon 24mm F1.4 I mostly take this lens in the winter if Northern lights are forecasted, it is a really cheap, yet awesome lens for northern lights. It works well as well for astrophotography as it is fast and the 14mm allows you to take longer exposure without getting star trails.

Tripod

Feisol Tournament CT-3442 Rapid 4-Section Carbon Tripod with Feisol CB-50DC Carbon Fiber Ball Head 

I had been looking for a light but stable tripod for a long time, those are usually really pricey, I mean ideally a Really Right Stuff tripod and heads would be the best but let’s face it.. I can’t justify that price (over 1000$ for tripod only). I am really happy with this tripod, I can set it really low and get close to the water or else, I can as well set it upside down which I do from time to time especially over water (scary but great!). The only huge down side is that it absolutely does not function in the cold. Both the head and tripod’s knob get stuck making it impossible to use.

Winner Creek waterfall - Julien Schroder
Long exposure require a really stable as well as flexible tripod, the ground is rarely even and you need to be able to shoot low, which tripod with center column rarely allow

Filters

Breakthrough 77mm – 10 stops and 15 stops

I love long exposure for me it brings dynamic in the pictures and helps the viewer to feel inside the scene. After trying a bunch of filters, and let’s be honest, hating most of them because of color cast by example, I found this brand. I don’t see any color cast on the breakthrough filters under 2 minutes exposure. Over well there is a little pink on the corner but it is easy enough to correct. I am looking into their circular polarizer/linear + Neutral Density filter which seems interesting as well.

Marion Creek - Julien Schroder
Here i was using both the Breakthrough Neutral density filter as well as a the CPL to limit the reflection in the leaves and water.

B+W 77mm Circular Polarizer MRC Filter

I am not a huge fan of Polarizer, I rarely use them. I find it too strong of an effect and since I shoot most of the time at 16mm I get some uneven skies that really disturb me. However, sometimes you need it so that is why I carry that one. I bought it years ago, and rarely use it but it is good to have in case.

Conclusion

Well let’s be honest, that is a pricey kit. Most of it is overkill and I don’t use it as its full potential. If you are into photography and well gear, it is hard not to feel frustrated by the last toys available that you can’t afford, that other brand that sounds so awesome etc… The truth is, in most conditions your camera is enough. A 14 stops dynamic range as in the Sony sensors sounds amazing! but do you really need that, can’t you just bracket (take one over/under/well exposed pictures and do a composite in post) and save the money for let say get into nice places? There are some conditions where those expensive camera shines : low light photography, huge prints, heavy post processing, tough weather condition, astrophotography. In those conditions it is nice to have the latest technology but if you do that just from time to time, rent and save the money (if you are in the US I highly recommend lensrentals.com)

Other systems?

Here are a few thoughts about a few other brands I have heard of, I am a gear nerd but I don’t know everything and I haven’t tested any of those brands so it is just from what I have read around. Truth is, just buy what works the best for you in term of handling, price range and possibilities, at the end of the day all those systems have slight differences but none of them is really reinventing photography in my opinion.

Fujifilm is getting a lot of amazing reviews, their X series looks pretty awesome and it does seem like for backpacking, their light weight would be a huge advantage. On top of that their price is actually decent comparing to the Sony/Canon/Nikon. So why not jumping ship, well I am always worried with mirror-less battery life, especially in extreme cold conditions, and that would mean re-investing in another system. But as a travel camera a Fuji XT2 with a couple of prime lens is pretty appealing. Mirrorless in the cold is not appealing as it would be tricky to use with gloves and well the battery capabilities would be an issue. Here for more about Fujifilm’s system for landscapes, from exploringexposure.com.

Pentax has done an amazing job with their K1 camera, bringing Medium format quality to an affordable body. The down side of Pentax is probably the lack of choice in lenses but other than that, it is a pretty appealing brand for whom want amazing quality at an affordable price. fstoppers reviewed a pentax system on there

Sony, well their mirror less camera are appealing for sure, amazing dynamic range, some great lenses and possibility of using native canon/Nikon lenses. As for weight, I am actually not sure that you are saving that much weight for a full system of decent lenses + body + batteries especially in cold weather. As for the sensor advantages, they are undeniably better than the canon sensor, but I don’t think that it actually makes much difference in the finale images. Here is an example of a great landscape photographer with a full Sony kit

Nikon just published what seems to be an amazing piece of equipment with their D850 but once you have a system it would be really expensive to change brands. Plus even though the camera looks amazing on paper, in practice it stays really close to the 5D mark IV, for my use anyway (video people might not agree with me). Here is an example of a Nikon’s kit for landscapes (D850 would now replace the D810)

Here is my kit on kit.com