It’s almost midnight and still bright outside. I’m in Iceland during the summer solstice, when the sun never really sets. I’ve packed all the camera equipment I need for an overnight trek through amazing scenery, along with food, water, extra clothes, and other miscellaneous gear. How much does my fully loaded bag weigh? Eight kilos (eighteen pounds). This might not seem very lightweight, but, for a photography-centered expedition, it isn’t bad at all. So, how does that look in practice?
How to lighten your camera kit
A heavy bag is never fun to carry along. For typical overnight hikes, a seasoned ultralight hiker might be able to get away with ten or twelve pounds at the most, or around five kilos.
But, if your main goal is to take photos, your priorities will be a bit different. How much does your camera weigh, and all the lenses you need? Are you planning to bring along a tripod, and what accessories do you need? When you aim for top quality — which is what this article is about — you can only shed so much weight.
To end up with a reasonable pack, then, you must be very deliberate about what you carry. Essentially, you have to become an ultralight expert, packing the absolute minimal amount of hiking gear — and, once you’ve done that, pile your camera equipment on top. When you add together a minimalist hiker’s pack, plus the weight of a good camera setup, you’ll end up carrying a bag with a relatively “normal” hiking weight.
Still, you can 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.
The bottom line: Bring multiple high-quality cameras on every photography trip you can. Sooner or later, one will break, and you’ll be stuck. However, for 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 your darndest to shrink your kit down to just two lenses.
If this isn’t something you’re doing already, don’t wait until you travel on a long expedition to put it into practice. Instead, just go out and shoot some sunsets with two lenses, or even a single lens. 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.
Photographers are incredibly adaptable people. If you only have a couple of lenses in your kit, your eye will focus entirely 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.
What lenses do you need? That’s the fun part: It doesn’t matter. I prefer a wide-angle prime 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. Even if you’re going on a hike, it doesn’t necessarily apply, depending upon the length and difficulty of the hike. 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 weightless 24mm or 35mm prime. With a lens like this and a telephoto, 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 is not something to worry about.
In fact, if you’re really daring, you can just pack one lens. A lot of people might suggest a wide-to-medium zoom for that purpose, but, frankly, it doesn’t matter what you pick — your eye will adapt to fit it, and you’ll rarely miss a shot along the way.
I’m not that daring, so I bring two lenses. Still, I do everything I can to minimize their weight. That’s not especially difficult; just carry prime lenses when possible, or pick zooms that have smaller maximum apertures (such as a 70-200mm f/4 instead of a 70-200mm f/2.8).
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. (Granted, I’m not climbing Mount Everest, in which case I might need to be a bit pickier.)
The simple fact is that tripods offer unparalleled flexibility in your photography, improving the image quality of 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.
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 tradeoff (because, without a doubt, a full-sized tripod will slow anyone down over time).
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 firmly 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 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, from Photography Life.)
I’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 strongly 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.
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? 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, extra food, a water filtration system, 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 never good to impose unnecessary limits on yourself.
I’ll also point out that it’s possible to go lightweight without compromising on quality. Once you slim down to just a couple prime lenses and a travel tripod, most cameras on the market, including the vast majority of DSLRs, are very 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.
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.
For every choice you make, there’s a tradeoff 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 can be amazing. Personally, more than a third of the photos in my online gallery come from crazy hikes like this, and that ratio has been fairly steady for a while. So, it’s safe to say that the results are worth it. Once you choose the right lightweight camera kit, your shoulders and your portfolio will both be better off.