Tired of taking crappy-snaps of epic locations, Explorer Zac decided it was time to up his outdoor photography game. Check out why he thinks you should take a decent camera on your next hike, and how to make the most of it.
I want you to picture something for a second. It’s day 4 of your 5 day trek. The sun is rising over a vista worthy of Van Gogh, the birds are chirping, and that gale force wind has decided that just for today, it’s going to take a day off. Something, somewhere in the back of your bone-tired brain registers that this is a moment that needs to be preserved, because let’s be honest, when does the weather ever decide to behave when you’re in the outdoors?
You whip out the little point and shoot camera that Mum got you for Christmas, anticipating a moment just like this, and snap a few shots from the door of your tent, but they just don’t do it justice. The colours are all wrong, the shadows are too dark, and it seems to be missing something. Often, I’ve found that elusive something is actually a combination of factors, many of which can be remedied by taking a little bit more control over how you take your photos, or what you use.
Why It’s Worth Lugging A DSLR
As an avid photographer and an enthusiastic hiker, it took me a fairly long time to do the obvious thing and put the two together. I started off carrying a small point and shoot to capture some of the amazing scenery I’ve had the pleasure of walking through, but quickly got frustrated by two big shortcomings.
First, it’s difficult to get the same quality on a point and shoot that you can get on a DSLR. I’m not talking about the number of megapixels (many point and shoots have 18MP or more, compared to 10.2 on my main camera, a Nikon D80), but rather the overall sharpness of the image, as well as the camera’s performance in less than adequate lighting conditions.
The second area where my point and shoot falls flat is control: I had no control over shutter speed and depth of field, and minimal control over focus. On a DSLR however, creating a shallow depth of field is as simple as setting the aperture as wide as possible. Creating silky smooth waterfalls is just a matter of propping the camera up on a rock and using a shutter speed of 1/20th of a second or longer. All of this, essentially, means that if you want to have any artistic control over what you photograph, a DSLR is the way to do it.
Get Your Gear Right
The good news is that you don’t need to spend thousands on a camera to get started. In fact, if you already have a DSLR it’ll probably do the job just fine. Before we get into the specifics of the kinds of gear that will make your life easier though, there’s something else that’s super important – sort out all your other gear first. I’m talking about your regular hiking gear.
It seems obvious, but if you’re cold, wet and miserable in the outdoors you’re going to really struggle to get into a photo-taking groove. This doesn’t have to be a huge financial outlay, and much of this gear can be borrowed from friends or family to start out. It’s also a good idea to do a few day and overnight hikes with your gear when you get it, so that you know when it starts bucketing down, you’ll be warm and dry inside your tent within 5 minutes or so (trust me, the alternative is not so pleasant).
Now that you’re comfy, we can start talking about what kind of camera gear you should be looking at if you’re planning on buying it specifically for hiking. Any functional camera and lens will do the trick, but if you’ve got the budget you can make some choices that will make your life a bit more pleasant when the rubber hits the road (or the boot hits the dirt, so to speak).
A low profile camera is going to be much less cumbersome when you’re scrambling over big rocks and slip-sliding down steep hills. Most DSLRs are the big and bulky, the precise opposite of low profile. Fortunately for wilderness photographers, manufacturers have developed mirrorless cameras, which preserve the control and image quality of a DSLR, but with a form factor not much larger than a point and shoot.
At the high end, there are some great options, including:
- Nikon Z Series,
- Canon EOS R and EOS M5
- Sony Alpha 9 and Alpha 7S
For those on a bit more of a budget, take a look at:
- Sony A6000
- Olympus OM-D E-M10
- Fujifilm X-M1
In terms of lenses, again you want something low profile that won’t stick out and get smashed on trees or rocks, which means that you’ll be mostly looking at prime lenses: having a fixed focal length means they’re usually substantially more compact than zoom lenses.
A 50mm prime lens is a good starting point for most purposes. For cameras with smaller sensors (most cameras nowadays), you’ll want something wider, around 35mm for anything with an APS-C sensor and 25mm for cameras with Micro Four Thirds sensors. (The reason for the difference is something called crop factor)
I’ve Got A Camera, I’ve Got A Lens… How Do I Carry The Damn Thing?
Now we get to the fun part! Any setup for carrying a camera needs to consider two aspects: accessibility and protection. You need to keep your camera away from anything that might damage it, while keeping it easily available so you never miss a shot.
The good news here is that you can do both of these without the need for any fancy gear – all you need is a camera strap and a backpack. Keep in mind as well that experimentation is the name of the game, and what has worked for some won’t work for others, but always remember the two guidelines of accessibility and protection.
Step 1: Find yourself a comfy camera strap. People often ask about the best kind is to use for hiking, and the answer to that is simple – whatever one you find the most comfortable. For some, that’ll mean a fat, sturdy strap, for others a thinner one with a bit more give. This one really just comes down to personal preference.
Step 2: Place the strap around your neck (in what I call ‘tourist pose’). Some people will advocate for as short a strap as possible, but with this method it doesn’t really matter. Set the strap where the camera feels comfortable to you.
Step 3: Place the chest strap of your backpack straight across the camera strap, just above the camera’s body. This will keep the camera as stable as possible, freeing up both your hands, while allowing easy access by simply unclipping the chest strap. For those doing long hikes in hot weather, a collared hiking shirt can make your life infinitely more pleasant by stopping the strap rubbing on the back of your neck.
Step 4: Get walking! (no seriously, what are you waiting for?)
The Bottom Line
Hopefully you’ll now feel more inspired to get out into nature and snap as much as you can (check out Olivia Page’s excellent Tips for Outdoor Photography for inspiration). Keep in mind though that experimentation is the name of the game here, and as long as your camera is immobilised when necessary, yet easily accessible, anything goes!
Feature photo by Tim Ashelford
Strap on and go for a hike