If you don’t pack your camera gear with your backpack, you’re missing out. The dramatic landscapes of mountains and forest can turn any mediocre photographer into a mill of beautiful Instagram posts.
But whether you’re an amateur point-and-shoot operator or a professional street photographer, I can assure you that outdoor photography doesn’t require bringing all your studio gear.
For starters, when you’re carrying everything on your back for hours at a time, you’re really going to start to notice the weight of that extra lens or that big tripod. Plus, it’s much harder to escape rain or bad weather, there’s no power outlet to plug in, and there’s dirt and dust everywhere trying to ruin your photos. All of these challenges will make you consider investing in a specific photography kit for hitting the trails.
What there is to know
Point-and-shoot, mirrorless or DSLR: what kind of camera do you need?
As always, it’s the photographer, not the camera, that makes a good shot. But a good camera helps. Keep in mind, however, that the best cameras are often the biggest ones. If you need great compressibility or don’t have the experience to use a large camera, a small point-and-shoot is often a great camera for outdoor adventures.
If you want something a little more advanced, consider a mirrorless camera like the Sony A7 IV. These cameras are almost always smaller and lighter than DSLRs, making them easier to transport, pack, and use at short notice. But you will lose very little, if anything, for quality.
What type of lens do you need?
For most nature shots, consider bringing a wide lens – something wider than 35mm is best. My personal preference is a 20mm lens like the Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G on my Sony A7 III. This lens makes it easier to capture large mountainous landscapes and gives a better idea of the scale of these places. Unless you need to shoot wildlife from a distance (in which case you should consider a beefy telephoto lens or even a versatile superzoom lens, a prime lens in the 35-50mm range is a good complement to a wide lens, and better to photograph the camp scene and your companions, if you want some variety.
Lens speed is less important when shooting outdoors, unless you’re looking for something to shoot in specific circumstances. Most of the time you’ll be in bright sunlight, which means you won’t be shooting at lower apertures anyway – my previous lens was an f/4 which was sufficient for most days in the mountains. That said, one of the best times to photograph on a backpacking trip is at night, around the campfire or looking at the stars. The faster a lens (smaller f-stop number like f/1.4 or f/1.8), the more detail you will be able to extract from a starry scene. For astrophotography in particular, look for a lens with an aperture of at least f/2 or faster.
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For the highest quality photos with the smallest footprint in your backpack, the Sony RX100 VII is as good as possible. This 20.1-megapixel camera is tiny (4 x 2 3/8 x 1 11/16 inches and weighs just 10 ounces), shoots 4K video, and slows down up to 1000 fps (cool, but limited to a 800 x 270 resolution). Its 24-200mm zoom lens makes it ideal for wide landscape shots and magnified wildlife shots. On exceptionally cold trips, like the one in the Alaska Range, where I want a camera I can keep insulated in my jacket, this is the one I bring.
I know myself: if my camera is stored in my backpack, I’m less likely to stop, pull it out, take the picture and put it away. This is where the Peak Design Capture Clip This clip attaches to your backpack strap and the base plate attaches to your camera body like any tripod mount. Store the camera on your shoulder strap easily and securely (it can lock if you’re hiking in a particularly precarious place), then remove it with one hand when you see a photo.
The f-stop Anja 37 The backpack easily pulls double duty as a capable and comfortable overnight backpack while keeping your delicate camera gear safely stored and accessible at a glance. Large sturdy belts and comfortable shoulder straps make it easier to carry a heavier load. But unzip the back panel to expose a honeycomb of customizable cells for cameras, lenses and other gear. Weather resistant fabric and zippers and even more space for camping gear make this a great adventure camera bag.
Most of the time in the backcountry, you carry a tripod for long exposure shots like water or stars. You probably don’t need – or want to carry around – a full-size tripod. The little Pedco Ultrapod 3 is probably all you need, at least for a mirrorless or smaller camera. The quarter-pound tripod is less than eight inches tall but expands to form a stable, wide base. The top screws into your camera body and the angle adjusts for the perfect shot.
Sony TOUGH-G Series SD Cards are made from a single piece of rigid plastic and do not include breakable features such as the write-protect lock switch. They’re waterproof and dustproof and designed to operate in temperatures from -13°F to 185°F, meaning the natural world won’t harm your precious images. On top of that, you’ll get a transfer speed of 300MB/s, so you can get your footage together super fast.
The best backcountry lens is the one you can bring and leave everyone else at home. Versatility is the key. The Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 lens is about as close as you can get to the only lens you’ll ever need in the wild. Its 20mm fixed focal length is solid for capturing a massive mountain scene and getting details of your fellow hikers, and its f/1.8 aperture, though probably overkill for most sunny days (see ND filter below) below), is ideal for night scenes at camp, including full-fledged astrophotography. Plus, it’s super sharp, weighs less than a pound, and fits quite compactly on a mirrorless body.
Expect to take most of your hiking photos in fairly bright sunshine. A neutral density filter like this one from K&F Concept helps darken the light entering your lens enough to give you more creative control over things like depth of field, which makes it important for outdoor photography. It can easily be adjusted from one to five stops, giving you the flexibility to dial in the correct exposure for your images.
Sometimes the best photos you’ll come back from a backpacking trip will show how difficult your adventure was. That means shooting even when the weather isn’t so good. The LensCoat RS raincoat covers your camera and lens in waterproof softshell material, allowing access to the back of the body behind a strap closure, so you can always fine tune the shot then seal it to stay dry.