Photography for Ultralight Trekkers and Hikers

I am absolutely amazed to discover the distance I can cover on foot in the wildness. From the bushlands of the ‘down-under’, to the PCT in the States, trekkers will never get bored to discover new secret places and scenery not accessible any other way.  As a photographer here are a few tips if you wish to take great photos while hiking, trekking or bushwalking.

First Choice: A mobile phone as a camera

A mobile phone (and a good power bank for overnight or multi-day hikes) is a versatile equipment for trekkers. You can use it as a GPS and map, a digital compass, altimeter, and, a camera. Nowadays there is really no excuse for anyone to miss a photo opportunity –  just take out your phone from the pocket, point and shoot.

The dilemma an Ultralight trekker-photographer faces is, whether one should bring a separate camera or just use your cell phone as a camera?

Here is a quick list of questions that you can use to help make this difficult decision (that may save you 300 grams),  if you answer ‘yes’ to any of the questions, your mobile phone camera isn’t always going to work and I’ll show you exactly how to ‘hack’ your phone without adding unnecessary weight to your backpack, before you decide to carry a dedicated camera.

  1. Will you take macro photos of plants, insects alike?
  2. Will you need telephoto lenses to shoot birds or wildlife?
  3. Will you trek during Sunrise or sunset in a beautiful place that presents you ‘once in a lifetime’s opportunities?
  4. Will you be taking photos of running water?
  5. Are you interested in documenting your trip with photos and videos?

Hacking the mobile phone camera

Step 1: Waterproof case

Get a good waterproof camera case. For obvious reasons you are riskind damaging the phone if you use it extensively in the rain. For a lot of trekkers this means losing your photography device as well as you primary GPS and Map, the thought of that should make many of you sweat! So hedge your risk, get a good waterproof case for the phone. Find one that doesn’t affect the touch screen. A side benefit is that if your trip involves a dip in the water, you may do some cool underwater photography or videography,

Step 2: A selfie stick

This allows you to take photos of yourself. It’s also great for youTubers or Vloggers that records or streams contents while on the track. (Watch your steps though it sounds like a dangerous idea to take your eyes off the track while walking!) It’s sometimes good to allow you to hold the Phone close to a place you cannot (or don’t want to) reach. Who mentioned giant spiders?

Step 3. A clip-on mobile phone lens

Ranging from sub $10 to almost $100, a clip-on lens is small, lightweight and discreet. Perfect for ultralight backpackers and hikers to carry. It converts your camera lens, which usually is a mid to wide-angle lens to either an ultra-wide lens, a macro lens or a telephoto lens. Personally I find macro photography clip-on lenses to be a great option.

What about those wanting more pixels?

Get onboard with the Ricoh GR III, Sony RXI00 or Panasonic waterproof cameras. These are great options that are compact but provides near-professional photos. One  thing to note though, compact does not always mean lightweight. You will be suprsed about the weight difference of may of these cameras.

For those fortunate enough to have backpacks with attached waist-strap pockets, they are perfect homes for your compact camera. In most cases, resist the urge to bring a bunch of prime lenses as it adds too much weight and changing lens on the field may be a fatal mistake for your camera. Settle with your 35mm lens or bring one mid range zoom lens.

I recently picked up this Joby micro tripod which turns out to be a fantastic addition to my trekking camera setup with the Ricoh GR, Place it on a rock and I can take a photo of myself. A popular choice is the Joby Gorilla pod, which grabs any tree branch or trunk and does not mind uneven ground. I know some fellow hikers would even strap camera on their trekking pole to be used as a monopod.

D-SLRs

If you decide that photo quality is your No.1 priority, DSLR would be your only option. This may disqualify you as an ‘ultralight’ trekker altogether, nevertheless my opinion is that if you are going to take your DSLR, you should bring the whole set of landscape photography gear, the tripod, lense and filters, remote shutter, strobes, you name it. You would also plan your trip to be a dedicated landscape photography one so your partners won’t need to wait for hours with you for that perfect sunset shot. There is no point, in my view, to just bring a DSLR for trekking if you are only using functions that are also available from smaller camers.

Drones

I am skeptical about bringing drones while trekking. Everything in my ultralight trekking pack is purpose-built for harsh outdoor environment. If I dump the backpack on the ground it is not going to break; if I drop my titanium mug into a fire it is not going to melt; my knife is not going to chip even if I use it to process hardwood. While using drones to take helicopter views is an amazing idea, I doubt if the drone will survive a deadly combination of sand, dirt and moisture. If you are doing anything beyond overnight trekking, I suggest you at least use a case and put it into a waterproof bag. It may be a good idea to make budget available for a replacement after your trip.

Here in New South Wales Australia there are limits of drone usage in most national parks as they may disturb wildlife. Hefty fine applies if caught by a park ranger.

Sports action camreas

GoPro – this seem to be what every vlogger trekkers are using. Allow me to say they are fantastic to take videos so you can replay your adventure while sitting comfortably in your couch later, being able to take great photos is not a good reason to invest, or bring action cameras. The photo it takes tend to be of lower quality, the software in action cameras tend to be optimised for videography but not photography. Many people told me they find photos taken from action cameras to be ‘flat and boring’. Geez these are strong words! Also before you invest into GoPro, figure out how you are going to take it with you. There are all sorts of mounts and brackets, waterproof cases etc. For multiple day tracks, be sure to also consider your charging options.

Essential Accessories

In addition to your phone or a compact camera, these things are worth considering while trekking:

  • A micro tripod, a Gorilla pod, a selfie stick or a monopod;
  • Clip-on lenses for your mobile phone camera;
  • Lens tissue or lens pen (your lens WILL get dirty);
  • Extra battery or charger;
  • GoPro

What do I bring?

Nowadays when I am in the bush I will research the route and decide whether it is worthwhile to bring my photography gear. I find myself having the following four combinations:

  1. For well-researched trips that I know photography will be an important activity, I bring the full-frame DSLR, GorillaPod, filters and remote shutter;
  2. For trips that may present photo opportunities but I am not 100% sure, I bring a small compact camera, usually a Ricoh GR;
  3. For solo, multi day hikes, I tend to choose either a compact camera or a binocular (as they are both heavy and both offering interesting options) – bird watching is great fun too;
  4. For hard tracks that involves rock scrambling, or for ultra-light ultra-fast ‘trail running’, I only bring a mobile phone.

Be there…with a camera! (and don’t hesitate to leave me your thoughts below.)

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