March 15th, 2020

Heading into the backcountry can provide the most unique opportunities for landscape or wildlife photographers to get some fantastic shots.  However, carrying a lightweight pack is critical to increasing your chances of success.

We all can visualize the stereotypical photographer standing at the most popular lookout of the Grand Canyon, with their beefy tripod, lens the size of a small child, and a tan vest storing away whatever other miscellaneous gear.  The hundreds of other tourists around might think the thousands of dollars of gear this person has immediately qualifies them as a professional, when in fact they are likely taking very similar photos to all of those other people with smartphones around them.  This goes back to the old adage, which rings true even more now than ever, "It is not about the camera, it is about the eye of the photographer."

I am a firm believer that expensive gear cannot turn you from a bad photographer to a good photographer, or even from good to great.  Your camera gear is a tool, and the ideas and the methods behind the application of that tool are the most important factors in creating engaging imagery.  However, photographers are notorious for being gear junkies and investing thousands of dollars in multiple cameras, specialty lenses, and an ungodly amount of accessories and gadgets.  This seems strange to me, especially since outdoor photographers that would like to get away from the crowds need to rely on imaging systems that are portable and light.       

As a natural landscape or wildlife photographer, if you are truly invested in the process of capturing unique photographs, then it is imperative that your camera pack is suited for you to get deep into the backcountry, sometimes for multiple days at a time.  That means you will have heaps of food, water, clothes, and camping gear to stuff in your pack before you can even consider your camera equipment. 

As a rule of thumb, if you plan on covering a considerable amount of distance, your pack weight should not exceed 25% of your body weight.  For example, if you weigh 150lbs, you should do your best to keep your pack under 37.5lbs.  That can be difficult given how much some camera gear typically weighs. While I will spend some time breaking things down by the numbers, the most important thing is ACCESS.

At the end of the day, Jimmy Chin said it best when he described himself not as being one of the best photographers in the world, but rather as a photographer who had the best access to the tallest peaks, most intimidating cliff faces, and most complex mountain athletes in the world.  His immense climbing skillset, profound relationships, and relentless fitness gives him the best access to the subjects he wants to shoot, and the ultimate edge over his competitors.  Jimmy Chin's experience enables him to ascend fixed lines on El Capitan in Yosemite with ease, so that he can photograph climbers like Alex Honnold at eye-level, whereas most of his competitors are restricted to shooting with large telephoto lenses from the valley floor.  This 5-part series is intended to help you improve your accessibility to stunning backcountry destinations.

Lens Speed

I have heard photographers spew nonsense out like "You cannot even call yourself a professional if you do not shoot with the fastest L-series, G-Series, whatever-letter-name-series of lenses."  This is hogwash not only for all photographers, but particularly for landscape photographers.  I understand that image quality is important, but most landscape photographers will shoot with an aperture smaller than f/8 to achieve the proper depth of field anyway.  With the exception of astrophotography (which is only really ideal a couple of days a month for a couple months out of the year), why would you ever need a lens that specializes in low-light photography?

My biggest argument in favor of slower lenses is the weight that you can save.  I was recently in the market for a 24-70mm lens for my Nikon Z7, and was comparing the f/2.8 piece of glass to the f/4 model.  The faster lens weighs in at 28.4 oz, where the f/4 model weighs in at 17 oz.  For the weight savings of just this lens, I could add an even faster prime lens to the f/4 lens, such as the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 (13oz), and only tack on an extra ounce to my pack (BTW, I do not recommend considering the heaviest gear you can pack, and then feeling so good that you opted for lighter gear, that you end up just packing more gear).         

If you were a studio, event, or sports photographer and only have to hold a camera for a couple of hours and really need supreme image quality, particularly in low-light scenarios, I completely understand the advantages of owning a faster lens lineup.  However, as an outdoor photographer where accessibility is of the utmost importance, lighter is better the vast majority of the time. 

When I am able to hike mile after mile and reach my objective, then be able to pull my camera out of the bag without significant fatigue and compose a creative frame, that is a win.  In my experience, fatigue comes at the steep cost of creativity.  Keeping a light pack will help your body send more blood to your brain rather than your aching legs and back.

If all of this was not enough evidence to convince you to consider adding slower lenses to your lineup in order to help you move fast and light, the immense cost savings of f/4 lenses versus f/2.8 glass might just sway your opinion.  Check out the chart below, highlighting the differences in weight, size, and cost between some typical lenses in a landscape photographers kit.  

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Keep an eye out for the second post in this series, and as always, let me know what you think in the comments below!

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