March 26th, 2020

While backpacking, the selection of lenses you choose to bring with you are critical in determining the types of shots you can and cannot capture.  Knowing what you want kind of shots you want to get out of your backcountry expedition is critical. Part 2 of the "Best Camera Gear for Backpacking Photographers" is all about which lenses are best for backpacking adventures.  The photographs on this blog post were all taken from three different lenses on a recent trip to Mount Hood National Forest.

Telephoto lenses are super useful for compressing big-view landscapes

While FOMO (fear of missing out), can play a key part in a photographer assembling their kit, most photographers realistically do the bulk of your work with just a couple of lenses.  I am not trying to downplay the importance of specialty lenses, but when you are backpacking with your camera, you should really be looking at the "Jack of all trades" types of gear.  You might be thinking that this is when I would recommend a do-it-all with one lens piece of gear like a 28-300mm.  While that might work for some people, I have found that this type of glass simply does not give me the sharpness or contrast that I am looking for to create professional quality prints.  However, for enthusiasts looking to be able to capture the widest range of subjects with the lightest gear, this may be the way to go.  In my opinion, if I cannot make fine art prints with what I am photographing, I should just enjoy the nature in its purest form and leave my camera at home.  

Mid-range zooms like the 24-70mm f/4 are usually the first lens in my kit for any backcountry trip

I have discussed a lot about what lenses I would NOT recommend, but will now turn my focus to pieces of gear that work exceptionally well in the backcountry, while still maintaining exceptional image quality.  A lot of this depends on the type of terrain you will find yourself in and the types of subjects that you will be shooting.  For example, in the mountains and glacial lakes of Bolivia, the grand scene is absolutely epic, so a wide or ultra-wide angle lens is a must-have. 

For me, this usually looks like my Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8.  I know, I just bashed fast lenses and how heavy they are, but being that this is a smaller ultra-wide angle zoom, it is actually one of the lighter pieces of glass I own.  It also is plenty wide and fast enough to do astrophotography, which I try to do quite often. This type of lens is brilliant for capturing multiple elements in a single picture, especially when the elements are at different depths of field.  Pairing this with a standard zoom like a 24-70mm or even better the Sigma 24-105mm f/4 gives me limitless opportunities in grand landscapes like this.

Standard zoom lenses are common to have as a "kit lens", and it is for a good reason.  These lenses can perform admirably well photographing a range of different subjects and would easily be the last piece of glass in my kit that I would ditch.  They have the ability to shoot both wide-angle landscapes, portraits, and somewhat compressed mountain views.  

However, if I am somewhere like North Carolina where thick forests often have small clearings which reveal endless miles of rolling hills, I am usually looking for more of a telephoto lens to reduce the clutter in the foreground.  This also helps me isolate  certain patterns between mountains, which adds a completely new dimension to this style of photography.  Something like a 70-200mm f/4 would be a very helpful addition to your standard 24-70mm zoom. 

Even with those two examples of different types of scenery, you will need to put in your research before you head out into the backcountry and know what kind of subjects you will be working with and how you plan to capture those subjects.  Having clarity about what you want to shoot and how you want to shoot it before you step foot on the trail is the most important factor in choosing which lenses will be in your camera bag.  

All in all, your lens selection is entirely up to you and what you are comfortable with carrying.  Personally, I usually carry a maximum of three lenses on any given trip.  The harder the terrain and the bigger the stress on my body, the lighter I want my pack to be and the more lenses I will leave behind.  My "summit bid" kit for the toughest days on steep alpine terrain is just one camera body and one standard zoom lens. 

I hope this blog posts serves not as a "by the book" instruction of what kind of lenses you should use, but rather as a reference point to they types of lenses that have worked for me over the course of many years and different landscapes all over the world.        

Ultra Wide-Angle Lenses are useful for fitting multiple elements in the same shot

As always, I would love to hear your feedback in the comments below!   

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