April 29th, 2020

When packing your camera gear for a multi-day trip in the backcountry, few things are as critical as camera body and lens choice.  However, sometimes the accessories you bring with you (or leave at home) can make or break a shot.  This blog post will break down how different accessories can help you make the most out of different types of terrain, and other things that are better off left at home and saved for shorter front-country outings.

So much about which camera accessories you will want to pack depend on the subject matter you will be photographing, and the type of environment you will be in.  The accessories we will be discussing include tripods, flashes, filters, and remotes.  Personally, a tripod is my ride or die accessory that comes with me on just about every outing, so I will start there.

When I am shooting for my sponsors like Slingfin Tents, or Feathered Friends Sleeping Bags, I often need to set up my camera on a tripod and timer for some sort of self-portrait. Sure, I could find a rock or tree stump to set my camera on, but that is not only not a secure support system, but it is also severely limiting in terms of composition.  Also, I frequently shoot under low light, either just before or after sunrise/sunset, or even at night.  These longer exposure photographs absolutely require a rock solid support system.

Now more than ever, I have heard many photographers make valid arguments that with modern sensor technology, you can easily boost the ISO to shoot virtually all of your subjects handheld.  While this is partially true and possibly ideal for photographers with different work flows, such as portrait or event photographers, this is not ideal for wildlife or landscape photographers.  When you are in the business of making prints, obtaining the absolute highest image quality is imperative.  The best way to do this is to shoot with a tripod and use a low ISO (under ISO 400), to reduce image noise.  

Not all tripods are alike, and my go-to setup is the FEISOL CT-3441T Traveler Rapid Carbon Fiber Tripod with the Sirui K-20x Ball Head, which weighs just 3.5lbs combined (heavy, but very light for a tall and sturdy tripod). This system is also very strong, tall, and relatively affordable (compared to Gitzo, RRS, or Manfrotto Systems). I used to own a RRS tripod that was incredible, but to be 100% honest, I think this Feisol tripod is not too far away from the type of sturdiness and quality that was in my beloved RRS tripod that cost at least twice the price, was over a pound heavier, and was not nearly as compact.  There are plenty of capable options in this space, but be wary of cheap options!  Skimpy carbon fiber layers paired with flimsy plastic components makes for a system that I would not trust to put thousands of dollars of equipment on.         

An alternative to wanting to shoot in low light and not have to pack a tripod is packing an external flash in your bag.  To be honest, this is not something that I ever do for multi-day trips.  Using a flash could definitely help you shoot handheld, but I find artificial light in the backcountry to create an undesirable visual effect, as it exaggerates human influence on the wild world.  Also, even with very specific flash attachments, you can only illuminate objects that are very close to you, such as flowers in the foreground, while that great mountain in the background would remain dark and unfazed by the brief bright light.  However, this is a matter of personal taste, so don't let me rain on your flash parade if you think you could spare an extra pound in your pack. 

If I do want to incorporate artificial light into a photograph, I have found that using standard headlamps can create a particularly powerful effect.  Headlamps generally have adjustable brightness and are not nearly as bright as a flash, so you can create much more evenly lit exposures (with a tiny amount of weight that you would already have in your overnight pack). 

A simple headlamp was used to illuminate my Slingfin Portal 2 for a balanced photograph of my camp setup on Potato Hill last winter

Another accessory that is frequently in my pack is my Marumi Filter Kit. However, it is not all that often anymore that I bring the full kit with me on longer trips, especially if I will not be photographing long exposures of rivers or waterfalls. The neutral density filters are a must-have for long exposures of captivating waterfall scenes, but are not as useful for mountain scenery.  Again, shooting long exposures over moving water is another application where packing a tripod is absolutely necessary.

If long exposures are not in the forecast, then the Marumi filter system allows me to leave my ND filters and filter holder at home and bring just one circular polarizing filter to use with multiple lenses (with the lightweight filter-ring adapters). The polarizer is almost always in my multi-day pack because a surprising amount of my photography is actually done in the middle of the day, when I am on the move to the next campsite.

The polarizer helps eliminate glare, and establish great contrast between a blue sky and the clouds. If I know I will not get many clouds during a trip, I may also pack a dark-red filter for some black and white photography. Again, this proves how specific each piece of kit is to subject matter, season, and even weather conditions!

Here I actually used a circular polarizer to darken the deep-blue sky, which created the contrast that I wanted to convert to black and white

Lastly, we have come to remote shutter releases.  I used to pack my Vello remote in my bag for all occasions, as it is a valuable tool in reducing camera vibrations when taking a shot.  On my former Nikon D750, this was a lot more valuable than it is on the Nikon Z7, as the Z7 has a much more powerful and easy to use interface to shoot remotely with either my phone connected via bluetooth or via a programmable function in-camera.  With that said, the tactile feel of a remote is very nice to have, and removes the need to set up a 2-second timer.  This can be especially useful if the lighting conditions are changing rapidly, and you want that ray of sun hitting the mountainside at the precise moment, rather than having to predict it, then wait a couple of seconds for the camera to actually take a picture. 

Remote shutter releases also help a lot with capturing hundreds of exposures for time-lapses or star trails.  Again, many modern cameras have these functions built-in, so ultimately remotes have become a lot more optional in my opinion than they used to be.  They do only weigh a couple of ounces, but everything counts!

Using a remote here allowed me to capture the critical moment right before light rays disappeared behind a quick-moving storm cloud

I know this post did not cover all of the endless amounts of camera accessories out there, but I hope it did highlight the most significant options for outdoor photographers, and provide some thoughtful pros and cons as to why each piece of gear belongs in your overnight or multi-day pack.  I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below, and which pieces of gear are absolute must-have's on your trips into the backcountry!     

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