Trekking Photography: Tips and gear for getting great images on your trek
Photographing while trekking requires a number of trade offs. The increased weight of the camera gear must be balanced with the desire to have the right gear for any possible situation, and especially when you are talking about high altitude treks, every little bit of weight becomes magnified in the thin air. Another issue is how to deal with power and image storage when you are away from the grid for as much as weeks at a time. Finally measures must be taken to protect your camera gear from the elements in case you are caught in bad weather, or slip while crossing a stream.
Gear vs. Weight
If you just want some shots for memories, or you are content with the images from your point and shoot it’s a no brainer take the point and shoot and stop reading. For those who appreciate the image quality and flexibility from an SLR it can be a tougher decision. I’ll say from the start I probably fall into the more gear more weight category as I hate regretting not having the right lens, when I could have sucked it up and carried a little extra weight. But certainly this option is dependent on your fitness. And its difficult to asses your ability when you haven’t trekked at high altitude before. All I can say is altitude makes a huge difference if you are struggling to carry your gear around for a day at sea level you will really struggle at altitude. So before you go take a 5-6 hour hike/walk with the gear you intend to bring and see how you hold up.
Conventional wisdom says you will need a wide angle in the mountains, and you will, the wider the better, but less obvious is the utility of telephoto lenses in the mountains. There often times when you want isolate a few peaks, compress distances, photograph wildlife, or take a moonrise/sunrise shot where the moon/sun takes up a larger section of the image. The image below was taken with a canon 70-200 mm at ~200 mm. Ideally you’d to cover ranges from around 17-200 mm with the extremes at both ends being more useful than say the 30-100 mm range. Generally I find when I use a zoom lens most of the images are taken at the extreme ends of lens, if I want wide I often want really wide and if I want a telephoto I want the strongest one I have. But this depends a bit on each persons individual shooting style.
The one lens option
Unfortunately there is no good, light, 17-200 mm lens out there; the physics of optics just don’t allow it. That doesn't stop several companies from making lenses in this range and if you can tolerate the hit in image quality it’s a good way to go, as you won’t have to change lenses, it’s lighter, and if you stop down you can still get pretty sharp images and fix the distortions in post process. If you’re determined to take only one lens I personally feel you really need the telephoto option as well as the wide angle in the mountains, so I’d probably go with a wide-telephoto zoom over a better quality wide zoom if I was just taking one lens. Some options in this range:
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L (good image quality I just find it not quite long enough on a full frame and not wide enough on a crop but probably the best option for one lens people with a full frame canon dslr)
For APS crop sensors Canon, Nikon, Tamron, and Sigma all make 18-200 mm lens which from online reports appear to be adequate if not great lenses, having never used any of them I can’t really comment as far as recommendations go.
The two zoom option (my choice)
For me the ideal trekking set up is a wide zoom plus a telephoto zoom. I give up a bit on speed saving some weight and money by going with f4 versions. I happen to use canon gear and currently I carry:
Canon 17-40mm f4 L and a 70-200 mm f4 L on a 5d mark II body, which I feel makes a nice trekking kit. I also carry a 100 f2 prime and a 28 mm 1.8 prime. This is probably a little excessive on my part by I like having the speed for people shots in villages.
In the past when I was using the APS sensor cameras like the canon 20d and 50d I used the Tamron 17-50 mm f2.8 for my wide angle which is a light weight quality lens at a pretty reasonable price, but if you can spring for it the canon version, canon 17-55mm, is probably worth it.
One zoom and a telephoto prime
To save a little weight and gain some speed I think another good option would be to go with a wide zoom like the Canon 17-40mm f4 L (full frame), or tamron 17-50 mm (APS), or canon 17-55mm (APS), and a 200 mm f2.8 prime. I think that would be a nice light weight set up that would give excellent image quality.
The mirrorless option
In the last few years all of the major camera manufactures have introduced mirrorless camera bodies that offer the flexibly of interchangeable lenses in a lighter more compact size. I have not personally used any of these cameras so I can only go by what I've read. The two areas where the mirrorless cameras seem to lag the SLR would be in auto focus and battery life due to the electronic viewfinder. When trekking as most of your subjects are mountains and landscapes that don't move, so the auto focus is not a particularly big issue, however the trade off in battery life is certainly more of a concern. If you haven't already invested in SLR gear and you are considering upgrading from a point and shoot going mirrorless is certainly an option worth considering, its also worth considering as a 2nd backup body for those with a SLR.
Other photographic accessories
The two other accessories I would recommend for trekking photography would be a polarizer and a bean bag or table top tripod.
Polarizers are great in the mountains and can often help you avoid getting that washed out sky look, and can help a bit with haze as well.
While you can sometimes get by with rocks to stabilize your camera for a long exposure shot, a table top tripod gives you quite a bit more flexibility while still keeping weight and bulk to a minimum. A bean bag is a little less flexible but even lighter easier to pack. Of course if you are really serious about landscape photography you can invest in a full size carbon fiber tripod, and deal with the bulk.
There are solar panel options but I’ve found the most economical way is just to buy extra 3rd party batteries and be judicious when reviewing pictures on the camera screen. But also don’t assume you won’t be able to charge your batteries and leave your charger behind; bring it with a plug adaptor for the region because you never know.
I used to use a battery powered hard drive which I could load a memory card on directly but with how cheap memory cards have gotten it makes more sense now to just stock up on those since they are far lighter and more robust.
Protecting your gear and on the trail
There is a trade off between accessibility and protection when you’re on the trail. In most situations I like to carry my camera with the lens I will use most it in a shoulder zoom bag that fits a body and lens, across my chest. I like to use a carabiner to clip it to my backpack waist strap to keep it from bouncing too much. My other lenses I’d keep in a case that fits all of my gear in the top of my back pack. I also like to have a dry bag available for my gear that I can fit all my electronics into should I get caught in bad weather, or if I need to cross a river or stream and could possibly slip. On short treks and tea-house treks I like to use a dry bag backpack like those made by sealline, it keeps all my gear completely dry in wet conditions, though some would probably not find it as comfortable or access as easy as a standard backpack, so it’s a bit of personal preference between protection and comfort. An alternative is to use a standard backpack with a pack cover and separate drybag that you can use when you really need it. Of course even with precautions things break, get dropped, ect, so if you really want to make sure, a backup body or point and shoot is always a wise option, though I have to say personally I have not always followed that advice.
Trekking Photography Tips
When photographing in the mountains, it’s all about the light. Get out on the trail early to take advantage of the best light and often the best weather as well. For view points, it’s also common to head-lamp it up in the dark in order to be on the summit for that first magic hour of light. Dress warm and make sure you have enough battery power for your head lamp. If you are planning to hike in the dark its also probably not a bad idea to do a bit of scouting the afternoon before so you have a good idea of where the trail starts and the rough direction of the path. More of Micah's Himalayan Images