Backpacking with a DSLR

I'm currently in the Swiss Alps unwinding after traveling for 2 months. Life is tough when you take a mini vacation on your vacation right?! I've had some time to write so I thought I'd write a little post about the feasibility of bringing a DSLR and a few lenses on a backpacking trip. Here's why I decided to bring my photography equipment on this trip...

Carrying a big camera goes against the whole idea of traveling light. Carrying a camera, lenses, batteries, memory cards, and maybe even a laptop gets heavy very quickly. Especially when you see other travelers carrying tiny little point and shoot cameras!

Why take a DSLR?
I decided to take my gear for a few reasons. For one, I'm a big believer in image quality. My camera (when used correctly) has the ability to render color and light with ridiculous precision. In many cases my camera can see more clearly than my own two eyes! (with near perfect eyesight) Second, I love photography! Why should I put my love of photography on hold and use a dinky little point and shoot camera just to save weight?

Another other reason I'm shooting with this big thing is that YES resolution does matter. My first digital camera was a Kodak DC200. It had an "amazing" 1 megapixel sensor. When I spoke with the sales guy at the store in 1999 he insisted 'you'll never need more than 1 megapixel! That's over one millions pixels!' The image quality of the photo below is equivalent to a low end cameraphone today.

My crappy old Kodak DC200

I took about 5000 photos with that camera that I thought looked great at the time. Now the photos are virtually useless unless I want to print something the size of a postage stamp with them. Below is one of the photos I took with it. Note the low resolution, bad colors, and overall horrible quality of this photo:

Bermuda Palm Trees (1999) with a Kodak DC200

A recent photo I've taken:

Majorca Palm Tree (2010) taken with a Canon 5D MK II (view this photo on flickr)

The bottom image is obviously much nicer... Think about how this applies to your photography. Do you want your photos to look like the one above in five or ten years? Of course not.

It's true that more and more megapixels can be just a marketing gimmick. However, when someone tells you 'you don't need more megapixels' just tell them, 'talk to me in 5,10,15 years…' Screens always get bigger, brighter, and sharper. Just because you don't need 25 megapixel images now on your current setup doesn't mean you won't in the future. So do yourself a favor and future-proof your images as much as possible and shoot as high resolution as you can. How good are your 5 megapixel images going to look when your entire wall is a display? Another way of thinking about it would be video. If you know anything about shooting video you wouldn't record your videos onto VHS tapes would you? You would want to shoot in HD. Shooting on a little point n shoot compact camera is like shooting videos on VHS.

Which backpack?
Shopping for backpacks is actually a little confusing. The multitude of options is a bit overwhelming. How many liters? What body frame size? With supports, without supports etc etc etc... Turns out the best way to find one that suits you is to just try tons of them on. Don't forget to add some weights to them to get a feel for them when carrying weight.

I was shocked that I couldn't find a large(ish) backpack that would accommodate both clothes/stuff and a DSLR kit. There seemed to be either or… I found plenty of large DSLR backpacks with room for a gazillion lenses but then no clothes and vice versa. After some research I found a Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack that I made work for this trip. Here it is:

MEC Pangea 40 Travel Pack

I bought a small LowePro neoprene case for my primary body and lens and then used the two side compartments on the bag (normally for big water bottles) to store my other two lenses. This has worked perfectly for my kit. With this bag I can jam clothes/toiletries in the bottom of the main compartment of the bag, the laptop in the back sleeve and the DLSR (in it's own case) at the top of the main compartment.

I like modifying bags to suit my needs. I hate having all these useless straps hanging around. They get caught on things and add weight. I'm not sure why bags have so many damn straps on them! How many of these backpacks are actually going to be used for mountaineering? I'm just going on a trip, not climbing Everest… Given that, I cut most of the straps and re-arranged the others to suit my needs.

Carrying the photography equipment means I have to bring less stuff. That 'stuff' is just crap you don't need. In a way, carrying a DSLR forces you to cut all that other crap out before you even leave.

What about lens(es)?
If you really want to add weight to your kit bring a few lenses as well. I'm currently traveling with a 50mm, 70-200mm, and a wide angle lens but that's because I can be a lazy photographer. Many photographers will just bring one lens. Henry Cartier Brasson (one of the best photographers of all time) only shot with one lens his entire life. On that note, I've found that when I only have one lens I focus more on capturing the image itself as opposed to worrying about switching lenses. So you can end up with better photos with less lenses.

If you're going to bring a laptop and some storage you won't actually need that many memory cards. Everything I read online while preparing for my trip said bring TONS of memory cards. I brought like 6 cards and have actually only used one beefy 32GB card the entire trip. I just offload the images to a hard drive+backup drive when I'm unwinding at night. This adds lots of weight so only do this if you want to use your own computer while travelling… I'm not a fan of using public computers given the prominence of keyloggers etc...

Card reader:
Buy yourself a fast card reader. I have a firewire 800 card reader and it's super handy. If you're shooting RAW photos and HD videos the onboard usb transfer simply won't cut it for transferring files when you have limited time.

Two batteries have been enough for my trip so far and they're both charged up any chance I get. Of course we've been staying in places with easy access to plugs etc…

My kit:

Other stuff:
Bring a substantial cleaning kit. You'll be switching lenses in filthy places and your sensor and lenses will get dirty. Do yourself a favor and bring ample cleaning supplies. My 5D MK II has a serious problem with dust on the sensor so I have to clean it fairly often. Also, your favorite type cleaning supplies will not be readily available in foreign countries. I've found a damp cloth is good enough to wipe down the body of my cameras.

If you care about image quality, color, and resolution take your DSLR when you're backpacking or traveling. If the extra weight is too much of a burden maybe just bring less of all the other crap you don't need.

The most important thing is to have fun and shoot lots of photos! Keep in mind when you're tired and don't feel like getting your camera out something incredible will surely happen. Be ready and keep shooting!

Essential Add Ons For Photographers.

If you are looking for a new way to boost your photography portfolio’s impressiveness you may want to consider looking into buying new lenses or filters. These add ons can range in price from $10 to thousands of dollars but there are a few “must have” add ons for your digital and film cameras.

While these are not necessary add ons to increase the quality of your work, if you’re getting bored of the current photographs you’re taking these camera add ons can create a dramatic difference and help re-inspire you to get out there and take photographs.

Polarizing filter: the polarizing filter is very cheap and can often be picked up for $10 - $30 for a starter filter. What the polarizing filter does is helps takes the glare out of non metal surfaces and it helps exaggerate the blue of a blue sky. You’ve often seen photographs that look absolutely spectacular with their fluffy white clouds and brilliant blue skies. This effect was created with a polarizing filter and no photographer should leave home without one.

Wide angle lens: this lens can often be purchased for digital cameras as an “accessory lens” which simple means that it isn’t a proper attachment in and of itself, but instead attaches onto a pre-existing lens to create a similar effect of a traditional wide angle lens. Alternatively if you have a digital SLR (DSLR) or a regular SLR (Single Lens Reflex) you can but high quality wide angle lenses that can help fit more of your foreground and background into your photographs.

The polarizing filter and the wide angle lens are two add ons that will inspire even the most burnt out photographers to keep taking new pictures on a daily basis. They are also to the two lenses that have dramatic effects while still ensuring the photograph remains “real” looking. Not only this but based on current rating systems on internet photography websites it seems that audiences rate photographs taking with cameras that use the polarizing filter or wide angle lens very highly.

What is the difference between a digital camera and a digital SLR camera?

The other day I was in a camera shop and overheard a customer talking with a store clerk about the differences between digital cameras and digital SLR cameras. I have both and use both for varying reasons. But it was nevertheless interesting to hear how store employees tried up-selling a digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera over a regular digital camera.

For starters, digital SLR cameras are really starting to become quite the rage. High quality, entry level cameras are now available for less than $1000 and include starter lenses so you can go out and start taking pictures right away.

Buying a new camera is a tough decision. Obviously price plays a big factor as does camera and picture quality.

If you are looking for a good quality SLR camera you can buy a non digital one used for less than $100. The quality will be fantastic but you’ll be shooting film (which is a wonderful world to discover). But you won’t have the obvious digital picture storage benefits of a digital camera. So SLR cameras with the ability to add and detach lenses (wide angle, telephoto etc) are possible on most SLR cameras.

Today, for about $600 and up you can get a digital SLR. The biggest benefit to a digital SLR over other digital cameras is the ability to add and detach lenses. You can buy or often even use lenses from regular SLR cameras. If you’ve been taking pictures for a long time you’ll start to want to experience with different lenses at some point. I remember using a wide-angle lens the first time and remembering how much it changed my perspective of the art. Shooting urban landscapes and nature landscapes became, one again, enjoyable for me and renewed my sense of passion for this art form.

The problem with regular digital cameras is they often don’t have the ability to attach lenses which means you’re stuck with whatever lens is on there. In the world of digital cameras retailers often try to sell their customers on “megapixels” alone. While megapixels can be important, they are far from the most important element of a digital camera. Manual control is much more important. From being able to set your own aperture settings, shutter speed settings and adding or removing lens attachments is much more important.

So here is what I would recommend. If you are just starting out with photography a regular digital camera would be great. You can take over 200 pictures per day and practice the basic rules of composition and framing. You can really focus on the art of photography. These camera’s cost anywhere from $100 - $400 for very powerful cameras with lots of manual control (with the exception of lens changing)

If you are more advanced and want to play with lenses you should consider getting a digital SLR. This will allow you to take many photographs and have the ability to have full manual control of both camera settings and lenses. The downside that these cameras start at about the $600 range, but quickly jump up to over $1000 for entry level cameras.

However, if you just want the manual benefits of the SLR, consider getting a used SLR for the price of a basic digital camera. You will get full manual control and you’ll be able to add lenses. If in the future you upgrade to a digital SLR you could possibly even use any lenses you buy for your regular SLR and use them on your new digital SLR!
I hope this helps with your future purchase decisions.