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.
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...
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…
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!