Backpacking at Hemlock Lake

DSLR Lenses and backpacking: Weight to awesome ratio

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It isn’t that hard really. But it is.

You’re lugging around 50 to 60 pounds on your back, a few days in the wilderness, and what have you brought with you? Food, clothes, shelter and glass. No, not those goofy glass flasks, (more on that later) but camera lenses. Choosing a lens to accompany your DSLR is a tough choice for me every time. I’m already juggling weight on other gear, so grabbing the right glass to suit my needs will forever remain a challenge.

Do I go as light as possible? Not worry about the gear, enjoy my time and grab some casual shots… Or would I like to make something with a little more thought. Perhaps something a little heavier, but more suited to the environment. One piece of advice from Circa1983 I’ve never forgotten: The choices are endless and fortunately so are the lens choices. These, are simply mine.

I’m a sucker for primes, which generally means larger apertures, but limited capabilities, and sometimes extra weight. This makes backpacking with camera gear extra tough. I don’t want to bring more than one lens, since my pack is generally filled to the brim, but now I’ve limited myself to making one focal length choice. Here’s how I do it:

Choose the shot

If I know what type of environment I’m walking into, I can generally figure out what types of shots I want to make and choose my lens from there. Being on top of a mountain may mean you choose a different lens than if you’re in thick jungle.

My go-to lens is usually a Zeiss 18mm f/3.5. This gives me an ultra wide view on my full-frame. Great for getting up close and filling the frame with near and far. Not so great at the top of a mountain, where the nearest item in your frame is the next damn mountain range. The thing is rugged and heavy, so I generally don’t have to worry about damaging it. A double edged sword for backpacking trips. Night shots are OK, with a medium aperture, you’re going to have to grab the pic at a longer shutter speed, something you may, or may not want. The other option is cranking up the ISO, and that’s totally up to you. You’re such a professional.

A better option, for me, is the Voigtlander 28mm f/2.8. With a slight better aperture, than the above, reasonably ‘normal’ field of view, but still wide enough, and ultra light / compact, this tiny buddy of mine has become a regular in my pack. It’s light enough that I don’t feel like a brick has been put in my backpack, but still enough of the features I need to make it worth it. A sliver the size of other lenses, it doesn’t get in the way. Yes, I may look a bit like a dork with this small lens, but not after you see the totally decent quality images this lens comes up with.

OK Mr. Eliason, you say, but what if I don’t have all that fancy schmancy gear? I still want good photos. Well, to that I say, stop complaining, because frankly if you pay enough attention to the world in which you live, you will take damn good photos, even without the aforementioned. I believe in you.

Yah, I went there. A 50mm. You knew I was going to, so stop acting surprised. A standard for any photographer’s… never mind I’ll just get to the point. Don’t want to spend a lot of money? Don’t. Fast, cheap, light, Canon’s offering at an entry level fifty is almost as good as its other offering. Mine is the mid-range f/1.4 model. I like it, you will too. Don’t spend the extra money on the “L” version, get this one, or the cheaper. Save that dough for some pizza. It won’t do everything, you might get frustrated because it isn’t wide enough, but you’ll save lots of weight.

Lastly is for the gluten of punishment, but want it all. A kit lens will serve you well throughout your career, and who says you can’t take it adventuring? Knowing how to use it can be a much better tool than compensating for talent with money, and the main thing with kits is the size and weight. A Canon 24-105mm f/4 or similar will give you a huge range of focal lengths and apertures, giving you the best kick for money. Although I generally don’t take backpacking due to weight, I often carry it traveling, since I don’t have to change lenses frequently, especially while on the move.

Skyline Trail, Napa, CA

Now, go forth and make your decisions! Don’t spend too much time thinking about it (like I do). Found this helpful? Leave me a comment! Let me know what you like to bring. Remember, just because I use Canon doesn’t mean you can’t apply the same concepts to any other camera brand. Use what’s comfortable to you and what makes the best pictures in your head. Nothing else matters. Happy Hiking.

2 Replies to “DSLR Lenses and backpacking: Weight to awesome ratio”

  1. I’m a total novice and really have no idea what I’m doing but I take my canon t1i with a sigma 18-250. It’s a heavy load but I’m only 100 lbs and my pack never gets heavier than 30lbs.
    I can’t take night pics, haven’t figured that out yet.. I’m also considering purchasing a small wide angle to bring along..
    Also I don’t manipulate pics.. They all come out just as I take them. I don’t shoot raw either..
    So question for you- how are your shots so brilliant? Simply because you shoot raw and know what you are doing?, or manipulation later, or all the above ?
    Gorgeous shots btw. Thank you 🙂

    1. Yes! I do use raw to bring out the details I want. Everyone has their own philosophy, and you should definitely use what works for you. A good argument for raw is that you are simply controlling the tones in your image, vs letting the camera do it for you. Whenever you take a pic, your Rebel chooses what type of color and contrast to use based on the photo profile you’ve told it to use. With raw, you’re basically waiting to choose those settings yourself manually on the computer.

      Night pics are another fun foray. Perhaps I’ll do a quick blog post on that in the future! Also forgot to mention I do being along a lightweight tripod for long exposures. A mefoto backpacker. Great little guy!

      I hope this helps!

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