Portable Gear For the Mountain Photographer

mountain photography

©istockphoto/Narathip12

Mountain photography presents two impossible demands. You don’t want to haul heavy camera gear up a peak if you can avoid it: it will make the hike less fun and slow you down. Mountains are tough to photograph though and an iPhone will only limit you. To make great images you’re proud of, you’ll still want some creative control, stability for sunrise and night shots and the ability to manage tough high-altitude contrast between dark rocks, snow and blue sky. Here’s some gear to help you make creative images without weighing yourself down.

What Doesn’t Work
For starters, ditch the smartphone. They simply don’t have the control over f-stop (which controls what’s in focus), shutter speed (which controls motion) or the exposure adjustments to adjust for white snow, darken the blues of high-altitude skies or manage the dynamic range of sunset light. If you’re going to come back with stellar images, you’ll need more than a phone.

The Camera’s Sweet Spot
So what does work? The sweet spot between weight and capability is in mirrorless cameras. Thankfully, multiple companies make fully functional models. Mirrorless cameras offer interchangeable lenses and a lot of control at a reasonable weight. Another option is a small consumer/prosumer digital SLR with one or two wide range zoom lenses. These aren’t as heavy as pro-level SLRs and still have decent functionality including manual control, exposure compensation and a pop-up flash that’s useful for mountain wildflower shots. Neither of these will have the ruggedness and weather-sealing of pro SLR bodies, which comes with additional weight, so you’ll need to handle them a bit carefully around rocks and in the rain.

A third option is a waterproof point and shoot. This is your smallest option that you’ll be able to keep accessible in your pocket. It can stand up to the elements, but you won’t have nearly the creative control of the other options.

mountain photography

©istockphoto/Biletskiy_Evgeniy

Glass Matters…Sort of
The quality and versatility of the lens matters more than the camera itself. In the mountains, I almost always want lenses on the extremes: a wider-than-normal wide angle (24mm in standard format) for broad sweeping landscapes and a telephoto zoom in the 200mm range for closing in on the peaks. The “normal” or middle range doesn’t get used much.

That doesn’t mean I’m hiking with my best glass, as much as I’d like to. Unless I’m shooting skiers, I don’t need the fast-focusing ability of my best telephotos. The mountain’s only moving as fast as tectonic drift, after all. So I’ll often use lighter, lower-end zooms that still have good optical quality.

The Other Glass That Matters
There are two pieces of glass you’ll absolutely need in the mountains.

One is a circular polarizing filter, which has a rotating ring that darkens the sky and increases contrast to make colors pop. It’s most effective 90 degrees to the sun. Make sure to practice with it and see it’s effect.

The second is an odd filter called a “Graduated Neutral Density Filter”. It’s a rectangular filter that fits into a holder on the front of the lens. It gradually transitions from clear to a 2-stop darker grey. This is critical in the mountains because the eye can see far more dynamic range than the camera can record. Unsuspecting shooters will often get dark foregrounds or blow-out skies when used. It is best used with a tripod as well.

mountain photography

©istockphoto/pixdeluxe

Support
Now for the tough part: who wants to lug a tripod up the mountains? I’ll fully admit that many times I don’t, but the range of lightweight tripods is expanding—from the small and flexible Gorillapods to the versatile and light MePhoto series. Carbon fiber tripods, while spendy, are getting more affordable. Even with a simple point and shoot, carry at least a gorillapod—the act of having the camera on a tripod will make you slow down and pay more attention to composition and fine-tuning the image. Besides, some images, like blurred water, star trails or astrophotography are basically impossible without a tripod.

Power
Last but not least, bring extra batteries. More than you think you need. It’s one thing to carry a camera around and take photos. It’s far, far worse to lug one around that you can’t use because it ran out of power on day 3 of a 5-day hike. Unfortunately, batteries will be less efficient the colder it is.

mountain photography

©istockphoto/tawatchaiprakobkit

Three Kit Options
When I’m hiking, here are my three kit options that give me the best combination of flexibility, weight, and photographic oomph. Note: I happen to have Nikon gear, but other companies make perfectly good gear too.

For short hikes with basecamps:

  • Lightweight tripod
  • Nikon DSLR body
  • Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens (the best single all-purpose compromise)
  • Nikon 10-24mm ultrawide angle lens
  • Circular polarizing filter
  • 3 extra batteries
  • Split neutral density filter

For longer hikes:

  • Large gorillapod
  • Nikon DSLR body
  • Nikon 18-200mm VRII lens
  • Circular polarizing filter
  • Split neutral density polarizer
  • 3 extra batteries

Ultralight:

  • Olympus Tough TG-4 waterproof point and shoot
  • Gorillapod
  • 4-5 extra batteries
  • Circular polarizing filter

Don’t let the weight scare you. The early bird gets the worm, and the prepared photographer will bring back images nobody else can.

mountain photography

©istockphoto/franckreporter

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