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THE PULSE - Your source for survival, skills, and more from Rocky Mountain Editor Steve Howe

Backcountry Photography, Part 1 of a Series

How to haul your camera so you'll actually come back with pictures

Sorry to be slow on the blog, readers. I've been using this eeky economic slowdown as an opportunity to reorganize my chaotic photo files and put together a website. In short, I've been on remote assignment in computer hell.

There is an upside, however. Looking at all those adventure images has swung the needle of my mania meter back from writing to photography. So I thought I'd pass along that bubbly enthusiasm by imparting some practical lessons learned during 25 years of hauling big cameras into remote wilderness. For this first installment I'll cover camera-carrying.

You've done it, I've done it: Hauled a big, heavy Nikon or Canon on a long trek and come back with nothing, because you never stopped to drag it out of the pack. In order to get good photos on the trail (and still get anywhere) you've got to keep cameras handy, accessible within seconds. That's not a problem with small Point & Shoot models, which can easily be stuffed into a pouch on hipbelt or shoulder strap, but carrying bigger SLR (single lens reflex) cameras, you need a secure, comfortable chest harness, simply because most SLRs are too bulky to allow any arm swing when mounted on your hipbelt.

My favorite system is to use a top-opening, "holster" style camera pouch, and mount it directly onto my backpack's shoulder harness so it hangs in the center of my chest. I've found that LowePro, Tamrac, and M-Rock all make excellent holsters, depending on the exact dimensions of your camera-lens setup. In general, Lowepro's AW (all weather) line seems the most stormproof, M-Rocks seem the toughest, and Tamracs (particularly the simple 515 and 517 models) seem to carry best.

You can also use a separate chest harness for the holster, wearing it underneath the backpack rig, but I've found that separate harnesses are less stable, and the camera weight hangs heavily on your neck. Mounting the chest harness directly to your pack also helps counterbalance both payloads, allowing you to stand straighter. For really quickdraw action, you can just carry the case open, and loop the camera's strap over your neck for safety.

Over the years I've settled on the simple attachment system shown above. It uses three, half-inch wide straps and three mini-biners. I mount two half-inch straps off the load-lifters (or D-rings if available) on my pack's shoulder harness, attaching them about collarbone height. The third strap is run through the lower left D-ring on the camera holster, then looped around the bottom, unpadded portion of the left shoulder strap. I often wrap a few bits of duct tape on these three straps so they'll hold position, I can adjust them one-handed, and they won't get lost around camp. To exit the rig I just undo the upper right strap and climb out.

The lower, third strap keeps the holster from swinging around while I'm hiking, or banging me in the face every time I bend over. For skiing, I'll sometimes add a fourth, lower strap on the right, for added stability, because skiing, boarding or jumping with a chest harness can get you an uppercut to the jaw. For walking around camp, I just clip a neck strap onto the holster and carry it bandolier style. Webbing waist belts work too. Spare batteries, memory cards and lens cloths go in the front pouch of the chest holster. Extra lenses get carried in  various accessory hipbelt pouches. Outdoor Research insulated Water Bottle Parkas work well for carrying large zoom lenses.

The last thing I haul is a tripod. All serious photographers have a love-hate relationship with "sticks" because they're heavy, a pain to deploy, and most of the time you just carry them. But they're the only way to get decent photos in morning and evening light, and are a necessity for most landscapes, camp scenes and solo trips. The only time I'll leave them behind is when I'm shooting action photos with a group of people, or I'm on a personal trip where snapshot senics are cool. Choose a tripod with a 'ball head,' not a pan-tilt (video-style) head, because ball heads are much quicker to level and aim. Some hikers stick with tiny 'tabletop' tripods, which weigh mere ounces, but I'm never able to place the camera where I want it.
The tripod pictured here is a SLIK SBH 100, the "Sprint Mini GM." Since it's only 1 lb. 12 oz., it's light enough to carry 'sword' style on the bottom of my backpack strap. This quick-draw position is way handy for on-the-move shooting, but the SBH100 doesn't extend very high (42 inches, rib height on me). On big, bad assignments I'll haul a Gitzo Mountaineer that weighs 4 lbs. 4 oz., because it's stable enough for big telephotos and extends to above head-height, which is often useful for camp scenes. But four pounds is a huge travel penalty.

Chest harnesses do interfere with steep scrambling. Carrying big cameras, it can be disconcerting at first not to be able to see your feet all the time. But a good rig that keeps your camera handy means you'll get to relive your adventure over and over.

If readers have any other specific questions about trail photography and gear, ask 'em in the comments section below. I'll try to answer promptly. Cheers. Hike safe. -- Steve Howe


Dec 31, 2010

Check out this <a href="http://">page</a> of beautiful panoramic photos. Also has tutorials, discussions, tips and much more on panoramic photography. <a href="http://"></a>

D. Lambert
Oct 19, 2010

Per your comment about ball-heads vs. P&T, I agree with this for most scenarios, but I really like P&T heads for shooting panoramic shots, where I want to pan w/o tilting to keep my shots lined up well. Have you seen a nice, compact P&T head that would work well for hiking?

Jun 09, 2009

are those size 2 nite ize biners?

Chris S.
May 04, 2009

Mole Tracks makes an chest pack that adapts to any back pack. I carried my fullsize digital SLR up Half dome and got some awsome photos

Jon Peck
May 02, 2009

I often carry my Canon Digital Rebel with only the standard zoom lens. For this, a simple waist strap with a neoprene sheet secures the camera hung around my neck works quite well. I'm always amazed to see how many hikers have a camera swinging loose.

Other lenses and accessories can go in the backpack.

Jeff Z
May 01, 2009

the s-biner is a nite ize s biner, you can get em anywhere like REI

May 01, 2009

some great stuff in here but for caring serious amounts of gear check out f-stop.

May 01, 2009

Steve...great ideas....thanks...One Question...Where did you get that sturdy-looking "S" carbiner clip, that divides into 2 sections..??!!

Apr 30, 2009

I have found this harness and am considering purchasing it as it would be lighter and easier to use as compared to a case.

Steve Howe
Apr 30, 2009

Hey Mark,
Usually, cold isn't a problem with cameras. Cold is a problem with THE BATTERIES. I shot my Nikon atop Mt. McKinley, and down to -20F, simply by keeping several batteries in a warm chest pocket and switching them out as each froze up...about 20 minutes per. Then, once they had re-warmed, they regained charge for more shooting. Worked great.

With condensation, the problem isn't cold; it's usually moving from cold outdoors to warm indoors (and steamy tents). I find that keeping a camera in its padded case helps make the temp change slower, and tends to reduce condensation.

But I'll cover camera survival in detail in my next installment, posted as possible within a few days. Stay tuned for the FAQs and more.

Apr 30, 2009

What about traveling in cold weather. I often worry about bringing my nics dslr into the cold so I usually bring a backup camera. How can I travel with the camera I want without worrying about it in the snow and cold? Condesation is my main worry of course.

Steve Howe
Apr 28, 2009

Hey Clinton,
I totally hear you about the weight. And I'm happy that the newer P&S cameras are (finally) becoming an alternative for quality photography. My biggest problems with Point & Shoots thus far are the low light performance (getting better, but never as good as a dSLR, especially the new 35mm, full-sized sensors), the lack of fast autofocus for action, and most importantly, the lack of a wide angle (at least 24mm equivalent angle of coverage). Wide angle adapters often make a P&S almost the same bulk as a small dSLR.

Still, I'm considering the Panasonic LX3, or it's Leica twin, the D-Lux 4 (which has a slightly better color engine). I'm also considering one of the new waterproof Olympus models, simply so I can shoot in the ugliest conditions, or get cool underwater shots like legs fording a stream.

I shy away from long telephotos on Point & Shoot cameras because, zoomed out, they're rarely sharp enough for ultra-competitive magazine shooting, and seldom fast enough to handhold in anything but full sun. But that's all a personal preference thing.

I'll deal more with the P&S vs. dSLR tradeoffs in a future post. However, it's worth noting that, back when I shot 35mm film, my film and equipment for a 2-week trip might be 24 pounds. Now, even with dSLRs and a big bad assignment, it's way less than half that burden.

Steve Howe
Apr 28, 2009

Hey Josh,
Yes, my camera gets dusty too. However, I've become pretty casual about cameras over the years. They're tougher than they seem. So I usually tolerate most external dust, even on zoom lenses, and just pack a lens brush (to get abrasive grains off) and a microfiber lens cloth to clean the glass itself.

By being careful with lens changes, I rarely get dust spots on the CMOS/CCD sensor. I've only had dust spot problems on my images twice, despite numerous two-week trips, including 24 days on the Sierra High Route.

When a trip is really committing or long, however, I'll bring a tiny bottle of Eclipse sensor cleaning solution, and some sealed sensor swabs. With a bright headlamp to see into the camera body, you can easily clean your camera's sensor in camp (practice at home first).

Since Eclipse is simply ultra-pure alcohol, it also works for cleaning lenses, but usually I just brush off the dust, then breath on them for condensation moisture, and wipe them spotless with the cloth.

In the desert I try to avoid getting the camera sandy in the first place, by making sure never to set the camera case down on the sand - always on a rock, pack or even hanging from the tripod. I'll often use the tripod as a work stand for lens changes. And if it's windy, always close your camera case, and never leave it within about two feet of ground level, where wind transports sand and dust by "saltation", bouncing along the ground surface. It's much cleaner several feet above ground. After a windy, dusty trip, I'l clean the whole rig thoroughly, and toss my camera packs in the washing machine to complete remove sand.

Clinton Lewis
Apr 28, 2009

For years I have lugged around my big DSLRs - Canon 1D mkII series - and have the sore back to prove it. Last year, for a trip to Yellowstone and other locales out west, I picked up Canon's G9... it has all the same basic functionality of the 1D, although the shutter and aperture are more limited, and saves a ton of weight. 20x30 enlargements looks phenominal! and the G10 improves low light capabilities, from what I've read. =)


Apr 27, 2009

I'm in the process of selecting equipment to bring my Nikon D90 along the JMT with me. I just took a 4 day stroll through SW Utah and worked out a system where the camera is on the hipbelt. However, I had problems with the camera getting dusty/gritty. What sort of cleaning supplies do you pack along?

Dave Miller
Apr 27, 2009

I've been backpacking with my DSLR for about 8 months now and I have found this works great! I use the Think Tank photo Camera support straps to connect the holster camera bag to the shoulder straps.

This method works great and my camera is always at the ready while on the trail. I'll have to try your suggestion on the tripod. Mine usually goes in a side pocket of the pack.

Thanks for sharing!

Dave Miller
BACKPACKER GPS Map Correspondent


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