Inside a Backcountry Photographer’s Pack

Stephen Matera spent 20 years dialing the cameras, lenses, and accessories he brings backpacking. We got him to open his pack and tell us what’s inside. Plus: His favorite gear, biggest mistakes, and more.
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Stephen Matera spent 20 years dialing the cameras, lenses, and accessories he brings backpacking. We got him to open his pack and tell us what’s inside. Plus: His favorite gear, biggest mistakes, and more.

This look inside a backcountry photographer's pack brought to you in partnership with Tandem Stills + Motion, an outdoor photo agency and community for adventurous souls.

You’ve decided: No more coming back from trips with only super-wide-angle, fuzzy photos on your tiny phone. You’re getting a serious camera system. You’re going to make sure you bring back some gold from them thar hills.

But how to pack and carry all this heavy stuff? And what should you really bring anyway? A single lens can weigh more than your sleeping bag and pad combined. So you don’t want to carry any photo gear you don’t really need, right? But you don’t want to leave anything at home that can help you get the shot. And how do you pack it all comfortably, but not bury it so you can’t get to it when you’re on the trail and see something worth shooting?

In 20 years of backpacking and photographing in the wilderness, I’ve learned exactly what I need for my shooting. A lot of thought and experience has fine-tuned my system over time, and it works very well for me and the type of shooting I do. This exact system may not work for you, but should give you some ideas of how you might figure out your camera and carrying system for an overnight backpack trip.

The Camera System

My standard gear setup consists of three lenses and a camera body. I’m shooting SLRs and recommend either an SLR or interchangeable lens camera with an electronic viewfinder (EVF; see more EVFs on my blog). While there are cameras that are smaller and lighter without interchangeable lenses, the image quality from them will not compare to the SLRs or EVFs.

Camera

My go-to camera for the wilderness is a Canon 5D Mark III. At 22 megapixels, it will give you lots of resolution to make big, beautiful prints for your walls…and impress your friends. It’s a full-frame camera, meaning the digital sensor is as big as 35mm film was back in the day. When it comes to image quality, bigger sensors are almost always better. Apparently sometimes size does matter.

Lenses

The three lenses I bring are a Canon 16-35 f4, a Canon 24-105 f4, and a Canon 70-200 f4. Why do I pick those three lenses? I’m glad you asked. With those three lenses, I can get a very wide range of focal lengths in a relatively light package.

Think telephoto

I want to be able to shoot ultrawide 16mm shots. But if you want to really make your wilderness images stand out, ditch shooting only super-wide photos all the time and put on a telephoto lens. That’s where the beautifully sharp and warm 70-200 lens comes in. Select a part of the scene and shoot that instead of trying to include everything in the frame. Bonus: it’s incredibly light for its reach.

On-the-go option

The 24-105 is the lens I keep on my camera most of the time. It’s a sharp lens with a good range of moderately wide to moderate telephoto focal lengths. When I’m hiking, I don’t often shoot seriously. Usually it’s in the middle of the day and the light isn’t good, or I’m on a mission to reach my backcountry camping spot. But having it handy gives me some good options in case a photo opportunity presents itself.

Aperture real talk: f4 is good enough

Notice something about those three lenses I listed? All are f4. This is a reference to the widest aperture of the lens, which tells you how much light will reach the sensor. Boom! That was the sound of a few minds blowing up when I got technical. Aperture is one of the most confusing things about photography. But all you need to know for now is that I find f4 lenses to be plenty ‘fast’ (i.e. let enough light in) for backpacking and wilderness photography. Many photographers will carry ‘faster’ 2.8 lenses. This is great if you are shooting sports or very low light situations. But when I’m backpacking, an f4 lens is plenty fast. In fact, I’ll usually shoot at more like f5.6 or f8 to get a little more depth of field. The big benefit of slower lenses is that they are smaller and lighter.

Tripod

If you really want to be serious about wilderness photography, a tripod is a must-have. Want to shoot at sunset and get everything in focus? Then you’ll be shooting at about ½ to 1 second or longer. Good luck handholding at that shutter speed and getting sharp photos. I use a Gitzo mountaineering carbon fiber tripod. It’s big, strong, and relatively light. And if that sounds expensive, that’s because it is. Nobody seems to have figured out yet how to make something strong, light, and cheap. I also use a Really Right Stuff bh-30 ball head for connecting my camera to the tripod. I love the quick release system that RRS has and the ball head is strong and smooth to make setting up the shot relatively quick.

Filters

You’ll see a lot of photographers using digital and actual filters to enhance their photos. I’m not one of them. My filter bag is pretty insubstantial. I carry only two: a polarizer, which will help the colors of your photos pop by reducing glare, and a graduated neutral density filter.

Extras

A few other items I carry: a cable release for triggering the shutter when the camera is on the tripod; extra batteries (about 1.5 per day); extra memory cards; and a small hand towel in case water gets on my gear.

The Art of Packing

How do I pack it all and keep it handy? My biggest concerns are keeping it all protected, but still accessible.

inside a photographer's pack

My on-the-go solution

I have a small camera bag made by Lowepro that attaches to my hip belt on my backpack. It’s small, but can carry my camera body with the 24-105 lens attached, as well as a polarizer and spare battery. By putting this on my hip belt, I am able to quickly access my camera if I need to shoot on the fly or while hiking. It’s also padded and protected. For what it’s worth, I back up the hip belt attachment with a carabiner attached to a shoulder strap the camera it doesn’t declare its freedom and tumble down the mountain (that story is for another article).

Some photographers will wear a chest mounted camera bag. I don’t find that comfortable, especially because it blocks a little of my view looking down while hiking.

Portable Protection: The Go Bag Solution

For the rest of my photo gear, I use a Mountainsmith Descent photo bag. This is a shoulder sling bag designed with padding and partitions specifically for photo gear. I can fit everything I bring on the trail inside it.

I’ll pack the rest of my camera gear in this bag and put that in my overnight backpack, near the middle of the pack (above sleeping bag and clothes but below food). I do this to keep it organized and moderately accessible, but protected. If I need to access it on the trail, I can get it out without emptying my overnight backpack.

More importantly, I usually try to camp close to where I want to shoot for sunrise or sunset. But if I need to hike a bit from camp to shoot, I don’t want to hike with a huge, empty overnight pack and a few lenses bouncing around inside. Instead, I put the camera and three lenses in the Descent, shoulder it, and hike to where I want to shoot. My gear is all well-organized, protected, and accessible without even putting the bag down. I can squeeze a few other personal items inside, like a headlamp, hat, etc.

Attaching the tripod

Finally there is the tripod. I hate my tripod. It’s bulky and a pain to use. But it’s an absolute necessity and takes wilderness photography to the next level. Besides those long exposures, it makes selfies so much easier than using the timer, flinging your camera up in the air and hoping for the best.

To carry my tripod, I use the outside compression straps to secure it to the side of my pack. I have taped pipe insulation individually around all of the legs to protect them from being damaged by rolling onto a rock when my pack is on the ground or being squeezed in between rocks while shooting.

inside a photographer's pack

Your turn

Got other ideas you love? Leave a comment with your ideas of how you organize your gear when you head out on an overnighter.

Read more about Stephen’s favorite gear, photos, and biggest mistakes >>

About Adventure Photographer Stephen Matera

Stephen Matera, based in Seattle, Washington, has been a photographer for 20 years. Find him online: materaphoto.com | instagram | facebook

What’s the photo you’re most proud of and why?
I continuously evolve as a photographer, so my tastes change. Usually my personal favorite images are some of my most recent images. But if I had to choose a favorite right now, it would probably be this yoga photo.

A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have considered shooting this perspective. After a lot of yoga portfolio shoots last summer, I was looking for something different than I had been shooting. I had envisioned this kind of image before this shoot. But it came together better than I could have hoped. For this shot, we went to Discovery Park in Seattle. To get the perspective, I brought an 8-foot ladder and monopod. I stood near the top of the ladder (on the step that says ‘this is not a step’!), held the camera up above on a monopod and shot down on the yogi, Kirsten Dahlhauser, and worked the angle as she tried different yoga poses.

stephen matera inside a photographer's pack

Tell us about your biggest mistake.
As a sports photographer, I have many close calls with fast-moving athletes almost landing on top of me. But for my biggest mistake, I had nobody to blame but myself.

Years ago, I was shooting landscape photos on the south side of the Tatoosh Range in Mt. Rainier National Park. The trail cuts across a steep, open grassy slope where some wildflowers were in bloom. I stopped to take some photos of the flowers and put my pack down. I was shooting about 15 feet away from where my pack was and I turned around to go get a different lens out of my pack to watch it slowly start rolling downhill (luckily I’d closed it!). I did my best to run after it, but it was going too fast. I couldn’t do anything but watch it tumble like a boulder. There was a solitary tree about 200 feet downhill from me, then another 500-foot, steep slope below the tree. Amazingly, my pack hit the only tree on the slope and stopped before going any farther. I hiked down, got my pack, checked all my gear (luckily no damage!). I scrambled back up to the trail.

There was a man standing on the trail who came up to me and asked with a straight face “Did you roll your pack downhill on purpose?” And then a few years later, I did it again in a different part of Mt. Rainier National Park (still by accident!). You’d think I’d learn not to put my pack down in Mt. Rainier.

What are you working on next?
I’m continuing to build my yoga and fly fishing portfolios. I am also working to begin applying my creative energy towards conservation photography. I have a cabin in the Methow Valley in Washington State, where last summer we had the largest wildfire in state history. I’m going to do a personal project on the recovery of the valley environment and community after the fire.

What is your dream?
I dream (and hope!) that Canon will make a high-end, mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder, great autofocus (like the 7D Mark II), and 4k video. Plus a host of other features that seem to be missing from the Canon lineup. Hint to Canon…check out the Samsung NX1!

Your turn

Got other ideas you love? Leave a comment with your ideas of how you organize your gear when you head out on an overnighter.