The Hiker's Camera Bag: 4 Essentials to Cover Your Travel Photography Bases

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When traveling or backpacking, the last thing you need is more weight on your shoulders. For me, it’s all about keeping my photographic gear to a minimum when traveling or hiking. I do my best to pack with a purpose by first identifying my destination’s environment and then thinking of what kind of photos I want in the end. Although I love experimenting with different types of photographic equipment, my camera bag generally stays within the same 3-4 item range when I wander out. In this list, I’ll cover the gear setup I often take with me to cover my bases when hiking, as well as a few tips for finding the gear that suits you and your travels.

First things first: spending a few thousand dollars on camera equipment will not get you a thousand dollar image. In my experience as a camera retail manager, I discovered how much people let price dictate quality. I’ll certainly argue that, in most photographic cases, you get what you pay for, but without at least a beginner’s understanding of composition and how cameras function, diving right into your wallet for the “best” camera is an expensive mistake. So let's get to it!

Item 1: DSLR or Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera

Obviously, you’re going to need a camera. While modern point and shoots boast incredible specs like 4K video and whopping 20+ megapixel images, I’ve yet to find one that can replace my DSLR. The two camera bodies I use the most are a used Canon 5D Mark II and used Canon 70D. While I’d eventually like to upgrade, these cameras are powerhouses and never fail to deliver great results. The 5D Mark II can certainly take a beating, but I’m a little more careful with the 70D.

Mirrorless cameras are increasing in popularity with options like Sony’s powerhouse A7 series. These types of cameras are pretty similar to DSLRs, minus a pretty significant chunk of weight in the body (the mirror, hence the name "mirrorless"). I’ve been keeping my eye on the current Sony mirrorless offering and I’m nothing short of impressed. My work requires a setup built for both photography and videography, and Sony’s line seems to have a great marriage of both needs. 

With either option, do your research starting with some helpful tips below.

Tips for buying:
Having worked in camera retail, I can confidently say that brand doesn’t matter; your camera choice is your personal preference. Don’t let the brand loyalists tell you otherwise. I tote Canon gear, but I’m incredibly impressed with the results I get from a similar Nikon setup. All that matters is that you are comfortable with your camera and familiar with its capabilities.

When choosing a camera specifically for the outdoors, you’ll want to understand the camera’s weather resistance, ergonomics, and general build. Weather resistant (or weather sealed) does not mean waterproof, just that the camera is capable of performing after exposure to certain elements; a must for outdoor photography. Next, get a feel for the actual camera in your local photography shop or Best Buy before making the purchase. Unfortunately, cameras bodies are built with the meatier hand in mind. You may find that the Canon you’ve been researching just doesn’t “feel right” in your own hands, or perhaps the Nikon you’ve been eyeing isn’t as sturdy as you had hoped.

 

Item 2: Wide Angle Zoom

A wide angle zoom is an efficient way to keep your camera bag a little lighter, as the field of view can be adjusted with one lens. Since the Canon version is over $1,000 (used), I go for the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8. This lens gives me a solid range to photograph anything from open landscapes to wildlife, with plenty of light for darker situations.

Tips for buying:
Most new camera bodies will have some version of a wide angle zoom included in the kit, but do a quality test before stuffing this lens into your next adventure bag. Most “kit lenses” are included with a camera for a reason.

You’ll also need to consider your camera’s sensor when purchasing lenses. Understanding crop factor will help you purchase the right lens for your needs and camera’s capabilities.

With a wide angle zoom, you are capable of achieving everything from wide landscape shots...

With a wide angle zoom, you are capable of achieving everything from wide landscape shots...

To portrait shots with a little more zoom. 

To portrait shots with a little more zoom. 

 

Item 3: Nifty Fifty or Other Lens

Assuming you have extra room in your backpack, you may want to throw in another lens for special applications. I’m a fan of isolating my subjects using a shallow depth of field, so my secondary lens is often a simple 50mm f/1.4 lens. From portraits to landscapes, I get so much mileage out of the “nifty fifty.”

You may find that your photographic tastes swing more towards wildlife, in which case a telephoto lens will be more appropriate. With my budget, I currently use the Tamron version of Canon’s 70-300mm f/4-5.6 lens. It’s a great starter lens for those like me who photograph wildlife for fun, but it doesn’t necessarily pass the quality test for larger prints due to softness and chromatic aberration.

No matter what lens I stuff in my bag, it's still totally unnecessary to carry a second lens. In fact, if I was toting around a telephoto lens, I wouldn't bother bringing another lens since the pack would get too weighty. Figure out your needs and go from there.

Tips for buying:
The first step to buying another lens is understanding its application. There are countless times when I’ve ogled a new lens even though I could not find a use for it in my current body of work (I'm looking at you, 17-40mm lens). Use and application ultimately dictates whether or not I invest in a new lens, unless I can find an incredible deal.

The best way to fall in love (or out of love) with a lens is through rentals. Glass can cost more than the camera body, so the investment in a high-priced lens doesn’t make sense unless you’re absolutely sure it’s what you want. I purchased my Canon 70D after a trial run through LensRentals.com, a site that applies your rental fee to your final purchase should you decide to keep your equipment. Get 15% off your first LensRentals purchase by clicking here.

With the busy background of a forest, i find that isolating an object via a shallow depth of field is an effective way to draw attention to it.

With the busy background of a forest, i find that isolating an object via a shallow depth of field is an effective way to draw attention to it.

Item 4: Lightweight Tripod

Unless you’re a documentary-style photographer with a steady hand, you’ll most likely need a tripod. A sturdy, lightweight travel tripod is key to adding more light, clarity, and smooth motion to an image for a dynamic scene.

I’m currently in the trial stages of my new Dolica TX570DS Ultra Compact Tripod, but so far I’m in love with its lightweight frame and ball head. I chose this tripod after experiencing a set of disappointing, shaky images of waterfalls when I didn’t bring a tripod (which I knew I needed, but left at home due to its weight and inconvenience). With my new Dolica, I’m hoping to avoid the ol’ case of tripod neglect.

Tips for buying:
When it comes to travel and outdoor tripods, lightweight is the way to go. However, if you’re lugging a giant telephoto lens, you will need a sturdier tripod to counter the weight of your setup.

Manfrotto is an incredible brand that I’ve had the opportunity of working with, but their prices reflect the quality of the build (meaning $$$). If budget restricts you, try some used equipment from eBay, or go for a wallet-friendly brand like Dolica.

images like these are simply impossible without the help of a tripod.

images like these are simply impossible without the help of a tripod.


Some photographers will swear by expensive packs that keep a slew of lenses and camera bodies in one convenient, protective bag, but it’s unnecessary when traveling or hiking. I love not only the challenge of shooting with a limited setup, but the simplicity. Keeping it simple with your camera setup not only saves money, it saves your back, shoulders, and a lot of unnecessary frustration when traveling or enjoying the outdoors. My next challenge? Finding a point and shoot that will allow for an even simpler travel photography setup.

What’s your go-to camera setup for the outdoors and travel? Any tips on what I can add to my bag? Leave a comment below!

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