Ever stop to wonder how those glossy, inspiring, beyond-perfect photos of the backcountry are created? The stunning vistas and elegant wildlife, the splash of sun and snow framing a fit, young skier flying down the mountain, or the introspective, solitary, Emersonian view that evokes feelings of contemplation and self-reflection…those images, the ones that seem to capture the essence of existence, are the framework for many of the magazines and catalogs of the outdoor world. They are the ‘pretty pictures’ that people are drawn to and practically demand.
But how are such stunning photos captured, and by whom? Beyond the how and whom, why carry all those delicate pounds of photography equipment, worth thousands of dollars, through deserts, rain forests, oceans, rivers, blizzards, and more? The tremendous amount of work and risk involved for only a handful of photographs can be daunting, but what is even more discouraging is that there may not even be a market for them once developed.
Tom Murphy and Rainbow Weinstock took time to answer a few questions about how and why they have chosen to do backcountry photography and where lightweight backpacking principles fit in. Rick Dreher, BPL’s resident photo guru, also contributed his two cents on the subject of lightweight backpacking and which cameras on the market are the lightest and of the best quality.
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Ask Tom Murphy what his pack weight is for a typical eight day trek, and he will say with a chuckle, “Oh, about seventy-five pounds… it used to be ninety-five until I lightened it up a bit.” Another traditional backpacker unnaturally proud of their heavy pack? Not at all. Tom is by no means a kitchen sink hiker: he chooses to sleep on a tarp instead of using a tent, carries minimal clothing, and keeps it simple when it comes to camping gear. In the summer, he does not even carry a stove. Tom means it when he says that he’s done what he can to make his backpack lighter, cutting a strap here, taking out an unnecessarily heavy cook pot there.
“A lot of the time, people carry too much stuff, and I think they wear themselves out by it,” says Tom. "They’re more likely to get in trouble that way. If you’re really good and confident about being outside, then you just don’t need that much stuff.” Still, seventy-five pounds is practically unheard of these days.
For thirty-five years, Tom has been heading off into the wilderness to capture images of the backcountry and the animals found therein. He is a photographer with a keen eye for wildlife and natural scenes, and to get the shots for which he’s famous, he has to carry a lot of gear. Think tripods, multiple lenses, backup cameras, and pounds upon pounds of batteries. For Tom, wildlife and backcountry photography is not a lightweight game. It takes perseverance and dedication, regardless of his pack weight.
Having grown up on a remote cattle ranch in South Dakota, Tom was privy to the life cycle of the animals he lived and worked with. The way the seasons, time of day, and weather affected their behavior was laid out in front of him on a daily basis. His youth became a tapestry of wildlife and windswept hills, leading him to gain a deep understanding of animal behavior. It is this understanding, ingrained in Tom since childhood, that lends him at least part of his success as a photographer. “My perception is different because I have a different scale of experience,” says Tom. “You can’t photograph wildlife unless you know wildlife.”
While going light is important to Tom, it is clear that photographers have a different definition of what “light” means. When it comes to taking the cameras, he must be careful about what else he packs. Over the years, Tom has thrown out anything that is not necessary in his pack, keeping only what he absolutely needs. His opinion about his packing choices is pretty obvious: “I carry all that stuff because I want to make good photos when I get there.”
As a self-taught photographer, Tom states very simply that he became a photographer because he is backpacker. “The motivation was to record what I saw…I always see something when I go out. I don’t write, and I can’t draw, so I picked up photography.”
These days Tom gives guided photography tours of Yellowstone. His work was recently featured in the PBS show Christmas in Yellowstone that aired in December 2007.
Rainbow Weinstock’s love affair with the outdoors began, as it does for many people, during childhood. In his case it was on the Mauna Loa volcano where he and his family lived in Hawaii. “The first time I went backpacking was as a family to the top of the volcano,” says Rainbow. “It left a strong impression on me to have that immersion in our natural surroundings.”
While backpacking and camping have been part of his repertoire since those early days on the volcano, it was not until Rainbow traveled to Alaska during the summer of 1999 that he took up photography. While Rainbow was in Alaska, he took a month-long NOLS course, explored the backcountry, and enrolled in a photography class at the University of Fairbanks. “Alaska was a significant experience on many levels,” says Rainbow. “I had a fantastic time and found that I really enjoyed being behind a camera.”
In 2001, Rainbow was working for an environmental consulting firm in Boston, but was searching for something different. When the opportunity to take a NOLS instructor course presented itself, he quickly packed his bags and headed to the American southwest. “I decided that I wanted to have a career that helped preserve our natural world,” he says. “I chose education over activism. I was motivated by NOLS experiential education capabilities and the wonders of its classrooms.” In the NOLS classroom, Rainbow found multiple opportunities to develop his photography skills. In the 2008 NOLS catalog, his work is the most prevalent in the notoriously picture-laden publication.
As an instructor for NOLS, Rainbow teaches courses in caving, climbing, mountaineering, and backpacking, which affords him great opportunities to capture the outdoor shots that feature both the natural world and how his students interact with it. “I’m blessed to be able to do incredible things in incredible places – photography is a way to interpret and record these experiences,” says Rainbow.
Having been backpacking for roughly twenty years, Rainbow has continually been changing and lightening his pack throughout that time. After taking a lightweight backpacking course from Ryan Jordan last year, the pounds and ounces on his pack have dramatically decreased. Now, on a thirty day NOLS course, his pack weight, including nine days worth of food, is thirty pounds. On personal trips, such as the one he just completed in Patagonia, his base weight is only ten pounds.
These pack weights include his photography equipment, which can at times be burdensome, but to Rainbow, the weight of the equipment does not deter him. When asked why he continues to do it, Rainbow says, “Well, I could be cocky and say ‘Check out the images accompanying this article,’ but it’s really passion for quality. I’m generally not satisfied with the caliber of images that I get back with point and shoots. Having the higher-level digital sensors, quality and interchangeability of lenses, and increased artistic capabilities are indispensable.”
Q&A with Backpacking Light’s Rick Dreher
Rick has been a backpacker and photographer since childhood. His work has been featured in Backpacking Light and other commercial pieces. These days he is the resident photography expert at BPL.
Q: What type of cameras and equipment do you use?
A: For digital work, and I’m only partway through year two using digital, I have an Olympus E-510 dSLR with six lenses, and a Kodak P880 “prosumer” fixed lens camera. I use a Manfrotto carbon monopod or a Gitzo subcompact carbon tripod when I carry support, and I also tote the typical smattering of filters, batteries, lens tissue, and the like.
From there, it gets complicated. I have an absurd array of analog (film) equipment, some of which I still use. I’ve collected most of what I consider the crown jewels of compact 35mm point-and-shoot cameras, the best being a Contax T3 and a Ricoh GR1. I still occasionally use my Contax G system rangefinders and Contax N and RTS SLR systems. Film and processing are becoming significant headaches, adding to the time-lag, hassles, and expense of shooting the stuff. Anybody who still owns a turntable and vinyl will understand the predicament, although with film there’s an eventual dead end (for example, there’s precisely one Kodachrome processing lab on the planet).
Q: In your opinion, what is the best, lightest camera on the market right now?
A: It’s dangerous to recommend a camera barely beginning shipment and yet to be thoroughly tested and reviewed, but the Sigma DP1 represents a compact camera paradigm shift, stuffing a dSLR-size imaging chip in a compact body, while depriving lazy people of a zoom lens. In this first quarter of 2008, it’s the only digital show in town for anybody desiring pro-quality landscapes while only toting half a pound. (For a quarter of the cost and about the same weight you can find a GR1 and a few rolls of film on eBay. The GR1 is the DP1’s analog-analog.)
Other notable compact digicams are the Canon G9 and the Ricoh cousins GRD II and GX100. All four digital examples supply RAW file format for maximum image quality and lossless post-processing. All have good lenses: the G9 has a reasonable telephoto reach and built-in optical viewfinder, while the GX100 has a superwide angle zoom and the GRD II is the DP1’s cousin with the same effective focal length lens and very high-quality construction, along with including some compelling accessories.
Today’s lightest dSLRs are the Olympus E-410 and forthcoming 420. Olympus recently announced a super-compact 25mm “pancake” lens (95 g) that will combine with one of these bodies to represent the smallest, lightest dSLR-lens combination ever, at something like 18 oz (for the E-410+25 mm).
You’ll probably notice I don’t cite any waterproof cameras, because it’s not a camera’s responsibility to be waterproof, and all the waterproof digicams are quite flawed in some way. However, since there are folks who hike where it rains 200 inches a year, or they go packrafting, a waterproof model might be the only reasonable option. It’s infinitely better to take snapshots with a less-than-perfect camera than not to take any photos at all.
For folks who don’t mind size and heft, at least three dSLRs (by Pentax, Nikon and Olympus) are weather-sealed, and while they shouldn’t be dunked, can fend off driving rain. Olympus weather-seals all their mid- and high-grade lenses.
Q: Do you have any tips that people can use to lighten up their camera and equipment?
A: For snapshooters, not really. Any four to five ounce digicam will do a fine job of capturing your travels, so long as you’re happy with posting on the Web, emailing, and printing no larger than 4×6 inches. These tiny pocket-sized cameras mostly do just fine, so find one with controls you can easily use (without thinking about them too much) and go hiking.
If your ambitions stretch further, you’ve got to first decide whether you want to commit to a dSLR system or use a high-end compact digicam (I’m ignoring mid-format and rangefinder systems). Before picking any gear, decide whether you want to shoot scenery, people, wildlife, mushrooms, whatever, then match tool to task. Note: two quality compact digicams weigh less than a dSLR with one lens.
It’s easy to become trapped stressing over what a particular camera can’t do and never learn to capitalize on what it can do. Sure, equipment matters, but the person handling the equipment matters vastly more.
Let photography become a natural part of your hiking day. Keep the camera handy and become comfortable shooting on the go. Shoot from unusual perspectives and shoot tiny details along with the dramatic vistas. Take time from setting up camp and making dinner to shoot during the “magic” hour immediately before and after sundown. If you can pry yourself out of bed, shoot before dawn. Bring a camera support and shoot star trails and yourself. Shoot your muddy socks, your hiking partner, your breakfast. Come home with your storage cards completely stuffed.
When you do get home, upload your photos and assess your work with a certain brutality. What worked and didn’t work technically, and why? Relentlessly weed out uninteresting photos and after a period (a week, a month) go back through your keepers to find which ones rise above the others. Learn from your successes. Developing your vision is a longer journey than even Andy Skurka can draw up, because it’s a trail with no end. And that’s why you want to carry a camera.