written by Aaron Cowan
photos by Aaron Cowan
edited by Jacob D
Hi folks. My Name is Aaron Cowan. I currently live in Pullman, WA having recently graduated from the University of Idaho with a Masters in Electrical Engineering. Photography is just a hobby but, for me, a pretty serious one.
It wasn’t until college that I became interested in photography. Digital cameras had become a hot item: they were becoming more compact and exceeding 4 MP (yes, a few years ago). I received my first digicam as a gift prior to a summer trip to Thailand. I found I enjoyed photography and began teaching myself the basics. Encouraging words from friends and family (and strangers) helped fan the flames. When Canon came out with the Digital Rebel, a consumer-level DSLR, I was determined to buy it and immerse myself in photography. The first time I heard the mirror slap I was hooked.
Moving out West after graduating was a dream. I moved to Boise, Idaho and slowly found enjoyment in hiking and backpacking. My first exposure to the mountains was a day hike to Goat Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains. Despite being exhausted and sore for a few days I fell in love with the scenery and work that it took to arrive at such splendid locations. It definitely helped that Goat Lake is one of the more scenic lakes in the Sawtooths. The next summer I took my first backpacking trip. Since that first trip I haven’t looked back.
Each trip I haul in more camera gear than the average backpacker. I started out with a foolishly absurd amount of gear. I must admit to lugging the Canon 100-400L on two different backpacking trips. I didn’t it use it once (!) so I decided that extra weight and space wasn’t necessary. Since that moment of enlightenment I’ve tried many different packing methods for my camera gear. When you’re backpacking and away from the comforts of your house, hotel or car many additional considerations need to be taken. Today we’ll be taking a look at such considerations as well as the deliberate approach to landscape photography.
Gear Considerations for the Landscape Photographer
A good landscape photograph takes planning. Weather and time of day are crucial considerations; these may be coincidental or planned well in advance. Lens and filters choice also can make or break or photograph.
Let me take this time to admit that I’m not a lightweight backpacker. The pack I have is a Gregory Palisade 80. I bought it used from a friend who wanted to lighten his load, streamlining his overall approach to be a lighter weight backpacker. With that in mind I’ll give a quick rundown of what the pack mule in me takes on trips.
Perhaps the most important piece of equipment for a landscape photographer is a tripod. A good tripod will allow for precise composition and sharper images. Panoramas and multiple exposures for either HDR or expanded DOF are also more easily executable with a tripod. I use an Induro AT114. It weighs just over 3 lbs. and extends up to 5 feet. For around $100 it’s a thrifty and rugged choice over a carbon fiber tripod. My ballhead is a Really Right Stuff BH-25. This is the smallest and lightest of the RRS ballheads. Though expensive these heads have almost zero creep which is helpful in composing a shot, tightening down the ball and being assured it won’t move on you.
My camera body of choice is the Canon 5DII. Previously I used a Canon 30D but prefer the full frame 5DII for the increase in megapixels and dynamic range capabilities. Don’t feel obligated to sell your crop body immediately; I know cost can be a big issue. That is the main reason I had a crop body and held on to it for so long until I made a significant upgrade.
The lenses and filters I use are: Canon 24-105L, Canon 70-200 F/4L, Zeiss ZE 18mm, 77mm and 82mm Circular Polarizer, Graduated Neutral Density Filters (2-stop reverse, 3-stop reverse, 2-stop soft, 3-stop soft)
I’ve considered replacing the Zeiss 18mm with the Canon 17-40L. This exchange would allow me to take two lenses: the 17-40L and 70-200L. Having coverage of every focal length is not critical. A real wide lens is paramount when backpacking. Your destinations are often lakes and they are best captured in the morning or evening with a wide angle lens. The zoom range is really a personal preference.
Looking back over the past two years of backpacking pictures these are the amount of photos that I’ve taken and ultimately posted on my website: eight with the Zeiss 18mm, four with the 70-200 F/4L and 95 with the 24-105L. Granted, the handful of images that I’ve taken with the 18mm are great shots and would not have been possible with the 24-105. As I write this, I’m reconsidering if I should be lugging the 70-200 along with me!
The GNDs (Graduated Neutral Density filters) are important to me. GNDs basically create HDR images in-camera instead of through post-processing. They help balance the brightness of half of the scene (usually the sky) allowing the camera to appropriately capture the dynamic range or luminosity of the scene without clipped highlights or shadows. The major downside to this is when the horizon isn’t level. This is rarely the case so a little post processing touchup for the darker areas is necessary but that’s a small price to pay for capturing an HDR image in-camera. There is some debate of whether similar results can be achieved in post processing; still, I prefer the filters.
To keep everything safe and organized the filters and other odds-and-ends (extra battery, CF cards, cable release, polarizers, and basic cleaning supplies) are placed in one bag while two lenses (the Zeiss 18 and 70-200) are placed in another bag. I simply use some smaller Lowepro bags that I have; the choice here is pretty inconsequential.
Carrying your camera is a more critical consideration. I use an M-Rock Denali Square bag which has a chest harness allowing me to wear the bag in front, saving pack space and redistributing a little weight. I keep the 24-105 on my 5DII and have the ability to take casual shots on the hike in and hike out. Usually the hike in or out is done during midday so I rarely take a great shot due to the harsh light and “snapshot” quality of the composition. I believe a bag comparable to the M-Rock Denali can be purchased from Tamrac, Lowepro, etc.
Making the Most of the Light
The “golden hour” (about one hour before sunset) is a popular choice for making landscape images due to the warm light at that time. One thing I’d add is to remember twilight. Unfortunately this means getting up about 45 minutes before sunrise to be ready. Some of the most striking light I’ve seen is during civil twilight when the mountains have an ethereal glow to them. Sunrise and sunset can be nice or even spectacular but twilight can be even better. Clouds, depending on their height in the sky, could turn orange-red well before sunrise or after sunset. I don’t claim to be a meteorologist so the clouds lighting up appropriately is a crap-shoot. I’ve been frustrated a few times thinking I had great clouds but they never received nice, warm light.
The ethereal glow that I spoke of can last for a quite a while (about 20-30 minutes). It’s also a great indicator of how the sunrise will be: good glow means clear enough skies for good sunrise light. This glow can be about 30 minutes before sunrise. Waking up, throwing down a cereal bar and drink to get you going and then setting up can take a few minutes so give yourself plenty of time in the morning. I don’t think I’ve ever regretted waking up early even if the light doesn’t materialize.
It’s also important to remain persistent. This past summer I camped at Baptie Lake in the Pioneer Mountains of Central Idaho. I was there for three nights. This first morning was beautiful. I began at Baptie Lake but decided to quickly hike up the extra 300 feet to Goat Lake for the sunrise. Our last morning there looked even better than our first. Despite shooting sunrise at Goat Lake already I decided to hike back up. My first morning was a bit hasty and I had a better shot in mind. I had plenty of time and calmly waited as the light began flooding the mountaintops. Persistence can be the difference between a good and great photograph.
Thoughts on Trip Planning
I never backpack alone so the trips are usually joint decisions between one or more friends. Nevertheless almost any site in the mountains is good for either a sunrise or sunset. I scout the destination beforehand using both Google Earth and The Photograph’s Ephemeris (photoephemeris.com). Google Earth allows more rotation of the earth than TPE does, but TPE does an excellent job showing sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset along with the path of the sun throughout the day. This method isn’t 100% foolproof but it helps give you a great idea of the lay of the land and course of the sun before you head out on your trip.
When planning for a sunrise or sunset shoot remember to compose with oblique light. Having the rising or setting sun 180⁰ from your subject might have nice light but the contrast will be flat due to the angle of the light. Using the Photographer’s Ephemeris you’ll see the angle of the light during these times and can have a rough idea of where to setup for a shot. I say rough because there could be obstructions such as trees that could affect your pre-visualized composition. Nevertheless having a general plan is better than no plan at all.
- Know when the sun rises and sets. Know where the sun rises and sets. It’s all about the light.
- Take a wide angle lens that is equivalent to or wider than 20mm.
- Don’t forget to look down for photographs; sometimes a great picture is in the details rather than the grand landscape.
- If some scene interests you ask yourself why it’s interesting. Try to isolate or emphasize that subject. (This tip is compliments of George Barr’s writing.)
- Have enough memory and battery life. Both are light and small and that’s the last mistake you want to make.
I hope you find this information helpful. I feel that I’ll perpetually be making minor alterations to the gear I take and how I pack it. You’ll likely go through the same process while optimizing your backpacking photo kit, especially if you’re trying to find a balance between weight and the gear a dedicated landscape photographer needs.
Keep in mind that landscape photography is not about taking snapshots. Don’t be deterred by taking the snapshots of camp or along the hike, but shift your mindset into “image making” mode when the light is right. Persistence and planning will more likely yield great photos than leaving things up to chance. May your photos strive to capture the abundant scope of nature’s powers wherever you may hike!
More of Aaron’s Photos…
My website is www.aaroncowanphotos.com. There you’ll find all my galleries with more pictures than I probably should have on a quasi-professional site. I have a wide range of photos from Death Valley and Southern Utah to the mountains of Idaho and the PNW coast. My blog is also linked on my homepage. This summer will be a little more busy that my last two. I currently only have one backpacking trip planned: the Seven Devils over Labor Day Weekend. Despite that I’m sure my love for both photography and backpacking will endure as I hope yours will to. I’ll leave you with this excellent thought from Samuel Parker:
“While imagination generally overdraws here pictures, nature here has furnished abundant scope for all her powers.”
The rest of this series can be found here.