Gratifying photography is driven by inspiration, creativity and vision. Without these, photos will never reach their potential, regardless of what, or how much, equipment you employ. The adage "There is nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept" is attributed to the ground-breaking photographer, Ansel Adams, and we couldn't agree more. We'll opt for a pocket camera pointed at a striking subject, in great light, over a top-notch body and lens aimed carelessly at an uninspired subject, in unremarkable light, any day. That said, specific equipment, paired with technique, is often essential to interpret a scene in a particular manner.
Equipment Requirements for our Tours & Workshops
To get the most out of our tours and workshops you will need a digital camera capable of adjustments to aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Lenses (or a zoom lens), ranging from wide angle to telephoto, as well as a tripod, will also be needed. The ability to shoot photos in RAW format is desirable but not essential. Compact "enthusiast" cameras with zoom lenses are fine, as would be most DSLR's or superzoom cameras. Most small point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones, although useful elsewhere, will not be adequate for our programs due to their lack of adjustability. You do not need to spend a fortune on a top-end, full-frame camera and lenses to get started, despite what the slick ads might have you believe. You might never need such a system.
If you are considering a major camera purchase we strongly suggest you wait until AFTER your tour or workshop. Part of our job is to help you sort through equipment choices that will impact your photographic efforts. Much like the transition from horses to automobiles (maybe film to digital photography would be a better analogy), the world of digital photography is transitioning toward new technologies and designs that will redefine the game. Better image quality, smaller, lighter camera systems, and greater convenience are already changing the camera industry and more changes are in the pipeline.
A new camera is a major purchase and it would be unwise to buy technology that is nearing the end of its lifespan when better options abound. Use the camera you have until you fully understand what's just around the corner.
Because digital cameras are complex tools it is wise to carry a manual for each of your cameras whenever you are out shooting. If you are familiar with your camera you won't need it often but, when you do, it will be most welcome. We load PDF camera manuals onto our iPhones or iPads for convenient reference and we'd be happy to load your camera manual onto our devices if you don't have it with you already.
Clothing & General Outdoor Equipment Suggestions
This comes first; it is more important than photography equipment. If you are not reasonably comfortable, it's nearly impossible to concentrate on photography and, if you get very far from a road without essential gear, you may not come back at all. We've all stepped out of the car in shorts and flip-flops, walked ten feet, and snapped a scenic sunset. Nobody is suggesting you need survival gear for that. But, when you start seeking out more remote locations, especially on the edges of daylight, or in nasty weather, you need to be much better prepared.
It's just as important to avoid overloading yourself as it is to make sure you have what you need. Each situation requires different choices, but there are broad principles that apply to all outdoor activities. As career mountain guides, we have dealt with clients across nearly every conceivable environmental situation, from a roadside, summer stroll to a blizzard at 18,000 feet in the Himalayas. Our Alpine Adventures web site dedicates several pages to theoretical and practical equipment and clothing discussions. Some of this information is directed specifically at climbers but, on the whole, it relates to any outdoor pursuit. Considerations specific to photography are noted below in Photography Equipment Suggestions.
If you are new to the demanding environments of mountain photography we suggest you spend some time reviewing this information. After you have a grasp of the basics, we welcome your questions.
Photography Equipment Suggestions
In outdoor photography of all types, and especially with regard to mountain photography, weight and bulk of equipment are critical considerations. While bigger sensors, bodies and lenses do offer advantages, they come at the price of having to carry a bigger burden. Also remember that pristine image quality can't be seen without pristine viewing conditions. For the most part, large prints are the only place where you will notice a difference. That fantastic resolution and dynamic range can't be seen, much less appreciated, on most screens, or in small prints, on demand books, and other popular viewing environments.
If you're just toting your gear a couple hundred yards from the car a hefty load can be ignored, but long hikes over rugged terrain will quickly convince you to pay very close attention to exactly what you're carrying, and why. Purists, who think suffering for their art by carrying big, bulky gear to remote places will somehow make their photos better rarely do so for long. Reason eventually prevails. An 8x10 view camera is not the right tool for every job.
In a perfect world, we'd each have a set of photography gear ideally suited to every situation we photograph, but that's not possible so we make the best compromises we can. The trouble is that no matter what you carry, where you carry it or how you use it, there will always be other decisions you could have made that would have worked. It is impossible to make informed decisions about most things photographic from specifications and reviews alone. This may yield the right answers but quite possibly to the wrong questions. Experience in a variety of contexts is the only way to discover what matters to YOU!
Photographing in the mountains for considerably more than a quarter-century has taught us to select our camera gear very carefully, based mostly upon what and where we are shooting. We use a wide variety of camera gear, and we don't carry the same equipment all the time. Since we often work as a team of two photographers, we each select from the items below based on what we expect to shoot. Although the delineation is not always perfectly clear, overall, we shoot outdoor photos in three different situations:
Photographing close to the road, this situation places minimal constraints on equipment size and weight. We can easily load 40 or more pounds of photography gear into the car and head down the road in search of light and locations. A rock-solid, ten-pound tripod (plus a lighter one), heavy cameras (several bodies) and a broad assortment of lenses, flashes, reflectors and other accessories don't exact a penalty because we don't have to carry them – at least not far. If we do decide to venture more than a short distance from the car, we load up a small camera bag with just what we expect to need for that specific spot. The upside is that we have access to the kitchen sink, the downside is that remote locations are out of reach.
When we head into the backcountry (roughly speaking, a mile or more from the road) to photograph, our expectations dictate what, and how much, we carry. The longer the hike, the more valuable it becomes to pare things down. Carrying 20 pounds of photography equipment, plus other outdoor gear, might make sense to photograph a spectacular place two or three miles from the road. But, at ten or fifteen miles from the road, a lighter pack with fewer options, or a smaller camera, might be wiser. Your primary purpose for being there also matters. When you are carrying a camera simply to grab a few photos, less/lighter gear, compared to when photography is the reason you are in the backcountry, makes sense. In general, when you have to carry it very far, carry as little as possible.
In the backcountry, we use an assortment of packs, ranging from belt pouches up to full-suspension photography backpacks, and everything in between. Wandering around far from civilization, carrying a ton of photo gear, may make you feel like you are prepared for anything, but we have rarely found that strategy to pay off. If you have specific plans to photograph something, fine, pack what you need. When you don't, go light.
In the absence of serious, specific, photo objectives, in the backcountry we often carry only a small camera; sometimes a basic Micro Four-Thirds body and a couple of small lenses that, together, weigh less than 2 pounds. Other times we carry a high-end compact "enthusiast" camera and maybe a wide-angle conversion lens that, in total, weigh less than one pound. A tiny table-top tripod can be braced against rocks or trees if need be. We can't shoot wildlife at a distance, or starry skies, with this gear but, with focal lengths ranging from very wide to mid-telephoto, and good close-up ability, the performance to weight ratio is outstanding.
For more serious backcountry photography we carry a full-featured Micro Four-Thirds body with wide, normal and long zooms, maybe some filters, and a compact, but sturdy tripod. Sometimes this gear rides in a fanny pack and we carry a separate small daypack for outdoor gear. Other times it rides in a small pack built to carry photo and outdoor gear. This rig provides flexibility and permits us to shoot in low light.
When even more options are required, we load a full-suspension photo pack with up to about 20 pounds of photo gear. We can carry up to three bodies, an assortment of seven zoom, prime, and macro lenses (covering from fisheye up to 600mm EFL), plus a small flash, a full set of filters, a reflector, and more. A tripod on the outside brings the weight to about 25 pounds – without any other outdoor gear included. Although it carries well, this is usually more photo gear than we need so we often pare things down further, making room for essential outdoor gear in the process.
Another way to carry heavier gear into the backcountry is to use a boat. Just make sure your photo gear is in absolutely waterproof cases. Obviously, this will not work very well on a mountain.
High-quality lenses are always important, and the ability to shoot RAW allows image quality to be maximized so we are very reluctant to forego either to cut weight or bulk.
Technical Adventure Photography
For us, this usually means rock or ice climbing photography, but it includes an assortment of demanding environments in which you carry and use cameras under circumstances where they, or you, might not come back if you don't have your systems dialed in. In these environments, how you carry your gear can be as important as what you actually carry. Cameras that are dropped, drowned, or bashed to bits are not very useful so packs, bags, pouches and their contents need to be very carefully thought through. In active situations we usually carry cameras and lenses in pouches on a waist belt, where they are readily accessible, and don't interfere much with climbing harnesses, bosun's chairs or backpacks. Configurations vary based on the shoot. Sometimes a waterproof case is essential, other times it will slow you down too much. A body plus two lenses is lighter, but sometimes not having to make lens changes by using three bodies, each with their own lens, works better. In a blizzard, keeping the sensor clean while changing a lens can be nearly impossible. This kind of knowledge is hard-won through experience.
When you are an active participant in a technical adventure and a photographer, your primary concerns need to address your responsibilities as a participant. Usually that means simpler photography gear and shots so you don't impose on the group. As mountain guides, we are very aware of this concern. A compact point-and-shoot camera, possibly waterproof, might be the perfect choice in this situation, since you probably won't have time to take advantage of a more sophisticated camera anyway. Sacrificing image quality in the interest of being able to shoot at all is sometimes the best approach.
When you are on a technical adventure specifically as the photographer, your equipment choices will usually be very different. As an adjunct, rather than a direct participant, you may have (or create) opportunities that would not be appropriate, or even possible, for a participant. You'll need the right gear to exploit those opportunities but every trip is different so careful planning is essential. We usually prepare a "shot list", which determines what gear we take for this type of photography.
Serious photography of technical adventures in remote, backcountry settings can be extremely difficult. Carrying photo gear, plus specialized rigging and other equipment, sometimes for miles, can necessitate huge loads carried by assistants. Photography in these places demands expertise in the activity, superb planning skills and the ability to balance the importance of photos against safety and other concerns.
An interchangeable-lens digital camera with RAW capability is most suitable for our Photo Tours and Workshops. Your photos will be far more influenced by where, when, and at what, you point your camera, than by its price and sophistication. An enthusiast point-and-shoot camera can be a very adequate alternative to more sophisticated systems, but not in all situations. Compact and superzoom cameras with small sensors will work, with some limitations. Smartphones, although incredibly handy, will struggle in low light and most photography situations beyond snapshots. Despite its long history, film is now essentially obsolete for most photography and photographers so we suggest you limit yourself to digital.
In increasing order of size and sophistication we use the following cameras:
Smartphone (currently the iPhone 6) - We each carry one most of the time. Great for snapshots, many essential photography apps, and you can even make phone calls! We also find they are a handy way to carry PDF versions of our camera manuals, in case we need to refer to them. Smartphones are not great for photography where control over exposure and focal length is important because they usually lack these important controls. Their digital zooms are really only variable cropping and, although they are great for the web, they are not intended for high quality imaging. Still, they are handy, and we carry them almost everywhere.
Compact, Small Sensor Camera (currently Canon Elph 110HS and Panasonic Lumix DMC FX-500) - These little pocket cameras are the ones we stick in a breast pocket, or small waist pouch, instead of carrying no camera at all. With built-in retractable lenses, and focal lengths from wide to short telephoto, each works well for active members of a climbing party, particularly if the climbing involves scrunching into tight spaces. Neither shoots RAW but both can be out of a pocket or pouch, operated one-handed, and returned to safety in less than 10 seconds. Even antsy climbers can wait that long. Neither is costly enough that damage or loss would be catastrophic. We've made tens of thousands of photos with these cameras and their predecessors. We shoot quickly on aperture-priority most of the time, and we expect to delete a fair number of bad shots. Image quality is fine for the web and small prints. There's nothing better than this type of camera when photos are decidedly secondary to adventure objectives, even if you are also carrying a smartphone.
Compact, Enthusiast Cameras (currently, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5) - This versatile camera has an excellent, and fast, 24 to 90mm EFL Leica lens, shoots RAW and offers considerably more control than its smaller brethren above. With a 1" sensor, it does far better with color, dynamic range and in low light. It's only slightly bigger and it accepts a high-quality lens conversion adaptor that yields an 18mm EFL - very nice for climbing shots. We can use images from this camera for anything other than really big prints. This is our in-between camera. It gets carried any time our tiny pocket cameras are not enough but we can't justify an interchangeable lens system. It still fits in a pocket or belt pouch - just a slightly larger one.
Interchangeable Lens Digital Cameras - For most serious outdoor photography this category is your best choice. DSLR's were a great transitional solution for professional bodies as digital photography came of age but they are no longer at the cutting edge for many types of photography. Mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras (MILC's) dispense with the mirror, required for exposing film, and replace it with all-electronic viewing. This allows a much-improved shooting experience in nearly all situations. More information, smaller size bodies, due to the lack of a mirror, and as of recently, a viewing experience that is at least the equal of mirrored systems, make these the cameras of the future. We would not even consider buying a camera with a reflex (mirror and prism) viewing system for the type of photography we do. If you already own a DSLR it will remain useful for quite some time but there are now better options.
Mirrorless Camera Bodies
Full Frame Mirrorless - For the past year or so the Sony a7 system has led an increasing number of former full-frame DSLR owners to mirrorless. If we were in the market for for a professional system for landscape photography the a7 system would be on our short list. Although it is smaller than traditional DSLR's it is still considerably larger than the Micro Four-Thirds cameras we still prefer for climbing photography.
Crop Sensor Bodies (eg. APS-C) - These have been popular in DSLR formats for more than a decade, in large part because of their relatively low cost. Unfortunately, although they are larger and heavier, image quality is often inferior to Micro Four-Thirds. Again, Sony is leading the way in this category with its mirrorless cameras and they are improving every year.
Micro Four-Thirds Bodies - For serious photography, we switched to this format only after extensive comparisons and soul searching about what really mattered most to us in a professional camera system. Compared to a "full-frame" DSLR, the Micro Four Thirds system is significantly smaller and lighter due to a smaller sensor and smaller bodies and lenses. Dynamic range and noise are slightly compromised compared to a full-frame sensor, but that is, for our situation, more than offset by major differences in size and portability. Additionally, the advanced Live View and remote control capabilities of mirrorless cameras are a huge advantage for us as climbing photographers.
This is the most important part of any camera system - don't buy cheap lenses! A broad range of focal lengths is nice to have but you can get by in many situations with a range from 24mm to 70mm EFL (moderate wide angle to short telephoto). If your camera has a fixed-zoom lens it will most likely cover this range, or close to it. We have a collection of excellent lenses, from ultra-wide/fisheye to super telephoto, that we pick from for each shooting situation. Although we own several fixed focal length lenses, we almost always carry zooms for their versatility. With three zoom lenses covering full-frame equivalent focal lengths of 14-28mm F4, 24-70mm F2.8, and 70-200mm F2.8 we are prepared for most situations. Sometimes we add a fast, long, fisheye or macro fixed focal length lens or a very long zoom but not unless we expect to need it.
Advances in lens design and manufacturing techniques have delivered improved image quality for most lenses, and very high quality lenses are becoming commonplace. If you already own a selection of lenses, adapters are available that may allow you to use them with many newer camera bodies. Before you invest in lenses be certain you fully understand how sensor size and focal length are related. The concept of EFL (equivalent focal length) addresses this relationship and helps photographers visualize how the image a lens projects will differ on various sensors. We cover this concept in our workshops.
In low light, for long exposures, and as a general rule in landscape or wildlife photography, a tripod will make a big difference in the quality of your photos. Image stabilization is wonderful for handheld photos (like we often shoot of climbers) but a solid camera platform is required for many landscape shots. We own eight different tripods and two monopods ranging from tiny to huge, in carbon fiber and aluminum; and then there are the tripod heads. Ironically, when shooting active climbing photos we almost never use a tripod.
A tripod needs to fit both you and your camera gear, as well as the situation where it is being used. If you are tall, a short tripod will quickly tire your back and neck while you are standing upright. Sitting or kneeling will help but that's not always possible. A light tripod will not support a heavy camera/lens adequately. A big, beefy tripod will make a long hike into the backcountry an unpleasant ordeal. Tripods almost always involve a compromise of some sort.
We own top-quality tripods from Gitzo and Manfrotto as well as less expensive brands. While it is true that a poor quality tripod/head will get in your way and frustrate you, the top-end brands may be as much about cachet as function. For example, although we own both brands, Sirui, a Chinese company, makes models similar to Gitzo at about half the price and the construction quality is equal. A typical high-quality carbon fiber tripod from Gitzo will cost close to $1,000 (without a head). For the same amount of money, with Sirui you can get an equal or better tripod, a superb head, and still have enough left over to buy a great bottle of wine to celebrate! Most importantly, your pictures will not be impacted one bit.
Carbon Fiber vs Aluminum - All things being equal, a bigger and heavier tripod will normally be more stable. Carbon fiber is used in an attempt to alter that relationship and it is very lightweight but, contrary to some marketing, it is not imbued with magical properties! Carbon fiber is very good at absorbing vibration and it is lighter for a given size than aluminum but, in the real world, aluminum may be less prone to vibrate in the first place. In still conditions carbon fiber works well but in wind and water (we sometimes set up our tripods in streams) we prefer aluminum over carbon fiber. As far as we are concerned the only relevant difference between the two materials is weight. For an otherwise identical tripod, carbon fiber will typically cost twice as much as aluminum. Our solution is to use carbon fiber when we expect to carry the tripod a long way and weight will make a big difference. The rest of the time aluminum does the job more than adequately.
Tripod Heads - Most landscape photographers like ball heads better than pan-tilt models; we own both but usually prefer ball heads. Like a good tripod, the head needs to operate smoothly and support your camera/lens adequately. There are some exquisitely designed and machined tripod heads available; they are a joy to operate and the best ones are as smooth as silk. For a lot less money you can get a head that will move almost as smoothly (maybe not quite like silk) and still lock down solidly. If you are a connoisseur of fine design and manufacturing, there IS a difference in feel but that will not make a difference in your photos. Since you will be frequently adjusting a tripod head, it is worth getting one that operates in a way that makes sense, and feels good, to you. If you are constantly struggling with your tripod head you will find it difficult to focus on making photographs.
For landscape photography especially, tripods and heads are very important. Rather than trying to find one great tripod for everywhere, you might want a heavy (maybe aluminum) and very sturdy option plus a lighter, (maybe carbon fiber) but less sturdy, one. Neither needs to be "the best" quality but each needs to be adequate to do the job. This solution has worked very well for us.
When buying a tripod and head we suggest you look at the top-end models by Gitzo and Really Right Stuff, then compare them to high-quality competitors like Sirui and Induro which are considerably less costly. If the cachet of a top brand is important to you, go with the Gitzo or Really Right Stuff but realize you will not go wrong with any of these brands. Also, keep in mind that tripods and heads need not be from the same company.
Regardless of the tripod you are using, extend the legs as little as possible, extend the center-post only if you must, and add some weight to the center-post for stability. These basic techniques are free, and very effective, and they will actually make a difference in your photos.
Filters - For climbing shoots we place a protective UV filter (we use B&W and Lee filters) on our lenses since we can't always use lens caps when things are happening quickly. We rarely use any other filters for climbing shoots. For landscape shoots we only use filters when needed. We use step-up rings for all of our lenses so we can carry only 77mm filters (big enough for any of our lenses). We carry, and often use, a circular polarizer. For water we often use a 10-stop ND and/or a 2-stop ND. We rarely carry split-ND filters since shots that are stacked and blended in post-processing usually do a better job.
Remote Releases - We have wired releases for each of our cameras but iPhone apps make things much easier. On a tripod or a boom, these apps allow us to control focus, aperture, shutter and ISO, plus they provide live view when we want it. They can also download the photos from our cameras if we want. Cables can't do any of that.
Pano Heads - For landscape photography, these specialized tripod add-ons allow precise alignment of multiple photographs so they can can be efficiently "stitched" together in software, to create one high resolution composite image. A single horizontal row of images can be combined for a "panorama"; a single vertical row results in a "vertorama"; or several rows and columns can be stitched into a "mosaic". Pano heads make this process far easier than using any ordinary tripod head would. We have a large, full-featured head designed to handle the complex horizontal and vertical alignment required for mosaics as well as a simpler and lighter single row head that we carry to remote locations for panoramas and vertoramas. Stitching multiple photos into a single composite can result in spectacular, otherwise impossible, images but the need for an immoveable support and a static subject, not to mention the complexity of the process, limit its utility. Still, we usually have a pano head with us whenever we carry a tripod.
Odds and Ends - A reflector/diffuser can fill in shadows, a small flash can do the same and more. Assorted cleaning supplies such as a micro-fiber cloth, lens tissue, brush and blower, along with spare batteries and cards often find their way into our camera bags. Small screw drivers, allen wrenches and other repair items have a permanent spot in several of our bags. Sometimes we carry a grey card for metering, and/or a shoe-mounted bubble level for panoramas. Most of our bags have built-in rain covers and we often carry plastic bags as backups. We usually carry an LED flashlight or headlamp.
Photography Clothing & Footwear - We dress for whatever activity we are photographing. That might include very specific clothing and equipment for ice climbing or a pair of shorts and a t-shirt for a short summer hike to a waterfall. We usually carry extra layers for warmth, wind and rain/snow (typically fleece and waterproof breathable nylon). We often keep hip boots or chest waders in the car for shooting in streams and ponds. Because photography often demands considerable standing around we usually plan to dress more warmly than we would for active pursuits.
Computers, Software and Related Items
Computer - Digital photography requires a computer for storing, organizing, processing and printing photos. While it is possible to use a mobile device (smartphone, tablet, etc.) for these functions, a powerful computer will allow you to work far more efficiently. We have several Macs but we use a fully-loaded 27" iMac 5k with a second monitor, plus an iPad, or sometimes an iPhone, in the field to check photos and for remote work. The Mac works far better for us due to our thorough familiarity with it and because we use Apple's iCloud extensively to run our business and manage our lives. Whether you use a Mac or Windows machine, processing photos is greatly enhanced by a lot of RAM and a fast processor. We use Adobe Lightroom for the almost all of our photography needs, reserving Photoshop, the Nik Suite, Photo Ninja and other software for the rare times when Lightroom alone is not sufficient.
We have worked with Photoshop for twenty years and, although it can do almost anything a photographer might want (and a lot more), Lightroom is far more efficient and flexible at processing and, importantly, it offers far superior digital asset management, as well as printing, and other functions. We used Apple's Aperture for several years but Lightroom makes it obsolete. Although we rarely make sweeping suggestions, Lightroom's capabilities are so extensive, and it is so well designed for photographers, that almost every serious photographer uses it – and you should too. With Adobe's CC plan you get Lightroom and Photoshop for $10 per month. This is a great deal!
If you travel a lot you should consider a powerful laptop instead of (or in addition to) a desktop machine. However, the more devices you use, the more carefully you must plan your workflow. This is no small matter.
iPad (or other tablet) - These are great for checking photos in the field, storing photos for later transfer to a computer, and for photography apps. Tablets are also a great way to share photos without a computer. Smart phones do this too but their small size is a drawback in most cases.
Printer - Many photographers rarely, if ever, print their photos. If this is you, online printing services abound if you need them, and most offer good quality at fair prices. If you decide to do your own printing, be prepared to spend serious time, and money, if you want decent results. The learning curve is surprisingly long! In addition to a printer, you'll need a hardware monitor calibration device, an inventory of papers, and ink so you don't get stuck in the middle of printing. Once you have a nice print, you'll want a paper cutter and maybe a mat cutter, plus mats, frames and maybe a print viewing system. It is very easy to spend upwards of $5,000 on printing alone. The control you gain by doing your own printing does not come cheap.
That cheap little inkjet you got for next to nothing will never come close to what can be accomplished with with a real giclée printer. Even your dog will notice the difference! Plus, you'll be replacing ink, at inflated prices, every time you turn around. Hence the popularity of printing services.