Hiking with Photography Gear: The Case of the Camino de Santiago

I received a wonderful correspondence from a photographer in Australia recently, who was planning on hiking the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain this year and who is an avid photographer.  Going on a 500-mile backpacking adventure and being an avid photographer are two things that sometimes clash.  The more you are into photography, the more equipment you often want to bring.  I had the same problem in 2010 when I wanted to shoot my first video on the Canon 5D Mark II and knew I had to have a video head for my tripod and other equipment (a storage system for large video files, an extra lens or two, my Singh-Ray filters).  The dilemma faces many of us at given times.  I will repost a portion of his questions and then attempt to not give one answer, but some philosophies for approaching the packing list.  

Bruce from Australia: "I hope you can advise me on a trip I am planning with my partner, covering the full length of the Camino on foot over 4-6 weeks. It is a special journey for both of us as we are at the stage of retirement from our jobs and starting a new life together. I noticed you took a huge amount of gear.  I am trying to keep mine to a manageable level (as far as weight is concerned) but still get decent shots that I can print to about 24" x 16."  So I don't want to take a heavy load like you obviously did, but likewise, I don't think I could stand [poor] results in image quality.  I am not a professional, but an enthusiastic amateur. I generally shoot RAW and prefer to be able to manually control the exposure if necessary (I shoot manual exposure about 50% of the time)."

Bruce has some interesting problems because he knows enough to know what he wants, 16" x 24" prints, control of the scene both in camera and in post-processing, and high image quality.  He says he is not a professional, but it sounds like he wants professional results and knows how to get them.  I would consider him an advanced amateur in profession, but a professional in terms of actually taking pictures.  This photographer happens to own a healthy amount of Nikon equipment:  full frame and smaller cameras, professional and prosumer lenses, high quality flashes, and accessories, including multiple tripods.  I came with three philosophies to approach the problem:  "What should Bruce take on his backpack on a 500 mile hike?"

BITE THE BULLET PHILOSOPHY

This philosophy entails bringing all of the gear you have because even for that one shot that you would like even the most obscure piece of equipment.  This does have its advantages, photographically, but it definitely has its downsides.  For example, on the first night of the Camino in Roncesvalles (Ronceveaux), the old monastery-appearing building has very nice bookshelf downstairs that is filled with large tomes of great literary works that many pilgrims had probably committed themselves to read.  And there they were.  After a long first day of walking uphill from the starting point of St. Jean Pied-du-Port, most people suddenly realized that this was going to be a long and sometimes very difficult hike.  The last thing you want is to feel like dropping a long lens off just to save your back.

In my own "Bite the Bullet" Philosophy on the Camino, I decided that I wouldn't take a sleeping bag or a pad.  Did I regret it?  Once or twice, but not often.  In the summer months, it doesn't get too cold and many of the albergues offer you blankets anyway.  For me, I wanted to have my Canon 70-200 mm and my tripod with a movie head.  So I made the choice that perhaps a sleeping bag wasn't as necessary.  When you "Bite the Bullet" and decide that your photography gear takes precedence, you will make other small sacrifices that allow you to have your priorities.

SPARE ME THE DETAILS PHILOSOPHY

This philosophy is reminiscent of the "art" photographers of the twentieth century, porting perhaps a pair of 35 mm Leicas and a lot of light film canisters.  Unfortunately, most Leica digital cameras are too pricey (except for the V-Lux) for most photographers, but they would be a nice option for size and weight.  You get excellent quality in a rather compact size…but again, the price!  If you want to "spare the details" and are carrying DSLR's such as our Australian friend, then think about perhaps one body.  What is the one camera body that will bring you the best results when walking 500 miles?  Probably a full frame, and in his lineup, the D700 fits that bill nicely.  Paired with a Nikon 17-35 mm f/2.8 and his Nikon 28-105 mm or Nikon 28-300 mm, he's got a very nice set of glass to cover a wide variety of needs.  Two lenses and a full frame sensor.  Sounds like a backpacker's dream.

In the "Spare Me the Details" Philosophy, one might ask:  "But shouldn't you consider taking another camera body, just in case."  Possibly, but we could also take backup lenses "just in case" one dropped into the river, just as Martin Sheen's bag did as he walked the Camino de Santiago on the movie "The Way."  I suppose we could back up everything; it just depends again on how much weight we want compared to the possibility of needing the backup.  If this Aussie pilgrim decides he needs to back up his D700 and he is sparing the details, I would suggest he take along his Canon G12 or his Nikon 1.  These make great images (albeit smaller without all of the quality of the D700) and can certainly record the trip with no problem (heck, he can even still handhold his Singh-Ray filters in front of them!).  To have a perfectly functioning D700 suddenly go down is fairly rare, so long as he treats it nicely and keeps it safe at night.

THE GOLDILOCKS PHILOSOPHY

To get your pack "just right" in order to have a great photographic trip and not be required to have immediate back surgery when return from Spain, you use the philosophy: "What can't I live without?"  You may look through your gear and say, "I don't function well without my Singh-Ray filters in the landscape, so I need to take a few of those.  I usually use my 3-stop Soft Step Graduated Neutral Density filter and my 4-stop Reverse Graduated Neutral Density filter.  I suppose I could leave my other five Singh-Rays home."  Now that's good compromise for you.  "I use my Nikon SB700 on about 75% of my indoor images. I suppose I could leave my SB600 home, even though it weighs 50 grams less."  One problem is selecting a tripod.  Lighter tripods are certainly lighter, but that comes with a cost.  Heavier tripods (or at least more expensive carbon fiber tripods) can be bulkier.  I chose a Gitzo Basalt tripod with a Manfrotto Video head.  Note that I intentionally gave up shooting vertically with a tripod in order to have the video capability in the tripod head.  It was "just right" for me, as I was determined to shoot a lot of video.  When I needed to shoot vertically, I would handhold the camera, making sure that the shutter speed was not dropping below 1/80th of a second or so.  Anything slower for me can become a bit shaky.  And what happened if I did drop below that speed?  I would start inching up my ISO, making the sensor more sensitive to the light, and the shutter speed increase.  Of course, I could only push this so far without introducing a lot of noise, the result of increasing the ISO too far.  Fortunately, the better DSLRs are becoming better and better at producing images at high ISOs without too much noise.

COMBINING USES AND SAVING WEIGHT

While we would all like to have loads of equipment, if you are solo and shooting stills and/or video, a full production crew might not be possible.  I made a decision to hike the Camino with only a video head and a single tripod, shooting stills and video with this setup.  I gave up solid vertical shots because I wanted the fluid head more.  I slimed down the lenses to a Canon 24 mm Tilt-Shift II (used heavily in these images), a Canon 17-40 mm, and a Canon 70-200 mm IS.  I used an Epson P7000 as I didn't feel like carrying a laptop across the width of Spain, and I had plenty of Sandisk 16 Gig and 32 Gig cards.  I carried a single 5D Mark II body.  I should have also had a backup 7D or something like a FujiFilm X100, but with one change of clothes, some toiletries, a jacket, and some minimal medical supplies (moleskin, tape, etc), I had more weight than most hikers.  Combine uses for gear.  Get creative.  Leave home what you can do without.

MY PERSONAL GEAR LIST

Canon 5D Mark II; Canon 24 mm Tilt-Shift II; Canon 17-40 mm; Canon 70-200 mm IS; Gitzo Basalt Tripod; Manfrotto 501 Video Head; Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer (77 mm); Circular-Polarizer (72 mm); Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density Filters (approximately three); Sandisk 8-Gig, 16-Gig, 32-Gig cards; F-Stop Satori Backpack; two Canon batteries; Epson P7000; power converter; lens and sensor cleaning supplies; Canon battery recharger; one change of clothes; rain jacket; toiletries; medical supplies; water bottles; snacks; one bottle of olive oil (you can cook in most albergues, and we didn't want to keeping buying olive oil). Whatever you decide to carry, enjoy the journey and have fun!

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