Sadly, there aren’t any tack-sharp 24in x36in prints or exquisite 4k HDR footage from the first ascent Annapurna in 1950. Excellent photographic imaging of that caliber was, in fact, possible at the time; many of Ansel Adams famous landscapes were made on large format equipment that predated the 1950 Annapurna expedition, and even today make beautifully toned and sharp large format prints. However, neither climbing nor photographic equipment had reached an intersection of quality and portability to make the synthesis of such feats feasible at that time.
It still is not possible, as an individual, to simultaneously be on the cutting edge of alpine climbing AND the cutting edge of photographic imaging, but we are closer than ever, and we’ve seen some boundary-pushing content come from leading outdoor-artists in the last 10 years.
I too have wrestled with the desire to push both my mountaineering and photography limits at the same time, and have found some packing and prepping strategies that work for me. I’ll share a few of those here in this post.
Understanding what your trip entails is the most important thing you can do to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.
It’s tempting, and much more fun to dive right into gear, but without knowing exactly what your adventure will require of you, and what you want to get out of your adventure, you can’t make an educated plan for gear in the first place.
The plan should start with a well defined objective: Is the trip specifically for photography, or is it a hiking/climbing objective that you want to document? This is perhaps the most important distinction to make in order to make the hard cuts in equipment later on in the planning process. For most people the #1 non-negotiable is coming back alive and uninjured. The secondary must-have, however, will drive priorities later on, for example if completing a multi-day traverse is the must-have, then I may choose a warmer sleep system or more food instead of another lens or filter kit.
Once I have settled on the purpose of the trip, I start to assess the terrain and weather. I use a combination of mapping tools like CalTopo and Microsoft excel to get a good estimate of how hard the route will be, and how many calories it will burn.
Now that I’ve got a good idea of the demands of the trip, I have some context to begin deciding on my plans to achieve my goal.
For a trip where the focus is on an activity objective, such as attaining a summit, then I’m ready to simply develop a rough shot list. If the trip is specifically for a photography goal, then I have a little more planning to do.
Planning for light is typically the most important thing for outdoor/landscape shots. For this, I have found The Photographers Ephemeris app very useful. I’ll use a photo outing from Korea to show how I use this app for photo planning.
On this day I knew I wanted 2 different shots in two different locations. The first was a shot of the sun coming across the Darengi Village terraced rice paddies. The second was of the Boseong Tea fields. A quick look at the relationship of the sun and the terrain let me know that Darengi Village only got sun from the down-slope side of the terraces in the morning, so I knew it was going to have to be the first morning stop. I also could see that the sun cleared the eastern mountains around 7:45am, so I needed to start driving at 4am to be in place on time. Looking at the roads and terrain, I could find a good location on the west side of the village that put the sun and terraces at the right angle to get the shot.
Now that I had my first stop planned, I could look at Boseong Tea Fields. Golden hour started at 6:38pm (left), but it also is in a bowl terrain feature, so to be sure I didn’t miss the shot there is more to check than just the time. The image on the right shows another great feature of the app, which is the ability to check declination. Placing a pin on the ridge-line between the sun and me, I could see that the sun will actually get cut by the terrain at 5:47pm. If I had shown up at 6:30, I would have been sorely disappointed to see that there was no light on the tea fields anymore. Sure enough, The photo above was taken at 5:45 and 29 seconds, right when the sun hit the trees (the app doesn’t account for foliage height unless you manually enter it in).
Now that I know what the trip will require of me, and what my timeline and positioning will need to be for my shots, I can start planning my packing list. I have an excel tool that is integrated with my excel route planner, enabling me to use drop down menus to select items by category.
At the bottom of this page I have a tool that uses a handful of calculations from US Department of Defense studies on the impacts of weight on energy requirements, that I combined with calculations for lactate threshold and fat/sugar ratios. This table uses my packing list weight, my personalized metabolic calculations, and the route-difficulty data to give me a rough idea of whether or not I have “over-packed”.
At this point I can make adjustments as needed to give myself the buffer I need to make the trip a success.
Lastly, for winter travel there is one more thing that needs to get checked before I commit to the trip; avalanche hazards. The first stop is always the local avalanche report, but I also need to check the slope angles along my route. CalTopo has a useful layer for looking at this, and in a nutshell, lots of red-orange-yellow on or above my route tells me that I need to carefully consider alternative routes and the snow/avalanche conditions before I go. Purple is usually so steep that avalanches are unlikely, however that introduces other hazards like rockfall and icefall.
This more or less wraps up the planning phase!
Having the right gear for your objectives can make the difference between frustration and success.
I won’t get into detailed equipment reviews in this article, but rather give a general framework for how I pack. In addition to basic outdoor essentials like a map, compass, InReach, etc, I think through my packing in 5 categories. Eat, Sleep, Wear, Carry, Shoot. I could go on for a long time about outdoor gear, but I’m going to glaze over that here and keep the focus more on the ‘shoot’ aspect of packing and preparation.
Eat: Always first up is eating, why? If you don’t have the fuel you wont make it to the objective, or if you do, chances are your creative thinking isn’t going to be at 100% for shooting. I’ll push it on a 1-night or less trip, bringing no-cook snacks and electrolytes and rely on my intramuscular fat stores to get back home to binge eat the next day haha. For more than 1 night, I have to start thinking about bringing the stove, freeze dried meals, water procurement, etc. There isn’t a ‘right’ way to stay fueled and hydrated, but just make sure your calorie deficit is reasonable. Jelly Belly sport beans are a staple of all my trips…who can say no to jelly beans that taste good AND have electrolytes lol.
Sleep: I look at this as a sliding scale from survival-to-comfortable. On the survival end of the scale, I’ll rely on my worn clothing, maybe not even bring a bag, and go with no shelter. My trip to The Enchantments, WA was this type of trip. I knew I was going for astro-photography so I brought nothing and just curled up on a rock and shivered for a couple hours between astro and sunrise shooting. On the other end of the spectrum, I went for a few nights out to Seoraksan National Park, Korea in wintertime. Temps got down to -40 (C/F doesn’t even matter at this point) windchill. I was glad I had a 4-season tent and -20 degree expedition sleeping bag with double sleeping pads.
Wear: This category falls squarely along the same thought process as sleep.
Carry: When it comes to what I am carrying and what I carry it in, the big question is whether or not I’ll be doing technical climbing. If I’m going to undergo technical climbing, I will use an activity-focused pack, prioritize the safety gear, and make the camera gear work as best I can. If there is no technical climbing I prefer to use camera-focused carrying systems.
Shoot: Below is my full shooting equipment load out. (minus my 85mm prime that is out for repair)
The basic breakdown:
- 14-24mm f2.8
- 35mm f1.2
- 85mm f2.4 (not pictured)
- 135mm f1.8
- Filters (ND, GND, Polarizer)
- Cleaning supplies
- Power pack and cable
- Camera, battery grip, L-Bracket and Strap.
I may add a flash or two if the goal is outdoor portraiture, but that is rare. This kit is fairly heavy, but the Atlas Adventure pack (pictued) carries it very well. Do I need the camera grip and full size L-Bracket? No, but it makes shooting more comfortable and I feel more creative with the ease of switching to portrait mode. Do I need a massive 35mm f1.2…maybe, it is great for astro-photography and hand-held low light shots. No general purpose zoom? Nope, if I am taking my full kit, it is because photography is the primary goal, and even though my general zoom is great, I prefer the creative options of my primes (faster, wider or longer).
My ‘minimalist kit’, which goes into an activity-focused backpack is below:
Here I go with just the camera, small L-Bracket, 14-24mm f2.8, and in this case I’ll bring the general purpose 24-70mm f2.8 zoom. The tripod will still probably come. In very extreme circumstances where the route/objective itself is very demanding (like doing the Ptarmigan Traverse in whole, or multi-pitch alpine climbing) I bring the camera and one lens only.
One thing about being outdoors is that the less you need to mess around with gear, the less chances of getting things wet, dirty, or lost. This is why I use the battery pack instead of extra batteries, no need to open the battery compartment or keep track of a bunch of batteries. Another tip is buy the biggest/fastest memory cards you can. I keep 2 x 256GB SD cards loaded, this way I can go a whole trip and never open the compartment or change cards = less chance of damaging or losing them. Of course, having the gear is great but it needs to be ready for the trip:
- Batteries and Battery Pack Charged
- Lenses cleaned
- Sensor cleaned
- Memory cards cleared
That is about it! If you are interested in more information on how my excel datasheets work let me know!