Photo Equipment I used On the John Muir Trail, 2016
As I said in the previous post, one of my objectives while hiking the John Muir Trail was to keep my pack weight as low as possible and still be comfortable on the trail. Though I knew I would never reach ultralight backpacker status, with base weights of 12-14 lbs. I did read and follow a lot of the advice that I gleaned from these sites. Ultimately, my base pack weight- which is everything you will carry, including your pack, but excluding food and water- was 18 lbs. Anything under 20 lbs is considered in the ultralight category. The heaviest my pack weighed on the trail was 37 lbs. This was after the Muir Trail Ranch resupply where I was carrying seven days of food.
My Photo Gear-
One of the main reasons I was drawn to hiking the John Muir Trail was because of its exquisite scenery. Every photo I saw was breathtaking. So, I struggled most of the winter with my camera decision. I own a Nikon D810 and D7000. I knew I would not be taking the full frame D810 because of its weight. I toyed around with the idea of carrying the D7000 with the 18-200mm kit lens. I love this camera for traveling. It is light enough that I can carry it all day with no problems. However, this did not include the weight of a 27 lb backpack. The D7000 and lens kit combo weighs around 4 lbs. This did not include extra batteries, chargers or a small tripod. This seemed to be getting way too heavy or at least heavier than I wanted to carry!
Taking My Sony Rx100 On the Trip-
During the winter, I researched several mirrorless cameras, but they cost a minimum of $1500.00 just for a camera body and then another $1100 plus for one camera lens. Since I already own a full complement of DSLR camera lens, I was very hesitant to spend that kind of money for a whole new set-up. As a photographer, I was really struggling with finding the right balance between weight and quality. To that end I called B & H photo/video in New York. I told the customer service person my dilemma, and without hesitation, he recommended the Sony Rx100.
This was great news for me, as I already owned the Sony Rx100 (20 megapixel) as my point and shoot camera. I, also, use this camera as my underwater camera in a housing with strobe. I had taken a photo of sea turtles that I had blown up to 24″x 30,” which looked great. So, I was reassured and knew this camera would work great for daytime shots.
Filter Attachments For the Sony Rx100-
One of the primary attachments that any camera lens needs is a polarizing filter, for skies and to cut down on glare. To this end, I found this slick, magnetic attachment for point and shoot cameras made by Carry Speed called the Mag Filter. The filter, literally, snaps to the front ring of any point and shoot. The threaded adapter takes a 49mm filter, so I purchased a 49mm polarizing filter and a 49mm neutral density filter. I did use this adapter with polarizer a lot on the trail, to deepen the blue skies. I thought because of all the water on the trail, I might use the ND filter to slow down the shutter speed, but in reality, I never did. This is a great and simple little adapter for your camera. I thought it worked great.
Attaching and Carrying the Sony Rx100-
Hands down, with a point and shoot or a larger DSLR, the best way to carry a camera, either for day hiking or backpacking is the Peak Design “Capture” Clip. They make a pro version, but I have been extremely satisfied with the Capture clip, and have used it for years. I can not think of a lighter, more easily accessible way to access your camera. The only precaution you might want to take is to check the screws every now and then to make sure they are secure. The clip easily fit my backpack waist belt, but they do make an attachment for wider, thicker belts. Hands down, I think this is the way to go.
My Concerns About the Sony Rx100 for Night Photography-
Despite being comfortable with the Sony Rx 100 day time capabilities, I was concerned how it would hold up for night time photos. The JMT is considered a “Dark Sky” area, meaning there is no light pollution on the trail, especially up in the High Sierras. I love night photography and was concerned I would not be able to shoot at night with this camera setup.
As you can see from the photo above and below, I was able to get several beautiful night shots. I did this by setting up a small gorilla pod with the camera attached. I put the camera in 2 second self timer mode to avoid camera shake and then took a photo at sunset. I then turned off the camera, left it in place and came back for the star shots. I draped a handkerchief over the camera, so as not to have the front of the camera lens fog, if there was any dew. The two images were then blended in Photoshop. The ISO for the sky part of the image was ISO 1600. There was noise in the sky, but was easily handle with noise reduction software. Of course, I would not know the full success of the images until I got home!
Why I Would Not Take a DSLR on the JMT-
I saw a number of through hikers carrying full DSLR’s. What I discovered is that the majority of your shots are taken in the daytime, which any high end point and shoot can handle. You are hiking miles and miles everyday, so most of your images are taken “on the run”, so to speak. You, literally, are taking moments to compose your shot and check your histogram. The JMT is beautiful and there is no end to the day shots you can take. I did compose a few night shots, if we got into camp at a reasonable hour and I had time to compose a shot. However, there were many nights, that I was too tired or it was too cold to stay out for those night shots. We had many temperatures in the high 20’s and low 30’s. Plus, don’t forget, you will still have another full day of hiking again the next day and the next.
The Absolute Best Scenario For Shooting the JMT-
After having hiked through so many beautiful areas along the JMT, what I truly wished was that I could come back and explore and stay in certain areas for several days. Like a true photographer and not a hiker/photographer, I would have loved to have taken more night shots, with my high end DSLR. The stars are so vibrant and clear in these dark skies at these high altitudes. If you live out west and have the time, that would be my recommendation for exploring this amazing area.
However, for the rest of us, if you are concerned about your pack weight at all, leave the heavy DSLR at home and go with a high end point and shoot and, if you have one, your phone camera. Your body will thank you for this.
I have an Iphone 6, which I kept in my pants pocket as we hiked. I put the phone in Airplane mode, where it used only a percent or two of battery life daily. There is no reason to have the cell service turned on as there really is no service on the trail, per se.
Sometimes for those really quick shots, or the ones you think might be snapshot moments, the Iphone worked great. The photo at left was taken with my Iphone. Taking photos with your phone also gives you a quick way to post images to social media, when you get to WIFI.
My phone also served as my Kindle, where I had loaded the JMT guide book, as well, as my personal reading material. I also loaded music and podcast. I have never been one to exercise to music while hiking. I prefer just listening to my breathing or the birds sings. But I have to tell you, up and over those long passes day after day, which could take a couple of hours, I found putting in my earbuds and listening to music to be a great diversion. I also loaded the Gaia GPS app on my phone, which we did use a couple of times on trail. For example, on the really long day over Muir Pass, we used the app to find out how far to the nearest campsite. Most of the time, finding a campsite on the JMT is not a problem at all. However, they were really sparse coming off Muir Pass, and the Gaia app reassured us as to how much further we needed to hike. We were tired.
Also, for my phone I carried the Techno macro and 0.45x super wide angle adapter and clip. It was only $19.99. I love this adapter and will use it on my phone, but, honestly, I only used it only once or twice on the trail. As I said, you are hiking and trying to cover miles, so any setup, no matter how small, takes time. If you are hiking solo, this may not be as much of a consideration, but if you have a hiking partner that is not a photographer, trust me, quickness is an asset.
And of course, we used it as our primary phone. To keep the phone charged, I used the Anker 13000 mAh portable charger. This thing was heavy- 11 oz’s- but I could use my phone as much as I wanted without any worries On our longest 11 day section, I needed to charge my phone three times and still had plenty of charge left in the Anker. As a side note, at the Muir Trail Ranch resupply, they have a power cord available. If you can grab a space, as it is usually full, this is a great way to get a least an hour’s charge on your phone.
I did take a selfie setup for my phone, but found that I only used it once or twice. I guess I am not a selfie kind of person. My hiking poles were the Manfrotto “Off Road,” which offers a camera screw mount atop one of the pole handles. These poles were too thick for the Stickpic, which many hikers used, so I devised a different set-up. I already owned Giotto MH 1004 mini ball head, which has an excellent swivel ball head. To the ball head, I attached a Vastar Universal Cell Mount, which being spring loaded, provided a very secure mount. Though, I did not use it on the trail much, it was a great, light weight setup, nonetheless.
So, in summary, I was quite happy with this setup. In the future, I might not take the wide angle/macro attachments for the Iphone and though I didn’t really use the Selfie setup, I would probably include it, just for those in case moments. I love the Peak Design Capture. I don’t think you can get lighter or more accessible than this. The Carry Speed Mag Filter is an ingenious setup and easy to use. Earbuds for my phone proved to be a great balm for my soul.
I know for many photographers it will be hard to leave the heavier gear at home, but do think seriously about it. Less weight lets you enjoy each day more, and on the JMT there is plenty of beauty to absorb and photograph.