Adventure Photography While Backpacking – Grand Canyon Style

Recently I wrote a post about bare bones photo outfits for adventure photography. Since I just completed another multi-day backpack adventure in the Grand Canyon, I thought I would expand upon backpacking photography gear and share some images from the trip.

THE HIKE was 5 days starting from Lipan Point, down the Tanner Trail, following the Escalante Route downriver to Hance Rapids, then up the Tonto/Grandview Trail to Grandview Point. There were three of us, myself, Lauri – my super tough wife, assistant, and ultimate companion – and long time good friend John from Seattle. This is a backcountry route on unmaintained and unmarked trails with steep and exposed sections. We had 2 very nice camps along the river and two nice dry camps on the Tonto platform.

self portrait of photography team at backpacking camp on the western Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon

self portrait at camp on the western Tonto Trail with signature scratched legs

 

BACKPACKING PHOTOGRAPHY is always the most challenging with respect to what gear to take without breaking your back but still having enough gear to produce professional results. I’ve made some reasonably good stock sales from prior Grand Canyon backpack trips so I always take professional gear with me. Lauri and I are moderate ultra-lighters with our regular backpack gear. This allows me to carry a capable camera load without killing my back so long as I train for the trip – which I did this time.

 

Man photographing sunset on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Photographing sunset on the South Rim, Grand Canyon

 

Man photographing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Michael DeYoung photographing on the South Rim, Grand Canyon

 

ULTRA LIGHT SUPPORT. I pack the lightest weight Gitzo carbon fiber tripod (1.6lbs) the Mountaineer 0. On top is a Really Right Stuff B-25 head (7oz.) with quick release lever. This is their smallest head and the best head I’ve ever used for lightweight applications. At a little over 2 lbs. the tripod and ball head easily rides on the side of my pack similar to where you would place tent poles carried externally. The tripod allowed me to capture some nice moonlit camp scenes and low light landscapes which you will see below. It easily held a pro body with wide angle zoom in moderate winds. The key is to use a remote release to eliminate any possible shutter shake.

Man backpacking on the Tanner Trail on the south rim of the Grand Canyon with Think Tank Digital holster pack

On the Tanner Trail with Think Tank Digital Holster pack on my chest

 

WHAT’S IN THE BAG? For camera gear, I limit myself to one body and lens. Being a Grand Canyon veteran, I find the best lens is the 17-40 on a full frame body. I was planning on taking the Canon 50D but at the last minute took my Canon 1Ds Mark III. The rest of my pack was not that heavy so I opted to carry the extra 1.5 lbs for the full frame, 21 mega-pixel body. In the end I’m glad I did. The canyon is a brutal environment and dealt out a potentially damaging dose of wind, dust, sand, and river spray. The 1D series are built like tanks with weather sealed buttons and the 1Ds, III scoffed at the elements. Lesser bodies may have failed. In addition to the body and lens, I took one strobe – a 580EXII with off camera cord, some gels, and a Honl 1/8 grid. Accessories included a polarizer and a Singh_Ray 3 stop hard step graduated ND filter, extra batteries, a remote release and four 8gb and 16gb compact flash cards.

Landscape scenic image of the Colorado River just above Tanner Rapids in the Grand Canyon

Scenic along the Colorado River just above Tanner Rapids

THE BAG ITSELF. The body and lens, flash, filters, compact flash cards in a tethered Think Tank card wallet, and lens cloth all fit in a Think Tank Digital Holster 50. I carried this bag on my chest, attached to the shoulder straps and hip belt with mini caribiners. In the photo it looks awkward and large but is actually quite comfortable and provides some welcome counterbalance with all the weight on my back. For day shooting, I could quickly pull out the camera and strobe for hiking shots. The small Think Tank Lightning Fast flash bag attached to the side of my pack held the lightweight accessories and batteries that I couldn’t fit in the chest holster bag. There are similar bags on the market designed to be used with backpacks such as the Clik adventure bags. From what I’ve seen they have a better designed system for attaching a chest holster to your backpack. And they offer other than black bags – much better for hot desert conditions. But I invested in the Think Tank before Clik adventure packs were on the market.

THE WHOLE KIT AND KABUDLE. My entire Grand Canyon backpacking photography ensemble was 7.5 lbs. If we weren’t seasoned backpackers and good at getting the rest of the load down to a reasonable weight, 7.5 lbs would seem cumbersome.

 

Image of a couple backpackers resting along Colorado River just above Tanner Rapids in the Grand Canyon

Backpackers Lauri and John resting in shade as rafts approach Tanner Rapids

 

CAN I GET THE WEIGHT DOWN EVEN MORE? If money were no object, I would opt for a Canon 5D, Mark II vs. the heavier 1Ds Mark III as the best Canon full frame pro body for backpacking. Then again if money were no object I would have hired a college student with a strong back in desperate need of cash to schlep my camera gear for me. Next trip. I wouldn’t even think of leaving a strobe and accessories behind even though that would shave another pound. There are so many situations where carefully crafted artificial light was useful for hiking and camping lifestyle photography. The strobe and the ability to shape and warm the light it produces makes or breaks the difference between amateur and professional results.

Mature woman prepares backpacker breakfast of oatmeal at backpacking camp along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

Lauri prepares backpacker breakfast of oatmeal and blueberries at backpacking camp along the Colorado River.

Mature male primes a backpacker stove at camp along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

John priming a MSR Whisperlite backpack stove at sunrise along the Colorado River

 

I could scrap the tripod but that would mean no night time or low light landscapes with lots of depth of field images. I’m not ready to make that sacrifice yet. As I look at the results from the trip, it makes all the back and joint pain of carrying my photo gear worthwhile.

 

Mature couple hiking along the Escalante Route above Cardenas Creek in the cooler, early evening hours Grand Canyon National Park

Lauri and John hiking in cooler evening hours along the Escalante Route, hiking above Cardenas Creek.

 

Moonlit tent and camp along the Escalante Route of the Grand Canyon above Unkar Rapids on the Colorado River

Moonlit camp above Unkar Rapids along the Escalante Route. Lauri is lighting the tent with the 580EX II with a green gel. The tent is an MSR Hubba Hubba without the rainfly for star/moon gazing

 

Close up portrait of woman hiking boots overlooking Colorado River along the Grand Canyon Escalante Route

close up of hiking boots along the Escalante Route

Woman backpacker writing in her journal at Hance Rapids on the Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Marie, another backpacker we met on the trail, writing in her journal in the morning sun at Hance Rapids.

Group of river rafters from Alaska scouting Hance Rapids along the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park

A group of rafters from Alaska, one of whom I knew from my Alaska days and involvement with the Knik Canoers and Kayakers, stopped to scout Hance Rapids.

River rafters run Hance Rapids on the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park

Rafters running Hance Rapids, entering on river left. With only a 40mm focal length, this is as close as I could get without swimming. This is one of the limitations of only having one lens, a wide angle zoom

Mature male backpacker descending steep rockslide to get around Popago Creek on the Escalante Route of the Grand Canyon

John descending a steep rockslide to get around Popago Creek just a half mile upstream from Hance Rapids

Mature male backpacker stargazing in his backpacking bivy sack above Hance Creek on the Tonto Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

John stargazing in his bivy sack at a very nice dry camp on the Tonto about a mile above Hance Creek. This type of shot is what makes hauling a tripod and remote trigger that lets me do long exposures worthwhile. This is a 4 minute exposure with the foreground lit with a LED headlamp. This was our last and fourth night on the trail.

3 Responses to “Adventure Photography While Backpacking – Grand Canyon Style”

  1. Robert M. Barker says:

    Very interesting and instructive choice of equipment. Thanks for sharing this information. I am particularly interested in the choice of lens, 17-40 mm. I would have been tempted to take a longer lens but can see from your photos that I would have been wise to resist the temptation. From your self-portrait, I cannot tell exactly what focal length the lens is; f2.8 or larger?

    • Robert,

      F2.8 does not represent a focal length but the maximum aperture. Where in the 17-40 range I shot the self portrait at I can’t remember and it doesn’t really matter. The 17-40 has a maximum aperture of F4. Canon makes a 16-35 wide angle zoom with a max aperture of 2.8. It is beautiful but heavier, bigger, and twice as expensive as the 17-40/F4. The difference in sharpness between the two is negligible until you go out to the corners of the images. The 16-35 is sharper there.

      For most flash work, such as this self portrait, my aperture was at 5.6. If you shoot at f8 or smaller in bright daylight like this shot, your speedlite won’t put out enough power to overcome the ambient unless it is very close (like 2 feet) from your subject.

  2. HikingMike says:

    Very neat post. I’m just a very amateur photographer but I can always learn something about it and also about backpacking from one who has to carry all that extra gear :) Very cool and creative shots by the way too. I will need to get to the Grand Canyon someday.

    “Then again if money were no object I would have hired a college student with a strong back in desperate need of cash to schlep my camera gear for me.”

    Aww where’s the fun in that? :)

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