Gear For Trecking Photography
On the Latest Fashion Trends in Landscape Photography
By Bernard Languillier
There are as many types of photography as there are photographers. These specialties differ in terms of subject, style, shooting locations, environmental characteristics,… but also in terms of the equipment required to maximize performance.
I hear that cameras and lenses are important, some would even claim that the brand of your memory card matters. A lot has been written about tripods and heads as well. I find my cable release to be an essential element of my kit also.
Now how about that other gear that enables us to reach the great locale from where we will be shooting the next cover page of National Geographic or Vogue?
I do what I call trekking photography, that differs significantly from climbing photography or hiking photography. The gear I need differs a bit from the posh hairstyle and old jeans that appear to be key aspects of fashion photography.
So as someone who likes gear, loves the cold but hate discomfort, can carry a lot but doesn’t want to bring back home un-used equipment, what have I chosen to pack? How close have I chosen to be from the bleeding edge of new developments in outdoor technology?
An obvious disclaimer before I start. I have no relationship with any of the brands mentioned below, my selection of gear is always based on some form of analysis of the other available options, but I do not have the desire, time or ability to test all the gear available in Tokyo, and there are certainly excellent brands that are not well distributed around here. Please don’t read this article as a “mine is better than yours” thing, but more as “that piece of gear works for him”. I wouldn’t want to trigger a flame war between the customers of Patagonia vs. those of Millet. There are excellent alternatives in absolute performance and there is personal like/dislike playing a huge role too. I have also mostly not tried the latest version of those equipments where I found some issues, they might have been improved.
A senior university professor of mines treated us with a moving speech during the last of his introductory classes on civil engineering for idiots (aka mechanical engineers). He summarized his lifelong learning as one simple statement about all living things being driven by sinusoidal cycles in which ups and downs alternate endlessly. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that trends in various domains follow our human aspirations. Some trends in the outdoor industry worth knowing about might be ultra-light vs. robust and streamlined vs. feature packed. Apple has influenced all of us towards cleanliness in design, itself building on strong Japanese influences pertaining to the Zen tradition. This applies to outdoor gear as well.
Clean design is tough to do well because it involves choices about what to keep and what to throw away. Something photographers should be comfortable with. When software is involved it is fairly easy to deal with some of the limitations of physical streamlining with software capabilities. As of now outdoor equipments are 100% hardware and going streamlined sometimes means going for specific equipment meant for a pretty narrow usage pattern. The opposite can be said for some items where the absence of specific features makes a piece of equipment more generic and therefore usable in a wider set of situations.
Light is good, ultra-light is better. That one is powerful and still has many strong years ahead. Who wouldn’t want to be light? When our own abdominal belt has a few extra grams it is all the more tempting to gain these back with a lighter pack or that ultra-thin shell that still keeps its bombproof looks. The increasing popularity of trail running outside its initial hard core circle has further reinforced the trend. There is nothing wrong with light, but too light can be bad. Ultra light packs have a reduced ability to carry important loads, ultra light sleeping bags have significantly reduced insulation properties and I could go on forever. Overall manufacturers are now trying to strike a more realistic balance between weight and performance than they were a few years ago as they realize that most buyers end up not willing to deal with extreme no compromise approaches. In the end we just need to figure out our own needs well. The good news is that we have at our disposal an amazing amount of options and that many of these are plain great!
Carved Tsurugi (shot with an experimental morphing lens
whose front element matches the shape of the scene automatically)
A word of caution before jumping into geeky gear discussions. It should be clear that the best gear will not enable you to enjoy the outdoors much without a solid foundation of core skills in terms of orientation, safety, walking, etc… and good fitness combined with a realistic assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses. I would advice careful planning and group walking as being the most reasonable options to start. Hurting yourself is poor style and cannot be tolerated for aesthetically sensitive photographers.
Finally, this article should NOT be seen as a check list of the full set of equipment needed in the wild. I will not speak about ice axes, insect repellants, toilet paper, first aid kits, sun cream, condoms and grand pianos although all of these are vital items in many circumstances.
Winter trekking is wonderful, but it can also be exhausting and dangerous. A frustrating season for nudists. Weight is even more a problem than during the summer months because you need to carry more while being aware that gear failing or under-performing can be anything from just annoying to life threatening.
In a nutshell, most problems in the winter arise from the relationship between cold and water, be it sweat, condensation, drinking water, falling snow, slippery ice. Condensation in your tent can damp your sleeping bag to the point of it loosing most of its insulation properties, walking on a steep windy ridge with a Gore hard shell that doesn’t breath enough will result in heavy sweating leading to hypothermia the moment you stop walking, snow accumulations under non plated crampons is known to have caused several fatal falls,… examples abound, gear does make a huge difference even when proper usage is assumed.
How to carry a camera and real world trekking equipment away from the road? None of the dedicated camera packs I know offer the load capability required by serious walkers (assuming that you are a serious person), this being even more problematic in winter where my pack often weights between 20 and 25kgs. I have been using various packs from Ospreypacks (http://www.ospreypacks.com/) mostly thanks to their excellent mix of belt comfort, light weight, ability to attach easily various winter toys and overall sound design. My winter overnight camping pack is a 4 years old Aether 60 weighting around 2kgs. On day trips in the snow country I like their 2010 Kode 38 although I find some of their slings to be a little bit too short for my usage. I typically pack my photo equipment inside these packs inside individual pouches offering scratch as well as some shock protection. This has worked great for me, but I am clearly not a quick snapper needing immediate access to camera equipment. I advise a bag belt carry case if you shoot with this type (http://www.petergowland.com/camera/testimonial.htm) of cameras.
Commenting in general terms about shoes is one tricky business. I have trusted my winter walking for many years to a pair of high performance 6 years old Raichle Swiss shoes that I had been lucky enough to acquire at unbeatable price (Raichle has been acquired by Mammut in the meantime). Reasonably light, robust and very comfortable I mostly love these shoes. A small drawback they have is their tendency to freeze solid when temperatures drop below -15C. Transpiration appears to remain stuck in some layers below the outer carbon layer which makes the shoe very stiff when the cold comes in. It can be frustrated to have to fight 15 mins with your shoes when coming out of your tent in the morning, it also doesn’t help with sunrise photography. This image almost caused me frostbite cos’ I had to shoot it in -20C using… tent down socks as my shoes just wouldn’t let my feet in...
Corner stone (Shot with an iPhone 5G prototype fitted with a Dalsa
large format sensor glued on a centrifugal panoramic head)
This combined with aging, and an easily forgivable interest for new things, helped me look for a new solution. Making a long story short I have finally settled for a pair of ultra light Aku Spider GTX with mixed results so far.
The shoes are indeed very light, easy to operate and well designed, but I have experienced blisters a bit more than I was expecting. So great potential but no 5 stars yet at this point in time. Keeping you posted.
Although brands might overall be a bit superior performance wise, I find these 2 brands to deliver the goods for a reasonable amount of money (read “you will be able to buy more lenses”).
I might be late to the party, but 2009 has been the year of the soft shell transition for me. Better late than never I guess but I am less and less of an early adopter. Although they are a lot more specific than generic Gore hard shells, well designed soft shells like my Mountain Hardwear Synchro Ski Jacket and pants provide both more warmth, more breathability and just as much windproofness compared to hard shells. They are IMHO the best compromise today for subzero winter activities in all but the wettest conditions. I have used the MH during long snowshoe outings in snowy and cold weather, very cold and windy ski resort days and recently mild spring crampons climbs with strong wind and snow turning into rain. Although the latter was a bit of a stretch because of the limited water proofness of soft shells, I am overall super happy about my soft and intend to keep using it as my main full winter outer layer, often with only a mid weight base layer underneath. Although Goretex’s high quality fabrics are dominating the hard shell market, I have found other options to be excellent as well in the soft shells world like the Conduit soft shell fabric used by Mountain Hardwear.
Where does that leave full specs Gore hard(core)shells? Well as of now mostly at home in the closet as far as I am concerned. When I need the additional confidence brought along by full water proofness, I tend to pack a super light summer Stormcruiser gore shell from Montbell (http://en.montbell.jp/products/goods/list.php?category=1000). Do I need additional warmth during peak winter months? I’ll typically pick my trusted Gore windstopper equipped Permafrost Montbell down jacket. All in all I fail to see how my excellent Mountain Hardwear hard shell could still be a core component of any of my usual outings.
Tateyama Grand (Image recomposited from hacked Russian
spy satellite time variational images using a double Fourier transform)
The base layers I use are a mix of Patagonia’s Capelene and of Melino wool items from Icebreaker and Smartwhool, the former being a bit better but a bit pricier as well. Some of their technical GT series shirts use a mix of wool and synthetic materials offering a good compromise between odor retention, ability to dry quickly and overall comfort. Size really matters for both options, and it is overall a good idea to buy one size down for these base layers to make sure to have a tight fit. Although I am 1.87m tall I typically buy M size base layers as opposed to L size outer shells.
Socks have been Smartwool all the way for many years. The zero smell motto isn’t totally true on long summer hikes but they remain excellent babies nonetheless.
Having spoken about the feet, I owe my hands to say a word about gloves. I have tried many different options and have finally converged on a multi-layer solution with Outdoor Research fleece gloves on the inside and Black Diamond Gore-Tex gloves on the outside. Speaking of the latter, my BD Samurais have performed well in cold environments but have shown less than perfect waterproofness in wet spring conditions.
A good hat is essential in winter, especially when camping. A lot of heat is dissipated from the head of smart people and such IP has to be well protected. There are so many options out there that it is difficult to come up with a clear recommendation. I tend to favor thick wool hats with a fleece liner protecting the ears when I camp since they provide a bit of cushion that can compensate somewhat for some harder grounds. Light windstopper hats can be a better option when walking windy places since they provide more breathability. As a complement, fleece jackets with a hood like those manufactured by Hagloffs can help as they provide well deserved insulation to the neck, a typical weak spot of winter campers.
Tent and Other Nightly Thingies
I have used a light 3-4 people Gore-Tex tent from a Japanese equipment manufacturer called Pain. Weighting just 2.1 kg it does pack very compact and has remained totally waterproof after a few years of usage. It can be assembled in less than one minute and is easy enough that however exhausted you are you will never have problems figuring out what to do. I still use that tent from time to time when weight is the absolute #1 priority.
This tent, even when used with its optional fly sheet (0.5 kg) has a huge problem though. Condensation. This is especially problematic in cold weather like the one often found in the Japanese Alps between November and April where temperature at night above 2500m is always colder than -10c with many nights around -20c. It is also a bit light structure wise to take heavy snow falls and often requires coming out of the tent 3 or 4 times a night to remove snow and prevent potential collapse.
Instead of single wall light Gore-Tex tents, winter campers typically use double walls tents whose inner part isn’t waterproof so as to reduce condensation by enabling vapor to exit while maintaining a temperature gradient between the two walls. Having known this for many years I had been looking for the perfect blend between weight, ruggedness and function.
My new Hillberg Allak appears to be fitting the bill just fine. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Swedes know about winter camping. I have only had one opportunity to use it in mild winter conditions this season but it performed very well. It is pretty roomy for 2 large trekkers and their winter gear, only showed minor condensation inside the tent after a totally windless night well below zero C, is super easy to set up and take down even in the rain. It does also offer great usability thanks to its 2 opposite openings on the long side of the tent giving access to large vestibules whose size is defined by a third pole providing also great stability. All in all it feels like a tent that has gone through many design iterations and will last many years if maintained properly. The only downside of this tent I am currently aware of is its pretty large lateral footprint that would probably make it hard to pitch in some high alpine situations.
Sleeping well in a tent during the winter months is fun but not always for the faint of heart. Altitude often comes in the way since many of these trips in Japan involve leaving from Tokyo at sea level in the morning and sleeping anywhere between 2200 and 3000m high the same evening. Temperatures are often low, wind is often strong which makes tents noisy and generates a slight stress “is the tent going to be blown away?”
A temperature regulated water king bed might not be enough to overcome these environmental factors, but this hasn’t prevented me and my hiking companions from looking for options. Like many I have been using Therm-a-Rest Prolite 4 sleeping mats combined with winter spec sleeping bags. This is often not enough when sleeping on snow at -15C in a tent. I had taken this for granted until I came across down mats from a Swiss company called Exped. I have not had the chance to test my type 9 yet in very cold weather yet, but the level of comfort provided is for sure a class up from the thinner Therm-a-Rest offerings. They are a bit heavy and some customers have had slow leak issues with these mats and it is too early for me to recommend them, but they are for sure an option to consider.
How about sleeping bags? The rating of sleeping bags can be very misleading. It is important to understand that the quoted lowest temperature often corresponds to very un-comfortable extremes where the stake is to stay alive. Some brands provide 3 or even 4 usage temperature corresponding to female comfort, male comfort, extreme and survival. Most of us should ignore survival all together and instead focus on a value located somewhere between comfort and extreme based on one’s tolerance.
I have been using an ultra-light Alpine down class 1 SB from Montbell (Not manufactured anymore, replaced by the promising Spiral type. Packing just under 1kg for a supposed survival low of -20C this bag has some of the best advertised weight/insulation ratio on the market. Its outer layer is made up of water resistant material which comes handy when condensation shows up in winter conditions. This being the theoretical version. In practice I have only been moderately happy about the Montbell. Although the outer layer does indeed provide a good level of water resistance I have woken up more than a few times feeling cold a night only to discover that down migrated away from some key areas of the bag. Ultra-light has its limits, at least in the Montbell implementation of the concept. Still looking for a replacement that wouldn’t add too much weight but fare better in terms of insulation. For what it is worth, some sleeping bags are available in left and right zipper types so as to be able to join 2 bags into a larger one.
Oyama ultra (3D rendering relying on shaders computed
from laser scans of in vitto snow crystals in high excitation states)
Down tent socks with a re-enforced sole are another key item for a comfy winter camping experience. Coming out of a toast sleeping back at 1AM in a snowstorm to pee is never easy. The very idea of having to put back on frozen trekking shoes is that one additional hurdle that typically makes me stay in bed, which is a bad idea since I just cannot sleep when I need to do it. Having down tent socks permanently has mostly solved the problem for me. DTSs are make it a lot easier to keep your feet warm when cooking and dealing with basic camp maintenance. I have been using socks from Montbell, but other companies like Valendre have a wider range of products and are said to be of higher quality (they are also significantly more expensive).
Winter trekking also imposes the usage of many more toys to ensure the safety of the winter traveler. My personal criteria for selecting those are reliability and ease of use. I favor no brainer designs I can mostly forget about even if they end up being a bit heavier or expensive. The reason being that I do not use all of these on a regular basis but they have to perform when the need arises in emergency conditions.
Among these crampons and snow shoes will enable you to reach your destination with minimal risk and energy consumption depending on snow conditions. I have been using generic 12 points crampons from a reference French brand called Grivel. Many of their crampons ship standard with anti-bots preventing the accumulation of snow under the soles. Grivel offers various shoe attachment systems, the higher end ones being fitable on just about any kind of boot with sufficient rigidity (and warmth). They have proven robust and reliable with minimal level of maintenance. It should be stressed though that point’s care is critical when dealing with steep icy sections whatever the design.
Hardcore climbers sometimes tend to overlook snowshoes, but these can come really handy in a variety of soft/deep snow situations where crampons walking can be exhausting. I like MSR Lightning Ascent series snowshoes thanks to their excellent combination of light weight and traction on moderately steep packed snow sections. My older 2 straps design can sometimes apply a bit too much pressure on the shoe and generate a slight discomfort, but the latest version with 3 straps appears to have solved this issue. The decision to carry snow shoes will impact your needs in terms of backpack design unless you decide to add to the kit a specific snow shoe carrying case. One of the reasons why I like my Osprey Kode and Aether packs is that they make it real easy to attach snow shoes on the outside thanks to their well designed straps system.
The avalanche danger should be kept in mind at all times when travelling above the snow line. Steep areas present obvious dangers, but never forget that your flat could be somebody else’s slope bottom. Danger comes from above. Skiers have a special sensitivity to the topic because of the steep terrain they naturally tend to favor, but any walking done in snowy mountains presents the same, if not more, risks considering that the travel time is likely to be longer. The best way to mitigate the risk is to pick your route carefully (favor ridges), gather up to date information about the snow conditions and history of the place (has there been avalanches in the past?), but it is also important to carry suitable safety equipment in case something goes wrong. My current kit contains a digital beacon Barryvox Opto3000 from Mammut, a Lifelink snow probe and hard plastic shovel. All of the members of the party should carry similar kits for this to make sense. You will be able to use your beacon to locate a buried avalanche victim only if he/she carries a similar beacon. The probe will be able to fine tune the location of the victim and the shovel will be mandatory to dig him/her out from hard packed avalanche debris. Ease of use is key when selecting a beacon. Think of the amount of stress you will be under in these circumstances. My Mammut is super easy to use, but it remains important to commit to regular training in order to be ready if something goes wrong.
Some backcountry travelers see beacons only as half measure with little guarantee. They focus on preventing being buried in the first place thanks to the usage of airbag equipped special packs from a company called ABS System. A friend of mine has one and is very confident about the value. I have never seen one in action myself but the stats are definitely encouraging. They appear to help. The problem is that these packs are obviously not designed with the needs of photographers in mind. Their limited capacity is great for day ski touring but they might not be useful for all photographic endeavors.
Summer is lovely as well. Mountain flowers, milder conditions enabling lighter packs and an overall more relaxed outdoor experience. Longer days make it possible to walk longer hours and therefore longer average distances. The lack of snow limits options as far as water goes and imposes a somewhat more planned approach to walking. Pitching a tent is also often limited to pre-defined locations because of environmental protection concerns and regulations. Huts are typically open and make it possible to walk really light in some cases, but can pose their own set of challenges since they can become awfully crowded at times in some geos like Japan or the French Alps.
The ultra-light temptation can be strong and I have fell for it more than my share, sometimes with disappointing results in the context of my specific usage. Let’s start with packs. They can typically be smaller and lighter than their winter equivalent. There are less outdoor tools to carry (snowshoes, crampons, ice axes,…) and this makes it possible to use more streamlined designs also. There are obviously also more options to stay overnight without having to carry one’s own shelter.
Mordor (shot with a camera)
This being said photographers tend to love gear and I often end up replacing these winter toys by… more lenses. I trekked most of the summer in 2009 carrying 11kg of photographic equipment. That included a 300 f2.8 VR, the most robust Gitzo carbon tripod (my trusted GT5531s) on top of the basic kit, itself on the heavy side. Add the things you need, starting with 3 liters of water, and you end up being above 20kg most of the time in a pretty small volume. This is a problem pack wise since most designs match the support strength of the belt with the expected weight resulting from the size of the pack. Most summer designs in the high 30 liters are not made to carry comfortably more than 12-14 kgs of equipment. That would include my Osprey Talon 44 pack. A great ultra-light design weighting only around 1.1kg dry… but featuring a belt unable to deal well with the kind of weight I am typically carrying around.
I have started to look around for a more suitable solution and am now leaning towards a climbing pack from Osprey called Mutant 38 . While being still light at 1.25 kg, it features a belt that is much more supportive. The climbing tool loop on the higher part of the back of the pack will also provide an additional carry option for the tripod.
A transition is happening. Five years ago I would have advised people starting outdoor walking to select high shoes protecting the ankle. Nowadays I tend to push people towards trail shoes from vendors like Montrail or Salomon. I still use my trusted Aku Trekker Light GTX when the weather is uncertain or when the pack is heavy, but my Montrail Gore GTX shoes (now replaced by the Masochist model) see a lot more use recently. These low trail shoes are lighter, they offer brilliant grip and an overall more comfortable walking experience.
Let’s be frank. The only thing I really care about in summer clothing is my rain jacket and pants. It can rain a lot in Japan, think 3 showers at the same time for the whole day. I have tried quite a few brands and technologies. In the end the best solution I have found is a 2 years old Gore Stormcruiser jacket from Montbell (see link above). It is light yet waterproof, has the essential arm pits ventilation (it is also hot in Japan when it rains) and just plain works.
I also always pack a light windproof fleece with 2 similar solutions from Montbell and Mountain Hardwear.
For many years I watched with amusement hordes of Japanese trekkers use walking poles on the flat, up and down, whatever. Why on earth would one want to carry these bulky, easily left behind and useless sticks when walking is the only task at hand… Or so I thought before I started to feel knee pains on long descends. Having started to carry poles, I also tried using them in flat and uphill sections and have mostly not looked back. I still consider them as optional items but end up carrying them more and more often, especially when I carry heavy loads. There are 2 main types of sticks on the market, my personal preference goes to the Black diamond cam type that I have found to be reliable and easy to use in various conditions (see link above).
In Between Seasons
Packing smart in spring and autumn can be a daunting task considering the variability of the weather. Finding the most accurate weather forecast information source might be the number one skill to have in these in between times, but it remains important to be able to deal with a wider set of extremes around a planned expected weather.
My personal priority is to be able to deal with slippery terrain and rain. I will always use shoes able to take me through terrain more challenging than the one I was initially planning for. I will also always carry a really waterproof shell (usually my trusted Montbell Stormcruiser jacket), a spare long sleeves shirt and a wiping towel stored in a waterproof stuff sack.
Beyond these basics I’ll either go more towards the winter or summer kits depending on the forecast.
We have reached the end of this short piece. Books have been written on outdoor equipment, they get outdated fast because of the pace of progress in the outdoor world. Or do they not? Is a 3 years old jacket really worse than the latest version? Leaving aside some technological quantum leaps going along with changes in basic gear usage philosophy (think soft shells, trail shoes,…) the truth of the matter is that 3 years old equipment is still excellent. Proper maintenance and smart usage matter most. The great piece of news here is that top engineers from various brands have designed amazingly good equipment for us. It is now our job to put them to the best possible use in order to serve more creative outdoor photography. Enjoy!
Bernard Languillier is a Belgian photographer based in Japan specialized in high resolution panoramic landscapes. Bernard recently exhibited his prints at the Nikon Salon in Tokyo.