Different situations call for different gear, and it is important to adapt your packing to the circumstances. Preplanning for a photo-focused trip can include thinking about the terrain and photo opportunities to optimize equipment selection, but it also includes bringing the supporting gear to keep the day fun and safe. From day trips to multi-day excursions to dedicated photo shoots, here's a look at what goes into my pack.
Even on a long day hike, my pack is not too heavy to bring my heavy DSLR and a solid zoom lens. It might be overkill at times, but I find that if you have a nice camera on you, its amazing how an average hike can end up looking like the adventure of a lifetime. And if you end up capturing a special photo that is worthy of selling, you want to make sure you have enough resolution to make a decent sized print.
Along with my normal hiking essentials, I do bring some backup items like an extra SD card, a spare battery, and a microfiber cloth to clean my lens, but most of the items will be related to food, water, clothing, and some safety equipment. I don't use many of the things I bring, but I would rather be safe than sorry.
I like to have my sunglasses tethered in the back so that I can easily let them fall down around my neck while I am shooting and/or reviewing a photo. The polarized lens on my sunglasses makes it tough to see my in-camera settings as well as my photo review thumbnails, so being able to take them off and put them back on quickly and without accidentally losing them is very helpful.
Things can get tricky when planning a backpacking trip for any hiker, but it seems to be extra nerve-racking for photographers. It always comes down to how much space there is for gear, how heavy it is, the distance and elevation gain, and the photographic goals. Sometimes I go specifically for taking nice photos, and other times I am simply documenting the good vibes and some views. While tripods are very important in low light situations, I have bailed on taking it and used logs, rocks, or my shoe as a makeshift substitute with great results.
If there are water sources along the way, consider using a filter to get your water on the go rather than carrying the heavy but essential liquid on your back. This allows you to bring more equipment in place of the water weight. The best part of doing a backpacking trip is all the amazing stars overhead when it gets dark. If possible, I bring along my small Mag light in my pack. It gives me the best results when I want to do astro-photography combined with light painting, and I love its yellow tone compared to most headlamps and their LED coloring.
When using a pack with a chest strap, use the strap to hold your camera tightly up against your chest for easy access. There are many times I would have missed a photo of some wildlife along the trail if I had to reach into my pack for my camera. This acts in a similar way to the Cotton Carrier systems without having to spend any extra money. Put a spare t-shirt between your chest and the camera for extra comfort.
Many beautiful places to photograph are not far from the road, which allows me to break out the big guns and not have to worry about lugging the weight all the way up a mountain. In these cases I switch over to my LowePro camera bag and bring along several bodies, lenses, a heavy-duty tripod, and even some portable lighting. This allows me to take the time I need to dial in a really pretty shot of a stunning waterfall or an amazing overlook while waiting for the perfect light.
I use a diffuser on my Speedlite flash system to help spread the light out evenly rather than getting an intense and focused beam. This is a good way to help the foreground and mid-ground really pop. Many people use graduated neutral density filter systems to really capture some amazing sunsets mixed with astro-photography. These systems aren't very heavy, so you could incorporate them into any of these three set ups.
Bringing a heavy duty tripod is a no-brainer when the hike is only a few miles round trip. This allows me to get silky smooth waterfalls or ethereal long exposure photos. This is another great time to bring various lights to get some really dynamic photos by using a combination of flashes and flashlights. Using Pocket Wizards or other remote triggers can give you the chance to light up your subject from various unexpected or unusual angles.