Backpacking Digital SLR

After about 5 years of using my 3.3 megapixel Olympus C-3040 digital point-and-shoot camera, I decided that I was ready for a digital SLR. The Olympus has been a great camera over the years. With its fast f/1.8 Carl Zeiss lens, it has the ability to take some nice shots even in low light. The photos have turned out nice and sharp under most conditions. However, I’ve learned a lot about photography in the past few years and have felt limited by its point-and-shoot feature set. I had a Minolta 35mm SLR prior to the Olympus and was just getting up to speed thinking in terms of aperature and shutter speeds before I went digital. The Olympus supported these features, but accessing them required drilling down through a few menus. Not only that, but like many digital cameras of its day, its shutter lag requires that I anticipate shots before they happen. Much of the time I’m pressing the button as a smile is forming. I realized that I was ready for a faster camera with controls that allow me to access the functions I need quickly.As I started to research my options, my criteria for the camera and lenses were as follows:

  • Lightweight – I wanted gear suitable for taking on backpacking trips (such as my 3-week John Muir Trail hike). Therefore one of my primary criteria was that it had to be light. I did a lot of research on ultralight backpacking strategies before the JMT hike and I knew that if I really wanted to go light I could carry an ultra-compact point-and-shoot, but I didn’t want to give up the opportunities that the SLR would allow.
  • Appropriate for my photographic needs – It needed to be great for mountain and landscape photography, but just as useful when not on the trail such as at family gatherings and candid shots around the house.
  • Capable of high-quality photos (sharp, little chromatic aberation, little flare) – If I’m going to bother to carry the gear, it had better produce some worthy photos.
  • Headache free (e.g. good build quality, under warranty) – I don’t want anything falling apart on me, but if it does, I want to be able to exchange it for another one. While doing my research, I read too many testimonials in online forums from people who found that they had to return a lens once or twice that did not meet their expectations.
  • Inexpensive as possible without sacrificing the above qualities – In the spirit of Albert Einstein: as cheap as possible, but no more.

After doing quite a bit of research, I settled on the following equipment (getting as much of it as possible from a local camera store in order to make it easier to exchange if necessary):

I’m posting this information for the benefit of fellow hikers with similar criteria in a digital SLR. It took quite a while to do the research, so hopefully this information will save other people some time. Granted, the technology and product line-ups change fairly often and prices go down over time, but I think these things should prove a sound investment. Chances are a camera body with more features will come out in the next year or so, but it is unlikely to get any smaller or lighter for ergonomic reasons. The lenses should be compatible with any future body, though I’ve seen some concern about the use of the EF-S mount in future Canon camera bodies. Only time will tell.Please read on if you’d like to read more about the decision making process. Disclaimer: some of the links that I’ve included go to online retail sites. I have no affiliation with any of them. They just happen to be where I found good information to link to! Also, please note that I wrote the majority of this entry in May 2005 but didn’t get around to finishing it until November 2005. I’ve updated the text appropriately but have left the prices at the original May 2005 values.

The camera

While a pro-level camera body would be nice, they are quite expensive and because I’m not currently planning on taking photos as profession I can’t really justify the cost. “Entry-level” digital SLRs have had been on the market for a few years now and the feature offerings have had a chance to mature. There are now several cameras bodies that are in what I would consider an acceptable price range (under $1000): the Nikon D70 and its recently announced brethren (D70s, D50); and the Canon Digital Rebel XT (350D) and its brethren (the older Digital Rebel [300D] and 20D [actually $1260]).The lightest digital SLR in this price range is currently the Canon Digital Rebel XT at 485g (1.07 lbs). There is a table on this page that compares the size and weight of the Digital Rebel XT to the other digital SLRs currently on the market.I’ve been told that when you buy a SLR, you are buying more than just a camera. You are really buying into a camera system. That’s because most of the lenses and accessories you buy will only work for equipment from that manufacturer. If you buy a Canon body, you’ll need to buy a Canon-compatible lens. Same for Nikon. That’s not to say third-party lenses aren’t available, but you likely won’t be able to use a lens created for a Canon on a Nikon camera body (without an adapter). So how do you choose? Nikon and Canon seem to be the most popular currently and truthfully, they are the only two I seriously considered.I’ve been told that Nikon lenses (Nikkor to be exact) in general are really good. Admittedly, because I decided to focus my research on lenses for the Digital Rebel XT (for the reasons described below), I didn’t spend much time focused on the Nikkor lenses (no pun intended). Canon also makes some nice lenses, but most of them are found at the professional level. These lenses are designated “L” lenses (for “luxury” or “life savings”) and tend to cost a pretty penny. If you’ve already got some lenses, chances are you’ve already bought into one of these systems. Since I didn’t have any money invested in lenses, I started from a clean slate. I do, however, have a friend who I hiked with this summer that has the Canon 20D and a number of Canon lenses.Therefore because it is the lightest digital SLR, relatively inexpensive when compared to others in its class, and I can share lenses on hikes with a friend with a Canon 20D, I decided to go with the Canon Digital Rebel XT.The Digital Rebel XT is available in a black or gun-metal grey (“silver”) body. The black body seems to be the more popular choice, as most places I’ve shopped around for it seem to be out of stock and awaiting more. The general opinion I’ve heard is that it looks “more professional” and I’d have to agree. The gun-metal grey trim does look a little cheap.Another thing to note is that many of Canon’s professional lenses have white exteriors to reduce the heat absorption from sunlight. I’ve wondered whether the amount of heat absorbed by the camera due to its body color would have any influence on the quality of its images. I haven’t had any noticeable problems with that in any of my shots, but I generally don’t have the camera out in the sun for hours at a time like a professional photographer at a football game might.The battery life has been surprisingly good. I purchased two extra batteries for my JMT trip since I didn’t know if I would have an opportunity to charge a battery along the way. The charger that comes with the camera is actually quite light, but I decided I didn’t want the extra bulk in my pack. After shooting the first 3 days in high quality JPEG mode and then another 15 days in RAW+JPEG mode (about 500 photos or so), the first battery finally gave out. It turns out I could have gotten by with just 1 extra battery. I could potentially have gotten by with the one battery if I had turned off the automatic 2 second image review feature and had refrained from showing off the photos to my fellow hikers, but what fun would that have been? This review of the camera claims about 600 shots without the flash on a fully charged battery. Your mileage may vary.

Lenses

The Digital Rebel XT can be purchased as the body only or in a kit with a 18-55mm lens. Apparently this lens can only be purchased as part of the kit, though after reading the opinions of others who chose to get the kit, it’s just as well. The lens is okay for the additional cost ($100) but nothing spectacular.So what lenses would be appropriate for my needs?As I mentioned above, I wanted some lenses that would be good for mountain and landscape shots but would also work well off the trail. I started looking around for mountain photography web sites and came across the one for Galen Rowell. Galen was a respected mountaineer and professional photographer known for his amazing shots of mountains at dawn and sunset. He unfortunately passed away in 2002 in a plane crash. On the page that describes his gear bag, it mentions “Galen once said that a high percentage of his best images could have probably been made with only a 24mm and an 80-200 zoom.” So I decided that that would be my starting point for searching out some lenses.Due to the difference in the size of 35mm film and digital camera photo sensors, the focal length for a given lens is different depending on which type of camera it is used. In the case of the Digital Rebel XT, the difference is 1.6 times the lens’ 35mm focal length. In order to get the equivalent of a 24mm focal length lens on a 35mm body, a 15mm lens would be used on the XT. For the 80-200mm equivalent, a 50-125mm lens would be appropriate for the XT. The multiplier works to the digital camera’s advantage on the telephoto end of the scale in that a smaller lens can be used when compared to a 35mm camera, but requires quite a short focal length on the wide-angle end of the scale… something that would likely be considered a fish-eye lens on a 35mm camera.Once I knew approximately the focal lengths of the lenses that I should look into, I did a web search to see what Canon and third party lenses are available for the Digital Rebel XT. The first page I came across fit just the bill. Bob Atkins put together such a list which proved to be a terrific starting point. Other resources that I found helpful were the Canon EOS Beginner’s FAQ III, Canon Digital Rebel 300D/350D forum on DPReview, the reviews on the Fred Miranda site and a few blog entries from James Duncan Davidson (these dealt more with lenses for photographing conferences, though).

Wide-Angle

For the wide-angle lens, this article on mastering wide angle photography was helpful in determining what was important in such a lens. Based on the reviews I read, I narrowed it down to the Canon 10-22mm, Tokina 12-24mm, and Canon 17-40mm. In the end I went with the Canon 10-22mm because I figured if I was going to put it on the Digital Rebel XT with it’s 1.6 multiplier, I needed to get that focal range down as low as possible. It’s a fairly expensive lens for a hobbyist, but well worth the price.

Mid-range & Telephoto

For these ranges, after doing a bit of research using the above mentioned resources, I considered two options: two lenses such as the Canon 17-85mm and Canon 70-300mm, or one lens that would cover most of that range like the Canon 28-135mm or Tamron 24-135mm. With the 1.6x multiplier, 135mm would be equivalent to a 216mm lens on a 35mm camera… a good match with the Galen Rowell statement. Due to my lightweight backpacking requirement, the fewer lenses I had to carry the better. I went with the Tamron since it had a slightly wider range, was cheaper, and had better reviews on the Fred Miranda site. Additionally, I thought that if I needed a longer telephoto, I could borrow the 70-300mm lens from my friend with whom I hiked the JMT. As it turns out he decided he didn’t want to bring the extra weight of that lens on the hike. Oh well.Based on the recommendations of a number of sites, I also purchased a Canon 50mm 1.8 Mk II prime lens. It is relatively inexpensive and due to the simplicity of the glass inside, can accomodate low light situations. Though it is fairly lightweight, I did not take this lens on my JMT hike since the Tamron 24-135mm lens was sufficient for this focal length on the trail.

Memory

My main criteria for the CompactFlash that the Digital Rebel XT uses were:

  • Not likely to lose my photos
  • Fast
  • Relatively cheap
  • Adequate storage for shooting images in the RAW format on extended hikes

Rob Galbraith has an extensive list of CompactFlash media and real world write speeds in the Digital Rebel XT. I was originally going to go with the Lexar 80x based on a blog entry I had read a while back, but then I found that a number of people have reported data corruption using the Lexar 80x in the Digital Rebel XT.The SanDisk Extreme, Ultra II and Extreme III come highly rated as far as write speeds go. The Extreme III series also comes with data recovery software that allows you to recover accidentally deleted photos.As far as capacity goes, I needed something that can handle a large number of RAW images (approximately 8.3 MB) since I don’t want to carry lots of CompactFlash cards on a hike. On the other hand, I’d hate to have all of my shots in one place and then lose the card or have it stolen. Some friends of mine that hiked the JMT last summer said they took about 600 photos during the month they were on the trail. Six hundred shots at 8 MB would be approximately 4.8 GB.Using sites like PriceWatch and DealRam, I’ve found the cheapest places to buy these CompactFlash cards that don’t seem too shady seem to be ZipZoomfly and BananaPC.I bought two cards total, one 1 GB and one 4 GB SanDisk Ultra II CompactFlash card. I purchased the 1 GB card from Costco the day after I brought the camera home because it was the cheapest available at the time ($89+tax), I had forgotten that the camera did not come with any memory cards, and I wanted to use the camera at a party the following weekend. I bought the 4 GB card online at Buy.com since they had the for the cheapest price at the time ($350+tax). The Extreme III series would have been nice, but it was too expensive considering the difference in speed with the Ultra II series was negligible.

Other Equipment

Insurance filters

One thing I learned from my high school black and white photography teacher was that it is prudent to keep a skylight or UV filter on your lenses at all times. They’re fairly inexpensive and if you drop your lens, the filter would take the brunt of the impact were it to fall glass-side down. It’s cheap insurance. So I purchased a 77mm and 72mm UV filter for the Canon and Tamron lenses respectively.

Polarizing filters

I also wanted a polarizing filter but they are quite a bit more expensive. So I bought a 77mm polarizing lens for the wide angle lens and a 72-77mm stepper ring so I can use the filter on the 72mm Tamron lens. The Canon 10-22mm wide-angle lens is limited in how many filters you can attach at once. If they stick out too far from the lens, they encroach on the lens’ field of view and cause vignetting in the corners of the images. Therefore I went with a slim filter made by Tiffen. Other options such as these from B+W, Heliopan, Hoya or Sigma would also be appropriate. Additionally, as this page explains, a circular polarizer (as opposed to a linear polarizer) is more appropriate for digital SLRs to ensure more accurate meter readings due to the sensors that are used.Note that it may not be possible to use the lens cap with the slim filters in place. I found this out the hard way (after ordering them). The fact that I cannot leave the UV filter on the wide angle lens most of the time makes it useless as far as cheap insurance.

Graduated Neutral Density filters

I also kicked around the idea of using a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter as Galen Rowell used on his Nikon film cameras. Unlike our eyes, most film or camera CCD’s cannot handle the wide dynamic range of light between the sky and foreground appropriately. So if a meter reading of the sky is used the foreground will often be very underexposed. If a meter reading of the foreground is taken, the sky is completely blown out. A GND reduces the amount of light in one half of the frame (often the sky) to reduce the dynamic range of light to within the film or camera’s CCD capabilities. “Neutral Density” means that the filter doesn’t cause any color shifts to the image, it just reduces the amount of overall light that passes through. “Graduated” means the filter is not a complete ND filter; at some point it transitions to effective total transparency.Using a GND obviously requires carrying around more components. It is helpful to have multiple filters available with “hard” or “soft” transitions as well as varying degrees of ND filtration. At the bare minimum, I’ve read that a 2-stop soft edge and a 3-stop hard edge filter would be the most useful if costs are a concern. The filters are 84mm wide by 120mm long rectangles that fit in a Cokin P Series filter holder. The filter holder needs an additional adapter to mount to the camera lens. That’s 4 additional pieces of equipment (albeit lightweight) to carry around and manage.The alternative would be to take multiple photos, bracketed around the necessary exposure levels, and merging the properly exposed portions in an image editing program such as Adobe Photoshop. The article referenced above on mastering wide angle photography has a page describing the simulated GND technique. The Digital Rebel XT is capable of taking 3 bracketed shots at up to -2, 0, and +2 EV. This is a 4 stop spread which should be sufficient for most situations. The drawback, obviously is that more storage space on the flash memory card is required. If shooting in RAW mode, that’s 25 MB total (8.3 MB average per shot) for the 3 images. The other drawback is that a tripod is most certainly required. Tripods are a good idea regardless, but merging the photos is much easier when the images are nearly identical in composition.Either you pay for and carry the GND filters and holders, or you pay for extra storage capacity and deal with doing the image manipulation and photo management back home. I’ve decided to hold off on the GND filters for the time being.

Tripod

But since I mentioned tripods above, I would highly recommend one, even if it is small. A number of years ago I picked up a Cullmann Piccolo at a kiosk in the Frankfurt airport. It is very similar to the Giotto Q-Pod available at REI and the Cobra Q-Pod. At just under 4 oz., it has served me well with the Olympus. The only problem is that lenses on the Canon Digital Rebel XT are substantially heavier than the one in the Olympus and cause the whole assembly to tip forward. I have yet to find a good tripod that is cheap and in line with the lightweight backpacking philosophy. There are trade-offs between weight and sturdiness (you don’t want the tripod shaking in the wind), size and portability, and price and quality. I’ve considered the Pedco UltraPod, but I don’t know if it would be any different than the Piccolo/Q-Pod. On my JMT trip I shot mostly handheld shots or placed the camera on or against a flat surface.

Remote Control

Another worth-while accessory is the wireless remote control. They are light weight and very useful for preventing camera shake when depressing the shutter release button. They are also nice for those group photo occasions where you have to otherwise set up the 10-second timer and run to your spot in the group. The Digital Rebel XT can use the Canon RC-1 or RC-5 remote. I would suggest the RC-1, as there is a 2-second delay with the RC-5 after pressing the shutter button on the remote before the shutter will actually be triggered. The delay can be turned on or off on the RC-1.

Battery Grip and Flash

For the time being, I’ve decided to forgo the vertical battery grip and an external flash for the camera. While I might have use for these items at home, they are unnecessary weight on the trail.

Camera Bag

I have yet to find a camera bag suitable for carrying the two lenses and accessories while hiking. I spent several days going to various camera and travel shops and I never found anything I was happy with. I wanted something that would allow me to access the camera quickly for those spontaneous or fleeting photographic moments, something that would be easy enough to carry in addition to my hiking pack, padded enough to protect the equipment inside from minor bumps, yet (of course) lightweight. For the JMT hike I used the padded camera bag that I had used for my Minolta 35mm body and lens along with the padded case that was supplied with the Tamron lens. Both of these cases had loops that allowed me to attach them to the waist belt of my pack. Though it looked a little funny, this allowed quick access to all of the camera equipment while on the trail. The one drawback was that every time I took my pack off at a rest break or to set up camp, I had to be very careful that the lenses did not slip off the belt. Additionally, the repeated impact of hiking caused the faux-leather outer layer of the Tamron lens case to begin to tear, so I had to keep a watchful eye on it as well.

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2 thoughts on “Backpacking Digital SLR

  1. Cool. I bought the Rebel XT for the same reasons as you, and am buying the 10-22mm also, together with a 50mm (haven’t decided if I’m setting the compact macro F2.5, or going with the F1.8 II) and 70-300mm IS USM.You might experience some vignetting on your 10-22mm with the Cokin P series, so you may consider getting the Lee sized filters instead.Good outdoor bags are made by LowePro. Check out their toploader 65 AW with chest strap and a sliplock lens case for your other lens. These can be carried outside your backpack.Let me know how it goes…

  2. Ken,Thanks for the info. I actually purchased the 50mm F1.8 II, too, but forgot to mention it in the article. I’ve updated the article to note that (and fixed the numerous spelling mistakes while I was at it). I didn’t take it on my hiking trip but have put it to good use off the trail.I will look into the <a href="http://www.lowepro.com/Products/Toploading/allWeather/Toploader_65_AW.aspx&quot; rel="nofollow">LowePro Toploader 65 AW</a>. My initial impression from the photographs on the web site are that it’s a little bigger than I’m hoping I can find, though I realize the size is limited to what needs to go inside!

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