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Photography: Getting Started and Why My Camera is Always a Part of My Backpacking Gear

Facebook - Mule Deer in Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dako

This photograph of two mule deer was taken by Mark at Wind Cave National Park using a Canon EOS Rebel T6i DSLR Camera.

Take a look at the Home Page to see some of Mark and Katie's photographs. Also check out Mark's Instagram and his National Geographic page for more pictures.

Photography and Backpacking

As many of you know, I am an enthusiastic – albeit amateur – photographer. To me, photography and backpacking are inseparable. I’ve included some reasons why in this post. Backpacking itself is an amazing experience, but being able to capture some of the best moments on the trail through a few well-composed images only adds to my enjoyment of the outdoors. If you’re a photographer already, backpacking is a great way to capture images that only a relatively few people have the ability to capture. If you’re a backpacker and not a photographer, you might want to consider learning the basics of photography and determining whether or not it might add to your experience as it does mine.

Learning Photography

I owe whatever skill I have with the camera to my younger sister, Hillary. Hillary has a degree in RTVF, or Radio, TV, and Film, from Northwestern University, and is a very skilled photographer and film editor (She’s currently pursuing a career as an actress). When I got my first DSLR, the Canon EOS Rebel T6i EF-S 1 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Kit, she showed me the ropes and I was hooked.

Hillary gave me some of the best photographic advice I have received. She told me: “You need to learn three things about taking pictures, and with practice you’ll figure out the rest.” Those three things are (1) shutter speed, (2) lens aperture, and (3) ISO speed. This blog, or this website for that matter, isn’t about photography, and I’m certainly not an authority on photography instruction, so I’m not going to get into a ton of detail about this. But in case you are curious, here are the basics.


The exposure is simply the amount of light per unit area captured by your camera when you take a photograph. It is determined by the three things I mentioned above: shutter speed, lens aperture, and ISO. Basically, it determines how light or dark your image will appear.

Shutter Speed

Your shutter speed determined how long the sensor (the thing inside your camera that collects light to form the image, if I’m not mistaking) will be exposed to the light coming through the lens. Longer shutter speeds allow the sensor to collect more light, but also leave your image open to blurriness if anything in the frame, or the camera itself, is moving.

Lens Aperture

You can adjust the aperture of your camera’s lens by changing the “f-stop” setting on the camera. The aperture is simply the area inside the lens that light can pass through to get to the sensor. The aperture determines the depth of field – how much stuff is in focus in your image. Narrow aperture (higher f-stop) means more of your image will be in focus. Wider aperture (lower f-stop) means only a certain part of your image will be in focus and the rest will be out of focus.

ISO Speed

The ISO determined how sensitive your camera will be to the light passing into the lens and sensor. Higher ISO means more light sensitivity – the image will be brighter. Lower ISO means the opposite; less sensitivity to light and darker images.

I use Adobe Photoshop Elements to edit my pictures. To me, learning Photoshop was actually just as hard, if not more difficult than learning the basics of DSLR photography. But, the better you are at taking pictures in the field, the less editing you will need to do with Photoshop. I shoot in RAW image format, so I had to learn how to edit RAW images (as opposed to JPEG images), which takes time and practice.

If you are just getting into photography, check out some of the resources at the end of this post to learn more. YouTube is also filled with great photography tutorials.

The "Photography Tradeoff"

I’ve heard it said that the worst thing you can do when travelling is to get home and realize you saw the whole thing through the lens of a camera. There is a lot of truth to this statement – bringing your camera on a backpacking trip is a tradeoff, but not one that has to ruin your trip. You need to remember to take time to really observe your surroundings in the backcountry. Don’t let your camera get in the way of your experience. At the same time, a great picture can allow you to relive your experience years after your trip.

To balance this “tradeoff”, I use a simple principle: For every picture – or series of pictures – I take, I spend a few moments simply looking around. I’m not really looking for anything specifically, but rather just taking time to relax and realize where I am. It is all too easy to take one look at a beautiful scene, perhaps at the high point of your route, and immediately reach for your camera to capture the image. You might come home with some breathtaking shots, but if you never took the time to look around and really enjoy the scenery without the camera, those photographs will be all you have to really remember that scene.

How much is too much? I really don’t know the answer to that question, and I’m sure it depends mostly on your preference. But, my rule of thumb is this: If I look at one of my photographs and think, “wow, I wish I was back there…but where was that on the route again,” then I probably didn’t take enough time to look around and really experience where I was. On the other hand, if I look at a photograph and say, “wow, that was such an incredible view…I remember exactly where I was and how it felt to be there,” then I didn’t let my camera get in the way of my experience.

I know people who take one or two pictures on a trip, and that’s plenty for them. For me, photography is a way to tell the story of my experience, both to my friends and family and to myself, when I want to recall the memories of that particular adventure. It allows me to bring moments of my trips home, and it’s just a fun hobby.

Whether or not you decide to make photography a part of your backpacking experience, I hope you remember that the most important thing is to take time to realize where you are when you’re out there. Don’t just go through the motions and get from A to B on the trail. Look around you, notice the details, relax, and have fun.

Photography resources to help you get started:

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