Please Note: As part of my ongoing promise to stay as current and forthright as possible, you should be aware that this article was written two years ago and my opinions on the matter are beginning to change.
This post features a DSLR camera. Unless you’ve been
non-stop thru-hiking everything in sight living under a rock for the last couple years, you may have realized that mirrorless cameras will soon make the DSLR almost obsolete. Even using a modern smartphone has become a legitimate way to create stunning photography.
Nikon’s DSLRs were my go-to cameras for more than a decade. They’re still certainly legitimate, but not necessarily my “best” option anymore (Go here to see more about that). If you’re using a Nikon DSLR in 2019 (like me when I’m not using my smartphone) then you’ll find this article useful.
With the right camera, shooting landscapes in the 21st century is incredibly easy.
You just point the thing and click the button.
All you need is a good scene and a good camera.
Search your feelings, young Jedi – you know it to be true.
The artists will tell you otherwise, of course.
“The camera is just a tool!”
“That’s like saying Picasso only had a good brush!”
“Or like Jimi Hendrix just had a nice guitar!”
“And Hemingway must have had one hell of a pen!”
Call those people out on that – they ain’t no Picasso, they ain’t no Hemingway, and they sure ain’t no Jimi Hendrix.
How do you call them out on it? Ask the magic question:
“What kind of camera do you use?”
You see it on social media all the time. A photographer, an “artist,” posts a beautiful photo. Eventually a courageous soul from the peanut gallery asks the magic question. “What camera is that?” And the photographer, the snooty artist, he doesn’t reply. Dead silence.
Why not? Maybe the question offends his artistic sensibilities. Maybe he’s a creative genius and his camera is just a tool. Or maybe, maybe he’s just a hack like the rest of us, and the camera is his secret weapon.
So he’s not telling you.
We go to pretty places and take nice pictures with a fine, modern piece of technology. That’s all I do, and all any of us do. If you’re still shooting with film or some other ancient camera then disregard this – my apologies – this article isn’t for you.
Here’s what separates the pros from the amateurs in landscape photography:
- quality of gear (A good camera!)
- skill with post-processing (Photoshop! Lightroom! Gasp!)
- marketing and self-promotion
- Oomph – the drive to work and make it happen
And let’s not forget a good eye. What does that mean, exactly? Does it mean an angel came down from heaven and touched you with a special gift? A magical eye for photography? Because, you know, because you’re an old soul too… right? Angels are all up in your skills.
No. It means you’ve burned up a lot of film and digital memory with bad photos. And reviewed them. And thought “Gee, that’s bad.” So you’ve learned to waste less time. How? You take better photos in the future. You’ve practiced.
Smart People Imitate Smarter People
You want to use the same camera as me? Great! I’m flattered. Seriously. You validate me. Thank you.
It’s okay. I chose to imitate someone too.
I was using a pocket camera in ’06 and ’07 on my bicycle tour and Long Trail hike. People said nice things about my pictures. So I decided to get a “serious camera.” Maybe I could be a photographer.
I didn’t have a clue about “serious” cameras, so I googled it. Google found me a guy who seemed to know a lot about cameras. He recommended a camera called the Nikon D40 and talked about it like it was a magical item. Not only that, but he revealed the exact settings he dialed in to the camera.
So I got one. It cost me a few hundred dollars. And you know what?
Less than two years later, Backpacker Magazine published one of my photos in its magazine, and online.
And they sent me a check for it!
Suddenly I was a photographer.
That was almost ten years ago. Since then I’ve tried other cameras, but still lean on updated versions of the old Nikon D40. I started to dial in my own settings – my own tricks of the trade – and that’s where I’m at now.
Before we go on, a couple things to know:
1) Several links on this page go to equipment on Amazon.com. When you click on these links and buy something within 24 hours, I receive a small commission. If you find my advice useful, please come back and use the links before you buy.
2) I own (Or owned) all the equipment I recommend here and don’t get photography stuff for free (I wish!). It’s been a long, expensive journey to arrive at the camera I use today.
How to Hack the Best Backpacking Camera
#1. SHOOT WITH A NIKON D5500 DLSR
1.It’s fast and easy to take amazing photos!
2. It’s light. You know… not heavy.
I keep it that way with the compact kit lens.
Pound for pound (Or ounce for ounce) it’s the best camera I’ve ever owned.
Fast and easy? Yes. I can go from “zoned out on the trail” to “shot fired” in no time. How? Impeccable design.
- The on/off switch is right where it should be… and it’s a physical switch, not some modern button that needs to be held down.
- The optical viewfinder… what’s that? It’s a physical hole in the camera. You hold it up to your eye to compose the shot, rather than squinting at a little screen at arm’s length.
- Interchangeable, real lenses… in order to zoom you physically twist the lens. No toggling with little buttons – real live twisting!
- The auto settings do their job. Yeah I said it – AUTO. I like auto settings. Go ahead and persecute me for it. Sure there’s focus points, aperture, shutter speed, ISO… do I know how to use them? Yes. Do I want to spend all day playing with the settings? Hmm.
That’s why it’s so fast and easy. Lift it up, twist the lens, switch it on, press the shutter. Done. I always take this for granted… until I start messing around with an LCD viewfinder again. Ugh.
“Excuse me, but this looks like an old clunky DSLR. What about mirrorless cameras?”
Okay you have a point. There’s some fine mirrorless cameras out there. None can deny their sex appeal. I haven’t tried them and here’s why:
- Have you seen those price tags? I can have a brand new D5500 with a brand new kit lens, PLUS a brand new sweet 18-200mm lens… for the same cost as a BODY ONLY mirrorless camera (This is changing in 2019).
- Old dogs and new tricks. I know my Nikon. Going mirrorless means more learning a new system and less getting the shot. (Important and does not need updating).
“They say this is an ‘entry-level’ DSLR. How about something nicer, like the D7200?”
You’re right, the D7200 is certainly nicer! It’s made of sturdier material and has more external controls so you don’t have to play in the menus when you want to change things. But you know what? It has the same sensor so it takes the same photos as the D5500, but with more weight and bulk. That’s the key. Because I’m a backpacker the D7200 vs. the D5500 is a no-brainer – bigger, heavier package? No thanks.
“But I’ll break it! How about something tough and waterproof?
Okay fine. For a recent Grand Canyon whitewater trip my girlfriend and I both got an Olympus Tough TG-4 – supposedly the best waterproof camera on the market. How’d they do?
Both cameras died a few days into the trip. It’s too bad because I feel as though there’s a real market out there for a “tough” professional-grade camera (Besides just using a waterproof housing), and nothing has been especially impressive. Next time I’ll just look into using a GroPro for still frames.
If you’re afraid you’re clumsy then get a D5500 anyway and just don’t drop it. The Nikon DSLR’s can take some light rain and dirt and even some hard knocks like a champ, which leads me to…
#2. WEAR IT AROUND YOUR NECK
This is the single most important piece of advice I’m writing here. Wear the camera around your neck! And do it not just to keep from dropping it, but do it to have the camera always accessible
You can sling your left arm through the strap (If you’re right-handed). Before long you won’t even realize it’s there.
Too often I see backpackers with clever homemade rigs to carry their fancy cameras, always tucked away in a pouch on their shoulder strap or hip belt. Don’t do this!
Don’t get a fancy camera bag, either. You’re a gritty backpacker, not some man-purse-toting-poser. if it’s pouring rain, if it’s blowing this century’s dust bowl, or if I’m walking through a river, then I’ll put the D5500 in a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Otherwise it’s around my neck or within arm’s reach!
Yeah your new D5500 is going to get some dirt on it, and some light rain. Next you’ll scuff up the lens, but so what? I know you paid a pretty penny for it, but did you get your camera to protect it like an investment or did you buy it to get great photos?
I’m tough on my cameras but still manage to squeeze at least two years out of them in this manner. When it breaks I then have the perfect excuse to go buy the latest and greatest model! Yay!
They say that the best camera for the job is the one that’s available. If you don’t keep you’re DSLR around your neck while you’re hiking then you might as well be using your iPhone.
You’re not willing keep it around your neck all day?
Then you’ll never get a lot great photos.
#3. USE A POLARIZING FILTER
A filter isn’t just something you use on your Instagram account. A polarizing filter, in particular, is a magical piece of glass that screws on to the front of your lens. Good luck understanding exactly how it works (Wikipedia), but it makes outdoor photos look amazing! Colors POP and blue skies look BLUE (Or seemingly black if you’re not careful).
I especially wish I’d had one of these on the Colorado Trail and John Muir Trail, with those high alpine skies. C’est la vie.
The filter also serves as layer of protection over the lens itself. This is nice because I’ve never had the patience to keep a lens cap for very long. Lens caps get awfully annoying – slowing down my reaction time – or I just lose them by accident in the wilderness (I left a trace or two, sorry).
To use a polarizing filter properly you have to spin it while looking through the viewfinder. In bright light you’ll notice its effects most. This is embarrassing but I had a filter just sitting on my camera for at least six months before I realized I had to spin it to come up with the desired effect. Whoops.
#4. COPY MY PERSONAL D5500 SETTINGS
Time for the good stuff. These settings are intended for the outdoors – hiking!
(Applies only to older kit lenses)
- Turn the main dial on to the “P” mode, or Program. It sounds fancy but this is little more than a glorified “auto” mode. Shutter Speed and Aperture will be automatically set for you.
- Check the switches on the lens – sometimes these get turned off when I’m stuffing my camera at the beginning or end of a trip. Ensure that both the VR (Vibration Reduction) and AF (AutoFocus) are “ON.”
General Setup (The Wrench)
Here’s a few worthy functions under the Setup Menu, identified with the wrench icon.
- Always format a new memory card for optimal efficiency. Be aware that this completely erases the card.
- Auto Info Display – You can turn this off to save some battery power. The “Info” screen can otherwise be seen by simply pressing the “i” button.
- Sometimes I’ll leave an image comment and copyright information to be displayed in the individual photo files on a computer, often referred to as a piece of “EXIF info.” I’ll type in my name or copyright information.
- Beep Options get turned off. So annoying.
- If you end up with the newer (but not necessarily better) D5600, it has an Airplane Mode. I turn it on to save some battery power.
That’s all – I leave everything else here in its default setting. I don’t bother with the GPS – yet another battery drainer and who has time for that? The only time to worry about cleaning the internal sensor is if you notice big black dots showing up in a blue-sky image.
Shooting Menu (The Camera)
This is where the magic happens.
- Storage Folder – This is handy for organization once I’ve returned from a long backpacking trip. During the hike I’ll create separate folders for Day One, Day Two, etc.
- Image Quality – typically I’ll stick with NORMAL JPEG. Some folks are brave enough to use BASIC to save more hard drive space. Sometimes I’ll switch to RAW mode if I have a particularly exquisite shot on my hands. In a perfect world we’d all be shooting RAW + BASIC JPEG, but big files require fast processors and infinite hard drive space (Time and Money!).
- Image Size – I stick with LARGE. This is where the larger file size is worth the space on your drives.
- White Balance – Nikon’s AUTO white balance used to be perfect, but unfortunately that isn’t the case anymore since they started removing the anti-aliasing filter in newer cameras. Now their auto white balance is a little too “cold,” so generally I set this on CLOUDY, even when the sun is shining. From each individual setting you can click to the right to make adjustments within it. I adjust this setting more than any other!
- Picture Control – This is another key setting! I always shoot in VIVID. Again, once you’ve selected VIVID you can click to the right to fine tune things. With a polarizing filter I’ll SATURATE +1. Before I had a filter I’d saturate all the way up to +3. I turn the SHARPNESS up to +6 and leave everything else alone.
- ISO – I use AUTO, it’s great. Otherwise you’ll generally want 100 or 200 in the outdoors.
- The Focus Settings are great in default, namely AF-A and AUTO AREA. In the old DSLR’s I used to focus on a SINGLE POINT, namely a cloud or horizon, and then re-frame the composition. Not anymore.
- Exposure Compensation – In daylight I’ll generally leave this around -0.3. At dawn or dusk I’ll turn it way down to -1.0 or even -2.0.
I leave everything else (Like D-Lighting and Noise Reduction -NR-) in its default setting. HDR gets used on a case-by-case basis…
#5. USE THE HDR SETTING
As hikers we often find ourselves trying to shoot high-contrast scenes, with direct sunlight and deep shade. Deep and narrow canyons always present this. Fortunately the D5500 provides a quick and easy solution with in-camera HDR.
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. When you turn this feature on (I recommend using “Normal” and starting from there), the camera will take two back-to-back shots when you press the shutter. So hold the camera steady! It takes a “bright” picture and a “dark” picture, and then meshes them together to mitigate the contrast.
This is a great feature that solves a recurring problem. HDR is loved to death these days so use it tastefully and sparingly! If great big white halos cover your horizon lines then you need to kick it down a notch.
The high-brow, real photographers consider in-camera HDR to be a sloppy setting. If you want to do it “right,” they say, you need to:
- Use a tripod
- Take at least three separate, RAW shots, manually adjusting the exposure compensation for each.
- Mesh them together at home with your Lightroom program and your MACBOOK SUPER MEGA PRO.
I say good luck with that when you’re hiking 20 miles a day!
#6. TRY THE APERTURE-PRIORITY MODE
Rather than always shooting in the Program Mode, the Aperture Priority Mode can be best for some situations. This is particularly true when you have a foreground and a distant background that both need to be in focus. I use this most often when I have wildflowers and distant mountains in my viewfinder.
First you’ll frame your shot, as the zoom will affect what you do next.
Switch the top dial to “A” (For Aperture) and then take a look at the screen. You’ll see an inner circle, an outer circle, and the letter “F” followed by a number, like F16. Close up the aperture to get the smallest inner circle and highest F number. This will let less light into the camera and give the greatest depth of field.
You’ll want to set your focus point approximately a third of the total distance away from you. If the mountain horizon is three miles away, then focus on a point that’s one mile away. Just guess. You may be able to manipulate the auto-focus to do this. If not, just change the focus setting to “single point.”
Now go ahead and shoot! This small aperture (High F-number) requires a longer shutter speed, leaving you prone to camera-shake and blurriness. A tripod is ideal, but in most cases I’ll just be conscious of trying to hold the camera extra-steady and hoping the VR lens does its job.
#7. GO HIKING AND TAKE PHOTOS!!!
PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE