Ultralight Photography For Thru Hikers and Backpackers

As part of our Stripped Down series, Ambassador Samuel Martin talks ultralight photography in the backcountry.

4400 Windrider Atop the Forester Pass. Photo By Samuel Martin
4400 Windrider Atop the Forester Pass. Photo By Samuel Martin

Samuel Martin maintains he’s an adventurer first, photographer second. His stunning landscapes and surreal trail photos bring the wilderness to life and show his love for the outdoors. However, photography is not something that truly meshes with the idea of lightweight backpacking. The heavy gear only serves one purpose; so lightweight photographers often find themselves facing the choice between sacrificing the quality of their photos or bringing along extra pounds. However, Martin has found a sweet balance between ultralight backpacking and the camera equipment he carries, producing photos while still being efficient and mobile. We caught him between adventures and asked him a few questions.

Do you leave other things behind so that you can bring more photo gear?
I definitely make sacrifices so that I can carry my camera gear. For example, on my recent thru hike of the John Muir Trail I ditched a second short sleeve shirt, a pair of pants, a pair of gloves, and many small miscellaneous items to make room for my gear. Personal preference and needs play a large part in what I leave behind. On some trips I don’t need a lot of warm clothes, so those get ditched. Other times I don’t need warm food, so the stove gets left behind. It’s important to evaluate the needs of each particular trip and go from there.

Samuel Martin's pack kit plus camera gear.
Samuel Martin’s pack kit plus camera gear.

How do you determine which photo gear you are going to bring?
For the most part I keep a basic camera setup from trip to trip. I carry a small 3/4 mirrorless Fujifilm X100, a 35mm Canon EOS-3 body with a 50mm lens, 2-3 rolls of film depending on the length of the trip, and a small Joby Gorillapod for third person photos or long exposures. When I am planning a trip I’ll often Google photos of the location to try to get a feel for the light and landscape, this helps me plan which camera(s) I’ll take with me and what extra gear I’ll need along the way.

Are there pieces of gear that serve multiple purposes for you in regards to photography?
I love to carry gear that serves multiple purposes. When I’m hiking I carry one camera on my shoulder strap using a Peak Designs clip and my other camera gets wrapped up in my camp beanie for some added protection inside my bag. I utilize a trekking pole tripod adapter to serve as a monopod when needed or as an extended selfie stick. On some trips I won’t even bring a tripod, a balled up jacket or rock works fine in a pinch.

Do you have special techniques you use to keep your equipment protected from the elements?
The two camera bodies I have now are unfortunately not weather sealed so keeping them dry is very important. Obviously when I am not using my cameras and it is raining, I keep them covered in my pack, usually wrapped up in spare clothing. I’m looking forward to getting more Stuff Sacks, which I plan on using to store my gear. When I’m shooting out in the rain or snow I simply try to keep the camera as protected as possible, this usually means keeping it under my rain shell and bringing it out sporadically to shoot.

When you’re hiking and such what are you looking for in terms of photos? I.e. you have a very unique way of photographing things. What are you looking for? What are you thinking about?
Because I mostly shoot landscapes the scale of the mountains or landscape can easily be lost in a photo. To combat this I try to place a person or tent in the photo to add a scalable element. I try to keep my head up as much as possible when I hike, not only to take in the wonder of the landscape but also to keep an eye out for possible photos. There is something beautiful in the spontaneous nature of backpacking, and I want to capture that spirit. My goal is to have every photo I take tell a story; some of my favorite photos are mundane and ordinary, but they tell a story of life on the trail and the beauty that can be found in the dirt.

What’s your typical day hiking like? Do you take extra time getting places or plan extra time so that you can take lots of photos?
My typical day on the trail does revolve around photos to a certain degree, morning and late afternoon are typically the best time of day to take photos so I usually find myself spending longer in camp during the mornings and stopping for the day earlier in the afternoons. This allows me to maximize the best light at the best locations.

Is there anything I’m not asking that you want to share with me about taking photos in the wild?
A camera is a tool just like every other item in your backpack, you need to evaluate the needs of the particular trip you are embarking on and take the necessary equipment. Don’t be afraid to take the extra lens or battery, but more importantly don’t be afraid to leave it behind.

Check out Samuel Martin’s website here, and visit him on Instagram at @spmartin_.

Shop at HyperliteMountainGear.com.