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Lighter and Better Equipment for the Hiking Photographer

by E.J. Peiker | November 1, 2005

© E.J. PeikerA year ago I wrote about my photographic journey through many of America’s grandest national parks. In that article I lamented the weight of professional photo gear and made some wishes for the hiking photographer:

The large amount of hiking with equipment I did during my visits to these parks had me seriously questioning my equipment choices due to weight. During a 5.4-mile hike with an elevation rise of 14,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park, I contemplated the ideal kit for hiking/photography in our national parks.

The Canon professional digital bodies are heavy to carry, while lighter-weight consumer models do not offer the full-frame sensor and high megapixel count I need for landscapes. There is a niche for an EOS 20D-weight body (minus the optional vertical grip) with a full-frame sensor similar to the 1Ds. This would cut the camera weight down by 60%.

I feel that the 70-200mm f/2.8L is the wrong choice for a short to medium telephoto zoom, with the 70-200mm f/4L offering identical image quality at half the weight (and price!).

I would like to see camera manufacturers develop a professional grade lens in the 20-55mm f/5.6 range which would be half the weight of the 16-35mm f/2.8L, 17-40mm f/4L, or 24-70mm f/2.8L lens and it would replace two lenses with one. In landscape photography, apertures faster than f/5.6 are simply not needed often. It seems that the current offerings in slower and lighter lenses are not professional grade, with too many image quality compromises. Serious landscape photographers cannot live with significant pincushion distortion, barrel distortion or chromatic aberration.

I found the Gitzo 1348 tripod with a Kirk BH-3 head to be good hiking companions but the tripod legs were balky, easy to overtighten, and difficult to adjust, causing me to miss some shots. After years of searching, I am still looking for the ideal landscape tripod.

I almost feel as if the product developers at Gitzo and Canon were listening. The year 2005 has brought us many of the items I asked for in 2004. Here is a quick weight comparison of my most minimal 2004 hiking set-up and my 2005 equivalent set-up:

2004 Item Weight (oz) 2005 Item Weight (oz)
EOS 1Ds 53 EOS 5D 29
24-70 f/2.8L 33 24-105 f/4L IS 24
70-200 f/2.8L IS 56 70-200 f4L IS 25
Gitzo 1348 77 Gitzo 1297 42
Kirk BH-3 19 RRS BH-55 30
550EX Flash 14 580EX Flash 13
Total 252 (15.8lb) Total 163 (10.2lb)

As you can see, despite going to a much heavier, but substantially more capable and stable ballhead, I have reduced the weight of my gear for long hikes by over 5.5 lb without giving up anything in image quality or capability. In fact, one could argue that image quality is better with this set-up than with the old primarily due to the much improved image quality that the EOS 5D has over the original EOS 1Ds. This savings in weight is huge and either allows me to go lighter and therefore faster, or allows me to carry enough additional water (3 liters more) for a much longer hike or much more time in the field.

Countryside barn © E.J. Peiker

Here are my impressions of some of these new items that I’ve now had the opportunity to field test:

Gitzo 1297 Basalt Tripod

For trips with a lot of hiking I prefer a lighter and smaller tripod than the Gitzo 1300 or 1500 series. The 1200 series has plenty of load capacity in a smaller, lighter, but still very sturdy, package than the larger Gitzo lines. One popular option is the carbon fiber Gitzo 1228, but the collar is plastic and not built for rugged trail use. After time, it cannot be fully tightened resulting in stability compromises.

When Gitzo announced the Basalt 1200 series nearly a year ago, I was intrigued but concerned it might have the same plastic collar, an impression I formed from its appearance in advertisements. Over time, my 1228 became nearly unusable and I had to resort to a heavier Gitzo 1348 as the center column just could not be tightened. This summer, when Gitzo finally started shipping the Basalt tripods, I ordered the Gitzo 1297.

The Gitzo 1297 is a three-leg basalt tripod that is much more stable than the slightly more compact four-leg model. I was very impressed when it arrived; this truly is a next generation of Gitzo tripods. The weight difference between it and the carbon fiber version is insignificant, yet is significantly more rigid and solidly built. The legs are constructed so that they do not rotate within their sockets. Since there is no need to fight the leg section to twist to tighten constantly, extension and collapse is a breeze.

On older generation Gitzos, if you didn’t close the tripod from the bottom up, you often had trouble collapsing the tripod. Since the legs on the basalt models do not twist, this problem is gone. This is also the first tripod of any kind that is certified by Gitzo to be used in water. It has no metal or fibrous materials in the leg sections that can expand or get wet. Furthermore, the feet of the tripod unscrew to easily drain water and are very easily replaced if worn out. As a pleasant surprise, Gitzo did re-engineer the center column collar nut and it is now made of aluminum instead of plastic. The result is a significantly more secure and rugged tool than the older 1200 series tripod collars.

There are only two items I wish Gitzo had not skimped on—I would prefer the tripod head mounting plate not to be covered with plastic and I would prefer a bubble level on the collar.

Overall, this is a very impressive offering in the light but strong and sturdy tripod arena, and I feel this will be my tripod of choice for hiking and landscape photography for years to come.

Canon EOS 5D DSLR

Canon has granted my wish for a 20D-sized full-frame high mega-pixel count DSLR with the EOS 5D. This new 12.7 megapixel camera is perfect for the type of landscape photography that I like to do that often entails hiking several miles in mountainous terrain.

The image quality far surpasses that of the discontinued EOS 1Ds and rivals that of the newer EOS 1Ds Mark II at less than half the price and almost half the weight. What you give up is one frame per second (insignificant in landscape photography), some battery life and all of the weather sealing.

Canon has added several new items that were not previously included in its prosumer models, such as the EOS 20D and its predecessors. These include a true spot meter, significantly improved autofocus system in AI Servo mode, much larger (2.5 inch) rear-panel LCD, 1/3 stop ISO increments, highly customizable picture styles (color space, sharpening, saturation, contrast, color tone) and, of course, a full-frame sensor and DIGIC II Image Processor. . In all other respects, it is very similar to the EOS 20D although it feels a little more solid in the hand due to its slightly larger size, better hand grip and upgraded construction.

Having now photographed several locations and in various conditions with the 5D, I am very impressed with this camera’s versatility and picture quality. My own controlled tests have shown the 5D to have the highest dynamic range among any Canon DSLR by about a stop. This includes other bodies like the new EOS 1D Mark IIn with similar pixel sizes. The camera’s files also require less sharpening than all other Canon CMOS sensor DSLR’s. Noise is nearly non-existent at ISO 400 and below. At ISO 560 to 1600, noise is still excellent and the images taken at these settings are very usable. The AF is accurate and fast. The large rear panel LCD is a major improvement over the small LCD’s found on both the prosumer and pro series DSLRs of the past. It is now so much easier to preview an image or set the menu functions due to better legibility of a larger font. The 12.7 megapixel image is a great compromise between the flash card and hard disk-eating 16.7 megapixels of the EOS 1Ds Mark II and the, arguably inadequate for landscape photography, 8.2 megapixel rating of the EOS 20D and EOS 1D Mark II / IIn.

On the improvement side, the AF sensor array, which is an upgraded version of that found in the 20D, covers a very small portion of the frame – even with all AF sensors active you are really getting only a central frame AF capability. This camera, as do all other Canon DSLRs, powers down when the flash card door is opened. The mirror lock-up function is still buried deep in the menu structure rather than appearing as an overt control. Even though the new larger LCD is much better than the old, it is not bright enough to provide an adequate preview in brighter conditions without some serious machinations to restrict light. It seems that by now, Canon should have fixed this in their DSLR line since their point and shoot cameras have never had an issue with this. The battery life on the 5D is significantly less than Canon’s other offerings. This camera uses the small BP511A battery which realistically will last between 300 and 500 frames. This is more than enough for a day of landscape shooting, but a spare should be carried.

There are many sites that can give you all of the technical details on this camera so I will provide more of my personal experience. For me it is nearly the perfect hiking landscape camera. It combines superb picture quality in a lightweight and transportable body with a full-frame sensor that preserves the wide-angle lenses often making it unnecessary to carry anything wider than 24mm. It is exactly the camera that I asked for in my 2004 article. Thank you Canon! The real question is,”Do I still need my EOS 1Ds Mark II?” I’m not quite ready to give up the most awesome DSLR ever built, yet, but it certainly will not see anywhere near the use it once did.

Golden trees © E.J. Peiker

Canon EF 24-105 f/4L Lens

The newest Canon introduction in the EOS line is a professional level 24-105mm f/4 zoom lens to complete their f/4 maximum aperture pro line. This lens slots between the 17-40 f/4L and the 70-200 f/4L. From a weight perspective, this lens saves about 33% of the weight of the 24-70 f/2.8L lens that many Canon photographers use. Since f/2.8 is used rarely to never in landscape photography, an f/4 (or even f/5.6) is welcomed if it provides substantial weight savings and provides similar image quality.

The 24-105L’s image quality is essentially indistinguishable from the 24-70 f/2.8L throughout the shared zoom and aperture ranges. It has the same strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are primarily exposure fall-off at large apertures in the corners on full-frame sensor cameras which needs to be corrected and chromatic aberration in the corners. Neither lens is superior to the other in these areas. Sample-to-sample variability will likely dictate which is better if you own both.

An addition to which I am indifferent is the addition of Image Stabilization on this lens. Personally I do not feel it is necessary for my type of photography in this range of focal lengths. However, this will be a great walking around lens and IS could come in handy in those hand-held situations.

Build quality and finish is typical Canon L series and the lens, if maintained properly and taken care of, should last a lifetime.

One word of caution if interested in buying this lens, you will find them very scarce due to an extreme flare problem that Canon is currently debugging that can occur under very specific lighting and aperture/focal length conditions. However, the problem should be corrected on lenses purchased in the second half of November 2005 and beyond.

Overall, I am very pleased with the trend toward professional grade and superior image quality tools for the photographer who needs to be highly mobile. The compromises are getting less and less! There is more on the way, too. Really Right Stuff will soon ship a lighter and smaller version of its world’s best BH-55 ballhead, which will lower my gear weight nearly another pound. I hope the camera equipment and accessory vendors will continue this trend towards better and lighter products.

About the Author

E.J. was born in 1960 in Augsburg, Germany and moved to Ohio in 1969. He attended Purdue University and earned a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering and completed graduate studies in Microelectronics and Semiconductor Physics. After working for the Intel Corporation for 27 years, he is now retired from the electronics industry and is a professional freelance photographer. E.J. and has formally studied photography at the University of New Mexico and completed courses from The Rocky Mountain School of Photography. E.J. has two sons, and has lived in Chandler, Arizona since 1994. A photographic specialty is artistic images of ducks and E.J. has published the book Ducks of North America - The Photographer's Guide. E.J. is also prolific in landscape photography, his first photographic love. E.J.'s photographs have been published worldwide in books, advertising, magazines, billboards, murals and more. Some of his publishers and clients include The National Geographic Society, World Wildlife Fund, The United States National Parks Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Navy, State Parks Arizona, Barrons, and Dorling Kindersley. New Zealand Post honored E.J. by making one of his penguin images the primary image for their 2014 Commemorative Antarctica Ross Dependency Stamp set. He has also been named one of the top 100 Wildlife Photographers in the world by Eastern Europe's Digital Photographer Magazine. Visit his website at: www.ejphoto.com.

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