Hiking with a Micro Four Thirds Camera

December 12, 2016  •  6 Comments

Mountains of Kazakhstan

If you've read my other blog articles, you know I switched from big DSLRs to Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras about three years ago when I began traveling a lot and needed a smaller kit. In the past two years I've had many opportunities to do day hikes in the mountains of southeastern Kazakhstan, just outside the city of Almaty, and my MFT kit has been perfect for this. I've made some refinements to my kit and added some hiking gear, so I thought I'd share some tips about things that have made these trips easier and more comfortable.

First, the camera gear. This is my hiking kit.

Panasonic GX7 and 14-140IIOne small camera and one small lens for hiking. This top-load pouch carries my GX7 and 14-140 zoom on my chest and provides quick access while I'm on the move, as well as protection from moisture and knocks.

For a while I carried two zoom lenses, Panasonic's 12-35mm f2.8 and 35-100mm f2.8, to cover everything from wide vistas to close-ups of distant peaks. I found, though, that swapping lenses was bogging me down, especially when it was raining or snowing, and this was causing me to fall behind my companions, who were less photo-obsessed. About a year ago I bought a Panasonic 14-140mm lens to replace my two zooms for hikes and travel. Now, many such "super-zooms" deliver less than stellar optical quality, but this one is remarkably good at all focal lengths and delivers nice detailed images I can easily print at 16"x21" or even bigger. So now I no longer need to swap lenses, and I have a smaller, lighter kit that's no burden at all.

The top-load pouch rides on my chest, on a neck strap or clipped to D-rings on my backpack's shoulder straps, where it's protected from rocks, branches, and falls. A bungee cord around my torso clipped to the pouch keeps it from bouncing. If it's raining or snowing, I can remove the camera, fire off a few shots, and put it back in the pouch in a matter of seconds. This speed helps, too, when I need to keep moving. Two small pockets on the outside carry filters, an extra battery, an ounce of sunscreen, and UV chapstick.

Lightroom's "Merge to Pano" and "Merge to HDR" tools let me easily overcome the three biggest issues encountered when shooting landscapes with a small kit like this: how to capture a very wide scene, how to capture enough pixels to make very large prints, and how to capture a very broad range of tones.

When I want to capture a wider view than this lens can get in one shot, or when I want more pixels for really monstrous prints, I simply take a few shots to capture the scene in pieces, then stitch the files together into a single image using Lightroom's "Merge to Pano" tool on my Mac, like this:

Mountains of Kazakhstan near Almaty24 bracketed shots processed into 8 HDR frames and stitched together to make one 20,000 x 5,000 pixel panoramic image.

This image, assembled from eight separate frames, is roughly 20,000 x 5,000 pixels and could yield a nice sharp print fully ten feet wide. It also included a broader range of tones than my camera could capture in one shot without losing detail in the brightest or darkest areas, so for each frame I captured three shots with different exposure settings (AKA "exposure bracketing") and used Lightroom's "Merge to HDR" tool to combine them into a single High Dynamic Range (HDR) frame that preserves detail in the clouds and trees. So, the image above actually comprises 24 shots. Lest this sound daunting, let me say that it took only a few seconds to shoot, thanks to the camera's built-in exposure bracketing feature, and combining them in Lightroom took no more than five minutes.

OK, enough of the camera geekery, now for some practical tips about photo hiking. I've found five items absolutely essential, especially in cold weather, and choosing the right ones has made a huge difference. Here they are.

Fizan Speed trekking polesThe key is the quick-release loop. Crampons for mud, snow and iceThe key is the chains attaching the teeth to the collar. Fleece balaclavaMultiple ways of wearing aid in temperature control. Smartwool glove linersBy themselves or inside fingerless gloves, these keep my hands warm while letting me use the camera's touchscreen.

Fleece fingerless mitten/glovesEssential for cold-weather photography

 

I had and lost another set of poles, but I fell in love with these Fizan Speed poles because the wrist strap clips to the pole and can be released with the push of a button. No more wrestling my hands in and out of straps every time I stop to make some photos. I just plant the poles in the snow, pop, pop, and my hands are free, then snicksnick, and I'm ready to hike again. These poles have metal tips, which are great on ice, but they also have removable rubber feet that work better on rocks.

I had and broke another set of crampons, but these new ones are holding up great. The key is that the teeth on the bottom are attached to the collar on top with metal chains, which can survive walking on rocks and gravel. The old pair had silicone fingers that reached under the boot to connect to the metal teeth, and those fingers failed after just four outings on snow-covered gravel.

My face is sensitive to cold, and this balaclava is a real treat when the weather is below freezing and windy. If I get hot, I can uncover my face or even pull the top down and wear it as a scarf.

Finally, the Smartwool glove liners have finger tips that can operate a touchscreen. With temps around freezing, these are all I need. When it gets colder, though, I can switch to my fleece fingerless glove/mittens. And, if it gets really bitter, I can wear the former inside the latter. Layers - clothing for cold weather hiking is all about layers.

Well, that's all I can think of to say about this for now. If you have questions or comments, please feel free to post them in the guestbook and I'll respond here. In the meantime, you can see more hiking photos in my Mountains of Kazakhstan gallery.

 


Comments

Jacques Cornell Photography
453C, thanks for the information. I'm happy with my current pouch, but if I need something different, I'll investigate the items you recommended. I would not be comfortable carrying my camera on my hip or hanging from my shoulder because I do a lot of clambering and scrambling over and around rocks and thickets, and I just know my camera would get banged. On my chest is the one position where I'm confident my camera is protected, even if I slip and slide.
Jacques Cornell Photography
Michael, since the demise of RSS, there hasn't been a good way for get automatic notifications of additions to my blog. If you know of some such tech that I'm missing out on, I'd love to hear about it. In the meantime, all I can suggest is that you bookmark my blog and check in every few weeks. As you can see, I publish new articles every few weeks or months, as time allows and inspiration strikes.

Congrats on your new G85! That's the camera I'd buy today, just amazing feature set for the price, and a nice big EVF, too. Last year I made some 16"x21" glossy lab prints for an exhibition, and they're just as sharp and detailed as I could want. 16MP is plenty for even bigger prints. What really makes the difference is using a proper three-stage sharpening workflow on RAW files. Without proper sharpening, all the pixels in the world will still look like junk.
Michael Hoffmann(non-registered)
Hi Jacques, I came across your comments in DPReviews (16mp vs 20mp)and was impressed by your knowledge and down-to-earth advice.
Is there a way to follow your blog? I have just ordered the new Panasonic G85. it comes with 12-60 lens, but I'll probably get a 14-140 lens for most versatility. I was concerned about it be only 16mps, but the features convinced me to get it rather than something at 24mps. Since I am so old (60yrs) and wear glasses, the bright EVF was a high priority for me. I would like to make nice prints up to 16x24 and your remarks have convinced me that the 16mp is fine enough. I recently started a blog just for the joy of sharing, and eventually maybe create a web page to sell some prints - but that seems pretty complicated. I am considering going with Pixels.com but not sure if I want to try trust them with my original resolution files, plus I'd be competing with 100,000 other photographers/artists. Thanks again.
453C(non-registered)
Thanks for your article, and for the DPR thread directing me here. One of the main reasons I moved to MFT was for backpacking & mountaineering. My little P&S camera just didn't do justice to the scenery. MFT strikes the right balance in many ways for backpacking, IMO.

If you're ever looking for a new bag, take a look at the Think Tank Digital Holster series. I use a DH 10 with my Olympus E-M1, and it can be carried on the chest as you do now, or at the side on a pack's hipbelt (my preferred method). The toploading design is very quick to use, and the bottom expands to accommodate longer lenses.

I also have an Ortlieb Aqua Zoom bag I use for canoeing. It's as close to waterproof as a bag can be while still allowing fast access, and it's designed for chest or side carry. The TT bag has a rain fly and I treated it with a DWR product, but the Ortlieb bag actually floats, so it's the one I use on the water or if heavy rain is expected.
Jacques Cornell Photography
John, thanks for the feedback. Glad you liked the article.
I have the 12-35/2.8 and it's a great lens. Weather-sealed, too. Couldn't say whether the Olympus lens is "better", as I haven't used that one. Reviews indicate it's slightly sharper at some settings, but it's also larger and heavier. And, of course, it's not compatible with the Dual IS feature of your GX8.
I got tired of swapping the 12-35 and 35-100, and I'm very happy with the 14-140 for shooting scenics while I'm on the move. I don't often shoot in pouring rain, so weather sealing hasn't been necessary. If there's a drizzle or it's snowing (even quite hard), I just pop the camera out of the pouch, fire off a few shots, then wipe the water off with my hand or a small towel, and pop it back in the pouch.
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