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 snick, snick, 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.