What to wear to the party?

I just got back from a fantastic workshop with Steve. It was the Yosemite High Country Backpacking Expedition. The last time I hiked in this area was almost 45 years ago when I was 13 years old. I had looked longingly at Steve’s images from his previous trips here as well those from other participants. Finally with some encouragement from Steve I decided to do it this year. Since this would involve a lot more physical work than I’m used to I started to train about three months ahead of the trip. I walked four miles twice a week with 30 pounds of diving weights in my pack and hiked up a nearby canyon once a week also with the pack. Eventually that turned out to be a 3.5 mile trip up with a 2000 foot elevation gain then back down. This was all in addition to my usual routine of playing basketball twice a week for over an hour. I’m sure many will wonder if that much training is necessary. It may not be for everyone, but it worked out just right for me. By the time the trip came around I had lost 15 pounds and felt good after my training hikes. So good in fact, that I started to wonder if I couldn’t bring all my usual camera gear. Which brings us to the title of this essay – What to wear to the party? By that I mean what photographic equipment to bring for the trip.

I usually shoot with a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II. My pared down complement of lenses would have been the 16-35 f/2.8 L, 24-70 f/2.8 L, and my sacrifice for weight would have been the 70-200 f/4 IS L instead of the f/2.8 version of that lens. I normally bring a total of 4 NP-E3 batteries on a week trip just to make sure I wouldn’t run out of power. By the time you add memory cards, Singh Ray filters (LB Color Combo, LB Warming Polarizer, and two 4”x6” split ND filters), dust blower, card wallets, cable release, Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with Acratech ballhead and leveling base, and a lens cloth that would have come to 24.3 pounds. Whoa! Even with staying at the High Sierra camps where they provide meals and a bed I would have ended up with way more pack than I wanted. My goal was to keep it at 30 pounds or less. Fortunately, sanity prevailed after talking with Steve and one of the other guys going on the trip. I had purchased a Canon Digital Rebel XTi last year (for my wife to shoot when we are out together). Since she had difficulty supporting it with the bigger lenses on it I had the 70-200 f/4 in addition to the 17-85 IS lens we bought with it. This is a 10 megapixel camera with quite good low noise capabilities. I knew I would need a wider lens than those since it is a reduced frame camera (1.6 crop factor) so I picked up the Canon 10-22 EF/s lens. This gave me the same lens coverage I would have had with the 1Ds with the bonus of an extra 120mm on the long end due to the crop factor. The real question was: how much would it weigh? I wasn’t sure how long the batteries would last since they were much smaller than the 1Ds batteries. I ended up taking 7 of them. At 1.5 oz. each the 7 only weighed as much as one of the 4 1Ds batteries I would have taken. The total package ended up being 10.4 pounds lighter than my original plan.

The other real question I had was about image quality. I knew I would give up some in switching from the 16+ megapixel full frame sensor of the 1Ds and by using the non L lenses, but how much? I tried to shoot a few comparisons prior to going, but didn’t have time to make a really large print from each which is what it would take to see the difference. I did plan to shoot a few more stitched panoramas to make up for the decrease in resolution. That’s why I brought the Acratech leveling base.

Did I make my goal of a 30 pound pack? No. It ended up being just about 40 pounds by the time 3 liters of water and a lunch were added to the clothes, extra shoes, emergency supplies, and other gear I needed. But, that’s far better than the 50 pounds it would have been with my other system.

It turned out to be a fantastic trip – the hiking, the photography, and the comraderie were great. Now that I’m back I can say that I’m very happy with the images I got, and very happy that I made the trip. I am certainly glad I didn’t carry the extra 10 pounds my normal system would have weighed. I am happy with the equipment choices I made and did not feel limited at all. I am also glad that I trained like I did since I was able to do the hiking and still have enough energy to enjoy the scenery and the photography. Did I dress right for the party? Definitely! Is this the “perfect” setup for this kind of trip? I don’t know. I’m sure there are other combinations that would work well, but this is the one I tried and I’m happy with my choices.
Jeff Johnson

Update: August 2009

I just got back from an abbreviated version of the Yosemite Loop Hike. We couldn’t get reservations for the entire loop so we ended up hiking from Tuolemne Meadows to Glen Aulin. We stayed there two nights, then one night at May Lake then hiked out to the road. We did hike down to Waterwheel falls on our second day in Glen Aulin. Since we would be hiking a lot less I decided to bring my 1Ds MkIII, the 24-70 f/2.8, 16-35 f/2.8, 70-200 f/4 IS, and a 1.4x extender. Ended up with a heavier pack, but with only one day of serious uphill it worked out fine.