Lightweight Photography Setup For Hiking & Adventure Travel

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This post is not a review. I haven’t had any of this equipment long enough or used it enough different conditions to be able to add to or build on any of the multitude of reviews that are already out there. However, what I would like to walk through is why I decided to give up my entire Nikon kit and switch to a Micro 4/3rd’s system. 

In the past I’ve shot with a D3, D300, D7000, and a D70s. I wasn’t too impressed with the D7000, but the rest of the bodies were all top notch. Along with these bodies I used to own the 70-200 f2.8 VR, 24-70 f2.8, 12-24 f4, 10.5 f2.8, 50 f1.8, and 35 f2.0. I also had the Sony NEX-6 with the 16-50 kit lens.

A funny thing happened when I purchased the NEX-6… I forgot all about my Nikon equipment. The NEX-6 with the kit lens was tiny and took very acceptable photos. The kit lens was wide enough and long enough… most of the time. But what was really so awesome about it was that such a tiny package could produce such great images, and it wasn’t long before I started wanting to build out my Sony kit. However, that’s where I ran into trouble. The Sony lens ecosystem isn’t very well developed. At the time no one made lenses that I wanted, or they did and the prices were prohibitive. At this time I started exploring again and my attention eventually came to rest on the Micro 4/3rd’s family of cameras and lenses… specifically the Olympus lineup.

The more I looked the more intrigued I became. Micro 4/3rd’s cameras have a slightly smaller sensor than APS-C cameras like the D300 and Sony NEX-6. The smaller sensor means smaller lenses and because the Olympus cameras have in-body stabilization the lenses are very affordable and compact. Sure the smaller sensor isn’t going to perform as well in low light, and probably isn’t going to be able to match the dynamic range of a large sensor camera.

But… does it really matter? At a certain point we started splitting hairs, and for me the answer was NO. It’s my opinion that most of the current cameras out there produce images of a quality that far exceeds most peoples needs. I’m more concerned with a camera’s build quality, weather resistance, control layout, focus point layout, autofocus performance, etc…  

So, far I’ve been very impressed with the quality of both the camera body, lenses, and the quality of the images. I still need to spend more time in a larger variety of conditions before I can really pass judgement, but right now I can’t imagine ever going back to a regular DSLR. 

Continue on below for some of my initial thoughts on the equipment I am now shooting with. 

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The Olympus OMD EM-1… 
This camera is a beast! Actually, it’s really not. It’s quite small, but it’s built like a tank and has all of the controls you could ever need. Sometimes I wish the controls were a little simpler, but once you get everything setup it becomes very easy to use. I haven’t yet tested the weather proofing or challenged its durability, but it does provide a certain level of confidence when I throw it in my pack to head out hiking or mountain biking. The autofocus performance varies considerably depending on the lens attached, and while it’s not nearly as good as my old D300 it doesn’t hold me back and always seems to get the photo. Bottom line… this is a great camera and I would definitely consider this model or the OMD EM-5 if you’re looking for a high quality image producing machine wrapped in a durable shell. 

 

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Olympus 12-40mm f2.8… 
This lens provides a effective focal range of 24-80mm. It focuses blazingly fast, is accurate, and is built as well as any lens I’ve ever used. This lens isn’t tiny, but it is much smaller than my old Nikon 24-70 f2.8 and has been my goto lens on the EM-1. I don’t really know what else to say… It’s awesome! Expensive… but awesome!

 

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Olympus 9-18mm f4-5.6…
When I used to shoot a lot with my Nikon my goto lens was the 12-24 f4. This lens provides the same field of view, but is maybe 1/4 the size. It’s also a little slower, but with the in-body stabilization combined with the wide field of view… it’s really a non-issue. This lens is its most compact when it’s in it’s storage mode. Before you can take a picture you have to extend the barrel slightly. This can be a little bit of a pain… but if you just leave it extended when in use it’s really not a big deal. Again, the images this lens produces leave little to be desired. I do wish it was a little faster and that the lens hood had been included… but again another very awesome lens. 

 

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Olympus 40-150mm f4-5.6… 
Wanna know what’s crazy about this lens? The price! Brand new it’s only $200, and I picked up mine over at KEH.COM for ~$100. It’s all plastic and I wish the autofocus performed better in low light, but it produces great images and gives you the equivalent of a 80-300mm in a minuscule package. I recently used this lens to photograph runners coming into the finish at a local event. There was a lot of light and using continuous focus the lens performed great. I haven’t yet tried it in the woods with faster moving subjects like mountain bikers… but for the price it doesn’t really matter. This lens is one of the best deals going in the camera world right now and it will perform very well in 90 percent of shooting situations. This is a definitely must buy… though I am excited for the upcoming release of the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8. This should be an awesome lens… though it won’t be nearly as compact. 

 

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Panasonic 14mm f2.5… 
This lens is a more recent addition to my kit. I was looking for a wide, fast-ish, pancake lens and this is what I decided fit my needs best. Part of me really wanted the Olympus 17mm f1.7, but it was significantly larger in size, cost more, and really isn’t all that wide. Even though I’ve only had this lens for a short amount of time I am very pleased with it. It’s wide enough (28mm equivalent), fast enough, sharp enough, and it’s teeny-tiny. I purchased this lens for those times when I don’t want to bring anything else. The EM-1 with this lens will easily fit into a pocket. Maybe not the pocket of your skinny jeans, but definitely into a jacket pocket. Personally, I just carry it with the strap and it just disappears and is always ready to go. I think this will be the perfect lens for going hiking and biking and I can’t wait to get more familiar with it. 

 

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Here you can see the Panasonic 14mm f2.5 attached to my EM-1 and just how small it is. 

 

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ThinkTank Digital Holster 10 V2.0… 
When I switched to micro 4/3rd’s something funny happened. I realized that all of my camera bags were way too big! I have a Crumpler 5 Million Dollar Home and I can fit my entire kit inside it. I’ve been using this when traveling around and enjoying the best city experiences (click here to see which), but for hiking I wanted something a little different.

In the past I had always stayed away from holster style bags because if you purchased one big enough to fit your typical DSLR with a fast zoom lens it was gigantic! I’m not a big guy and strapping something that big onto my chest for hiking, biking or skiing was just not feasible. But, now that my camera is so much smaller a chest mounted bag has become an option. The ThinkTank Digital Holster 10 is their smallest holster style bag, and it fits the OMD EM-1 with the 12-40 f2.8 perfectly. It’s also small enough that it’s not at all in the way while hiking or skiing. I think it’s still too awkward for biking, but when shooting mountain biking it’s already a process to get off your bike and get out of the way so no huge loss. 

I’m super excited about this bag. It will provide some additional protection for the camera and will keep my camera ready to go all the time. 

 

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Benro A-069 Aluminum Tripod… 
I don’t have much to say about this tripod… it’s aluminum, it’s light, and it’s small. When I was using it with a Nikon DSLR and heavier lenses I often wished it was bigger and sturdier. However, now that my kit has gone on a substantial diet… it’s the perfect size. The best thing about moving to micro 4/3rd’s is not only are your camera and lenses smaller… but everything else is smaller as well. Getting into tough to reach places and getting great images just got a whole lot easier. 

 

Bottom Line…

My transition to micro 4/3rd’s has been awesome. Everything is significantly smaller and lighter without sacrificing much in the way of image quality. Getting great images just got magnitudes easier and I’m excited for the images that I’m going to be able to produce in the future. There are some limitations when I comes to shooting at high iso’s and tracking fast moving subjects… but these things will get better as the technology improves. If you travel a lot, or spend a significant amount of time on the best mountain bikes, on skis, or under a pack… you owe it to yourself to look at the micro 4/3rd’s system and some of the other mirrorless options. I’m glad I made the jump… and I’m not looking back. 

Cheers!

 

3 thoughts on “Lightweight Photography Setup For Hiking & Adventure Travel

  1. Justin McCormick

    I recently purchased the same set up, the OMD EM1 with the 12-40mm lens. It really is a fantastic setup, and I am eager to take it out with me backpacking this summer.

    How did you carry it on the Iceland trip? The ThinkTank bag seems too bulky to fit anyplace for quick access, or did you find a way to make that work? I was looking at getting a Cotton Carrier StrapShot since the camera is weatherproof.

    Also how did you handle battery life on the trail? Did you just bring extra charged batterys? I bought one extra one, do you think that would be enough for a 4 day hike?

  2. Ajoy Prabhu

    Found all your articles very informative esp. about backpacking in Iceland since I’m headed there shortly for 8 days.

    I’m glad you too made that journey from DSLRs to EVIL. I find that for many, having big lenses and equipment somehow empowers them. Whereas people like you truly find what works better, and adapt.

    Thanks for all the articles. Keep ’em coming.

    Ajoy

  3. igmaino Post author

    Justin,

    I rigged the ThinkTank bag so that it attached to the shoulder straps of my pack. This made it very easy to access. Also of note, the rain cover that comes with the thinktank bag works very well. It’s a bit difficult to get setup properly, but once arranged it kept things protected and dry during 6+ hours of hiking in rainy, windy, dusty conditions.

    As for batteries I carried (3) with me on the hike and brought my charger to replenish when I had access to an outlet. That said… I forgot my converter and wasn’t able to use the charger. During our time in Iceland I got by with 3 fully charged batteries, but could have used 1 more. If I had been able to use the charger I would have been set. I’d say that 2 batteries would probably work for a 4 day hike. However, if you wanted to do any long exposures, or are the type of person that takes a ton of images than you might want to consider a 3rd just to be safe. Running out of battery sucks, and I would typically error on having too many.

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