Saturday, 13 October 2012

Carrying your Camera up a Mountain

What do you take into the hills and how do you carry it?

I recently read Alexandre Buisse's Remote Exposure for a second time having received it for Christmas. Buisse and I have corresponded quite a bit this year and I have learned a lot from him. His career goes from strength to strength and there is no doubt that he is a world-class mountain photographer. I read carefully the advice in his book and, applying it to my own situation, I bought the Think Tank Thin Skin belt and Chimp Cage for my Canon 60D and 17-40mm f/4L lens. I took it up to the Yorkshire Dales and onto the Besseggen Ridge in the Jotunheimen National Park. In total, I walked with that setup in anger for around 5 days. I also took it to my usual testing group - the Surrey Hills. On each occasion, it was decidedly uncomfortable. Sometimes, we take the advice of others and find that, in fact, it does not suit us. Sadly, we'll never know until we try and so I have to find another way to lump my camera and equipment up the side of a mountain.

I think I will still, if I need to travel really fast and light, take my Panasonic Lumix TZ10 as it still takes very solid images and I can play around a little with Aperture, Shutter Speed and Exposure Compensation. However, as professional photography begins to take more of a hold in my work life, I will be finding that each time I don't have my DSLR with me when travelling or in the hills, I'll regret it.

So in terms of carrying my DSLR, the Think Tank equipment I have seen, I ought to say, is really very good indeed. It's all high quality, well made and well thought out. I was seduced by taking the format I deployed on previous trips of having my camera on my rucksack hip belt straps in a weatherproof pouch - it was accessible and protected. I liked that setup and I thought that the Think Tank Thin Skin belt would achieve the same end on a larger scale. Sadly, having two belts - a camera webbing belt such as the Thin Skin belt and a rucksack hip belt - is simply not comfortable for me. I even toyed with using the Thin Skin as a hip belt on my GG Gorilla, but that was never going to be comfortable either. And If I attach the Chimp Cage to the hipbelt of a rucksack, the hip belt starts to loosen given the weight bouncing up and down on it. This I learned in Jotunheimen. So I need something new.

Additionally, I've sold the 60D and bought a full-frame 21mp Canon 5D Mark II. I have added to my lens collection the Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS USM. That takes my collection of Canon L-series lenses to 3 (with the Canon 24-105 f/4L as well) covering a wide variety of scenarios. Although the 5D Mark II is heavier than the 60D, it's not by much and certainly worth the extra weight. I have decided my photography is going to take a front seat in my outdoor and adventure travel trips from now on and whilst the rest of my kit might be ultralight, I cannot lie and say my photographic kit will be. Perhaps that means I need to be even more rigorous with my kit selection now?

Whatever the weight of my kit, it still needs to be protected and accessible - so whilst it is clear the Think Tank setup does not do what I want it to do, I need to find one that does. For now, I think I have found the solution. I have often transported my 5D Mk II and whatever lens is attached (albeit not the 70-200mm) in a Lowepro Toploader Zoom pouch. It's light (300g) and tough (210D). It protects in a way the Chimp Cage does not. It's an easily used zip opening whereas I found the Chimp Cage's opening a real hassle. It has a water resistant cover which I may try and treat to make it more waterproof. I normally use an Optech Classic Strap which I have found to be so comfortable, because it stretches, and cheap as well. For mountain use, I detach this from my 5D Mk II and attach it to the Toploader Zoom through the strap loops. I then put it over my shoulder, diagonally, so the pouch sits on my torso with the strap going over my right shoulder and crossing at my left hip. This keeps it secure, allows me to move it behind me when ascending/scrambling, or to swing to the front to get quick access to the camera.

To the camera I attach a short 10mm (3/8") webbing sling with triglides which is looped onto a carabiner clipped to the Toploader. I can also wrap it around my wrist. If I drop it, it won't go far as the sling is only c.40cm once wrapped around my wrist. In the pic below, I would have twice as much free webbing after the triglide than pictured.

There is another option which I have asked Jaako Heikka to talk a little about. I have not, in the past, wanted to have guest posts on my blog but there are some talented people out there whom I have approached to write for the Journeyman Traveller. Two are writing as we speak but Jaako has already completed his post on the Ortlieb Aquazoom pouch. That will come next as will my views of Jaako and his excellent blog...


  1. Intereresting piece Andrew. I'm often asked how I carry cameras. Slung across my body in a padded case is the answer. I've done this for decades, including on many multi-month walks, and find it comfortable. I wrote a blog piece about it a few years ago - The picture shows two padded cases as when it was taken I was in the middle of switching from film to digital and carried an SLR for each. Now I use an NEX 7 so my case is much smaller. I still carry it the same way though.

  2. Thanks Chris - go take a look at Chris' method. Not terrifically dissimilar to mine.

  3. Learned that from Chris, I admit ;-)
    I just use a slightly different pack. Non padded lightweight.

  4. Without wanting to sound vague, I do think it completely depends on four things: what camera(s) you're lugging, what you're shooting (eg action or landscape), what sort of terrain you're on, and what else you're carrying - pack, climbing harness etc.

    I've shot everything from hard rock climbing, via ferrata routes, peak bagging, landscape, ski-touring and touristing in mountain areas, all with anything from medium format gear through to a Rollei 35s, or a Nikon D3s through to an iPhone. Unsurprisingly, I have quite a diverse array of camera/equipment carrying and protection gear that I have accumulated over quite a few years.

    I was agreat fan of the British-made Camera Care Systems (CCS) stuff, and still use two of their larger bags for carrying big Bronica gear in particular. For my D3s and the D200 outfits that went before it, with integral battery packs, I found the CCS holsters too small, and get on well with a LowePro Toploader, as featured in your article.

    At times, I've carried the Toploader, or a large medium format camera on my chest, using two simple clip and strap accessories made by Tamrac, that clip to my rucsac shoulder harness. These straps have a quick release buckle in the middle which makes removing the camera easy when taking the 'sac off, but they are just long enough to permit gear to be raised to eye level for shooting.

    Sometimes gear just has to go in the rucsac, even if it means that shots have to be pre-planned or less spontaneous. My Bronica GS is like that. However, doing something like ski-touring means that a stop to remove the 'sac usually means everyone has skied out of sight by the time you're ready, and carrying a camera in an accessible place is essential. When skiing, that seldom means on your hip, either. Ever fallen on a 35mm or DSLR in a hip holster? It often hurts it more than it hurts you, though usually damages both. For that sort of activity, I like a compact carried on a rucsac shoulder strap. There are several natty little velcro-based attachments that can turn a case intended for belt wear into something on a shoulder strap.

    Best of all, get someone else to carry your gear!



  5. I have the same Lowepro bag, Andrew. I've recently been attaching it directly to the shoulder straps of my Mariposa via a couple of s-biners (connecting the D-rings on the shoulder straps to the top d-rings on the bag). It works a treat.

  6. I used a top loader attached as Marks method on the 100 Mile Wilderness.  You can see how on the trip report video.  Works fine. You can see your feet fine on rocky terrain.  I noticed Marks method and did the same.  Better than a shoulder strap carry I found.  Thanks to Mark on that one.  

  7. A camera, camera bag, and your travel log are always a good combination. I'll always regret too if ever I forget to bring my camera during my trips. Pictures always make for good memories, not to mention, great blogs too.

  8. It's a good bag and I like your idea. I don't think it works for me as I want to be able to shift the bag around behind me when I am scrambling but I can see Mr Rye above likes it and he's a pretty exacting judge! What really surprised me was how much lighter it was than I thought given it protected more than the Chimp Cage and had the same overall features with the exception of the ability to hold a longer lens. I would say this, if I am ever going to take my 70-200mm f/4L IS into the hills, then the Chimp Cage has an extendable pouch area which can be unzipped to carry that, which the Toploader does not.

  9. Comprehensive reply there Tom, thanks. Here's a link to the Tamrac SAS system I think Tom is talking about ( and you'll see that Mark Roberts has a similar system.

    I like to keep my DLSR out of the pack for precisely the reasons you allude to when you're ski touring Tom. I don't like to hold people up and sometimes, you don't have time to fish your gear out of your pack to get a great shot. If you're roped to a mountain, for example, it's just not possible. So you're right - it depends on what you're carrying and where you are. I used to carry a very decent compact but now I enjoy what a DSLR allows me to do with my photography. I know there are those that would advocate the new mirrorless cameras - the NEX-7 has been touted recently on twitter, but that doesn't fit with my priorities.

    Thanks for the comment!

  10. Yes I can see that if scrambling a lot it might get in the way.

    I liked the look of the think tank gear too, but decided against for the waist belt reason. I have enough trouble with hip belts and trouser belts as it is, without needing to throw another into the mix.

    The "rain cover" on the Lowepro is a bit of a pain though, and probably of limited use in a real extended downpour. I'm looking forward to reading more about the AquaZoom in Jaakko's post. I might need it for the D800 I just a few seconds ago ordered :)

  11. I agree with your point about a travel log - I always take a moleskine wherever I go traveling now as I find my writing improves when I have that log to inspire my memories.

  12. Cool - glad it worked for you, Martin! 

    I do a similar thing for my GF1, which I also carry in a smaller Lowepro (Apex 60 AW) - it connects nicely onto the shoulder straps of the huckePACK. Haven't tried it on other packs yet, but I'm sure it's doable with some improvisation.

  13. D800?!?!? Nice. Although, you might get some stick for having a UL blog and a full-frame DSLR ;-)

    The rain cover is a bit of advertising poetic licence I agree. On the smaller Apex 20AW I found it to be great for a very short time and then wet-out. Although there are treatments which might be worth applying to it as breathability is not an issue. At least it keeps the worst off. I have just finished the uploading and formatting words on Jaako's post and need to insert photos so we're good to go on that very shortly. Stop press - it's good! Here's a little taster from Jaako:

    "In my opinion the Ortlieb Aqua-Zoom is a superb camera bag for carrying a DSLR in dusty or wet conditions. It’s simple and light enough for hiking and provides easy access but still provides enough protection for most conditions imaginable and in real life use it even exceeds the promised levels of protection."

  14. Yes. People seem to forget that a DSLR can be used for a lot more than ultralight hiking :) It's also replacing my Canon XH-A1 video camera (reasonable offers accepted ;) ), and will be used to shoot our future video installations, for studio shoots etc. I'm staying out of the arguments on that one, but in my opinion m43 is great for hiking if I'm not planning on doing anything professionally with the images, but a full frame DSLR will always have the edge in dynamic range and quality. Anyway, that's my two ha'penny worth :)
    I'm particularly interested in Jaakko's thoughts on winter use for the AquaZoom, but, yes, he's said he's very happy with it.

  15. a tricky one I'm wrestling with at the mo' too.  I have the same toploader (have 2 sizes in fact) and prefer the 'Roberts method' (!?) as I find that with a heavy camera sitting diagonally across my torso, my shoulder starts to really ache after a couple of days - therefore better to have the weight centred.  But....will confess this has got me into trouble a couple of times on scrambles as I really needed to be in much closer contact with the rockface than was possible with a camera case in front!  It made things pretty precarious - twice now.  Sometimes I forget that its best to put the camera away in the sack altogether.  For scrambling routes, my pana LX3 would be better I guess - use single handed, point and shoot etc.

    Have recently invested in one of these:,2054,32.htm
    but no hill time with it yet so will reserve judgement....
    (they also make a bigger one for your inner Schwarzenegger, but this is not for me!,2028,32.htm)

    The raincovers on the toploader bags do wet out after an hour or so of persistent rain, but if its chucking down that much then the camera is in the rucksack anyway.  Unless of course, my backpack is already too full of chocolate and cous cous ;)

    It would be good to know how you and others carry your additional lenses? - where are they, how easy to access etc  Also filters and other paraphernalia.

  16. Works a treat Mark.  Keeps it simple to get out the camera and shoot.  

  17. I don't carry additional lenses at the moment - just the 17-40 f/4L for the mountains. If I were to carry another lens, it would be in a padded lens pouch inside the pack. Accessibility not essential for that point as I would plan ahead depending on the route - but I'll live and learn.

  18. For the amateur: the control, dynamic range, battery life (way better than my Nex 5) and that ability to lock the mirror mounted on a tripod and take top images is why I have gone DSLR.  Down side I cant be assed with RAW files but know it makes sense.  Top pro like Steve Walton goes DSLR still. he won Landscape photographer of the year 3 times.  Says it all for me.  UL fan boys can waffle on all they like, I am not taking anything but a DSLR.  

  19.  Martin, the NEX 7 has better dynamic range than most DSLRs and of course there's no mirror to lock. The battery life is as good as my old Canon 450D DSLR. I used DSLRs for eight years. I wouldn't have changed to a smaller camera unless the results were at least as good.

    However I'd say that shooting raw was far more important for image quality than the camera model. Shooting JPEGs means throwing away much of your camera's capabilities, whatever it is. And as software has improved old raw files can be processed to get better results.

  20. Here's another approach for you: I gave up on camera bags altogether a few years ago. I use a DSLR albeit a small one with very light lenses but just sling it around my neck on a strap. That way its always to hand for opportunistic captures (80% of my photos). When things get scrambly I tuck it around to the side through my shoulder straps. In light rain I stuff it under my shell. When conditions are realy bad I dump it in a stuff sack in my pack. I expose my camera to more knocks and bruises this way but thats a risk I take for a method that works for me. besides camera gear can take more punishment than you would expext imho. It was Steve Walton that pursuaded me to ditch the bag. on the subject of camera choice: ive recently purchased a bigger heavier dslr with pro glass. Its my only non compact right now so gets used outdoors. it wouldnt be my choice though. When I have the money I'll move to m4/3. Compact system cameras are as good as any medium format dslr now unless shooting fast movement (like my kids and why I still have a dslr) and full frame only offers an advantage if you intend to print very large. Its got to a point where its much about the glass again and m43 offerings include some spectacular compact lenses.

  21. "I'm particularly interested in Jaakko's thoughts on winter use for the AquaZoom - -" It can handle more winter use than it's meant to but it's not really meant for Arctic winter... Well, you'll find out more soon.

  22. I simply carry my DSLR around my shoulder or in my hand. If it starts raining just a little bit, then I wrap a microfiber cloth over the camera and pull a drybag over it and clip the drybag closed (which doesn't seal it, of course, since I cannot fold the drybag with the camera strap coming out of it). This protects the camera surprisingly well against light precipitation. If it starts raining heavily, then the camera and shoulder straps go inside the sealed drybag and then inside the backpack.