Thursday, March 5, 2015

Camera Lenses for Backpacking In The Mountains

Dale Matson

Click On Photograph To Enlarge
Dusy Basin
Zeiss 35mm lens f4 1/500th In Camera Panorama

I am always looking for the best compromise in full frame camera lenses when backpacking. I cannot afford to be flown in by helicopter nor am I willing to use a pack animal to carry my gear. My Sony A7 is a great solution and non compromise for a camera body but the selection of native e-mount full frame lenses is only now getting up to speed.

For the past two years, I have used a native F2.8 Zeiss 35mm lens on my camera. I have no quarrel with the image quality it produces. The problem is that it is not wide enough for many places when you are deep into the mountains. It is not wide or “high” enough. Additionally, it does not have enough reach. When I approach my destination, my legs have to be the zoom and the clouds or sun may be gone by the time I get to where the lens can do it’s intended work. The advantage is the simplicity of one lens.

I also carry a Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-HX50. This has partially made up for the obvious limitations of a single 35mm lens. This camera is also great for wildlife, which often require long zooms. The 30X optical zoom lens with image stabilization is always on my belt at the ready for the illusive Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep that I have seen but never been quick enough to photograph.

Both of these cameras have a combined weight of less than three pounds. Two cameras provides backup if one camera or memory card should fail. Both cameras nicely fit and are snugly held on my utility belt. It also gives me quick access to both cameras as I walk. But still, I am not satisfied with my options.

At this point you may be saying, “But are you getting all you can out of the 35mm lens?” Yes. I use it for in camera panoramas and I crop images to bring them closer. Both these techniques have drawbacks.

I am not young and going over Sierra passes it tough enough without an additional ten pounds of camera gear in my pack. The Internet including YouTube has lots of articles called “What’s In My Camera Bag?” The problem is many of the bags are small suitcases on rollers. This is NOT realistic for traveling on and off trail in the mountains.

The late Galen Rowell was arguably the best mountain photographer and if you ever have a chance, visit his “Mountain Light” exhibit in Bishop CA. He had lots of cameras and lots of lenses but…. and this is important he said that he could have taken most of his photographs with two lenses.
The two lenses were a F2.8 24mm and an 80-200mm zoom. Both these lenses combined are wider and longer than my Sony A7 lens.

There is another contemporary mountain photographer who does marvelous work with a Canon 5D Mark II. Brian’s most popular lenses are the 17-40mm and 24-105mm. Again; they are both wider and longer than my lens. You can see some of his photographs here. Brian also carries a Sony RX 100.

The saving grace is the versatility of the A7. With an adapter, there is lots of film camera Zeiss and Leica glass available on ebay. Everything is manual but the A7 is good with that also. Sony now has a full frame e-mount 24-240 lens, which would cover about every situation in the mountains and I have ordered it. It weighs less than two pounds and is a single lens solution…almost. I also bought a used C/Y Zeiss F4 18mm prime lens for wider shooting. Sony A7 has a nice full frame 16-35mm and 24-70mm Zeiss, and 70-200 G lenses available. Combined though, that is too much equipment/weight for me to carry. I'll keep you posted on how this goes in the off-season for backpacking.

If you have something to say about this I would love to hear from you. I know some will not reveal their secrets. The next thing I need to do is lose five pounds so the additional load will be an easy transition.


  1. Here it is March 23rd and I have already bought and returned the new Sony 24-240 lens. I ordered a native e mount Sony G 70-200mm lens and love it already (the G stands for gold). I also ordered a used Sony Zeiss 55mm 1.8 and will have some photographs posted in a blog article by the end of this month. I sold my C/Y Zeiss 18mm/f4 and ordered a Zeiss 21mm/f2.8. Hope that's it for quite some time!

    Well, I guess it wasn't. Please check out the latest.