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Protecting your camera backpacking Stirling Range Ridge Walk

Camera protection backpacking

Stirling Range Ridge Walk

Protecting camera gear backpacking is essential if it is to remain usable when traversing rugged environments. As you can see from the image below of the Third Arrow, the Ridge Walk terrain is challenging with a heavy pack. You should have a modern backpack with shoulder and hip harness. My advice is that all your gear should be stowed within your backpack.

I would avoid attaching bags or items on the outside of a backpack. In rougher terrain you may occasionally slide a pack down a slope in front of you or need to move down a slope with rocks jutting outwards into your pathway. Either way you do not want anything to snag on your pack or break. Worse still is unexpectantly falling because you to become unbalanced when turning your back.

Attaching gear to the outside of your pack moves the pack's centre of gravity further away from the body. This can result in addition strain on your back or again could cause you to lose balance. A simple rule of thumb, if you can't pack it in your backpack then you can't take it.

Stirling Range The Arrows
Stirling Range Third Arrow 4x5 field camera Velvia 50.
Protecting your camera backpacking
Protect your camera gear when backpacking

8 tips to protecting camera gear backpacking

Some of the techniques I find useful when backpacking with camera gear are:

  1. minimise weight: plan the photographs you are most likely to make and reduce your camera gear to the bare minimum
  2. do not attach bags or other items to the outside of your pack, keep centre of gravity close to body
  3. hand carry a light weight tripod - use it a hiking pole when necessary
  4. use colour coded waterproof inner bags to keep like items together in your backpack
  5. place camera gear at the top of backpack to minimise damage and give faster access
  6. use padded wraps with velcro access around lenses and camera body
  7. take lens cleaning tissue
  8. try to take items which can serve more than one purpose eg you might use your rain shell to double as a focus cloth, reducing weight and volume.

What would I change all these years later?

There have been massive changes in technology since my earlier ridge walks. There are mobile phones -although I am not suggesting you rely on them in the Stirling Range, there is GPS navigation, personal EPIRBS and of course there are digital cameras. Given the new professional quality digital cameras and software available there are more choices available for such arduous journeys.

If I was not making images for the calendar, the obvious choice to me would be one of the new mirrorless digital cameras with interchangeable lenses and a tripod. The later would benefit from being carbon fibre and therefore light weight. This would be far lighter than a current 35mm dSLR. If you are not concerned about the combination of electronics, cold, rain, grit and jarring, then by all means get out your scales and weigh up the options with a medium format digital such as Phase One.

If I wanted to use film in preference to digital it would be hard to go past the 4x5 sheet film format. Its camera system is simple and robust, able to withstand wet weather and dirt. Best of all it does not require batteries. Medium format film is also an option. The other alternative  35mm film camera. A tripod is still, in my opinion, essential for quality work. Galen Rowell made wonderful mountaineering photographs with 35mm Nikon and Kodachrome 64 (and then later Velvia 50).

 

Stirling Range Coyanarup Peak Western Australia
Grass trees below Coyanarup Peak Stirling Range

Navigation aids for Stirling Range maps compass

Navigation and Safety

Regardless of mobile phone and GPS I would still carry my maps and compass. With a map and compass you read the landscape that you are moving through rather than rely on a digital signal confirming where you have been. Given the affordability and compactness of new technology you should really have a mobile, GPS, maps, compass and these days a personal EPIRB with you, as well as a letting someone responsible know of your plans and when you should get back.

My final word on safety is that if you are planning to hike the Stirling Range Ridge Walk, do some research of the route first. You may want to look at the publications by AT Morphet. Use minimal impact bushwalking techniques which includes not lighting fires and disposing of your human waste properly. Go with a walking colleague of equal or greater experience than you.

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Stirling Range Ridge Walk Western Australia

Stirling Range Ellen Peak Pyungoorup The Arrows Australia

Stirling Range Ridge Walk with a field camera

Stirling Range Ridge Walk Bluff Knoll from eastern peaks

Horizon Calendar

In 1997 I was publishing my large format Horizon Calendar of West Australian landscapes. I had been photographing and hiking in the Stirling Range since the early 1980s with a 35mm film camera. But the Horizon Calendar images were all made from my 4x5 camera field camera using Velvia 50 iso sheet film. The calendar was printed on A1 paper stock here in Perth. The colour reproductions were superior to pro lab prints and the detail exceptional. Placing 35mm images along side 4x5 images in a calendar would harm its production value. I needed  to make 4x5 images on my hikes in the Stirlings. This was the dilemma confronting me on my in the pre-planning stage for a Stirling Range ridge walk in 1996.

Horizon Calendar Stormlight Publishing Alex Bond
Stirling Range images published in the Horizon Calendar

Stirling Range Ridge Walk

The Stirling Range Ridge Walk is a challenging walk even for experienced bushwalkers. It is an unmarked route through mountainous terrain with very limited water supplies. Weather conditions can change rapidly and visibility reduced to less than a metre if clouded in. There are many mobile phone black spots due to terrain and remoteness. Before undertaking the ridge walk you should have highly developed navigation skills, have a high degree of self sufficiency and be using appropriate outdoor gear. Research the Stirling Range ridge walk before attempting it. Be a competent maps and compass reader. Obviously a GPS now days would be a good idea and you should carry some first aid.

Preparations food water shelter

Hiking the Stirling Range ridge walk  requires some serious forethought in your pre-planning stage. Some hikers use caves for overnight shelter. My preference is a light weight alpine tent. This gives me further reach onto the ridge than where the caves are. Planning includes three days of food and fluids. I hope to find additional water en-route. Water cannot be guaranteed and if no water can be procured then it probably means abandoning the  walk at the first Arrow. You can also climb down to a spring and then climb back up with water.... if the spring is running.

Add a 4x5 field camera and a tripod into the above mix of prerequisites and your problems multiply. A heavy backpack can slow you down, is less manageable in rough terrain and tires you more quickly.

Working with a field camera presents its own unique set of challenges of volume and weight. The obvious concern is about camera weight. This is certainly a consideration, but you may be surprised to learn how heavy modern dSLRs and their lenses have become. A Canon EF 70-200mm digital zoom weighs 1.54kg. My 4x5 field camera weighs just 40 grams more! By comparison a 300mm Nikkor lens for 4x5 weighs about 390 grams, nearly the same as a Canon EF 50mm f1.4.

I restricted my food to 500 grams dry weight per day. To supplement the water I would need to find en-route I carried another 7 litres. Water was without doubt the single heaviest item I carried.

large format camera Stirling Range
1996 Author at Bluff Knoll on completion of ridge walk.

Camera basics

When using the 4x5 in this environment I cut down the camera gear to its bare minimum. I  study maps, estimate times of day and my position and think about the photographs I hope to make. What lens is needed? What is absolutely necessary and what can I leave at home?

My 4x5 kit consists of two lenses and two film backs. That is a maximum of 12 exposures on 4x5 inch film. So you are not going to blast those off in the first hour of hiking. I take a  light meter and focus cloth. Plus of course a tripod. It's rather pointless to make all this effort to walk the ridge if you can’t make the most of the photographic opportunities it presents. Up until the mid 2000s  I was using an aluminium Manfrotto 190. These days the price of light weight carbon fibre tripods has come down which I would certainly use in preference now.

In the next post I will give 8 tips to protecting camera gear when backpacking on extended camping trips.

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Skink Bluff Knoll Stirling Range Western Australia

Skink Bluff Knoll Stirling Range. Beautifully camouflaged against the orange lichen flecked rocks, a skink warms itself on the summit of Bluff Knoll. The morning had started off with relatively clear skies, with the rocks receiving plenty of sunshine right up until mid afternoon. With diminished direct sunlight from the approaching cloud cover this skink was making the most of the latent heat stored within the summit rocks.

Bluff Knoll is the highest peak located within the Stirling Range National Park, about 90km north of Albany and the Southern Ocean. Bluff Knoll, at just over 1000m above sea level occasionally gets a very light dusting of snow. The Stirling Range National Park is a botanical island of worldwide significance.

On the day I made Skink Bluff Knoll Stirling Range I had with me a 35mm film Olympus OM4Ti with 24mm Zuiko lens and Velvia 50 ISO transparency film. I published this popular image, first in my Stirling Range postcard series and then later as a poster in 1995. Like my cards, the poster was printed here in Perth at a time when I was trying to make use of recycled paper stock. It was an exciting time to be making such a large drum scan and film separations from the relatively new 35mm Velvia.

For most publications and publishers, colour slide or transparency film was the standard as it was easier to compare the original with the colour image off a printing press. Velvia, with its fine grain, high resolution, colour saturation and convenient E-6 processing turn around time made it a hugely popular alternative to Kodachrome, which had to be sent to Melbourne for processing. I didn’t think I had any posters left, but during a recent rearrangement of my studio I found just a handful of 70x48cm posters in a folio case all in excellent condition.