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 4×5 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 4×5 images in a calendar would harm its production value. I needed to make 4×5 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.
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 4×5 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 4×5 field camera weighs just 40 grams more! By comparison a 300mm Nikkor lens for 4×5 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.
When using the 4×5 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 4×5 kit consists of two lenses and two film backs. That is a maximum of 12 exposures on 4×5 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.