Capturing breathtaking and powerful moments in the backcountry requires more than just solid technical skills and some creativity. It requires your camera to be setup correctly, you understand how to use it, and you can set it up properly to get the right shot.
A lot of the time, setting up the right shot means having a few extra pieces of gear that let you maximize the conditions.
When I first got into photography, I didn’t fully understand this and was always left wondering: “why am I not getting the shots others are?” or it felt like it was way more work than it should be.
Over time, as I learned more about photography and began to understand the nuances of shooting, as well as the different tools available and what they did, my photography improved to the level it is today.
Now, it feels effortless to set up shots, and most of the time, I have the gear I need to capture shots the way I want fairly easily.
So, whether I’m trekking through the backcountry, climbing mountains, or exploring hidden corners of the world, refining my gear setup has made all the difference in the quality of my shots, and I’m sharing it with you in hopes that it helps shortcut your journey.
Also, maybe this is a bit of catharsis as I look over at a stockpile of gear I tried that ended up not being for me, realizing how much I went through to get my set up right.
Of course, gear is always a balance between budget, weight, versatility, the difficulty of shooting location, the difficulty of the activity you’re doing, and whether you’re shooting stills, video, or both, and all of those considerations have gone into the list below.
Take what I share and refine it for your own process.
Not only has it helped me capture some of my favorite photos, but the different pieces of gear make my experience in the backcountry better. I am less stressed, have what I need, and, most importantly, can capture what I want the way I want when I’m out there.
My Recommendations On Must-Have Camera Gear for Adventure Photographers
Summing up my list:
- A High-Quality Mirrorless or DSLR Camera
- A Wide-Angle (Zoom) Lens
- A Telephoto (Zoom) Lens
- A Rugged Backcountry Camera Bag
- Peak Design Capture Camera Clip
- A Neoprene Camera Cover
- SmallRig Camera Cage
- A Good Headlamp
- A Lightweight Tripod
- Polarizers and Filters
- Remote Shutter Release
- Extra Batteries and Memory Cards
- Lens Cleaning Kit
- Camera Rain Cover
A High-Quality Mirrorless/DSLR Camera That Fits Your Style
Having a high-quality mirrorless/DSLR Camera that aligns with your photography style is paramount, as your gear is the very conduit through which your creative vision flows. If it feels good to shoot with it, then the quality of your visuals will be higher.
Quality cameras are also “better” for a reason and often provide superior image quality, focusing, light management, and versatility.
That said, it’s essential to remember that your photographic journey is uniquely yours, and if you’re new to this craft, starting with what you have is a perfectly valid and inspiring path, even if that means just shooting on an iPhone.
My own journey began with a borrowed $500 camera from a friend, and without that, I would have never likely picked up a camera.
As I fell in love with capturing stories and honing my skills, I naturally found equipment upgrades that resonated with my evolving style, allowing me to express my artistic vision in increasingly powerful ways.
Over the years, I’ve improved my setup dramatically, but had I not started small, I would never be where I am today.
I recommend trying out different cameras and lens combos and finding what intuitively feels good to you. Before you splash a bunch of cash, rent them from a camera store or buy and resell on Facebook marketplace.
For me, I’ve settled on the Sony system. It just fits my style best. But for some of my friends, it’s Nikon and Canon.
There is no correct set up, and ultimately, all of them will do the trick.
What matters most is that it feels intuitive to you – and you know how to use it.
A Wide-Angle (Zoom) Lens
A good wide-angle lens is an essential piece of gear for any outdoor photographer. It allows you to capture the vastness of what’s in front of you and captures those shots that give context to where you are and what’s happening. They do a fantastic job of “setting the scene,” so to speak.
I usually carry a wide-angle zoom lens that’s great for both capturing the entire scene, or cropping in a bit and capturing a little more of the subject and focal point.
This is either a 10-18mm on my ASP-C or a 16-35mm on my full frame. The zoom lenses get much more variability in the backcountry, and the scenery is always changing.
A Telephoto (Zoom) Lens
A telephoto lens allows you to get up close and personal with subjects, moments, and wildlife that might be at a distance, which is a common scenario in the backcountry.
These lenses are the key to capturing the intricate details and fleeting moments that enrich your storytelling, whether it’s the watchful eye of a distant animal or the subtle intricacies of the mountain peaks.
They are masters at preserving those small yet significant elements that complete the narrative of your adventures, adding depth and intimacy to the visual story you’re crafting.
Once again, I recommend a zoom lens that allows you to take advantage of the varying landscapes and shooting locations. I usually opt for a 70-200m lens for my telephoto.
A Rugged Backcountry Camera Bag
From dusty deserts to the rainy PNW, the best adventures will take you to challenging environments, and we all know that quality cameras and rough environments weren’t exactly made to go together.
I highly recommend investing in a durable, weatherproof camera bag that will protect your gear from the elements and keep everything organized nicely. Just tossing your camera in your backpack as you move through the outdoors is a recipe for disaster.
Look for one with customizable compartments to keep your camera and lenses safe, organized, and well-protected if your bag falls, etc. And, depending on the types of adventures you are doing and whether they are day trips or multi-days, make sure it is big enough to hold all the other gear you need.
Peak Design Capture Camera Clip
If there’s one piece of gear I absolutely love in the backcountry, it’s my Peak Design Capture Camera Clip. The reason why I specifically mention this brand over any other is that when you are buying a piece of equipment to hold your gear out in the open, you wanna make sure it’s battle-tested, and I trust Peak Design products with my life (and my camera too).
The Peak Design Capture Camera Clip allows your camera to be snug up against your chest, strapped to the shoulder strap of your pack. This means it is both clipped in securely and super accessible. Cause if you have to go into your backpack to get your camera every time, you either won’t capture the shots you want, you’ll miss the moment, or you’ll be so slow no one will ever go on an adventure with you.
This little piece of equipment was an absolute game-changer for me, and for the price, I can’t stress enough how indispensable it is for adventure photographers. It makes accessing your camera effortless while holding it so safe and secure you almost forget it’s there – until you need it.
This lets me capture way more shots, especially on a moments notice, and is the adventure-tested choice for carrying my camera.
Bonus points if you have the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System on your tripod, so you don’t have to switch mounts going between your camera clip and your tripod.
A Neoprene Camera Cover
A Neoprene camera cover case can be essential if you’re climbing, it’s dusty, or the weather isn’t great. For me, it’s been an essential guardian for my camera, providing a sturdy layer of protection against the unexpected bumps and knocks that often accompany my adventures.
The snug-fitting cover not only shields your camera from scratches but also offers a degree of impact resistance, ensuring that your precious gear remains in pristine condition, even in the worst of environments.
The only thing to keep in mind is to get one that will fit the lenses you have and is big enough to accompany my next recommendation: a camera cage.
SmallRig Camera Cage (Or Equivalent)
I can’t begin to tell you how many times my SmallRig camera cage has saved my camera, especially when scrambling up and down rocks and ridges.
Similar to the Peak Design Capture Camera Clip, I don’t recommend cheaping out on a camera cage because it’s literally your camera’s protection, and the SmallRig offers beautifully engineered and fitted protection, as well as versatile mounting options for accessories like microphones, monitors, or lighting, expanding your creative possibilities.
With a solid camera cage as your camera’s armor, you can confidently navigate rugged terrain with your camera, making it easier to capture dynamic shots and explore without worrying so much about the safety of your valuable equipment.
It’s a must-have tool that combines protection and versatility, and mine has more than a few dings that have kept my camera safe.
Bonus points if you have the Arca-Swiss Quick Release System for your tripod, so you don’t have to switch mounts going between your camera clip and your tripod.
A Good Headlamp (Actually Two)
If you spend enough time chasing adventures, you will quickly realize that early mornings and late nights are just part of the job, and with that, a reliable headlamp becomes a necessity. While you may want to skimp on a cheap one, I highly recommend opting for a good quality one and a backup. It is not something you want to fail when you need it most.
As far as what to consider, here’s what I look for:
- Make It Rechargeable: I recommend your main headlamp be rechargeable via USB so you can top it up with your USB battery pack or charge it from a portal solar panel. It’s also the eco-friendly way to keep your light shining without relying on disposable batteries.
- Red LED Mode: I also recommend that your main headlamp has a red LED mode. Nighttime photography is an art in itself, and maintaining your natural night vision is crucial. Red LEDs won’t blind you or your companions, preserving your night vision while you shoot your shots. Use the regular white light for walking, and when it’s time to compose your shot, switch to the red glow.
- Have A Backup: In the backcountry, redundancy is your ally (assuming it’s lightweight), and I always recommend carrying two headlamps. The first being the USB-rechargeable one I mentioned above and the second being a battery powered one that is tucked away in your emergency kit. I always keep the batteries out, so that it doesn’t unknowingly run out. Plus this back up helps when someone inevitably forgets there.
A Lightweight Tripod
A lightweight tripod is an essential tool for any outdoor adventure photographer seeking to capture stunning shots, particularly in scenarios like timelapses, long-exposures under the night sky, self-portraits, or those mesmerizing then”-and-now” transitions as natural light evolves. Tripods are the secret to unlocking creativity and achieving steady, breathtaking images.
Investing in a lightweight tripod is a wise choice as it not only offers the stability required for those captivating shots but also minimizes your weight, which tends to add up. A good tripod will last you your entire life.
Polarizers and Filters
Filters help with things like exposure, reflections, and providing unique and creative looks, and a few good ones can really enhance the quality of your photography. They will allow you to capture shots you otherwise wouldn’t be able to, dramatically improving your photography, especially in more dynamic situations.
I won’t get into depth about all of the polarizers and filters and their differences here, but here’s a quick summary of what I’m usually carrying:
- Variable ND Filters: These filters reduce the amount of light entering the lens, allowing for proper exposure settings and achieving a cinematic look. Think sunglasses for your camera and allow you to shoot longer exposures or have a slower shutter speed. Variable ND filters are adjustable, offering flexibility in controlling light.
- Gradient Filters: Gradient filters are used to balance exposure in scenes with a significant difference in brightness between the sky and the ground, such as landscape shots. They gradually reduce light from the top of the frame (bright sky) to the bottom (darker land).
- Circular Polarizers: Circular polarizers reduce reflections and enhance colors and contrast, especially in bright conditions. They are useful for reducing glare from surfaces like water or the sky and can add a unique style to your photography.
- UV Filters: UV filters primarily serve as lens protection by preventing damage from dust, scratches, and impact. They also help slightly with contrast and reducing haze, though their main purpose is safeguarding the lens. For the cheap cost, these are a no-brainer.
- Mist/Diffusion Filters: These filters are used for creative purposes, adding a dreamy or softening effect to the image. They can lift contrast, create halation or glowing effects around light sources, and soften skin tones while retaining sharpness.
If you want to learn more on filters, check out Lens Filters 101 by Tomorrows Filmmakers. It’s super educational and will teach you everything you need to know about filters.
Remote Shutter Release
A remote shutter release is not essential to your gear, but for the price can be worth having, and I usually carry one.
It adds a layer of precision to your photography, particularly when stability is paramount. It’s the key to capturing crisp, long-exposure shots without the risk of introducing camera shake, making it indispensable for astrophotography, landscape photography, and any scenario where absolute control over your shutter is needed.
Additionally, it empowers you to capture self-portraits or group shots without needing assistance, granting you the creative freedom to compose and capture with confidence.
They are simple and inexpensive but can also be circumvented using the built-in timer in your camera or a continuous shooting mode for self-portraits.
Extra Batteries and Memory Cards
This one is pretty simple, and I admittedly learned it having ruined more than one photography adventure because I ran out of batteries and/or left my memory card in my computer and didn’t check before I went.
Now, I always store an extra memory card and an extra battery at the bottom of my camera bag, safely there for the time I inevitably forget.
Pro tip: If you carry a drone, DJI has an adapter for its drone batteries that allow you to turn them into a USB charger and can be a life-saver if you need some extra juice on the fly.
Lens Cleaning Kit
In the world of adventure photography, keeping your gear pristine is crucial and inevitable dust, dirt, and moisture are going to be challenges from time to time.
A simple lens cleaning kit is a god-send when something inevitably gets a little dirty.
Here’s what I’m always carrying:
- a microfiber cloth
- lens cleaning solution
- air dust blower and soft brush
- a sensor cleaner kit
When I’ve need them, they have been invaluable and being able to clean off my gear properly has made post-production much easier.
Camera Rain Cover
Weather can be unpredictable, and sometimes captivating moments happen when conditions are less than ideal. Think a sudden downpour, getting up close and personal with a waterfall, or facing the raw, unbridled force of nature during the storm.
These moments, though challenging, are the very essence of adventure photography. They are the moments that set your work apart, capturing the raw beauty and power of the natural world.
In such conditions, the camera rain cover is an unsung hero in your gear arsenal. It’s your shield against the elements that lets you focus on the shot and not worry about your gear. While a downpour might turn most photographers away, with a proper rain cover, it becomes an opportunity to capture the raw and realness of true adventure.
And if you don’t have one, a solid plastic bag will do.
Adventure photographers are, by nature, risk-takers and explorers. With the right gear, you can push your boundaries, venture into the heart of the elements, and capture images that resonate with the power, majesty, and unpredictability of nature.
Equipping yourself with the right camera gear is crucial for adventure photographers looking to “get the shot” and learning about the small details has been impactful in my progression.
The gear listed here will not only help you capture stunning visuals but also ensure that your equipment remains safe and functional in the usually “less than ideal” conditions.
Remember that the best gear is the gear that suits your specific needs and style, so choose wisely based on the types of adventures you pursue, the amount of room you have, and the amount of weight you want to carry.
With the right gear, you’ll be ready to seize the moment, tell your story, and inspire others to embark on their own adventures through your beautiful visuals.
Let me know if this was helpful in the comments below!