For hiking and travel, you are limited by the weight and size of the gear you choose to bring. In a scenario like this, there is often a sacrifice to be considered when attempting pro-grade images that are traditionally accomplished with large, heavy lenses and DSLR bodies. However, there are viable alternatives that work out nicely, cutting down on size and weight without compromising image quality. On a recent hike in the Catskills in New York, I performed a field test to find out what worked well for lightweight, high quality hiking alternatives – and what didn’t.
Mirrorless systems provide great solutions to the age-old problem of weight vs. performance. For this test, I chose an Sony a7 series camera, a Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70 f/4 ZA OSS Lens, a Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2 Planar T* Lens, a Metabones adapter, and a Lowepro Flipside 300 Backpack. For night photography or long exposures you’ll also need a lightweight tripod and tripod head.
The Sony a7R renders images sharply due to its removed optical low-pass filter and high resolution 36MP sensor. The battery life is significantly shorter than most in DSLRs but this can be resolved by shooting primarily through the electronic viewfinder rather than the rear LCD display or by having an extra battery on hand.
The a7R (along with all of Sony’s cameras) has a variety of scene modes including the “Sweep Panorama” mode – ideal for capturing high-resolution landscapes and vistas with a simple onscreen guide (for best results, a tripod is recommended). The low-light capabilities make this camera a formidable night photography camera as well when paired with the right lens. Shooting at high ISOs with the lack of an optical low-pass filter did pose challenges with noise in the images. However, shooting at high ISOs (over 6400) with most cameras will also result in noise and other undesirable image artifacts (stray pixels, flare, and banding in some cases). Primarily shooting in Aperture Priority/AV (for landscape) and Shutter Priority/TV (for moving subjects) yields spot-on exposures in most situations as the camera automatically adjusts the ISO for you (a function you can also override if desired).
The Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2 (manual focus only) was tack-sharp and impressive for shooting portraits and landscapes with crisp detail. When using the focusing ring, the a7R automatically zooms in through the electronic viewfinder to preview your image and help you ensure that your focus is on point with precision and ease. Shooting up close to your subject at an open aperture gives you a lovely bokeh effect ideal for portraiture and separation of your subject from the background. If manual focus isn’t your thing, the Sony FE 24-70 f/4 is a versatile alternative with a good middle-zoom range and constant aperture preserved while zooming. The Metabones EF Lens to Sony NEX Camera Smart Adapter IV allows for use of Canon lenses (a Nikon version is also available). The Canon Adapter IV preserves autofocus functionality without narrowing the lens’ aperture but it is not ideal for shooting action due to the slower AF functionality.
An often overlooked but still crucial component to a successful photography trip is the bag or case you choose to bring along. The Lowepro Flipside 300 is a compact choice with a front-facing zipper closest to you for easier access and deterring possible theft, unlike a typical backpack. It is surprisingly spacious (fitting all of the aforementioned equipment) as well as a Canon 24-105 f/4L and a Canon 50mm f/1.8 or comparable-sized lenses. If you’re on a long hike or you’re worried about rain, however, this backpack is not the best choice and could be swapped out with the SlingShot 200AW , an all-weather bag encompassing a built-in rain jacket that can be deployed when needed.
This is a strong setup for photographers and videographers alike. The a7 lineup continues to grow with different functionalities for different needs – the a7S for low-light video, for example. The Metabones Adapter IV for Canon lenses allows you the flexibility to mount any full-frame (EF) Canon lens on the compact Sony a7R and other a7 series cameras and opens up an entire world of lens options for Canon users making the switch to a mirrorless system. Of course, if keeping things lightweight is your priority, your selection is somewhat limited to the smaller lenses that can be hand-held.
A tripod is not essential for many shooting situations especially if you’re keeping things lightweight. Taking along a telephoto lens would have been nice but I opted for more mid-focal length lenses for wider landscape scenes instead. In retrospect I would’ve left the Canon 24-105 f/4L and 50 f/1.8 at home and instead opted for something with a bit more reach like the Sony FE 70-200 f/4G or the fixed focal length Canon 200mm f/2.8L II USM lens. However, overall this setup is great for hiking, shooting landscapes, portraits, and a variety of other compact travel scenarios. If you’re planning on taking a trip soon and are concerned about your setup, check out our guide to the best small camera for travel and compare!
What is your favorite lightweight setup? Share what you shoot with when traveling in the comments below!