How to carry a camera in the woods

Lowepro front view

First a confession: I hate – literally hate – having to haul around my waist a funny pack. Heck, I hate the name funny pack itself! But, objectively, it is one of the few way to carry gear in the woods – or around a city, for what matters – that at the same time doesn’t break your back and don’t require you having to stop every three seconds to put the bag on the ground, cursing because inevitably the ground will be damp or littered with animal poop, to access your camera and lenses.

But, did I told you? I HATE funny packs / bum bags.

To avoid carrying one I tried practically every alternative solution, from the commercial available to the DIY one:

– vests: pretty comfortable, especially if you avoid the photographic one and go for the cheap fishing type; but they scream “PHOTOGRAPHER, EXPENSIVE GEAR” to every thief, that in the woods is not a big problem, but in a city tour may well be. More, they are hot in the summer and uncomfortable in the winter, when you need to zip / unzip your jacket a thousand time a day.

– shoulder bags: THE photographer bag. I avoid this one like the plague. First they share the “look: photographer, expensive gear!!!” problem of the vests. Then they are too bulky, too heavy and the padding wastes a lot of space. If you are even a tiny bit careful that much padding is not needed. To avoid both of this problems you can make your padding insert out of Reflectix (the stuff of which car sunscreens are made), and put it in a normal, not photographic bag. Reflectix, other than dirty dirty cheap, it happens to be also a thermal isolating material, and that are good news for when (notice: “when”, not “if”) you will left your bag in the trunk or in the sun. In both cases, commercial or DIY bags: forget about using that kind of bag in the woods, unless you walk just a hundred of meter from your car: your shoulders and back will thank you.

– sling bags: probably fine if you carry a mirrorless o some kind of light camera during a city tour, but in the woods you almost certainly will have same kind of technical backpack, and the sling bag will interfere with the shoulder straps of your primary pack.

– backpacks, photographic: forget about them. They are overpriced, over-padded and often don’t have room for the indispensable things you have to carry in the woods, like a jacket, 10 essentials (knife, compass, lighter, etc.), spare clothing, sandwiches!

– backpacks, technical: now we are onto something! Using a technical – i.e. made for hikers – backpack, and protecting your gear with a DIY padded insert or stuffing the lenses in spare socks, is one of the best solutions. Its only drawback is that it is a fine carrying method for gear which you don’t need often, but uncomfortable for camera and lenses you use the most. Every time you gotta stop, you will have to: put the pack down, search for the gear, make the photo, re-stuff the gear in the pack, put the pack on…geez I got bored just saying that!

(Lightly) uncomfortable as it was, the technical backpack method was my choice for many years, and still is for the less used gear. As an added benefit, especially if you use a pack with an external frame, you can easily transport an heavy tripod without too much effort. But how to access the gear we use the most? And yes, without using a bum bag?

There are two categories of people that wander in the woods with hefty loads on their back: photographers and military. So I decided to look into how the army men carry their stuff, and a solution for my problem sprung to mind.

Lowepro back view
The belt loops; as a background I used my DIY silnylon tarp (200g, 10 euro)

This is a Lowepro funny pack that costed me 10 euro. It’s really well made, even if the central compartment it is too much small for a big camera like the Canon 5D Mark II – but perfect for a 60D and the kind. For me this is not a problem, as my camera lives on a tripod or fastened on my backpack shoulder straps with a carabiner; if the weather turns bad I simply slide on the Canon an Optex rain cover or a DIY silnylon one – made from scraps left from the above tarp. This way I can carry up to 4 lenses in this bag. What are you saying? That I’m cheating because this IS a funny pack? Yes, I know, for now it is… But with a simple – real simple – and dirty cheap mod you can turn this in a leg holster type pack, like the one used by the military to carry their guns.

Lowepro view of the details

The belt loops

Yes, it is that simple. Just slide two loops of cord – preferably 550 lbs breaking point REAL (i.e. not cheap chinese made one) paracord – in each of the two top fabric, Lowepro made loops and use the original waist belt, instead, to tie the bag on your thigh. Done!


– when you are without a backpack you will pass your trousers belt trough the top loops;

– when you are out with you technical backpack on, instead, you will pass through the loops the backpack kidney belt.

As an added bonus I was able to put an additional pouch on the Lowepro belt in which I carry my first aid / survival kit. Nothing fancy, you know, just: band-aids, a lighter, map and compass when needed, a little knife, a bit of tape and rope (paracord or Dyneema / Armsteel / Spectra) and my phone – that doubles as a GPS. And a little pouch in which I carry a 10 euro (again…) chinese 10×25 monocular, quite useful to see from a distance trail signs and the kind without having to actually walk the distance to the sign, only to discover that it’s not the one you are seeking. It may seem an unnecessary luxury, but after you’ve hiked 20 Km you want to save every meter.

This solution worked like a charm for me, so I can finally say that I found the Graal of the hiker photographer: the perfect camera carrying system! I hope will do the same for you.

Large format crash course

Linhof Technika 13x18

1 ) Minimum requirements: a tripod (unless you are willing to use a Speed Graphic type camera in the Weegee style, handheld), a large format camera with a focus screen and a back, a bunch of film holders that fit both your camera format AND your film format (see below), a lens mounted on a shutter (again, unless you buy a Speed Graphic camera which owns an internal shutter), films in the chosen format, a loupe (the bigger the better, personally I use a 22x, even if an 8x it is ok to start with), a darkroom or a changing bag to load and unload the film holders (in a pinch you can also do it in your bed, under the blankets with the lights off and the window blinds shut, but it’s not very practical…)

2 ) If you chose 4×5″ than, possibly, make sure that your camera has a Graflock back (in 4×5″ it is the international standard back); it’s not imperative, but it will simplify your life

3 ) If you chose other formats make sure that the camera has a back compatible with modern, internationals, double-sided film holders

Linhof Technika III

4 ) There are many formats from which to chose, but the most common are (in parenthesis the european film sizes): 4×5″ (10×12, 9×12); 5×7″ (13×18), 8×10″ (20×25). For each US / European format the cameras are the same; what changes is the film holder that you have to use to load the film. So, if you want, you can use your 5×7″ camera with both 5×7″ and 13×18 films just buying the correct holders for each size of film

5 ) You could chose between studio cameras and field ones. The first have most movements and are usually cheaper (given the same features), but are bulky and uncomfortable to carry into the field; if you intend to use them close to your car this can not be an issue

6 ) When shopping for a camera watch for camera movements too: at least it should have frontal or back tilt and frontal rise; ideally even frontal and / or back swing. The “technical” cameras normally have more movements that others field cameras

Linhof Technika 13x18

7 ) The untold secret of large format reside in using the black cloth and a good ground glass, maybe fitted with a Fresnel screen (it will enhance the luminosity); this way you can focus and check the framing easily

8 ) You can mount lenses from every brand on every camera, just change the lens board

9 ) What you have to check in a lens, quality aside, is that it has enough cover for the format of your choice. The very reason to shoot in large format is to use camera movements, but you can do this only if the lenses that are you using have a larger coverage than the film format you are shooting on

10 ) For the previous reason (the coverage circle) usually it is better stay away from Tessar and Xenar schemes lenses; these, nonetheless, are often excellent lenses and quite cheap so they can be useful starting lenses in landscape photography, where the need for movements is less felt

11 ) To focus a view camera properly often you have to follow the Scheimpflug principle. Basically it says you have to make sure that subject, film and lens planes they all converge in some imaginary point in the space to achieve the best possible focus for a given aperture; and trust me, the theory may be awkward, but using it it is really simple once you understood the basics

Fujonon 150mm

12 ) The lenses are really simple: usually just the shutter times selection ring, a screwed hole for the remote shutter cable and four little levers. One of them is for opening and closing the shutter (you’ll need to close it before you’ll pull the film holder dark slide; you’ll need to open to framing and focusing). The others are for charging the shutter, select the apertures and shoot

13 ) Best way to start is to stick to one lens and one lens only. In any case you don’t need a lot of lenses, because especially with the larger formats there is a lot of space for cropping. If you really want more your best bet is to duplicate the three lens you most use in 35mm; to make the conversion multiply every 35mm focal length for 3,3 if you are using 4×5″, for 4,4 if you are using 5×7″ and for 6,5 if you are using 8×10″; likewise divide every large format focal length for the above coefficients to know what is its 35mm equivalent

Big prints for cheap

Speed Graphic

Graflex Speed Graphic stripped and restored

Let’s say you wanna print big, really big. Big like wall size print.

Maybe you shot landscapes, or maybe you follow the Christo’s footprints and you want to wrap the Colosseo in a picture of yours. So you start shopping for the best top grade digital cameras out there, and you buy a Canon 1Ds or a Nikon D3x.

Then you put on paper the fruit of your effort, and the print sucks. Well, not really. But it is only really really good, but not great.

Disappointing, after you have spent big bucks.

Wait. IF your bread and butter are portrait pictures or cityscapes one of the above cameras can be enough.

But if you like shoot landscapes instead they will not suffice over a 50x70cm, not really if you have a critical eye. So you start looking at the medium format digital backs, but their prices are really scaring. There is not a solution at this dilemma?

Yes, there is. Actually there are two, and both have one thing in common. The secret is to shoot big, really big. Large format is the answer.

Solution 1

The simplest solution has a strange name: drum scanner.

Drum scanners are a kind of scanners that permit to extract the maximum possible quality out of your negatives, till the grain. No details are left behind. So if you shoot on 4×5″ film and drumscan it you may be able to output prints whose measures are in meters wide.

But this solution has two faults.

First: is costly. A drumscan vary between 40€ and 80€ for EACH frame.

Second: more often than not you will be forced to delivery by postage your precious negatives to a lab around the country, unless you are not so lucky to live near a drum scanner service.

Solution 2

A good flatbed scanner, like the Epson 4990 or the V700 and V750, deliver a scan that is not comparable to one made on a drum scanner. But, for my own tests, sharpness wise it’s like step down one format. I mean that if you scan on a good and focus calibrated flatbed a 4×5″ film you end up with a result that show the sharpness of a 6x7cm film drumscanned. Sure, the drumscanned film will almost certainly have more details in the shadows and in the highlights, but as for sharpness it will be a tie.

So the strategy is: if you want the quality of a 4×5″ drumscanned, but without the costs involved, shoot on 5×7″ and scan on a flatbed.

And by the way if you are able to find a really good pre-press flatbed the results will be vastly superior respect a consumer flatbed like the Epson models, so the gap with the drum scanners will be even closer. This way I’ve discovered I can print 4×5″ film to almost 130cm wide with great quality. Now I use often a 5×7″ camera, and as soon I will can get my hands on one of this I will start using an 8×10″ for the near-car landscapes.