Introduction: As a large format photographer who does a lot of hiking and backpacking, I have come to appreciate compact lightweight cameras and lenses (see my reviews of the Toho Shimo FC-45X and the Anba Ikeda Wood View). This section of my Large Format Homepage contains specific recommendations for lenses to carry when weight is a concern (i.e. extended backpacking trips, very long dayhikes, or possibly even airline or foreign travel). So, keep that in mind when reading the articles in this section. Although there is some overlap between the categories, this web site contains separate sections dealing specifically with General Purpose Lenses (see also Future Classics) and Budget Lenses.
General Strategy: When combining backpacking with large format photography, weight always becomes an issue. Still, I've never been on a backpacking trip without a large format camera system. My first ever backpacking trip occurred less than two weeks after buying my first large format camera system - a Speed Graphic with a 127mm Ektar and two film holders. The Speed accompanied me on that trip and, ever since, it just wouldn't feel right to go backpacking without a large format camera. For me, a large format camera has become as essential to my enjoyment of the backcountry experience as a cozy sleeping bag or a cup of hot chocolate. Unfortunately, large format equipment TENDS to be bulky and heavy (non-ideal qualities for any piece of gear to be carried on your back for many miles), and I think that discourages many people from combining two wonderful and otherwise very compatible and complementary experiences. I used to carry a pack weighing between 65 and 70 lbs. on all my overnight backpacking trips. Well, I'm not getting any younger and the mountains aren't getting any shorter (well, except for Mount St. Helens), so over the years, I've gotten my total pack weight including a complete 4x5 system down in the 40 - 50 lb. range (depending on season and length of trip). I tend to hike solo a lot, so those figures include everything I need to camp safely and in reasonable comfort, plus the all important camera gear. Without going into detail on ultralight camping gear, which is beyond the scope of this web site, (if you're interested in lightweight backpacking gear and tips, I suggest you visit Charles Lindsey's excellent Lightweight Backpacker Homepage), here's a few ways to keep the weight of the camera gear, and thus, the total pack weight, reasonable.
First, carry a lightweight field camera (see the reviews of the Toho and Anba mentioned above, and eventually the Calumet/Gowland Pocket View for some examples). Second, use film packets, such as the Fuji Quickload system, rather than conventional film holders. Third, carry a lightweight, but sturdy tripod and ballhead. I know they are expensive, but I definitely recommend a carbon fiber tripod for this application. In terms of light weight vs. rigidity, they can't be beat. For example, the combination of modified Gitzo 1227 carbon fiber tripod and a modified Slik Standard Ballhead II I carried on a recent six day backpacking trip weighed a total of 3 lbs. 12 oz. (see the Legs and Heads sections under Camera Support for more details on these and other recommended camera support systems). Compare this to the nearly 10 lbs. of the Bogen 3021 and 3047 head I carried on that first backpacking trip with the Speed Graphic. Not only was the newer set-up over six pounds lighter, but it was nearly as tall, and actually more rigid.
Finally, to minimize the total weight of the camera gear, you can carry fewer lenses, lighter lenses, or ideally both. And that gets us to the purpose of this section - small, light lenses for 4x5 field use. For example, when I want to go really light, I carry just three very light compact lenses: 90mm f6.3 WA Congo, 150mm f6.3 Fujinon W and 240mm f9 Fujinon A. The total weight of these three lenses, including lensboards (for the Toho), step-up rings (43 - 52mm for the Congo and 40.5 - 52mm for the 150mm Fuji) and lens caps, comes to 1lb. 9 oz. Compare that to the total weight of the 7 lens (eight focal length) assortment I usually carry for general purpose photography with a total weight of 8 lbs. 1¾ oz. Obviously the backpacking lens set isn't nearly as versatile as the general purpose set, but the weight savings is over 6½ lbs. For something a little more versatile, but still lightweight, a four lens set consisting of 90mm f6.3 Wide Angle Congo, 135mm f5.6 APO Sironar-N, 200mm f8 Nikkor M and f9 300mm Nikkor M would weigh right around 2 lbs. total (counting caps, step-up rings and boards). There are obviously other possible combinations between the two extremes. These are just examples using some commonly available lenses. For more examples, please follow the links to my lightweight lens recommendations in the 90 - 125mm range, the 135mm - 240mm range and the 300mm - 450mm range.
It is possible to enjoy large photography in the backcountry, without becoming a beast of burden. Combining a lightweight camera, light, yet sturdy tripod, Fuji Quickloads, and a set of the lightweight lenses, such those recommended in this section, can really help keep the weight down. And this will help you look forward, even more than you already do, to shouldering your pack and heading off for several days of backpacking and wilderness photography.
© Kerry L. Thalmann, 1999