Advice for Hiking as a Film Photographer

Advice for Hiking as a Film Photographer

2000 1125 Aidan Bell

I seem to find myself a new hobby every year. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with all things animation: 2D, 3D, how each frame was created, even how voice actors perfected emotions. I built hobbies around this, essentially researching everything I wanted to know. Sometimes, I even practiced forms of animation myself. My “animation phase” ran its course and by the next summer I was into something different, whether that year was the Marvel Cinematic Universe or, more specifically, how live action effects were made in movies.

My guess is that this “jumping from hobby to hobby, interest to interest” feeling is shared by many people. Last summer, with the pandemic in full swing, I had to find a hobby that not only gave me a thrill, but also followed social distancing guidelines. Since I’ve already been practicing photography for a few years, I had some digital and film equipment to incorporate into what became that summer’s new obsession.

It started with a text from a friend: “Parks are open again. Want to go for a hike? Masks on. Six feet apart?”

I haven’t done much hiking before, so I was skeptical on what fun it could bring. But I had also been stuck inside for two months, so I said yes. It was a short hike at a local state park so we didn’t need a tent, sleeping bags, or even granola bars to keep us on our toes. However, I did feel the need to pack four separate cameras. It was so good to see this friend, that I ended up only bringing the 35mm point and shoot that was already stored in my pocket. It was a shame I couldn’t give him a hug; so, I took his picture instead.

I documented the short trip with a Pentax IQ Zoom 80S. We walked on mostly flat ground through the woods of Core Creek State Park. Without mountains to climb or canyons to repel into, an exploration of the forests was in order. We went off-trail and I saw some attractions I never would have by staying on the path. I wouldn’t exactly call it hiking, especially since we stayed on flat ground, but it opened my eyes to a new form of recreation. After that short trip, I researched for more places to hike. I wanted to see more nature and try to quench the fascination it was creating. 

Soon my search bar was filled with phrases like “fascinating places to hike in eastern Pennsylvania.” I ordered multiple rolls of film and created a list of what I wanted to see. For the next few months after that initial outing hiking became my summer obsession, and I want to be as elevated as possible with a film camera in hand as I did it.

As I hiked near and far, short and tall, I learned quite a bit about hiking with film photography equipment. So I’d like to pass on some of the most important lessons I’ve learned from the miles I’ve spent clicking on the trail.

1. Check your gear before you start.

The most important piece of advice I can give is to check your gear the night before a hike. Multiple mishaps can happen the day of what is predicted to be a successful trip. Errors that might be considered unthinkable have happened to even the best photographers. I like to stick to a routine: check functionality, check storage, check battery. Things that can be checked before, and go wrong when they aren’t, are the most frustrating you can endure.

On one weekend in 2019 my friends and I planned to watch the sunset while hiking along the scenic route of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. As we drove from our weekend rental, I noticed that I forgot my battery for my digital camera. (This was in my pre-film days.) Of course, my heart sank into my stomach. All I wanted was to capture the majesty of this incredible place with the camera that was now just a very expensive brick.

Sure enough, it was later in the trip that I witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets I thought nature was capable of. Fiery colors danced around clouds, retreating behind Virginia’s portion of the Appalachians.

And I wouldn’t be able to take a single picture.

Until I remembered the old Canon AE-1 Program that my aunt had given to me as a present. I pulled it out of my bag and snapped away until the roll was finished. To this day, one of the pictures from that roll remains one of my favorites. This experience is what started my change from mainly digital to mainly film photography. I fell in love with it. Despite the happy ending, the story still serves as reminder to always check your gear thoroughly before packing it away and heading out. Doing so will save you heartbreak down the road.

2. Bring extra rolls of film

I’ve learned the hard way to bring extra rolls of film when going on a long hike. You don’t ever want to run out of frames half-way through a nature walk. Think about it: You’re shooting beautifully framed shots of jagged rocks, cavernous canyons, and trees as green as a Shamrock Shake when suddenly you realize you just shot your last frame halfway through the day. It’s not a hard experience to come by, especially if you’re on a roll, shooting in a uniquely scenic area and genuinely enjoy snapping pictures. There are no more than 15 pictures on a roll of medium format and no more than 36 on a roll of 35mm film, both of which can be expended quickly.

Here’s a personal example: The same friend that introduced me to hiking took me to Ralph Stover State Park north of Philadelphia. He told me it was like “nothing I’d ever seen before.” And he was right.

The hike started with short rocky hills with rails leading to views of a deep canyon. The park was also known as “High Rocks” and is popular for climbing up the canyon’s walls or rapelling down, which was emphasized with the numbers of scattered carabiners on the ground. As we trekked across mounds of rocks I snapped a photo every time I saw something interesting, which was often. But I had only brought one roll of film – Ektar 100 – which while perfect for the occasion was not perfect in quantity.  I was out of film by the time we reached the canyon floor.

And wow, it was beautiful! I used my last two frames to capture the beauty of the scenery around me and for a group shot to remember a memorable day spent with friends. But I had to make the return hike without any film. Once we got to the top, we ate dinner and watched the sunset. It was equally refreshing and upsetting to not be constantly taking pictures.

3. Know the trails you will hike beforehand

If you’re anything like me, you overpack when it comes to camera gear. All I really need is one medium format SLR, a 35mm SLR, a 35mm point and shoot, and a 35mm rangefinder. Sometimes, I’ll even toss in a digital camera. I know it’s absurd, but I really enjoy the looks I get from each camera, especially in the same setting. And, I have a system for when I use each camera.

With all that extra weight on my back, I learned to know beforehand what trails you’re going to hike. I asked another hiker friend to recommend a scenic spot I could go when I was crazed with the idea of hiking to elevation. She quickly recommended a hidden gem that was quite hard to find. When we arrived, the parking lot was suspicious and we had little idea where to go. All we knew was that this “gem” was at the top of the mountain next to the parking lot. My group and I slid down a dirt mound to cross a wide creek. While bushwhacking without orientation came with its own thrills, the hike would have been a lot easier had we known that about 250 meters to our left, there was a designated trail that led to the location.

Unaware of this luxurious preexisting trail, we scaled the mountain gripping its rotting roots, crunching its dead leaves and trodding its wet soil. The frequent breaks were inevitable and the trek was a little more difficult with the four cameras weighing on my back. 

The strain washed from our memories as we reached the summit and saw the view before us. The attraction was nicknamed the “Devil’s Tea Table” as there was a formation of rocks that was built to look like a table; small rock on the bottom, medium rock in the middle and an even bigger rock on the top. Next to the “table” there was a gorgeous view of the river. The photos that I took with the cameras more than made up for the threats made in transit to my cardiovascular system. But had I done my homework ahead of time, I could have had the same view with a lot less effort.

[Will you see a waterfall on your next hike? Check out our article with tips on how to best capture them.]

4. Dress appropriately

Any hiker, even those just hiking to take gorgeous pictures of scenery, should be dressed appropriately to the hike they’re about to take. What you’re wearing is often the only thing protecting you and your camera gear from the elements. My most important non-camera “go to item” is an athletic pair of sneakers in good, comfortable condition. You want them broken in to maximum comfort, but without any defects that could cause any unforeseen issues. It’s important to remember that hiking isn’t a fashion show, even if your goal is to capture Mother Nature at her best dressed moment. It’s better to choose the gear and clothing that are comfortable and functional for the trail and to support the equipment you are carrying. It is sometimes your only line of defense.

5. Have quick access to gear

The only thing worse than missing a shot because of not being prepared is missing the shot when you are prepared! I’ve learned the hard way that a camera out of reach is often one that sees beautiful opportunities slip away. You can’t predict when the perfect shot will present itself, so always keep your camera easily accessible. 

I learned this lesson during a nightime excursion on which my friend and I rode our longboards under the moonlight. There was a great vibe between us. Or there was until I saw a great composition with streetlights. I asked my friend to stop and wait while I rummaged through my backpack to find my Mamiya 645 I had loaded up with Ilford Delta 3200. Much to my friend’s chagrin, this exercise repeated itself throughout the night as I continued to see cool subjects and ground the journey to a halt to unpack the camera all over again. 

It was only later that I realized I could have accessed my Mamiya through a side pocket on my bag. (Maybe another rule should be have a good understanding of all your gear.)

Hiking as an analog photographer can be a truly rewarding experience. I’ve captured some of my best compositions while hiking. That said, I still have a long way to go before I feel truly comfortable hiking with film. These tips are a nice safety net. I’m no professional, but I’ve learned these lessons the hard way and think they would help improve the experience for anyone. I plan on hiking more in the future, perhaps with even bigger, stronger cameras strapped to my back. 

Happy hiking and remember to leave no trace on the trail.

Follow Casual Photophile on Facebook and Instagram

[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]

Aidan Bell

Aidan Bell joined the CP team in 2020. He is a photographer located in Philadelphia, PA. When not making short films or digital portraits, he writes short stories for himself or shoots unique, conceptual film photography for his Instagram account, @bellboyphotos. He studies Film in NYC and is planning to pursue a career in film production or journalism.

All stories by:Aidan Bell
  • Peter Bidel Schwambach May 19, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    Nice tips all around. I’ve yet to go on a real hike ever since I came back to film photography, but this last december, me and my wife did a number of mini-hikes on our Honeymoon that rendered some great shots, and others not so much, mostly due to some of the reasons listed here.

    I got the outfit, gear and quick access tips right, but I ran out of film halfway through it, and I burned through all the wrong ISOs at all the wrong times. I’d taken about 4 rolls of Superia 400 and another 5 of Portra 160, plus the half used roll of Portra 400 I’d used on the wedding itself, but for some reason I burned through the 400 rolls walking around town on the sunny days, and had only the 160 rolls for the hikes, when mother nature decided to take a dump on my parade and go overcast until almost the end of the trip. We wouldn’t see the sun again until a little after I’d spent my last roll, and there was nowhere to buy film where we were staying.

    The gear I’d brought was nothing more than my FM2 and three Nikkors, a 28mm, 50mm and 135mm, packed in individual cases inside a sturdy backpack with side access. I’d also packed a cleaning kit, with lens cleaning fluid and tissues, iso alcohol swabs (the perks of working in an ICU during a pandemic), q-tips and one of those blower things, plus an extra strap and a wrist strap.

    I also shot a handful of waterfalls, handheld at 1/8s speed, just for the heck of it, and much to my surprise, the scans came back perfect with no camera shake at all. I guess I have some real steady hands lmao

  • Great tips !!! Thanks.
    Be light! Be efficient and fast! This is there where zooms are useful, despite I do not like zooms 😉
    My advice : Nikon FA or F5, Nikkor 25-50mm/f.4 Ai-s, Nikkor 50-300mm/f4.5 Ai-s, and a lot of films ;-). Second body ?
    A Nikon FE2 with any Nikkor 50mm 😉

  • or a Olympus Mju II Zoom 170 35mm Point & Shoot Film Camera

  • Nice piece! My biggest first world problem is deciding what gear I should bring. It gives me slight anxiety thinking about the shots I’ll miss from not bringing my large format for the majestic shots or my 110 camera for the ultimate portability and tonez. What do?

  • Very timely article. My state is more than 75% forest so there’s no shortage of hiking trails and nature to plunge into this time of year. Where I go, camera goes. I often have to contemplate “Do I want to pack as a photographer, or pack as a hiker?” If it’s an easy out-and-back trail, groomed and with minimal elevation, I can pack multiple cameras and an extra lens or two. FYI, a lens bay is a perfect fit for an oilcan of Foster’s. Hiking without beer is stupid. Anyway, but then if I’m climbing 5,000 feet, there will be no medium format, no extra lenses, but yes, beer. I pack light, an Olympus OM-2 and a 35mm prime lens (only because I don’t have a 28mm one). That’s it. Too much bulk on the 50-year-old back for a hike like that is not my favorite way to suffer.

  • Gear for hiking? Bug spray. One of them will invariably buzz you while framing a shot.

  • Nice to see someone re-invent the wheel for the new generation. 100s of books in great detail have been written on the subjects of hiking and film photography. Its about time someone wrote a basic survey on one page on how to hike with a camera. Saves us all a lot of time and effort of having to learn about all that hard stuff like exposure, focus and how to carry small things.
    I am looking forward to the next installment: “How to drive a standard shift car with absolutely no clue to what you are doing”

    • Sorry but we don’t specialize in writing book-length treatises, even though some of our articles do get above the 2,500 word mark. Remember, this wasn’t “advice for hiking, learning exposure and how to focus.” Some of that you should learn before hitting the trail. Regarding the second installment, let us know when you finish writing it and we’ll help you get it published somewhere. But it needs to be in full book form first. 😉

    • Peter Bidel Schwambach May 22, 2021 at 3:11 pm

      Whoa, easy there George of the Jungle.

  • Solid advice. One thing I’ve learned is to always have a spare compact camera that you like – with a roll or two of film or an extra battery – that you carry on your person, like in a pocket or your belt.

    There have been a couple times when I’ve had to do without my preferred gear, be it my own fault or nobody’s fault. But I still had that camera, and I could adapt and enjoy my day out without being all grumpy or annoyed.

  • Good article. I tend to bring a few lenses and rarely change, so one camera and a lens will normally do for a day hike. Maybe two of each to have options for color and black and white of the same scene if shooting film. If I want to bring varied gear, and if it is not too hot, the car serves as the base camp.

    My biggest challenge is venturing into the woods or elsewhere to capture bird life with a long lens. It is terribly unwieldy hefting a 200-500 Nikon zoom around. I googled suggestions on the best carry system and found all kinds of ideas from stock to clever improvisations. At this time, my best solution is a Peak Design large sling with a double Peak Design attachment to the body tripod plate and lens plate. My other usual option is to mount the whole shebang onto a monopod and lug that on my shoulder. Shooting this way is the best solution for removing weight as an impediment, while retaining mobility.

    After all this time taking pictures, I am sorry to say I have not found a backpack that is comfortable and functional for hiking with camera gear. No I do not need side access, a roll top, places to strap on auxiliary bags, fancy leather or other such things. All I want is something comfortable, functional, sturdy, adjustable for comfort and light. I am gravitating to yet another bag from Mindshift (I think that is the name), or maybe not. The one I use the most at the moment is the Think Tank Shape Shifter, but the issue with it is finding stuff I have packed away- most of the zippered compartments are solid cloth material, and forget about me remembering where I put stuff. I am not a huge fan of its pouch storage system, but it does protect my lenses well. That said, it is relatively light and comfortable and it has flexible construction that I like.

    The Peak Design carbon tripod is a great tool for hiking. It is light and capable to handle most circumstances and takes up a small amount of space, fitting inside of the bag if there is not much gear and it is easily deployed.

    A good pair of shoes is a must, right now I am using Lems trail sneakers that have good traction and comfort but not ankle support. Otherwise I use a good pair of comfortable ankle high hiking boots.

    In Rhode Island, deer ticks are a constant concern, so I generally wear long sleeved shirts and long pants and douse myself with nasty repellents. Several photo friends have contracted lime disease.

    Lastly a good supply of water and a few snacks and a light jacket.

Leave a Reply

Aidan Bell

Aidan Bell joined the CP team in 2020. He is a photographer located in Philadelphia, PA. When not making short films or digital portraits, he writes short stories for himself or shoots unique, conceptual film photography for his Instagram account, @bellboyphotos. He studies Film in NYC and is planning to pursue a career in film production or journalism.

All stories by:Aidan Bell