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.
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