Seek Outside Exposure: The Ultimate Panel Loader Backpack for Backpacking Photographers

Mt. Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack up by Mt. Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

I have a knack for spotting good backpacks. Just by looking at pictures I can usually tell if a backpack is going to be a good heavy hauler or not. So when I stumbled upon Seek Outside’s website and studied the pictures of their backpacks, I was practically salivating — they just looked good. Really good. And they’re based in western Colorado, an extra bonus.

So I emailed them asking if they’d consider custom making a panel loader for me. I’ve written about panel loader backpacks before and why they are the best type of backpacks for hiking photographers. Panel loader backpacks have a big zipper that wraps around the backpack, enabling easy access to the main compartment. A photographer can place his or her padded camera case inside and have quick access to it, rather than having to dig down through the top like most backpacking backpacks. And unlike most photography-specific backpacks which fail miserably for serious hikers in the ergonomics department, a backpack from a real outdoors company will almost always perform much better on long hikes and backpack treks.

Well, I heard back from Seek Outside and was delighted to discover that not only are they based in Ouray, the same town I live in, but I also already knew the owner Kevin Timm! Why I didn’t realize all this before I cannot say; I must have been hiding under a rock (which is kind what living in Ouray is like, come to think about it!) I was also delighted to hear that Kevin had already been thinking about producing a panel loader and was eager to hear some of my input. The end result is the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack, a lightweight heavy-hauler and quite possibly the ultimate backpack for the backpacking photographer! Read on to find out why I am so enamored with this backpack. Continue reading “Seek Outside Exposure: The Ultimate Panel Loader Backpack for Backpacking Photographers”

Panel Loader Backpacks for Hiking Photographers

It’s probably safe to say that most photographers are gearheads to some degree, whether we’ll admit it or not. We devote much effort into researching all the specs and reviews to find the cameras and lenses that suit our needs as closely as possible. But as a photographer who shoots mostly while hiking or backpacking, I am as much concerned about HOW I carry my camera as I am with the camera itself!

Panel loader backpacks
F-Stop Satori, Granite Gear Aji 50, and Boreas Sapa Trek

When it comes to finding a photo backpack that not only provides easy camera access but is actually designed for carrying weight comfortably on long treks, the options are surprisingly few. The vast majority of dedicated photo-bag companies seem to have a design philosophy based entirely around camera storage, with human ergonomics a distant afterthought. These backpacks offer endless configurations for camera and lens compartments, but they are typically overweight with under-built, poorly designed suspensions (the frame, shoulder straps, and hip belts) and little extra space for normal hiking/camping gear. These packs might be good for carrying gear across the street from your car to a roadside overlook, or maybe even for a short day hike, but serious hikers cannot rely on these backpacks to comfortably carry a load for many miles.

The obvious solution for most hiking photographers is to simply stuff their camera gear into a real backpacking backpack and deal with the inconveniences. The outdoor backpacking companies really know how to make comfortable, high performance backpacks; however, quick and efficient camera access is usually not even a consideration at all.

This huge gap between camera-centric and athlete-centric backpack design has left a big niche market which is begging to be filled, but with surprisingly few companies attempting (successfully) to do so. The only company I know of that is proactively filling this niche is F-stop, but the demand for their packs is so great that they cannot keep up with the production; pre-orders of their out of stock backpacks can take half a year to be fulfilled (as did mine).

So, are there any other backpack options for the hiking photographer? Yes, panel loader backpacks! Unlike the usual backpack design that has cumbersome top-loading access with buckles and cinch straps, panel loaders have zippers that unzip the entire pack, allowing for quick and easy access to the contents within. The camera gear can be organized in a basic padded camera case (of which there are many options), and the case is simply placed into the panel loader backpack. This is essentially what F-stop has done, with a few extra bells and whistles.

I’ve done a LOT of research lately trying to find the best panel loader backpack options for photography, and in this article I will share and review some of the options that I’ve found. Continue reading “Panel Loader Backpacks for Hiking Photographers”

Cedar Mesa with Fujifilm X100S

bonfire, Cedar Mesa, Utah, stars

Bonfire Under the Stars : Prints Available

This last weekend we drove out to Cedar Mesa, Utah for one last desert camping trip for the season. We arrived a few hours prior to sunset, found a nice spot to car camp, and eventually lit a little fire to enjoy. After being glued to the computer the last few weeks, the fire, stars, and open space were balm for my soul! The next morning we would wake up early and embark on a three-day backpacking loop through Fish Creek and Owl Creek Canyons.

For this trip I decided to leave my workhorse Canon camera and lenses at home, instead opting to travel light with only my new little Fujifilm X100S large sensor compact camera. These three days in the canyons provided a good opportunity to get to know the X100S. Since it’s a popular new camera I will write a “mini review” of my first impressions below, and this post will be more of a camera report than a trip report. All these photos were taken with the X100S, but please note that some are stitched panos and most of them are adjusted in photoshop to some degree.

The photo above is a two-shot stitch taken with the X100 28mm wide-angle conversion lens (the X100S has a fixed 35mm equivalent lens, and the 28mm conversion lens screws on top of that). Continue reading “Cedar Mesa with Fujifilm X100S”

My Backpacking Gear

Mountain goats, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, tent

Mountains goats check out our campsite in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado.

Backpacking into the mountains is a great joy of mine. It feels adventurous and liberating to venture into the wilderness with everything you need to survive (and even stay comfortable) on your back. By backpacking you have the means to “live” – albeit briefly – in paradisiacal locations that boggle the mind and soothe the soul. But, first you need to have all the proper gear to do it.

As Terence McKenna observed, humans are probably better categorized as crustaceans, since we basically live our lives moving from one shell to another, whether it’s a house, car, office, or a tent. Which is to say, we can’t just wander off naked into the woods and expect to be one with nature! Fortunately for the modern adventurous crustacean we have an almost endless array of high tech, lightweight clothes, sleeping bags, shelters, and tools to keep us alive and happy while walking in the wilderness.

Recently I’ve received a bunch of emails asking me about my backpacking gear. I realize that it can be a bit daunting for someone who is interested – but not experienced – in backpacking to figure out what equipment they need to bring into the mountains for an overnight or multi-day camping trip. You need to travel light, but you also need all the stuff to keep you warm and dry. In this post, I’m going to list and explain all the gear that I use on backpacking treks. I will also include some helpful tips along the way.

Continue reading “My Backpacking Gear”

Snowy Ouray with Canon 5D2

Beaumont, Ouray, Colorado

Despite my tenacious cold, I bundled up and walked around the block this morning to take the new Canon 5D2 and some new lenses for a spin. The fresh snow caking Ouray and the surrounding mountains made for a nice test subject!

The photo above was taken with a Contax/Zeiss 35-70mm lens, at 35mm f/8. This is an old, discontinued, manual focus and manual aperature lens, but I had read many glowing reviews about its incredible sharpness. Supposedly this zoom lens is as sharp or sharper than equivalent length prime lenses! So I picked one up on ebay for a reasonable price and this morning was my first trial run with it. I eagerly opened the files on my computer, and was not disappointed! The sharpness almost looks like it came from a Foveon sensor, but at a much larger resolution. In fact I’m so stoked I thought I’d share the fullsize file with all you pixel-peeping camera geeks out there.

>> Click here to see the sample full resolution file (7.6mb). The raw file had a sharpness setting of 3 (of 10), which does snap it up a little bit, but I figured since that’s about what I’d do anyways with my files, you might as well see it at that setting. The file was converted from 16bit to 8bit, I tinkered with the levels and color balance in Photoshop, added the watermark, and saved it as a quality 10 jpeg (to save a little bandwidth).

Anyhow, I am way stoked on the sharpness I’m getting from the 5D2, the 17mm and 24mm TS-E lenses, and now this Contax/Zeiss 35-70mm lens. I can’t wait to get out into the mountains again for some more real shooting with this setup! I’ve got to kick this pesky cold first though.

Books for Backpacking

On backpacking trips longer than about three days, especially on solo trips, I like to bring a book along. I hardly ever get bored just relaxing and soaking in the views, but still it’s nice to have some extra brain food.

Because of the demands of backpacking, any good backcountry book needs to meet certain physical criteria. It must be compact and lightweight – so it must be a paperback, ideally with small condensed print. I had a brilliant idea once of publishing little “backpacker” editions of books, on thin Bible paper with really small print and perhaps a little companion dry bag. But for now, regular thin paperbacks will do.

Subject matter is also important to consider. Novels can be a poor choice because of the danger of ripping through the story too fast. You don’t want to haul around a book for five days if you’ll only get to enjoy it for one or two. Some novels can also seem like a petty distraction compared to the magnificence of nature around you. If I wanted petty distractions, I’d stay at home and browse YouTube.

I also try to avoid bringing books that have a singular disturbing topic; Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer is good example of this. Interesting book for sure, but the last thing I want to do for five days in the mountains is immerse myself in the world of fundamentalist Mormonism.

In my opinion, the best backpacking books are non-fiction, in particular philosophy or spirituality related books. The subject matter can be every bit as profound as your surroundings, perhaps even leading to a deeper connection with the surrounding landscapes. Philosophical books demand closer concentration and slower, more deliberate reading than novels. One chapter can often provide enough food-for-thought to digest all day long, and being out in the wilderness provides the time and focus to do so. These books can also withstand multiple reads; sometimes you can even get more out of it the second time through.

Continue reading “Books for Backpacking”

Personal Locator Beacon

ACR Personal Locator BeaconThis is an ACR GPS Personal Locator Beacon, or “PLB” for short. It is my safety net when I go out solo on long backpacking trips.

Here’s how it works: If I had an accident that left me unable to walk out of the wilderness, I extend the antenna and press the button to activate the help signal. An internal GPS receiver acquires my GPS coordinates and the PLB transmits them along with my personal identification code through satellites to an NOAA station (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The NOAA station then calls my emergency contacts (friends and family phone numbers that I’ve registered beforehand) to ensure that I am indeed out in the wilderness and it’s not a false alarm. They then contact the local Search and Rescue team, which would initiate a rescue operation – knowing my exact location.

Continue reading “Personal Locator Beacon”

The Igloo Experiment

igloo.jpg

This weekend my friends Momo and Pavel drove up from New Mexico to go winter camping with me.  Our plan was to try out this new Igloo making tool that I recently bought.  The tool is specially made for constructing igloos – it is basically a curved box attached to a pole which is staked in the center.  You rotate the box around the center radius and keep packing snow into it to form perfect blocks, spiraling up layer upon layer and adjusting the pole to preset lengths as you go, eventually forming a perfectly egg-shaped igloo.  Simple enough in theory.

We hiked up about 1600 feet above Ouray and at 2:30pm started building the igloo on a flat ledge with a nice vista to the west.  The manufacturers claim a 3 hours build time, so just to be safe I was planning on 4 hours (after all we had three people).  Well, long story short, it took us 8 hours to build this damn thing!  It was pretty nerve-wracking when we realized how long it was taking, since we were depending on the igloo shelter for our warmth in the bitter cold night.  Plus we were never quite sure whether it would really work or not. We could have always just packed up and followed our tracks back down to the truck, but we were pretty exhausted from the hike up, and were determined to make this thing work.  Well, with headlamps and a large dose of stubborn determination, we finally completed the entire igloo at 10:30 at night.

Though the igloo took a surprisingly huge amount of effort to build, it really was pretty awesome when it was done.  Outside was blowing snow, with temps in the single digits, but inside the igloo was calm, peaceful, and relatively warm.  Too bad we didn’t have much time to enjoy it, as we all pretty much immediately got into our sleeping bags and crashed for the night.

Continue reading “The Igloo Experiment”

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