Ultralight Photography

For the dedicated ultralight backpacker, photography has always been something of a burden. You spend hours and hours working out ways to shave grams from the weight of your shelter and clothing, cutting off labels and extraneous pieces of cotton, repackaging food, and carefully weighing spoons in order to find the lightest one. And then, having finally got your pack down to sub 6kg levels, you grab your 1.2kg of (minimised) camera equipment and curse the day you picked up your first instamatic and pushed the button on a slippery slope towards ultra heavy image perfection.

But what if I told you there is another way? A way to lighten your photographic load, that will reduce the weight you carry on your back and put a smile on your face...

Now, I'm not talking about using a smaller camera – those of us with an enlargement fetish and a love of engorged lenses know that the rumours of the DSLR's death have been greatly exaggerated. Sure, a micro four-thirds set up can is nice, but what if you absolutely must carry the best? Well worry not, for there are ways even we die-hard, old-fashioned "pros" can go full-frame and still save serious weight.

Of course, there are obvious steps you can take to cut down: take just one do-it-all lens, ditch the full filter set, use a carbon tripod – or better still learn how to stand utterly motionless and become the tripod.

This is a technique famously used by snipers; in order to keep a steady hold, put as much of your body in contact with the ground as possible. Breath deeply, exhale slowly, count to ten, wait for your blood pressure to drop and your heart rate to slow, don't blink, and then, at the precise moment just before you die, press the shutter and take the picture. If you're lucky, you'll only get minimally perceptible shake. If you're unlucky, you'll time it wrong and die, but at least the focus on your final image will be tack sharp.

But let's say you take a leap of faith and leave the tripod behind, are there other ways to reduce the weight of photography?

I'm happy to tell you there are. 

First of all: camera straps. They're heavy and usually over-engineered. I remove my padded straps on backpacking trips and replace it with a piece of piano wire. It does make the camera a little more uncomfortable when carrying it around your neck, but the bleeding usually stops quite quickly, and the wire also serves double purpose for repairs, so in my opinion, its multi-use benefits outweigh the moderate garotting effect.

Perhaps the most surprising weight savings, though, can be made through careful selection of memory cards and picture formats.

CF cards - the professional's choice – are undoubtedly faster than SD cards, but weigh almost 10 times as much. For this reason alone, I don't actually own any CF cards. Unfortunately, that means I can't prove that weight differential, so I just made it up, but it sounds about right to me. 

But if you think switching to SD cards is impressive, we can go a whole lot further.

A typical SD card weighs about 1g.

But look: what about that label? Believe it or not, you can shave about 41% off the weight of the card by simply peeling off the label. To remind yourself how much capacity the card has, you can write the storage size on it using silver ink (bonus tip: silver ink weighs less than gold ink!).

As you can see, we're already reaching the limits of my kitchen scales.

But we're only just beginning.

It's a well known fact that shooting RAW gives you the best quality image data. It's referred to as the digital negative for good reason. But do you really need to shoot every picture RAW? Let's face it, half of what we shoot is a load of old rubbish, so why do we need to shoot 36 megapixels of crap when a 2mb high quality JPEG will suffice?

Astoundingly , there has not, to my knowledge, been any investigation into the weight of all those excess megabytes. A typical full frame, 36mb image taken on a Nikon D800 weighs about 0.0074g. Fill up a high capacity SD card, and you're talking some serious weight. For example, my SanDisk 16GB SDHC card holds 199 uncompressed RAW images. A quick calculation shows that a card full of images weighs a startling 1.4726g. 

If you shoot JPEG, however, that all changes. A high quality JPEG around 2mb weighs just 0.0000035g. The weight for the same amount of images (199) is a mere 0.0006965g! That's a saving of 1.4719035g – more than the weight of the SD card itself! 

What does that mean in layman's terms? If you shoot JPEG, you not only save weight, but you actually negate the weight of the SD card. It's impossible to reiterate the significance of this fact: shooting JPEG means that the SD card weighs less than zero grams (-0.47g), and therefore actually contributes negative weight to your pack. The scientific implications of this discovery are staggering.

I call it anti-photogravity.

Impressive as this is, we can increase the effects of anti-photogravity even further by shooting in black and white.

As any professional photographer will tell you, colour data is captured in 12- or 14 bits. Without wanting to make this unnecessarily complex, the greater the colour complexity, the more bits needed to record the colour data in an image – and consequently, the larger the file. The larger the file – you guessed it – the heavier the data.

Now, while a high-quality colour image needs at least 12 bits, a black and white image only requires 8. All those colours weigh something, so getting rid of them is a good idea (why do you think Ansel Adams shot in black and white?).

As stated above, a high quality 12bit JPEG weighs, on average, 0.0000035g. But once you switch to black and white (most modern cameras have this functionality), you reduce that by a staggering additional 66% (I know, you'd think it was 40%, but it isn't).

What this means is that a black and white JPEG weighs just 0.00000231g. A equivalent "full" set of 199 images weighs only 0.00045969g, a total saving of 1.47214031g. And when that happens, this happens:

I think you'll agree, anti-photogravity is a remarkable innovation, and results in pretty impressive weight savings – more than enough to justify taking that 1.2kg DSLR on your next backpacking trip.