Equipment Choices
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, September 1998

In 1957, I spent three weeks in the wilderness with sixty pounds in a frame pack wearing clunky Vibram-soled boots and itchy army-surplus woolens. I had no room to add something as frivolous as a camera. Since then, outdoor equipment has become far lighter and more functional.

That first trans-Sierra backpack changed my life. I met a loose-knit group of scruffy climbers who had anticipated the sixties by dropping out to live in a Yosemite campground. Doing my first roped climbs with them unwittingly set me on the inside track of the coming outdoor movement. We had no inkling that anything we were doing might ever become mainstream.

A former cross-country runner scoffed at my boots and convinced me to live in running shoes for everything but technical climbing. City folk would stop me on the street, point at my weird Adidas, and ask what sport I played. Another climber who sold pitons of his own design out of the back of his old station wagon later gave me prototypes of packs without frames and jackets without wool to test. He soon founded a little company named for the location of his wildest climb: Patagonia.

I used my small auto repair business both to fund my outdoor addiction and to create personal prototypes of modern sport-utility vehicles. Well-worn Chevy station wagons were refitted with tall suspensions, fat tires, low gears, positractions, overdrives, and big motors to survive both marathon highway drives and wild dirt roads. When one body fell apart, I simply switched the special parts onto the next one.

Soon after I began outdoor photography, Nikons became my Chevrolets. Durable, interchangeable parts that fit different bodies allowed me to rig both a light combo for rugged adventures and a heavier kit for more exacting work with easier access. This dual path led me to give up fixing Chevies and become a professional photographer in 1972.

My philosophy hasn't changed. I have no simple answer to that common query, what camera do I use? What I use when photography is my primary goal remains very different from what I take on a self-propelled adventure. The occasional overlap can surprise those who expect me to sport all the latest toys. An art director on a recent ad shoot looked askance at my Nikon F5 fitted with a battle-scarred 1970s manual-focus 20mm lens instead of the 20∆35mm f2.8 zoom he owned that has rightfully become the rage for photojournalism. Beyond my tiny fixed lens being lighter, sharper, and less prone to vignetting corners with graduated filters, it serves double duty on a lighter camera for adventure runs, climbs, and ski tours.

For personal shooting with easy access or on assignments with fixed locations, there's no question that my sophisticated Nikon F5 with a heavy AF pro lens (such as the latest 80∆200mm f2.8D with built-in tripod mount) gives me more keepers per roll and more rolls per subject than the far lighter gear I carry where I would rather not have a camera at all than be burdened by a big one. But when the going gets tough in the wilds, lightness and simplicity far outweigh all the bells and whistles on a battery-hungry, pro SLR with a chip that knows more ways not to take a picture than I can remember as something fleeting and wonderful is unfolding before my eyes.

Even when the living is easy, a featherweight body with an inexpensive lens stopped down from wide open gives me landscape slides that look just as good with a 10X loupe as ones made with state-of-the art equipment. Ninety percent of my best life's work could have been made with a manual body, a 24mm lens, and a telephoto zoom in the 80∆200mm range.

Though I have an F5, two F4s, an N90S, a tiny manual FM-10 just introduced in the U.S., and an FE-10 with auto-exposure not distributed here, I rarely take more than two bodies anywhere. If we cross paths on a mountain pass, I'll likely have my 14-oz FM-10 with a 7-ounce 28∆80mm f3.5∆5.6D zoom in a Photoflex Galen Rowell Chest Pouch. A zipper pocket holds a couple of graduated filters, a polarizer, and film. An attached lens pouch holds an 11-ounce 80-200mm f4.5∆5.6D zoom and my trusty 20mm f4. Built-in Velcro tighteners stop them from rattling around. Total weight: 3 pounds.

If I have a tripod, it's a 2-pound Gitzo 001 or slightly heavier 026. If I need AF or better metering, switching to an N90S adds another pound. Taking the new, tack-sharp 18-oz ED 70-300mm f4/5.6 instead of the 80-200mm f4.5-5.6D adds less than a half-pound where there's interesting wildlife or distant scenics.

If we cross paths at a roadside overlook, I'll have fourteen pounds in a Photoflex Modular Waist Pack and five more of Gitzo Mountaineer carbon-fiber tripod with an Arca-Swiss B1 ballhead. The pack with a shoulder strap easily holds a primary camera with six lenses, a flash, and lots of gadgets. If I need a second body, it's in a chest pouch.

The body in my waist pack is either an F5 or smaller F4 with 4 lithium AA batteries in the optional MB-20 module. Lenses (all Nikon) include a 20mm f4 (lightweight, 52mm threads), 24mm f2.8 (lighter with less flare than the 24mm f2), 35mm f2 (fast wide-angle great for aerials and night landscapes), 55mm f2.8 Micro-Nikkor (works well as a normal lens), and an 80-200mm f2.8 (very fast and sharp). For moving subjects (rather than landscapes where fixed lenses maximize sharpness) I leave behind the 35mm and 55mm in favor of a 35-70mm AF f2.8 zoom.

The main compartment also houses my Nikon SB-26 flash. Its SC-17 remote cord and Rosco gels fit in a side pocket with tiny Photoflex soft gold and white reflectors plus a Litelink slave unit for remote TTL wireless flash. Other pockets hold 5 Singh-Ray Galen Rowell graduated filters with a Cokin P holder and adapter rings, 3 screw-in 81A filters (2X skylights to correct deep shadow or overcast), 2 Singh-Ray circular polarizers (rotate in a Cokin holderĄone standard, one with 81A), 1 Nikon 52mm polarizer (solves 20mm vignetting), 4 lithium AA batteries, 4 AA rechargeable Supercells (for flash), a cable release, a chamois cloth (to wipe off water), and a tiny lens cloth.

I bring along a larger bag only where I need special-purpose lenses, such as my rectilinear 15mm f3.5 (renders straight lines), my 16mm f2.8 (slightly fish-eyed), my 28mm f2.8 PC (corrects parallax), or my fast 35mm f1.4 and 85mm f1.4 lenses (great for aerial photography in low light). For wildlife or sports, I add a 300mm f2.8 or 500mm F4 with TC-14B (1.4X) and TC-301 (2X) teleconverters. For commercial work, I add assorted flashes, reflectors, and soft boxes.

Only where my gear can be carried by vehicle, pack animal, porter, or assistant do I ever consider taking all of it. Otherwise, you'll find me as I started out-carrying one simple camera or none at all.

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