A Backpacker’s Guide to Astrophotography, Part I

Dean Wampler
Oct 6 · 5 min read

Over the last two years, I’ve done several backpacking and car-camping trips where I practiced photographing panoramas and the night sky. First there was a trip to Great Basin National Park last year and then Emigrant Wilderness in the Sierras this year.

Here’s a combination, a night-time, moon-lit panorama that isn’t any of the Flickr albums above:

Figure 1: Night time ~90 degree panorama looking South from Leopold Lake with the Milky Way and the Moon

Several people asked me for information about how I did these photographs. This post summarizes my kit, not only the photography tools, but also the backpacking equipment I carried. In subsequent posts, I’ll dive into the techniques for these photos. Other posts will discuss ultralight backpacking, in general.

Ultralight Backpacking with Camera Gear

First, all the Emigrant Wilderness photographs were taken in the backcountry. I spent 7 days (6 nights) on the trail, which meant that all my gear had to be carried. I’m a proponent of ultralight backpacking (see also Beyond Backpacking), so I managed to keep my load at 36 pounds (~16.3 kg — but not including water), which is much more than I usually carry. A large percentage of that was camera gear and even then, I had to decide what to leave behind.

Figure 2 is a summary of my gear weights:

Figure 2: Emigrant Wilderness Gear Weights

To quickly describe the items in this list, the seven items starting with the camera (“Sony a7RII”) add up to 227 ounces, including the solar charger that I needed to “feed” the camera. That’s almost half the weight! That means that if I had left the camera gear at home, I would have hiked for a week with just 22 pounds (10 kg) of gear, including food, plus a few more pounds for water! Keep that in mind the next time you think your pack shouldn’t be so heavy!

The Zpacks tent and pack, and the Klymit air mattress are very, very light. (I normally take a cushier, but heavier air mattress). I suppose most people don’t include their boots and the clothes they are wearing when measuring their weight. You don’t see weight for hiking poles, because I don’t use them (another topic for a post…).

The Sawyer water filter and bottle combination is perhaps the lightest purification system available, other than chemical tablets. That’s why I took it, but it’s not fun to use, as it’s tedious to squeeze water through the filter or suck it through while drinking. On a hot day, you work hard to stay hydrated, but that was a deliberate choice I made to save weight. On group trips, I prefer the Platypus Gravity Works system (~7 ounces plus water bottles).

The bear canister is heavy, but really necessary in the Sierras to keep bears from eating your food (and other smelly things, like sunscreen and medicine). This is not just important for you, it’s also better for them, as they don’t become habituated to human food. At least the canister is also a convenient chair.

Finally, the cook kit includes an alcohol stove that weighs only 1.4 ounces! The alcohol adds a few ounces and I use a very lightweight titanium pot, lid, and cup.

Okay, let’s talk photography gear…

Photography Gear

I switched to Sony a7 cameras a few years ago for a relatively lightweight and compact system with a full-frame (35mm-equivalent) sensor. I don’t regret this decision. Sony lenses have been very good with a lot of third-party options, too.

I recently bought the 24mm F1.4 GM (“global master”) lens for astrophotography. I’m not yet sure I really like it. I’ll have to blog about it once I’ve used it some more. A disadvantage is that 24mm is a bit narrow for astrophotography. Some of the photos I’ve posted are actually panoramas. However one advantage is better optics, as stars really highlight any imperfections in the lens, e.g., coma on the edges.

For general-purpose photography, the 24–104 has been a great lens. It’s what stays on my camera most of the time while I’m hiking.

The heaviest part of my kit for this trip was the tripod: Really Right Stuff TQC-14 Mk2 legs and BH-55 PCLR head. At 68 ounces (4.25 pounds, 1.9 kg), that’s a lot. The head itself is 2.3 pounds, about 0.5 pounds heavier than the lightest BH-55 configuration, but I wanted a lever quick release and the panning feature.

I recommend using a lighter tripod, but make sure it’s stable enough for your needs. I pre-ordered the Peak Design carbon tripod, which weighs under 3 pounds, head included. Assuming I like it, it will be my tripod of choice for travel, when I’m concerned about weight. However, I’ll still use the RRH combination whenever I can. (I’ll post a review once I’ve used it.)

The “other photo gear” included filters, cleaning swabs, spare batteries (three, because the older Sony cameras have small batteries), a shutter release/intervalometer, a “rail”, etc.

The rail is used with a head to eliminate parallax effects in panoramas by ensuring the center of rotation corresponds to the lens’ optical center, as described in this article.

The filters included screw-on UV and polarizer filters and the NiSi 100mm filter holder with several 100x150mm graduated neutral density filters, non-graduated ND filters, a Lonely Speck PureNight pollution filter, and their SharpStar focusing filter. The combination of 100mm filter holder and filters is a bit heavy and it’s less convenient than screw on filters, but they have advantages, too, as I’ll discuss in a subsequent post.

I used a Monoprice 15W solar charger and their “tough” 10000mA battery (discontinued? This newer one looks good). Some people attach their charger to their packs to charge during the day. I didn’t find that worked well, but setting up the charger in the afternoon and evening in camp was all I needed to top off the battery, which I then used to recharge the camera batteries in the camera itself. In fact, I didn’t need more than one extra camera battery.

To keep the weight manageable, there are several things I didn’t take. I have several leveling heads and related panorama tools. In the next post, I’ll describe how I used the RRH head without them (but I did take a rail!). I left a number of screw on and 100mm filters at home, such as different gradations of neutral density filters.

I also left behind my Sony 70–200mm F2.8 GM lens (heavy!) and my Laowa 15mm F2 lens, which I also like to use for astrophotography.

What’s Next

Now that I’ve summarized what was in my kit, in the next post, I’ll discuss the techniques I use (and still need to master…) for photographing and processing panoramas and night photos.

Dean Wampler

Written by

The person who’s wrong on the Internet. Cat massage expert, data theologist, ML/AI enthusiast, FP supplicant, O’Reilly author and speaker. Opinions are my own.

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