The Ultimate Adventure Photography Camera Kit

Mesa Arch, UT | Moonrise by Ben Horton

Written by Nat Geo Photographer Ben Horton

A while back I wrote a blog post titled “What Makes a Camera Better than Another?” My main point was that more buttons, more megapixels, and fancier systems don’t matter if you don’t get better pictures, more often. This is different than the old adage that “the photographer makes the image, not the camera,” this is about your camera’s ability to keep up with your vision. It’s why I didn’t buy the multiple generations of cameras that were put out after I bought mine. I did shoot with them, but the images weren’t better, and I didn’t ever feel like I got something that I couldn’t get with my beat up old workhorse DSLR.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I started to hear a lot of hype about the new A7’s from Sony. I ignored the majority of it, but then when Andy Bardon and I were on a climbing trip, and he pulled one out, I started to ask questions. Andy is one of those guys I trust. He’s climbed Everest, El Capitan, and shoots amazing photos in these wild places. He’s the kind of guy that heavily researches things before committing, just like me. And, just like me, he has strong opinions. Unlike me, instead of blasting facts and figures, he quietly will give you just enough to set you on the path to figuring it out for yourself. That’s what Andy did to me. I started blabbing about how I wouldn’t get more photos, and they won’t be better, so I was still going to wait for something mind-blowing to hit the market. With a wry smile, he just said, “Oh, you will though,” and then showed me a few photos from a fitness shoot in a dimly lit parking garage, they were all crisp, beautiful images that most people would need a studio to achieve. It was enough to set me off on a week-long binge of reading reviews, watching youtube videos, raw file downloads, and eventually, a credit card swipe.

For me, having a new camera in my hands with different capabilities, settings, and options has led to me being excited about shooting again. Now that the camera is more capable, I get to learn new things, and it’s really inspired me to dive back in and see myself as a student of photography again. I’m excited to set up shoots for no real reason other than to get out and take pictures and learn. I take more risks with my shots, just to see what will happen. If nothing else, this is a reason that I’m happy I made the switch to Sony. I’ve learned a lot in this process, most of it very subjective, but in my research, I’ve developed a pretty strong opinion about what makes a good kit for an adventure photographer like myself. If you’re anything like me and value real-world experience over MTF charts and reviewer opinions, I think this post could help you build the kit that’s right for you.

Go-to Adventure Camera Kit

My kit is designed and built to be lightweight, flexible, and fast. I have to carry this stuff up mountains, swim into the surf with it, and travel across the world with all of it in a carry-on bag.

 Sony A7riii

Sony A7riii

I’m not going to barrage you with data, technical details, comparisons, or anything that gets into the “review” realm because it’s been done, and it’s there for you if you do a quick google search. I’m going to pull an Andy ...You will get more photos, and they will be better.

I first bought the a7iii because I didn’t think I needed, or wanted the megapixels of the R version. A magazine only prints at the 6MP resolution and I’ve successfully blown up 12-megapixel photos from the DJI Mavic to 10 feet wide that looks great, you just need to know the capabilities of the sensor and not push it beyond those limits. Some proposed to me that high megapixels allow you to crop in if you need to, but I argued that it’s always better to get it right in camera. I still prefer shooting it correctly, with my feet and my lenses putting me in the right spot, but when I was forced to crop in on some images less than a week later, I realized I was lying to myself. Everybody will need to do it once in a while. The A9 is a specialist camera in my opinion. It’s all about the frame rate, and in 18 years of professional shooting, I’ve really only used the motor drive to capture slow shutter speeds without a tripod, reducing camera shake by holding the button down for four or five frames.

In my opinion, the A7Riii is the defining camera of our time. With its release, there is no longer a question of “mirrorless vs. DSLR.” It’s not even about the mirror, it’s about the capabilities of the camera and the evolution of the system. The previous A7’s were all about potential, they were a lot of cool tech that hadn’t quite hit the bullseye. The camera is smaller and lighter than a DSLR, has brilliant focusing abilities, beautiful 4K footage, and is so customizable that it can be intimidating when you first get it. Mostly though, I made my decision based on its ability to shoot in low light and the dynamic range that I get with the raw files.

Night photography has always been my favorite, and this camera has opened up new possibilities for me. The A7iii is supposedly better for low light, but I couldn’t see a difference in real-world situations.

 Sony a6300

Sony a6300

For now, I’m using the a6300 for underwater, surf, gimbal shots, and as a backup camera. I’ll probably get another A7, but I’m waiting to see what happens with a possible A7siii release. It’s a great camera, I just wish it had a more similar button layout to the slightly larger A7’s, but I’m asking a lot.

Adventure-Ready Lenses

Part of the reason I switched over, was that my lenses were all 10 years old, behind the times, and needed replacing. I wanted gear that would be relevant in another 10 years, so I don’t have to upgrade every time the system improves a little bit. And, now that I had 43 Megapixels to play with, I needed lenses that could take full advantage. I nerded out a little bit and put my top 10,000 images into a spreadsheet that showed me exactly how many photos I’ve marked as 5 stars at each focal length. Turns out, most of my photos are taken at the same focal lengths, even when using a zoom lens, so I focused on covering these lengths first. You can find this data easily by filtering your Lightroom metadata.

My Workhorse Lense

 Sony 24-105 f4 G

Sony 24-105 f4 G

With mirrorless, the discussion of primes vs. zooms has a new factor. Sensor dust. The sensor is right out in the open, ready for any errant particles to latch onto it.

For that reason, I like to have a good zoom lens that covers most of the focal lengths I use. This lens is tac-sharp, and the ability to boost your ISO on the A7Riii, and the image stabilization partnership between the lens and the camera body means that the extra stop of speed isn’t an issue. I did try out the 24-70 2.8 GM, and I will get it one day, but for now, I don’t need it. The 24-105 is lighter and has incredible stabilization. I actually stopped using a gimbal on a recent shoot because I could hand hold it almost as well. The gimbal is now reserved for long pans and follows shots in really rough situations.

 Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM

Sony 16-35 f2.8 GM

I really tried to find something else in the lineup that would compare. I almost went for the Zeiss 18mm batis, but I wanted a backup lens for 24mm and 35mm which I use a lot. I primarily use it for shooting astrophotography, landscapes, and for when I’m forced to shoot up close. I don’t like distortion, but I’ll use it when I have to. The truth is there is no better 16-35mm on the market.

Lightweight “Go-Bag”

Any professional photographer or serious amateur should have backup gear. If I drop a lens on a shoot, I need to be able to keep shooting without switching over to my iPhone. For me, the backup lenses serve another purpose. To be fast and light. My camera is often in a mountaineering pack, getting carried up rough terrain, or in a small bag clipped to a climbing harness, big lenses aren’t ideal in these scenarios. Having smaller options that are still high quality is another significant advantage of the mirrorless system. An added bonus was that I chose faster lenses for my backups so I will always have the option of using 1.8 or 2.0 rather than the F4 on my 24-105.

 Zeiss Sony 55 f1.8

Zeiss Sony 55 f1.8

This lens is beautiful, crips, and has a bokeh that internet reviewers will fawn over. It’s small, lightweight, simple and sturdy. To me, it’s an ideal focal length for “realistic” images. I like it so much, sometimes I’ll choose this lens to work with instead of the bigger zoom lenses I consider my main kit.

 Sony 28 f2

Sony 28 f2

This was a tough decision. I really wanted a 24mm as that’s the focal length that I use the most. But, I wanted a small, light, and high quality. Zeiss makes some excellent offerings, but none are as small. The 35mm Sony/Zeiss was good, but I found it a little bit to close to the 55mm, and I wanted it to be obviously different. Wider. For such a “cheap” lens, the 28mm really performs. It’s very sharp, focuses really fast (even though I’ve read reviews saying it was slow, I haven’t ever had to wait for it.) I believe this lens compliments my 55mm very well, with a similar feel and bokeh.

This lens is 28mm after using lens correction, so it is, in reality, is a slightly wider 26mm. Not everybody is happily using it without lens correction, but when I’m looking through the lens framing up my image, I incorporate the distortion into my frame. Sometimes I dislike how my pictures look after correcting the distortion because it is dissimilar to my original vision.

My Wish List

Right now, I’m looking into a few more lenses. On that list is the 12-24mm G, 18mm Zeiss Batis, an 85mm, a 70-200, and the 100-400GM.

Now that I’ve gone into the details of my camera and lens choices, I intend to follow this up with a blog post that focuses on my system for working in the remote places I end up. How I carry my gear for a big shoot, or on a climb, how I travel with it, what Sony specific editing tricks I’ve found, and how I manage the 43-megapixel files while on a shoot. As always, I’m interested in hearing about your kit, what you’ve seen works for you, and of course, why you think I’m wrong. Together we can learn far more than on our own!

NICHOLAS MOHNACKY