Photographer’s John Muir Trail photos prove you don’t need a pricey camera

photographer john muir trail
Amber Sovorsky left her expensive cameras at home and tested her skills with a handheld point-and-shoot model on the John Muir Trail instead. Photo: Amber Sovorsky
When deciding what would earn space in her pack during a two-week hike-thru of the John Muir Trail — delicious snacks or her bulky, top-of-the-line SLR camera — photographer Amber Sovorsky made a surprising choice.

"Did I really need that jar of Nutella and pack of Oreos? Yes," she laughs. "Did I really need to take my heavy camera? No. Could I hike the trail as a photographer and not take photos? Ridiculous question. I had very minimal gear already, so I needed to compromise with my camera gear."

photographer john muir trail
"Look up high and down low; notice color, symmetry, and take a moment to compose shots," she says. Photo: Amber Sovorsky
With a total of 231.2 miles ahead of her, from Yosemite's Glacier Point to the Whitney Portal, the 25-year-old Allenspark, Colorado, local had to make tough choices when it came to shedding weight in her backpack.

RELATED: Photo gallery: Hiking the John Muir Trail

"My original plan was to take my Nikon D700 plus a couple of prime lenses because, of course, I couldn't pick just one," she remembers. Even though she'd invested in ultra-light tents, poles and sleeping pads, she reached a point where her base weight was 4 pounds heavier than she needed it to be. Time to cut back.

"Not too bad for a handheld slow shutter, but really, take my advice and use a tripod," says Sovorsky. Photo: Amber Sovorsky
She landed on a small Canon camera that she used with a bite switch on her skydiving helmet. Total weight? Thirteen ounces.

"If you know what you're doing, you can make beautiful art with even a disposable camera," explains Sovorsky. "So I had pretty good odds with one that retails for $400." Here, Sovorsky's tips for making some of that beautiful art on a long hike — no matter what you're working with.

When shooting lakes, Sovorsky says to aim for the morning hours, when the water is the most still. Photo: Amber Sovorsky
When shooting lakes, Sovorsky says to aim for the morning hours, when the water is the most still. Photo: Amber Sovorsky
What are some of the challenges of taking pictures on a long, multi-week hike?
Wind and dust — enough said there. The cold nights will drain your batteries, so every night I would remove the batteries and put them in my puffy down pockets and sleep with them in my sleeping bag. Speaking of batteries, I just purchased a USB battery charger off eBay and recharged it using a Goal Zero solar panel. I never let the battery drain all the way. Bumping up the ISO did produce much grainier images than I'm used to; I never pushed it above ISO 800.

Amber Sovorsky says you can make your own filters by blowing hot air onto your lens if you want a slightly foggy effect. Photo: Amber Sovorsky
Sovorsky says you can make your own filters by blowing hot air onto your lens if you want a slightly foggy effect. Photo: Amber Sovorsky
Did you designate time to take photos, or were you just always prepared to get the shot?
You miss every shot you don't take. If I had the urge to take a photo, I would. For this reason, I kept my camera super available; unless it was raining, hailing or snowing, I had my camera around my neck and gear tied to the shoulder straps of my backpack so it wouldn't bounce around.

When are the best times of day to shoot while hiking?
The golden hours: Early morning and when the sun begins to set are when you get the most directional light. It will skim over the edges of the mountains and really accentuate everything.

"Putting plants very close to the lens with a wide-open aperture can add some fun splashes of color to your shot," says Sovorsky. Photo: Amber Sovorsky
What are some of the best vantage points while on the trail?
Worm's-eye view and bird's-eye view, baby! Get low, get high and get level with what you're shooting. Try shooting through things, play with aperture and experiment with new [perspectives].

How did you manage pictures during your time out: Did you just bring multiple SD cards? Were you nervous about them getting damaged at all?
I'm a firm believer in not putting all your eggs in one basket, and I was not concerned with the weight of SD cards. I brought a handful of 16GB cards, which I kept in their tiny plastic cases in a plastic bag with my money at the top of my pack. I overestimated the amount of memory I would need, thank goodness.

"Definitely wanted to get that moon in focus as much as possible," remembers Sovorsky. "I found a happy medium between a small aperture and fast-enough shutter speed." Photo: Amber Sovorsky
Give us a few tips for taking really amazing photos we can be proud of, even if we don't know that much about photography.

  1. Underexpose sunsets a little. It will give you much more vivid colors and contrast.
  2. Overexpose a little when photographing snowy scenes. Your camera reads all that white as the image being too bright, but it's supposed to be a bright shot!
  3. Try to make use of some sort of tripod (even a stable rock or stump can work) when slowing your shutter below 1/60th.
  4. When doing a long exposure, don't even hit the shutter release; let the camera timer count down so there is no shake.
  5. Use people as size references to show the grandeur of mountains.
  6. Take notes! That way you will remember what you did to produce shots you love and vice versa.

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