Guide to Wilderness Photography and Timelapse Filming

Whenever I get back from a big adventure, friends ask how it went. Inevitably I must answer, “it involved lots of misery and sleep-deprivation, but I think some of the pictures turned out.” …If this sounds familiar, you might be a wilderness landscape and nightscape photographer.

This article is about my adventures over the years, and the pictures I captured with whatever camera gear I had at the time. I’ve spent plenty of time on a pretty tight gear budget, and through the help of rental companies such as, I’ve also been fortunate to have had access to some of the best equipment on the market.

How to do Landscape Photography

Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
This image is a stack of ~90 minutes worth of back-to-back 4-minute exposures.

Landscape Photography Tutorial

Nikon D5300, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8
This image is a stack of ~90 minutes worth of back-to-back exposures for the earth, plus a single 30-second exposure of the sky.

The First Rule of Timelapse and Nightscape Photography: You Can Never Have Too Many Cameras

As a timelapse and nightscape photographer, it’s not as simple as picking the one best camera and lens for the adventure you’re planning. Because when doing timelapse, each creative idea you have could occupy your camera for hours at a time. Even as a general nightscape photographer, one final image could take 15-30 minutes or more to shoot.

Landscape Photography tutorial Lensrentals

Nikon D700, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
This image is ~60 minutes worth of back-to-back 30 sec exposures

That’s why I like to carry multiple systems with me at any given time. At the very least I like to travel with two cameras, both of which are capable of professional results. One camera to shoot a timelapse with, and another camera to shoot either still photos or another timelapse. If possible though, I’ll bring three or even four cameras on an adventure so that I can capture 2-3 time-lapses simultaneously and still be able to shoot still photos as well.

Usually, this means bringing at least one full-frame camera, sometimes two, plus at least one or two APS-C cameras, and finally, maybe one or two 1” sensor compact cameras or even my trusty GoPro Hero 5.

Landscape Photography Example

Mammoth Hot Springs, Winter 2015
Sony RX10 mk2

Deciding Which Camera(s) to Take on an Adventure

Lately, a lot of my adventures have been planned around a single photographic goal. Sometimes this is an extraordinary event such as a solar or lunar eclipse, other times it is a more seasonal phenomenon such as a wildflower bloom, or the alignment of the Milky Way or a moonrise over a scene.

Eclipse Photo Example

Lunar eclipse trail, Laguna Beach California
Nikon D800e, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8
This image is ~3 hours worth of back-to-back 4-minute exposures

Lunar Eclipse Photo Example

Lunar eclipse, Laguna Beach California
Nikon D5300, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR2
This image is two exposures blended for dynamic range

Aside from the importance of an event itself, the distance and intensity of a hike is another factor that influences how many cameras I can bring. If I’m only going to be a few steps away from my car, the decision is easy: bring everything I think I could need. If I’m going to be trekking many miles into the wilderness for days on end, however, the decisions become a little bit more complex. Suffice it to say; inevitably I somehow manage to pack either too few cameras or too many. Murphy’s law, I guess.

Landscape Photography Example

Canon Rebel T2i, Rokinon 16mm f/2

My Favorite Full-Frame Camera for Adventure and Timelapse Photography

My full-frame camera of choice is currently the Nikon D750, for its versatile balance of image quality, portability, and affordability. Other cameras in the D750’s price range do offer similar image quality in a lightweight package, admittedly, however, none of them also offer dual card slots and hand-me-down flagship autofocus, which unfortunately is something I need for my “day job,” wedding photography.

For most adventures lately, I’ve preferred my Nikon D750, however from time to time I’ve opted to buy/rent/borrow a higher-resolution camera body. The Nikon D800e and Nikon D810 have served me well on a few adventures, as has the Sony A7RII. However, as an all-around fantastic camera, I must admit I’m curious about the Nikon D850, but I feel it would be foolish not to wait and see what the D750’s successor can offer.

Solar Eclipse over Alpine Lake, in the Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho

Solar Eclipse over Alpine Lake, in the Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho
Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8

24 megapixels is a good sweet spot for a landscape and timelapse photographer though; it’s enough to make big prints with confidence, yet not too much overkill for trips when I come home with 10,000 or more timelapse frames. One thing that helps significantly is Nikon’s full variety of raw quality options; I use 14-bit lossless NEF for most still shooting, and 12-bit compressed (yes, lossy) for most timelapse shooting. This makes a noticeable difference in keeping storage consumption down on longer adventures.

Lens Choices for Landscapes & Timelapses

The best full-frame lens for the job depends on the job. When shooting “traditional” landscapes at tight apertures, I do not need fast glass, and I opt for a sharp f/4 or variable aperture zoom or two. The Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR is an incredible mate to my D750, and the combination has served me well for many years.

Landscape Photography Tutorial

Winter In the Sierras, January 2016
Nikon D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR

The Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 is a go-to lens for any astro-landscape photographer, of course, and the numerous ones I’ve used over the years have all served me well. (Except for the one I bought on eBay that had been dropped on concrete. I returned it immediately.)

Landscape Photography Consultation Lake

Sunset over Consultation Lake in the Whitney Zone, August 2014
Nikon D800e, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
3-image vertical panorama

I don’t shoot many telephoto images, so I’ve yet to invest in a “serious” telephoto landscape lens like the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 VR. Once, out of curiosity, I bought Nikon’s lightest telephoto zoom, an old film era 80-200mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, on eBay for $25. It was not as sharp as I’d wanted it to be, but for a meager $25 and 11 ounces, I bring it on backpacking trips where I think I might take at least a few telephoto images.

Landscape Photos

Moonrise at Sunrise, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona
Nikon D750, Nikon 80-200mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-D

Timelapse and Nightscape Photography on Mirrorless Cameras

A question I get asked frequently is, “what about the new Sony A— full-frame mirrorless camera, have you tried that?”

Indeed, I have tried them. All except the Sony A9, which I have no interest in anyway, not for landscapes (I’d rather have a Sony A7RII) or timelapse. (I’d rather have a Sony A7SII). It would be hypocritical of me to “slam” mirrorless systems, though, because in some (though not all) cases they can be lighter weight than a DSLR setup, and weight savings when hiking a few miles can make a huge difference.

So, why haven’t I switched yet, as someone who buys and sells camera gear pretty compulsively? Mainly because most of the advantages of the Sony system are not ones that help a timelapse or nightscape photographer, (IBIS, etc.) while the disadvantages, unfortunately, do significantly hinder me. (battery life, viewfinder and LCD brightness control at night.)

Landscape Photography with Sony

The Milky Way over Sawtooth Lake, Idaho
Sony A7R mk2, Sony FE 12-24mm f/4

I do use Sony FE cameras sometimes, though, and when I do, I bring an external 7.5-volt power source that is connected directly to a dummy battery. This is the only practical way to shoot on long trips in the wilderness with any Sony camera that still uses the NP-FW50 battery.

Powering a 36 hour timelapse of the August 2017 solar eclipse

If Nikon, Canon, or Sony can deliver an affordable full-frame mirrorless camera with a massive battery and the right sensor for my shooting needs, then I’ll consider it. A direct DC-IN port (not just USB) like the older pro-Nikons all had would be a huge bonus.

APS-C Cameras for Landscape and Timelapse Photography

As much as I would love to bring two full-frame cameras everywhere, I often choose a 2nd camera that is a lightweight APS-C body and a dedicated APS-C lens. Thankfully, a fair number of APS-C kits these days offer incredible performance that I feel isn’t a compromise at all!

My current favorite camera for lightweight travel is the GPS-enabled Nikon D5300. Of course, if you do your own GPS logging with an external device then any of the late model Nikon D5— series cameras have about the same fantastic image quality. However the D5300 is the cheapest of the bunch, so I’ll stick with it. 

I’m not too worried about the lack of weather sealing or general robustness of this beginner DX series of cameras; I usually know what I’m getting myself into when I go out into the wilderness, and I take a little extra care to protect un-sealed cameras in nasty weather. No matter what camera I’m using, if I’m doing a timelapse for any extended period, I usually put a bag over my the camera anyways. (It is worth noting, however, that even on the occasion that I did forget to bag my cameras, …they all survived an extensive deicing ordeal just fine!)

Using Dedicated APS-C Lenses

For serious landscape photographers, there are numerous wide-angle mid-range lenses that are more than good enough to impress even a full-frame user. One of my favorite general travel lenses is the Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-4; it’s a wicked-sharp lens that doubles as an excellent astro-landscape lens thanks to its f/2.8 aperture at the wide end.

Palomar Mountain, San Diego California
Nikon D500, Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-4 DX

My favorite go-to APS-C lens, however, is the Rokinon 16mm f/2, it is simply the most impressive 24mm equivalent lens I have ever shot with; it rivals any full-frame 24mm prime at most any aperture. If you get a good copy and take good care of it, that is.

White Pocket, Arizona
Nikon D5300, Rokinon 16mm f/2 DX

Red-hot winter sunrise, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona
Nikon D5300, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 DX, Tiffen 9-stop ND filter
Single exposure – 80 sec. @ f/9 & ISO 100

Last but not least, Tokina’s entire lineup of ultra-wide APS-C zooms are fantastic, and of course, my favorites as a nightscape photographer are the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 and the Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8. For the folks who don’t shoot at night at fast apertures, however, the Tokina 12-28mm f/4 is another great option. Oppositely, for the folks who value sheer speed even more than the focal range, the Tokina 14-20mm f/2 is an exotic piece of kit that is well worth considering.

Compact Cameras for Landscape and Timelapse Photography

Lastly, and admittedly least, I sometimes add a small 1” sensor camera to my backpack.

If your legs, back, or shoulders are getting sore from an over-stuffed camera bag, and yet somehow your budget is still ready for more, then a camera like the Sony RX100 or Sony RX10 series offer a fantastic balance of decent image quality and serious portability. You can shoot up to a 4K timelapse with the raw files and get decent results up to ISO 1600, or even 3200 depending on your personal standards.

Sunset at the Huntington Beach Pier, California
Sony RX10 Mark 2

Shooting stills on such a compact camera will be a noticeable compromise in printability. However, I’ve learned to simply be realistic about which images I’m going to be printing huge, and which images I’m just capturing to tell a smaller part of the overall story of the adventure.

Grab a Camera and Go on an Adventure

Sometimes I feel that lately more and more negativity is being aimed at the “gearheads” in photography. Honestly, though, photography is supposed to be a fun hobby, and gear is just part of the fun. As long as you avoid any delusions about magical improvements in your photography when buying new gear, you’ll be fine.

I hope this brief story will inspire other photographers to grab whatever camera gear they can and go out on an adventure!

Take care, and travel safely.

Author: Matthew Saville

My name is Matthew Saville and I am an astro-landscape and timelapse photographer based in Southern California. I have been exploring the American West with family and friends my whole life, and have been serious about wilderness adventures and astro-landscape photography since 2005.

Posted in Equipment
  • That’s another very good point. In fact even the “ordinary” A72 can’t run directly off USB power, at least not the one I borrowed. And it doesn’t seem like the type of thing possible with a firmware update.

    But, I just dismiss the older A7’s as completely worthless due to their lack of structural integrity, haha… I forget that the original A7S is still a dang good option for timelapse, …if you get a dummy battery.

  • Sony Mk1 bodies can’t take photos and be plugged in to USB at the same time. Only the Mk2 bodies can do that.

  • I’ve used both the 16 f/2 and 12 f/2 fairly extensively. The last 12 f/2 I owned was definitely better than the last 16 f/2 I rented. But I also used the same insanely sharp 16 f/2 that Matthew did. So I’m going to say that the sample variation is the deciding factor for which lens is “better.”

    …Dang Rokinon needs to improve their quality control/manufacturing tolerances.

  • I’d love to think I had a bad copy of the 12mm as well. But as a general rule, more glass equals more image quality, period, regardless of flange distance.

    There’s also the Rokinon 10mm f/2.8, which is a DSLR lens that has a mirrorless mount option, so it’s much bigger than the 12mm f/2, but it’s also quite sharp and 2mm wider…

  • Samuel H

    WOW, that 16mm must be super sharp… or maybe I got a particularly good copy of the 12mm 🙂

  • Ralph Hightower

    I was going to use multiple cameras for the solar eclipse, using B&W and color infrared film in my Canon film SLRs (A-1, New F-1), but since this was my first total solar eclipse, I decided to just use my 5D III. I set up custom settings for the partial and total using bracketing. I bought a Vello interval timer and figured out how to set it up for bracketed shooting (not documented).
    For April 2024, I will shoot infrared film along with digital.

  • Bob B.

    Ahhh..I just returned from 6-weeks out west (form NJ!)
    I elected to drive so that I could bring 2 complete camera systems, (one full-frame, one micro four thirds). That included 7 camera bodies (one converted to infrared), 30 lenses, 3 tripods, Nodal Ninja pano head, etc..etc…etc…
    Yes..there was LOTS of sleep deprivation..and sleeping in my car to guard my gear….LOL!
    Thanks for posting all your info, Matthew…..I can identify with your tribulations and learn from shared experiences….
    I have only processed a couple of images (none of my Astro photos, yet…), but it will be a wonderful winter sorting out all the amazing things that I “hope” I captured in the way my mind saw them!
    Here is a shot from Death Valley…what a wonderful morning!

  • Athanasius Kirchner

    That’s very useful information, thanks.

  • Hi Samuel! Yup, definitely one of my favorites! I tested it a year or two ago.

    The Roki-Yang 12mm f/2 is one of the VERY few lenses that actually takes advantage of mirrorless’ ability to be significantly lighter and smaller than an OVF system of equivalent sensor size. I just recently used one on a Canon EOS-M as well. Whether I get a Sony, Canon, or Fuji APS-C mirrorless system, that lens will be purchased. Having said that, it’s not *as* amazingly sharp wide open as the 16mm f/2, unfortunately, and that is probably partly due to the smaller size… I almost wish they had made it at least slightly bigger, and even more sharp wide open. Go figure!

  • Samuel H

    Great article!

    Seeing your love for the Rokinon 16mm f/2.0, I’d suggest: if you’re ever tempted to give Sony APS-C a try again, take the Samyang/Rokinon/etc 12mm f/2.0. It’s a seriously awesome lens.

  • Hi Dakota! It’s Matthew Saville here.

    To be fair, you’re right: a 10,000 (let alone a 20,000) mAH USB battery is enough to power a Sony camera for hours. However, when you’re going for broke with your timelapse (36 hours!) and away from a wall outlet for 3-4 days, it’s better to maximize your electrical efficiency.

    Simply put, a 5V USB battery is actually a single-cell ~3.5V battery, and so both the battery and the camera are upping the voltages in order to get to the camera’s required 7.5V. This means that your battery isn’t actually 10,000 mAh at all, by the time it gets around to “fueling” the camera.

    Oppositely, with the batteries I use (via a warranty-voiding MacGyver setup that involves wire cutters and a soldering iron) …I can plug a 2-cell battery directly into the camera, giving the camera 7.5-8V of “real” mAh.

    When I had the A7R2 in my possession for review as a wedding photography camera, not landscapes, I did use an Anker 20,100 USB battery to power the camera. It was nice to be able to both shoot with the camera plugged in, and also to keep the in-camera battery at 100% in case I ever needed to shoot un-plugged. This is great for “general” photography, including some landscape photography.

    HOWEVER, the 5V USB batteries are also wildly inefficient at actually charging the in-camera battery, in my tests they yield about 1/3 the actual mAh when you consider how many times a 20,100 mAh battery can charge the NP-FW50. It takes forever to charge, too. So, for wilderness travel with a Sony FE camera, I opt to simply bring a few spare NP-FW50’s for general daytime shooting, and a dummy battery that is soldered directly to a ~7.5V battery source for all night photography and timelapse shooting.

  • Dakota Rakov

    Why is the ability to keep the Sony A7 series going with USB batteries not enough? One of those 10,000 mA ones should keep it going a long long time. On top of that, unless you leave the screen on, the battery life seems fine even in fairly cold weather.

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