Backpacking Cameras – Which camera to carry?

I’ll begin this short summary of point and shoot cameras with a little nugget of wisdom those fancy Japanese camera manufacturers don’t want you to know– it doesn’t matter what camera you buy. You could even still carry around an out dated version of a computer chip that is light sensitive and gets rolled up. (Crazy, I know). The vast majority of stunning images are a combination of amazing scenery (of which we are blessed to be near in the Pacific NW) and the vision of the photographer. Hand a clunky point and shoot camera to a professional photographer and you’ll get a National Geographic worthy cover photo while that $4,000 technological masterpiece will only produce fuzzy jibberish in the hands of the inexperienced.

OK, with that off my chest, I’ll convey some functions and features which are useful and suggest some models to look at. First off, I am a Canon shooter myself, so I will primarily be suggesting those models, only because I know them better, but the important items will be a discussion of features that are useful in the back country, which will apply to all cameras.

Photo from S90 ©Erik Turner

Exposure Compensation

Every camera you pick up now will have exposure compensation – which is a feature that allows you to tell the camera, hey- it’s pretty bright here in the sun, so you should go ahead and take a picture that looks bright, even though you think everything should be sort of “neutral”. You can read about how to use this function in some of our older article about exposure and light. The important thing to consider in terms of choosing a camera is how you get to the exposure compensation (often abbreviated EV). Lower end cameras will often stuff it deep inside menus so you need to go crawling through page after page in order to access a feature that you should be able to quickly change while out in the field. It’s true that if you care to take the time at home on the computer, you can touch up your photos and come close to mimicking the effects of adjusting the EV with photo editing software, but I prefer to keep editing simple and use it only to save images where I have already used all the tools available to me in the field.

What to look for: An easy to find exposure compensation feature. If the sales person assisting you can’t seem to help you find this feature, leave Best Buy and get over to Glazer’s Camera in Seattle, where they know what they are talking about.

Photo from S90 © Erik Turner

Resolution (or Megapixels)

This is often the most talked about statistic for digital cameras, and for good reason- it’s a measure of how much data your camera can cram onto your memory card each time you hit the shutter. Back in the day when digital cameras were still playing catch up to film, megapixels mattered. But for most purposes, unless you want to take a picture that you’ll blow up and sell to an ad agency for the side of a metro bus, megapixels don’t matter too much. If the sales person assisting you starts to carry on about how a camera with too many megapixels can actually be worse, leave Glazer’s and go back to Best Buy. (This statement may actually be true in some cases- but don’t worry about it).

What to watch for: Nothing much. My tip would be don’t buy a more expensive camera just because it has a higher megapixel rating. Eight,  ten, or twelve  megapixels is plenty. Twenty megapixels per photos and you’ll be in the market for a new hard drive to store them all.

Weather Resistant (It is the Northwest)

The clouds have parted. Its Saturday morning and you haven’t seen the sun in a week. Time to get out on the trail, and don’t pack carefully– it’s sunny! Of course, it’s going to rain on you, but if your camera is weather resistant even without your trusty ziploc bag, you’re safe. (The wanna-be wilderness first responder in me feels the need to remind you that in this scenario your camera would be safe, but you’re likely cold. Bring a big plastic bag for you, too). There are limited options for a full on weather proof camera, and they’re all a bit behind their water fearing brethren in size and weight, but if you’re planning on using your camera in lots of poor weather conditions, or while hitting the slopes (or both) then it might be a good trade off.

What to look for: If your activities demand it, I’d look at a waterproof camera such as the Canon D10 or Pentax WG-1. I’ve seen a number of previous versions of the Pentax waterproof cameras take an absolute beating and still perform well. If you’re in the mood to throw down another hundred bucks or so, there is always the the possibility of getting a waterproof case, like this Canon model for the S90. But they’re pretty big and often limit the number of buttons you can use!

Photo from S90 ©Erik Turner

Zooooom

It’s a good thing right? Don’t get too close to the wildlife, but you do want to get a picture of that thru-hiker and the dirt caked on his calves (shhhh don’t approach quickly- he’s acclimated to people and will steal your trail mix!!) Comparing the amount of zoom for different point and shoot cameras is very easy. For the most part the field of view is represented by a number in millimeters, which corresponds to the 35mm equivalent focal length. Forget that last part, and enjoy the fact that you just need to look at the numbers before that “mm” symbol. Small numbers =  wide angle; large numbers = telephoto (think telescope!). 50mm is about what our eyes “see” at. 18mm is a common wide angle value, and something in the 100mm range will give decent zoom.

What to avoid: Digital zoom! Ahh it’s horrible. It’s sort of like taking your picture at home and zooming in on the computer. Except your camera is not as good at doing this as your computer. Unfortunately most cameras have digital zoom, which should only be used when you see sasquatch and the blurry nature of the picture will just add to the mystique. I’d recommend finding a camera that has the ability to turn this feature off as it’s easy to accidentally zoom a bit too far and give your camera free reign to make your picture into impressionistic version of what you see.

Bottom Line:

I’ve covered a few important topics to think about when looking for a backpacking camera. I would advise you to go to a few camera stores and try out different models. Don’t just read what harry247 said about it on Amazon. Getting a feel for where the buttons are, how the camera feels in your hand and which pocket it might fit into well are all things you can really only do in person. And now with my Canon bias already mentioned above, and stock options already bought, I’ll recommend my two favorite point and shoot cameras to haul around the trails:

If you like a little control over the camera, would enjoy learning about manual and semi-manual exposure modes, and are currently employed, I would recommend the Canon S90. It’s an amazing camera for its size and has many buttons which are all very accessible. The menu system is well designed and allows for quick changes as you are snapping pictures. Wonderful colorful images just come flowing out of this camera. It has all the modes of Canon’s SLR cameras, making it a great way to see if you like that control before you spend double the money and carry a ten pound weight to the top of Mt. Si.

For those who would rather spend their money on something else, the Canon SX210 IS is a great option. Borrowing many of the features of the S90, this camera also packs quite a punch. It has a decently stronger zoom than the S90 (just compare the optical!) and if you are the type to zoom into the glacier instead of walk across that valley full of brush, this might be the camera for you.

Photo from S90 ©Erik Turner

 

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About the author

Erik is an aspiring nature photographer who enjoys getting into the back country for unique views but also relishes the challenge of coming up with something new at the normal viewpoints. Erik’s articles will explain the methods behind how he creates his images and will encourage anyone to get outside and help showcase the beauty of nature. You can see his body of work at his website.

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