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Cameras for the backcountry

12:45 p.m. on May 30, 2008 (EDT)
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Having yet again succumbed to the Fundamental Law of Electronic Widgets and purchased a new camera (body, actually, since I already have the lenses from the old camera), I am starting a thread on what camera do you take on various types of outings and why. Oh, you don't remember the FLEW (serendipitous acronym that describes what happens to the money for any electronic widget you buy)?


Fundamental Law of Electronic Widgets - By the time you select the particular item of electronics (TV, computer, camera, cell/smart phone, MP3 player, ...), hand your money (paper or plastic) to the cashier, and leave the store (or on-line site), but before you can get the device turned on, there will be a minimum of two revisions or updates. In all cases, the manual and "fast start" instructions will be obsolete and contain factual errors, as well as misleading "information"

In my case, it depends on the outing. I used to use film exclusively (what else was there?), mostly in 35mm SLRs, but occasionally lugging a 4x5 view camera. I did use a small 35mm P&S with a fairly long zoom range on Denali, rock climbs, and elsewhere that weight was an issue.

At present, I mostly use a DSLR, though I carried a digital P&S on some rock climbs and on summit day in Antarctica. The DSLR is because of the versatility of the interchangeable lenses. The digital P&S is for when weight and size are an issue. I also have a tiny digicam with a waterproof housing and various mounts (helmet, headstrap, wriststrap) for very wet conditions (snorkeling, whitewater).

The most important factor in the images is the photographer, not the equipment. And whether the images satisfy you or not depends on your purpose - memory shots, artistic expression, telling the story of your outing or sharing it with friends, or making a living.

So, on your outings, what type of camera do you take and why? I mean *type* of camera, not the specific brand (to avoid the Canon vs Nikon vs Minolta vs Pentax vs ... arguments)

6:49 p.m. on May 30, 2008 (EDT)
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Nice topic
On long or casual (multi-night backcountry or city) outings I always take my little point and shoot because of its easy use, amazing zoom (28-280 35mm equiv) but mainly because of its compactness and weight.
When I know that features are important, on shorter outings where weight and bulk are not as important, I take a nice DSLR because It can provide the best image quality, and color truity.

I agree i am the most important, but each camera has its limitations as I try to blend art and memory shots
for example, when I endeavor to take 360 panoramas with my point and shoot, I notice some distortion that often makes it very difficult to combine the images, I think one tool that is VERY helpful is a wide angle lense, as you don't have to step back from subjects (something that is not always poossible)

12:03 a.m. on May 31, 2008 (EDT)
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42 forum posts

The camera I use on all trips where weight & size is a concern is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2. Leica DC Vario-Elmarit f2.8-4.9, 28-112mm (35mm equivalent) with an imaging stabilizing system that works. I usually shoot RAW format, manual or aperture priority at ISO100. Options for P,A,S,M and jpeg format. I really like the ergonomics of such a compact camera. The ability to switch shooting modes, focus modes, format, aspect ratios do not require fumbling through menu. The big weakness of this camera are its 10mps. Too much noise at high ISO for the size sensor they squeeze into the small body. No viewfinder, but a brighter LCD and off axis option (1 button touch feature to access it & display info). An optical viewfinder would have been nice, but no room considering the size of the LCD (+3" diagonal) on the 4.25" wide body. Have yet to find an electronic view finder that I like. It's probably pricing in the upper $200 range today. I would recommend you check one out before purchasing. I've gone through a Canon Elph (broke, doesn't deal well with salt air environment) & Olympus Camedia C60 (on its last legs after 2 seasons of salt air exposure). The Lumix still functions new after 2 seasons of salt air exposure & takes great quality shots (Leica optics). Haven't been this happy with a compact camera since the Olympus XA days.

10:52 a.m. on May 31, 2008 (EDT)
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arborrider -
The question was what TYPE of camera and why - film vs digital, compact P&S vs SLR vs view camera vs 2-1/4, simple vs loads of features, water-resistant vs waterproof vs no special water-proofness... Not the specific cameras. The idea is to help build criteria to consider when looking for a camera for specific outdoor activities.

The problem with being very specific about camera make and model, especially digicams today, is that the specific models change a couple times a year. As an example of specificity, Nikon has introduced DSLRs in the last year of D60, D3, D300, with their predecessors less than a year previously. Canon's A-series P&S have seen the numbers go through the A520, A530, A540 and A610, A620, A630, A640 ... and more in the past couple of years (some of these in parallel and some changes without changing the model number).

The salient items in your post are more like - compact P&S - small, light, image stabilization, 4 to 1 zoom, choice of formats (or "offers RAW, which I prefer because of ..."), ... Downsides are no optical viewfinder, high noise level at high ISO, ... Had couple of P&S which suffered from salt air exposure which is big problem for my use, ... that sort of info. Lots of people wouldn't think about the salt air exposure without a prompt like this, and same thing with water-repellency (some of the best photos are in rainstorms and blizzards - cold performance is something to consider as well).

To give context, saying something like Dash did about trying to blend art and memory, plus "I am a rock climber/sea kayaker/skier/long-distance bike touring" would help in guiding people's choices.

10:36 p.m. on June 1, 2008 (EDT)
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42 forum posts

Opps! Sorry Bill. When you stated "...what camera you take..." I mistook that for literally what specific camera I take. Should have figured it out based on the contents of your opening post.

3:01 p.m. on June 4, 2008 (EDT)
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116 forum posts

I usually bring along my rather heavy digi camera on camping and backpacking trips. The camera has a 12x optical zoom and lots of great features (that I'm still learning how to best use). One downside is that I don't usually bring a tripod or monopod with me (for weight reasons) so getting a good shot in low light is challenging. Also, I have to hunt for a stump if I want a shot with me in it as well.

Any recommendations on a good tripod for backpacking?

8:08 p.m. on June 4, 2008 (EDT)
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762 forum posts

Check out the UltraPod II.


I've used one for years. It can free stand or be easily attached to a walking stick, trekking pole, or even a tree limb. Makes it easy to get in the shot, tbastress!

12:17 p.m. on June 5, 2008 (EDT)
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5,188 forum posts

If weight is not too much of a problem, I sometimes carry my Gitzo Traveller (the 4-section version, which is lighter and more compact thatn the 3-section one). For much lighter treks, I use either the ultrapod that f_klock recommends or a Joby Gorilla (the largest one, made for SLRs with a zoom lens - it's not much heavier than the 2 lighter models, but works with my DSLR with the 18-200 zoom as well as Barb's P&S, plus all the Gorilla models have flexible legs that can be wrapped around a post or branch). http://www.joby.com/products/gorillapod/ There are some imitations out there of the Gorilla, but they don't seem as well made or as sturdy.

12:52 p.m. on June 7, 2008 (EDT)
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On my outings I take a digital camera, its called "DSLR-Like". Meaning its what it is called, its like a DSLR, cept smaller.

Its the cannon S5 IS. I would truck this along in any place that there is going to be water or anything of the sort. Planning on getting a good (water proof) point n shoot sometime though.

1:58 p.m. on June 7, 2008 (EDT)
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Mr Haze -
I have looked at some of the "DSLR-like" digicams and wondered about several things. What is the weight and size compared to the corresponding DSLR from the same company? Several of them seemed to be as heavy and bulky, so I would think not having the interchangeability of lenses at the same size would be a drawback. One of our group in Antarctica had one which took excellent images, and for the part of that expedition on the ice, I only took one lens. So, in some sense, I had essentially the same setup and limitation, at least while on the ice. One of the others had a camera that was also "DSLR-like", but also had video capability. I haven't seen his videos, so I don't know the quality. But that looks like a reasonable tradeoff - no interchangeable lenses, but add the video.

So I guess I would ask why not get an actual DSLR? Is it significantly smaller in size and weight? Do you have video capability?

11:11 a.m. on June 16, 2008 (EDT)
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I have the Canon S2 IS, which is similiar to the S5. My S2 does have video capability and you can purchase an adapter for it to use standard lenses or filters. The camera tends to be bulky and heavy, in my opinion. But it does weigh less than a DSLR.

9:33 p.m. on July 2, 2008 (EDT)
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160 forum posts

I had a Canon 30D that got stolen, I can't bring myself to pay that much for a camera and equipment just yet, so I spent 200 on a nice 10megapixel 5x optical Nikon CoolPix, nice, slim and compact, perfect for backpacking.

11:39 a.m. on July 3, 2008 (EDT)
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In the film era I used a Pentax spotmatic F SLR in large part as it was the only camera I owned. I still have it today, although I have not used it for some years. Today I use a Canon digital point and shoot for all the obvious reasons - easy, small, light........

I'm not much of a photographer, but wish I were. Someday I may take a class or two on lighting and photo composition. I would certainly prefer the better performance of a DSLR, but the convenience and size of a P&S is tough to beat.

6:19 p.m. on July 3, 2008 (EDT)
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The most important factor in the images is the photographer, not the equipment.
And whether the images satisfy you or not depends on your purpose - memory
shots, artistic expression, telling the story of your outing or sharing it
with friends, or making a living.

So, on your outings, what type of camera do you take and why? I mean *type*
of camera, not the specific brand (to avoid the Canon vs Nikon vs Minolta vs
Pentax vs ... arguments)

As you pointed out, it's the photographer that impacts photo composition, but the intended use can dictate a certain "level" equipment. With that in mind, I carry a DSLR with pro-level lens. I want every shot to be potentially salable and usable for large prints. I've also found in high contrast situations (e.g. dark trees on snow, or bright clouds on deep blue sky) I stand a much better chance of getting a usable shot with this outfit than with something less capable, due to its wider dynamic range.

I also carry my aluminum tripod f because stability is one of the keys to getting sharp images.

The downside is that this gear all comes to 13.7 lbs including the bag for the camera/batteries/etc. And that's not even counting a telephoto lens, only because I don't have one yet (I carry a wide-angle zoom now). Some day when I can afford a carbon fiber tripod, that'll shave a couple pounds off.

Basically I treat most every trip as a photo shoot (yep, I'm pretty serious about my photography).

1:12 p.m. on July 8, 2008 (EDT)
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I actually have been carrying my point and shoot 35mm Pentax. It is actually lighter than my digi-cams and I know how to use it well. (Operator experience). Its just a little bigger than my digi, but the fact that the batteries will always be working (as opposed to my digi-cams which eat a charge faster than my kids eat gorp) means I can count on it.

6:18 p.m. on July 8, 2008 (EDT)
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After breaking/ruining 2 good 35mm cameras in the woods, I found this little gem at Ritz photo for under 80 bucks. The VuPoint DC-WPC-ST531T-VP 5MP Underwater Digital Camera. http://www.ritzcamera.com/product/542044300.htm

I figured the waterproof case would not only protect it from rain, but small impacts as well. It does. I take it kayaking all the time too. (because I can)

It's a bit bulky in the underwater case, but is quite slim and pocketable outside the case. I'm also very pleased with the picture quality. Video quality aint the best, but it's good enough for Youtube!

Because it uses regular batteries, you don't have to wory about charging a special battery in the field. Just carry spares.

8:06 p.m. on July 9, 2008 (EDT)
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For kayaking and general "snap shooting", my "old" Pentax WPi waterproof point & shoot gets used. Compact, plenty splash-proof and capable of very decent quality images. Used it to get some nice close-up underwater video clips of Gray Whales at Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California back in March.

Risking salt spray (or worse), my Canon XTi (dSLR) helped capture some really nice stuff and came out of it fine with a few precautions. Actually it was a little surprising to see how some were using their non-water resistant (or protected) still and video cameras without regard to potentially fatal (to electronics) salt water exposure and there was at least one camera that ended up DOA.

Prior to my trip, I found the GoPro Digital Hero camera selling at a local Marshall's for less than $60. At that price (was normally selling for about $130), I was almost tempted, but the reality is it's basically just a very cheap 3MP digicam in a waterproof case that might get you better than nothing images, not much else. Glad I stuck with the Pentax.

8:23 p.m. on July 9, 2008 (EDT)
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GoPro was a sponsor of the Primal Quest adventure race in Montana this year. Heros were given to the teams to use during the race. Some of the videos are on the "Tube". Not too impressive.

10:23 p.m. on July 9, 2008 (EDT)
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There are several levels of the GoPro Hero. For a cheap helmet and underwater camera, it isn't too bad. It is nowhere near the quality of my DSLRs, of course, but the video is acceptable for standard NTSC quality. Like anything else, what you get is heavily dependent on the operator and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the equipment. The old Diana project was an excellent illustration of that (the Diana was a throwaway film camera, and the project enlisted a number of top pro photographers - some astoundingly excellent photos came out of the project, that you wouldn't guess were taken with a cardboard box and primitive plastic lens).

7:25 p.m. on July 10, 2008 (EDT)
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Great Question Bill.
I finally am joining in here and dragging everyone back to the first bit about type of Camera. Sorry. I have seen some of the helmut mounted Video cameras, I hope this is wht you are talking about. I dont have one.

The Camera I use is an inexpensive (realativly) Nikon CoolPix LS Point and Shoot. It is digital as well as able to record "video". I started using this as in past trips other people could and did take pictures, though the sharing of same did not always occure. Even when it would be no-cost to them. I guess the time thing got in the way.

Anyway I do enjoy it for the small size, light weight, low cost? It was a gift to me from family, dont know what they paid and care less. It has some features that I just haven't used and probably wont use. Takes great pictures though, if I do my part.

5:20 p.m. on July 11, 2008 (EDT)
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37 forum posts

A manual 35mm, with the lightest lens I have (FM2n, 50mm 1.8 AFD). Though I take so few photos when I'm walking, I am contemplating taking one of the small digicams that we have lying around.

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