Alert! as a backpacker you are not well served by mainstream camera reviews like DPReview.
That is, the 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera are quite different than those for a general use camera in mainstream reviews. Here are the major differences.
- CAMERA WEIGHT – In mainstream reviews, the weight of the camera with a sharp zoom lens is not factored into their ratings. In fact, they routinely think that hefty cameras are better!
- ZOOM LENSES – Many zoom lenses commonly sold with good cameras can only resolve 6 to 9 perceptual megapixels of the camera’s 24 MP sensor! Something not highlighted in mainstream reviews.
Bottom line: a great camera with a mediocre lens will give you mediocre results.
- IMAGE QUALITY HANDHELD – Mainstream review image quality assessment is done with the camera on a tripod using the highest quality (expensive and heavy) non-zoom lenses in the controlled environment of a test facility. While lightweight backpackers and hikers usually shoot in the field, handheld using a single zoom lens. (This saves the weight of a carrying a heavy tripod and multiple lenses.)
- DAWN/DUSK PERFORMANCE – A backpacking photographer is further challenged by taking handheld photos in the dim light of dawn and dusk. This is the golden hour when the light is perfect for that great backcountry photo. Unfortunately, these are also conditions particularly vulnerable to images being completely ruined by blur from low shutter speeds and camera shake. This is not well covered in mainstream reviews.
5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera – Summary
- Light and compact with ruggedness and environmental sealing a plus
- Sharp, wide angle zoom lens that is also light. These can be very difficult to find!
- Takes sharp, high quality photos HANDHELD
- Fast and easy to use in manual or semi-manual mode (many light/compact cameras are not!)
- Bright viewfinder with all essential information displayed on one screen
And at the end I list What Cameras I take Backpacking that meet these criteria.
Surprised you don’t see any point and shoot cameras in here?
In The Point and Shoot Camera is Dead for Hikers, I discuss why I belive the point and shoot camera is dead (or approaching non relevance) for hikers and backpackers. But to summarize:
- The point and shoot (p/s) camera is being squeezed into the grave from two sides. 1) on the inexpensive side by constantly improving smartphone cameras. And 2) on the more expensive side by very light mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras. If photography is a serious objective of your trip, their near “pro-level” performance justifies their cost/weight vs. carrying just your smartphone.
- I am covering very light mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras in this post
- And I will cover smartphone cameras, accessories, and techniques in a future post.
Top 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera – Detail
1) Light and compact with ruggedness and environmental sealing a plus
- Yes number 1 is weight, but not in the way you might expect. First, this is the weight of the camera with a sharp zoom lens. And second, as long as it’s below a critical weight I don’t worry about it so much. After that, capturing a good photograph is my primary concern. Criteria 2 through 5 below all contribute to getting the best possible photo when backpacking.
- For me, the critical weight for a backpacking camera is determined by what I comfortably carry all day mounted to the shoulder strap of my pack. That is around 24 oz (1.5 lb) for camera and lens. And around 30 oz when I need an environmentally sealed camera/lens system, e.g. the Olympus OM-D EM-5 ii with 12-40 f/2.8 PRO lens.
- Environment sealing is important in some situations but not others. It adds significant cost and weight to a camera. Dust resistance is probably the most important since blown dust from dry and windy environments is quite common.
- If you are hiking on trail and take reasonable care of your camera, ruggedness is not a big deal. On the other hand, if you are bushwhacking, scrambling, or outright climbing and frequently using your camera, ruggedness may be a very good feature.
2) It has a sharp*, lightweight wide angle zoom lens
- This is number 2 for a reason. And one could argue it should be number 1. The lens, not the camera is the limiting factor for image quality. Unfortunately, most light and inexpensive zoom lenses sold with cameras (“kit lenses”) can only resolve 6 to 9 perceptual megapixels of a 24 MP camera sensor! And sharp zoom lenses light enough for backpacking are few and far between. As such, it pays to do your research to find zoom lens and camera combinations that produce the best image quality.
*See more on sharp below…
- Zoom lenses save weight by not having to carry multiple prime (fixed focal length) lenses. Wide zoom lenses are well suited to the sweeping landscapes of the backcountry and and allow for dramatic perspectives. They speed up work by not having to change lenses. In addition the lens stays on the camera protecting the sensor from dust and moisture.
- And for prime lens aficionados, yes there is an argument for them. Two good primes; one wide angle (around 35mm equivalent) for most work and supplemented by a fast and super sharp normal lens is a a great setup. Your feet do a great job of lens zooming! (Or I have used a light zoom supplemented by a fast and super sharp prime lens for critical shots.)
- For both zoom and prime lenses make sure you consider 3rd party lenses from the likes of Sigma, Tokina, Tamron, and even Zeiss. Many times these lenses will significantly outperform your your camera’s native lenses. Personally, I’ve had great results from Sigma lenses.
- Bottom line: a great camera with a mediocre lens will give you mediocre results.
The Olympus ED 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 lens is a great example of a light, sharp zoom lens well suited to backpacking. This lens is exceptionally wide-angle (18-36mm equivalent) for dramatic perspectives and sweeping landscapes. Compact and only 5 ounces, it is a marvel optical engineering.
Camera Shake – the Fastest Way to Ruin a Backpacking Photo
Camera Shake can quickly blur a 24 megapixel image down to essentially zero megapixels!
If you combine all three above, you can gain a 5-9x increase in shutter speed with minimal impact on image quality. This is what makes handheld shots possible at dawn or dusk. Even so, bracing your camera against a tree, rock, trekking pole or even using a small, 1-3 oz tripod are all improvements over handheld. All Olympus camera bodies and now the new Sony a6500 have in-body image stabilization.
3) It takes sharp, high quality photos handheld
Especially in situations encountered backpacking like the dim light of dawn and dusk. Contributors are:
- Excellent image stabilization (in-camera is preferred.). A tripod is a last resort for most backpacking photos—it’s both heavy, and time consuming.
- High ISO performance gives you sharper images in low light, gaining you 2-4 shutter speeds This is with only a slight decrease in image quality. After that, image quality increasingly degrades as you go higher.
Note: for handheld shots at dawn or dusk the shutter speeds gained from a & b above, may have more impact on image sharpness than the camera’s sensor and lens!
- Fast and light lenses are usually primes (fixed focal length) and will gain you 1-2 shutter speeds. Fast zoom lens with good image quality are very expensive and sometimes weigh more than the camera they are mounted to. But some of these zooms have image quality that equals the best prime lenses. This makes them a tempting option if photography is a major objective for your trip.
- Fast accurate focusing on the correct subject is essential to quickly getting sharp photos.
- Good DRO (digital range optimization). DRO deals-with the less than flattering, high-contrast light of midday when we take most of our photographs. It automatically brings up shadow detail without blowing out highlights. DRO is faster and easier to use than high dynamic range (HDR) photography which takes multiple images and must be done on a tripod.
- Finally but by no means least, good quality JPEGs out of the camera: This greatly speeds getting photos into publication—the single largest time consumer/bottleneck in the whole photographic production process. (I am only going to edit RAW images for the few critical shots that need it.)
Bad Focus – Another Way to Ruin a Backpacking Photo
Occasionally the camera’s “smart” auto-focus algorithm fails and puts the focus in the wrong place, leaving your “intended” subject all blurry. And sometimes in the low light of dawn and dusk there may not be enough light or contrast to get reliable focus. In either case, the resulting photo is useless.
4) It is is fast and easy to use in manual or semi-manual mode
By the nature of backpacking we are moving—we have places to go and other things to do besides fiddling with a camera. That is, we need to quickly take our best photo and move on. To do this:
- You should be able to adjust all critical functions without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.
- Fast easily accessed controls are key. Ideally at least two knobs on the top of the camera do the bulk of the work. And a number of customizable function buttons do the rest. You use all of these to quickly modify your major camera settings: exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO setting, activate manual focus, manage DRO (digital range optimization), timed shutter release, etc. All in a matter of seconds, not minutes.
- Small dials on the camera back, critical items buried in nested menus, etc. all slow down picture taking.
- A touchscreen, while not essential, has its advantages, particularly when focusing and making adjustments when shooting from a tripod.
5) Bright viewfinder with all essential information displayed on one screen
A Good viewfinder allows for faster photo taking, better photos, and fewer re-takes. That is, the better you see your image and the more information you have before you take your photo, the better the photo.
- Cameras without viewfinders are close to non-starters. Rear screen displays are almost impossible to see in bright daylight. And even if visible, the image is usually far too small to see essential details well enough to assess the quality of the picture before taking it.
- In the viewfinder, you should be able see all your critical settings (including histogram). This enables you to quickly assess your photo and make the necessary adjustments before you take it.
- A good viewfinder also helps with manual focus.
Sharp as I use it is the “perceptual megapixels” of the final image. This is a combination of both lens and camera—not simply the native resolution of the camera sensor! As an example, for most 24 MP, APS-C (crop sensor cameras like the Sony a6300 and a6500, Nikon D7200 or Canon EOS 80D) the perceptual megapixel resolution final image maxes out at around 17 MP or around 70% of the native 24 MP sensor resolution, even with the best and most expensive prime lenses.
Almost all of the loss of the camera sensor’s 24 megapixels is due to the lens. Compared to primes, most zoom lenses do worse, with image resolutions well below 50% of the camera’s sensor. Some going as low as 25% or only 6 MP of your camera’s 24 MP sensor. So it’s important to consider the camera lens combination with a major focus on the lens image quality. One could even argue to select your lens first, and get a camera body that works it.
Bottom line: a great camera with a mediocre lens will give you mediocre results.
For more reading see DxOMark on Perceptual Megapixels, and take a look at a sample table of the Perceptual Megapixels for Nikon DX lenses on various camera bodies.
The full Sony a6000/a6500 kit: Peak Designs CapturePRO (mounts to backpack shoulder strap), Peak Designs Micro Plate (mounts to camera bottom), Pedco utra-pod II (small tripod), Sony NP-FW50 Battery, and Newer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head.
What Backpacking Cameras I Use Most of the Time
On most of my backpacking trips and on international travel, I carry:
- My iPhone 6 plus, and
- A light mirrorless a mirrorless camera, like a Sony a6000/a6500 or Olympus EM-10 Mark II
- Optional: when I need an environmentally sealed camera/lens system (dust and rain) I carry something like the Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II with 12-40 f/2.8 PRO lens.
| Sony a6000 or Sony a6500|
Lenses for Sony
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Contemporary lens sharp as it gets!
|Olympus EM-10 Mark II or EM-5 Mark II|
Lenses for Olympus
For astro/star photographers
The lens for this is probably the Rokinon 12mm F2.0 NCS CS Ultra Wide Angle Fixed Lens available in Sony-E and u4/3 mount. Excellent value, fast and reasonably sharp. Manual focus tho, not that it is a big deal when doing astro work, just set it to infinity and go.
The Possible Exception to P/S Death
“Point and shoot like,” 1-inch-type sensor cameras, e.g. the Sony RX-100 series do perform significantly better than the best smartphone cameras. For some their smaller size and lower weight vs. a mirrorless camera is a godsend. As such, they occupy a valid but narrow niche between smartphone cameras and mirrorless cameras. But note that their image quality not quite as good as similarly priced mirrorless cameras that may weigh only a few ounces more. They are too large and heavy to be truly “pocketable.” And finally, their single lens is only about 1/3 as sharp as the best interchangeable camera lenses for mirrorless cameras like the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Contemporary lens.
For me, its all about the speed and ease of taking a photo. Since I changed to using the Peak Designs CapturePRO mounting system on the shoulder strap of my pack, I get 2 to 3 x more photos per trip. More than I ever got with a point and shoot camera in my pocket!
Note in the video how quickly easily I put my pack on with the camera already attached to my shoulder strap. No camera spinning around and twisting up the shoulder strap.