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Lightweight Backpacking Camera Selection 101
or Why Sensor Size Matters

Purpose

This article addresses the selection of camera/photo gear suitable for lightweight backpacking. After reading this article, you should have a better understanding of what to consider when selecting photography equipment for lightweight backpacking. In particular, you will understand the tradeoffs of camera size and weight vs. image quality.

dawn in a utah canyon
Sunrise Escalante River, Olympus E-30 and stock 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED Zoom lens. This photo looks great enlarged to 14x19.
I just got done looking at the pictures my friend took with a compact P/S camera vs. the pictures I took a few weeks earlier in the same area with an Olympus DSLR with a 4/3 sensor (about nine times larger sensor). The P/S pictures are ”muddier“ and not nearly as sharp. The colors are muted and there is less tonal range. There are lots of pictures with detailess dark shadows or white (not blue) sky, sometimes both in the same shot. True, my friend still has a nice photo record of her trip but most, if not all, of these photos are not technically worthy of an 8x10 enlargement. Some of the shots, if they were taken with a better camera would make excellent enlargements worthy of framing. Bottom line—larger camera, larger sensor, better picture.

Selection of Lightweight Camera Equipment for Backpacking

Don’t expect great images form a camera with a sensor the size of your little fingernail and a lens the size of a snap pea. It would be great of a 5 oz Point and Shoot (P/S) compact camera produced images close to the quality of images from a 3 ½ pound digital SLR (DSLR) camera and lens combination like a Canon 5D Mk II and 24-105mm f/4L IS lens. But size has significant impact on image quality.

That is, better image quality requires a lager sensor, which in turn requires a larger camera body and a larger lens, and ultimately a heavier camera. Since we can’t bypass laws of physics (sensor and lens size), each backcountry photographer will need to find a satisfactory compromise between camera size/weight and image quality.

If you don’t want to go into all the gory details at this point you can just jump to a discussion of the lightweight cameras I take backpacking.

It would be wonderful if somebody re-packaged the superb performance of the Canon 5D Mk II into a plastic-bodied camera half the weight. It could be done! While you may never reach the weight and size of a P/S, there are things you can do to reduce camera weight and bulk while maintaining a large sensor and good optics. The best example of this is the Sigma DP2. With a midsized sensor, and a moderately fast f2.8 zoom lens, this might be the best ultralight/lightweight camera for backpacking. It weighs 10 ounces, almost half the next lightest DSLR the Olympus E-420 with 25mm pancake lens. The DP1’s most significant drawback is that its sensor is only 4.6 mp.

Announced summer of 2008 The Future - Micro 4/3 Format camera (around 10 ounces?): SLR picture quality in a compact camera with interchangeable lenses that approaches the weight of a P/S? By doing away with a SLR mirror and viewfinder, but retaining the large sensor and lenses of an SLR, you significantly reduce weight and bulk but retain picture quality. Panasonic and Olympus will jointly develop cameras for the new format. As of May 2009, I am very interested in the new μ4/3cameras—Pansonic’s μ4/3 cameras once they have high quality lens options and the Olympus μ4/3 camera entry when, if ever, it debuts. Currently it is still an ”under glass“ mock-up but could be as light as 10-14 oz with lens!

For the time being, Olympus (4/3 & μ4/3 format), Sigma (DP1 & DP2), and Panasonic (4/3 & μ4/3 format, and Lumix LX3 compact format) all attempt to provide backpackers lightweight cameras with good image quality. Most other DSLR manufacturers are not very interested in pursing lightweight camera gear. Nikon and Canon produce cameras far heavier than they need to be. This is especially true of their top of the line cameras with the best image quality. There is a perception that weight and size imply a level of quality. Everybody wants a pro camera with a pro look and feel, and a solid heft! Thus we get large cameras with heavy metal bodies loaded with features. A scant few of us actually need anything this heavy or durable or their long list of features. And at the fast pace of camera technology we are likely to replace the camera long before it begins to show signs of wear. Caveat emptor!

And I admit, even I am tempted from time to time to carry a Canon 5D into the backcountry for its superb resolution and image quality!

Major factors to consider for image/photo quality

Finally, there are no takeovers for backpacking photography. A small sensor P/S camera is extremely unlikely to produce a high quality enlargement no matter how fabulous the shot. Photoshopping is unlikely to make significant improvements. Think hard before you commit to a smaller sensor camera.

Cameras and Their Sensor Sizes

The following is a list of some cameras and their sensor sizes.
As a rough estimate, the lower the pixel density (mp/cm2) the higher the image quality of the camera.

Pixel density counts, but there may still be significant image quality differences between cameras with sensors of similar pixel densities (although probably not enough to jump camera classes). These differences in image quality are usually due to improved sensor technology and improved camera image processing. E.g.:

Available Lenses: Their Quality and Their Weight

Larger sensors require larger lenses. Larger lenses are heavier, and significantly more expensive to make. In particular it is quite difficult to make an inexpensive, high quality full frame (35mm) lens for cameras like the Canon 5D. This is where the smaller, high quality midsized sensor lenses like the Olympus Zuiko 4/3 format lenses really shine. The 12-60mm f/2.8-4 ED Zuiko Zoom 4/3 format lens is one of the finest digital lenses for any camera, any format. So make sure you check out the availability of high quality lightweight lenses before committing to a particular camera line. For instance, the Panasonic μ4/3 format DMG-GH1 is wonderful lightweight camera but lacks any high quality lens options as of this writing. Sometimes, the lenses are significantly more important for weight and image quality than the camera body. And it is likely that you will own and use the lenses far longer than a given camera body.