The best lightweight backpacking camera is the camera you can quickly pull out and shoot. Many superb photos have been taken on cell phones and point & shoot cameras. Being in a beautiful area and taking a photo in the right place at the right time matters far more than the camera.

Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras

The photo above was shot with an inexpensive, 6 oz Canon S100 point & shoot camera. A huge storm was about the break when a sudden opening in the clouds illuminated the bluff in front of me. I had less than 30 seconds to extract the camera from my pocket, get it out of a waterproof baggie and take the shot before the sun was gone. It was raining like crazy a few minutes later.

Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras

My 3 backpacking cameras. (photo taken with my iPhone 6+)

My three lightweight backpacking cameras L to R: Canon PowerShot S100 (current model s120), Sony a6000 w kit 16-50mm lens (new model: Sony a6300), Sony RX100iii (current model RX100iv). With each increase in size, weight and cost you get higher quality images, but at expense pocket-ability and rapid access to the camera for a quick shot. (photo taken with my iPhone 6+)

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Q: What is the best camera? A: The one you have with you.

The old joke is still true. But for backpacking, it can be further refined, The best backpacking camera is the camera you can quickly pull out and shoot.

  • On trips that I’ve taken cameras too big to fit in my hip pocket, I’ve taken far fewer photos. And even sadder, I’ve missed most if not all of the money shots—that is, I don’t take the camera out on that hair raising traverse along a Sierra knife edge summit climb.
  • It’s good to remember that being in a beautiful area and taking a photo in the right place at the right time matters far more than the camera. Many superb photos have been taken on cell phone cameras.

On most trips the best camera is the one that’s in my pants pocket. For me, that might be my iPhone 6+ since it always lives in my hip pocket (it’s also my first choice for maps, trip guide info, and GPS). After that, it’s a point and shoot camera that is light and small enough to fit in a hip pocket. It’s nice if that camera has good image quality (IQ) as well, but IQ matters not if you can’t or don’t take the photo. And with most photos targeted for web/browser resolutions of around 1000 pixels wide (or smaller), many point and shoots and even a few smartphone cameras make the grade.

In broad daylight when you can get close to the subject, smartphone cameras work pretty well. But note: most smartphone cameras do have notable Image Quality (IQ) deficiencies even if they have adequate pixel counts. 1) They shoot like crap in low light— noisy/grainy images, low resolution, poor contrast, and unsatisfactory color rendition. 2) They don’t have an optical zoom. So if you can’t get close to your subject, the ensuing digital zoom quickly turns into a fuzzy low-resolution image. These aren’t necessarily showstoppers but should be considered.

So it may come down to what you are willing to pay for a small backpacking camera that’s around 6 to 8 oz. It can range from zero weight and zero dollars to use the camera on your current smartphone, up to 10 oz and almost $1,000 for the barely pocketable Sony RX100 with class-leading IQ for a point and shoot camera.

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“The best camera is the one you can quickly take out and get a photo…” My hiking partner, Don taking a quick photo on the Sierra High Route with a $200 point and shoot camera.

Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras with class leading image quality


Point and shoots around 6 to 8 ounces

Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras

Many photos on this site were taken with the
small and pocketable Canon S120.

Here are a few of the best small point and shoot cameras:

  • Canon PowerShot S120 12.1 MP CMOS Digital Camera with 5x Optical Zoom – Super pocketable, inexpensive, small and light with a manual control (if wanted), shoots raw. Fast (1.8) and wide (24mm) lens. I have used many versions this camera over the years with great success.
  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX7K – light, pocketable, fast (1.4) and wide (24mm) lens, great manual control, shoots raw.
  • For a value/budget camera consider the Fujifilm XQ2.
  • Finally look at the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX100K – A superb but heavy (10.5 oz) and expensive “point and shoot.” Large sensor, fast lens, great optics, Electronic viewfinder. Tons of manual control. Not so pocketable at almost 11 ounces. [A strong competitor to the Sony RX100 listed below. It has an even lager sensor (about 1.5x more sensor area than the Sony’s) but is only 13 megapixels.]

Sony RX100 – Backpacking Point and Shoot Camera with High Image Quality

The Sony is a DP Review Editors Pick and in a class to itself for image quality for a light and compact camera. But it is quite expensive.

The Sony RX100 is in a class to itself for image quality for a light and small camera.

The key here is to get a camera with superb IQ that is small and light enough to be carried on a quick release of your backpack shoulder strap and not get in the way for most scrambling. The Sony RX100, technically a point and shoot, is included here since it has a larger sensor and higher Image Quality than other point and shoots. It is barely pocketable, but is extremely light for carrying on a pack shoulder strap pocket or quick release. The only downside is that it is quite expensive. You get what you pay for.

 

Camera Item Oz Comments
Camera
point & shoot
Sony RX100 (280g) 10.0 Highest image quality for a P/S camera. But pricy!
Large sensor, good in low light, has EVF
Discount
Camera
Older versions of Sony RX100  If you don’t need the latest/greatest you can save $
And these are still great cameras!
Battery spare Sony NP-BX1 (24 g, 0.8 oz) Alt: (2) BM NP-BX1 Batteries & Charger
Tripod P/S JOBY GorillaPod (44g) 1.5 For smaller P/S cameras. Also Pedco UltraPod
TOTAL 11.5 ounces

Sony a6000 – Backpacking Camera (Mirrorless)

sony-a6000-kit

The full Sony a6000 kit: Peak Designs CapturePRO (mounts to backpack shoulder strap), Peak Designs Micro Plate (mounts to camera bottom), Pedco Ultrapod II (small tripod), Sony NP-FW50 Battery, and Newer Fish Bone quick release for tripod head.

This camera is a #1 best seller for good reason. At 1/3 the weight, this camera approaches the image quality of standards like the Canon 5D. It’s also a bargain at under $550 with kit lens. What makes this system work is the Peak Designs CapturePRO system that mounts the camera on your pack’s shoulder strap for almost instant access to take photos. The compact and light Sony a6000 is a perfect camera for this mounting system!

Camera Item Oz Comments
Camera SLR
crop format
Sony a6000 w kit 16-50mm lens*
new model: Sony a6300
16.0 Among lightest 24mp APS-C cameras. With the right lens, image quality approaching Canon 5D
Lens alt/add’l Sony SEL35F18 35mm f/1.8 Prime Fixed Lens w hood (6.2) Fast, superb resolution, normal lens w image stabilization. Use dawn & dusk. Possibly w/o tripod!
Lens alt/add’l Sigma 19mm f2.8 DN, w hood (6.1) For landscape. Light, inexpensive, sharper at 19mm than the a6000 16-50mm kit lens
Lens alt/add’l Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN, w hood (5.7) Only $199! Superb resolution. Lightweight.
Battery spare Sony NP-FW50 Battery (1.5) Alt less $: Wasabi Power Battery (2-Pack) & Charger
Mount Peak Designs CapturePRO 110g 3.8 Take more photos! Fast access to camera!
Attaches to backpack shoulder strap
Mount Peak Designs Micro Plate 25g 0.8 Needed to clear a6000’s hinged LCD screen
Tripod SLR Pedco utra-pod II 114g, 4.0 oz For small mirrorless SLR cameras
Tripod mount Newer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head 51g, 1.8 oz For quick attachment of camera with Peak Designs Micro Plate (alt = Desmond DLVC-50)
Protection Gallon Freezer ZipLoc To protect camera gear from rain
TOTAL 20.6 ounces

* Notes about kit 16-50mm lens:

  • I like it. It’s crazy light, compact!
  • Inexpensive! Only $150 when you purchase with the camera body.
  • It has good image stabilization. (Helps with backpacking photos which are usually handheld.)
  • It’s has reasonable image quality for most shots–decently sharp in middle focal lengths, especially in the center of the frame.
  • It is less sharp below 20mm. You will need a reason to shoot under this focal length (I sometimes do, but know I am taking a hit in resolution.)
  • But to get the full resolution out of the a6000’s superb sensor, you will need to use a lens of the quality of the Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN, or Sony 35mm f/1.8.

Skip the Tripod?

One of the major tenets of serious outdoor photography is that you need a tripod to get good results. This is especially true for the magic hour of morning and evening where small apertures for depth of field and low light combine for slow shutter speeds; sometimes much slower than one can handhold a camera and get sharp results. But for backpacking even a small and light backpacking tripod like a Gitzo GT531 Mountaineer adds considerable weight and bulk (2+ pounds with a lightweight ball-head). Also, if you goal is to get some hiking distance in, setting up and taking down a tripod each time you shoot makes huge inroads into your walking time. Also, by the time I’ve setup a tripod I missed some stunning shots like fleeting beam of sunshine through the clouds highlighting a peak or lake.

Here are some ways that you can increase the number of hand-held shots

  1. Fast Lens: A f1.4 to f1.8 lens will give you about 2 stops over a basic f3.5 to f4.0 point and shoot lenses and many DSLR kit lenses. If you aren’t striving for depth of field, a faster lens will increase the number of shots you can take hand-held.
  2. Image Stabilization: Built-in image stabilization (IS) gains you about 2 to 4 stops when handheld. This goes a long way to increasing the number of shots that you can take without a tripod. So make sure your camera body and/or lens has image stabilization. (Most do at this point, but some IS systems are better than others)
  3. There have been dramatic improvements in ISO performance (low light) as of late: Sony probably leads the sensor technology here. Both the RX100 and a6000 have sensors with low light performance challenging that of much larger sensors.

Combine the above and shooting at 400-1600 to get an increase of about 4 to 8 stops (over no IS, a slow lens and ISO 100). This should produce sufficient for sharp handheld photographs for most backpacking situations. This is especially true if you make good use of “found” camera stabilization like leaning against a rock, tree, or even a trekking pole. A small Styrofoam pellet filled bean bag or even a folded garment can make a substitute tripod/camera rest when placed on top of a rock. Remember to put the shutter release on a 2-second delay for sharpest results.

Tripod Options

Finally, any serious backcountry photographer should consider taking small ultralight camera tripod like a Gorillapod or UltraPod. Compared to the “found” camera stabilization techniques mentioned earlier, they provide better camera positioning and stability at the fraction of the weigh of a full-sized, conventional tripod. These mini-pods are far from perfect. At some point, when conditions get difficult enough, there is no way around a “real tripod.”

  • JOBY GorillaPod. My choice for point & shoot cameras like the Canon S120 or Panasonic Lumix LX7.
  • Pedco utra-pod II 114g, 4.0 oz. This is my first choice for a smaller mid-sized cameras like the Sony a6000. Just put the shutter release on a 2-second delay and you will get sharp results even in low light.
  • Finally, the lightest tripod with true stability for a camera like the Sony a6000, is the 0.9 pound carbon fiber Gitzo GT531 tripod. This is a table-top tripod that only goes up to about 24 inches. To use it you need to be creative an place it on top of a rock, log or other structure. While a bit heavier, compared to the Gorilla-pod or UltraPod, it more stable and provides better camera positioning, especially when paired with a lightweight ball-head.