This post takes the BS & mystery out of finding the right camera. A camera that meets YOUR needs & YOUR budget. And you don’t need an expensive camera to take superb backpacking photos. Some of the best lightweight backpacking cameras cost far less than you think. You might already own one!
The best backpacking camera is the one you have with you
Or put another way, the best camera is the camera you can quickly pull out and shoot. Many superb photos have been taken on iPhones. Being in a beautiful area and taking a photo in the right place at the right time matters far more than the camera.
That being said, if you are in the right place at the right time, some cameras take better photos than others. This post will help you 1) find your “best” camera and 2) give you techniques to get the most out of it when hiking or backpacking.
This photo was shot with a sub $500, semi-pro camera. The Sony a6000 with stock 16-50mm kit lens
Short on Time? Skip to One of These
In addition to “The Two Cameras I Take on Almost Every Trip” (below), you can jump to:
- Serious Cameras: when high quality photos are a major objective (i.e. your Smartphone is not enough)
- Sony RX100: a small point and shoot camera that can run with the big dogs
- Hacks to Get Sharp Photos Hand-held – No Tripod Needed
- Tips and Hacks on how to get the best photos with your iPhone, Android Phone
(With just a few hacks you take tons better photos!)
The Best Backpacking Cameras
I take the following two cameras on almost every trip:
- My Smartphone, iPhone X (but it could be an 8 or 8 plus, or a Google Pixel…)
- My $498 semi-pro Sony a6000 camera. With its light weight and great image quality challenging far heavier cameras that cost 2-3 times or more, it’s not surprising it’s the best selling camera in its class!
While my iPhone takes great pictures, at some point there is no substitute for a “true camera” like the Sony a6000 with a good lens. This is especially true if getting top notch photos is a serious trip objective. The table below shows why this is so.
* n/a values for iPhone(s) are unknown. But given their image sensor is 6.5x smaller than the RX100’s you can assume that Dynamic Range (ability to capture light and dark), High ISO (low light) performance, and Color Depth are all lower. BUT! here’s the huge caveat that closes the gap between smartphones and traditional cameras. The new iPhones (and other high end smartphones like the Google Pixel) are intensely applying sophisticated “computational photography” (software image processing) to significantly improve dynamic range, color, contrast, texture, etc. of their photos. See more on how to utilize this power below.
“Perceptual megapixels” (pMP) is a measure of the “sharpness,” the actual detail resolved in the final image. pMP is the resolution of the combination of a particular 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 a6000, 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. Zoom lenses typically resolve less, especially inexpensive ones. See more about perceptual megapixels here.
Camera 1: A Smartphone – BUT Intelligently Used
What’s Good About Smartphone Cameras for Backpacking
- Under the right conditions, and with the right technique they take some stunning photos!
- “Zero cost” — You likely own a smartphone with a good camera, so zero additional cost
- “Zero weight” — You’re likely bringing your smartphone anyway, so no additional weight
- Easy and fast to use (and you are likely proficient with it)
- They do double duty as the best hiking or backpacking GPS
And the Newest Smartphone Cameras Kick Ass!
The new iPhones (and other high-end smartphones like the Google Pixel) are intensely applying “computational photography” (sophisticated software image processing) to significantly improve photos. This includes dynamic range (ability to handle large differences from the lightest to darkest parts of the photo), color, contrast, texture, and even focus to their photos. The improvements can be dramatic. So much so, that many times the photos from the new smartphones often look better than photos from much larger “traditional” DSLR cameras. It may take a lot of editing of photos from a traditional camera to clearly see the benefits of a larger sensor. That being said, read my article:
Basic Smartphone Photography Accessories L to R: [Joby GripTight Tripod at (REI) or new JOBY GripTight ONE GP Stand] both better for larger phones & are more adjustable), iPhone X on a JOBY GripTight ONE Micro Stand (smaller & lighter), Apple headset used as a remote shutter release, a Bluetooth Smartphone Camera Remote Shutter (Joby), Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (keeps phone charged for days of use), Black Diamond Headlamp (gets you safely to and from the magic light of dawn & dusk for superior photos).
Camera 2: Sony a6x00 – when high quality photos are a major objective
For me, the Sony a6000 is a clear choice for serious backpacking photos. It’s an incredible value at less than $500 for a semi-pro camera! With the right lens it has superb image quality challenging heavier cameras that cost far more. It’s light, and is easily carried on the shoulder strap of my backpack. I have the option of a number of great lenses, many of them inexpensive. And perhaps most important, it is super fast to use with an excellent electronic viewfinder (EVF). In summary, it’s the perfect complement to my iPhone.
And here is how I use that system backpacking, so I have immediate access to my camera at all times. The camera is surprisingly light and non-intrusive while I hike.
My Sony a600x System
|Sony a6000 w kit 16-50mm lens*
new model: Sony a6500
|16.0||Among lightest 24mp APS-C cameras. With the right lens, it has image quality equal to much heavier cameras camera’s costing far more.|
|Sony a600 or a6500 – How To Choose? See more below|
|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|
|Mini Tripod||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|
|Full tripod||For serious photos (only 920g)||Sirui T-024X Carbon Fiber Tripod w C-10S Ball Head one of the lightest and best. It’s the tripod I’m holding in the lead photo of this article.|
|Remote shutter||Wireless remote control||JJC Remote Control for Sony A6000 – reduce camera shake on tripod.|
|Protection||Gallon Freezer ZipLoc||To protect camera gear from rain|
I’m guessing many of you are confused as to which of these great cameras to get. To help you to decide on the right camera for you, I’ll try to summarize the key pro’s and cons:
Sony a6000: The a6000 has the same 24 MP resolution but is a few oz lighter than the a6500. It has a huge advantage in price. Currently it’s $448 vs. $1198 for the a6500. With that extra $750 you can buy some nice lenses and still come out ahead. E.g. the Sony 18-105mm F4 G OSS and/or the new Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN Prime Lens (24mm to equiv. for great landscape shots). The a6000 with both lenses will significantly outperform the more expensive Sony a6500 with the kit 16-50mm lens. The a6000 doesn’t have in-body image stabilization but if you stick to the image stabilized Sony lenses (OSS) this no big deal. On the other hand, if you are shooting with a non-stabilized lens like theSigma 16mm f/1.4, you’ll end up on a tripod sooner in low light to get sharp photos.
Sony a6500: The a6500 has the same 24 MP resolution but but has 1/2 stop more dynamic range than the a6000. This the maximum range of light to dark it can capture and still retain detail in the photo. But the most important upgrade to the a6500 is image stabilization built-in to the camera body. This means that you can shoot hand-held far longer in low light with non-image stabilized Sony lenses like the super sharp Sigma 16mm f/1.4. This is a pretty big deal for hikers and backpackers. Finally the a6500 has a touchscreen display. The best part of this is just touching the screen where you want focus. I find this especially useful to get super accurate focus when shooting on a tripod.
a6x00 lens upgrades
As noted in the table at the beginning of the article, you can get almost 3x better resolution with higher quality, but heavier and more expensive lenses. They are especially helpful if you think you might want to make large prints from your photos. My favorite lens for most trips, despite its weight and moderate cost, is the Sony 18-105mm G Series Zoom (far left in the photo below) and the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 Prime Lens.
|Additional High Quality Zoom Lenses|
|Allpurpose Zoom||Sony 18-105mm F4 G OSS||15.0||Personal favorite (27mm to 160mm equiv.) Carries nicely on pack shoulder strap. Sharp, reasonably light. Good price. Image stabilized.|
|Wide Zoom||Sony 10-18mm F4 G OSS||8.1||Very wide angle (15mm to 27mm equiv.) Great for landscape/dramatic perspective. Image stabilized.|
|Additional High Quality Prime (fixed focal length) Lenses|
|Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN Prime Lens||14.3||Game-changing lens for backpacking landscape photographers. Fast, superb resolution, 24mm equivalent. Use dawn & dusk. And low cost! Great w image stabilized a6500 for handheld use.|
|Normal HQ||Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens||9.5||Highest resolution lens for camera. Wide aperture for low light. Great w image stabilized a6500 for handheld use. Or a tripod w a6000|
|Normal HQ||Sony 35mm f/1.8 Prime Fixed Lens||6.2||Fast, superb resolution, normal lens. Use dawn & dusk. It has image stabilization, so perfect with the non-image stabilized a6000|
|Budget Lenses (but good!)|
|Landscape||Sigma 19mm f2.8 DN, w hood||6.1||For landscape. Light, inexpensive. 2x sharper at 19mm than the a6000 16-50mm kit lens|
|Normal budget||Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN, w hood||5.7||Low cost good resolution for only $199! Light.|
|Mild-tele||Sigma 60mm F2.8 EX DN Art||6.7||Mild-telephoto/portrait lens. Super high res! Only $240!|
|Astro lens||Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 Wide Angle||8.6||Lens of choice for APS-C astrophotography. Inexpensive given its wide angle and speed!|
Killer sub-$1,000 setup that can take down far heavier cameras costing 3x more: Pictured the game-changing, super sharp landscape lens, the Sigma 16mm f/1.4 DC DN Prime Lens (24mm to equiv.) with the Sony a6000 camera mounted on a Mini Tripod Pedco utra-pod II.
A Point and Shoot Camera that Can Run with the Big Dogs – My Third Camera
|The very light and compact Sony RX-100 crushes smartphone cameras. It has image quality approaching the Sony a6000 with kit lens. This is in part because it has an image sensor 6.5x larger than the best smartphone sensors. It also has a high-quality Zeiss zoom lens. As such, the Rx100 occupies a valid but narrow niche between smartphone cameras and mirrorless cameras like the a6000.
But note that the RX100 has its limitations: It is just a bit too large and heavy to be truly “pocketable.” Its image quality is not quite as good as the lower priced Sony a6000. And finally, its single lens while similar in performance to the a6000 kit lens, is not interchangeable. Thus, the RX100 cannot match the 3x better resolution of interchangeable camera lenses for the a6000, like the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Contemporary lens. Finally, it’s a bit delicate and needs to be treated with care.
The Sony RX100 Kit
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
|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|
Hacks to Get Good Photos Handheld – No Tripod Needed
One of the major tenets of serious outdoor photography is that you need a tripod to get good results. But this not necessary true. There are some good options to steady your camera for reasonably-sharp photos before you need to resort to using a tripod. These also have the advantage of being a lot faster to use vs. setting up a tripod. And of course you don’t have the extra weight of carrying a tripod.
The following hacks, when combined, can gain you 6 to 8 stops (camera shutter speeds). This means that a photo goes from a completely unmanageable 1/2 of a second shutter shutter speed (super blurred when handheld) to a very manageable 1/120 of a second shutter speed which should give you a nice sharp photo!
- Image Stabilization, +2-3 stops: Check to see if your smartphone, true camera and/or lens has image stabilization (most do). Built-in image stabilization (IS, VR or OSS) gains you about 2 to 3 stops (shutter speeds) when handheld. This goes a long way to increasing the number of shots that you can take without a tripod.
- High ISO, +2-3 stops: There have been dramatic improvements in ISO performance (low light). For true cameras Sony probably leads the sensor technology here. Both the RX100 and a6000 have sensors with low light performance challenging that of much larger sensors. This gains you 2 to 3 stops. The RX100 (“working” high ISO ~600, about 2 stops) and a6000 (“working” high ISO ~1400, about 3 stops). For a smartphones like my iPhone 6+ its base ISO goes from around 32 to a working high ISO of around 125, so around 2 stops. [But note this is still far less than the ISO 600 to 800 of the Sony cameras. This an inherent downside of the smartphone’s sensor being 6x smaller than the RX100’s sensor.]
- Fast Lens, +2 stops: For true cameras, purchasing a f1.4 to f2 lens will give you about 2 stops over a basic f3.5 to f4.0 of 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.
Hack – Improvise a “Tripod” to Stabilize your Camera
You can get much of the benefit of a tripod to stabilize your camera by improvising a “tripod.” You can brace your camera up against a rock, tree, or even your trekking pole. Remember to squeeze off that shutter gently! Better yet, you can use folded garment (or other prop) on top of a rock, or fallen tree to make a an improvised tripod/camera rest. Now that you are not holding the camera, remember to put the shutter release on a 2-second delay for sharpest results, or use a remote (see gear lists above).
For the Sharpest and Highest Quality Photos – Use a Tripod
But even with all the hacks above, if you want the very sharpest photos, ones that will enlarge to 20×30″ and hang on your wall, you will likely need a tripod of some sort. This especially true during the low light, “magic hours” of dawn and dusk. In those instances you want low ISO (~100 true cameras, ~32-50 smartphones) and and aperture of f/4 or more. This leads to shutter speeds in the range of 1/2 of a second or longer, not remotely doable handheld. The good news is that for just a few ounces you can get a perfectly serviceable mini tripod.
Sometimes to get the highest image quality (e.g. 20×30″ prints to go on your wall), you need a sharp prime and a small tripod. In this case the Sony a6000 camera with the super sharp Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens (50mm equiv. – normal lens) or Sigma 16mm f/1.4 Lens (24mm equiv. -landscape lens). At only 22 oz, this camera/lens combo has image quality equal to or exceeding the very best, and much heavier & costlier APS-C camera systems.
Any serious backcountry photographer should consider taking a small ultralight camera tripod like a Gorillapod or UltraPod. Compared to the techniques mentioned earlier, they provide better camera positioning and stability at a fraction of the weight 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 Sony RX100.
- Pedco ultra-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.
A Light and Compact Full Sized Tripod
Finally, you may need (or want) a full sized tripod. This is especially true if photography is your main trip objective. One of the lightest, “full-sized” tripods with true stability for a camera like the Sony a6000, is the 2 pound Sirui T-024X Traveler Light Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10S Ball Head. While heavier compared to the Gorilla-pod or UltraPod, it is far more stable and provides better camera positioning. And it extends all the way up to 58 inches, for a convenient non-stooping work height. Finally, the Sirui packs down to only 16″ so it easily fits in your pack.
And remember to use remote shutter release like this JJC Remote Control for Sony A6000 to reduce camera shake on the tripod. Or set the camera’s shutter to a 2 second delay.
How I Carry my Backpacking Camera – or how to get more photos
For me, it’s 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 and 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.
Lead photo above: Author working in Iceland with light but serious photo gear. [Photo credit – Peyton Hale]
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