A sudden opening in the clouds illuminates a lone tree and a small outcrop overlooking Loch Marie in Wester Ross. The summit of Slioch (left) is still shrouded in mist at midday. [Handheld with Olympus E-520 and stock 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED Zoom lens.] This photo looks great enlarged to 14x19.

A sudden opening in the clouds illuminates a lone tree and a small outcrop overlooking Loch Marie in Wester Ross. The summit of Slioch (left) is still shrouded in mist at midday. [Handheld with 16 oz, mirrorless digital SLR camera (like this) with its stock zoom lens. ] This photo looks great enlarged to 14×19.

Purpose: This article addresses the selection of a lightweight backpacking camera and photo gear. In particular, you will understand the tradeoffs of camera size and weight vs. image quality.

sony-a6000-kit

The 16 ounce Sony a6000 with the right $200 prime lens (Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN), can produce image quality challenging the Canon 5D. Pictured is my full Sony a6000 backpacking kit: Sony a6000 Mirrorless Camera w (kit 16-50mm lens or alternate lens), 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 (spare), Newer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head.

CameraItemOzComments
Camera SLR
crop format
Sony a6000 w kit 16-50mm lens*
new model: Sony a6300
16.0Among lightest 24mp APS-C cameras. With the right lens, image quality approaching Canon 5D
Lens alt/add’lSony 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’lSigma 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’lSigma 30mm f2.8 DN, w hood (5.7)Only $199! Superb resolution. Lightweight.
Battery spareSony NP-FW50 Battery (1.5)Alt less $: Wasabi Power Battery (2-Pack) & Charger
MountPeak Designs CapturePRO 110g3.8Take more photos! Fast access to camera!
Attaches to backpack shoulder strap
MountPeak Designs Micro Plate 25g0.8Needed to clear a6000’s hinged LCD screen
Tripod SLRPedco ultra-pod II 114g, 4.0 ozFor small mirrorless SLR cameras
Tripod mountNewer® Fish Bone quick release for tripod head 51g, 1.8 ozFor quick attachment of camera with Peak Designs Micro Plate (alt = Desmond DLVC-50)
ProtectionGallon Freezer ZipLocTo protect camera gear from rain
TOTAL20.6ounces

xx

A recent photo shot in Dolly Sods Wildness with the 16 oz Sony a6000 mirrorless digital SLR camera and its stock zoom lens (listed in table above).

Lightweight Backpacking Camera Selection 101 – Why Sensor Size Matters

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 backpacking cameras I use.

Lightweight Backpacking Camera

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+)

While some point and shoot lightweight backpacking cameras may produce quite serviceable photos, don’t expect professional quality images from a camera with a sensor* the size of your little fingernail and a lens the size of a snap pea. It would be great if 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 and 24-105mm f/4L IS lens. But camera sensor and lens size has significant impact on image quality. In summary: better image quality requires a larger 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.

* Sensor is the device in a digital camera that electronically captures the image. It performs the same function as film in old style film cameras.

5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking CameraAlso see 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera

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. Hear are the major differences.

Major factors to consider for image/photo quality

  • Larger sensors produce better image quality: (see Table of Sensor Sizes and Pixel Densities below)
    A P/S camera has a sensor 5% the size of the full-frame sensor of a camera like the Canon 5D. If each camera has the same number of pixels, then the pixels on the P/S camera will need to be 5% the size of the full-frame camera’s pixels in order to fit on the smaller sensor. So each P/S pixel can only gather 5% of the light of a full-frame sensor pixel—sometimes only a few photons per pixel (yes literally down to the photon level!). Without going into gritty detail, the close pixel spacing and limited light gathering ability of smaller sensors leads to less resolution/sharpness (for the same pixel count), less dynamic range (especially problems with clipped highlights, i.e. entirely white areas without detail), less color saturation, more noise, decreased ISO performance, and ultimately lower image quality.
  • Lens size matters: A larger sensor requires a larger lens to cover the larger sensor area. In addition, there is a limit to how precisely one can shape a small lens (e.g. a P/S camera lens). Due to the immense popularity P/S cameras and digital video recorders, there have been astonishing advancements in the optical quality of small molded plastic lenses. Nonetheless, the best optical quality is still from precisely ground glass lenses. These are the lenses used for for mid-size-semi-pro-sensors (approx. 30-40% of 35mm coverage) to full frame sensors (100% of 35mm coverage). Larger lenses do cost a lot more. A top quality lens might cost between $800 to several thousand dollars. But there are bargains to be had with some gems in the $200 to $500 range (e.g.Sigma’s Art Series prime lenses). And even some quite good zoom kit lenses.
  • Intended print size or use of images: If you intend to use the camera to produce 800 pixel snaps for your webpage, a good P/S camera should to the trick (although you will still a reduction in dynamic range, and color accuracy). But if you intend to frame large prints, you will be disappointed with the results from a P/S camera. To get sharp 16×20 or larger prints, with good color and tonality you’ll need at least a mid-size-semi-pro-sensor camera (approx. 30-40% of 35mm coverage) with a high quality lens—something like the Sony a6000.

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.


Killer Point and Shoot Cameras for backpacking

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 is  in a class to itself for image quality for a light & compact camera.

Some great, almost pocketable, 11 ounce “point and shoot” cameras produce superb images. The major disadvantage is high cost.

 


Mirrorless crop format cameras are probably your best option for serious photography

You best option for serious backpacking photography is probably one of the inexpensive mirrorless crop format camera (APS, APC, μ4/3) like current Sony a6000. The best of these cameras approach full-format SLR picture quality in a light, compact camera with interchangeable lenses. By doing away with a SLR mirror and viewfinder, but retaining the larger sensor and lenses of an SLR, you significantly reduce weight and bulk but retain picture quality. The 16 ounce Sony a6000 with the right $200 prime lens (Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN), can produce image quality challenging the Canon 5D.

sony-a6000-kit

Canon 5D challenger: The 16 ounce Sony a6000 (new model: Sony a6300) with the right $200 prime lens (Sigma 30mm f2.8 DN), can produce image quality challenging the Canon 5D. Above is the full Sony a6000 backpacking kit use: 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.

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! Note: The full-format mirrorless Sony a7 is starting to make inroads into the serious professional photo market. Even here photographers are finally getting tired of the weight and bulk DSLRs.

Lightweight backpacking camera

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 14×19. 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 (and serviceable) photo record of her trip but most of these photos are not technically worthy of an 8×10 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.

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.

Lightweight backpacking camera

Note: the example cameras in this are a bit dated, but the message is still good. Altho, now over 5 years later sensor technology has improved to the point where a current crop sensor camera like the Sony a6000 out-performs a 5-year-old, full-format DSLR.

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.:

  • Even though it has a higher pixel density, the new Olympus E-620 has almost 1.0 EV more highlight range than the older E-520. But it still doesn’t have the RAW headroom (dynamic range) or high ISO performance of the best, mid-sized sensor APC/APC cameras (e.g. Nikon D300 or Canon Rebel XSi), let alone a full 35mm sized sensor camera (e.g Canon 5D mk2 or Nikon D700).
  • The Canon PowerShot G10 performs considerably better against compact cameras than its extremely high 34 mp/cm2 pixel density might indicate. But its 10x higher pixel density cannot match the image quality of the mid-sized APC/APS and 4/3 sensor cameras like the Canon Rebel XSi or Olympus E-620.
  • The improved technology of the Canon 5D Mk II (sensor and image processing) has better image quality (but not by a lot) over the older and lower pixel density 5D. And at 21 vs. 12.7 mega pixel the Mk II has more resolution. But the 2.4 mp/cm2 Canon 5D Mk II does not have near the RAW headroom (dynamic range) of the 1.5 mp/cm2 Nikon D700.

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 μ4/3 format lenses really shine. For the Sony a6000 there are some incredible deals with Sigma’s Art Series prime lenses. So make sure you check out the availability of high quality lightweight lenses before committing to a particular camera line. 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.

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  1. Chris Watson
    Chris Watson says:

    HI Alan, and all. I wanted to share an experience I’ve had with the Peak Designs capture pro and base plate. I’ve purchased this set-up and have been using it for just over a year. I have the Olympus OM-D EM-5 (older version) and it has performed well for its stated purpose. Recently, I noticed that the plate was not secure to the base of the camera. I took it apart and everything looked fine, so I re-assembled it and tightened it again. But the plate was still slightly loose on the base of the camera. I tightened it just a touch more and it was still loose. Disassembling everything and looking at it one more time, I found that the bottom of the camera had began to “pucker” at the tri-pod seat (threaded insert). I believe that what has happened is that the weight of the camera, when attached to the Capture Pro, as it goes thru the wear & tear of bouncing up and down when I walk (or fall, or whatever) is putting a lot of stress on the tri-pod seat and has caused it to deform and crack, it was pulling away from the camera body under the bottom plate of the camera. If the camera did not have the bottom plate, I suspect the camera and tri-pod seat would have just snapped right off at some point. Finding parts for my camera has proven to be difficult as Olympus doesn’t service this model anymore, but I think I may have finally found a source for the replacement part. I assume once I repair it, everything will work fine again, but I am going to be much more cautious regarding how this whole set-up works.

    Reply
    • Alan Dixon
      Alan Dixon says:

      Hi Chris, I have seen this pucker on the bottom of cameras that have a plastic bottom with a metal 1/4-20 insert for a tripod.
      And yes, it manifests itself with cracks in the plastic. In this case, it pays to make sure that you are not over tightening the plate onto the camera — more likely the cause than the camera bouncing around. Sometimes the weakest version of loctite is a better solution to hold the plate in place than over tightening. Or sometimes a very thin sheet of rubber (like a cut-out of a think bicycle tube) between the camera bottom and the plate will help stop rotation without over tightening. Wishing you the best on your camera repairs. Warmest, -alan & alison

      Reply
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