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. 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 (https://goo.gl/t2mY90) 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.
A great backpacking camera is light but equally important, it gives you sharp photos even when handheld using a zoom lens in the low light of dawn and dusk. Pictured the environmentally sealed Olympus OM-D EM-5 ii with 12-40 f/2.8 PRO lens.
5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera – Summary
  1. Light and compact with ruggedness and environmental sealing a plus
  2. Sharp, wide angle zoom lens that is also light. These can be very difficult to find!
  3. Takes sharp, high quality photos HANDHELD
  4. Fast and easy to use in manual or semi-manual mode  (many light/compact cameras are not!)
  5. 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 (http://www.adventurealan.com/point-and-shoot-camera-is-dead/), I discuss why I believe 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.
For me the maximum weight of a camera is determined by what I an comfortably carry all day on the shoulder strap of my pack. Pictured is a Sony a6000 camera with the stellar Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Art lens (22 oz total wt). They are mounted to a Peak Designs CapturePRO on the shoulder strap of my pack. See 15 second video below to see this fast system in action.
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.
An example of two sharp wide angle zoom lenses for Olympus’ u4/3 system. 1) To the left of the camera, the compact, wide and sharp 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 lens weighing only 5 oz! 2) On the right the very sharp environmentally sealed, 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO lens. Far left is the sharpest lens of the bunch, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 prime.
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.
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.)
Sometimes to get the highest image quality 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 Art lens.  At only 22 oz,  this camera/lens combo has image quality equal to or exceeding the very best, and much heavier APS-C camera systems.
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.
What is Sharp? 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 a6500Nikon 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 (https://goo.gl/LM6nHK), and take a look at a sample table of the Perceptual Megapixels for Nikon DX lenses on various camera bodies (https://goo.gl/LM6nHK).
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:
Lenses for Sony Cameras - a6000 or a6500 Lenses for Olympus Camera - EM-10 Mark II or EM-5 Mark II 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 though, not that it is a big deal when doing astro work, just set it to infinity and go.
How I Carry my Backpacking Camera – or how to get more photos For me, its all about the speed and ease of taking a photo. Since I changed to using the Peak Designs CapturePRO (https://goo.gl/AQ4tD3) 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.
The Fastest Way to Ruin a Backpacking Photo
Camera Shake can quickly blur a 24 megapixel image down to essentially zero megapixels! Lightweight backpackers are particularly vulnerable to camera shake since they take most of their photos handheld. Factors that combat camera shake all involve increasing shutter speed:
  • First is image stabilization from the lens (or in the camera body—better since it works with any lens). Image stabilization will usually give you an extra 2-3 shutter speeds with little downside.
  • Second is high ISO performance which uses less light to the sensor for the photo. High ISO performance will usually give you an extra 2-4 shutter speeds with minimal image degradation.
  • Third is a faster (wider aperture) lens. This might get you 1-2 shutter speeds. Downside is buying a heavier and more expensive lens.
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.
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.
  • A camera with more focus points and a fast, sophisticated focus algorithm is highly desirable. Some of the newer mirrorless cameras like the Sony a6300 and a6500 are rivaling the very best cameras for both speed and accuracy of focusing.
  • Consider using manual focus some of the time. Mirrorless cameras have an advantage with their fast, and easy to use manual focus. A key to this is the “focus assist function,” with auto-zoom and/or focus peaking options. These options make it fast and easy to get sharp focus exactly where you want it. I suggest you program one of you cameras functions button to toggle between auto & manual focus.
  • Another great “manual focus” option is a touchscreen that allows you to put your finger where you want focus. This is particularly effective when shooting off of a 1-3 oz tripod.

Alan Dixon co-founded Backpacking Light, is a co-author of “Lightweight Backpacking and Camping: A Field Guide to Wilderness Equipment…,” as well as numerous reviews, and technical articles. A jack of all trades, Alan is a writer, photographer, outdoor guide, nationally competitive masters triathlete, and a national champion masters kayaker. Read more at www.adventurealan.com and his articles on backpacking photography at www.adventurealan.com/category/camera-photography/
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016.

Dec 30, 2020
Wonderful post!
Nov 27, 2020
I’d add a couple of cameras to the list; for a few reasons (and yes I DID read the post topic) These are likely the opposite of what has been brought forward, and are on offer for being cheap and lightweight. The camera at hand IS the camera that gets the shot... The Sony TX5 Stupid small sensor (clever BSI with folding optics/little bit of zoom) had all the trickery to make any type of shot possible, is waterproof/freezeproof/drop proof etc. smaller than a pack of cards. Wouldn’t cost much nowadays. Nothing special other than the fact that it will work in most situations that never get photographed due to being tough and tiny. Any Sigma Fovean sensor camera eg DP2 These are APS-C sized sensors in a small lightweight camera that costs basically nothing nowadays. Don’t be fooled by four megapixels- that is four of blue, four of red and four of green... They are like vector graphics, the files just keep on zooming in and giving more detail.. (also for more cost, 16+ mp versions exist) Again they don’t hit any of the requirements given in the article, but the super low cost of entry means ‘does any body really care’ (they even came with two batteries). Get a folding (automatic) lens cover. These things are great for full manual photographers (gets past their slow and clunkyness in most cases, and dialing in the focus zone using the wheel is kinda kooky. The files are a unique format so its like waiting till the film gets developed kinda exciting to see/recall what you actually took. They are kinda durable and again, super lightweight. Both these examples would cost 1/10th the cost of any half decent lens (if you can find one, secondhand), and there is something akin to an old polaroid camera in terms of feeling happy in the moment when you use the Sigma DPs.. (DP1/DP2 have different effective focal lengths) Some of my favorite photos have been captured on an ancient Sigma DP2 - be warned THEY WANT GOOD LIGHT. For the cost outlays and their super light weight and tiny sizes, these can be used by rock climbers and people who want to spend their funds on living life. Capturing the shot to share the moment with others (or your future self/kids etc) is a joy, and the quality from my old DP2 holds its own pretty well. I like its shots as much as most from my Fuji X-Trans (the only other sensors I actually like without going medium format etc/something worth carrying weight and spending coin). I HAD a Sony A72 and couldn’t be happier to be rid of it. (I like manual photography and that thing just got in the way of taking organic photos and being in the moment -the ‘downgrade’ I moved to afterwards had a much higher hit rate and vastly better photos, whilst being technically ‘inferior’. Colour and contrast as rendered by nice camera kit is something that ‘megapixels’ (by the numbers) doesn’t really explain. I am aware that I suggested a TX5,.. but touch to focus etc; my five year old used to shoot with it perfectly well.. as will tourists that you ask to ‘take a photo of you’ (the stabilisation might even have a non photographer get a good shot of you too).
May 13, 2020
Was hiking for 7 years with Sony NEX-6 with 2 lenses: 50mm f/1.4 & 19mm f/2.8. Before that I was packing my Nikon D80 with two lenses and OMG it was heavy! Yesterday got a new Sony A7R3 with 85mm f/1.8 and Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8. Yes, the camera does weigh more, but for my style of shooting it is still pretty light. The landscape Zeiss Batis 18mm is amazingly light and razor sharp. I know it is quite an investment, but photography is an important part of my hiking trips as well as moviemaking. I have to confess, while being a ZPacks, HMG user (I have Duplex, Ultamid, Arc Blasts, ...) I pack also GoPro, Mavic Air drone. Think many batteries... Last year hiked in Iceland with my kids, including the northernmost Hornstrandir peninsula - truly the trip where I understood that I have to ditch something. couldn't find what to ditch though. With time I could transfer more weight to my kids. This is the only solution for me.
Sep 10, 2018
Canon 400D with youngnuo 50mm f/1.8, worked well for me.
Aug 15, 2018
Excellent writeup. Im keeping it as a reference. I still use my Olympus tg-5 though because it ‘is waterproof and easilt carried while fly fishing. If you had a better suggestion for that I would certainly take notice of it..
Mar 13, 2018
Any thoughts for a guy who don't understand any of all this info that's not converted to layman's terms.... Here's what I've been looking at. Canon SX60 HS. OR a cheaper better option... As this is very near the highest I'm willing to go.. thank you all in advance n
Mar 13, 2018
Honestly, a recent phone will work fine, specially compared to a SX60HS - the only reason I'd get it is if i really wanted the zoom - but honestly - I just would not, I'd get the G3X instead (which is about 100USD more at the moment I think). Otherwise, again, I just take my phone. Most of what make many pictures great is how you take them, not what you take them with. You can learn good composition, placement, lighting with a phone - and that way you'll figure out what kind of a bigger camera you'd want and if you'd want one.
Mar 14, 2018
Thank you so much! I've been wanting a better phone so maybe this will be there push! And I will check that camera out just to see it..
Feb 19, 2018
I like all your choices, that said, in the end, I prefer just carrying the Canon G3X. It's lighter, smaller, weatherproofed and very very versatile. Kind of the jack of all trades even thus of course master of none. I find this especially great for backpacking since you get all the range you need to shot wildlife as well as landscapes with decent quality. Even long exposure milky way shoots come out alright. It's also much much smaller and lighter than the FZ1000 series and RX10 series for similarish IQ (the RX10 is a bit better).
Certainly, if I was to make pictures for a magazine, or prints, I'd consider you choices instead. But for web and all around pics it's great (and to be honest, just like the RX100's, with good light you can absolutely do small prints)
I've carried mine on a peak clip while mountain biking for several days, in the rain, fully exposed to the elements and it's been great.
Its also less money than any of these, so id feel less bad to break it (though its still about 7-800USD on ebay)
Jan 24, 2018
Great article. I used to have sony a6000. Until It drowned when i went kayaking :(. Currently when I hike I take Fujifilm X-Pro1 + XF 27mm f/2.8. Camera body is quite heavier than a6000. But it still a very compact option. 27mm seems to be most versatile focus distance on APS-C. X-Pro1 has a great hybrid viewfinder. Using hybrid view finder saves energy. So I can go camping for a week without any access to electricity grid and only a couple of spare batteries.
Dec 12, 2017
This is a really good article. I backpacked the Upper Uintas this summer and brought the exact set-up shown in the first photo: OM-D E-M5 Mark II + Olympus 12-40mm.
It's a dream combo, great focal range for landscapes, not featherlight, but totally weather sealed and awesome for astrophotraphy as well.
Nov 11, 2017
Point and shoots are dead? Seriously? Have you used a Sony RX100IV? I am an avid hiker/backpacker/climber, and enjoy amateur photography as well. I have hiked/backpacked with a 6D, A6300, and an RX100IV. I think the important thing people need to really ask themselves is are you shooting to document or shooting to potentially print and put extensive editing into. Equally important is the time/distance/pace in which you plan on backpacking. Are you on a backpacking trip that you want to take some pictures? Or, are you on a photography trip where you're backpacking as a means of travel. HUGE difference there. I like to cover a lot of distance and travel light when I climb/backpack and the RX100IV absolutely dominates at this. There is simply not a more capable camera on the market for the weight. It stays on my shoulder strap in a LowePro case protected with a short 12" leash. This is perfect for blog or just general documentary photography. It will last for 3 full days on a single charge taking around a couple hundred images. Now if I want to backpack into a location for the purpose of taking pictures then the A6300 with a couple lenses is the way to go, but to say point and shoots are dead is just foolish.
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