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!
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
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.
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 a6500, 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.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).
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.