Backcountry Photography, Part II of a Series

Backpacker Digicam Showdown: Point & Shoots vs. dSLR
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Backpacker Digicam Showdown: Point & Shoots vs. dSLR

I remember a 1994 trip through the Brooks Range of Alaska, from Walker Lake to the Arrigetch Peaks. It was a tough 12-day journey that started with four straight days of bushwhacking. This was back before ultralight gear became widely available, and when I weighed my pack at the bush airstrip in Bettles, it was 96 pounds.

Horrified, I pulled all my SLR camera gear out (Nikon F4, two big lenses, tripod, batteries, filters, 24 rolls of film) just to see what that totaled. It weighed 24 pounds. That was my standard camera payload at the time; what I considered the price of admission for remote assignments like thru-hiking the Absaroka Range, or Canada's 222-mile Canol Trail.

Thank gawd those days are over! Now there's no shortage of tough, lightweight dSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras with good battery life and no need to haul film.

Map Editor Kris Wagner, Wrangell-St. Elias, Day 12 of 13

Last year the lightweight revolution in cameras took another leap forward with the introduction of tiny Point & Shoots with truly wide angle lenses (a necessity for photojournalism and scenics), the megapixel counts to produce sharp imagery, and improvements in color rendition that make them competitive for professional-level shooting - in some situations anyway.

Backpackers looking to buy a field-capable camera are no longer faced with the black-and-white choice between light weight/crappy photos, and brutal payload/professional results. Of course, most trekkers will still choose between dSLRs and P&S based solely on weight versus quality, but for those who are undecided, here's a quick rundown of the pluses and minuses of each camera type:

dSLRs

+Fast autofocus means good action shots.

+Bigger sensors mean less 'noise' and better colors in low light (i.e. everything but full sun).

+Wide angle lenses to 12mm or more (almost 180 degree angle of coverage).

+Gigantic telephotos.

+Manual control of apertures and shutter speeds is faster, making it feasible to shoot in difficult lighting situations.

+dSLR flashes actuall produce good flash pictures, with less redeye and blown out highlights.

+Excellent battery life, and interchangeable batteries.

+Newer models are coming out with superb HD video capability.

+The only game in town for telephoto action and wildlife photography.

+Better .raw file shooting for post-trip image alterations.

-Weight, weight, weight (getting better).

-Bulk, bulk, bulk, (not getting better).

-Higher price (sometimes).

-Perceived vulnerability to the elements (but all cameras are tougher than we generally think).

-Zoom lenses won't focus closely for good nature macros (however, many "prime" single-focal-length lenses can).

Point & Shoots

+Uber-light weight, hoorah!

+Small size, huzzah!

+Simple to rig and carry everywhere, like trail runs, so you'll get photos you'd otherwise miss by not having your SLR.

+Many have very close focusing capabilities for macro shots of tiny objects.

+Some are not only rainproof, but submersible for underwater photography.

+Lower camera price (most of the time).

+Much cheaper cases, rain covers and underwater dive housings.

+Inconspicuous for better candid travel and crowd shots.

-Wide angle lenses that often max out at 28mm-35mm.

-Poor telephoto performance due to tiny apertures when zoomed.

-Poor flash performance.

-Small sensor size means grainy, blah photos in low light.

-Slow autofocus means that even wide-angle walking pass-bys can be difficult.

-Short battery life.

-More difficult to isolate focus points within a frame.

-P&S cameras without optical viewfinders (LCD screen only) can be difficult to shoot in bright glare.

-Tiny SD memory cards are more prone to cold problems or memory glitches.

My current SLR camera is a Nikon D200 (yeah, yeah, I'll upgrade as cash flow allows) but being a fairly open-minded kinda dork, I'm looking to get a P&S for more adventurous situations, particularly atrocious weather and trail runs. On future assignments I may even haul both camera types at once.

In thorough shopping for a top quality P&S, five models seem to stand above the others, IMO. All of them can take extra batteries for long-trip shooting, and have sufficient pixels/resolution for two-page magazine layouts. So far I've only tested one (the Nikon). Below, they're linked to the B&H Photo site, because they have the most complete product descriptions and user reviews.

[] Canon G10 - Great color. Takes real flash units. Lotsa megapixels. Excellent dive housings available for underwater or all-weather time exposures. Good telephoto. Good video. Only 28mm wide angle. Bulky for a P&S. Slow shutter lag means poor action shots.

[] Nikon Coolpix P6000 - A Backpacker Editor's choice. Great color, tough, automatic gps tagging of photo files for remembering locations and creating map-photo trip reports. Decent low light shooting. Cheap dive housings available. OK fast autofocus. Very short shutter lag time for action. Only 28mm wide angle. Short battery life.

[] Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 - Ultra sharp 24mm f 2.0 lens for photojournalism, in-tent shots, better shutter speeds in low light, and a thinner plane of focus to remove distracting backgrounds. Fast autofocus. Good low light images (for a P&S). Short shutter lag time for decent action. Small size. Bright LCD. Easy manual focus and exposure. Excellent HD video, including 16:9 aspect ratio. No telephoto (60mm equiv). Non-extendable lens uses a lens cap.

[] Leica D-lux 4 - Virtually identical to the Panasonic, with all its pros and cons, except for different/better color rendition, richer black & white photos, and a considerably higher price. Cheaper Panasonic LX3 accessories, even batteries, usually fit the Leica. Many pros now use this as a back-up, travel, and street-shooting camera. I have a friend who has captured professionally broadcast HD video with this, albeit on multi-camera shoots.

[] Olympus Stylus Tough-8000 - Freezeproof. Crushproof. Diveproof to 10-foot depth. Automatic panoramas with propietary xD (SD) memory cards. Comes with memory card and extra battery (mega kudos to Oly on this). Tap controls for glove-friendly shooting in cold. Only 28mm wide angle. Slow for action. Probably the best choice for ugly weather and gear beaters.

So, hope that helps. Got your own questions, opinions, reviews, slander? You know where to spew. I'll try and answer any reader questions promptly. Happy shooting. --Steve Howe