Backpackers love to debate gear. It seems as if we can argue about boots vs. trail runners or tents vs. tarps endlessly.
Arguments about cameras? Eh, not so much. Most of us devote little thought to the camera we decide to bring. We pack, well, whatever we have, and that’s too bad. Years later, after the boots have worn out and the tarp is lost in the garage, our photos are the most meaningful artifacts from our trip.
It’s for that reason that I’m posting a three-part article regarding what camera you should bring on your hike of the John Muir Trail. Today I’ll cover the most basic option–a point-and-shoot. Next week I’ll discuss some mid-range options (in terms of price, capabilities and weight), and the last entry will be about the advantages and disadvantages of carrying a full-frame DSLR.
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Let’s start with the good news: it’s almost impossible to buy a bad camera anymore. In fact, it is so difficult to buy a new, bad camera that there are whole companies with the business model of producing new, bad cameras (see Holga); they are that hard to find!
A decent point-and-shoot camera of 2013 is better than the best digital camera of fifteen years ago, better than most 35mm film cameras ever built, and better than, well, most photographers.
Now, I’m NOT saying that point-and-shoot cameras are just as good as high-end DSLRs. They aren’t. Resolution, low-light capabilities, and the ability to isolate subjects with a shallow depth-of-field are just a few of the ways a good camera will outshine an inexpensive one. Another is the quality of the lenses.
Still, today’s point-and-shoot is an extremely fine machine, especially when you consider how most photos are viewed these days.
And how will most of your treasured pictures of the trail be viewed? I’m going to bet you are looking at the way, right now: on a computer screen.
Which brings us to the next revelation. See that picture below? When I captured it, with my Nikon D800, the image was comprised of more than 36,000,000 individual pixels. That means if I were to print the image at the same pixels-per-inch as this Retina display on my third generation iPad, it would be about 28 inches wide and 18 inches tall. View it from a more reasonable distance, there is no reason I couldn’t print it six feet wide.
But here’s the thing, that picture above (which may not be a classic, but is certainly adequate), doesn’t have 36 million pixels. It has a little over 100,000. (To put this in the vernacular of the day, it isn’t a 36 megapixel image, it’s a .1 (yes, that’s POINT 1) megapixel image.
If your photos are going to be viewed on a computer screen, and if you aren’t going to do any heavy-duty post processing, it’s hard to justify taking anything but a point-and-shoot on the trail. They are light, inexpensive, easy on the battery, and (this is important) easy to carry in a case on a belt, sternum strap or shoulder strap. That means they will be available when you turn the corner and find bears straddling the trail, a coyote with his back turned to you, or a marmot posing on a sunny rock.
I do have a couple of suggestions regarding a good choice.
First, look for a camera with an optical viewfinder. What’s that? An optical viewfinder is a viewfinder that you look through to compose the shot. Since there is no electronics involved (on most point-and-shoot cameras you use the power-hungry LCD screen to compose the shot), you will vastly increase your battery life, particularly if you resist the temptation to view the results, afterwards, on the LCD.
Second, if you are going to do some post-processing, consider buying a camera that allows you to shoot RAW images. RAW images give you ALL the data the camera captured at the moment you pressed the shutter button, and they are much more useful when it comes time to post-process, even if you are just using a simple and inexpensive post-processing program like Photoshop Elements.
One last point: most point-and-shoot cameras have a video mode. Use it.
On a whim, I recorded a short, four- or five-minute video each night of my thru-hike, after I had set up camp. At the time, I wasn’t even sure why I went to the effort. I know now: they’ve become some of my favorite mementos of my hike. If you would like to see what mean, I posted them on Vimeo.
Good hiking, Ray