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
Hey Ray, great! Exactly the information that I need for my next item on my To Buy-list: a camera… Looking for one that is light, has an optical viewfinder, long batterie life, and makes HD videos…
How many batteries did you take on your JMT? Did you carry a charger? (Sorry if you wrote that in your book already and I’m now asking again… been reading so much these days, that I can’t keep everything in my head) :c) See you! Helen
Thanks for the comment, Helen!
This was the camera I carried on my first thru-hike: http://www.amazon.com/Nikon-Coolpix-P6000-Vibration-Reduction/dp/B001DO15J2. I love this little guy, especially if I am shooting in good light. This price seems a little high; I’m sure there are comparable cameras for less. I carried three batteries (they are tiny), and I brought the not-so-tiny charger so that I could charge them at Red’s Meadow and Muir Trail Ranch. I was careful to avoid using the LCD as much as possible and that worked out fine. (By the way, I don’t think this camera shoots HD video; it’s an old model.)
I shot in RAW mode exclusively, which allowed me to do some pretty terrific stuff in post-processing.
I may do a fourth installment on this topic, listing some cameras to consider.
i was glad to find your article and i will look forward to reading the next one… ever since we have decided on taking the jmt journey on its entirety i have been wondering which camera to bring… at first i wanted to bring my gh2 panasonic , but this camera consumes so much battery power that i don’t think it is a good idea. so i am thinking about bringing my canon g10, but still i wondeer about the battery. we will not leave the trail at all for 24 to 26 days??? i have not been able to find any solar power outlet for the lithium baterries unless i want to pay over 700$ for one?? so what would be your advise on how many batteries to carry for his length of time
pascale from Montreal Quebec
Good day, Pascale,
Sometimes I have to laugh at us digital photographers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could invent a camera that didn’t need electricity at all? Nah, that’s impossible.
I think what you are going to be stuck with is taking several spare batteries and a charger. That’s what I did last time, and what I have resolved to do this year. Either camera is an excellent choice, although, even as a Nikionian, I have long admired the Canon G10. It’s a fine machine. I suspect your GH2 has a little better low-light performance, and the video is probably better as well.
Does anyone sell some sort of aftermarket optical viewfinder for the GH2? If you could cut down on the use of the LCD it would substantially increase your battery life.
The next installment will be up on Tuesday, and I’ll be discussing cameras much like the GH2.
Good hiking, Ray
No good reason not to pickup a gps enabled point and shoot camera today. Many models to be had for $300 or less. GPS encoding your photos helps place where they were taken on the trip…
Great point! One thing to remember, though, is to keep the GPS off unless you are shooting. They consume a lot of battery.
Thanks for the info Ray, and thanks for the help on my JMT hike last year. I would love to do the hike again with a good camera. Last year I went very light and used my Samsung cell phone for both still pictures and video. I also used it for GPS and casual reading material (including your ebook). I took a solar charger to keep it charged. It did the job just fine for what I wanted, (taking stills and recording video logs, similar to yours) and I got some nice shots, but for the next JMT hike I’m thinking of taking something with a large sensor for good dynamic range and light gathering capability to really try to capture the beauty of the trail. A lady we hiked with for a while had a Samsung NX-20 that took beautiful pictures similar to a DSLR, but weighed much less. I’ll have to look into something like that.
Tom, I know exactly how you feel. I, too, am considering carrying something bigger this year: my anything-but-ultralight Nikon D800. I change plans from day to day, but what I am considering right now is going with just a fast 50mm (1.4). (The other options I’m considering are my 24-70 2.8 or perhaps a rented or purchased super zoom). Decisions, decisions!
Be sure to check out next Tuesday’s post where I will discuss some almost-as-good-as-DSLR cameras that are still pretty light.
Thanks for the comment!
[…] part one of this series I discussed simple, easy-to-use, point-and-shoot cameras. They are a great choice due to their […]
Hey Ray – I created a comparison chart to make it easier to find the best cameras. I also have several camera reviews on my site. I hope that some of your readers might find it useful! http://bestpointandshootcameraguide.com/
Looks like a terrific resource. Thanks!
[…] two years ago I published a three-part article regarding cameras on the trail. Part 1 talked about small point-and-shoot cameras. Part 2 discussed […]
I have recently become a HUGE fan of the mirrorless Sony cameras. More compact and lighter than any DSLR, they have awesome image management. They can be power hungry, but man are they great. Would love a weather resistant model. Check out the Sony a6000. This is the way of future cameras IMHO! Cheers. And I still don’t know what I’ll carry…lol
The mirrorless cameras are getting more and more of a following, no doubt! I, like you, am not sure what I am going to carry this year. I’m pretty sure it won’t be the D800, though. Thanks for the comment, John.