Back to Adventure Alan's Ultralight Backpacking Home Page: This contains a wealth of information on backpacking with gear lists, trip reports, backpacking techniques for various weather and environments (cold rainy weather, alipine hiking, desert hiking), etc. While focused on lightweight backpacking, much of the content applies to all styles of backpacking.

Cameras for Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking Photography

Revisions in progress for 2009 These will include information on the new Olympus E-620 and E-30 cameras

New for 2009: A Lightweight Backpacking Photography Gear List for serious photography, but save 4.8 lb and $3,650.

New for 2009:Lightweight Backpacking Camera Selection 101 or Why Sensor Size Matters


Note May 2009: The new Olympus E-620 with Zuiko 14-54mm 1:2.8-3.5 II will replace the E-520 as my primary backpacking camera.
The E-620 is ligher, has higher resoulution, more dynamic range (significant reduction of clipped highlights!), and a better LCD display.

Background

In my distant past I was a professional photographer for a number of years. In 2000 when I embraced Ultralight Backpacking, I ditched my faithful Nikon F3 SLR (34 oz with 50mm f1.4 lens) and went to a small rangefinder film camera at ¼ the weight, an Olympus XA (7.5 oz). Around 2002, I went digital with a small and light Olympus 3.3 mega pixel C-3000 Zoom (14.5 ounces). I then moved through a series of smaller and lighter Olympus P/S cameras ending up in the digital Stylus Zoom series. In the last few years, in search of better photo quality, I have been using lightweight digital SLRss.


From left to right: The 28 oz Olympus e520 (replaced wtih the E-620 as my backpacking camera); the 19 oz Olympus e420 with stock
Zuiko 25mm 1:2.8 lens; and the 5.1 oz Olympus Stylus Zoom 830 (replaced by the Panasonic Lumix LX3 as my compact/Ultralight camera).

Quick Summary - My Backpacking Cameras

Current Ultralight Backpacking Camera - Panasonic Lumix LX3

Until recently, I used Olympus Stylus Zoom cameras on most of my Ultralight Backpacking Trips. I found that the Stylus Zoom cameras had (and may still have) an ideal balance of picture quality, weight, ruggedness, and environmental protection. Some of Cannon’s P/S cameras have arguably better (slightly) picture quality but they are heavier, bulkier, more delicate, and lack basic environmental protection. But the Panasonic Lumix LX3 has a tempting combination of a larger sensor, and better optics (sharper, faster, and wider angle). True, it approaches double the weight of my Olympus Stylus Zoom 830 but I believe the increased image quality and features justify the weight. Cameras like the Pentax Optio Waterproof, have substantially lower picture quality due to the optical constraints for a waterproof zoom lens (and I found that pictures I took in the rain weren’t all that great no matter what camera I used.) The only situations where these cameras seem to have an advantage are for sunny day for water sports like kayaking, otherwise I would not bother taking one.

Moving Back to a SLR?

In 2006, I decided to resume serious non-backpacking photography. I purchased a Nikon D200, a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod and minimal set of semi-pro lenses and accessories. I headed to the Southwest for a week long photo expedition. After taking thousands of frames in a week of 12+ hour days, I was stunned to see the picture quality that a new semi-pro digital SLR could deliver. The compact P/S cameras do a great job for their size but they cannot match the full sized lens and sensors, and improved electronics of their bigger brothers. Nor do they give you the huge processing advantages of a RAW file format.

Current Lightweight Backpacking Camera - Olympus e-420 with stock 14-42 Lens

The problem was that my D200 and 18-200 mm VR lens weighed in at 3½ pounds! A Canon 5D with 24-105 mm IS lens is equally heavy. This is a showstopper even for a long day hike let alone a backpacking trip. I needed a lighter SLR that hopefully could deliver much of the picture quality of the D200. After some research I concluded that Olympus’ line of e-420 and e-520 4/3 format cameras delivered excellent SLR performance at under a pound and a half with a 14-42 lens (28-84 mm, 35mm equivalent). This includes, a good lens shade and UV filter.

The e420 with 25 mm prime lens (50 mm, 35mm equivalent) is still the lightest serious SLR on the market. Unlike some other compact cameras, it uses interchangeable lenses and will accept any 4/3 format lens. While not quite pants-pocketable, this compact camera will fit in the pockets of most of my jackets and in most external backpack pockets. It is the most easily stored and deployed SLR I own. Best of all, it does not require a padded zoom bag hold and protect the camera. The e420 lacks image stabilization (IS). Lack of image stabilization is not usually a problem unless I am shooting in low light and do not have a tripod other means of bracing the camera. The e-420 also gives up a bit to the e-520 in its handling of highlight detail. The instances where this is noticeable are not frequent, especially if I watch the “highlight/shadow detail” on the camera’s info screen.

Other Light Cameras

A few other SLRs with good picture quality, notably the Canon EOS Rebel XSi (a.k.a. 450D) with a stock 18-55mm IS lens, have closed the weight gap on the e-520 to within a few ounces. But they still don’t approach the weight of the e420.

At 13.8 ounces, the mid-sized Canon PowerShot G10 is another interesting camera somewhere between a P/S and larger SLRs. It has a larger sensor and better optics than most P/S cameras and supports RAW files in some modes. The G10 has a 5x optical zoom lens of (28mm - 140mm, 35mmequivalent). The standout camera in this class is the Panasonic LX3 . The less expensive and ligher (9.5 oz), Panasonic has much better image quality for in-the-field backcountry shooting due to a lower pixel density sensor (less noise, better ISO performance) and a wider aperture, wider lens (F2.0-2.8 and 24mm equivalent wide-angle capability).

The 9 ounce Sigma DP1 is another light and compact camera fitted with an APS-C sensor (the same size used on most mid-level to semi-pro SLRs). It has a fixed, prime (non-zoom) lens. The prime 16.6mm F4 Sigma lens is quite wide angle (28 mm, 35mm equivalent). For some, this may be too wide for a general purpose lens. With accessories, the DP 1 costs as much as a good SLR. Finally the Sigma Foveon sensor is limited to 4.6 mega pixels.

Skip the Tripod?

One of the major tenets of serious outdoor photography is that you need a tripod to get good results. This is especially true for the magic hour of morning and evening where small apertures for depth of field and low light combine for slow shutter speeds; sometimes much slower than one can handhold a camera and get sharp results. But for backpacking even a small and light backpacking tripod like a Gitzo GT0532 Mountaineer adds considerable weight and bulk (2+ pounds with a lightweight ballhead). Also, if you goal is to get some hiking distance in, setting up and taking down a tripod each time you shoot makes huge inroads into your walking time. Also, by the time I’ve setup a tripod I missed some stunning shots like fleeting beam of sunshine through the clouds highlighting a peak or lake.

This is were image stabilization and higher ISO performance of the newer digital SLRs can help. The e-520’s built-in image stabilization (IS) gains you about 2 to 2½ stops when handheld. Since the e520’s image stabilization is built into the camera body, it works with any lens. There is no need to by a set of special and expensive image stabilizing lenses. The e-520 can also shoot at higher ISOs without too sacrificing too much of a decrease in image quality due to noise (or decreased detail with a noise filter on).

There have been dramatic improvements in ISO performance as of late. The Nikon D300 has usable ISO performance up to ISO 3,200 and the D700 up to ISO 25,600 without serious image degradation! It is only a matter of time until this ISO performance trickles down to lighter and less expensive SLRs like the e520 and Canon EOS Rebel XSi.

For now, between image stabilization and shooting at ISO 400 you get an increase of about 4 to 5 stops (over no IS and ISO 100). This should produce sufficient for sharp handheld photographs for most backpacking situations. This is especially true if you make good use of “found” camera stabilization like leaning against a rock, tree, or even a trekking pole. A small Styrofoam pellet filled bean bag or even a folded garment can make a substitute tripod/camera rest when placed on top of a rock.

Finally, any serious backcountry photographer should consider taking small ultralight camera tripod like a Gorillapod or UltraPod. Compared to the “found” camera stabilization techniques mentioned earlier, they provide better camera positioning and stability at the fraction of the weigh of a full-sized, conventional tripod. These mini-pods are far from perfect. At some point, when conditions get difficult enough, there is no way around a “real tripod.”

Finally, the lightest tripod with true stablity for a cameara like the Olympus E-620, is the 0.9 pound carbon fiber Gitzo GT531 tripod. This is a table-top tripod that only goes up to about 24 inches. To use it you need to be creative an place it on top of a rock, log or other structure. While a bit heavier, compared to the Gorillapod or UltraPod, it far more stable and provides better camera positioning, expecially when paried with a lighweight ballhead.