If you’re heading out this summer for an overnight stay in the wilderness, chances are you’ve fretted about how to make everything necessary fit into a pack that might be somewhat manageable.
The choices can be particularly difficult if you also happen to be a photographer, or at least someone who wants to come home with quality pictures of your trip. How do you reconcile cutting the handle off your toothbrush to save an ounce from your pack weight, but lugging along 6 or 8 pounds of camera gear?
More and more these days, the answer is: You don’t.
While some backpackers, canoeists and other trippers are loathe to give up carrying camera gear that will handle any kind of shot imaginable and can produce wall-worthy prints, an increasing number of people are finding alternatives. They are going for significantly lighter and smaller options than the traditional big-bodied digital, single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, which requires an assortment of lenses as well as batteries, filters, tripods and other accessories.
What follows are some considerations if you’re looking to ditch the heavy stuff. But one caveat — because everybody has their own idea of what kind of photos they want to make, and the camera functions and features that are important (or not) to them, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. And the choices are vast.
If you do your research to find a camera with the features you want — a long lens, or video capabilities, or a tilting LCD screen that’s good for selfies — you can avoid paying extra for those you don’t. Simple cameras can be found for less than $100, but there is a price for quality, especially as manufacturers jam high-end components into small bodies; you can pay thousands of dollars for a state-of the-art compact camera.
Here are our categories, from the smallest in size to the largest:
GoPro is the most popular maker of these tiny devices, which are barely 2 ½ inches wide. While best known for their video capabilities, recent GoPro models (such as the Hero4) have beefed up their ability to capture decent still photos. When you want to go really, really small and quality is of secondary concern, an action video camera can be a good choice — although some people do find them a little fiddly.
Don’t underestimate the abilities of a good smartphone. An Apple iPhone and equivalents on the Android side take exceedingly nice photos granted conditions are right and you’re not expecting to make a huge print. Smartphones benefit from plenty of light and a stationary subject. A smartphone makes sense if you’re carrying one anyway and all you want are snapshots to remember your trip by (landscapes, maybe, or photos of your campsite).
Also known as point-and-shoot cameras, these have been largely replaced for convenience by smartphones. But manufacturers have done wonders in recent years putting big image sensors and “fast” lenses into minuscule bodies. Bigger sensors make better photos, and the large maximum aperture that defines a fast lens allows for photos in low light and a faster shutter speed (for example, good for capturing wildlife on the move).
Some outdoors folks opt for compact cameras that are waterproof, but you might pay more for the waterproofing than for the camera’s photographic abilities. On trips where water can be an issue, consider money for a non-waterproof camera and then be careful with it. That is easier said than done, of course, but many photographers protect their camera with a waterproof case when it’s not in use, and when it is, by always using a neck or wrist strap.
A relatively recent invention, mirrorless cameras do away with the mirror and optical viewfinder that add bulk to an SLR. Recent models, offering high quality components and a wide range of manual settings, can take photos every bit as good as their larger brethren do.
Many serious photographers have traded in their SLRs for mirrorless cameras, or at least use mirrorless ones when they need to go light (although some approach SLR size). If you’re trying to go light, the drawback with a mirrorless camera is that, like an SLR, it requires separate, interchangeable lenses. But if you plan to shoot landscapes or other subjects that only need a short lens, it’s possible to put together a body-lens package that is barely bigger than a point-and-shoot.
The quality you can get in a mirrorless camera comes at a price. Good mirrorless cameras can be found in the $500 range, but you also pay more than $3,000 for models in the state-of-the-art Sony Alpha line.
The term came into use to describe cameras that bridge the gap between point-and-shoots and SLRs, offering advanced functions but in a body smaller (at least slightly) than an SLR. Many bridge cameras feature “superzoom” lenses — many go up to 1200 mm, and some are even longer (like the Canon SX60 or Nikon’s Coolpix P900). These zooms allow you to shoot anything from a landscape (using the short end of the lens) to a moose browsing in the water off in the distance.
But it can difficult if not impossible to hold a bridge camera (most of which do not have fast lenses) steady enough to get good shots at its longest reach, so you may end up needing to carry a tripod, or at least a monopod. Bridge cameras also can be a bit bulky, even though most are smaller and much less expensive than an SLR/lens combination.
Word of advice
There is one piece of advice that applies no matter what kind of photo gear you opt to carry: Know how to use it.
“If you don’t understand the strengths and weaknesses of your own camera, or utilize its intricacies, it’s unlikely you will consistently take good photos,” said Richard Hoeg, a Duluth photographer and blogger who uses both bridge and mirrorless cameras. Before you take your camera on that big trip, Hoeg said, learn how to get beyond the camera’s auto setting, and take lots of photos for practice. Unlike in the film days, you can shoot all day long without incurring a cent in processing costs.
Jeff Moravec is a Minneapolis writer and photographer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.