Thursday, January 22, 2015

Backcountry Photography: Which Camera To Carry?

View from Jay MountainImagine hiking for hours alone through an idyllic Adirondack setting, the sky is an azure blue, the birds are singing, the sun is shining, the black flies are biting, ideal conditions for spending time in the great outdoors.

When the trip’s destination finally appears, whether it is a seldom-visited lake, marsh, swamp or mountaintop, the thought of capturing this rarely glimpsed view becomes overwhelming. If only you’d brought that camera.

The cameraless scenario is increasingly rare as cameras become smaller and are included in all sorts of devices that many find essential to modern living. It was not always like this. Many years ago, a separate camera was necessary to capture images of the backcountry, whether for one’s personal edification or to share with others.

When I first began my Adirondack backcountry career, with that fresh sense of awe and excitement still intact, I never obsessed about capturing the moment for posterity. There were  too many other priorities in those early days, like finding the proper tent, sleeping bag and stove. My memory holds those early images today, accessible only in my mind’s eye.

It remained that way for my first few years of Adirondack backpacking, as I emphasized gaining the essential gear and skills over preserving the experience. One trip changed all that. On that fateful trip the 1995 microburst happened, which blew its way through the Five Ponds Wilderness, left thousands of trees grounded in its wake. The devastation left me wanting for a camera.

On my return home, I bought my first film camera for backpacking, an Olympus SuperZoom 3000. I was caught with my pants down once, but it wouldn’t happen again. Since then, I’ve never taken a trip into the backcountry without a camera.

Stillwater ReservoirThe SuperZoom 3000 became my constant companion, accompaning me into the Five Ponds Wilderness when I returned in 1997 storm, on a solo jaunt on the Northville-Placid Trail, and numerous winter trips into the High Peaks Wilderness. Despite many sudden impacts with the ground, the smeared bug repellent, the frequent wet weather and even the bone-chilling cold, it rarely disappointed me. Any issues with the photographs were entirely operator error.

That camera served me well for many years. Although essentially a point and shoot model, it was relatively light compared to its multifunction brethren. I probably would have traded up to a more sophisticated camera as my experience and comfort level grew, but a little thing called the digital age intervened.

With the advent of digital technology, my film camera went the way of the dinosaur. Now it spends its time taking up space in a plastic bin underneath my bed, a half developed roll of film still lodged in its innards recording who knows what.

The film camera’s replacement was another little point and shoot camera, an Olympus Stylus 410 Digital. Small when compared to its predecessor, but not by today’s standards. At the time however, it fit right in with the other lightweight gear I was accumulating.

That first digital camera accompanied me on many trips, and despite its small size and fragile appearance, it weathered its share of spills, and remains reliable today.

When I started leaving the trail behind for the joy and adventure of the unbroken backcountry, I found myself wanting to make more detailed photographs. Many of the places I fancied visiting were little visited, so I wanted to show everyone what they were missing. This thinking planted a seed that quickly germinated into a desire for a digital SLR (DSLR) camera.

Unfortunately, DSLRs are much bulkier than the little digital point and shoot camera I carried at the time. After some considerable research I purchased an Olympus Evolt E420, the smallest (and lightest) DSLR on the market at the time. In addition to the extra weight of the new camera I added a tripod, adding a couple more pounds to my pack.  The DSLR and tripod has been standard equipment on most of my Adirondack adventures since then, providing many wonderful photos.

Jay Mountain from Merriam SwampPhotos are not the only way to bring a little of the backcountry back home with you, however, and technological miniaturization has produced a plethora of tiny action cameras that provide exceptional point of view (POV) video recording. This past Christmas, I was thought highly enough by someone special to receive a SONY HDR-AS100VR, a POV action camera. Readers can expect a wide assortment of videos of my backcountry adventures in the near future, complete with all the swearing.

Is this the end of my quest for a better backcountry camera? It would be foolish and naive of me to think so. Now there are mirrorless digital cameras. These are unencumbered with the bulky mirror and prism of a DSLR, and can be significantly smaller and lighter. Just what an aging lightweight backpacking enthusiast would want. Expect a new mirrorless camera to replace my trusty backcountry DSLR in the near future.

The evolution of my backcountry photography gear will no doubt continue until either technology stops advancing or I make that last, long thru-hike in the sky. There is no disputing which of these situations is more likely to happen first. Until that time, I will continue to “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

Photos: View west from a seldom visited outcropping on Jay Mountain, Stillwater Reservoir from the Pepperbox Wilderness Area and Jay Mountain from Merriam Swamp by Dan Crane.


Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




7 Responses

  1. Michael Ludovici says:

    I have been very happy with the Panasonic LX series.
    I currently have the LX7.
    Panasonic has now come out with the LX 1OO, with a larger sensor, but quite a bit more expensive.

  2. Marco says:

    Yeah, the Olympus Stylus is a good old camera. I have been carrying the 760 model for several years; light, waterproof, long lasting battery, fair pictures. I also have a couple Pentax DSLRs for more serious shots.

    I lost one Stylus in Salmon Pond (Whitney Park) when a my daughter and I encountered a Mama bear and cub there. It slipped over the side of our canoe as we maneuvered for a shot. I simply picked up another when I got back.

  3. Mike says:

    FWIW, some smartphones have pretty astonishing photo capabilities. While obviously not having the flexibility of your higher-end digitals, the quality is there. Plus, you’re consolidating the junk you carry.
    Just a thought…

  4. Laurie says:

    Did you mean when the black flies *aren’t* biting? I too carry a Panasonic Lumix, model DMC-FZ200. It has the capability to shoot in RAW which helps retain detail when post-processing. Plus it also has the ability to shoot in F/2.8 for low light conditions. This is a lightweight camera that brings good results, without the bulk of a DSLR…it is my camera of choice when canoeing. Then, if there’s no water, I do haul my DSLR on hikes and climbs.

  5. MacMacKenzie says:

    A couple of new small cameras with large sensors & high resolution worth looking at are Sony DSC-RX100-III & Canon Power Shot G7X cameras. Both cameras have a world of features not seen before in pocket cameras. Both are worth a look, I have been playing with both, they are amazing. They are not waterproof so not for kayaking. I have settled on the Sony because of its additional features. They are high in cost for a pocket camera but do more with final still & movies than any before them. Sony puts really a lot of features in a camera this size.

  6. Bob Meyer says:

    All good advice.
    unfortunately there still is NO substitute for the picture quality & resolution of a FULL FRAME DSLR so i lug around my Canon 5D Mark 11 & 111 bodies and and EF lenses. ugh!

  7. Curt Austin says:

    The last time I felt more ambitious than just using my phone, I took a Nikon 800 and a 50mm/1.8 lens. That’s an extremely high quality setup, and fairly lightweight. The trick is to have the discipline of taking just one lens, and not something humongous like a 70-200/2.8.