Tuesday, 28 July 2009
Compact Cameras for Backpacking
The launch of Ricoh’s new GR Digital III compact digital camera set me thinking about cameras and especially cameras for backpacking and hiking. The original GRD1 is still the most ergonomically and easy to use digital camera I’ve tried. This is important when backpacking if you don’t want to just use fully automatic settings but also don’t want to have to mess about with slow and complex controls when you’re tired or hungry or your fingers are cold but the wonderfully lit landscape just begs to be photographed. A camera that has logical and easy to use controls is a boon then. If Ricoh can get it right why can’t other manufacturers?
The GRD series are not perfect of course. There are two big drawbacks. Firstly, they have fixed 28mm lenses (35mm equivalent, as will be all the focal lengths in this post). Using a fixed focal length can be a good discipline but it is limiting and there are shots that will be missed. Secondly, like most compacts, the GRDs have small sensors, which are noisy at high ISO speeds. Small sensor images don’t enlarge as well as images from larger sensors either, unless you like painterly rather than realistic pictures, which some people do. There are compact cameras with larger sensors that take images that look fine in large prints (don’t worry about computer screens – any camera can take images that look fine at the low resolution they have) and that aren’t too noisy at high ISOs. These are the Sigma DP1 and DP2 and the new Olympus EP-1 (arguably not a compact but certainly not a DSLR). I have a DP-1 (my review on BackpackingLight.com is here) and the images are certainly far superior to those from the GR-D1 and comparable to those from my much bigger and heavier Canon EOS 450D DSLR. But ergonomically the DP-1 is poor compared to the GR-D. I’ve become used to it but I still have to think about the controls and it’s always slow to use. I’d love a GR-D body with a DP-1 sensor. The DP-1 also has a 28mm lens rather than a zoom. The DP-2 has a 40mm lens. Reviews suggest that otherwise it’s similar to the DP-1. The EP-1 is different altogether, as it has detachable lenses. So far two have appeared – a zoom and a fixed focal length one – but there will be more. The EP-1 is quite heavy for a small camera though, a definite drawback for backpacking. Even so, it’s an interesting concept and could be the solution for those, like me, wanting publishable images from small cameras.
Do backpackers need cameras like these though? If the intention is to make large prints (over 13x9 inches) or submit images for publication in a magazine or book then probably. But for smaller prints and screen use other compacts can be fine. Indeed some have features that are arguably more use to backpackers than large sensors. Zoom lenses are the obvious one and here I would say that the wide angle end is more important than the telephoto and that any backpacking camera should start at 24 or 28mm for landscape shots. Simple controls that can be used with gloves or cold fingers are useful too. Less obvious but highly important is the matter of dynamic range, which covers the amount of detail the camera can record in a scene. This is far less than your eyes can see so images often have solid blacks where you could see detail or washed out skies where you could see clouds. In fact, the dynamic range outdoors is frequently more than your camera can record. Shooting raw files and processing them in software programmes like Lightroom can deal with some of this but most people don’t want to do this – and why should they if they’re not professionals. It’s not unreasonable to expect a camera to take a picture you don’t have to manipulate for it to look good. Also, because of the sensor size dynamic range is higher in DSLRs than in compacts, another disadvantage of light, small cameras.
Recently compact cameras have started to appear that offer solutions to the dynamic range problem. One that I’ve been trying is the Ricoh CX1. This little camera is lightweight at 203 grams with battery and has a 28-200mm zoom lens plus a bright screen that’s not too hard to see in bright sunlight (a drawback of all cameras that use screens for composition). It has 9 megapixels, which might seem low to some but in a compact is fine as cramming more megapixels onto a tiny sensor means more noise. The main feature though is a DR mode in which the CX1 takes two pictures at different exposures and then combines them, thus increasing the dynamic range. This works quite well on days when the sky is bright and the land much darker, which is often. Indeed, this feature alone is enough for me to recommend the camera for backpacking, with the provisos regarding compact cameras given above.
Photo info: Ben Nevis from the Mamores. Ricoh CX1 at 5.7mm, 1/800@F5.4, ISO 80, JPEG processed in Lightroom 2.4