Friday, 29 October 2010
Cameras for Backpacking: Decisions, Decisions
Long distance walks in wild country can take their toll on bodies and equipment. On the Pacific Northwest Trail it was my camera gear that suffered most, with one camera failing completely and the lens on the other losing a major function. Before the walk I had considered buying one of the new smaller cameras, known variously as interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) or micro systems cameras (MSC), such as the Sony NEX 5, Panasonic GF1 or Samsung NX10, that produce the same quality images as DSLRs in order to save weight. However I decided that, quite apart from the extra cost, I’d rather have cameras with which I was familiar and wouldn’t have to think about during the walk so I took my Canon 450D DSLR plus my Sigma DP1 digital compact as a back-up. To keep the weight down I took just one lens with the Canon, an 18-55mm zoom. Both cameras were well-used before the walk, too well-used it seems, given what happened. The DP1 lasted just ten days before the lens stuck in the open position and the whole camera froze. Fresh batteries made no difference. The camera was dead. I did have a camera on my HTC Desire smartphone that would do as a back-up though I doubted the results would be very good. In fact, although nowhere near the quality of the 450D or DP1, the phone camera images looked fine on the web and when printed fairly small in TGO magazine. Using the camera quickly depleted the battery though so I didn’t take many pictures with the phone. The Canon worked fine for the first half of the walk and then the autofocus on the lens started malfunctioning before failing completely. I then had to use manual focus, which was difficult due to the very narrow and very sensitive focusing ring. I had no choice but to persevere with this for the rest of the walk but I knew I would have to replace the lens. Apart from anything else in cold weather manual focusing with cold fingers or when wearing gloves would be just about impossible.
So back home I was faced with the choice of repairs or replacement. The DP1 went to Sigma who quoted £125 to repair it. As the DP1 was a discontinued model with much I didn’t like about it and I could buy the improved DP1s for £100 more I felt reluctant to pay to have it mended. A new Canon lens would cost around £100. As I’d now gone through two of these kit lenses in five years I didn’t expect a replacement would last long. So, £225 to keep the old cameras going. The alternative was to buy a replacement camera for the DP1 that had an 18-55mm lens or equivalent. At this point I’d never actually seen any of the ILC cameras except in pictures. Before making a decision I wanted to handle them so I was pleased to discover that Jessops in Inverness stocked virtually every model. Just viewing the cameras proved instructive. Although I’d seen pictures of them next to DSLRs they were still smaller than I’d realised. Holding them was also instructive. In the hills I want a camera that feels secure in the hand and that I can grip firmly while taking photos. One of the cameras was rejected immediately. It actually felt slippery, the slight curve of the grip seeming to have been designed for your hand to slide off. The models that look like mini DSLRs did have positive hand grips but these were also the bulkiest and heaviest ones. Of the compact style models the Sony NEX 5 had the best grip. It was also the smallest. And in lab tests it had excellent dynamic range – better in fact than many DSLRs including the 450D as well as all the other ILCs. As dynamic range is important for outdoor photography where bright skies and dark foregrounds are common this was a big plus point. The one drawback was the lack of a viewfinder. There’s not even an electronic one available as an extra. I didn’t like the idea of holding the camera out in front of me and trying to keep it steady in the wind or in low light. However the NEX 5 has a tilting screen and I realised I could hold it by my chest with my arms tucked in, which should be as steady as holding it to my eye. The metal-bodied NEX looked pretty solid too and the metal 18-55 lens looked much higher quality than the plastic Canon one. After a few days pondering the decision was made and it was back to Jessops for an NEX 5.
Replacing the DP1 with the NEX 5 means that the 450D will now be used with my 11-18 and 55-250 lenses and carried when weight isn’t too important. Eventually I may replace it with another NEX model and lenses, which will cut weight further. As it is, the NEX 5 plus 18-55 lens weighs 520 grams while the Canon 450D plus 18-55 lens weighs 786 grams and is considerably bulkier.
So far the NEX 5 has only been used on a couple of short walks in dull weather and I haven’t made a direct comparison with the 450D. However the first images suggest that the quality is at least as good as the Canon at low ISOs and much better at high ones. I think I’m going to like this camera. And I’m sure I’m going to like the low weight and bulk. The NEX 5 could be the ideal backpacking camera.
Photo Info: Top: Anagach Woods, Grantown-on-Spey. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@18mm, firstname.lastname@example.org, ISO 250, sweep panorama function, JPEG tweaked in Lightroom 3.
Bottom: Autumn Leaves. Sony NEX-5,18-55 lens@44mm, email@example.com, ISO 400, JPEG tweaked in Lightroom 3.