|The Canon 450D & tripod ready to photograph evening light on the summit of Ben Nevis. Ricoh GR-D, ISO 100, f2.8@1/25.|
I hadn’t thought of camera choice and method of carriage as controversial but having become involved in a discussion on this over on Andrew Mazibrada’s excellent The Journeyman Traveller blog and associated Twitter posts after Andrew posted a piece called Carrying Your Camera Up A Mountain I realised that for some people it is. So as with other controversies I decided to state my views here where I can expand on them rather than just in comments and Tweets in response to others.
Firstly, there is, of course, no “best” camera, no one camera that is better than any other. There are a huge number of variables involving not just picture quality but also aesthetics and ergonomics plus, crucially, what pictures you’ll be taking and where you’ll be taking them. I take outdoor photos of usually fairly static or slow-moving subjects – landscapes, camps, wildlife if still enough, flowers, trees, rocks, hikers. I take photos while on the move so I want a camera that is lightweight and reasonably low bulk. I want to be able to carry it so I can access it while wearing a pack. I also need images of publishable quality and prefer to have a choice of lenses. For a quarter of a century this meant film SLR cameras plus a range of lightweight lenses (I never bothered with pro lenses – far too heavy). Often I carried two SLRs – one for colour, one for B&W – even on multi-month trips such as the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. Then, when magazines no longer wanted B&W, I substituted a compact camera for an SLR, carried purely in case of failure with the latter. The lenses I carried varied but the key one was a mid range zoom – 35-70 in the early days, 24-70 when these became available.
|On the Continental Divide Trail in 1985. Pentax MX SLR with Tamron 35-70 zoom lens, Kodachrome 64 transparency film|
Digital arrived but the quality looked poor and any half-decent camera heavy and expensive. Dipping my toe in very gingerly I carried a 2.3mp digital compact on the Arizona Trail in 2000, along with a film SLR and film compact. That’s the only trip on which I’ve carried three cameras. I sent the smartcards back so images could be uploaded to a website. That worked quite well but I could see that the quality of the images was nowhere near that of my 35mm film photos. It was another four years before I took the plunge and bought a DSLR – chosen both because of price and weight. It was 6mp, which back in 2004 seemed enormous. The images looked good. They still do, especially after processing in the latest software. Initially I was still unsure about digital so I carried a film SLR as well and took every picture on both media. Going back to two SLRs meant the weight of my camera gear was now going back up. Soon though I realised that digital quality was fine for my purposes so I swapped the film SLR for a film compact. Ideally I wanted a digital compact as back-up but none had the same size sensor as my DSLR and the image quality of the ones I tried wasn’t adequate.
|On the GR20 with 2 SLRs. Canon 300D, 18-55mm lens at 22mm, ISO 200, f5.6@1/100|
Then came the first affordable compact with a DSLR sized sensor and a fixed lens. The images were wonderful, the ergonomics terrible and the durability poor. It lasted less time than any other camera I’ve owned. I didn’t replace it because very light and small interchangeable lens cameras with DSLR size sensors had appeared and looked much more versatile and far better designed. That is what I now use, both as my main camera and as back-up.
|At the start of the Pacific Northwest Trail. Canon 450D, 18-55mm lens at 29mm, ISO 400, f8 @ 1/100|
I haven’t mentioned brand names up to now quite deliberately because when it comes down to it they don’t matter. Over the years I’ve had cameras from Pentax, Nikon, Olympus, Canon, Ricoh, Sigma and Sony. I have no loyalty to any brand. I’m aware that at any time during my photographic career I could have used different brands and it would have made no difference as long as the cameras were roughly equivalent. My current choice is based on the same criteria I’ve always used. What is the lightest weight camera that gives the image quality I require. That whittles the choice down to a handful of models. Then it becomes a matter of ergonomics, aesthetics, price and lenses. I described how I came to my current system here and my current models here and here. Whilst I really like these cameras I know I could have made different choices and been happy with the results.
|Sony NEX 7 set up at dawn at a camp in the Cairngorms. Sony NEX 5, 16mm lens, ISO 400, f8 @ 1/50|
Image Quality: Raw, manual and tripods
The camera and lens is only the start for top quality images. Obviously you need to know how to use it – and that means use it manually. Stick it on auto everything and you’ll get some good shots in good light but many more that are poor. I use manual exposure most of the time and use the histogram for guidance rather than the meter. I also shoot raw and then process the files on the computer. Not to use raw is to throw away much of the capability of a camera.
I also always carry a tripod. It’s lightweight and compact but still capable of supporting a light DSLR with a zoom lens. In low light at dawn and dusk it’s just about essential and I also use it for self-portraits – there usually being nobody else to photograph.
|Twin SLRs. Crop from GR20 picture above.|
Carrying the Camera
Over the years I’ve tried various belts, chest harnesses, pack harnesses, clips, buckles, straps and other contraptions designed to keep a camera handy while carrying a pack. Early on I discovered that slinging a padded case across my body so it rested on my hip worked well. I still find it the best method for the cameras I use. I’ve never carried a pro DSLR with pro lens like this – perhaps that would be too heavy – but for my cameras and lenses it’s fine. It’s also uncomplicated and completely separate from my pack. Sometimes I attach a padded lens case to the strap so I have access to it. Mostly I don’t. As with cameras the best carrying system is the one that works for you. This one works for me.