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

Sunday 19 July 2009

Favourite Tarps

Camping with Colin Ibbotson and his customised tarp and then pitching one for the TGO videos has set me thinking about tarps. Although I don’t often use one in Scotland (and never in midge season) I have used tarps extensively in other places. For me, one big advantage of tarps over tents is more space for less weight, which is why I don’t like small tarps such as the one pictured in the last post. I like a tarp in which I can comfortably sit out a storm without needing to huddle in a bivi bag to stay dry. The pictures above show my two favourite tarps, neither available any more. The top one is a Kathmandu Trekking Basha-Tent, which weighs a hefty 794 grams (28oz) to which I added a groundsheet and pegs weighing 425 grams (15oz) for a combined weight of 1219kg. It’s an enormous tarp – you could probably pitch a couple of solo tents inside it – and I did once spend a whole day in it during a big storm in the Alps. The picture was taken on the Arizona Trail, at a very windy site. Pitched with the sides at ground level no wind entered while the big entrance made for excellent ventilation. The second tarp is the GoLite Cave 1, which weighs 397 grams (14oz). Pegs and a groundsheet double this to 794 grams (28oz). The photo was taken at a site in the High Sierra on a day when rain threatened. As there was no wind and the site was sheltered I pitched the tarp with the sides well above the ground for good views and ventilation – another advantage of tarps is that they don’t cut you off from the world outside as much as a tent. Pitched with three sides down to the ground the Cave 1 is very storm resistant. It has side guylines, which greatly enhance stability. I don’t use a bivi bag with either of these tarps as both are big enough for me to stay away from any rain coming in the entrance – which can be pitched low to the ground if necessary – and don’t let in much wind when the sides are pegged at ground level.

Friday 17 July 2009

Tarps, tents or tarptents video

In between heavy showers I spent a day with Cameron McNeish recently making some instructional videos for a new TGO website, which should be on line in September. The site will feature videos and we’ll be making plenty more in the future. Cameron was photographer, director and editor while I talked about and showed gear and techniques. As a taster Cameron has posted one of the videos on his website. This is about shelters for backpacking and the difference between the various types. Cameron and I hope you enjoy it and would like to know what you think. I’m sure some people will disagree with some of what I say!

Photo info: Tarp camping on the slopes of Ben Mor Assynt. Canon EOS 350D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm@21mm, 1/50@F8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.4

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Ultralight in the Cairngorms

My pack for the overnight trip in the Cairngorms described in the last post weighed 11.4kg . Without food and camera gear, which included a tripod, the base weight was around 8kg. Everything fitted easily into a 50 litre pack with room to spare so I thought my load compact and light. Until Colin Ibbotson stepped off the train in Aviemore with what appeared to be a medium sized stuffsack that is. I’d met Colin at the end of the TGO Challenge a couple of times. After this year’s Challenge he said he’d be interested in showing me his modified tarp, which he reckoned was just as stable as a lightweight tent, so we’d arranged this overnight trip. Since the Challenge Colin had designed and made his own ultralight pack, which he’d brought along for a first outing. That was the “stuffsack” he was carrying. It weighed 93 grams empty and was around 25-30 litres in capacity. Less than 100 grams. For a pack. My waterproof pack liner weighs more than that. Colin showed me the ingenious design, which transferred the weight to a simple frame and the shoulder straps so the actual bag could be made from thin silnylon as it was not under stress. This also meant that different sized bags could be used with the same harness system. With food his total pack weight for the trip was 3kg. The base weight was 2kg. My pack weighed almost four times as much and suddenly looked massive. Did the weight make much difference on the walk? 11kg is quite a light load for me and I only noticed the weight when climbing steeply. Then I certainly found it hard work keeping up with Colin (but then he does have much longer legs and is over two decades younger so maybe it wasn’t just the pack weight).

The day over the summits to Loch Einich was sunny with just a light breeze so no warm or waterproof clothing was needed. During the evening the wind increased and there was a slight coolness in the air. My thin windproof top was welcome. With that over my merino wool base layer I was warm. Colin however, much to my surprise, donned a hooded down vest in which I would definitely have overheated. It turned out he runs cold, which makes his ultralight load even more impressive.

For shelter I’d brought a 1.6kg semi-geodesic tent I was testing. Colin had his 550 gram tarp, a Mountain Laurel Grace modified with side guylines and extra pegging points, and a light bivi bag. The night was stormy, as described in the last post, and the noise of the wind and rain buffeting the tent woke me several times. Colin’s tarp seemed quieter and shook less in the wind. It was certainly more than capable of coping with the storm. His modifications had turned a tarp more suited to calmer weather into one adequate for the Scottish climate. Unfortunately as far as I am aware there are no tarps on the market that will provide the same performance without modification.

Colin used most of this equipment other than the pack (he had one weighing twice as much at 210 grams) on the TGO Challenge this year and found it fine. This provoked some controversy, which continued after the Challenge as lengthy debates on Andy Howell’s and Peewiglet’s blogs. Now whilst Colin’s superlight, minimalist gear won’t be for everyone (including me, I suspect, though this trip did encourage me to think about going a bit lighter) there is no question that it works and is suitable for Scottish conditions.

If you want to know more about Colin’s ultralight gear he has some web pages hosted by Andy Howell here.

Photo info: Colin’s tarp pitched beside Loch Einich at dusk, as the wind was starting to pick up. Canon EOS 450D, Tamron 11-18mm @11mm, 1/100@f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Photoshop Elements 7.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Astonishing Light

Last night I was camped beside Loch Einich in the Cairngorms after a walk over Sgoran Dubh Mor and Sgor Gaoith with ultralight backpacker Colin Ibbotson (more on this in a future post). The day had been sunny and clear with just a cool southerly breeze. The forecast was for increasing wind and rain. We thought our camp on the west side of the loch was reasonably sheltered but early in the morning I was woken by great gusts of wind roaring down the glen and rattling the tent with splatters of rain. Curious to see how Colin’s tarp was performing in the storm I unzipped the door and peered out into the near darkness. Immediately a glow in the sky to the north caught my attention. Surging masses of clouds swirled over the head of the loch, shredded and torn by the wind. Away in the east the sun was rising and its first rays shone under the edges of the clouds and lit them from below, turning them pink and orange. As the clouds swirled and merged and split apart the light changed constantly, the patches of colour expanding and contracting, an amazing vast light show encompassing much of the sky. Suddenly wide awake I grabbed the camera and started taking photographs, using the tent porch as cover from the rain. For ten minutes the magical light continued then the colours began to drain away and the sky darken and turn grey. The following day was dull and overcast with rain showers. Walking out of the mountains down Gleann Einich I didn’t take a single photograph but it didn’t matter. The stormy grandeur of the dawn still shone in my mind.

Photo info: Dawn light in storm over Loch Einich. 4.50a.m. Canon 450D, Tamron 11-18mm lens@11mm, 1/160@f5.6, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Monday 6 July 2009

Scottish Wild Land Group

The Scottish Wild Land Group, founded in 1982 “to protect and conserve wild land throughout Scotland”, looked as though it might be fading away last year due to a dearth of volunteers to run it (and I have to confess that despite having been a member for many years I was one of the many without the time to help). Happily new people did come forward and the organisation was able to continue. Now the first edition of the SWLG magazine, Wild Land News, has appeared and it is excellent. Published just three times a year Wild Land News carries in-depth articles that are usually worth reading and studying. The theme of the Summer 2009 issue is rewilding (a neologism I am not very happy with but guess I have to accept) and the features on this are thought-provoking and stimulating. Peter Taylor, author of Beyond Conservation and a founder of the Wildland Network, looks at the very different approaches of Alladale, Trees for Life and Carrifran Wildwood. Taylor feels that all three have something to offer, though his description of Alladale suggests it will have a negative not positive effect as the whole philosophy behind it is wrong. I was happy with the article to this point but to finish Taylor writes about the need for the return of predators and goes into a somewhat fuzzy “new age” morass of thoughts that I find extremely off-putting. The idea that our souls are separated from “an abundant and forgiving earth-mother” and that the “inner worlds of …private religious experience” need to be “made whole again” are just high sounding but meaningless guff.

More down to earth is a piece by ecologist James Fenton entitled “The Scottish uplands: allowed to be wild” in which the author argues that wild land should be left alone rather than being managed with fences and planting and that it has always been more wild than many people think. “Letting things be wild means letting nature decide what happens”. I have a great deal of sympathy with this view. Certainly I think any management should be as minimal as possible, probably just restricted to reducing the artificially high numbers of grazing animals and reintroducing extinct ones.

Continuing the rewilding theme there are two articles from two members of the SLWG steering group. Calum Brown gives a brief history of wild land in Scotland since the last ice age and looks at the possibilities for rewilding and the benefits it could bring. Moving from this overview to specific proposals David Jarman considers the idea of rewilding Kintail and Glen Shiel, a glen marred by ugly block conifer plantations.

I’m impressed with this issue of Wild Land News and recommend it to everyone concerned about wild land in Scotland. The SWLG has a new website too, which is worth checking regularly.

Photo info: Glen Affric, where the remnants of the old Caledonian pine forest are expanding due to regeneration and planting. Canon 350D, Canon 18-55mm lens@22mm, 1/80@f8, ISO 100, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

Sunday 5 July 2009

The Joy of Backpacking Journeys in the August TGO

In the last issue of TGO, just out, I write about the joys of journeying on foot in my backpacking column, review walking sandals (which have certainly be useful in the recent heatwave) and test the Hilleberg Soulo (which is great in wintery conditions but certainly not ideal for heatwaves!). Coincidentally in the two pictures of me accompanying my column I am backpacking in sandals – in places as far apart as the Uinta Mountains in Utah and the Scottish Highlands. One of those pairs of sandals, Merrell Molokai, is discontinued, the other, the Hi-Tec Tahoma is still going and included in my review. Both my pairs are usable though the threadbare sole on the Molokais means they are relegated to short walks locally and general wear.

This issue also includes a piece on the cuts in the Ramblers organisation, cuts that have now gone ahead and seen the demise of the Scottish and Welsh offices and also, I think, the demise of the Ramblers as a campaigning organisation with any interest in the hills or wild places. I have cancelled my subscription.

Other good pieces include Ian Battersby going coast to coast across Wales, Bernard Newman traversing An Teallach and Stephen Venables trekking round Manaslu, all with excellent pictures, plus Glenmore Lodge’s advice on interpreting summer weather and Eddy Meecham’s take on bivvy bags.

Photo info: The Hilleberg Soulo pitched in the Loch Avon basin in the Cairngorms. Canon 450D, Tamron 11-18mm lens@11mm, 1/400@F8, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.