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


  1. I just can't get away from lugging a DSLR around. There's still a big gap in quality and if you want to keep the special photographs and use them it is still worth carrying the weight. I always say the weight of the DSLR is balancing the pack on my back!

    It's not so much the fixed length that worries me but the quality of lenses. I'm just processing some large prints from digital images and the sharp lens really takes you into a different league.

    Still, the compacts seem to be coming on in leaps and bounds.

  2. I still carry a DSLR too, but not because of the lenses. Some of the compacts I've used - Ricoh GR-D, Sigma DP-1 - have very sharp top quality lenses that are just as good or better than any DSLR lens I've used. I would expect the Olympus EP-1 lenses to be good too and the Panasonic/Leica LX series lenses have a good reputation. I use a DSLR because of the sensor size, interchangeable lenses and viewfinder. It's the lack of the last that concerns me about the EP-1.

  3. I had been using an Olympus E-3 but at 1.4kg body/lens I thought it was too heavy. I switched briefly to a Panasonic FX-150 but although it was really light compared to the DSLR at 183g the main problem area was noise from ISO400 and lack of DR. I'd tried the Panasonic G-1 which is very nice but still expensive at around £490 inc lens, was disapointed by the lack of V/F on the EP-1 and in the end bought an Olympus E-420 + 14-42 lens, £295.

    It's much bigger/heavier than a compact but is around half the weight (710g) of the E-3 + 14-54. I'm delighted with it, my full kit comes in at just over 900g including spare CF card, Cokin A series filter kit c/w 1 ND grad and polariser, 2 x spare btteries and cleaning stuff.

    As far as compacts are concerned the Panasinic LX-3 looks hard to beat with a 24mm (at the wide end) zoom, a sensor that isn't too pixel dense at 8mp and around 8 stops DR. Costs over £300 though.

    As it happens the E-420 fits the same CCS pouch that I used to carry my Olympus OM cameras :-)

  4. Mac E, if I was starting from scratch I would probably choose the Olympus E-420 as it's the lightest DSLR system. As I already had Canon fit lenses my first DSLR was the 300D (also bought because it was the first fairly light DSLR and the first below £1000). Ironically none of my Canon fit lenses produced good images with the 300D so they were all replaced. I now have a 450D which I really like, both for the image quality and the ergonomics. It weighs 800grams with 18-55 IS lens plus battery and memory card. With pouch, filters, spare batteries and memory cards the total is 1266 grams. And I often carry wide angle and telephoto zoom lenses and a tripod.

    The 450D fits in the same CCS pouch I used to carry my Canon SLR cameras :-)

  5. I just gave up on finding a new compact (in my price range) because of the lack of viewfinders - how does anyone beyond very casual snappers manage without them?. I've never owned a DSLR, and resist them because of the extra weight I'd be carrying, though I've often been tempted.

    Instead I've gone back to my old Kodak DC6490, with its measly 4mp, as a good weight vs versatility compromise. I don't tend to enlarge (or even print) my pics, so the resolution is fine, and it gives me a 10x zoom, manual modes, and the ability to add a very limited range of lenses (wide angle and macro is about it, plus filters), which is/are in turn smaller and lighter than DSLR lenses.

    I've no idea how good this camera is technically, but I love the results.

  6. CCS made nice no frills gear. Too bad they aren't around now but at least you can still pick them up cheap on ebay.

    Tripod, thats a problem area I think very difficult to get something light yet stable, most seem to be aimed at heavier cameras than the E-420/300D.


  7. I've got a Panasonic LX3 and it is a pretty good compromise of weight, compactness, lens and picture quality. The only negative for me is the lack of a biggish zoom but hey its a pretty impressive package.

    Until recently I was also using my Nokia N95 as a fairly decent phone camera for quick and easy shots

  8. Richard, I have a collection of CCS cases that should last quite a few years.

    My tripod is a Cullman model that weighs 596 grams. I've had it a couple of decades and it was called the Backpack tripod when I bought it. I think it's sold as the Mini Tripod these days.

    Mark, some of the older digital cameras were excellent. The mania for more pixels and new cameras every year doesn't necessarily mean better cameras.

  9. Another fan of the E-420 here; after humping it around the Ulster Way I wouldn't be without it, same pixel size as my Ricoh but the quality is far superior. My first DSLR so can't really compare it to much but I'm very happy with the results, and shooting/editing in Raw is worth the weight/volume issues to me.

    I had been looking at tripods before heading off but ended up leaving without one. A decent tripod for a compact would probably do I suppose, as long as you weren't throwing large lenses on it.

  10. The Gorillapod for DSLR's isn't too bad at 155g. You can use it as a mini tripod and it'll wrap around fence posts, branches etc and if you use trekking poles it'll wrap around the handle.

  11. I just preordered a Pentax Optio W80 for taking hiking and backpacking. It's waterproof, and so dustproof, and also shockproof. I've taken my Canon 1DmkIII on a few hikes with the 24-70 f/2.8 L, but it's a heavy camera. Adding in a tripod, a wide angle lens, a telephoto lens, and a macro lens and suddenly I have a 22kg camera that will set me back $12,000 if I take a spill in a stream crossing.

    As to do we really need it...I have plans to take my 600 f/4 into the Gila. I want to photograph the moon from somewhere high and remote, such as Hummingbird Saddle. So, yes, but only for special cases. Most of the time, a small camera with a tiny sensor will go most of the way I think.

  12. Not really in the same catagory but I lugged over 23kgs of photo gear "around" Fairford the other week in the rain. Don't think that would be approapriate in the wilds, but I guess there are top pro shooters out there who do lug large weights of photo gear to the hills, plus hill gear as well...
    If I was back on the hills now, I would stick with my D700 or D300, not sure on which lens mind you, not sure even I would want to carry many with walking gear... So Chris has a good point on light gear... Chris always packs so light, I used pack more weight for a day in the hills than Chris would for a weekend!
    Hope you like my pix from a wet soggy air show!

  13. Yes, I have a Gorillapod and it is pretty good. It's fine with my 18-55 lens but needs care and careful balancing with the 55-250. I also have trekking poles with camera attachments on them so I can use them as monopods, which works well.

  14. Schlake, I'm impressed! I've never carried anything like that weight in camera gear.

    Tony, there you are. Schlake sometimes carried 22kg of camera gear in the hills.

  15. Schlake,
    how much of your photo gear Vs your hill walking gear weighs 22kg? Most of it, by the sounds of it! Is your photo gear all that weight? If so how heavy is your pack with walking gear in as well?

    Do you have to "skimp" on walking gear with all that photo equipment?

    Dare I ask, boots or trail shoes?

  16. Let's see. My biggest camera gear pack is when my hike is around the zoo. My camera gear there typically weighs 30 to 35kg, but it's flat and I'm seldom hiking more than five miles in a place with benches and vendors.

    As far as the real outdoors, unless I'm hiking somewhere special, I keep the camera gear light (just a small point and shoot or maybe a small dslr or slr). But when I want to take the gear, and that means I plan to use it, I'll pack it all. Typically I'm only looking at a handful of miles for heavy packs like that, seldom even an overnighter.

    I've never taken more than multi-day about 2kg of camera on a multi-day backpacking trip.

  17. 30 to 35kgs, eh? That is nearly half my weight, I think! I am less than 11 stones anyway. I would buckle under that!
    My pack with just the gear in for Fairford was 22kgs, I then added rolls to eat and 2L of water to drink. So in the end it must have been near 25kgs!
    The funniest thing was when I needed the loo, I got in, but it was a heck of a job to get out, I felt a right... with all those people watching, at least the strangers joked! Thankfully I found a larger loo after that.
    Ironically, I didn't use (weather related) the "smaller" lenses (all 2.8s).

    Chris, when I was at school (D of E walk) I heard a rumour that a pack should be no heavier than a percentage of body weight, have you heard that, and do you know what it might be?

    It would be interesting if I was still "walking" as I did with Sue a few years back what gear and weight I would be taking...
    Sue will say all of it to slow me down!
    Life is a strange thing!

  18. Tony, I think it was a third of body weight but I don't think there was any basis for this figure. I think it depends on fitness and strength. If you're going to carry very heavy loads in the wilds then you need to do some training on short walks with lower weights and slowly build up to it.

  19. Yep, that makes a lot of sense, just walking on the tarmac of the airshow was challenging enough, it crossed my mind several times that I wouldn't want to do that on Dartmoor without building up to it, I could imagine my ankles losing it. Mind you, my poor legs, not sure how they would cope with a "short" walk now :-(
    I do try to jog now and again when out with the dogs, but that only road or park. So they still in pretty good shape LOL.
    So to get this back on thread, don't think I would jog with a heavy camera bag, there you are, simple LOL ;-)

  20. Chris, how has the cx1 been. I dont fancy carrying a DSLR and have been looking at the Ricoh Caplio GX100 also. Which of the two would you recomend?

  21. Nath, I haven't used the GX100 so I can't make a direct comparison. However, given the specificiations and the reviews, I would choose the GX100 over the CX1. With the GX100 you have far more control over the settings plus you can shoot raw, which means better images that are easier to post process. The GX100 also has an optional electronic viewfinder - there are problems seeing the CX1 screen in bright sunlight (along with every other screen I have used). Finally the GX100 lens is wider than the CX1 (24mm equivalent), which I think is better for landscapes.

    The CX1 is a nice camera if you want a point and shoot with little control and you don't want to do any post processing. For many people it will be excellent. But for more serious photography the GX100 is superior.

  22. Thanks for the advice Chris, great photos and write ups on your blog and in the TGO by the way. Keep up the good work.

  23. I have now stopped taking my SLR out and am using my Panasonic LX3. The photos are almost as good, it allows me to shoot in RAW (I use lightroom to process later) and the wide angle lens (24mm) is awesome for scenery. A bigger zoom would be nice but by leaving limiting the zoom they seem to have made a very sharp lens.