I see the question all the time in hiking groups, "I'm really jealous of all these awesome pictures you guys post. What camera should I get?" Do I need one of those DSLR things? They're huge! How do I carry it?" This topic really hits home to me. As an avid hiker, AND a hobbyist photographer, I know this issue all too intimately. Well, after a 3-day backpacking/hiking/photography trip this last weekend around the northwestern edge of the Olympic Peninsula I feel like I've come to some pretty profound conclusions about these hobbies, and how/if they can actually co-exist. This is not going to be a short post per-say to pour yourself a cup of coffee, and set some time aside to really soak it in.
What makes it good?
First I'd like to make sure everyone understands what actually makes a picture "good". Subject, composition, proper use of depth of field, lighting, lighting, lighting, and did I mention lighting? Notice there isn't "camera" on that list? That's right, because a camera does not make a picture good in itself. It is simply an item that gives a certain amount of capability to create an incredible image. It's no different than a piano for instance. Will a grand piano produce better music than a little kids plastic electronic keyboard? Not in my hands it sure won't. Now put that grand piano in the hands of someone who actually knows how to use it, and it can produce music beyond belief.
Let's also go ahead and squash the whole #nofilter b.s. while we're at it. This could ruffle some feathers, but so be it, and hang in there. Some people claim they don't like to see "edited" pictures. They like pictures that are more realistic and representative of what was there that day. This is, to no fault of their own, a very ignorant statement. 99.5% of the images you see are edited. Plain and simple. Now I'm not saying they were intentionally edited by the person who took the picture, but they are edited no less. A RAW image (you've probably heard this term at some point) is a genuine unedited image. It is precisely what the camera's (even the one in your cell phone) sensor sees and captures. They are probably the single most unimpressive things to look at possible, lol. The color is flat, they're not as sharp, and overall they're quite blah. Do you think that Apple or Samsung would want you to see that? Heck no! You'd immediately say your phone has a crappy camera, and possibly buy a different one. They take those RAW images, increase the color saturation, sharpen them, compress the file size, and apply numerous generalized edits that make the images you finally see on your screen BETTER! So what's so cool about RAW files then? Well, they have a LOT more data in them. Just like the camera body, they have the capability of being a "better" and more editable image if you put them through post processing. You can do light editing to a JPEG (most common compressed file type for pictures), but if you try to push the image too far (bring up the shadows, bring down the highlights, etc.) things get ugly much quicker. Here's a great example in the image I took up on the Shuksan Arm. This first image was a RAW file straight out of about $2,200 worth of camera lens/body. It's not bad, but it's not impressive. Certainly not $2,200 dollars worth! The image on the right is after I edited it in an artistic way with about 30min worth of editing. You can click on them to blow them up and look closer.
Back to the #nofilter thing... my point is that what I think the people really mean when they say this is more of a, "I like images that are not OVER-edited, or edited in more of a documentary style rather than an artistic style". Now that's much better, and a very respectable point of view that I can be on board with. Also you have to understand that the human eye is the most advanced camera out there. There is no camera on the planet that can accurately capture what our eyes can, and in about 95% of images (my made up stats, lol) editing is required to change those images into something more accurate to what our eye sees.
What's your goals?
I think now is also a good time to kind-of think about what kind of pictures you're looking to create. Do you just want nice clean, sharp, and beautiful pictures that show what you saw that day, or are you looking to create more artistic images that you will potentially be printing? This image is a great example of a jpeg image that I edited on my iPad. It was shot with the in-camera HDR mode (NOT an HDR applied ghetto filter aftwards!!) It's a great example of a good clean, clear, documentary picture. Again though, it's edited! It's beautiful in it's own way, but not one I would likely be printing. Also keep in mind this was taken with an very old Sony NEX5R (medium weight) with the kit lens. Value about $200 at this time, lol.
I'm going to put the cameras into what I see as 4 different categories in relation to portability. It's actually a lot easier to categorize them like this IMHO than it is via image quality because again... composition, lighting, etc. is what makes the picture.
Types of Cameras
Category #1 is the cellphone category. Are all cell phone cameras created equal? Heck no! Can you take amazing pictures with them? Heck yes! Can they do everything that category #2, #3, and #4 can do? No. I'm not going to get into brand wars or anything, but the newer generation of iPhone cameras (6s, 7, etc.) are amazingly capable IF you know and understand their strengths and weaknesses. Here's a great example. First set of images was from this weekend on my iPhone 7. Notice the one on the left was really dark in the foreground, but the background was properly exposed. The camera was not capable of covering from that dark to that bright (properly known as Dynamic Range). It simply couldn't do it! This, to me, looks like your typical cell phone image, lol. All I had to do was to take about 2 steps out from the shade of the trees, and retake the same image. I applied a 10 second saturation, sharpness, and exposure edit on my phone itself, and see what a huge difference! Perfectly acceptable for any social media posting, blog posting, etc.
Category #2 is the point-and-shoot or better known as the compact camera. This category is really tricky, and there are some really key reasons why. First is you can currently go out and buy a compact camera that is worse than your cellphone you already have in your pocket. Weird? Yes, but true. Having said that, there are some extremely capable compact cameras out there like the Sony RX100 series for instance. The Sony RX100IV (around $900) has basically every feature a high end DSLR has (in some cases more), shoots amazing video, and is probably the most capable camera. Disadvantages are obviously the price and lack of interchangeable lenses. Super expensive! Why would you spend $900 on a point-and-shoot when you can spend say $600 on an entry level DSLR? The DSLR has a far bigger sensor size so it's gotta be "better" right? Well... maybe, but only in certain situations. So what's the advantage of a compact camera then? Two very big things... weight, and portability. It's only second lightest next to your cell phone, and they'll fit in most hip pockets on your backpack (something I will forever make sure works BEFORE I buy a new pack from now on). So, in conclusion not all compact cameras are equal, but with the right knowledge and the ability to take them out of that infamous Automatic mode they can be very powerful.
Category #3 is the mirrorless cameras. These have grown in popularity drastically over the last couple years. They're lighter than a DSLR, have interchangeable lenses, and in a lot of cases just as powerful. You an get them starting in the $500 range all the way up to the full frame Sony A7Rii around $3,500. They fall into the medium range for weight, and they're total weight depends more on what lenses you choose to bring with you than the actual camera itself. I actually sold all of my Cannon full frame gear and switched to the Sony A6300 this year, and haven't looked back. It's more compact, lighter, and is easily just capable in the situations I need it to be. Cheap? No, but coming from the "photographer" side it's right in the same price range. An absolutely great bang for the dollar is the Sony A6000. It's arguably becoming one of the most popular travel cameras due to the image quality and compact size. Keep in mind this will NOT fit in your hip-belt on most backpacks, but can get you AMAZING images if used properly.
Category #4 is the DSLR. You can get them in either full frame or "crop" sensor categories. Full frame DSLRs are by far the most capable, generally on the more expensive end, and really require some good quality lenses to get the most out of them. They've very heavy, but if ultimate image quality is your end goal then you just might end up here. I'm not going to spend much time on the subject of these because to be totally honest I just don't think it's worth it. Mirrorless technology is moving forward daily, and there are so many advantages to mirrorless for shooting landscapes I just can't see personally going back to this.
Which one is the best?
This right here is probably the single biggest issue I've come across, because it's FAR more important than people realize. Why? Because ultimately, the best camera is the one you actually use. PERIOD!! I've hiked an embarrassing amount of miles with a camera stuffed in my pack only to think, "I'd like to stop because that would make a good picture, but I really just want to keep going". Or you simply don't want to be that one in the group thats stopping every mile to un-pack and repack your camera so you don't say a word and keep hiking. That fancy camera stuffed in your pack is now not only worthless, but it's actually a hindrance because it's dead useless weight. Remember how you just haaaad to get that new sleeping bag because it's 1lb lighter. See the irony? Why do people take pictures of their dinner and post it on FB and IG? Because their camera is right there with them in their phone. I don't remember seeing any chili dog pictures before cellphone cameras became popular... just sayin'. See what I'm getting at here though? As much as you want to believe deep down in your soul that you'll use that fancy new camera if it's not easily accessible I can promise you that you won't. Some of the best pictures aren't always at the top of the hike. They're along the way in the places you'd least expect.
How do I carry this thing?
So now lets talk about different methods of carrying a camera on the trail. Now I'm not talking about the .5mi "hike" in your local dog park. I'm talking about the dirty, sweaty, hot, rainy, muddy hikes that we all live for. This is the PNW after all. The weather changes by the minute, and now you need to think about that spendy little picture clicky thing you just dropped a paycheck on.
First thing is to determine if you're backpacking or just hiking. If you've decided to go with a category #1 or category #2 camera this really isn't an issue. At most, you'll get a small zip top case that has a belt loop and can go around your pack hip belt, but in most cases they'll slip right into a hip-pocket. Easy to access, light, and it takes very minimal time to stop and actually take a picture.
The category #3 cameras get a little tricky, and it depends on what "accessories" (if any) you want to bring with you. If you'd like to dabble in some long exposure (think milky creamy waterfall pictures or milky way nighttime pictures) then you'll need a tripod, and an ND filter. If you're day hiking I'd just go with a camera specific backpack. Lowepro is a personal favorite of mine, and if I really need to haul a lot of gear then Mindshift makes some killer packs. They sell them in a huge range of sizes, and most have enough room for whatever camera gear you want to bring, trekking pole attachments, and enough room for your 10 essentials, water bottles, etc. Why these work well is they have access through the panel on the inside of the backpack. So you slip your shoulders out and slide the backpack around your waist. It will hang out like a flat table and you can unzip your camera out of there easily. Also makes it really nice for switching lenses!
If you're backpacking then things get awkward kinda fast. I've tried most of the methods and love about none of them, lol. Mostly because when I'm backpacking I'm out there to hike. I've got a destination. I have somewhat of a schedule. I've got a 25-30lb pack, and I'm generally in far less of a "photography" mood. I'll gladly take pictures when I get to my destination, but I certainly don't want to take that pack on-and-off more than I have to. Peak Designs makes a shoulder "clip". Basically, it clamps around your shoulder strap and you mount a plate to the bottom of your camera. Your camera clicks in, and I can assure you it will not come out until you're ready. For me personally, this "works", but only if I've got maximum of a mirrorless body on there with a smaller lens. Otherwise, the weight will make those shoulder muscles sore after about 5-6mi. I've tried it with both a DSLR/standard lens, and a mirrorless/larger lens and it really is annoying. I should also note it works much better with thicker straps to where it can be tightened down and "sink in" to the strap a bit. Otherwise it will dig into your shoulder. Oh yeah, and if it starts to rain your screwed. This is probably the biggest reason why this method isn't perfect. I say that, but in most cases this is my method of choice with the A6300. Despite it's downfalls the convenience is top notch as long as I keep the weight down on the lens.
Now I've also tried the center mounted bag style of approach. Basically it attaches to your shoulder straps and hangs in the center of your pack. This method is awesome for the winter, early spring, and fall when you're likely be battling with the elements. The downfalls are that it does add extra weight just for the bag, and it limits you to only having one size lens attached because a longer one simply won't fit in the bag. I felt it wasn't bad for the casual hikes, and slower paced trips, but any sort of scrambling, or if I really got my heart rate and body temperature up having the bag there on my chest was a bit annoying. It's also one more clip you have to undo to take your backpack off. This one fit my NEX5R, but to get one for a larger mirrorless like my A6300 it was way too awkward (don't judge me on the bathroom picture ok).
You can also go for a fanny-pack style pack although I've personally never tried it. Just seems bulky to me, and I feel that it would be really awkward if doing any sort of strenuous ascents.
For category #4 your basically in the same spot when it comes to the day hikes as you are with category #3. Just get a camera specific backpack, and call it good. That way you can pile on a tripod, and all the accessories you want or just strip it down and keep it on the lighter side.
Now backpacking is a different story again. For here, I hate to say it, but you're pretty much going to keep that sucker in your pack and you need to commit yourself to being ok with that. You're going to have to stop, get it out, shoot, put it back, and get your backpack back on every time you want to take a picture. Is that worth it? That's your call.
So what is the first step then?
The absolute first step, hands down, no question for me is to first learn what it takes to actually create good pictures. There are countless free online resources via youtube, local (Andy Porter comes to mind in Skagit County), and even full paid course on learning the basics. Composition, lighting, depth of field, aperture, the rule of thirds, shutter speed, the exposure triangle, etc. You need to understand ALL of those to even put yourself in a remotely good position to make a decision. There are lots of free apps out there that do a great job at basic editing. Lightroom Mobile, are just a few. Learn how to use them, and see what you can do with your cell phone images first. Try and get away from generic Instagram filters, and learn to actually edit properly. Again, we're not talking about just becoming a "photographer" here. We're talking about dancing the fine line of incorporating some of one hobby into another WITHOUT hindering the main hobby! Learn to out-shoot the gear that you have, then upgrade. Chances are you've got a decent cellphone camera already. Is that camera in your phone really what's holding you back. I mean is it really? If so, then definitely consider upgrading, but if you don't want to learn how to take your new fancy camera out of automatic mode then don't bother.
Weight sucks, and I don't care what anyone else says. For me, keeping my pack weight down, and my ease-of-use up makes for a much more enjoyable experience for me. I absolutely love photography. It's something I can really let my geek hang out on, and something I'm willing to suffer through miserable cold sunrises, crappy storms, and long treks just to get that ONE image that makes it all worth it. I also love hiking/backpacking to my core, but I find that when I'm on the trail I'm there to hike and document that hike. Not to make prints for my office.
So how does Nick do it now?
Like I mentioned in the beginning I just got back from a nice long trip, and will be making some changes moving forward. I'm going to try and follow a new rule, and that rule is as follows: bring cell phone or compact camera only if I've never been there, or if I'm only on the trail during the day. Explain please! Ok, all the best lighting is generally at sunrise/sunset for those "wow" images so there's not much point to packing my A6300 if the lighting is only going to be harsh mid-day sun. I'll get just as good of documentary pictures with a nice compact camera (personally it's the Sony RX100IV). Keep in mind I'm ALWAYS looking for those great compositions, super cool subjects, and stuff like that so what I personally do is make a note in my phone of the location (I'm always tracking my routes with Gaia GPS so I just make a quick waypoint marker), the best time of day for the shot, and what lens to bring. This way, I can come back at the time of day, and with the gear that gives me the best chance to take the best image possible. This keeps me fast, my pack light, and still gives me something to take great documentary pictures with. Is there the chance that I will miss that once in a lifetime shot? Yes. Does make hauling 5lbs of photography gear vs. less than 1lb in my hipbelt day after day worth it? Nope. I will certainly make exceptions to this and bring the A6300 on certain trips, but it needs to be carefully thought out. Distance, destination goals, solo or group trip, etc. all need to be taken into consideration.
I really hoped this helped, and didn't just confuse you more. There's a lot more to photography than people think, and I'd far rather be up-front and honest about what it takes to consistently make good quality images than fill your hopes and dreams and drain your pocket with a gear list. I've included some images below that I've taken over the years with short descriptions of gear, notes, and amount of editing needed to help give you an idea. These are all kinds of images from personal portfolio quality to just pictures for fun. Thanks for reading!