Photography


The editors here at ThruHikethePCT.com are photographers, and we have carried DSLRs on multiple thru-hikes. From the astonishment and disbelief at the sight of our big cameras we assume most hikers just want to take basic snapshots. And there is nothing wrong with that. The lenses, sensors, and software on smartphones is incredible, and you can take beautiful pictures that capture your journey with your phone. In fact, we recommend not  taking a separate camera, that way you save weight.

 

Smartphone Disadvantages

Smartphones have a serious disadvantage, however. Most are not waterproof. That's not a problem in the desert, but once in the Sierras and especially in Oregon and Washington the Trail will threaten your phone and prevent you from taking some great shots. Ultralite waterproof covers are available of course, like the Loksak or a simple Ziploc bag for that matter, but pictures shot through a plastic bag aren't that great.


If You Want a Camera, What Does That Say About You?

Wanting to carry the extra weight of a dedicated camera implies a lot about you. You aren’t just worried about getting your phone wet.

  • For you, a dedicated camera is an upgrade from a smartphone, so you want a camera that does everything a smartphone can do and more.
  • You want pictures at higher resolution and quality than a smartphone.
  • You want to take a lot of pictures, not the occasional quick shot.
  • You want to take pictures all the time — not just when there is a vista. You want to shoot in the low light of a campfire, at night, in the rain, underwater, and down on the ground next to bugs and flowers.

With this in mind, we went on a hunt for digital cameras that met those requirements while remaining as lightweight as possible.


Is GoPro Best for Thru-Hiking?

No. We see lots of hikers carrying the GoPro Hero. GoPro's excellent marketing team has made them synonymous with "rugged, waterproof, lightweight camera" in the minds of many, so we bought one too. It was a huge disappointment. Its image quality is underwhelming in all but the most optimal lighting conditions and it lacks many key, and even basic features:

  • image quality is not an upgrade from a smartphone, particularly in low light.
  • only 12 megapixels
  • can't do macro shots (extreme close ups)
  • lens does not zoom
  • no GPS tagging, compass, altimeter, or barometer
  • no in-camera shooting modes or image correction
  • no in-camera HDR or panoramas
  • no flash
  • no LCD screen to preview pics
  • battery life is surprisingly short considering there is no LCD screen, GPS, et cetera
  • Without an LCD screen or viewfinder there is no way to accurately aim your shot or know what is in the frame. You shoot blind the whole time, aiming vaguely at your subject and hoping for the best.
  • despite everything above, it is still incredibly expensive — $350-$400 new!
  • the real kicker is, despite having virtually no features, our GoPro Hero3 still weighs 7 ounces with its battery, waterproof housing, and a Gorillapod.

GoPro's real strength is its system of mounts and attachments that allow someone to shoot video from virtually anywhere — the end of a surfboard, inside your mouth, or even the back of an eagle. While that's great, there isn't much need for that on a thru-hike.

 

If you want a compact digital camera that is rugged, lightweight, waterproof and loaded with features that make it worth the money, we recommend one of the cameras below.


Rugged, Waterproof, Lightweight Cameras

Our Top 3 Pics

Olympus TG-4

Ricoh WG-5

Nikon Coolpix AW130



Tie for Second Place

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS6

Canon PowerShot D30

Fujifilm XP80



Comparison Chart:  Rugged, Waterproof, Lightweight Cameras

2015

Olympus TG-4

Ricoh WG-5 (formerly Pentax)

Nikon Coolpix AW130

 

Panasonic DMC-TS6

Canon PowerShot D30

Fujifilm XP80

price

$379

$279

$289

 

$298

$330

$230

weight

8.7oz

8.32oz

7.8oz

 

7.5oz

7.69oz

6.3oz

battery life

380 shots

240 shots

370 shots

 

370 shots

300 shots

210 shots

resolution

16mp

16mp

16mp

 

16mp

12.1mp

16.4mp

video

1080/30p

1080/30p 

1080/60i/30p

 

1080/60fps

1080/24p

1080/60fps

max aperture

F2.0 – 4.9

F2.0 - 4.9

F2.8 - 4.9

 

F3.3 - 5.9

F3.9-4.8

F3.9-4.9

lens range (equivalent)

25-100mm

25-100mm

24-120mm

 

28 – 128mm

28-140mm

28 – 140mm

ISO range

100-6400

125-6400

100-6400

 

100-6400

100-3200

100-6400

shutter range

4 - 1/2000 sec

4 - 1/2000 sec

1 - 1/1500 sec

 

4  - 1/1300 sec

1 - 1/1600 sec

4 - 1/2000sec

min. focusing distance

1cm

1cm

1cm

 

5cm

1cm

9cm

burst mode at full res

5fps

1.5fps

5fps

 

10fps

10fps

10fps

HDR

yes

yes

yes

 

no

no

yes

built-in sweep panorama

yes

no

yes

 

yes

no

yes

RAW

yes

no

no

 

no

no

no

GPS

yes

GPS and non-GPS

yes

 

yes

yes

no

compass, altimeter, barometer

yes

yes

yes

 

yes

no

no

# of shooting modes

20

29

20

 

30

20

13

manual exposure?

aperture

shutter

no

 

full manual

no

exposure  +/-2

manual focus?

no

yes

yes

 

no

yes

no

WIFI

yes

no

no

 

yes

no

yes

LCD display

3”/ 460k

3"/ 460k

3"/ 920k

 

3”/ 460k

3"/ 460k

2.7”/ 920k

max depth

50 ft

45 ft

98 ft

 

43 ft

82 ft

50 ft

shockproof drops

7 ft

7 ft

6.6 ft

 

6.6ft

6.5 ft

5.8 ft

crushproof?

220 lbf

220 lbf

no

 

220 lbf

no

no

dust proof?

yes

yes

yes

 

yes

yes

yes

min temp

14° F

14° F

14° F

 

14° F

14-104° F

14° F

 


DSLRs

Canon Rebel Sl1

14oz - body only

Our personal favorite is the Canon Rebel SL1. At just 14 ounces (body only), it is the lightest DSLR on the market (with an ASP-C sensor), yet still has all the features of a larger, heavier DSLR. We carried SL1s on our Florida Trail and PCT thru-hikes, and were pleasantly surprised that it stood up to the humidity of Florida, the heat of the Mojave, and the cold of the High Sierras. Since the SL1 is not waterproof however, we stuffed the cameras into dry bags when the weather turned.

Nikon D5500

14.72oz - body only

Just a little bit heavier than the SL1 is Nikon's D5500, at 14.72oz (body only). Like the Canon SL1 it is not waterproof or dust proof.

Pentax K-50

1lb 6.9oz - body only

Pentax is the only manufacturer offering weather-sealed DSLRs and their lightest model to date is the K-50, at 1lb 6.9oz (body only, no lens attached). That is 8.9 ounces more than the lightest DSLR on the market (see below), but its weather-sealing protects the camera from moisture and dust, as well as temperatures from 14-104°.


DSLR Camera Bags

For a DSLR to be useful and functional on a thru-hike, it needs to be both accessible without taking your backpack off, and stored securely with the lens attached while you hike. We use the Think Tank "digital holster" attached to the front of our pack. The camera rests in the shooting position with the lens attached until we pull it out and begin shooting.

 

The digital holsters come in different sizes (numbered 5-50) for different camera and lens combinations, and the bottom can be extended to accommodate longer lenses. Our Canon SL1 with a 100-300mm lens fits easily into the #10 holster, which weighs 10.6oz without the unnecessary shoulder strap.

 

Backpack Attachment

Think Tank sells a harness system for attaching the digital holster v2.0 to a backpack. It weighs 11oz, however. That was too much for us, so we took key lanyards that cost a dollar each and attached four of them to the holster. At the other end we threaded the lanyard's nylon webbing through the straps on our shoulder and hip belts. All together the four lanyards weigh less than an ounce, and cost us just $4. The system is adjustable and has remained secure over 2400 miles of hiking.

 

Total Weight for DSLR System On-Trail

The total weight of your camera system will depend on the lens you bring more than the camera. Lenses are determined by the kind of shots you want to take. If you are most interested in landscapes, you'll want a wide angle lens, but if your interest is wildlife, a telephoto will be needed, and telephoto lens are heavier.


Tripods

Photographer Ken Rockwell argues that image stabilization in modern digital cameras make tripods unnecessary. We disagree, as do many other photographers. Many shots, especially in landscape photography, require long shutter speeds only possible with a tripod.

 

When you search for an ultra-light tripod for backpacking, however, there isn't much out there. Hiking, backpacking, and photography forums often tout the merits of full-size tripods costing between 300 and 500 dollars. For all that money you would expect them to be made of titanium and weigh 6 ounces, but most of them weigh 3-4 pounds! That might be acceptable for a day-hike out to a shooting location, but is unacceptable weight on a thru-hike.

The most lightweight, reasonably priced, quality tripod we have found so far is Dolica's TX570B150. It comes in two models, the DS, which has an integrated monopod, and the SL, which does not. The DS sells for $80, and the SL is slightly cheaper at $70. Dolica's website claims both models weigh 2lbs 8oz, but on our scale the DS is actually 2lbs 11.5oz.

 

This is a truly professional tripod, and we love the ball head and quick release plate, which are rock solid. The whole thing is aluminum, with a few steel screws and such, so when we first picked it up, what struck us was how light it could  have been. If Dolica wanted to make a truly ultra-light tripod for nature photographers, they could keep this design, which is already light, but use titanium instead of aluminum. If they did, the whole thing could weigh in at a single pound.