Photography and Backpacking – Part 2 of 10

A Survey of the Digital Camera Market

Welcome to Part Deux of our series. Consumer digital cameras started off as somewhat of a novelty and have grown into a huge market that has segments for everyone from kids to professional photographers. Cameras that were once reserved for pro’s due to their cost have come down in price and are now found at the middle of the market and up, meanwhile various new designs have been developed to fill the gap between Point-and-Shoot and SLR cameras. There have never been so many choices and honestly allof them are viable solutions for the backpacker; it just depends on what you want, what you need, and what you’re willing to compromise on. This segment will focus on breaking the market into groups of similar design/capability. Most of the information here is generalized in order to keep it as straightforward as possible. This part of the series will hopefully help you figure out which group(s) of cameras would best suit your need, the next segment in the series will help you narrow it down further. So go ahead, jump in with both feet!

Mobile Phone

Cell PhoneModern cell phones are sporting some rather impressive cameras (relatively speaking) . The “smart phones” are taking the biggest strides in this area since consumers have come to expect good photo (and video) from their $400+ phones. The latest generation iPhone, Android phones, and Windows phones have some surprisingly capable cameras in them. With features like autofocus, macro mode, exposure compensation, white balance correction, flash, and variable ISO’s cell phone cameras are starting to cover some of the same ground that point-and-shoots once ruled.

The Lowdown
Weight Penalty: Zilch if you already carry your cell, otherwise around 4-5 oz
Pocket Carry: For sure.
Versatility: Eh… just ok.
User Interface: Fairly minimal user control set. Completely menu driven.
Optic Quality: Varies from phone to phone. Bordering on low-avg vs. point and shoot
Sensor Size: Tiny
File Size: 3-5 megapixels
Other:
Check Out: iPhone 5, iPhone 4, Samsung Infuse, Samsung Captivate, HTC Droid Incredible 2, HTC Inspire

Summary: Might be an acceptable option for someone already carrying a phone and is mainly interested in sharing photos online rather than printing.

Ultra Compact Point and Shoot

Point and ShootMoving up from mobile phone cams we have the ultra-compact cameras. Some of these things are getting ridiculously small (a la Zoolander) but let’s face it; they can get the job done. Compared to the latest mobile phone cams you’re gaining a little image quality and much a better user experience by far which shouldn’t be surprising considering the phone is not a dedicated device. Most of the cameras in this group would probably best be qualified as “entry level” and other than their tiny size they fall short in all departments when compared to the bigger P&S cameras. For sharing photos on the web these can be a great option since they are fairly small, light, and shouldn’t intrude on your backpacking experience.

The Lowdown
Weight Penalty: Minimal. 3-5 oz
Pocket Carry: For sure.
Versatility: Versatile in good light.
User Interface: Some level of user control supported. Mostly menu driven.
Optic Quality: Adequate
Sensor Size: Tiny
File Size: 8-16 megapixels
Other:
Check Out: Canon ELPH, Nikon Coolpix, Sony Cybershot, Fuji Finepix

Summary: Your every-day cameras that are convenient to carry, easy on the wallet, and can do it all… but do nothing exceptionally well.

Compact Point and Shoot

Point and ShootPretty much everyone you know has one, you probably do too. Compact P&S cameras make up a huge segment of the market and with continual advances in technology that means a lot more people are getting bang for their buck with easy to use compact cameras. The wide range of choices here is something to be aware of. It’s almost easier to go shopping for any other type of camera. If someone (not I) was so inclined they could probably further break down the P&S family into entry-level, mid-level, and high-end groups. Keep this in mind while shopping around. A sub $200 camera is not going to be on par with a $400+ camera of the same generation. The top tier compacts offer a lot in a small package and will provide better end results than the lesser compacts (and ultra-compacts) which start to make them appealing for those who are interested in occasionally printing images in addition to sharing them on the web.

The Lowdown
Weight Penalty: Not bad. 5-8 oz
Pocket Carry: For sure.
Versatility: Versatile in good light.
User Interface: Some level of user control supported. Mostly menu driven.
Optic Quality: Generally good but not great.
Sensor Size: Compact
File Size: 8-16 megapixels
Other:
Check Out: Canon Powershot, Nikon Coolpix, Pentax Optio

Summary: The next step up from ultra-compacts in features and performance in a slightly larger package and higher cost.

Advanced Point and Shoot

Super ZoomAdvanced P&S cameras used to be called “prosumer” cameras (sometimes still are) because they tend to fall somewhere between what an average consumer wants and what a more serious enthusiast might want. Typically the camera body is larger with a built in grip making them less pocketable (if at all). The larger body supports a larger lens and may also carry a larger sensor. The lens may have a larger zoom range than a typical P&S camera as well. Usually operation tends to be just as simple as our compact P&S with more manual control options available for the users who have progressed beyond auto-exposure mode. Between the features and performance of high-end point compacts, and the affordability of entry-level SLR’s the Advanced P&S models fill a small niche for users looking to make the transition from P&S to SLR in a kinder, gentler way and provide good enough image quality for regularly printing small size photos.

The Lowdown
Weight Penalty: Getting noticeable. 10-20 oz.
Pocket Carry: Possibly but don’t count on it.
Versatility: Versatile in good light.
User Interface: Decent level of user control supported. Mostly menu driven.
Optic Quality: Generally good but not great.
Sensor Size: Compact
File Size: 10-16 megapixels
Other: Usually sport more zoom range and slightly larger sensors than compact counterparts.
Check Out: Canon PowerShot SX30 IS, Nikon Coolpix P500, Fuji FinePix S4000, Sony Cybershot DSC-HX100V

Summary: More powerful point and shoot cameras for those who don’t mind the extra size and weight.

Compact Interchangeable Lens Cameras

Compact InterchangeableNot to be confused with compact SLR’s, what we’re talking about here are a variety of camera’s that are similar to rangefinder cameras in design. Sensor sizes vary with “Micro Four Thirds” being common and some APS-C and even Full Frame sensors in the mix. Many of these cameras lack a viewfinder and instead depend on the rear screen to compose the image (similar to a P&S camera) while offering optional add-on viewfinders as accessories. This eliminates the mirror and related mechanical parts that SLR’s utilize, again reducing the size of the thing. Traditionally the autofocus systems in these cameras have been a little slower (especially in low light) than competing SLR’s; however the gap is closing with each generation. The larger-than-compact sensors result in better image quality and the cameras themselves tend to be closer to SLR’s in operation than P&S cameras. This bunch usually has their own line of lenses (which are not compatible with same-brand SLR lenses) and thus we enter the realm of interchangeable lenses. Are they for you? It all depends on your needs.

The Lowdown
Weight Penalty: Noticeable. Around 20 oz with kit lens, larger lenses add weight
Pocket Carry: Borderline, depends on your comfort level.
Versatility: Versatile when equipped with a good zoom lens.
User Interface: Good level of user control supported. Some menu access required.
Optic Quality: Generally very good, but varies with the lens being used.
Sensor Size: Micro Four Thirds and larger
File Size: 10-12 megapixels
Other: A fundamental understanding of photographic principles is needed to realize the value of this camera system. Additional lenses add flexibility but also add bulk, weight, and expense. The price tag may raise your significant other’s eyebrow.
Check Out: Olympus PEN E-P3, PEN Lite, PEN Mini, Panasonic Lumix GF3, Leica M8, Leica M9, Sony Alpha NEX-C3, Pentax Q

Summary: The up and coming contenders for very good image quality and flexibility in a compact package.

Compact Fixed Focal Length Cameras

Compact FixedSo this category is going to be a bit of an oddball for most people other than enthusiast photographers – but don’t count them out just yet! Like the previous bunch we talked about, these cameras either lack the mirror assembly and sometimes the viewfinder as well. The lens that comes on the camera is the only lens you’ll ever use, and it doesn’t zoom. They are fixed focal length somewhere around 35mm usually. This could be a deal breaker for a lot of people. On the other hand if you have some experience using a SLR with prime lenses this option might be a real contender. The upside to these cameras is that they utilize large APS-C sensors and they do it in a very lightweight package which offers the simplicity of a single high quality lens. This group probably represents those that you would want to try before you buy (rent or borrow) since working with a fixed focal length takes some getting used to. The rewards are plenty though for those who can master it.

The Lowdown
Weight Penalty: Getting noticeable. 10-15 oz
Pocket Carry: Borderline, depends on your comfort level.
Versatility: Fixed focal length may be limiting, requires more user dedication and skill.
User Interface: Good level of user control supported. Some menu access required.
Optic Quality: Very good to excellent.
Sensor Size: APS-C
File Size: 10-12 megapixels
Other: A fundamental understanding of photographic principles is needed to realize the value of this camera system. The fixed focal length lens decreases the bulk and weight of this package significantly. The price tag may raise your significant other’s eyebrow.
Check Out: Fujifilm Finepix X100, Leica X1, Sigma DP2X

Summary: Minimalist cameras that put image quality above all in a compact design.

Compact SLR

Small SLRCompact SLR cameras offer all of the fundamental SLR features in a smaller form factor. They have an optical viewfinder that looks through the lens, they accept interchangeable lenses, and they utilize large APS-C sized sensors. If we are using “typical SLR image quality” as a reference to compare all others against, then this set of cameras represents that baseline. All of the cameras in this group will accept interchangeable lenses including “digital only” lenses which are engineered to be smaller and lighter than those that will fit a traditional film SLR camera, or a full frame SLR. This presents another size/weight advantage over a full sized SLR and makes possible the most compact SLR package. Reasons you might want an SLR over other types of cameras are the sensor size (image quality), through the lens viewfinder, fast autofocus, access to the highest quality lenses, and direct access to more of the cameras functions via buttons and control wheels.

The Lowdown
Weight Penalty: Getting heavy. Around 26 oz with kit lens, larger lenses add weight
Pocket Carry: Not a chance.
Versatility: Versatile when equipped with a good lens.
User Interface: Most important user control should be via dedicated buttons and control wheels with some menu access required.
Optic Quality: Generally excellent, but varies with the lens being used.
Sensor Size: Micro Four Thirds and APS-C
File Size: 12-18 megapixels
Other: A fundamental understanding of photographic principles is needed to realize the value of this camera system. Additional lenses add flexibility but also add bulk, weight, and expense. The price tag may raise your significant other’s eyebrow.
Check Out: Canon T3i, Nikon D5100, Sony SLT-A35, Pentax K-r

Summary: Cameras for those who are seeking excellent image quality, high resolution files, interchangeable lenses and an optical viewfinder in the smallest possible form factor.

Full Sized SLR

Large SLRFull sized DLSR cameras generally offer the same performance of the compact SLR cameras but in a larger form factor. So why would you want a larger camera? Believe it or not there are actually a few good reasons. For starters the full size bodies tend to offer a more comprehensive control system with even more dials and dedicated buttons. The dedicated buttons and wheels allow adjustment of all the important variables such as shutter speed, aperture, iso, and more without having to every access menus on the rear screen. Aside from that, the larger SLR’s often offer improved and/or more features than their smaller counterparts, for example more advanced autofocus systems. Yet another reason, albeit one that might be important to only a small group of people; as of today there are no compact SLR’s that utilize a full-frame sensor, so for anyone interested in full frame SLR’s the full sized body is your only option.

The Lowdown
Weight Penalty: Heavy. Around 36 oz with kit lens, larger lenses add weight
Pocket Carry: Not a chance.
Versatility: Versatile when equipped with a good lens.
User Interface: Nearly all important user control should be via dedicated buttons and control wheels with only occasional menu access required.
Optic Quality: Generally excellent, but varies with the lens being used.
Sensor Size: APS-C, APS-H, Full Frame
File Size: 12-18 megapixels
Other: A fundamental understanding of photographic principles is needed to realize the value of this camera system. Additional lenses add flexibility but also add bulk, weight, and expense. The price tag may raise your significant other’s eyebrow.
Check Out: Canon 60D, Canon 5D, Nikon D7000, Nikon D700, Pentax K-5, Sony Alpha A850, Olympus E-30

Summary: Cameras for those who are seeking excellent image quality, high resolution files, and/or interchangeable lenses and don’t mind the large form factor and weight.  

Holy Moly!

Did your brain explode yet?!? Now that you’ve read all of that you may be more lost than ever, but hopefully you know what your options are anyway and how they compare to one another. In Part 2 of this series you can play with the interactive Camera-Fit tool to see which of these groups of cameras might be a good fit for you based on your needs. In the mean time you may want to check out the interactive buying guide over at DP Review. It helps break down the market into similar groups and lets you check out reviews and specs on the specific models out there. Don’t forget to stay tuned for the third part of our series which will be published very soon! Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

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