Backpacking Camera Breakdown 2012

A look at this year's best camera options for taking on the trail

With the holiday turkey resting comfortably in my belly with cranberry sauce and some Belgian ale, I can’t think of anything better to talk about than electronic gadgets! 2012 has been quite a year of digital camera advancement. The DSLR improvements have marched forward in their more-or-less predictable fashion, but what’s been really fun to watch is the way that the other form factors have progressed. I can say with certainty that 2012 marks the year that made the DSLR an obsolete piece of gear backpackers. Let’s take a look at why that is…

Dead Camera Formats

It’s always fun to read forums and listen to people spout off about dead formats. Digital killed film. Film is dead. Full Frame killed medium format. Medium Format is dead. APS-C and Four Thirds killed Full Frame. Full Frame is dead. Smart phones are cannibalizing the market, digital cameras are dead.

Dead?
Dead?

(photo credit: QuantumBiologist)

Right.

These are also usually the type of people who will tell you exactly what you need and don’t need. They’ll put’cha in a box. They’ve got’cha number. Fast lenses? Video? Shallow depth of field? Gobs of dynamic range? All gimmicks only to be used by a small fraction of the camera owning population.

Yup. They’ve got it all figured out.

The truth is, these ideologies couldn’t be more wrong. So let’s get it straight. Different formats exist for different creative expression. Naturally, people who are not so creative don’t understand this. It comes down to ‘horses for courses’. Go with what works for you. I mention all this having just said that DSLR’s are obsolete for backpackers but I do so because I don’t want to be lumped into that group of angsty fuddie duddies. There are still plenty of reasons why you might want to use an SLR on the trail, but I think more and more photo-shooting-hikers are going to be moving in other directions and that’s what this is all about.

Enter… Compact Camera Systems

Notice the operative word here is “Systems”. We’re talking about cameras with interchangeable lenses. My friend Adam came up with this breakdown which I asked if I could loosely quote from as I thought it was pretty much spot on. So here’s the market in a nutshell…

  • Olympus OM-D (4/3): If you can’t decide, go this route. Any of the 16MP bodies has excellent IQ and the system has the best lens lineup. The OM-D is the current flagship.
  • Panasonic (4/3): Same as Olympus, but if you’re video oriented rather than stills. Oly is the way to go for stills. The GH-3 / GF-3 are the current flagships.
  • Sony NEX: The best for adaptation, the lens lineup is a lot better than people make out but right now it’s better for the Alt shooter than a serious native lens shooter. Bodies are outstanding and offers the best IQ overall, albeit by a small margin. The NEX-7 is the current flagship.
  • Fuji X: If you shoot JPEG and like traditional ergonomics, optical finders and fast primes here’s your system. Problematic if you shoot tele, want a good EVF or really need good IQ from RAW. Also kinda pricey as the cheapest body is comparable in cost to the higher-end bodies from everybody else. High ISO monsters, but at the expense of artifacting and color issues at lower ISO’s. The X-Pro1 and X100 are the current flagships.
  • Samsung NX: Solid bodies with no real defining features, great lens lineup, limited adaptability (as mirrorless systems go). Pretty much the pick if you want the a native lens selection with quality of 4/3 but with a larger sensor. The NX20 is the current flagship.
  • Canon EOS-M: If it just has to say Canon, or you need to adapt EF lenses with AF and aren’t willing to trust a Chinese-made adapter. Otherwise overpriced and underperforming. IQ is at best comparable to the other Olympus micro 4/3 bodies.
  • Nikon 1/Pentax Q: Compact systems. Great for casual shooters, not ideal for shooters who look for excellent IQ.
  • Pentax K-01: If you own K mount lenses and don’t want an adapter. Great IQ, but it’s huge and brick-like due to the SLR mount.

What about the Fixed Lens Cameras?

Less we forget, there are still a ton of P&S cameras around plus a few interesting fixed lens cameras of other variations. It is true that the smart phone is making it tough to justify purchasing many P&S cameras, but even as good as smart phones cameras are, they can’t compete with the upper end P&S models.

  • Canon Powershot SX: The SX are the super zooms of Canon’s lineup. Larger bodies with SLR-like controls and good IQ. The SX50 HS is the current model.
  • Canon Powershot G: The G series has been a staple of Canon’s P&S lineup. Middle of the road in terms of size and control style. They sport good image and a rugged build. The G15 is the current model.
  • Canon Powershot S: The S line has been a popular choice among backpackers due to its compact size and good image quality. The S110 is the current model.
  • Nikon Coolpix P: Similar in most aspects to Canon’s S series focused on compact size and good IQ. The current model is the P310.
  • Panasonic DMC FZ: Similar form factor as Canon’s SX series. Features larger body with superzoom lens. Good IQ and sports a fixed aperture Leica lens. Current model is the FZ-200
  • Sony RX-100: With a larger sensor, Sony’s industry leading sensor tech and a fast maximum aperture Zeiss lens, the RX-100 has set the bar for image quality in the P&S world and does so with a compact size. The price also sits at the top of the range.
  • Sony RX-1: Sony has gone where no other manufacturer has – putting a full frame sensor into a compact P&S style body. With a 35mm f2 Zeiss lens designed specifically around the sensor the RX-1 is both a niche enthusiast camera, and a camera that can produce IQ rivaling and surpassing many “pro” SLR’s. The price tag will be too much for most folks to swallow.
  • Sigma DP2M: Sigma returns with a medium sized body and fixed lens which house it’s unique Foveon sensor. The image quality is top notch but unlike the Sony RX-1, will take some serious know-how to process the resulting image files. Battery life is also abysmal at about 50 shots per battery! At least the price is much easier to deal with.

Standouts of 2012

Today is Black Friday so I couldn’t help but write this today. There will no doubt be tons of electronics sold, and I’m sure quite a few cameras. If you’re not quite sure which camera is right for you, let me remind you of this little gizmo we made.

So, what to buy? Well, let me say this: I’m not a brand-loyal guy. I happen to shoot mostly Canon because I own a 5D and have not found a reason to change that for years. One tends to acquire Canon lenses and other related gear to use with said camera. So when I say that I’m overwhelmingly in favor of Sony you will know that I have good reason.

Having given my thoughts on the NEX 5N earlier this year, I still believe that the NEX represents the best of all worlds. By compromising a little bit everywhere else it delivers IQ that edges out the closest competition (Olympus OM-D) and leaves many others far behind it. I especially like that I can use M-Mount lenses on my 5N (and just about any other SLR lens I want to) which make it very compact for backpacking and travel. Sony, Sigma, and Zeiss are now all making autofocus lenses for the NEX. In addition to the many manual-focus legacy lenses out there, Samyang is making a line of lenses for NEX. Earlier this year the NEX native-mount lens lineup was sub par, right now it’s adequate, next year at this time it’s going to be getting a lot closer to awesome.

For best all around backpacking camera the Sony NEX 5N has my vote. These are a good buy right now since the 5R and 6 have been released recently which are the newest models in that line all based on the 16MP sensor.

Sony NEX 5N
Sony NEX 5N

For best P&S camera it’s a no-brainer that the Sony RX-100 gets the vote. After getting past the initial sticker shock it should sink in that this isn’t a P&S that you use for a year or two and throw away. The image quality is far enough ahead of the competition that it will remain a relevant camera for years to come.

Sony RX100
Sony RX100

For money-is-no-object choice, the Sony RX-1 should get the nod. Sony has thrown down the gauntlet and shown what big-budget R&D can deliver. The RX-1 is quite an amazing camera, though a very niche deign to be sure. This is the sort of camera that will fit with the minimalist personality very well and its small size and simplicity make it well suited for the right individual to take on the trail.

Sony RX1
Sony RX1

Had the Leica M actually been released this year I would probably have to give it honors in the ultra expensive slot, I’m sure it will be a performer and with the legendary red-dot glass there’s really no other choice when your wallet is deep.

Leica M
Leica M

It’s been a helluva year for digital cameras. I can’t wait to see what next year brings. 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. (Strava Profile)

8 Comments

  1. October 18, 2013
    Reply

    Many thanks for composing “Backpacking Camera Breakdown 2012

  2. Adam Criswell
    March 24, 2013
    Reply

    Hi Jacob,

    Just stumbled on this overview and I think you have summed it up pretty well. If you delve much into the photo forums it can get pretty hairy with all the technical talk about sensor DR, depth of field equivalents, bokeh, DXO scores (what a joke!). Confusing for someone who is not tuned into what they really need in a camera. There are compromises with every choice, you just have to decide what compromises are acceptable.

    You know I shoot with a Pentax, it has been a good camera, really good in fact. I have just been disappointed with the glass. When I purchased it, it was the lightest and smallest weather sealed camera. I thought I needed that considering all the places I go. I am having second thoughts about the necessity of weather sealing these days. In no small part to seeing you out in 0 degree snowstorms with the nex and not having problems, 🙂 at least not with the camera.

    If the OMD had come out a few months earlier I would have jumped on that rather than the K-5. But now that I am considering the options and as I sell off my Pentax gear I really think it is narrowed down to Olympus and Sony nex for me. Whatever choice I end up making I know I will have a great photographic tool. I can do well with my Pentax, but one of the compromises has been weight and bulk and I am no longer happy making that compromise. It truly is a great time to be a photographer and backpacker.

    Thanks for the comment about there being pro and amateur photographers not cameras, I think that people tend to get way to caught up in the terminology. The DIGITALREV pro photographer, cheap camera series is great and really shows that it is the person behind the camera that makes the photo.

    I think I am starting to ramble now, so I will say farewell. Hope to see you on the trail soon.

    • Jacob D
      March 25, 2013
      Reply

      Hey Adam. Depending on your budget, the Zeiss primes for NEX are coming this year. I think if you’re looking for high end glass, that’s one good path with NEX, otherwise you’re looking at adapting Leica, Voigtlander, or Zeiss m-mount lenses which can also be good solutions. Some of those (mainly the wide) rangefinder lenses have issues on NEX though. The native Sony glass is pretty good, but not just doesn’t break into that upper echelon for me – and I hate focus by wire…. HATE IT! 🙂

      Alternatively, 4/3 has some great lenses as well if you’re OK with the format.

      My eye is mostly watching EVF development right now. Truth be told, I’m pretty happy with my LCD on the 5N for the time being. For us who wear glasses this may be a better solution than an EVF, but there are also aftermarket eye cups available to help solve issues of light leaks. EVF development seems to be marching ahead in big strides, it’s mainly the low light performance that they lack right now. The NEX 7n is rumored, one of the developments with it is a new EVF and the addition of a touchscreen! That may just tempt me.

      To your concerns about weatherproofing… it’s my gut feeling that many people who “need” it, probably don’t. I’ve had my camera in Costa Rica too… very wet, but that also kept me from taking it out on a few occasions, so I did maybe miss a few shots, but I don’t sit around dwelling on it. I think keeping lenses dry is important long term either way you go… moist environment = fungus eventually.

    • Jackie
      June 8, 2013
      Reply

      I just came across this discussion as I research a camera to take backpacking this summer in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. As an inexperienced backpacker, I’m not looking to carry a lot of extra weight so thought I’d find something lighter than my regular camera. As it turns out, my regular camera is the Sony RX100. So this discussion is making me think I should just go ahead and carry that since I’d likely be making a lot of compromises in quality for not a lot of savings in weight/portability, and I do like my nice pics. I can confirm (as a not expert photographer) that the RX100 takes great pics and there are many, many settings available for the novice to do well and then much more for those interested. Was recently able to take some lovely low light and night time pics with no tri-pod in Rome of the ruins; also has this great setting where it will rapidly take multiple pictures then blend them together for a high quality shot. I’m still learning how to use it but it takes wonderful pictures and the battery seems to last relatively long too.

      Question though. Since $650 is a meaningful investment in a camera, do you have any suggestions for protecting the camera, especially from water and also from impacts? I have a Sony soft case but not sure if I should get something less bulky but more protective.

      Thanks for the advice!

      • Jacob D
        June 11, 2013
        Reply

        Hi Jackie. The RX100 is an amazing little camera. It seems that Sony is poised to announce its update soon and rumor has it that it’s getting even more features like a hotshoe and a tilt screen.

        Anyway, to your questions – when it comes to shock proofing, not much you can do besides don’t drop it and keep it in a padded case when carrying. As for water proofing, it depends what you have in mind. Something like a waterproof LokSak is a good idea for storage if you expect lots of wet weather. You may even find an inexpensive “underwater housing” which will allow you to use the camera while it’s protected from the elements (or even underwater!); this would look something like a plastic bag with a special port for the lens… not sure if it exists for the RX100. I typically don’t take photos in a downpour, but if you had to whip the camera out you can probably protect it will enough with your hands, hat, etc… to get a quick photo and put it away. If you’re still concerned it may be worth looking into a warranty against any and all damage.

        Hendrik posted some thoughts on keeping gadgets dry that you may also find interesting.

  3. December 18, 2012
    Reply

    These are serious cameras. I’m no “professional photographer”, but I am a lightweight freak. I get great results from my tiny Samsung ST30 – 105 grams. A few of my tramping mates here in NZ lug around large cameras, even tripods. When we show our trip shots in club night presentations I am amazed how well my photos stack up against the “pro” cameras for quality and clarity.

    Check it out at http://www.samsung.com/ae/consumer/cameras-camcorders/cameras/compact/EC-ST30ZZDPBME

    • Jacob D
      December 21, 2012
      Reply

      Cheers, Rob.

      Nothing wrong with the Samsung ST30. It fits into a pretty large group of basic point-and-shoot cameras. At the end of the day if it works for you, that’s great! If your photos turn out better than your mates’ with their “pro” cameras, I think you should give yourself credit for being a better photographer than them 🙂 In my world, there are no “pro” cameras, only professional and amateur photographers (and lots between). Give an inexpensive camera to a skilled photographer, and they’ll make beautiful images.

      When it comes to things like sensor noise and ability to resolve fine detail there’s really no substitute for a larger sensor and a good lens… otherwise such things wouldn’t exist. Of course, these things only matter if they matter to you and your intended use.

      If you’re already making great images with your ST30, you should rent (if possible where you live) a RX100 and test drive it. I bet you will be amazed by the difference.

    • Jacob D
      December 21, 2012
      Reply

      Also, to address another point Rob raised – Yes, these are all “serious” cameras (as defined by their price tags). In the context of the post, offered as viable substitutes for digital SLRs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *