Reliability and Features
There is no use in carrying a camera into the remote wilderness if it’s just going to fail, or cause you constant frustration. Notice I say reliability instead of durability. Most mid priced digital cameras are more than durable enough to handle wilderness photography. But can they deal with the moisture and cold, dirt and wind?
The number one issue with a digital camera is battery life. Some cameras are better than others, most are just bad. One of the problems is the trend towards fully digital cameras that rely too much on the battery. Using live view is the quickest way to drain a battery and any camera that doesn’t have a mirror or optical finder, is essentially in live view at all times. I try to avoid cameras that I can’t see through the finder if the camera is off. I often set-up and compose images before I ever turn the camera on. In extremely cold weather I often don’t have a battery in the camera until I am ready to actually take a photograph. I also try to keep any viewing of the histogram or checking of sharpness to a bare minimum.
When using mirror-less cameras, I keep all the batteries next to my body at all times. I also remove the battery from the camera when not using it. If you are very diligent, you can make mirror-less cameras and their batteries last, but it takes discipline.
Electronic viewfinders can often go “wild” in the cold, producing strange effects or just failing. Without an optical viewfinder, your out of luck. I prefer dials to buttons. A good camera has sealed buttons so moisture can’t get in. The seal between the lens and camera needs to be tight and secure. If moisture or dust gets between the camera and lens things can get bad fast. Electronic viewfinders can also be hard to use in the dark.
Contrary to camera manufacturers propaganda, cameras need very few features. The unfortunate trend these days is to add hundreds of menus and special modes that try to remove the photographer out of the process, to make things easy for the photographer. The dumbing down of photography and development towards “smart” cameras that do everything for the photographer is sad.
Manual and aperture priority, excellent manual focus ability, accurate meter with spot metering ability, RAW recording, mirror lock mode (switch is better), what else is needed for wilderness photography? I do use a few other features like a moderately speedy motor drive,3 fps is nice when doing aerials or photographing people. Accurate auto focus is good, especially as I get older and find some situations difficult to focus manually in.
I have been following the trend of camera companies like Fuji, creating simple, manual cameras that have stellar image quality. Their reliability hasn’t been great but they are working out the kinks and I feel a Fuji camera in my future!
What about weight and size, isn’t that a major concern? Yes, but that is why I train hard and use the lightest weight outdoor gear possible. Even then, modern dslrs are pretty light compared to medium or large format film cameras of my past, even lighter than many of the pro 35mm film cameras. Having a little weight actually makes a camera more stable on a tripod. It also depends on the trip.The guideline I use for size and weight is simple: The weight and the size can not threaten the success of the trip or the safety of myself or other expedition members! On a week-long summer backpack trip, a dslr with a two lens kit is usually fine. However, if a trip is longer than a week, involves technical terrain, I am on somebody else’s trip or working as a guide, then I try to get my kit down to a bare minimum, this is where the smaller cameras pay off. Unfortunately, tiny cameras have tiny batteries that perform poorly, and as mentioned before, you need to be very disciplined with the batteries to keep those cameras working.
I often find it’s the bulk of a dslr kit that is more the problem then the weight. Having an unstable, poorly packed pack can be unsafe and tiring. If you shoot lot’s of expedition images, then you need to be able to access the camera without taking off your pack, this is something I struggle with when using dslr cameras and one of the major benefits of the smaller mirror-less cameras.
If you have any questions about cameras, please ask. Upcoming post about photography will include: Dealing with cold weather, accessories for wilderness photography and my Nikon D800E review. Please keep in touch.