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Backpacking camera shopping: Two helpful questions

LeConte Canyon in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, seen from Windy Ridge. Taken with a 7-oz compact camera.

In my buyers guide for backpacking cameras, I identified the pros and cons of various options and discussed the optimal user profile for each. The guide is designed to help you settle on a specific form factor: smartphone, point-and-shoot, enthusiast compact, or interchangeable lens.

Camera shopping does not necessarily get any easier from there, however. Within each category, there are dozens of prospective models to consider; interchangeable lens cameras have an additional variable, lenses.

To narrow the list of candidates and to eventually settle on just one, I found it helpful to ask two questions:

  1. What price is unjustifiable for a camera?
  2. What features are must-haves, versus those that would be nice to have or that might be useful in the future?

Budget

With cameras, you generally get what you pay for. If you spend $50 more than your baseline price, you get feature X. And if you go up another $50 (now $100 more total), you get features X and Y.

Quickly, you can find yourself migrating into uncomfortable price points. Last week, for example, I started at $400, and soon I was looking at $750 models.

I saw what was happening, and made a smart move: I established an upper bound, i.e. “I will not spend more than $X.” Price tags beyond $X just seemed stupid to me.

When calculating a budget, don’t forget to account for a spare battery, carrying case, memory card(s), and an extended warranty (which I always get and which has paid for itself with every camera that I have ever owned).

Eventually I settled on the Canon G9X II. I could justify its price, and it had all the features that I know I need, with some opportunities to grow.

Future use

Shopping for a camera is like shopping for a lot of outdoor gear: It’s tempting to buy the product that is capable of fulfilling your dreams, not just your current or realistic needs. If you buy that $400 shell with the helmet-compatible hood, you’ll learn to ice climb, right? Or not.

In my case, pricier models had 4K video, burst shooting with auto-focus, better performance at 3200 ISO, and inputs for swiveling flashes and higher quality microphones.

Would I use these features? Maybe some, but they’re not must-haves, barring some change in my photography interests. And, if that were to happen, I can always sell my under-powered camera and upgrade.

Your turn: What other questions or key considerations helped you in buying your camera?

12 Responses to Backpacking camera shopping: Two helpful questions

  1. David Rogers May 3, 2017 at 10:06 am #

    High ISO performance (3200+) makes a big difference taking pictures in the woods or at dusk/pre-dawn.

    Size/weight/packability is pretty important.

  2. Sam Chaneles May 3, 2017 at 10:15 am #

    The key questions I asked myself when purchasing my camera were:

    1) What functionality do I really need? A lot of cameras come with a ridiculous amount of customization, yet sometimes all these extra features are just added noise (Just as a sidepiece, one feature of my Olympus TG-4 I really love is the built-in Wifi which allows me to directly upload photos to my phone from my camera anywhere).

    2) In considering expense of the camera, how nervous do I want to be in carrying it with me on my adventures? If I bought a $1000 camera I am going to be worried about it breaking with every step I take. Just understanding that there is a non-zero probability of my gear getting either damaged or lost on a trip is in the back of my mind when I am considering the cost of gear in general.

    Those questions were my reality check when purchasing my camera. There are so many options on the market in a variety of price ranges that it can seem daunting to select just one. My advice is just to look at the basic functionality of the camera without all the added noise companies add in their marketing to sell their products.

    Speaking in terms of what I have come to love about my camera:

    a) As previously mentioned, I love the wifi connectivity of my camera to devices such as my phone. The camera generates its own wifi such that you can upload photos directly to your phone anywhere, even in the backcountry.

    b) I love that my camera is rugged enough that I do not have to worry about it taking a nosedive. The fact that I don’t have to tiptoe on my trips just to keep my camera safe makes a huge difference for me.

    • Russ May 3, 2017 at 12:11 pm #

      I really like my Olympus TG-4 tough – great closeups – all sorts of setting of which I only use a few. It is a rigged camera for sure and swims well.

    • John May 3, 2017 at 9:12 pm #

      I love my TG-4. I carry it in my hip everyday. I’ve been to multiple countries and places with it. I wish there was manual shutter and the video quality is bad. But otherwise. I love it and it’s photos.

      Almost everything on my lurkography Instagram is shot with one.

  3. David Longley May 3, 2017 at 11:51 am #

    Andrew, thank you for these articles and Sam, thank you for your comment. I’ve been researching for too long. What I’m looking for in a camera isn’t available as of yet. I want something with the durability of the Olympus TG-4 with a large sensor and “good glass.”

    “I was dead with deciding – afraid to choose
    I was mourning the loss of the choices I’d lose” as David Wilcox so poetically puts it.

    Still am. Now I have more to consider.

    Thanks! 😉

  4. Federico Viertel May 3, 2017 at 1:07 pm #

    I use a old cellphone. Nokia N8 have a beautiful 12mp, with carll zeiss lens, and tessar 2.8/28. With a good CFW, still running today. Battery charge 3 days. With gps using Viewrange (yeah, they still support symbian app), 16 gb internal memory, and 64gb sd card. Video record on 720p, its a camera killer for any backpacker.

  5. Bob S. May 3, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

    If you are talking strictly backpacking I would want something that is compact, durable,`and preferably waterproof. The nice to have features for me in a point-and-shoot camera is the capability to shoot in RAW format, a 1 inch sensor, and control over manual settings.

    • HighSierra May 3, 2017 at 5:44 pm #

      The Nikon 1 AW1 does fit that bill for you. It’s not cheap nor as well regarded as the RX series, but it is waterproof with AW 11-27.5 or AW 10 lenses. I wouldn’t expect too much to be added to this system in the future considering that Nikon dropped their promising DL series. If you legitimately need waterproofing I’d look into a case for a compact that meets your needs. The Olympus TG-4 meets your other criteria minus the sensor size and control.

      • Bob S. May 4, 2017 at 7:52 pm #

        I was hoping Olympus would come out with a TG-5 before our anniversary but I don’t think that is going to happen within the next 2 weeks. Looks like my bride is going to get a TG-4. She really needs something shock and waterproof that shoots good macros so I think the TG-4 with the macro ring light attachment will do the trick.

        • George May 17, 2017 at 6:30 am #

          TG-5 just announced this morning on the Olympus website. Claims better low light performance but doesn’t look like a new sensor. Of course I’ll buy one, since I already have the accessory lens…

          • Bob S. May 17, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

            George, thanks for the heads up. I stand corrected, Olympus released the TG-5 before our anniversary (May 19). The camera shop I do business with said they had a prototype TG-5 in the store and the rumors matched up with what I was told. No need for 4K video but the locking accessory ring is a big improvement.

            I ordered a new TG-4 from Best Buy but they could not fulfill the order so I ended up buying a reconditioned TG-4 directly from Olympus for $185 vs a new TG-5 for $450.

  6. Ronnie Spitzer May 5, 2017 at 6:39 pm #

    I have an Olympus TG-3. Like the macro lens, wifi, weather resistance. Wish it was smaller and lighter. I’m not sold on the pic quality, especially in low light or with bright light reflections off the lens protective case. My son took my Canon SX-610, which has a much better optical zoom, is slightly smaller, slightly lighter and I generally used more often. ….we have this discussion every trip we take.

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