Which camera is best for backpacking?

At the time I got my first SLR world was a much simpler place for an average consumer and a digital camera seemed like a science-fiction idea anyway. Today, the number of choices we have makes the choice very difficult and requires hours of research. And even then, after a few months, you quite often discover shortcomings of your new gear.

However, it is not necessarily the camera to be blamed. What happens sometimes is that you evolve, your interests change and the vision of what you want to do in photography clarifies. In my case, the reason why I decided to sell all my DSLR gear was quite trivial: weight. I simply cannot afford putting extra 4-5kg of photography equipment in my backpack. This is strictly related to the way I travel and the kind of pictures I’m interested in.

I can hardly remember a single time when I needed a tripod. I never take pictures at night or during the day with longer exposures. Most of the time I was using 28mm prime – changing it was too much time consuming and risky in a street or outdoor environment. When I was selling my 70-300 telephoto the buyer seemed surprised that it looked brand new. Well, it basically was. Also, I’ve never needed high ISO and noise level offered by the most expensive models. What I ended up with eventually was a Canon 60D equipped with Canon EF 28mm F/1.8 USM, equivalent to 45mm because of the APS-C cropped sensor. Now, if this is all I ever use, why not to replace it with a much lighter compact camera? Seems reasonable, right? But what about image quality? What if I needed a sharp telephoto?

Man sitting at Largo de São Domingos, Lisbon, Porgual. In the background: "Lisbon, City of Tolerance" 3-20140914-3200px_MG_2096
Sesimbra, Portugal Girl rushing for a ferry, Lisboa, Portugal
The images above were shoot with Canon 60D and 28mm 1.8 lens. Isn’t it flexible enough?

Image quality mostly depends on the lens. The sensor is also important, especially when it comes to noise levels, but you will not be able to see much difference between top mirrorless cameras and middle-range DSLRs. Unless you need to print a high quality poster to put on the front of your house, you won’t need a top-notch full-frame camera for getting decent image quality. Just shoot RAW to be more flexible.

Now, when it comes to zoom in general: I’ve never been a big fan anyway. When I see something interesting, it means this is the scene I want to capture. If I were not able to see it clearly, I would just move closer to make sure it was worth capturing. That’s it. On the other hand, you may need focal length of 70-100mm for taking head shot portraits. And again, this is not something I used to do often. Once a year? Twice maybe? And how many pictures I missed because of being tired carrying several kilograms of additional equipment?

So, instead of comparing cameras, first ask yourself a question: what kind of photography do I like? Here are a few options you might be considering:

Landscape

  • In that case you need a wide lens and a tripod. I would go for a mirrorless camera.

Travel

  • For travel you need something discreet and light. DSLR doesn’t seem necessary here too.

Street (straight?)

  • Pretty much the same as with travel. You would less likely need any kind of zoom in that case. There is no time for that.

Wildlife

  • DSLR is a must for wildlife photography, especially because you are going to use a telephoto lens.

Action and Sport

  • As with wildlife, I would recommend DSLR camera. You need a very good autofocus system here and most probably a very good, sharp telephoto lens too.

After researching most of the mirrorless cameras out there, I decided to go for one that… Is not yet available. Fujifilm is going to introduce a new X100 model soon, which is a fixed lens camera with an exceptional image quality and an optical viewfinder (I can’t imagine taking pictures without one). A short list of reasons why I decided to go for X100T:

  • Offers the focal length I’m mostly interested in. Not too wide, not too narrow. Just perfect for documentary (equivalent to 35mm).
  • Weights ~450g with a battery. Great for backpacking.
  • Looks old and cheap, which means I will have less trouble with thieves. And in case of emergency, I would probably be able to exchange it for my old iPhone.
  • Doesn’t look professional. People will feel less intimidated and I won’t attract that much attention as with a huge, black DSLR camera.

There are some serious cons however:

  • I would expect better battery life.
  • Haven’t tested it yet, but it seems it is going to be completely useless for movies.

Anyway, I hope it helped you a little bit with choosing the right camera. In case you would like to discuss something, drop me a line below. Good luck!


Read follow-up on finding best camera for backpacking – a hands-on review of Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100.