Best Hill Walking Camera - James Lomax

There’s a lot of confusion about cameras and which is best for hill walking. What usually happens is people talk about what they personally use, which isn’t much use for everyone else. It’s just sharing opinion. It gets worse when people are “ambassadors” with commercial brand relations or they are opinionated, like arguing about a football team, with no reference to technical concerns. What’s more useful is you learn what the parameters are so you not only judge for yourself, but also think for yourself. I’ll try to clarify that in this article.

The first point is there is no best camera. I’ve said this before and it should be obvious. It follows that there’s no point talking extensively about whatever camera you use because it’s not about you. It depends on the needs, budget, and various parameters for others, some of which are personal.

Regarding needs, that varies a great deal. If you want big exhibition quality prints, or you submit to stock agencies, you need the best quality. Try submitting your small sensor files to Alamy or Getty and see what happens. Print at A2 or A1 size and see what happens. It’s not a fixed idea because some Photoshop adjustment is possible (and cameras vary) but this is the starting point. There are different quality needs and this depends on you.

In regard to image quality there are two concerns: sensor size and lenses. A full frame sensor is best and to get the best from it you need good lenses. Indeed, a full frame sensor will reveal the flaws of lesser lenses which the APS or micro 2/3 sensor won’t detect. That seems like an advantage but it’s not because the opposite also applies: a small sensor won’t (for example) resolve fine detail. Or a lens could have soft corners, general softness, distortion, chromatic aberration and so on. This doesn’t mean an expensive system is the one for you. It means, these are the technical facts.

Conversely, your needs may be modest. If you post on social media a phone camera is adequate. Phone camera pictures sometimes appear in magazines where paper quality is minimal. You could make a small book, print, or calendar with a phone camera. If your priority is walking with minimal weight you might want to consider your phone. Weight is a particular factor for hill walking: keep it as low as possible.

If you are enthusiastic about photography and getting good pictures from your walks you will want to think about cameras beginning with compacts, and the premium models satisfy many needs. I don’t know why they’re discussed so little. They’re not good enough for stock photography or large prints (and book making services will flag them for low quality) but for anything else they are fine. Sony led the way with the RX100 series and Canon followed with their own one inch sensor models. Read technical reviews about these cameras and see what you think. They’re also fun to use, easily and conveniently carried. I occasionally take pictures with my RX100 Mk 2 but I don’t use them for my catalogue. I once mistakenly uploaded one of those files to Alamy and it was rejected.

The next step is that of bridge and micro 2/3 models. Some of these are quite good with the benefit of a reasonable sensor, and a good zoom range (or interchangeable lenses in the case of 2/3) in a relatively small body. Some are also quite rugged (the Canons for example) which may be another advantage if you do a lot scrambling or climbing. I’ve never used any of those and can’t comment specifically but you can find reviews and image samples to evaluate. It’s another good choice if the results suit your needs.

With bridge cameras, and phones, you also need to consider the functions and versatility of each respectively. With phones in particular, you have limited control over the technical process. One reason why SLRs are used is because of the versatility of possible lenses. You might need a huge telephoto or extreme wide angle. This is one reason why the two big (traditional) brands, Canon and Nikon, historically dominated the professional market. It’s not so applicable now, but used to be the case they had the most extensive lens options. Good quality adaptors, like the Metabones range, have changed the situation.

Some APS sensor cameras are very good and with the benefit of small bodies, although mirrorless cameras are about the same size (and weight). Sony and Fuji are leading the way, but beware of Fuji marketing. They recruit photographers to promote their brand with questionable ethics, using salesmanship not facts. Remarks like “I love this camera” and similar might interest you but it shouldn’t sway you. Find technical reviews and find your own love. APS sensors restrict your ability to use selective depth of field and you can struggle with wide angle capture because the focal length of lenses increases by a factor of 1.6. This means if you buy a 16mm lens it won’t perform as a 16mm.

The term full frame has a technical meaning and commercial history. Technically, it means the size of the sensor is the same as the dimensions of 35mm film. Historically, when DSLRs first appeared sensor cost was enormous so smaller sensors – APS – were manufactured. They were cheaper because they were smaller. We might consider if APS sensors would have been developed if, at the beginning, full frame was commercially viable. You may not need or like a full frame sensor but you should understand what it means technically, and for what circumstances they are best suited. Famous photographer Charlie Waite stated the Sony A7R had the same (equivalent) quality as medium format film. It was one reason why I bought the Sony.

The discussion then consists of this:

1. Quality needs (web, small print, big print, book, magazine, poster, stock)

2. Camera and lenses (image quality, size, weight, versatility, dynamic range, colour accuracy, ISO performance)

3. Budget (you get what you pay for)

Which applies to this spectrum:

1. Full frame

2. APS crop

3. Micro 2/3 and bridge

4. Compact

5. Phones

One of the leading technical review web sites has recently shown a video comparing full frame portraits with crop sensor portraits. His conclusion is, there is no discernible difference. It’s a ludicrous and misleading test because he judged his results at Instagram. That’s like racing an aeroplane against a car on a road. They might have roughly the same performance in limited conditions, but the car cannot take off and reach speeds of hundreds of miles an hour.

Many years ago (around 2008) a famous photojournalist (Alex Majoli) spoke about his camera choice. It was the time when the Canon 1D series was having huge impact because of its ground breaking quality. People also liked the Canons for reasons of status and fashion. I saw people talking about them on the internet while all they did was post pictures at Flickr. Majoli said “I don’t need 20 million megapixels,” used an Olympus C-5050 (a modest bridge camera) and he was going into war zones for newspapers. It was notable, because he chose what was best for him irrespective of gossip and trend.

My personal (digital) experience is with APS Canon SLRs, full frame Canon SLRs, the Sony A7R and the RX100 Mk 1 and 2. My catalogue is taken with a Canon 5D and Canon L lenses, and a Sony A7R with a Sony Zeiss lens. Results are what matter in relation to where you present your photographs and why, with the added consideration of backpacking weight. 

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