Chris "Suge" Willett
With a Substantial Contribution from Nate "Tha Wookie" Olive
Additional contributions from: Whistler, MisterSweetie, Java, Ratbert, Lumberjack, and Rainman.
In this article I am going to attempt to help new hikers and photographers figure out a good camera "strategy" for long distance hiking. There are many resources on the web to help you take better pictures, figure out what sort of camera you might want, and comparisons between cameras. Instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, instead I'm going to focus on topics that are more relevant for distance hikers and that are not generally covered elsewhere. Instead of making simple recommendations, I will give questions and topics to be thought about and how I (and others) might answer them. For the purposes of this article, I will define a long distance hike as being one in which you have the time to grow a respectable beard. This is completely arbitrary and you can simply define it as being at least a month in duration. Or three weeks. Or six months. Or whatever.
First, some terminology. None of these definitions are meant to be precise. They are simply meant to help facilitate the understanding of a reader who might not be familiar with the jargon of photography.
Point and Shoot Camera: A camera that you don't change a lot of settings on and still get good snap shots. Examples include the Olympus Stylus Epic (film) or Verve (digital). The least expensive kind of camera.
Digicam: A digital camera with many manual features like an SLR and generally a higher megapixel count. You can't really change lenses with it.
SLR: A fancier camera that has interchangeable lenses and many manual features.
Megapixel: A notion of how much detail the digital camera can record. More is better, but usually isn't important enough to make it a deciding factor of one digital camera over another.
RAW: A fancy digital format that allows you to do a lot of post-picture processing on the computer.
Mass Storage Device: A bit of computer hardware that you can transfer your photos onto from memory cards. Examples include portable drives and CD burners.
Rather than write the article in a traditional form, I'm going to format it in a way that will help readers get quickly to the information that they want. Unattributed sections are from me, the rest should have the appropriate contributor cited. If you have something that you would like to contribute, write it up and send it to me either via a PM or email.
1) What kind of photo outfit would you take on a long distance hike in the US? I would bring my Canon G6. This is a 7.1 megapixel digicam and has enough features for me to take the kind of pictures that I like. For example, I can set exposure fully manually and can shoot RAW files. It has a reasonable zoom lens on it, even if it isn't optimal. I would carry a 2 GB card and put a 1 GB card in my bounce box along with a spare lithium ion battery and the battery charger. On the Appalachian Trail, where large towns are frequent, I would burn images to CDs as I went. On a more remote trail where large towns are less frequent (such as the CDT, PNT, or even the PCT), I would put a portable CD burner in a bounce box. I have a Tamrac padded case that I put on my hipbelt (the loop is wide enough for the belt) and carry the camera there.
Tha Wookie says: I've used a Nikon F3 SLR for over 5000 miles. It is legendary for its durability and manual options. Although my view finder is dark, and as a result I get soft results on occasion, I've found it to take great shots. I routinely use extended exposures. I would caution anyone who uses an SLR to make sure it has settings for flexible shutter release times. Look for the "B" setting on the shutter release dial, which means "Bulb". While walking the American West Coast Trail, sea spray was a real concern. I'm not sure that a digital camera would have made it. The steel-body F3 had no problems. But on the flip side, is a heavy body. To compensate, I used a Tamron 24-50mm. Tamron makes very light lenses, with good quality. I also carry a 2-lb Slik tripod, and an optional 35-110 lens.
Whistler says: I was pleased with my Fuji Finepix A330 and xD memory cards--all the photos I posted here on WB are with that camera, reduced by about 75%. Weight is about 6.5oz. A sliding lens cover keeps things protected and prevents fumbling for the 'On' button in the heat of the moment. It has good battery life [4-500 shots taken, still on original Li batteries]. It also has a quality macro mode, clear menus, and fairly quick start-up. I kept nearly 300 photos [one month's worth for me] on the high/normal setting on one 256m card. Never needed my 256m back-up. I carried it in a small sub-2oz REI Accessory Pocket, modified and attached to my shoulder strap for easy access. Also in that pocket I kept a Kroger plastic grocery bag as a foul-weather liner, and the whole deal was covered with my poncho if needed. No moisture problems at all.
Mister Sweetie says: I use a Nikon Coolpix 5400, a 5.1megapixel digital camera. I have the option of other lenses with this camera, but I have none. The battery is proprietary Li-ion. It uses Compact Flash (slower but cheaper than Secure Digital [probably the better way to go nowdays]). The 5400 has a twist screen, which is very nice; you're able to take pictures of yourself and frame them well. I have 512mb of memory on one card, and two 256 cards, and I've never had them all full at once, including a weeklong trip to the Grand Canyon. I tend to take pictures at full resolution (but not RAW), so that should give you some idea of storage space needed. use a hip belt attached bag to carry the camera, and it works great. My specific bag is a Lowepro Rezo 110 AW, but any of the Rezo series work the same... It's a top-opening bag, and when attached to your hipbelt, the top opens away from your body, making it easy to get to the camera. I've found it very convenient. The Rezo series also has an attached "all weather" cover, which I think it just sil, with elastic to keep it tight.
Java says: This may seem nit-picky, but I think its worth mentioning. I thru'd with a Contax g-series rangefinder. I also shot Provia 100f. I now shoot Velvia on the trail. I still carry the rangefinder (a G2) when hiking, and find that it's much lighter and has better glass (Zeiss lenses) than an average SLR. That said, I'm a professional photographer, represented by an agency, and my trail photography is published in books and magazines. If people are looking for lightweight, ease, and the highest quality, (IMHO) a rangefinder (esp the Contax G's or a Leica) is the way to go. I can't quite figure out why more people haven't caught onto them for hiking...they are tough, have interchangable lenses, can be auto or manual...the list goes on.
2) Film or Digital? This is a big question that many people face if they are looking to buy a camera for hiking. Overwhelmingly, I would carry a digital, unless there was a good reason otherwise (discussed later). The advantages of digital are great: No film or developing costs, you can see (via the LCD) if you got the shot or not, you can print only the pictures you like, making up a web page is much easier, distributing pictures to friends and family is a snap, and so on and so forth. Buying a point and shoot film camera and taking ordinary print film doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me for the AT. However, there are some reasons to consider standard film: If you take slide film and use an SLR with a reasonable lens, and know what you're doing, you'll get far better results than with a digital camera. The resolution and color that you get from slide film really is superior. If you are willing to haul the weight and take the time, it is the way to go. However, on a long distance hike, this rarely seems to happen. If you have a point and shoot film camera already, you can still get great shots. See the comparison section later on in the article. Another reason to consider print or slide film over digital is if you don't have regular access to a computer back in the mundane world. In this case, print film and a basic point and shoot camera is the way to go. A final reason is if you want to give slide shows: Slide projectors are very common, LED projectors less so.
Whistler says: For the AT, I'd recommend digital, because... Access to civilization comes frequently and conveniently. You can take a high volume of photos without 'budgeting' your film. You can have the film developed or disseminated in less time. Fewer logistical/ postal issues--which was important for me because I didn't have anyone to mail things from HQ. You never really have to open the camera.
Tha Wookie says: I've always used film, but I am considering switching. I like the consistent results from film. I also like the fine-grain films that can capture detail way beyond most commercial digital cameras. I use slide film. The downside is that I do a lot of computer presentations, and scanning slides is expensive! Unless you can find a company that scans slides during the E-6 process, expect to pay $1 per slide for digital slides, for the lowest resolution scans. For the cover of the American Hiker magazine, the high-res scan cost $68! As it turned out, it was printed poorly and the cost was really a waste in my opinion. So if you want digital files at lowest cost and less flexible print-size options, get a digital. If you want very high quality photograghs for art or display, consider film, but be wary of the costs. Actually, the high-end digital cameras (11 megapixels+) are now "better" than film, but those cameras, and the programs needed to work on them, are very expensive ($3K-7K). If you shoot high volume, and sell them, they are a good investment.
3) While hiking, how should I carry my camera? Unless it is raining on you at the time, you should have your camera in a place where you can reach it without stopping to take off your pack. The more accessible your camera is, the more pictures you will take. When I used to carry my camera in my pack, I found that most of my pictures were taken in camp or during a break. Moreover, if you have to spend thirty seconds digging your camera out of your pack, you'll miss a lot of impromptu shots, such as wildlife, hikers doing something stupid, people with their pants down, etc. How you carry your camera depends on how large it is. For a point a shoot size camera, you can generally just put it in your pants or shorts pocket. ULA packs have hipbelt pockets that easily hold a basic camera (better than pants pockets). If you have a larger camera, such as a digicam, there are several companies that make padded cases (very light) with a belt loop large enough for standard hipbelts to slide through. Tamrac makes the one I used. For larger cameras, like an SLR, a chest slight works nicely.
Tha Wookie says: You must keep your camera handy, or you will miss the shot. I now carry mine around my waist in a Low Alpine no-frills case, that's hardly bigger than the camera. Although, after a while, it starts to wear on my hip. So then I start doing one-arm curls. The big thing is that you don't want your camera to swing around, or you will bang it on something or throw it on purpose from the aggravation of bump-bump-bump for hundreds of miles.
4) How much film or memory should I bring? This depends on the camera and how many pictures you take. Assuming you are shooting film and using a basic camera, I would consider about 10 shots a day to be average, with plenty of wiggle room so that you don't run out of film. If you send your bounce bucket 3 weeks ahead of you on the trail (see later), you'll want 210 exposures, or roughly 6 rolls of 36 exposure film. Some people will take less than this, some more. Digital memory cards are a different deal and how many exposures you'll get out of 1 GB card depends on how high of a resolution you want and how high your camera can go. My 7.1 MP Canon generates, roughly, 6 MB RAW files shot at maximum resolution. On a 1 GB memory card, this translates to about 135 images. I could, instead, shoot maximum resolution and size JPEG files and get about 330 shots. One advantage of the digital is that you can erase bad shots. If you don't know much about cameras, see the recommendations later.
If you go the digital route, you'll have several options for memory cards. For example, Lexar makes three different kinds of Compact Flash cards. The main difference is in speed of writing files from your camera to the card. This doesn't make a whole lot of difference to a typical hiker: Fast speed is necessary for photographers taking burst sequences of photos of things like sports, wildlife, etc. I would buy the basic card rather than something with the words "Ultra" or "Extreme"
Tha Wookie says: I shoot a roll a day [36 exposures], or a little less.
Whistler says: I kept nearly 300 photos (one month's worth for me) on the high/normal setting on one 256m card. Never needed my 256m back-up.
5) How should I resupply with film? I think the easiest way is to use a bounce bucket. Buy a bunch of film at a discounted rate. Put 3-5 rolls of film in your pack and the rest in the bucket. Mail the bucket about 2-3 weeks ahead of you. This also allows you access to rechargeable batteries and other nice things. However, you can also simply buy film as you go. If you are using slide film, this won't work as many places simply don't have things like Velvia or Provia on hand.
6) What happens when I fill a memory card? If you are taking higher resolution pictures, it is unlikely that you'll want to lay out the cash to buy enough memory cards to cover the entire trips. On a trail like the AT, it should be possible to find stores with CD burners. You take your full (or partially full) memory card in to the store and burn two CDs. Mail them to separate places and erase your card. There are other options, including buying a portable burner or mass storage device. It is also entirely possible to buy a 2 GB card and take mostly small resolution pictures (which will make fine 4 by 6 inch prints and look good on a computer) and still not fill up the card. However, this is sort of like putting all your eggs in one basket.
Tha Wookie says: I would stick an Ipod in the bounce box and download them there, or send the card home and change it out with a freshie.
MisterSweetie says: I'll submit a specific suggestion that something like the XS-drive Super would be great in the bounce box. It will accept any media card. You'd just dump the pictures to the drive, and you'd have an empty card to keep using. The drives use laptop hard drives, so you can get them in large sizes (up to 80gb, I think). This would be a great way to go.
7) What about batteries? It is unlikely that you'll be able to get through the length of a long trail and not need to replace batteries. If you have a basic point and shoot camera, you can put batteries in a bounce bucket or buy as you go. For conservation purposes, I would urge the use of re-chargeable batteries. Many digital cameras use proprietary, rechargeable batteries such as the Lithium Ion ones that my Canon takes. In this case, I would buy a spare set and put them and the battery charger in a bounce bucket. It helps to know how many pictures you can take before needing a charge, however. You can go on the manufacturers advice and you'll probably be ok. Be aware that the more you use the LCD screen, the fewer shots you'll get before needing a re-charge. On my G6, I don't use the LCD screen at all unless I have to, and I tend not to review pictures unless I'm not sure of myself. For example, timed shots, odd metering situations (lots of light, not much light, unevenly distributed light), etc. I haven't recharged my batteries since mid August and have taken about 300 pictures since then.
Tha Wookie says: Obviously, a film camera is far more efficient than a digital. I use about 6 little watch batteries per 2000 miles. They weight nothing, no recharging units, and little cost. They power my light meter and timer.
Ratbert says: A word about AA rechargeable batteries. They are not all created equally! AA batteries are a good choice because they are so easily obtainable in towns if you've drained your rechargeables but are still a ways from your next mail drop. I like the idea of the bounce box with the charger in it. When you purchase your AA rechargeables, pay attention to the mAh rating. (Milli Amps Hour, I believe) This is telling you how much juice they can hold. If you find some on sale and the price seems too good to be true, they may be 2050 nAh batteries. Look for 2300 or even better, 2500 if you can. Each step up should represent about a 12% increase in battery life. Also, use Nimh (Nickel Metal Hydride) AA batteries rather than NiCad (Nickel Cadmium) as the Nimh batteries can be "topped off" when recharging. NiCad batteries must be completely drained before charging.
8) How many megapixels is enough? This depends on what you want to do, but for most people it doesn't matter. A pretty standard number these days is 4 megapixels. You'll be able to make fine prints of moderate size and your shots will look great on the web. A 3 MP camera will be fine. So would a 5 MP camera. But, given the choice, I would buy a cheaper, rather than more expensive, point and shoot digital camera. If you make the jump to a digicam, you'll get more megapixels and the ability to make prints of a larger size, say 11 by 14 or higher. Megapixel counts of 7 or 8 are standard here. However, unless you know how to take advantage of the features of more advanced cameras, or are willing to spend the time learning, I wouldn't go this route.
Tha Wookie says: You have to get over 11 to get close to good slide film.
9) Is my camera going to survive? That depends a lot on how you treat it. There are three big foes: Your own stupidity, grit, and condensation. Stupidity can't really be accounted for and normally takes the form of dropping the camera. For example, it is in the chest pocket of a shirt, you lean over a stream to get some water, and out it falls. Or, you casually try putting it in your pocket, miss, and it falls over a cliff. Grit is more serious. Bits of dirt, sand, and other things can get inside a camera, especially a film camera since you're putting in film all the time. If enough grit gets inside, your pictures will have scratches on them. You can clean your camera easily enough with a small brush that will cost you a dollar or so. A good way to prevent grit is to put your camera in a case or a zip lock back before putting it in your pocket or hipbelt. Condensation is a little more serious issue. For example, you pitch a tarp near a creek and the temperature swings overnight. Your tarp and everything underneath it is covered in dew. If you leave your camera out and exposed, that is bad. However, simply by leaving it in its case or covered up you can solve this problem. I put my camera in its case and then put that in my sleeping bag stuff sack overnight. No problems so far.
Tha Wookie says: Respect gravity, use a strap, and keep it out of the water! After that -good luck! I use a silica packet to take out moisture that builds in the camera case. Also, I have some extra zip-locks in case I experience a complete failure to stay dry. I also clean my lenses religiously! Consider getting a screw-on UV filter to protect your expensive lenses!
10) What shouldn't I take pictures of? Most hikers are open to having their pictures taken, but not all are. You should ask first. For example, you roll in to a shelter and want a picture of people as they cook dinner. Simply ask, "Do you mind if I take a picture of you?" That is, be polite. Don't take pictures of people, especially locals, with the purpose of making fun of them. With friends, it is probably ok. Don't take pictures of people's homes or businesses, especially inside, without asking. For the most part it is common sense: Would you want someone snapping a picture of your messy room at home?
Tha Wookie says: You should shoot whatever you want. You don't need anyone's permission to take a picture, but it is good to be respectful. Remember, you need to get permission if you are going to publish an image. So if it's a good one, get their conact info, and name always. Consider sending them a file.
11) What are some good things to take pictures of? This is easy on the AT: People and everyday activities along the trail. These will mean a lot more to you afterward than yet another picture of a hazy green valley in Virginia. In the early morning (about 6 to 8), the light can do strange things and you can get some fantastic shots. The same goes, though to a lesser extent, in the early evening near sunset. All my best shots come from these times. Other good things to take pictures of include trail and road signs, shelters, your campsite for the night, meals in towns, the water in a washing machine, and so on. Close ups of flowers are also nice. Personally, I don't find the AT (except in certain places) to have the same raw beauty as places in the West. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its own beauty, just that a shot from the top of Clingman's Dome doesn't carry exactly the same power as a shot looking out from Forrester Pass on the PCT. Use your imagination, however, and you'll find good things to take pictures of.
Tha Wookie says: I personally like inpromtu shots. Try to get people comfortable before you shoot them, and avoid the basic smile at the camera shot. That which inspires you. Camping shots, shoot at night, shoot all day long. Get every aspect of hike in, not just the scenic shots. Shoot pictures of your nasty feet. Shoot anything you want to remember, or express to someone else. Imagine what it would take for someone to really understand what thru-hiking is all about.
Whistler says: I wish I'd taken more photos in general, and especially of people. I'd probably grab one of just about everyone I tented or sheltered with, or talked with for more than a few minutes.
12) What about disposable cameras? These are not a bad route to go if you're not going to take many pictures. However, you'll get better quality from a $70 point and shoot camera like the Olympus Stylus Epic and it will be cheaper in the long run. If you pay $10 for a disposable camera, or film for $3 a roll (roughly same number of exposures), you'll need to take 10 rolls of film or more to make the point and shoot camera the better option.
Tha Wookie says: If you have no concern how they will look, these are a great option. I will never trust my trail memories to one again.
13) What about zooms? Most point and shoot cameras (and digicams) have zoom lenses on them. On digitals, you generally also have something called "digital zoom". Ignore this completely. It is the camera equivalent of "underbody coating" on cars. All it does is blow up the picture. Guess what? You can do this on your computer. The optical zoom number is the one to pay attention to.
Tha Wookie says: Lower mm means wider view, higher means tighter and closer.
Ratbert says: It's easy to be seduced by the 3X or 4X Digital Zoom rating. Optical Zoom (Canon makes a 12X with Image Stabilizer that is very nice) is telling you how far you can rack that zoom lens out so that you don't have to get too close to Yogi to snap his pic. This also makes candid shots of folks easier because they are more at ease if you are unobtrusively taking pictures from a distance. The one place where the Digital Zoom shines is that it allows you to zoom in on your review shots on the LCD screen to check for sharpness. Did the breeze make that flower move just a little? Check the review, zoom in and scroll around, then delete and reshoot if you have too. If it's fuzzy when you blow it up on your monitor at home, then it's too late to reshoot.
Lumberjack says: The more optical zoom you use, the more sensitive to movement the camera gets. At 10 x even the slightest vibration can blur the picture.
14) What about tripods? A tripod is a three legged device that you put your camera on. You can use it to steady the camera to help you take a picture in low light, or to get shots of yourself or others where there isn't a convenient rock or sign post to place the camera on. Most cameras have little threaded holes on the bottom side to attach to a tripod.
Whistler says: Next time, I'll bring a small tripod at about 1-2oz, like the ones available at http://www.backpackinglight.com. It can make your shots much simpler to frame and execute.
ThaWookie says: Many will say that use of a tripod is what will distinguish the pro from the ameteur. The basic premis is "the more still the camera, the sharper the shot". This is very true. Shooting a camera is like hunting with a rifle. When you take a shot, hold your breath and steady yourself against a tree or rock. A tripod makes it more stable, but the downside is the weight and hassle of breaking it out. For those who shoot on low ISO settings (like for film types velvia and kodachrome), you often must use a tripod to get a sharp shot in low-light situations. The general rule is that you can steady a shot by hand down to 1/30 of a second (that's being absolutely still and supported by something). After that, you will need a tripod. Plus, for time-exposure shots, a tripod is essential, unless you happen to find the perfect rock that can hold your camera. For these shots you will also want to prevent moving the camera when you click the shutter, which can be accomplished with 1)a shutter release cord 2)a timer that you set and walk away 3)a digital remote, available with new digitals. I use a slik compact XL -very cheap and light. It weighs about 2 lbs. I keep it in a homemade sil-nylon bag. If I could change it, I get flip-release mechanisms for the legs instead of the screw-types. Also a ball head on the top would be nice, but not as essential.
15) What is the difference in quality between the different formats? This isn't easy to answer as it depends on the person taking the photos (the better photographer usually wins) and whether you are looking at the end result on a computer screen, a 4 by 6 inch print, or a 13 by 19 print. However, to provide some comparisons, here are some links to look at (ignore all the writing unless you've got a ton of time):
Olympus Stylus Epic and print film. These pictures from my last AT section hike are taken with a $70 point and shoot film camera and the Fuji film I found in Walmart. I scanned them in to a computer with a bottom end scanner at work.
Olympus Stylus Epic and slide film. These are take with the same camera during the same summer and come from the GDT. However, I shot a variety of slide film (Velvia, Sensia II, something from Kodak) and scanned in the pictures using a high end slide scanner.
Olympus D395 Camedia. 3 MP point and shoot digital camera. These were taken last May in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington.
Canon G6. 7.1 MP digicam. These were taken this summer, also in the Alpine Lakes.
Nikon N80 with slide film. These were taken last March in the Grand Canyon. A mixture of Velvia and Sensia II.
If you've looked through the photos, you'll see that the $70 Olympus does a pretty good job. Be warned: For prints beyond 4 by 6 inches, it isn't so good. With slide film, I've got a couple of reasonable (fuzzier than I'd like) 11 by 16 inch prints. However, almost all the pictures on my walls at home are taken with the SLR and slide film. I do have two pictures from the Canon G6, but at 11 by 14 size.
Tha Wookie says: This is a very wide open question.
Here's me using a point and shoot on the AT: http://trailjournals.com/photos.cfm?id=4277
Then here's an advantix point-shoot camera on the CT (notice the haze from moisture build-up, I was carrying it next to my water bottle, and didn't know the damage until I was done:
Here I switched to the F3, and Fuji negative film on the PCT:
Finally, here's the Slide film using the same F3 on the AWCT:
NOTE: All you are seeing are digital files. Because they are low-res scans, they look far worse than the film versions. See my website for what high-res scans can do for the same film.
Java says: My trail photography can be seen for now on my very out-dated (I'm right in the middle of a redesign) website http://www.visualalex.com.
16) What about after the hike? This is where the fun begins, as you've been hiking for a long time and now have a lot of pictures to deal with. There are a lot of interesting things you can do, such as putting together a photo album or creating a web page. In either case, try to use your pictures to tell a story, rather than having a bunch of unconnected shots. It helps if you have a lot of pictures of trail life, rather than nothing but pictures of green valleys. If you shot digital, you'll be able to make a web page fairly easily: Use some editing software to compress the pictures down to reasonable size, clean them up some, and post them. If you have access to a Mac, you can use something like Graphic Converter, which comes bundled with most Macs. I'm sure Windows has something similar. If you want to get fancy, something like Adobe Elements or Photoshop CS are popular, but probably overkill. Select the digital files you like the most, load them on to a jump drive, and have you're local photoshop make prints for you. If you shot print or slide film, develop the film. If you don't have access to a scanner and want to put up a web page, have the photo shop scan them too.
Tha Wookie says: One should think about this before investing in anything. What do you want your picture to do? Explain the hike to friends? If so, how? Slide show, digital slide show? Do you have the computers, programs, and equipment? Are you calculating film processing costs? Planning on selling the prints? These abilities will all depend on what kind of equipment you use.
Rain Man says: Good photos are turned into lousy photos when they are posted [to whiteblaze] without basic necessary info, such as WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW? I realize we ignorant victims might not need each and every one of these basic journalism minimums, but we at least need WHO, WHERE, and WHEN. A great photo posted on WhiteBlaze that doesn't tell me WHO, WHERE, and WHEN has to get a bad rating. We're not just an abstract "artsy" group or site. We are first and formost a concrete "informational" group or site. Thus failing to give basic, fundamental information with each and every photo posted,-- well, you might as well not post the photo in my opinion.
17) Information Sources?
Jonathan Ley has several pdf files detailing photography and hiking and you can access them via http://www.phlumf.com
A good source for equipment is B&H Photo: http://www.bhphotovideo.com
You can read reviews of a bunch of digital cameras at http://www.dpreview.com
For general photography information http://www.photo.net