What Kind of Camera Should You Carry on Outdoor Adventures?

Sure, you can use your smart phone to shoot pictures. More power to you. But what about dedicated cameras? Which one is best for your needs? That depends.
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by Tamia Nelson | April 6, 2018

Photography Article on Tamiasoutside.com

Cameras are a favorite topic of discussion amongst people who enjoy outdoor pursuits, as it all too clear when I look through my mailbag and read blog posts and threads on discussions groups. Old hands like to hash over technical distinctions of different camera models, while folks new to digital photography are full of questions, one of the most common of which is…

What sort of camera do I need?  The answer is simple if not terribly satisfying: That depends. It’s like choosing a new bicycle. Some are good all-rounders, others are specialists, and their prices run the gamut from cheap to astronomical. Cameras are a matter of personal choice, and every seasoned photographer has his or her own favorite. Before choosing a camera, ask yourself some questions. Do you take only occasional snapshots, or do you want to shoot a lot of pictures of the highest possible quality? Do you want to go digital, or do you want a film camera? Do you want a camera that you can operate with one hand and will tuck into a handlebar bag or jersey pocket? Are you on a tight budget, or is price no object? Do you want a camera that will do everything in one package, or do you want the ability to use quality lenses in fixed focal lengths? Do you want a camera that you don’t have to worry about dropping or losing? These are a few of the questions that you’ll have to answer honestly before choosing a camera for your cycling excursions. Only after that will you be able to sort through the many camera models on sale today and pick the one which suits you best.

Do I need an expensive professional digital camera to shoot good photos?  The answer to this one is easy, too, but more welcome by most: No! If you’re ready to retire your tried-and-true 35mm film camera, but you don’t want to invest a big chunk of your paycheck in professional gear, you won’t go far wrong if you start out with a quality consumer grade point-and-shoot camera. You can always move up. Or, if you’re the type who likes to take control, and if you want the flexibility and versatility of interchangeable lenses, look for a “consumer grade” digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. Here’s a checklist of points to consider in weighing your options:

  • Cost
  • Battery type and longevity
  • Type of media card
  • Resolution (number of pixels)
  • Manual settings
  • Weather sealing
  • Availability and quality of auxiliary lenses
  • Video capability

Sundry cautions and reminders: Cost involves more than the price sticker on the box. Many digital cameras use proprietary rechargeable batteries. These aren’t cheap, and you’ll probably want at least one spare. The same holds true of media (memory) cards, though the cost of the ubiquitous SD and SDHC cards has plummeted in recent years. Resolution is an even trickier call. More pixels are better than fewer—you can print larger pictures, for one thing—and technology has certainly moved on since the early digital days. But image quality isn’t determined by published pixel count alone. The online reviews at sites will help you navigate these uncertain waters.

And finally…

Do I really need a waterproof or weather-sealed camera?  Before I answer this question, it’s important to realize the distinction between waterproof and weather-sealed. Waterproof means the camera is completely sealed against moisture infiltration (to a certain depth of immersion, anyway—read the manufacturers stipulations carefully). A weather-sealed camera should be protected from infiltration of moisture, dust, and grime, but it’s not proof against immersion in water.

Now to the answer: No, most of us don’t need a waterproof camera, but it’s a very good idea for it to be weather-sealed. Having said that, plenty of photographers use cameras without any special weather sealing and have no mishaps. You do need to take precautions, though, but these aren’t arduous. So, let’s take a look at…

Protecting Camera Gear When Outside  If you carry your camera in your pocket and sweat prodigiously on a hot day, your salty sweat may worm itself into the camera’s little brain and cause it to malfunction or fail. If you carry your camera in your handlebar bag along with some spare lube, a leaky jar of chamois cream, or a partially eaten chocolate bar, don’t be surprised if the camera is soiled and ruined. If you toss your camera into an open pannier and ride a dusty road, the lens barrel and other working parts might acquire a gritty, grinding sound when you use the camera next. Are you getting the picture?

Protecting your gear is a necessity. Simple heavy-duty freezer bags that close securely with a zipper lock do a good job of keeping out water and grime. Double-wrap the camera if you’re a belts-and-suspenders type and conditions are bad. Don’t allow your camera or lenses to rattle around inside your handlebar bag, rack trunk, or panniers. Pad them as needed. Some photographers use padded bags or sacks designed for their cameras and lenses. Others use custom-made padding they’ve cut from foam pads and the like. A rain cover over your bike bag will be an additional layer of protection, and if your bag is truly waterproof, all the better. If you shoot photos in rain or snow, give it some kind of shelter—your helmet’s visor, your hand, anything to keep the precipitation from hitting it. If temperatures are cold, wrap your camera gear inside plastic bags before entering a warm building (or a warm tent). Allow the gear to come to room temperature before opening the bag, then inspect your gear for moisture build-up and dust. Clean as necessary and use a dry, clean rag to wipe off any moisture.

Tamia’s Camera Choices  I’ve been using a Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot digital camera for as long as I’ve been shooting digital, and it’s always with me when I leave home. The PowerShot doesn’t have any special weather sealing, is handy, and takes surprisingly good photos of a quality that’s suitable for web publication in small resolutions. I carry it unsheathed in the handlebar bag in good weather and in clean environments, but if I’ll ride rough roads or if there’s a chance of rain or snow, I tuck it into the plastic bag I carry for that purpose.

My heavy-hitters are weather-sealed Pentax DSLRs. They’re weather-sealed, rugged, and paired with lenses that, while not as well sealed, have shown themselves capable of coping with less than ideal environmental conditions. But that doesn’t mean that I court disaster. I treat my Pentax kit with the same care I use for my Canon PowerShot.

The Bottom Line  With so many models of cameras on the market today, in all price ranges, you should be able to find the camera that will fit your needs. Ask yourself a few questions, make a list, do some background research, and make your choice. Then when you get your camera, treat it with respect and it should serve you well.

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This entry was posted in Bikes & Cycling, Eye & Hand: Draw, Photograph, Paint, Write, Out Afoot: Stroll, Ski, Scramble, Snowshoe on by .

About

For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.