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Cameras Choices

There are a lot of camera choices suitable for hiking. The major choices are:

  • Digital or film
  • Zoom or no zoom
  • View finder or single lens reflex
  • Film format or resolution.

Digital vs. Film

If you want the absolutely highest quality and resolution, today your choice would be a film camera. Digital cameras have come a long ways and they may soon rival film cameras in their ability to capture detail, but they are not there yet (as of Summer 2001). When digital cameras have a resolution of 8 megapixels or more they will be capturing approximately the same amount of visual detail that a film camera does. But do you need the best possible resolution? That depends on what you intend to do with your photos. If you are a professional photographer who sells your pictures for publication, then probably you do. If you are just wanting printed snap shoots to share with your friends and family, either will do, but a film camera may have the edge. If you want to store and share your photos via email or on your computer, a digital camera may be the better choice because it saves you the time and expense of first developing the film and then scanning the images.

Beside the quality of the photos hikers will want to consider the robustness of the camera and its weight. While some digital cameras are quite small and light most of them use up batteries in a hurry which means carrying extra weight in additional batteries. For the long distance hiker film may be easier to manage at resupply points. You simply mail your film to a developer and have them send the pictures to your home rather than trying to find a reliable way to download the stored images from a digital camera.

Zoom vs. Fixed Focal Length

In both digital and film cameras there are zoom and zoomless models. Zoom lens give you more flexibility in framing your shots, but this is of less importance if you are taking pictures of mostly broad expanses of countryside. To take really good pictures of wildlife you generally need a lens with a lot of magnification. The disadvantages of zoom lens are more expense, and slower lens speed. To get the kind of zoom you need for wildlife photography (about 400 mm) in a film camera you just about have to go with a SLR camera. Point and shoot film cameras are usually maxed out at 200 mm and with quite a bit of sacrifice in speed. For reasons that are unclear to me, digital cameras seem to offer more zoom in a smaller package. When comparing the zoom of different digital camera models compare the optical zoom not the digital zoom ratings. Only the optical zoom will give you full resolution pictures are the zoom setting you select. Digital zoom gives you magnification at the expense of picture resolution.

SLR vs. View Finder

Probably the ideal hiking camera from a photographers point of view would be a 35mm format camera with a fairly fast lens capable of wide angle panoramic shoots (28mm) for scenery and zoom up to 400mm or more for wildlife shoots. To get this much camera you have to go to a SLR type camera, and be willing to carry a minimum of 4 lbs. of gear. If you hike to take pictures, this is the way to go. A Cannon Rebel body with high quality lenses would make a good choice. But for most hikers only interested in photos to share with others and as reminders of places they have been a simpler, less expensive, lighter weight, camera with a view finder probably makes more sense.

Most view finder cameras today are of the point and shoot or fully automatic variety. Years ago you could buy very small, view finder cameras that allowed you to set the f-stop, speed, and focus manually, but today a view finder camera with manual controls are only found on generally larger, considerably more expensive models. So if creative control of your pictures is important to you a SLR camera with a manual mode is the way to go.

Film Format Or Resolution

Two film factors that effect picture resolution are the size of the film, larger being better for resolution, and the speed of the film, slower being better for resolution. For film cameras a good choice is standard 35 mm. Some of the new APS format cameras are even smaller than the 35mm equivalents, but you sacrifice 50% film size, pay more for developing, and some people feel this format may go the way of 110mm and disc photo in a few years. Improvements in film have made the speed of the film less important than it was in the past. For point and shoot cameras, particularly those with a zoom lens, a good choice in film speed is ASA 400. With a larger, faster lens on a SLR camera ASA 100 might be a better choice for most outdoor, day time photos. For photos taken with a hand held camera vs. a tripod mount it is more important to use a fast enough film to permit adequately fast shutter speeds than it is to worry about the difference in quality gained by using a slower film speed.

In digital cameras generally the higher the resolution or pixel count the better the quality of the photo. But higher resolution requires more memory for each picture stored both in the camera and later in the computer. For pictures to be used on the Internet resolutions of higher than 640 x 480 are of questionable value. Higher resolution pictures are often stripped down and compressed before being placed on the Internet anyway. But for printing purposes higher resolution pictures produce better results, especially for blow ups or large format printouts. If you want to both post pictures on the Internet or share them via email, and print them out on paper higher resolution is the better choice. You can always strip down and compress a high resolution picture, but you can't add detail that wasn't originally captured in the image.


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