Here’s How to Pick a Hiking Camera

by | Gear Explorer

If you are going on a trekking adventure, it is arguably a shame not to take a camera that can capture some or most of the scenic views you have access to. While it is true that virtually all high-end cameras tend to do a very good job in nature/landscape photography, there are specific criteria you should consider when choosing a hiking camera.

The weight of a travel camera is arguably the most important thing besides quality that you should consider in any trekking experience. This consideration makes DSLRs the least desirable cameras for hiking, as their weight start at 13 ounces and also require the use of lens- which adds additional weight to your overall backpack. Of course, DSLRs are also the typical professionals’ choice and this is something you should consider if the goal is to get the best pictures your skills allows you to make. A summary of the main features of each major type of digital cameras will hopefully help you make the most appropriate choice, considering your wishes, experiences, and budget.

Smartphone Cameras for Travel

If you are reading this, it is unlikely that you don’t have a smartphone. While you may consider smartphone cameras, or at least those form high-end smartphones, to be good enough for most occasions, I do not recommend using them as the main device for taking pictures while trekking. When it comes to scenic views, smartphone cameras have two important limitations:

– They do not have optical lenses (!). This is probably the most important limitation that any trekker should consider before making nature and landscape photos with a smartphone. It is true that 2x optical zoom is now available in some smartphones, such as the latest versions of Samsung and iPhone; however, other types of camera will offer significantly more zoom than any smartphone currently available on the market.

– The sensor of any smartphone is still far away from what a good camera can offer. This limitation explains the poor performance smartphones tend to have in low light.

In other words, while I am sure your smartphone can help a lot while trekking, I don’t recommend using it for photos unless you want a selfie.

DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) Cameras

DSLRs are considered by many to be the first choice for professional photographers. A high-end DSLR will offer you sharp images of very high resolution. The strength of DSLR is given by several features, including large sensors and a large variety of lenses choices, among others.  A good scenic view photo taken with a high-end DSLR has all the chances of being published in a top magazine such as National Geographic Magazine. If you are into that, perhaps you should give it a try!

When it comes to DSLRs, there are two options you can consider: full-frame/35 mm DSLR and crop sensor/APS-C DSLR. The full-frame cameras offer a larger sensor that normally provides better image quality and more performance in low-light conditions. Of course, a full-frame DSLR is also more expensive than one with the smaller crop sensor.

Main advantages of DSLR cameras:

– Large sensors

– A large variety of lens choices

– Optical viewfinder

– Professional customization

Main disadvantages of DSLR cameras:

– Heavier than other cameras

– More expensive

– Less user-friendly

Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras are arguably one of the main reasons professional photographers may not do trekking with a DSLR.  While mirrorless cameras offer less options in terms of lenses compared to DSLR, many models offer resolutions that compare or even surpass what DSLR cameras offer. This means a high-end mirrorless camera may offer nature and landscape photos that are in no way worse than those offered by a high-end DSLR camera. Of course, some high-end DSLR models will be better than some high-end mirrorless cameras and vice versa.

Those considering using a mirrorless camera for hiking and related activities should take in consideration that, just as in the DSLR case, they can purchase a more expensive and advanced full-frame mirrorless camera or a less expensive and less advanced crop camera. Unlikely DSLR, however, full-frame mirrorless cameras are not very common. If undecided between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera, I recommend taking into consideration that mirrorless cameras are lighter.

Main advantages of mirrorless cameras:

– High image resolution

– Fast shutter speeds

– Electronic viewfinder

– Less heavy compared to DSLR cameras

– Faster and better video performance compared to DSLR

– Electronic viewfinder.

Main disadvantages of mirrorless cameras:

– Fewer lenses and other accessories compared to DSLR

– Few models with full-frame sensors

Compact Digital Cameras

Compact digital cameras are among the most user-friendly cameras on the market and liked by many non-professionals (and maybe some professionals as well, but not for professional photography). The process of taking a picture with this type of camera is quite straightforward: you point the camera at something and click the shutter. The camera also adjusts the settings automatically, which can be seen as an advantage for those who do not know how to adjust a camera and as a disadvantage for those who want more customization.

Main advantages of compact digital cameras:

– User-friendly

– No need for extra lens

– Affordable.

Main disadvantages of compact digital cameras:

– Limited customization (which is an advantage for some but not for others)

– Limited aperture and zoom range

– Lower resolution.

Considering all the information mentioned above, I would say that you should consider taking a compact digital camera for trekking if you have difficulties handling cameras and/or you are looking for a camera that is very easy to use and can take decent but not great photos.

Action Cameras

If you are going on a trekking adventure, taking an action camera seems to make a lot of sense if the only thing you are considering is the name of this type of cameras. Action cameras are known to be small and have several accessories that make them appropriate for “action”. They are also not bad in terms of resolution.

Action cameras tend to include features such as waterproof housing and can be attached to helmets or drones (among others), allowing photographic possibilities that are hard to access with other types of cameras. While action cameras may not take pictures that are as great as those made by the best DSLR and mirrorless cameras in normal condition, you can still make good use of it when located on the top of the mountain if you want to take pictures from angles that are otherwise inaccessible.

Main advantages of action cameras:

– Mountable on many types of surfaces

– Remote view and shutter via another device (e.g., smartphone)

– Lightweight.

Main disadvantages of action cameras:

– Poor digital zoom

– Less customizable

– Fixed focus.

360-Degree Cameras

These are the only type of cameras that allow you to take full-circle pictures and videos. 360-degree cameras can make impressing panoramic views that may provide an increased sense of realism. Maybe you can also use them to contribute to Google Street View, who knows.

If you are considering using a 360-degree camera in your trekking adventure, it is worth knowing that, while it is a very good option for panoramic shots, they can only be used for digital viewing.  On the other hand, 360-degree cameras, just as action cameras, can be mounted on many types of surfaces and can provide panoramic views that are otherwise difficult to capture with other devices. Personally, I would bring a 360-degree camera on a trekking day along with another type of camera, most likely a mirrorless or DSLR camera.

The main advantages of the 360-degree cameras:

– Allow live view and streaming

– Mountable on many types of surfaces

– Lightweight.

Main disadvantages of 360-degree cameras

– Modest resolution

– Fixed focus

– Limited digital zoom

– Digital viewing only.

In Summary…

Picking a camera for hiking can be a difficult task, especially if you care a lot about the quality of the photos. For best quality, DSLR and mirrorless cameras are the first choice. For user-friendliness and price, compact digital cameras are highly recommended. For panoramic views captured from unusual angles, it is best (or necessary) to use action cameras and/or 360-degree cameras.

If you are a professional, you probably already know all the information I have provided above and you may want to provide additional tips on those who are less experience with travel photography. I encourage both professionals and amateur photographers to provide their own advice on picking and using a camera while trekking.

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