It’s hard to imagine a time when cameras weren’t ubiquitous. Here we give a brief review of each of the cameras we’ve owned over the years that contributed significantly to our stock of hiking photos.
Canon EOS500: May 1996 – Sep 2004
You know, it’s been so long since we used this camera that we can’t say much about it, other than it’s way thinner and lighter than our digital SLRs. Despite the recent (about 2011 onwards) revival of film, we can’t imagine going back to this type of camera with the lack of instant review. But it served us well at the time with the two lens kit we bought covering 28-200 mm.
Compact digital cameras
Canon Powershot A20: 2 megapixels (1600×1200), 35-105 mm F2.7-4.8, Jun 2001 – Jul 2005
Our very first digital camera! (Actually that’s not quite true as we had bought a webcam back in August 2000 but the less said about that the better really.) The A20 had no real manual controls, though it did have a setting that allowed for exposure compensation and selectable white-balance.
Overall, despite the low resolution (by current standards) and lack of fine control, it did surprisingly well. Andy’s favourite feature was undoubtedly the panorama mode!
Canon Powershot A80: 4 megapixels (2272×1704), 38-114 mm F2.8-4.9, Apr 2004 – Sep 2008
After a couple of years, the A20 developed a fault that forced us to buy a new camera. What a shame! :-P We’d enjoyed using the A20 enough to look to the equivalent at the time (early 2004), which was the A80. It’s safe to say our digital photography really took off with this camera with its excellent macro mode (flower photos, anyone?), fairly fast aperture, and swivel screen. New to us for this camera was a manual white balance feature (though we didn’t make much use of it as it tended to make things too red), selectable ISO setting (though we didn’t use it above ISO 100), and spot metering (perfect for flower photography). Exposure compensation was also very handy. Overall we were extremely happy with this camera as it not only survived being dropped several times (including getting smashed off a rock on the descent from the Lions) but also our first forays into backpacking.
Naturally, there were things we didn’t like so much. Perhaps the most annoying was the intense purple fringing at high-contrast edges for wide apertures. We spent a lot of time shooting at F8 (the smallest aperture) to minimize this artefact, which limited the low-light performance (especially as we did not dare select an ISO setting greater than 100). Then there was the fact that the lens was far from wide angle – very frustrating when out hiking in big country. We still took a few panoramas, but the appeal had waned somewhat by then as the software wasn’t good enough to make flawless panoramas. Andy – being more interested in wildlife photography – was also beginning to get frustrated with the limited zoom range, and so we eventually looked at a replacement.
Canon Powershot S3IS: 6 megapixels (2816×2112), 36-432 mm F2.7-3.5, May 2007 – Dec 2011
In early 2007 we noticed that photos from the A80 had a few dust specks and we’d encountered the dreaded E80 error a couple of times. Not wanting to push our luck and be without a camera we looked at our next options. We ended up buying the superzoom Canon S3IS – staying with Canon because they consistently garnered good reviews for their compact cameras, and we were familiar with the operation, which remained remarkably consistent across a few generations of cameras. We also bought a wide-angle adapter which gave us expanded our range out to 28 mm. Alas we didn’t use it that often as the focussing suffered with it attached, which made it frustrating to use.
The versatility of this camera was amazing: it had unrivalled macro capability – being able to focus at almost touching distance – a long zoom, and had a fast lens (F2.7 to 3.5 across the whole zoom range). Andy was very happy to be able to get some close wildlife shots. But at the end of the day, we didn’t really like it. It, too, suffered from fringing at high-contrast edges (though it was red rather than purple). However, our main complaint was the colour rendering, or at least the lower-midtones and shadows, which were always kinda muddy. This was the first camera that we began to notice the “gritty” nature of the noise at the pixel level (possibly due to the increased pixel count), and, once again, we did not dare use this camera at an ISO setting above its lowest value (100).
It’s unfortunate that some of our best (most fun) trips were recorded with this camera, and with hindsight we would have bought an SLR instead. Eventually we did give in and bought a digital SLR as a replacement…
Canon Powershot SX230HS: 12 megapixels (4000×3000), 28-392 mm F3.1-5.9, Dec 2011 – 2015
After a couple of years with the SLR, we felt we needed a lightweight, pocketable camera as a backup. Plus Andy was in the middle of a photo-a-day project and wanted something smaller to carry around. The SX230HS seemed to fit the bill, matching our SLR for pixel count and zoom range. And for the most part it really did a great job – at least for a few months. Then we began to notice its flaws compared with the SLR, and the lack of configurability. We were maybe a little harsh on this camera because we were just getting into processing the SLR photos from raw, and found it limiting to not be able to do the same with the SX230HS.
We used it consistently for a year or so, and as ever it’s the photographer than counts more than the equipment: we do have some nice photos from it. But the push for more flexibility in processing led us away from compact camera for a while.
Sony RX100II: 20 megapixels (5472×3648), 28-105 mm F1.8-4.9, Dec 2015 – present
We had high expectations for this camera given the glowing reviews we’d read, and it must be said we were not disappointed. We’ve only had this camera couple of months but for the most part can’t say enough good things about it. It’s an incredible camera, and one that would probably have delayed our foray into SLRs by quite some time had it been available in 2009. Our desire for a small carry-anywhere camera got the better of us, and with good timing on our side when it came to discounts, we picked up this camera for what we thought to be a fair price. (I feel that these cameras are overpriced for what they are, especially some of the newer models.)
Compared with the SLRs, it’s much more fiddly to use, although part of that may be the transition from the Nikon (and Canon) to the Sony way of doing things. The buttons don’t feel as robust as on the SLRs and finger position is surprisingly important when taking a shot. But being able to transfer photos wirelessly to a phone or tablet for posting to Instagram or sharing via MMS is very handy. And the image quality – just stunning, even at pixel level, plus we can process from raw. At the lower ISOs it easily rivals the D5000 for detail and noise, and for the most part I’m actually happy to use it up to ISO 800. However, it is still a compact camera, and it can’t hold a candle to the SLRs when it comes to responsiveness, nor can it match the larger sensors for dynamic range. But then again, the SLRs don’t fit in a jacket pocket.
After nearly three years of use, the anti-reflection coating on the screen is mostly worn off to the point where the screen is unusable for checking focus or reviewing photos in bright light, (buy a screen protector if you have one of these cameras!), something I’ve never experienced on any other camera. The lack of a viewfinder is proving to be annoying (especially with the screen becoming less useful), and the fact that the screen only tilts up or down makes it useless for vertical compositions at high or low angles. Why fully articulated screens aren’t a standard feature on all cameras I do not know.
Google Pixel 2: 12 megapixels (4032×3024), 24 mm, Apr 2018 – present
I never thought I’d see the day when I used the camera on my phone as a genuine photographic tool. (After all, the camera on my previous phone – a Moto G – was beyond awful.) But that day is here thanks to Google’s foray into computational photography. And now with the recent (Oct 2018) upgrade to including an equivalent raw file (DNG format), this camera has firmly established itself as one I can trust to get a good photo. It still astonishes me that I don’t have to think about exposure when taking a photo – the vast majority of the time it gets it just right. Auto white balance is mostly good, though one issue I have with the default camera app is that it’s not possible to set a white balance that’s remembered every time the app is started. The HDR facility is also mostly pretty good, though it sometimes results in artificially blue skies. Hopefully once I have the ability to process the raw files I’ll be able to deal with that.
Add in the fact that the phone is weather-sealed, and this is an excellent camera for hiking in the Vancouver area.
Digital SLR/Mirrorless ILC
Nikon D5000: 12 megapixels, 4288×2848, Jul 2009 – Aug 2018
Our first digital SLR, and one we waited far too long to get. As soon as we bought it and realized the leap in image quality over compact cameras we began to kick ourselves for not buying an SLR sooner. Really, any SLR would have been better than the compact camera we had. (That remains true today, though cameras such as the Sony RX100 series offer more of a challenge.) However, it did take us about 2 years to really begin to get the most from this camera, and then a further year or two before we began processing our photos from raw to gain that extra flexibility. Make no mistake; processing from raw is not a panacea, it will not rescue a poorly-exposed photo, and it takes a significant investment of time to get a good feel for the process.
The camera came with a standard 18-55 mm (F3.5-5.6, 27-82 mm 35-mm equivalent) lens which is surprisingly good, if easy to break (as might be expected for consumer-grade gear). We bought a 55-200 mm (F4.5-5.6; 82-300 mm equivalent) telephoto at the same time so that our overall range was equivalent to 28-300 mm, enough for landscapes and wildlife.
Alas this camera is now out of commission after suffering a shutter failure. It served us very well, and in many ways I’m going to miss it.
Nikon D3200: 24 megapixels (6016×4000) Dec 2012 – present
As with the D5000, we waited far too long to buy this camera to give us a twin SLR setup. And what a bargain – a modern, high-resolution digital SLR for about $500. For several years we had a superb 36″x12″ print above our TV from this camera. Now, it’s not all roses as there are several things about this camera we don’t like, but the pros mostly outweigh the cons. We bought a Sigma 10-20 mm (F4.0-5.6; 15-30 mm equivalent) ultra-wide lens before our trip to Lake O’Hara in August 2013 and it’s pretty much permanently attached to this camera as it’s Maria’s favourite lens.
On the plus side, it has the image quality you’d expect from an SLR, it’s light weight and compact for an SLR (though the Sigma 10-20 mm adds a fair bit of weight to it).
On the down side, it has a tendency to overexpose quite significantly (we keep the exposure compensation at -0.3 at all times), and when coupled with the Sigma 10-20 mm lens, it suffers from a distinct magenta cast under certain lighting conditions (along with a hue shift in the yellows). For the most part, these can be corrected quite easily when processing from raw. Perhaps most annoying is that many of the controls are reversed from the D5000, including the position of the zoom in/out buttons and the direction of the exposure compensation. Weird. It’s also finnicky when it comes to focus, and there have been times when the camera has been confident of its focus, only for the final image to show up as out of focus. However, some of that may have been down to the lenses we were using as we’ve since got another 18-55 mm kit lens and it seems to be fine.
But we wouldn’t give up a twin SLR setup (or equivalent) for anything now. :-)
Canon EOS M50: 24 megapixels (6000×4000) Dec 2018 – present
Our newest addition! My quest for something lighter and more compact led me back to Canon. I’ll add more here when I have something to say about it!
Compact cameras are easy to carry. They’re light, compact (naturally!), and are easy to sling over a shoulder in a small carrying case. Indeed, for the longest time this is exactly all we needed to do. With the advent of the S3IS we had to get a larger case although even that was okay to sling over a shoulder with a day pack. For overnight trips I attached it to the side of my pack, which was fine for carrying it but not so good for quick access. We had a small case that fitted the RX100II, handed down from earlier compact cameras, until the zip broke. Now we’ll often attach it via the capture clip (see below) or I’ll put it in a jacket pocket.
SLRs are more problematic. For many years we carried them in a case on a sling that sat across our middles. But they’re bulky, they move around, and get in the way when scrambling or otherwise moving through confined areas. The upsides are that the cameras are easily accessible, and the bags often come with their own rain cover for protection. Then there are the extra lenses to carry. We’ve always put them in separate cases which usually end up on the outside of either of our packs.
However, the bulkiness of the camera bags finally wore me down and I when I read about the Peak Designs capture clip in early 2018 I just had to get one. Well, two actually – one each of course! We’ve used them on all our hikes since July 2018 and while they’re not perfect, they make carrying cameras extremely easy. Despite their relatively insubstantial appearance, they have proved to be extremely sturdy.
My one reservation is that they’re a little bit narrow for the straps of overnight packs, so they end up sitting lower than I think they should. As a result the clip digs in to my upper arm if I bring my arm across in front of me. Not a show-stopper, but it can get annoying, and I do end up with a small red mark on my arm after an extended trip. Also be aware that they are not cheap: $90 in Canada! A disadvantage of using this clip with our RX100II is that the screw-in plate covers the battery and SD card compartment, which means I have to remove that plate before changing cards or batteries, or copying photos to my laptop. A minor nuisance, and it’s more a fault of the camera than the clip.
Confession time. We almost never use a tripod. It’s just too much extra bulk to carry on a trip. However, we do have a small Joby Gorillapod that I attach to the outside of my pack which gets pressed into service for those rare occasions we photograph the night sky. It’s okay I guess but it has a tendency to settle or drift sometimes, especially with our telephoto lens attached. Also the rounded feet are not good on ground that has any kind of vegetation which tends to spring back when the tripod and camera are placed on it, or on icy snow where the feet slip easily. My tip for using it: work out the best positioning for it with the camera on, then leave it in place for a minute or two to settle. Only then start taking photos, and use a remote release where possible.
We bought a decent entry-level tripod in 2019, a Manfrotto Element Traveller Small. It is indeed small and quite light, and is sturdy enough for lighter cameras such as ours, but it does have one downside: the centre column cannot be collapsed, so the camera is always on a potentially wobbly support. However, in practice, the tripod has proved to be quite stable (with a 10 second timer). The wobble does show up when manually focussing the 55-200 mm lens on our M50, which can make it tricky to see when the lens is properly focussed, but with a little patience, it can be handled.