International Mountain Guides Climbing and Mountaineering Expeditions

Best Cameras for Mountaineering, Trekking, & Safari

 

 

Camera Suggestions for your IMG Expedition

by Adam Angel (see his photography at Kalakora.com)

If there is one thing common to all of our trips, it's that we want to share the experience with others when we return home. Sometimes the only way to articulate even a smidgeon of the experience is through your photographs. It's hard to imagine more exciting places to take pictures than on one of our trips in the most spectacular places on the globe. So, how can you maximize your ability to share the experience? Read on!

Snapshot

For those short on time, here's the quick list of recommended Point-n-Shoot cameras:

  • Sony DSC-RX100 III: This is the most pocketable camera that captures RAW files.
  • Fuji X30: Not as pocketable as the above camera, but the most robust build, with jaw dropping image quality for a camera of this size and price. The manual zoom is a huge battery saver in cold conditions! (My personal choice.)

The Right Place. The Right Camera.

You've spent a year training for your climb. You've bought the gear, hired the right guide, taken time off work, bought plane tickets AND you want a great new camera to capture the whole experience. The options these days are numerous and constantly in flux. By the time you read this article, new cameras will be released and others taken out of production. This is an exciting time to be a photographer, and your climb will no doubt provide many opportunities for dramatic images. It was the mountains after all that led me to photography in the beginning. So, what are my recommendations?

If you are reading this my guess is that image quality is paramount for you. In the past this absolutely meant bringing along a Digital-SLR with interchangeable lenses. These cameras have large sensors and are easy to operate even with gloves on. They also capture RAW files for maximum quality output. The ability for a camera to capture RAW files is absolutely necessary if you want to produce high quality images. There are volumes and volumes of books, as well as workshops, that focus on processing your camera's RAW output for optimum results. Luckily there are a few "point-and-shoot" and compact interchangeable lens cameras available now that produce RAW files. A camera with the ability to shoot RAW comes at a premium though. These cameras will cost a little more than the basic point-and-shoot cameras available today. It is worth mentioning that you pretty much get what you pay for when it comes to cameras and camera accessories. If you are serious about high quality images then spending as much as you are comfortable with is probably a good idea. Even if you don't know how to work with RAW files, you can set the camera to capture regular jpeg images and RAW files simultaneously. That way if you get "the shot," you can have a high end printer process and work the RAW file with you for output in a professional environment.

To get a camera that captures RAW files, you will be looking at high-end point-and-shoots such as the Fuji X30 or the Sony RX100 III. The latest trend is compact mirror-less cameras with interchangeable lenses, which are smaller than D-SLRs but are still bulky. This category is not "pocketable." Their great benefit is their discreetness. If you are exploring the streets of Lhasa, or visiting with the Maasai, it is far more tasteful to aim a small lens at them than your giant "tourist" lens. The last option is to bring a Digital SLR with interchangeable lenses. While a D-SLR will provide you with the best possible image quality, you aren't going to get that many shots if the large camera is living in your backpack. I usually carry a D-SLR, but it is very liberating to travel light, and the new cameras that I mentioned above do a very good job. I can't overstate the importance of bringing a camera that you can actually use. With a high end point and shoot, you will be able to keep the camera in a jacket pocket and shoot with one hand, so that the other hand can still participate in your primary activity of the moment... CLIMBING. As an added bonus to having it handily parked in a jacket pocket, the battery will stay warm and last quite long.

In conclusion, you can't beat the price and image quality of an intro level D-SLR, but they are big. I can tell you that the climber with the most simple kit and the lightest pack on the mountain will have more fun than the others, and today's new RAW capture point-and-shoots are just the ticket that we have been waiting for! Have fun, climb safely, and bring back some great images!

Batteries

Before every long trip into the high cold mountains, I obsess over how many camera batteries to take and how to charge them. It would be wonderful if all cameras took common AA batteries, but they do not. You can typically find a few cameras on the market that use standard batteries, but they are invariably low-end cameras. Bottom line, you are going to chew through batteries proprietary or not. So get the camera you want and figure out your batteries second. Any of the cameras recommended here use a rechargeable Li-ion battery. This type of rechargeable battery holds its charge much better than the old NiCD and NiMH batteries.

All batteries have an optimum operating temperature. A typical camera battery operates and charges best at approximately 70°F. Recharging Li-ion batteries at below freezing temperatures may even damage the battery. Battery capacity (amp-hours) is reduced as temperatures drop. That's a big deal when you are on the mountain. The good news is that rechargeable batteries stored at cold temperatures discharge more slowly, so you will have optimum storage conditions.

Read your manual
The manual for a Canon 5D II camera says to expect 850 shots out of each battery at 73°F and 750 shots at 32°F. If I bring enough memory cards for 2000 pictures then I know that 3 cold batteries will suffice. Most of the time this is a far better option then fiddling with a solar charger and hoping for good weather, etc. Larger batteries such as those in the 5D II are more impervious to the cold than smaller batteries. The much smaller Fujifilm X30 recommended above states that each battery should provide approximately 300 shots per charge. While the larger 5D batteries lose over 10% of their capacity at freezing temperatures, I anecdotally plan on a 20% loss with the smaller batteries. So the X30 battery should be good for about 240 shots at 32°F. Colder than that, do the math...

Even when trekking in an area with frequent charging stations, I have a least 3 batteries for each camera system. I will often bring 6. Discuss your charging options with the trip director, as the variation between destinations is huge!

Some tricks of the trade:

  • The larger the battery, the better.
  • Charge your batteries at the absolute last minute before you hit the trail.
  • Use your optical viewfinder whenever possible.
  • Turn down the brightness of the LCD if you can.
  • Use manual zoom cameras instead of motorized zooms.
  • Set the auto-off functions and LCD preview times to their shortest settings.
  • If you bring a small solar charging system, call the company and give them your battery specs. Ask them exactly what to expect from the system. It's often not as impressive as you might think! You can purchase a lot of batteries for the price of a good charging system.
  • If you don't remember anything else, remember this: "Store them cold, use them warm."

What's in my bag?

"Light is right." That holds true for making great images of your travels as well as for making the journey itself enjoyable. There are no stores where you are going, so everything that you need must be acquired and packed in a simple and light setup. If you are able to do this you will be able to move, adapt, anticipate, and have a good time. Keep it simple and clean. Don't think of this as a shopping list, but as a guide.

For climbs like Rainier this is what I bring:

For trips like Kilimanjaro, and treks in Nepal and Tibet, I'm not carrying as much gear on my back, so I add the following to my daily walking kit:

  • Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L Lens
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS Lens
  • Singh-Ray Vari-ND (Variable Neutral Density Filter)
  • Canon Speedlite 580EX II flash with an "off camera" cord or wireless transmitter.
  • Gitzo GK1580TQR5 Series 1 Traveler 6x Carbon Fiber Tripod
  • LiteDisc Circular Reflector, White Opaque/Silver, 22" or Photoflex LiteDisc Circular Reflector, White Translucent, 22" for use with off camera flash Lowepro Outback 200 Modular Beltpack

Which Camera for the Serious Photographer on Kilimanjaro and Safari

"Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater." Even to those who have never experienced these places, these names summon pictures in our minds. Maybe it was an image from and old National Geographic magazine that you perused as a kid. It could be of the extraordinary people, the unparalleled wildlife, or the shear magnificence of the world's tallest free-standing mountain, rising to a commanding 19,341 feet. Whatever the case, your challenge is to articulate the experience to the folks back home. Photography will surely play a part in the story you are about to tell.

The Extremes You Will Encounter
On Kilimanjaro all equipment has to be carried, either on your back or on somebody's head. It also needs to withstand the elements. On Safari, you will enjoy spacious Land Cruisers and deluxe accommodations; you can bring the kitchen sink. As you can imagine it can get tricky when deciding what to bring and how to pack it. When I travel to Tanzania I travel with one large camera backpack that is the maximum allowable size for the airlines. All of my camera gear for the trip can fit in this one bag. The only extra piece of photo equipment that I bring is the lightweight camera bag that I climb with on my waist. It goes in one of my checked duffels. The large camera backpack goes with me during all transit and on safari.

Equipment for Kilimanjaro:
  • Camera Body: Any Digital SLR will do. I have my preferences, but in a constantly changing field of options, the one constant is "you get what you pay for." Take your time to research the cameras currently on the market, and spend as much as you are comfortable with. The only buyers remorse I've ever seen is when people realized that they should have bought the next model up. Factors to consider in no particular order are focusing speed and accuracy, sensor size, megapixels, ease of use, and build. In the incredibly dusty safari vehicles having two camera bodies can be fantastic. Not only will the lion not wait while you change lenses, but it will keep your camera sensor and lens interiors clean. Every time you change lenses you subject your camera innards to all types of nasties.

  • Lens(es) and flash:
    • For the climb, I carry one constant aperture zoom lens with a range of 24mm to 105mm. Occasionally, if I'm feeling strong, I'll also bring a constant aperture zoom of 16mm to 35mm. We climb through varying zones with different aspects on the mountain and a powerful flash can help deal with some of the challenging lighting situations that you will encounter on the journey.
    • On safari I carry constant aperture zoom lenses in the telephoto range. If you can afford it, 500mm is a nice amount of reach for safari. There are many highly affordable lenses in the 300mm to 400mm range. My typical set up in the vehicle is one camera with a 70-200mm lens or a 100mm-400mm, and another camera with a 500mm lens. Some photographers choose to use flashes during safari to make catch lights in eyes, etc. I choose not to.

  • Tripod and Bean Bags: Tripods are an essential tool for creating a well thought out composition and capturing sunrises/sunsets on the Kilimanjaro climb. On safari you can use a bean bag on the roof of your vehicle. On the climb, in lieu of a cable release, you can use the timer to prevent camera movement.

Frequently Asked Questions

Have a question about mountain photography that hasn't already been addressed? Contact Adam:  This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need javascript enabled to view it

Q:  Can you recommend a new camera for the Nepal Trek that won't blow out the snow-capped mountains?  [+/-]

December 2011

QUESTION:  Hi, I have a question about the trek to Everest Base Camp. I am looking at getting a new camera as my current point and shoot Canon seems to filter out the snow peaked mountains. Do you know what others have used? I was looking at the new mirrorless cameras, but realize they are bulky compared to a point and shoot, though smaller than a traditional DSLR. I figure I will need to keep batteries warm no matter what camera I use, but did not know if one camera does better than others and if there is a one more predominate than others. I am not a professional photographer, but would like some nice shots.

—Jan   

ANSWER:  Good questions! For a trip like this, it's definitely worth while to get the best camera you are willing to spring for. Yet, while a better camera is capable of producing much better images, the metering systems are the same at their core. So even the nicest camera out there is going to "blow the mountains out." It really comes down to understanding exposure. Gauging by the cameras you listed, you are looking at a nice tier of cameras. The new compact mirrorless cameras with APS-C sensors produce results equal to entry level DSLRS. However, by the time you put a lens on, the lens bulk negates the small size of the camera body (in my opinion). If you are looking for the best bang for your buck, a camera such as the Canon T3i is half the price of the NEX 7 and produces better image quality. I would highly recommend looking at the T3i and putting the price difference into a good lens(es).

Yes the DSLRs are a bit heavier, but the entry level cameras such as the one above have a polycarbonate body which isn't very heavy. They are also infinitely easier to operate with gloves on.

This is a nice "one lens" option for that camera.

By the time you buy those together you could get the camera that is "one step up" from the T3i for a few dollars more by getting this Canon EOS 60D kit.

A camera with a viewfinder is worth considering. You will save a lot of battery life by using the LCD as little as possible. That being said, the new LCD coatings that come standard on any good camera make it perfectly easy to see in any light. AND the LCD won't fog up and frost up like a viewfinder can. The limiting factor these days (to varying degrees) is the angle of the screen when you are wearing polarized sunglasses!

Lastly, any cameras worth their salt are going to use proprietary batteries, so you'll be stuck with that. I bring three batteries, and charge them at any chance I get. Also bring lots of memory cards!!!! The last thing you want to do over there is ration your memory cards.

Of course if you decide to stick with the point-n-shoot cameras. I would recommend the following, in order of my preference. I've owned them all at one point or another. I currently like the Fujifilm X10 a lot!

—Adam Angel   

Q:  How do I keep my SLR clean and dry on the Kilimanjaro Expedition? Also which mid-price graduated ND filters do you recommend?  [+/-]

January 2012

QUESTION:  I would like to bring my SLR along on my upcoming Kilimanjaro trip. I was wondering if you could make recommendations on keeping it clean and dry. Up till now I've just been using a dry sack and storing it in my pack when the weather is nasty, but I assume there are some other tricks you can play to have easier access? I'm also looking to pick up a set of graduated ND filters (I think I'd like 3 at 1, 2, and 3 stops) and was wondering if you had a recommendation. My typical approach is to buy somewhere in the middle of the price range, not the cheapest and not professional grade. I'm interested in a slide-in setup so it can be transferred to different lenses. Could you give a quick recommendation? Thanks!

—Chris   

ANSWER:  Chris, I carry my camera in the previous generation of this bag: bhphotovideo.com...Lowepro_LP36077_PEU_Outback_200

If it starts pouring, I either tuck it under my poncho or gore-tex parka, or remove the side pouches and stuff it in my backpack until the rain subsides. I wear it on the front so it doesn't interfere with my pack.

Lowepro also makes some chest mounted bags, which look pretty nice for super active stuff. I personally think it's threatening to have a bunch of gear in a subjects face when taking their picture, so I opt for a bag that rides a little lower and out of the way when approaching people.

There are other bags available with rain covers, etc. but I haven't used them. The one above has lasted me YEARS!

I have the sing-ray split ND filters with a Cokin P filter holder and adapter... Don't know about any of the other brands in terms of quality. Sing-ray created that market way back when. The method these days is to hand hold the filters and forego the filter holder. It reduces vignetting, saves and buck or two, and isn't lens dependent. I don't really use them anymore. I'd put your money into lenses.

—Adam Angel   

International Mountain Guides expedition photo
It was an amazing moment in my life to reach the summit, and we were so blessed by the clear weather (which made for great pictures!)
~Gary G. (Cho Oyu)
International Mountain Guides expedition photo International Mountain Guides expedition photo International Mountain Guides expedition photo
Well the trip was everything I hoped for and more! I definitely picked the right company to fulfill my dream... I was so blessed to have found IMG. I could go on and on and share with you many stories, but maybe after I get my pictures done, I'll send one to you of my happy face with the big smile!
~Tom F. (Nepal Trek)
International Mountain Guides expedition photo International Mountain Guides expedition photo
Bolivia was absolutely beautiful, and felt pretty untouched by the rest of the world in a lot of ways. I was able to see another country, meet some great new climbing partners, and also accomplish some cool things for myself. I climbed higher and camped higher than I have before and did some really challenging climbing along the way... I look forward to more excellent adventures with IMG!
~Mary H.
International Mountain Guides expedition photo
 
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