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Camera Selection Basics for the Lightweight Backpacker

Features for a lightweight backpacker to look for in a digital or film camera.

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by Franco Darioli | 2006-07-04 03:00:00-06


Cameras For Lightweight Backpackers - 2
The author holding a Pentax WPi. The WPi is a rugged all-weather camera with a moderately fast 38-114mm (35mm equivalent) / F3.3-4.0 fully enclosed lens.

Amazing! Having turned the last corner out of a dense forest, you are facing a magnificent little lake that is reflecting some glorious peaks on top of it. You are overwhelmed by the incredible beauty. Now it is time to relax, set up the tent and prepare dinner; it just does not get better than this!

As you smile to yourself, the desire to freeze the moment in time comes to mind. Pity, you do not have a camera. You have pondered getting one but they are either too heavy and too big or they don’t shoot quality pictures. Well, fortunately you are wrong. Maybe that was the case, but now there are several choices for the lightweight backpacker and even some for the ultralightweight backpacker.

When looking for a good camera, what items should you consider? To start with, the camera should be able to take pictures that will not only be of good quality in the standard size print of 4x6 inch, but also up to at least an 8x10 and worthy of a frame and wall space in your favorite location.

Another desirable requirement is some “weatherproofness,” better still, waterproofness. Battery types and their expected life should also be examined. I do not believe in absolute “best” in a camera; in the end, you will have to decide according to your particular preference.

I will divide the different options available into three categories:

  1. One-use (disposable) film cameras
  2. Compact film cameras
  3. Compact digital cameras

(Note: camera model names and numbers can vary wildly across the globe for identical models. Wherever possible we’ve included both US and overseas nomenclature.)

One-Use Cameras

Cameras For Lightweight Backpackers - 3
Disposable cameras are available from many camera manufacturers. FujiFilm's QuickFlash is shown here.

Tip: There are also some “panorama” types available. Check the focal length in millimeters, the lower the number the better. Standard on a compact is 35mm, 28mm is wider, and 17mm is the widest of this type. (Note that the panorama effect is created by masking off parts of the top and bottom of a standard 35mm negative.)

One-use cameras are available from most film suppliers, Fuji/Kodak/Agfa, and generic brands. Look at the weatherproof type for an extended trip, or simple non-flash standard type for a day trip.

There are also “digital” one-use cameras that provide prints and a photo CD as part of the processing.

Pros: Inexpensive to buy and you are not out much money if you damage or break them. Also, very important to the lightweight backpacker, they are very light. 4.5 to 5.3 ounces (130 to 150g).

Cons: Image quality is only good enough for a standard size print; they have a fixed lens and no exposure or focus settings, so are generally restricted to fair weather use. If you think you’ll want more pictures than the camera holds, you’ll have to bring a second camera, limiting the weight and bulk advantages.

Compact Film Cameras

With the advent of digital cameras the range of available film cameras has been reduced dramatically. But the good news is that they have also gone down in price and there are some real winners left. Star performers are the Olympus Stylus/MjuII, the Kyocera (Yashica) T4 and the Canon A1. Some of these cameras will be hard to find.

Pros: Very affordable, choice of high performance, low light lens (Olympus Stylus Epic) or mini zoom, auto focus and auto exposure for sharp and well-exposed negatives or slides. Generally they have good battery life.

Cons: You do not know what the results will be until the film has been developed and printed. Because of this, some shots will translate into wasted money and time and others will never be captured.


oz (g)
Canon A111.29 (320)133x88x53CR12324032mm / F3.5Waterproof/Grade 7*. Great for tough environment
Minolta Explorer EX / Riva 758.9 (255)121x66x44CR12330028-75mmGood wide to tele zoom
Nikon 100w7.76 (220)115x65x41CR12335028-100mmVery light for a 3.5x zoom film camera
Olympus Mju II/Stylus in U.S.5.29 (150)108x59x37CR12328035mm / F2.8Weatherproof/Grade 4*, bright sharp lens
Pentax Espio 24EW7.3 (215)113x62x45CR235024-105Widest wide angle available. Expect darker and softer edges
  *Refers to the Japanese Industry Standard (see the sidebar on Weatherproof Grades for more details).
 **A very approximate number for the number of shots the camera can take before its batteries are exhausted.
***The first value describes the lens focal length or range of focal lengths if it is a zoom lens. The second value is the lens' maximum aperture represented by the F-Number.

Compact Digital Cameras

Here we have a huge range of choices, but the standards we are using of size, weight and weatherproofness reduce the choice to a much smaller number. A digital camera is a rather fragile piece of equipment. Water, condensation, dust, and sand are the enemies, so some sort of weather protection is very important for the typical outdoor user.

Tip: To save battery life on multi day hikes, avoid chimping. Chimping: The act of reviewing one’s pictures and emitting oh, oooh sounds.

Use power save mode.

Avoid consecutive flash shots, give the battery time to recover.

Turn off the sound effect mode. On my Pentax WPi I get at least another 50 shots by foregoing the shutter noise and various other amusing but power hungry sounds.

Cameras For Lightweight Backpackers - 4
The Ricoh GR-1 is a tough, fixed focal length - 28mm (35mm format equivalent), fast, weather resistant camera.

Another major consideration is the type and the capacity of the battery used. Digital cameras either use standard AA or AAA batteries or proprietary Lithium-Ion batteries. The former are easy to acquire anywhere and come in non-rechargeable (alkaline or lithium) and rechargeable (Nickel Metal Hydrate, NiMH). The latter are typically camera specific, rechargeable, higher capacity, and only available through specialty stores. The single greatest advantage cameras that use standard batteries have is that you can purchase replacements quite easily. However alkaline batteries - which are what you will most readily find - are fairly low capacity and will not yield as many photos. Recharging standard size batteries in the field may be easier too with the use of a solar charger, but this of course adds significant weight. Proprietary batteries are harder to recharge, cost more, but are typically considerably more powerful.

Many digital cameras will tout their water and weatherproofness. There are relatively few waterproof cameras that can actually tolerate immersion. For example, the Olympus Mju/Stylus is weatherproof (JIS Grade 4) which means it can tolerate splashed water and dust particles 1mm and larger. While the Pentax Optio Wpi, possessing a JIS grade 8 rating, can be submerged for up to 30 minutes in water up to a depth of 4.9 feet (1.5m). Another practical choice to improve the weatherproofness of your digital camera is a compact digital camera with a waterproof housing. There are two types of waterproof covers. A thin and relatively light (about 5.3 ounces/150 grams) waterproof case to about 9 feet (3m) or a heavier (around 9 ounces/250 grams) and larger housing waterproof to 100-130 feet(30-40m). The former is available for the Sony L1, T7, S60 and 90, also for the Olympus Verve/Mju Mini. The latter can be had for most of the models by the top brands.

Pros: Instant gratification, point/shoot and review, don’t like it? Delete and shoot again. Choice of functions and zoom range.

Cons: Startup cost (camera, spare battery, memory card).


The following is a list of some of the latest digital still models. There are several hundred on the market. This list focuses on what I consider backpacker friendly cameras.

oz (g)1
Canon Powershot A5208.5 (240)91x64x38AAx235-140mm4Great value for money
Casio EX-Z556.7 (190)87x57x23NP40 Li35-105mm5Great battery life, winner of the Camping Camera 2005 award
Fujifilm F106.7 (190)92x58x27Li-Ion50036-108mm6Long battery life. Best in low light. Largest CCD
Nikon Coolpix 56006.7 (190)85x60x35AAx234-102mm5Another one for the long trail
Olympus Stylus 720 SW5.3 (150)95x56x20Li-Ion37-114mm7Waterproof to 3m (9ft); Shock proof
Olympus Stylus Verve/Mju Mini4.5 (130)95x55x27mmli 30b35mm-70mm4Weatherproof /Grade 4*
Panasonic DMC FX015.5 (155)94x51x24Li-Ion27028-102mm6Widest angle+16:9 capture and playback. Great for that HD TV screen
Panasonic DMC FZ512.0 (340)108x68x85CGA S002E36-432mm5Very small for a 12xzoom. Close to SLR performance. Includes optical stabilizer
Panasonic DMC LZ28.11 (230)101x64x33AAx220037-222mm5Compact for a 6x zoom with optical stabilizer (anti-shake)
Pentax Optio WPi4.8 (135)102x51x22DL1838-114mm6Waterproof/Grade 8*, Silicon skin now available for a better grip
Ricoh GR Digital7.1 (205)107x25x58Li-Ion28mm fixed8Solid construction, high quality wide lens, low noise
Ricoh R2/Rollei Dr57.1 (200)100x55x25Li10 / AA400 with Li1028mm-135mm5Wide angle lens/ can use 2x AA Batteries
Sony DSC L14.94 (140)95x44x25Li NPFT124032-96mm4Small and light, with an extra battery you could do a multi week walk
Sony S909.2 (260)108x52x26mmAAx240039-117mm5Heavy, but great colors and long battery life with 4x spare AA Li you can do all of the AT
*Refers to the Japanese Industry Standard (see the sidebar on weatherproof grades for more details).
1Weight does not include battery and memory card. Save weight with AA batteries by using the lithium type.
2Number of shots is according to CIPA standards.
3Lens size is presented as its 35mm equivalent, e.g., a 50mm focal length is standard, a 25mm would be twice as wide and a 100mm twice as long (the subject would appear twice as far or twice as close).

Cameras For Lightweight Backpackers - 5
Olympus continues to improve the Stylus camera line with the waterproof (to 9 feet / 3 meters) 720SW.

Most of the above models are available as 3 or 4 megapixel (mp) or 4 and 5mp versions. With some, the higher mp version has a larger screen or better battery performance.

Digital cameras have a very short product lifecycle and are replaced quickly. The above list is only a guide highlighting some of the best of each type, see the “other” column for the reason.

The Pentax WP has been replaced by the WPi, same camera but with a 6MP sensor from the current 5mp,

The Olympus Verve is now the Verve S, from 4 to 5MP, also see the Stylus 800, which is a bit bigger and heavier but 8MP.

Battery Performance

Digital Cameras - what is mAh? mAh stands for MilliAmp hour. This is a capacity rating telling you how much power a particular battery has. A higher mAh means the battery should hold a charge longer, which means that you can take more photos before recharging. When using multiple batteries in a camera, make sure that their mAh values match.

Tips: Different camera brands and models have different power drain, so do not assume that the 800 mAh battery inside model X will last longer than the 600 mAh powering model Y. As an example, the same battery will deliver about twice the number of pictures when used with the Olympus Verve S compared to the Verve.

Sony, Casio and Ricoh have put a lot of effort into delivering more shots per charge. There is a standard established by the Japanese Industry Standard Association to guide us with the expected performance with each model. The test sequence is as follows: power up the camera, zoom out, take a shot with flash, zoom back, take another shot without flash, and switch off. Because of different habits and temperatures, in practice what you get will vary from this, or any other standard.

Generally speaking, for better performance avoid powering up the camera too often; better to keep it on for a couple of minutes than to switch it on and off. If you can, use the viewfinder and not the LCD screen and use the “power save” mode. Limit unnecessary zooming and flash use.

Battery Types Compared

AA and AAA
Cheap, easily availableThe disposable types are not exactly a “green” solution", bulky compared to many proprietary rechargeable batteries.
AlkalineCheapOne use and low power
LithiumVery light (about 2 ounces / 60 grams for four) About three times the power of the alkaline battery and has a very long shelf life, up to 10 years.More expensive, harder to find.
Lithium cells such as CR123, CRV3, 2CR5 and CR2 power many film and some digital cameras.
Long life, light weight.Can be difficult to find, expensive.
Rechargeable batteries offer the obvious benefits of many reuses and always being able to leave home with a fully charged battery. Few film cameras and most digital cameras use rechargeable cells. On longer trips, backpackers face carrying expensive extra cells or some way to recharge them in the field.
Ni-Cad (Nickel-Cadmium)-Not usable with most compact digital cameras, avoid them.
Ni-MH (Nickel Metal Hydride)Reusable (up to 500 charges), available in capacities from 1200 mAh to 2500 mAh (the higher, the better)High self-discharge rate, about 10% after the first 24 hours and 25% per month after that, so not recommended for long trips. No "memory."
Li-Ion (Lithium Ion)Small and light (some will give up to 500 shots per charge), have a relatively long life, have a self-discharge range of only about 5% overnight and 8% per month after that. No memory. Now available in AA and AAA size.Expensive and too many types (proprietary) makes them hard to find. Available from tiny 500 mAh to 1800 mAh - most cameras can only take one size.

Discontinued Cameras

There are a lot of very good but discontinued models out there. The shelf life of a digital still camera is now less than 1 year, keep in mind that newer is not always better. Here are some suggestions for some of the better discontinued models.

Film Camera
Contax T series
Minolta Riva
Olympus XA/XA2
Rollei 35T/S
Yashica T
Digital Camera
Canon Ixus /Powershot S-SD (various models)
Olympus Mju/Stylus (various models)
Sony U30/40/60 (Only 2mp but tiny. The 60 is waterproof. Great for 6 by 4 prints.)

For more details check these two excellent sites and

Tip: the lens size and coating is always a good indication of the quality of the results. A small mono-coated (bluish tinge) lens spells cheap.

As stated at the beginning of this article, there is no single best camera; you have to choose according to your own preferences. The brand is only important for after sales service, no single brand makes only good cameras, however there are a lot of No Brands that are sold on the Internet and in some shops that are best avoided. Do not buy by comparing numbers, I can show you better pictures from a 2MP than from some so called 10MP. The price is an indication, the look and feel of the item is another way to tell the quality. I very rarely see a cheap looking camera that takes sharp pictures.

None of the cameras that I have highlighted should disappoint; however, I suggest you handle and compare them before you buy. I started selling cameras when the Kodak 110 was the people’s choice and as bad as they were, they did give a lot of joy and preserved memories for most.

Now, go and buy a camera, return to that fantasy lake and freeze that magic moment. Happy shooting!

About the Author

Cameras For Lightweight Backpackers - 1
The author at Waterfall Valley in Tasmania. The Bennett's wallaby (Macropus Rufogriseus) is wild and common at this campsite.

Franco Darioli was born in 1955 in the Italian Alps. He did some hiking up to the age of 18 in elevations from 2500 to 7000 feet. He has worked in London, then New Zealand and Sydney, Australia. Since 1980, he has been living in Melbourne. He is the still digital and video buyer for a busy photographic shop and a regular contributor to the photographic section of the largest Melbourne newspaper. He has recently started hiking again and is gradually changing to lightweight gear, (e.g., from a Bibler Pinon to a Black Diamond Lighthouse to the TarpTent Rainbow and soon the TarpTent Squall Classic).


"Camera Selection Basics for the Lightweight Backpacker," by Franco Darioli. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2006-07-04 03:00:00-06.


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Camera Selection Basics for the Lightweight Backpacker
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Brian James
(bjamesd) - F

Locale: South Coast of BC
GR Digital on 08/24/2006 13:38:05 MDT Print View

DPReview has looked at the GR Digital and were apparently nonplussed... too bad as I was really looking for this to be an excuse to leave the SLR at home.