The Practical Climbing Camera
At a rough guess, I’ve owned over thirty cameras in my life, ranging from the plastic Argos budget models to the rubber-coated magnesium dream cameras, the kind you dreamed of one day owning as you flicked through the Argos catalogue aged fourteen. Unfortunately, I was not a careful owner, and most of these cameras either got smashed, got dropped and lost, or just died from the shock of general climbing abuse, sweat, dust, ice, thaw, heat, condensation, sand, impact, crushing, sometimes all of the above killing them stone dead.
These dead cameras covered the best that analogue could offer a climber, such as the Nikon FM3a (the follow on from the classic pro climbing FM2) and the Ricoh GR1 (used by just about every top climber in the 90s), the transitionary early crappy 3-megapixel digital models, right through to cameras like the Nikon D4x and Sony A7.
These cameras got used in some of the harshest locations on the planet, places where anything with a pulse, cardiac or electrical, soon died, and generally in conditions that were understood would kill the camera eventually, meaning on average I’d buy a new compact camera every two years, kind of viewing them as being disposable, the only real value the images they might contain or capture.
What all this means is that, although I’m not a professional photographer (I’d view someone like Martin Hartley as the pinnacle of that game), I have developed some ideas on climbing cameras that might be worth sharing, some obvious, some less so. And so I thought I’d break down these into a few parts (this being Part 1), covering compact cameras first, then stepping up from that, and from there maybe something about climbing photography in general (but we will see).
The Feature Tick List
Instead of making this a click-bate piece where I ‘review’ the top ten cameras (i.e., copy and paste what the manufacturer says and add some conjecture), I’ll start with what I look for when buying a climbing camera, the thoughts that go through my head before finally making the purchase. The following are in no particular order but rather what comes to mind as I write.
The modern lithium-ion battery revolutionised the world, giving stable, long-lasting, rechargeable power that does not die as soon as the temperature dips (the watch battery in an old Nikon manual camera also lasted for years, but only due to the camera having the same power consumption as that used to electrocute an ant).
Unlike range finder or DSLR cameras which can drain large batteries very quickly, the power consumption of a modern compact camera appears to be minimal. This means that with moderate use (avoiding using the flash or video, and constantly reviewing your images), a single battery can last for hundreds of shots or a week of climbing without replacement. Batteries are also cheap and grow cheaper the more you use them (pence per image), and I tend to always carry two spare batteries as you often get duds, so if your main battery dies, and you find your spare is a dud, you’ve got a backup. On longer trips, I will carry more, but no more than five, preferring to charge batteries instead from a secondary source (power pack). The reason for this is that if you have a high turn over of cameras you end up with tons of useless, defunct, expensive batteries sitting around in drawers, none of them fitting the next ‘updated’ camera you buy (car manufacturers make little money on cars, but lots on the spare parts for these cars, so maybe this is the same with Nikon, Canon, Sony etc?). A good quality power pack can recharge any batteries it’s given, but a camera battery can only charge one model of camera.
I’ll generally buy a mix of branded batteries and some none brand (Duracell for example) but reputable batteries as a backup. I try and write the date of purchase and a large letter with a Sharpie on all my batteries so I can identify which battery is which, making sure I do this on the side which faces the front (the lens) so the battery goes in the right way the first time.
One last note is it’s best to avoid storing your camera for long periods with the batteries inside, as it can often lead to damage to the terminals and corrosion (storing cameras and batteries in a zip lock bag or Tupperware box with some silica gel sachets to suck out the moisture is the best approach).
I’ll only buy a camera that can be charged directly via USB as I don’t want to be carrying around big bulky battery chargers, and it allows me to charge my camera anywhere I have power (a car, plane, power-pack, laptop, wall socket). On this subject, I tend to carry a double set of short length cables (15 cm) of each type of USB cable (mini and micro), bundled with a cable tie, and avoid cheap plastic cables that break in the cold, using nylon rap or silicone covered cables instead.
It’s much easier sighting through a viewfinder than your OLED or LED screen, especially in bright conditions or bad weather (you can protect the camera better). Plus I find it’s more stable. The power drain is also smaller compared to using a larger screen. Also, the large screens on cameras are easy to crack and break, which generally kills the cameras eventually if not repaired, so having a digital viewfinder extends the camera’s life.
For me, this is a vital feature that’s increasingly hard to find, but is more robust than a digital finder, with the downside being you’re unable to exploit all the cameras features (less important in a compact camera).
Wide Angle Lens
The war photographer Robert Capa’s view that “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is one that equally applies to climbing, that yes the views are nice, but it’s the people and the reportage quality that makes really strong images (landscapes are best left to medium or large format people). A 50 mm lens is considered a ‘normal lens’ as it produces a natural field of view (what you see through the viewfinder is the same as what you’d see through your eye), but a wide-angle lens gives a more realistic viewpoint, capturing the peripheral as well. Just as a long-focus lens brings everything close, a wide-angle pushes everything away, which means you have to get in closer to your subject, which creates more intimacy (I tend to find people with 200 mm lenses aren’t people-people as a result). This means on cramped belays and bivvies you can take photos that appear stepped back a little, with those first moves looking less close than they are. On a 35 mm sensor, a wide-angle lens ranges from 24 mm to 35 mm, and as a rule of thumb, 28 mm is the best and most common lens you’ll come across. A good quality wide lens also tends to be better in tougher shooting situations, the old maxim that your minimum shutter speed (to avoid blurring) is equal to your lens’ focal length (so 1/20 second with a wide-open 20 mm lens) meaning you can often sail closer to your camera’s exposure margin. A second factor is the point where everything is in and out of focus is also very narrow (compared to a telephoto lens), meaning anything beyond arms reach is always in focus (this is how a fixed focus lens works, infinity being very close), so focusing tends to be easier and faster (but at the cost of everything being in focus, so less arty ‘bokeh’ focusing unless you’re super close).
This is another biggy, and vital if you’re doing winter climbing or expeditions, as a button that’s too small or too recessed will be very hard to press. On the flip side, a button that is too easy to switch on can lead to the camera turning on when it’s in a pocket, which with a zoom lens can result in damage. On some old cameras, I would add a plastic flap that covered the button that could be flicked up with your thumb (this is really handy with Go-Pro cameras, which seem to switch on easily), but there’s little you can do with a camera with a recessed button the size of a match stick. You can sometimes use Sugru mouldable glue to slightly modify your buttons, but it’s best to get a camera that just strikes the best balance.
It’s vital that your camera has at least one point that allows it to be connected to you or its camera case via a lanyard. With many cameras, this will be a microscopic thread that will only take some crazy thin (and crazy weak) cord attached to a strap, but the better cameras should take 1 mm or 2 mm cord (tie this in a loop and attach cords to this).
One of the weakest links on any machine is its moving parts, and so on a camera, a zoom lens is its Achilles heel, something easily bashed or compressed and wrecked, as well as an ingress point for dust and moisture. Having generally always used fixed lenses on my cameras (primarily 20 mm, 35 mm and 60 mm Macro), I tend not to use the zoom feature on my compact cameras at all, as the more you magnify the worse the images tend to become unless you’re using a tripod. If I was doing a photoshoot of some climber on a wall then I’d want a zoom lens, but that’s not what a compact camera is designed for, and with a good quality 35 mm sensor you can generally get a good image from a cropped full-frame anyway. Again, unfortunately, the number of cameras with fixed wide lenses is limited as consumers are obsessed with zoom (like kids are with the number of gears on a bike).
The camera has to have a flash of course, but it can be very small and compact, and ideally one that pops up, as any exposed glass or thin transparent plastic is just something else to get broken. The camera settings must also allow the flash to be switched between auto, off and on, as well as slow shutter etc, as the flash tends to be of more use in bright sunlight than darkness. Again, in terms of power consumption, it’s best to have the flash switched off unless you yourself decide you want it on.
Waterproof VS Weather Sealed
First off, I’ve yet to find a camera to be truly waterproof unless it’s locked inside a big plastic diving housing, and all the waterproof cameras I’ve used have eventually succumbed to water ingress, usually saltwater corrosion in the battery compartment.
You also tend to find that the cost of making a bulletproof body, which is what waterproof compact cameras are, results in lower-end parts being put inside to hit the price point, and so they never get the quality of shots you’d get with a non-waterproof model of an equivalent price. What they do get however are the situational shots you’d never get with a camera ten times the price, that price meaning you’re reluctant to expose it to the mountain storm (and these are by their nature the best shots a climber can take).
Another factor here is it’s worth understanding that body moisture also plays a role in destroying a camera, especially if you’re carrying it within your layers, so again its ability to shirk moisture is a boon. For none waterproof cameras there is a spectrum of how resistant to environmental contamination they are, and a simple camera will always be better than a complex camera, the fewer points of ingress, buttons, dials, screens, and body seams, being critical. Most top of the range DSLRs features weather sealing, but not compacts (due to cost), so I tend to view waterproof cameras as simply sealed, and so ‘less vulnerable’ rather than ‘invulnerable’
One of the reasons why the iPod was better than the old Sony Walkman was that it could be slipped into any pocket and you’d not know it was even there, the same with the modern phone compared to the earlier models that looked like TV remotes, an iPhone so slim you can’t even tell if it’s in your pocket or not. For me, a compact camera is the same and has to be just that, compact, small and slim enough to fit inside a pocket, or between layers, or in the smallest pouch, without you noticing it’s there.
Many compact cameras do not fit these criteria, being more compact rangefinder cameras. A good example of this would be the excellent Canon G7 X. I’ve had a G10 and G16 in the past, which although solid performers, can only be used from a pouch, making them less flexible or suitable for cold weather use (pouches are good, but they add a few steps to the process of taking a shot that often results in shots not being taken at all).
For me, the ideal size of a camera is one that’s roughly the same as three iPhones stacked together. As an aside, it’s worth using a plastic label maker to create an email label and glue it to your camera somewhere (and also write your details on all SD cards), so if it’s dropped or lost you might end up at least getting your SD card back. This might sound like a tall order, but my wife once dropped a camera from The Nose on El Cap and then three years later, while on the road below El Cap, a couple came up to us and said “I think we found your SD card three years ago, it’s in our car” having recognised us from our photos!
Metal vs Plastic Body
A metal body tends to create a more compact and robust camera, although anything that would destroy a plastic camera would probably shake up the insides of a metal camera just as badly, the added skinniness makes such cameras easy to slip into pockets, pouches and down your jacket. But metal costs more than plastic, so again what’s on the outside does not reflect what’s on the inside. In cold weather, I find that moisture condenses worse on metal surfaces than plastic, and also sucks the life out of batteries faster, as well as your fingers and sometimes your cheek! In really cold weather I carry my camera in my pocket or around my neck and keep it in a thin DIY waterproof sleeve, like a camera condom, that stops body moisture from getting into the camera. When buying a camera check out how easy it is to handle it, how it grips, as super smooth cameras can be like juggling eggs, while more boxy designs are easier to handle. Sugru can be used to improve the handling of a camera somewhat, or go fully utilitarian and just add some skateboard grip-tape.
I find this a game-changer for climbing, making photos just that bit less blurry in low light, and also vital for shooting video that does not look like The Bourne Identity. The downside is that this adds to the drain on the battery, a problem with the early Sony A7 cameras.
One of my bugbears is sliding lens covers that stop working, most often due to getting sand and grit in their workings. This can result in covers that only partly retract sometimes, blocking part of the image. Getting a dust blower can sometimes clear the problem, but sometimes you just have to glue the diaphragm in place. I still think the old Olympus Mju and XA2 design, with a manual lens cover, worked well, being both solid and effective.
Getting a good photo in low light conditions (very common when the shit is hitting the fan!), comes down to having a high-quality sensor that becomes more and more sensitive to light as the amount of light hitting it is reduced (ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor), doing so in a way that avoids as much distortion as possible (noise). Having a camera that has a high ISO such as 2500+, as well as low (50), plus a fast lens (F2 or lower), and image stabilisation, means you can often achieve a photo that has more life and colour to it than you can see with your naked eye. The game-changer here has been the switch from CCD to CMOS sensors, and of these, I feel the Sony sensors stand out, with some models (such as the A7 range) being so good in low light you could consider them as night vision equipment.
For me, this appears low on my list for a reason, in that with even a medium quality well-established consumer camera - an AK47 camera - you can still get great photos that tell your story at a low cost, making the camera almost disposable (you can easily make several thousand pounds of profit from a hundred-pound camera). On the flip side, a state of the art, all singing and all dancing camera, the one all the nerds are talking about, is at the bleeding edge of innovation but you pay the price for this (and this cost is often not recouped in great overall performance).
I once did some training for the Discovery channel to a group of guys filming in Alaska in the winter. I told them to forget all their regular ways of working, to throw out their ideas that being a pro meant everything had to be on manual, and instead just work around everything being on auto. They all scoffed at this, but after we put them in an industrial freezer at minus thirty they soon changed their minds. Yes it’s great to have the shutter and aperture priority, manual exposure and focus, set custom white balance and ISO, but when the shit hits the fan you’ll not be doing any of this, and such complexity in your camera will just be dead money and more things to break. For me, the most important features (I tend to always shoot in Program so I can switch the flash on and off), is focus and exposure lock, and that’s it. Everything else is nice to have but also best left for your bigger camera.
Sound In And Out
: If you’re using your compact camera to film anything of any value, then having the ability to fit a mic to it and monitor the sound via your earphones is very handy (video is all about sound, not images). To fit a small external mic requires either a flush mount or the camera to be fitted into a camera cage (small rig etc). On the subject of sound, I superglue a circle of velcro over the tiny mic on my cameras so I can attach a mini patch of fur to act as a windbreak.
When you break a lot of cameras this becomes an important consideration, and for me, I’m always trying to strike a balance between practical functionality, performance, and the cost to me when the camera is broken. For example, in the last three years, I’ve bought two LUMIX DMC-FT30 cameras, one getting dropped off El Cap within a week, the other dying last year due to saltwater corrosion in the battery compartment. Of the pictures taken with those cameras, I’ve used several for slideshows, some for my blogs, and sent some to companies I work for to use, and so the investment of about £200 was a good one. But my Sony A7r II, which cost me about £1500 was broken before it ever made me any money or took any great photos (it was originally advertised as being very weatherproof, which it was not, and the overall build quality was not AK proof). For this reason, I tend to prefer medium-priced compacts, ranging from £200-£400, and will often try and pick up last year’s top compact at a reduced price when the new model appears.
Buying A Camera
I tend to buy all my cameras from the same shop (Harrison Cameras in Sheffield), while lenses I get a second hand (from the same guys or via eBay), as I think it’s important to draw on the knowledge of people you know and trust, and who know something about you and what you want a camera to do (taking pictures is more than taking pictures). Yes, going on websites and forums can be handy, but photography, like climbing, is full of elitists and extremists and impossible nerds and self-promoted experts, all of whose viewpoints can sometimes be found wanting. If you can find a climber who does what you do, and their photos look good, then their opinion is worth something. You can also contact people easily these days via Instagram and just say “hi dude, what compact camera do you use?”, and they might just reply (maybe ask if they bought it or got it free though!). Yes, it’s impressive and dedicated when someone has taken the time to spend days shooting colour tests in their garden and writing up fifty thousand words based on their forensic examination of the results, but that’s not going to tell you if the camera never works, like your mate’s camera, when the temperature dips below freezing.
So finding a good shop you can trust is important, then building up a relationship with them, showing them the shots you’ve taken, the places you’ve been etc. Also, don’t be embarrassed to take in your gloves or mitts when trying out cameras (can you switch it on with gloves on), or being a cheapskate and asking what’s the best camera on your budget. Remember that a good camera shop is just like a good climbing shop, the people within have forgotten more than you’ll ever know and are more than just till robots.
Always buy the best quality cards you can, Sandisk Extreme PRO SD UHS-II being one of the best, as they’re able to handle a lot of data quickly (vital if you’re writing big video files), something cheaper cards can’t do. Cards do stop working, meaning you can lose all your photos, so make sure you’re constantly saving them and uploading them to Google Photos. Size-wise, as cameras get better the file sizes go up and up, especially now we can film video, so big cards are ideal as long as you’re not lazy and never back anything up. SD cards that are not being used should be kept somewhere safe, and I keep all mine in a Peli memory card case (again I have this labelled my contact details). One thing to note, and something I’ve come across when switching from one brand of camera to another, is it’s best to use a new card with a new camera, or reformat an old card with a new camera. If you don’t do this you can come home and find all your shots are shit - not good.
What Camera To Buy?
So I’m guessing you’re more confused than ever at the moment and trawling through the cameras on the market just makes things even more complicated. And so I thought I’d list three cameras that I think are worth considering (getting the right kit is not about working out what you want to buy but what you don’t want to buy).
Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FT30
- Price: £120
- Weight: 144g
- Pixels: 16.1 MP
- Aperture: F3.9 - 5.7
- Focal Length: 25 - 100 mm (equivalent)
- Dimensions: 58.3 mm x 19.7 mm x 103.7 mm
This is a great cheap camera, and although it lacks many of the features I’d like, has enough features to be a stand out camera for the price. I’ve taken this camera up El Cap four times, dragged it around Africa, winter in the alps, sea kayaking, and lots of other places in between. The shots are never going to be National Geo standard, but the camera is robust enough to be pulled out and used in some seriously shitty shit. The waterproofing is only good to a few metres, so I’d view it as just weather-sealed, and make sure you grease the seals with O-ring grease and wash it in freshwater.
Canon IXUS 285 HS
- Price: £170
- Weight: 147g
- Pixels: 20.2 MP
- Aperture: F3.6 - 7
- Focal Length: 25 - 300 mm (equivalent)
- Dimensions: 99.6 mm x 22.8 mm x 58 mm
This is the current version of a well established classic climbing camera (Colin Haley was a big fan of the older ELPH 300 HS, the Canon US name for the IXUS range), its primary strengths being its low weight, slim size, simplicity and affordability. The camera’s slim profile makes it one of the best models for carrying in an inside pocket, so ideal for winter use.
Sony RX100 III
- Price: £500
- Weight: 290 g
- Pixels: 20.1 MP
- Aperture: F1.8 - 2.8
- Focal Length: 24-70 mm
- Dimensions: 101.6 mm x 58.1 mm x 41.0 mm
This was one of the best cameras I ever owned (it has since died), and one of the standouts is the quality of video it can produce, as can be seen in this little self-filmed video (Filmmaker Jen Randall was surprised at the quality you could get from a compact camera like this). The pictures are also excellent, and the camera hits a lot of my ideal features, with the main issue I had with it being a dodgy lens cover (which I had to glue in the end). I think what eventually killed this camera was dust/sand I got into the lens while climbing in Zion, and it was never quite the same again, but it still lasted about three years (which is quite good for me!).
RICOH GR III
- Price: £800
- Weight: 257g
- Pixels: 24.2 MP
- Aperture: F2.8
- Focal Length: 28 mm equivalent (fixed)
- Dimensions: 33.2 mm x 109.4 mm x 61.9 mm
Ricoh is sort of like the Saab of the photography world, a brand much loved by the architects of photography but pretty much unknown by anyone else (like a less wanky Leica). The GR III follows a long tradition of Ricoh cameras in that’s it’s an example of a camera where all the money has been spent on the inside, meaning what looks like something you’d buy from a vending machine, or get out of a cracker, is actually one of the best compact cameras on the market. If this is too much to shell out, then look out for the older GR II, which can be sometimes found for half the price.
As you can see, there is no such thing as a perfect camera, only, like I said, the best compromise.