April 5th, 2020

After dedicating the last two blog posts towards different types of lenses and which are best suited for the backpacking photographer, it seems appropriate to turn our focus now towards camera bodies.  Several years ago, limited options left little room for discussion on this topic.  However, recent advances in camera technology have opened the door to many alternatives for the photographer looking to work in the backcountry.

When looking at digital camera bodies for landscape photography, image quality is paramount to creating engaging and dynamic imagery.  For decades, this meant that if you wanted to come home with the goods, you needed to be shooting with a professional camera body, which was always recognizable due to their bulky frames and extra battery grip.  However, this conversation became much more interesting with the introduction of professional quality mirrorless cameras, surprisingly capable crop-sensor cameras, and even featherweight medium format setups.  

The most common adversaries in this space are DSLR's versus Mirrorless systems.  While most full frame Mirrorless Camera bodies are about a full pound lighter than comparable DSLR bodies, there are some other considerations to take into account.  If you shoot mirrorless, you will have to carry extra batteries with you, especially for trips lasting more than a couple of days.  Mirrorless systems rely on an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), so they drain their batteries anywhere between 2-3x faster than DSLR's in my experience.  Having to carry that many extra batteries just might offset the weight savings from a traditional DSLR.  With that said, certain DSLR bodies definitely are not made with backpackers in mind.  Cameras like Nikons new flagship model, the D6 weigh in at almost 3lbs, have a bulky build, and are made primarily for sports, editorial, and commercial photographers.  This is the sort of traditional camera build that most outdoor photographers are currently migrating away from.

A light (1.5lb) Nikon Z7 Camera Body gave me the flexibility to pack a lightweight 70-300mm telephoto lens in my kit during my summit of South Sister last Fall

One aspect that is often under-valued when people think about taking their camera into the backcountry is weatherproofing.  If there is any place that your gear will experience significant wear, it is the wilderness.  Camera's can be dropped, rained on, sand-blasted, or face extreme temperatures.  Your camera should have a solid metal-body build and have seals that are in good condition. Although I no longer shoot with a Pentax camera, I know that these bodies are some of the most well constructed weatherproof camera systems out there, and are definitely worth considering over more popular brands if you find yourself frequently shooting in rugged conditions. 

Being able to feel the quality of the seals, seams, and buttons on a camera before buying is one of the most underrated elements that should go into the purchasing decision of every camera.  While many cameras today are producing fantastic image quality, not all of them are built to last in harsh environments.  Sometimes, superb build quality far outweighs shaving a few ounces off your kit.  I have found the metal body, high quality rubber seams, and full-hand fitting size of the Nikon Z7 to be perfect for my needs.  The build quality gives me the confidence to put that tool through the wringer in the field.     

The rugged body of the Nikon D750 allowed me to carry my camera outside my pack over long stretches of rugged terrain in the Bolivian Andes

For professional photographers and even some amateur photographers over the years, shooting full-frame has been necessary to achieve high image quality. However, I have met many professional photographers, some who even shoot for National Geographic, that have migrated back to crop-sensor cameras. With the advances of modern camera technology, these cameras boast some significant advantages over full-frame systems. For example, the new Fujifilm X-T4 weighs in at just over a pound and produces image quality that rivals the top models of any big camera brand. The lenses for APS-C sensor camera systems are all quite a bit lighter too, meaning you could save 3-5lbs on a body and 2-3 lens kit.  Furthermore, if you find yourself frequently shooting tightly cropped scenes at long focal lengths, having the 1.6x crop factor on an APS-C sized camera body would allow you to carry much smaller lenses while achieving the same visual impact.  

While backpacking to Jade Lake in Washington, a 20-mile journey with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain in just the first 10 gruesome miles, paring down my camera gear was essential to keep my pack weight down

Just a couple of years ago, only a handful of the most committed and hardy photographers would have dragged a cumbersome Medium Format setup into the backcountry.  This is starting to change drastically, with some cameras that feel like they are really bridging the gap in price and size between DSLRs and traditional Medium Format image quality.  Cameras like the new FUJIFILM GFX 50R or Hasselblad X1D II 50C only weigh a fraction more than my Nikon Z7, and boast a larger sensor that reveals fantastic contrast, color depth, detail, and dynamic range.  While I have never shot with any of these cameras (or been able to afford them), it is worth introducing these as viable options for outdoor photographers in the coming years.  However, while the camera bodies themselves are featherweight, the medium format lenses are typically heavy prime lenses, which just might be the limiting factor, despite their superb image quality.  

Please let me know what you think about this topic in the comments below!  I would love to hear what camera systems have worked best for you.

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