I did a post about electronics for hiking here, with the conspicuous absence of the 800 lb gorilla in almost every hikers pack list, the camera. I know damn well that for all my non-blogging hiking friends (the lazy scum), bringing a camera is as important as bringing a tent. And for the wonderful blogging/hiking community the camera is both the capturer of memories and the peephole that allows our astonished audience (Hi!) to witness our rainy adventures through our eyes.
My camera lived outside the shadow of my surgical blade, a blade that without remorse carved the fat away from my pack-list, shaving grammes from tent, rucksack, clothes, sleeping bag alike. The camera laughed from its pedestal, immune because I want a camera with high image quality, tough construction that can shrug off the occasional shower or whack, and a manual mode. I did give the whole ‘phone as a camera’ thing a try at one point to save weight, but that just ended in a load of shitty high-res noisy JPEGs and me hating my 4S a little bit more. And the couple of waterproof digital compact cameras I’ve had tended to just take flat, boring pictures regardless of subject. So my rugged, heavy and fantastically fun Nikon D80 continued to scorn my attempts to cut-weight, like that racist South African ambassador in Lethal Weapon 3 scorned Danny Glover. When fellow hikers gasped at the leaden 600+ gramme D80 coupled to a 550 gramme Tokina 11-16mm wideangle, the camera smirked, lifted up its passport and sneered “Diplomatic immunity…”
“It’s just been revoked” quips the Olympus OMD-EM5.
This is the camera that finally persuaded me to quit DSLRs, and move to a relatively new, exploding format called micro four thirds (m43). My sad old worn D80 and all its lenses were sold and just about covered the cost of an OMD-EM5 and a handful of lenses, so financially it was an easy move. Let me give you a little quick background on why I went to m43. (BTW, any photos that aren’t of camera gear in this post were taken with the EM5).
DSLR is dead.
The DSLR has just totally and utterly dominated prosumer cameras for the last few years. Ever since the release of the Canon 300D and equivalent Nikon D70, people have started to realise that they can have a near-pro experience with one of these low-end DSLRs for a decent cost. I had the 350D and was amazed at how, with a nice lens, I could take excellent pictures with this tough, small, and modestly priced body. The progressive successors were better and better, cheaper and with greater resolution and then with excellent video capabilities. And today it’s impossible to go to anywhere populated by people with cameras, without seeing a very high ratio of DSLR to compact pocket cameras. They are immensely popular and have democratised photography in the same way Gutenberg democratised knowledge.
The software is also insanely customiseable, there seems not to be a button or a dial that cannot be reassigned to some other switch, and not a sub-sub-menu that cannot be brought instantly to screen with some shortcut. The abundance of clicky dials and function buttons (more can be added with independent actions if you pick up the battery grip) make manual mode a pleasurable, intuitive experience. Even the manual focus mode is a pleasure to use, a twist of the focus ring causes the EVF to show a 5x to 16x crop of the FOV, allowing for really fast, accurate manual focus. I should also briefly mention the vivid colour reproduction, low noise at high ISOs and the anti-shake sensor that allows shake free exposures at relatively slow shutter speeds.
Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 (Reviewed nicely here)
Michi briefly had the weather sealed kit lens (12-50mm F3.5-6.3, check out some nice pictures taken with full advantage of the weather sealing here), and by all accounts it seems like a decent jack-of-all-trades that would be perfect for hiking. However I’ve had bad experiences with kit lenses, and decided to go prime only with this camera. I went for a Panasonic 14mm F2.5 pancake (55g!), which is adorably small and dainty, and takes acceptable, fairly wide pictures, such as below at the wonderful Finnsvedsberget.
Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 (Review here)
Then I picked up the very hard to find Panasonic 25mm F1.4, (200g) which has just set up its home on my camera. With the m43 2:1 crop it turns into a ‘nifty fifty’, and if there was ever a lens that could steal my heart away from the Tokina 11-16mm that made my Nikon days so wonderful, it’s this piece of sexy (gl)ass. It is very, very difficult to take a boring picture with this fast lens. Feels great, fast focus and wonderfully sharp.
Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm f/1.8 (Reviewed here)
Finally I grabbed the lovely Olympus 45mm F1.8 (116g), which also manages to pull of pretty amazing pictures. Very easy to do the old razor sharp portrait with tons of blurry bokeh with this, and suitable also for recording a little bird-on-snake violence.
There are some niggles – because of the weather-sealing the buttons are a little… ‘squishy’ feeling, and an EVF can never hope to be as good as an optical viewfinder (although the ability to apply S-curves and see their affect live in the EVF is fun, and the manual focus system mentioned earlier is genuinely useful). I would also say that it takes some time to get used to how small it feels in the hand, compared to the nice grips of a full sized SLR. Overall though, I can take along this camera, with three or four lenses, some ND filters, gels and a spare battery, all for a fraction of the weight of my previous set-up. All that weight lost, with nothing but better image quality to show for it. (Below you can see the 45mm on camera, the 25 with its beautiful lens hood, and the svelte 14mm).
If you want to check out some other takes on m43 as well as the Sony NEX system, check out Hendrik’s blog (Hiking in Finland), he has been reviewing lightweight cameras for ages. Here are his thoughts on the GF1, the GF2 vs. the NEX 5, and the Panasonic GH2. And here’s Mark’s (at Backpacking North) take on the GF1. And finally, here are some 100% crops from some of the pictures in this review. I love that you can see a single leg of the coffee filter partially eclipsing the sun in this drip of coffee below, really fantastic detail.