Have you wondered what camera would be best for you when in the outdoors? Should you use a smartphone or upgrade to a compact, DSLR or mirrorless camera?
This blog post is my personal view of which cameras are best for taking pictures when you are in the outdoors, based on my own experience and the research I did when recently buying a camera.
It is not a scientific, over technical or objective analysis of different cameras but I hope that it will be a valuable resource for those thinking of changing the way they take pictures and provide some insight into what they can expect from each type of camera.
As I have just brought a new camera, I think it may be worth sharing some of the main things that shape what I look for in a camera at the moment.
- I need to to take (great) pictures for iFootpath.
- The images need to be high-quality and good enough to use for microstock, magazines and printed materials if required.
- The camera needs to be suitable to carry with me on our walks and not fail when out on a trail.
- I want to be able to take a wide variety of images from landscapes to close-ups and to be able to zoom in to some far away objects (for creating iFootpath walk icons for example)
- I also want to take pictures of people, and I have an aspiration to delve little more into Street Photography
- I want to take some videos to capture a little more about what Claire, Bobbie The Poodle and I see when out creating walks for iFootpath.
- While I like Instagram and being able to share images hot from the camera it's not a priority for me as I use Lightroom and some other programs for post-processing. More a nice to have.
So, let's look at what types of cameras are available to you to use when out on your adventures.
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As most of us in the UK have smartphones (more than 90% of people in the UK between the ages of 25 & 54, Statista 2018) and all smartphones have cameras, that means that nearly all of us have a camera close by 24 hours a day. So what can we expect from our smartphones? First, each year the camera(s) on our phones get better. The hardware – sensor and lens improve, and the software that allows us to shoot more creative pictures and videos leverages the increased computing power of our devices. This results in some extraordinary results from slow-motion videos to stunning portraits displaying those swirly bokeh backgrounds that only professionals with high-end DSLR's could dream of a few years ago. So that's it, we're fixed with a versatile, capable camera in our pockets 24/7, to use that 20th Century adjective. Well not quite, well not quite for me anyway.
The problem is two-fold. First, technology evolution is not confined to smartphones, and stand-alone cameras are of course also improving. They too can deploy the raw processing power of today's chips and connect to our digital world using WiFi and Bluetooth – indeed many cameras can also deploy smartphone processing power to achieve the connectivity and picture control that we crave. Second, we need to go back to the fundamental components of a modern camera (the sensor and lens) and concede that the laws of physics aren't going anywhere – the size of the sensor and the performance of the lens are critical to producing high-quality images, and both are inherently small in a smartphone. This still holds true even when more than one lens/camera is installed. I'll mention a bit more about sensors and lenses as we look later at the alternatives to smartphones. So, given that, where does a smartphone fair well? As I mentioned before it is probably always with you, they are great for Instagram and other social media, easy for movies too and you can mount them on a gimble to create super videos. You can also make the case that they are free, indeed for an all-around camera for capturing the moment they are hard to beat.
Compact Camera (including waterproof & bridge cameras)
Generally, compact cameras also known as point and shoot cameras are designed for simple operation. But with better sensors and lenses than a smartphone, they should deliver better results. Point and shoot cameras (as their name suggests) are very easy to use because they are designed to be used straight from the pocket or bag. Indeed, they are easy to carry and less obtrusive than DSLRs. So with zoom lenses, handy software and a compact size these cameras can produce some great results – perfect for uploading to the iFootpath gallery or better still for the images needed to create an iFootpath walk.
But due to the relatively small size of the camera sensor, compact cameras may give a lower picture quality compared to a DSLR camera. So, if you want a camera primarily for capturing high-quality pictures and videos, then this may not be the right choice for you. And that's the rub – great snaps but maybe not the quality that you are looking for. For me, quality is the main issue with a compact camera. Taking that never to be captured again super photo of the sunset or your family can lead to some disappointment when you look more closely at the image, only to wish that you had taken it with a better camera.
Compact cameras do not come cheap (remember smartphone cameras are effectively free) but they cost a lot less than DSLR or mirrorless cameras, and you can pick up used versions very cheaply from eBay, etc. My view is that there are three clear advantages for compact cameras over a smartphone. First, they do not use up your valuable smartphone battery life. If you are out walking and perhaps following a route using the iFootpath App while possibly texting friends & family you do not want your photography to use up all of your battery power (although you can, of course, carry a separate battery). Second, your images are stored within the camera (usually on an SD or micro SD memory card), and you will not be filling up your phone's storage with stills and video. Third, robustness, compact cameras tend to have lens protection, strong cases and many are also dust and water resistant making them good travel cameras.
The Tough TG-5 is packed with pro features that help you nail bright, crisp outdoor shots even in challenging conditions. You’ll find imaging firepower that’s optimized for shooting action like a fast F2.0 Olympus lens, high-resolution RAW stills, and spectacular Ultra HD 4K video. Action Track Sensors record location, temperature, direction, and altitude data that bring your images and video to life. As with all Tough cameras, it’s waterproof, shockproof, crushproof, freezeproof, and dustproof.
STOP PRESS – since writing this post I have bought a TG-6 – You can read more about it in my post My New Camera the Olympus TG-6
Before I move on, you can also throw in bridge cameras to the same category as compact cameras. They are my pet hate. For me bridge cameras negate the benefits of compact cameras – size, ease of use, cost, etc. with few of the advantages of a DSLR such as interchangeable lenses – so I would advise that you are best to avoid them.
Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) Camera
DSLR's are used by professionals and hobbyists alike. Unlike smartphones and compact cameras, they deliver high-quality images and can be upgraded with better lenses including wide angle, telephoto and zoom varieties. Indeed, if you own a popular make of DSLR like Nikon or Canon you are spoilt for choice in terms of new and used lenses from a wide range of manufacturers. Most DSLRs also have image stabilisation either in the camera or lens allowing you to take great pictures with longer lenses or a slower shutter speed.
I have been using a DSLR for many years, starting with a Nikon D60 and then upgrading to a Nikon D7000 (body only). I can use the lenses that I bought for the D60 on my D7000, and I raised some cash by selling the D60, an excellent reason to buy a DSLR. This is a step up from a compact camera where you won’t find any upgrade option for lenses, flash, etc.
As you might expect DSLRs also offer excellent image storage (often on dual memory cards), battery and operating software with lots of in-camera processing available should you need it.
In addition, they have a viewfinder, and like a film Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera a DSLR allows the photographer to look through the lens to take the picture. This has lots of advantages over cameras with only a display and offset viewfinders found on smartphone cameras and compact cameras.
So is a DSLR the ultimate camera for me? Well, it was until recently when I looked for a solution to meet some of the downsides of a DSLR camera – heavy, large and also quite noticeable when you are capturing images in more public areas
So what solution do I favour now that fits with my requirements and aspirations? My new camera is an MFT Olympus Pen -F.
Mirrorless cameras are relatively new on the scene. As the name suggests, a mirrorless camera is one that doesn’t require a reflex mirror, a key component of DSLR (and film SLR) cameras. The mirror in a DSLR reflects the light up to the optical viewfinder. In a mirrorless camera, there is no optical viewfinder. Instead, the imaging sensor is exposed to light at all times. This gives you a digital preview of your image either on the rear LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder (EVF). The EVF can also display information about exposure settings to help you capture great photos.
Without the hefty mirror box taking up space inside the camera body, mirrorless cameras can be made much smaller than their DSLR counterparts. This is never truer than with micro four-thirds (MFT or M4/3) cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic.
For me, my new micro four-thirds Olympus PEN-F offers all benefits that smartphone, compact and DSLR cameras offer all in one camera. High-quality images, in a lightweight, technically advanced chic package – perfect for capturing images for iFootpath as well as fulfilling my desire to sell images on microstock sites and my aspirations to venture into street photography. And should I want to shoot some video – it does that too. My PEN-F's shortcomings of poorer battery life than a DSLR and lack of water resistance compared to some compact cameras are easy to overcome too. And there is one more advantage for those that like to experiment. MFT cameras can also be used with retro manual lenses from film (and DSLR) cameras opening up a whole world of creative photography – check out YouTube for ideas.
The Olympus PEN-F
For those that want to know a little more, the PEN-F has a high-definition OLED screen and offers a real-time preview of any setting adjustments made using creative options and dials. These options include 14 Art Filters, Colour Profile Control, Monochrome Profile Control and Colour Creator, so your imagination can run free.
The PEN-F supports Wi-Fi for uploading your images, with its free App – OI.Share – for posting pictures online. Another Olympus nicety is state-of-the-art 5-axis image stabilisation, while the sensor is a generous 20-Megapixel. The LCD display flips out for shooting at odd angles, and the Customizable Mode Dial allows the user to create one-touch adjustments of favourite settings, the video mode is high def with variable shutter speeds.
So, there we have it. Four types of camera all with their own pros and cons and whichever one you choose don't forget to take some pictures on your iFootpath walk and post them up on the walk galleries or social media.
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