Some backpackers cook five-course meals every night while others, like myself, feel like it's a chore to boil a pack of noodles. There are hikers who rocket straight to their destinations, and others who stop to inspect every rock, tree, and snail along the way. Obviously the most important part of choosing any gear is first deciding where your priorities lie.
If photography is already a serious hobby, then you probably don't need help deciding what to bring on your next trip. For many people though, the situation isn't quite so clear-cut. Choosing a camera that balances quality, price, and portability can be a daunting task. The following are a few tips for choosing a camera that will take great pictures without getting in the way of your adventures.
Canon, Nikon, and the other digital camera manufacturers desperately want their customers to believe that more megapixels means better pictures. It's a concept that's easy to market. However, toting around more megapixels doesn't always deliver better images.
First, some technical background may be in order. Buried deep in your camera's innards is the CCD. It's a patch of densely packed microscopic sensors that record the image projected through the camera's lens. Usually it's smaller than a postage stamp. The physical size of the sensor itself is one of the biggest factors affecting image quality. In compact digital cameras, the CCD is only a few millimeters wide. A camera with such a small sensor will not produce high-quality photos, regardless of how many megapixels it boasts.
Low-end and ultra-compact digital cameras are manufactured with small CCDs. As a result, these types of cameras don't perform well in low light. The images they produce can appear quite noisy and grainy. For the casual photographer who's more interested in simple snapshots, the advantages of smaller size and price tag likely outweigh the disadvantage of lower image quality.
If you enjoy taking pictures, but you don't want to spring for a hefty SLR, consider a midsized digital camera. These cameras are still fairly compact, but engineered with a more discerning user in mind. Even if it has fewer megapixels, a midsize digital camera will usually capture much better looking photographs
Of course, digital SLRs lead the pack when it comes to image quality. Their large sensors allow SLRs to produce crisp, noise-free images in a variety of conditions. If you want to produce high-quality shots, especially at dawn or dusk, you'll want to make the investment. Since these times of day can produce the most stunning light for photography, having a camera that can handle these conditions well is a big advantage.
So what's the bottom line? Carrying around a camera the size of a credit card is certainly more convenient, but it comes at a serious cost to picture quality.
Some brands offer product lines that feature weather-resistance or weatherproofing. If you're rough on your electronics, or if you frequently backpack or hike in extreme conditions, this might be an issue. But in most cases it's not a deal-breaker. Personally, I just toss my camera in a ziplock bag if necessary. This has flouted torrential downpours and nasty river crossings alike.
If you want to produce sharp, vibrant images but you're hesitant to plunge into SLR ownership, consider a mid-size model like the Canon S80 or G10. These cameras are still relatively portable, but provide silky-smooth images with a lot of punch. In addition, these particular models feature built-in wide-angle lenses, an extremely valuable addition for landscapes and scenery.
If, on the other hand, you merely bring a camera along for convenient photo documentation, then save the weight, save the space, and go with an ultra-compact like a Nikon Coolpix or the Canon Powershot SD880. An added benefit of the SD880 is that it packs a wide-angle lens like its big brother, the G10.
Once you've decided what type of camera will suit you best, take the time to read some specific reviews. Doing so will help you choose the best model for your money. While CNET and a slew of other tech sites offer digital camera reviews, you're usually better off sticking with a dedicated camera reviewer like dpreview.com.