‘Old it, flash, bang, wallop, what a picture
What a picture, what a photograph
Poor old soul, blimey, what a joke
Hat blown off in a cloud of smoke
Clap ‘ands, stamp yer feet
Bangin’ on the big bass drum
What a picture, what a picture
Stick it in your fam’ly album
Tommy Steele & Chorus (David Heneker, 1963)
A camera on the trail… a personal retrospective
Ah, cameras. Like probably everyone reading this, there has from my earliest memory, been one around in my family as I grew up and later on in my own family over the years. Unsurprisingly, a camera has invariably accompanied me into the countryside on my walks and wanders.
I have never been, and never will be, any form of expert in matters photography. There is a wealth of information available produced by professionals and truly expert amateur photographers. What follows does not qualify. All I have ever done is to want to take a decent photo with the equipment that I could afford. This, I suspect, is in common with most souls out there. It has been a question of diverting funds to the lower to mid-range equipment and trying to snatch and save the memories. I did have a Minolta SLR 35mm for a few years but I never took that out on hikes. What follows is more a retrospective of some of those that have accompanied me, have recorded my family as it aged, been dropped in ditches, lost and retrieved, bounced down slopes, slipped off rocks, got soaked and dried out and carried on working or stopped forever as I explored not three, but four points of the compass.
Kodak Box Brownie
I seem to recall the first camera that I ever took out with me into the country was a hand me down Kodak Box Brownie, it may not even have been mine. Certainly it was an old machine before it even came my way. This classic camera functioned perfectly well and had likely been used for family photographs from before my birth and from my infant years onwards.
Simple to use, it is not surprising that these cameras enabled Kodak to dominate the market for low to mid entry point cameras. Certainly Kodak featured large as my own choice for decades.
As a young teenager, I recall cramming its bulk into a cotton drill haversack one day and took it with me to one of my favourite countryside haunts, that I wandered off to, eagerly, each summer weekend. I was thrilled, hours later on my wanders, to find an unexpected Grey Heron paddling uncertainly on the edge of a flooded field. I slowly, painstakingly, stalked the bird through the undergrowth, managing to somehow photograph the creature through the unwieldy box held aloft, as the bird flapped off suddenly alarmed only yards away. I was, to put it mildly, chuffed to bits, however the photo never survived the years. None that I took seem to have. For such a bulky item, these cameras were not particularly heavy for their time. The Six-20 Model D shown above weighed 511g.
Using a Brownie was a technique in itself. Not held up as any modern camera would today, but below and you looked at arms length into the brilliant portrait or, by rotating the camera through ninety degrees, landscape viewfinder.
I may not have become a wildlife photographer but something seems to have latched home- the wish to take a camera with me on most saunters out into the country. Sometimes the camera remains unused, but I do remember occasionally to pull it out and snatch that memory.
Kodak Instamatic 233-X
The Kodak Instamatic may be entry level however it was one model or another of the cameras that I used for much of the 1970s. Always simple to use, they were just about idiot proof, fortunately.
Not that the exact detail mattered to me at the time, from 1970 much of the Kodak range of Instamatic cameras were fitted to take Magicubes, these were the replacement for the earlier Flashcube and did not require batteries to fire the flash. This made cheaper flash enabled cameras available to the masses and I was fortunate enough to unwrap one on a Christmas morning.
Even the 126 cartridges of film were within reach of pocket money and the days where the photographs on a roll of film started with a Christmas tree and ended, 12 months later, with another similar tree, were coming to an end. It was just what a young lad wanted and against my mothers wishes, this camera took a fair few knocks when I took it out on teenage rambles or cycle rides over the years.
Flashcubes became incredibly hot when used and great care had to be exercised not to lose a layer of skin when removing them. While the Kodak Instamatic 233 was used with Flashcubes, the similar Instamatic 233-X required no batteries to work the Magicube flash so was lighter as a result. With wrist strap fitted (6g), it weighed only 198g.
Kodak Pocket Instamatic 100
In 1972 the small and relatively cheap Kodak Pocket Instamatic 100 was available. A few years later, one eventually found its way into my Christmas stocking however at that time, cycling had its grip on me and on the few occasions that a camera accompanied me on long weekend rides it was seldom that I stopped to take a picture. This small camera took the 110 film cartridges. This was a miniaturised development of the larger 126 film cartridges. Each negative frame was 13mm x 17mm. Needless to say, the small size resulted in quite grainy and poor resolution print results.
Kodak Disc 4000
In 1982 I briefly used a Disc camera. The Kodak Disc 4000 (1982-84) was, at the time, of amazingly small proportions (118mm x 79mm x 26mm, though most of the thin body was only 18mm thick). This was made possible by the Kodak disc film.
This was a flat 15 exposure film introduced by Kodak in June 1982 in USA and September the same year in the UK to accompany their new generation of cameras. Developments in emulsion technology meant that Kodak were able to incorporate tiny negatives of only 8mm x 10.5mm arranged in a circle. I never persisted with this camera technology for long as even someone of my limited skill and knowledge at the time could see that the quality of photograph being produced was not all my fault. As with the 110 film, the small size negatives resulted in large grain and poor resolution. The format did not last long. Cameras were not made beyond 1988 and Kodak was the last manufacturer of film for them, finally stopping production in 1999. With the, oh, so eighties, flexible metal wrist loop fitted, together with a film disc, it weighed 200g
One brief diversion I made in the late 1980s was with a cheap plastic camera from Chinese camera and binocular manufacturer Haking. While a mile better than disposable cameras, this was most definitely a no frills affair. The Halina Panorama (Ansco Pix Panorama in US) focus free 35mm camera could be used for wide panoramic shots. Ideal I thought for grand capturing of ‘the great outdoors’. ISO 400 ASA was recommended but you could use 100 or 200 in brighter conditions. Aperture was fixed at f/11 with a fixed shutter 1/125sec. The wide shots were achieved by the film gate being masked so as to expose an image of 13 x 36mm rather than 24 x 36mm. This is to a ratio of 1:2.7. The stickers that alerted the processing lab to the, likely to be unfamiliar to them, print size stipulated 89 x 254mm (3.5″ x 10″). However the larger (wider) prints were a bit of a push for the film and graininess was the result. It worked after a fashion. Quality of shot was ‘OK’, after all, it had a plastic 28mm lens. But the flaw is fairly obvious, you don’t want to be taking a panoramic picture every time. Nor do you want to carry two cameras just to be able to pull out the Halina if and when you want it. However, being made of plastic it was pretty light at just 128g, including wrist strap and film. Think about that, loading a film into the camera doubled its weight.
Samsung AF Zoom 105S
I think I am correct that my first serious foray into standard format 35mm film was in the mid 1990s with a Samsung AF Zoom 105S. This was what passed as a compact back then.
Simple to use, this was a ‘point and shoot’ with 38 – 105mm zoom lens, pretty much idiot proof, it was perfectly suited to my limited ability. The automatic flash, film loading and wind on were handy.
Macro (0.6m – 1m) and ‘Super’ Macro (<04m) modes were little used as I had yet to start closely recording flora on my travels. Auto focus was handy and film speeds were set automatically. This was also the first camera that I ever had that wasn’t a chunky box in shape. I recall being thrilled by the ergonomic shape, even if it was/is a pretty large piece of work (140mm x 80mm x 63mm). With film and two CR123A batteries it weighed 440g.
It was around this time that I began my almost annual exploration of Mediterranean islands and the ‘Landscape mode’ using a large depth of field with focus set on infinity was in frequent use for capturing memories of these fantastic environments.
As film gave way to digital, I have started to take ever more photos. The cost element of developing has been removed from the equation and I am more often prepared to ‘take a chance’- hoping that the lens may capture something akin to what I want, yet usually happy for failure to be the frequent aftermath, knowing that of the hundreds of photos I take on a trip, whittling them down will result in a decent enough record for my purpose. If there is any lesson to be learnt, it is take the photo, and another for good measure. It now costs little or nothing, only time, once the means is held.
A major issue with digital cameras is not the all-pervading mega-pixel wars, but the sensor size. This is what takes the place of film and can be quite tiny in small compact cameras. It is a major component in pure image quality. You are simply never going to get a large sensor in either compact cameras or, increasingly these days, a mobile phone. However a camera is almost always going to win out against the phone on this component alone. It is one reason why Apple have been wily enough to never go overboard on the megapixel facility of their iPhone, recognising that they can never cram a larger sensor within the phone’s confines. If it helps to show what you are getting when looking at the graphic below, the iPhone 5C comes with a 1/3.2″ sensor.
Canon Digital Ixus v3
In 2002 I purchased a Canon Digital Ixus v3. This was a simple little compact that was perfect for slipping into a pocket. It was a tough little camera that took knocks remarkably well but had little in the way of weatherproofing and had to be kept well wrapped and away from rain or snow.
Measuring a modest 87mm x 57mm x 27mm it weighed only 180g without a battery yet was robustly made from stainless steel. Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400 ISO and stuffed with numerous auto this, that and the other- this camera took a lot of guesswork out of my attempts to take a decent picture. Typically, it had a small sensor, the 1/2.7″ size being very much to the low end.
I don’t think it ever broke down on me. I simply moved on to another camera after a few months while this gathered dust before being re-homed. I have never been one for shooting video, which is just as well with the modest 15 f/s motion jpeg ability of this camera, though the maximum three minute run time is also pretty modest compared to what would be capable only a couple of years later.
Canon Power Shot G9
In 2007 I made steps to up my game slightly with the camera I was wielding on outdoor trips. The Canon Powershot G9, released in August that year, was a great piece of kit. The 12 megapixel, 1/1.7” CCD (Charged Coupled Device) sensor was amongst the largest sensor used in compact cameras and was an improvement on earlier G series cameras from Canon. It was complimented by a 6 x zoom and optical Image Stabilizer. The lens was 35-210mm (35mm equivalent), f2.8-4.8. It could shoot in Raw (again, an improvement on some earlier models) but I ended up seldom bothering with that as it swallowed additional space on the memory card. Mode and ISO settings could be changed or faith put in the auto mode. ISO settings are 80 – 1600. (plus ‘Hi’ whatever that is, and Auto). There were actually twenty five shooting modes including manual and two custom settings.
Being a digital camera and giving the facility to keep perhaps one in fifty images, I took, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of pictures over the years with this camera. Many of the images found on this website would have been taken with the Canon G9. Despite offering up to 1024 x 768 @ 15 fps movie mode, as usual, I only bothered taking movies on an infrequent basis. Mostly because my ownership of this camera coincided with having a teenage daughter who never had the patience to bear with me faffing around for more than a few seconds.
This is a lovely 12.1 megapixel camera that has given me great service on the hills. However it is a pretty chunky piece of kit weighing 366g with memory card and battery fitted. Measurements are 111mm x 73mm x 43mm. CCD sensors are power heavy and it made sense to carry a spare battery and one was purchased off eBay. This added a further 43g to the pack weight (battery dimensions- 45mm x 33mm x 21mm).
Longer trips also meant that the charger, plug adaptor and leads had to be taken. That saw an additional 139g added to the total. You can see how the weight creeps up with these items, and not just the weight but the bulk too. The charger (CB-2LW) was 90mm x 55m x 23mm.
With time a few faults manifested themselves- slight scratches were made on the lens from the opening and closing ‘lens cover’, and it never proved robust enough over the years. Even though I took as much care as I reasonably could to avoid knocks and bumps, eventually internal circuitry proved too fragile. It was sent off for one internal overhaul that coincided beautifully with the failure of high street store Jessops. I handed the camera over the counter the morning of the day the company announced its going into administration in the afternoon in January 2013, my camera subsequently disappeared into a black hole for two months. But with the camera eventually ‘repaired’ and returned, internal problems soon returned and it eventually had to be replaced. Recognising the need to look for a tougher option I went for one actually built to take bumps, drops and knocks.
Monopods and tripods
I have tried a number of monopods and tripods over the years, from large Manfrotto beasts (no thank you!), to the simple screw fitting beneath the wooden cap on the Leki Sierra walking pole. The last was what I have probably used most, though to be honest, I seldom bother. Usually if I am composing a shot, I am looking for natural rests- rocks, tree stumps, or fence posts and walls.
In more recent years I experimented with small tripods, occasionally with a swivel head. None were to my liking- too bulky, too heavy, too fiddly. Eventually I settled on the lightweight little UltraPod Mini from Pedco. This 47g tripod is made from a polycarbonate resin, has a ball and socket camera mount and, most usefully, a velcro wrap so that it can fixed around trees or the end of the trekking pole. I do not use it often, but when it is needed, it is ideal.
My final piece of kit that I occasionally consider, that does not receive as much use as many other hikers put it to, is the simple and effective 11.5g Stickpic. Fitting the needs of selfie lovers everywhere (provided they have a trekking pole) the threaded tool is available with different heads to fit the tips of various makes of pole. So small it is easily lost, I usually have it hanging on a mini-biner from a pack shoulder strap. Because I am not a great one for selfies or talking to video, I use it seldom but have used it effectively for ‘over the shoulder’ movie shots.
Just be careful that the locking nut is tightened if hanging from a shoulder strap as they can easily unscrew and be lost. As I have done with mine. A second warning for UK owners is that Stickpic will attempt to screw you over for International shipping. In 2017 they wanted $13 just to send a tiny $1 replacement that has free shipping in the US. They didn’t get it as I can nigh on buy two complete replacements in the UK for that cost.
Olympus Stylus TG-4 Tough
My first venture into ‘tough’ or ruggedised cameras was with the recent purchase of the waterproof Olympus Stylus TG-4 Tough digital camera. As usual, the camera I use comes stuffed with greater functionality than I am ever going to use to the full, yet can be used as a simple ‘point and shoot’ doing the work for me and producing more than passable results.
Waterproof to 15m, and apparently shockproof to a 2.1m drop on to concrete (I won’t be testing that out in a hurry), it is also freezeproof to -10°C. ISO- Auto, High, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, the lens is fixed and does not extend, that probably helps with its waterproofing. It has a f/2~4.9 4 x wide optical zoom (I wish it were more), 4.5-18mm focal length (25-100mm: equivalent-35mm), lens and 1/2.3″ CMOS with effective 16 megapixels sensor. CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) sensors have developed over the years to match the earlier CCD standard and combine greater functionality, work more efficiently and use less power than the earlier CCD. Both types of sensor have to do the same job- converting light into electrons, this is where advances are to be made in camera technology and the CMOS sensor in this camera does a grand job. I do occasionally make use of the focus stacking, focus bracketing and microscope control options (macro focus to 10mm) and the 55 mb of internal memory has proved useful when I have filled a card or, whisper it, forgot to put it in! Also, with a nod to idiocy, image stabilisation helps the fools amongst us.
The Olympus comes with a 460,800 dot 3″ LCD screen on the rear (no viewfinder). I shall continue to largely ignore the movie mode as usual (full 1080p HD or time lapse). This can also produce 640 x 480 @ 120 fps, or 320 x 240 @ 240 fps. Various scene modes for specific conditions are present, it can be used underwater, is dust proof and the camera will shoot in RAW if desired, though I am more interested in its included wifi connectivity, GPS and electronic compass facilities. Each sealed door has two locks that must both be activated. I do find the on/off switch a tad small and have had this activate whilst the camera has been stowed.
Easily the most frustrating aspect of this camera is the steadfast refusal of Olympus to provide their cameras with an ‘industry standard’ micro or mini USB connection, instead a proprietary USB lead has to be used. More to the point, this means the dedicated charge lead has to be taken on the trail if wishing to charge the 3.6v 1350mAh LI-92B Lithium-Ion battery. Not only annoying, but, frankly, ridiculous.
Point and Snap compact cameras
The very cheap ‘point and snap’ compact digital camera has occasionally made its way into my hand. Don’t get me wrong, almost without fail, most of these are pretty fantastic little cameras, but it has been very seldom that any such item has gone out with me ‘into the wild’ other than the aforementioned Canon Ixus v3, and that was slightly higher end than those mentioned below.
While filling the niche that those at the beginning of this piece occupied, today’s offerings are cheap, simple to use and perfectly up to the task of being used to promptly take a snap. However, while small and lightweight, they lack much in the way of features or shooting modes, robustness is lacking, lenses can be adequate at most, sensors on the small end and battery life limited. Shooting speed can be slow and the LCD screens can be quite poor.
I am taking nothing away from these entry level compact cameras. They fill a role and if suitable care is taken of them, certainly a padded and waterproof case is a definite requirement, then a point and snap is probably up to use on a day hike in good weather, or possibly longer excursions, provided you accept their limitations.
Many hikers today don’t even take a dedicated camera with them on the trail, relying instead on the one bundled in with their phone. With the limits on space, sensor size is always going to be extremely limited however the manufacturers have still managed to produce products from which remarkably good results are obtainable.
While the keener photographers and professionals are always going to cart around the greater bulk and weight of dedicated camera equipment, for many the time has come when a camera cannot be justified in a gear list. Lightweight hikers will lead the way in this but sadly, the numbers involved will never influence manufacturers to produce exactly the right model for us, combining our specifically desired elements and we will continue to have to sample from the best and/or most suitable available to us.
The mighty iPhone in all its guises, has justifiably won considerable acclaim and has many supporters. Many hikers feel that the pinnacle of outdoor practicality was reached with the iPhone 4, released in 2010. Battery length then was ‘reasonable’, compared with what followed. An external charger became an almost absolute requirement in order to ensure sufficient life.
I must confess to not having gone down the iPhone route myself. That shown here is my daughter’s iPhone 5c and while the 132g phone stands her well for her social media needs, asking her opinion as to its suitability for outdoors photography elicited the following: “the battery is s**t, but you just deal with it”! In addition, consensus is that storage space is extremely limited and photos and videos need to be uploaded quite promptly.
Apple have done considerable work to get the on-board software to adapt the camera to various conditions. Zoom facility is obviously digital only and achieved by pinching fingers together on the screen, picture quality suffers as a result but is still largely acceptable.
There are some user dictated settings- photo, square and panorama. Video and time lapse can be useful at times (but remember that limited memory). The various incarnations of the iPhone 5 all produce different results, this is an aspect common to not only all iPhones but will be encountered across mobile phones in general.
These are expensive phones and require some degree of protection. Most such phones do. Otterbox are one of the market leaders, have a look at their Defender series. My own preference is to do the same as I did with my dedicated camera and go for a ruggedised phone that will take knocks, dust, immersion and provides a battery life compatible with my needs.
Prior to moving to a dustproof/waterproof camera, I almost invariably took some form of protection for the camera. On occasion is was a simple plastic bag, the top twisted and folded, on week long treks I often took a very small dry bag. However these provide little or nothing in the way of protection from shocks and knocks so a padded Lowepro pouch was usually carried. This 101g pouch could easily accommodate a quite large compact like the Canon Powershot G9 and also permitted a spare memory card and battery to be stowed.
This has a small ‘waterproof’ ripstop nylon cover hidden behind the belt loop but this provided minimal protection and I never trusted it in even moderate or sustained rain.
The 112g Dry Pocket camera case from Berghaus was a much more secure pouch. Excluding the superfluous nylon shoulder/waist strap, the weight is reduced to 80g. No internal pockets for cards or spare batteries are included but it is is a more than effective guard against damp harming a camera. Capacious enough to store and pad the Canon, it comes with a foolproof roll-top enclosure. Strangely, Berghaus seem to have stopped producing this pouch and I am aware of nothing on the market that fills the niche.
Note the weight of these pouches, these are not particularly lightweight options.