A good, sturdy camera is a must for any backpacker who wishes to capture the beauty that is Mother Nature.  Depending on your level of photography expertise and what you want to do with your photos, you will need to chose between a typical point and shoot camera or a more complex dSLR.  The fragile electronics on the inside of your camera should be able to withstand the sometimes harsh conditions that you encounter in the wilderness.  Of course, virtually no camera will be indestructible so you must take a few proper precautions to ensure your camera will be with you for years to come. 

Choosing Between A Point And Shoot And A DSLR

For The Weight And Size Conscious

Point and shoot cameras will weigh significantly less than any dSLR camera because of their small size.  Point and shoots also have the advantage of closing up into a small, compact object whereas a dSLR camera and lens is quite awkwardly shaped.  If you own a dSLR camera, you would be advised to purchase a dedicated camera pack to store your gear.  Most point and shoot cameras can be safely stored just about anywhere.

For The Best PhotographsCanon 5D Mark II

Hands down, a dSLR camera will almost always give you a better photograph than a point and shoot.  Interchangeable lenses available on dSLR cameras will significantly outperform anything available on a point and shoot camera as well.  In recent years, the resolution (total megapixels) on point and shoot cameras has significantly increased and is often greater than or equal to many of the entry level to mid-range dSLR cameras on the market.  Pictures taken from point and shoot cameras with a high megapixel count can usually be enlarged to a good size, but still, the overall quality of a dSLR photograph will still outpace what is available on other cameras.

DSLR cameras also have more manual controls than any point and shoot camera on the market.  On a dSLR camera, you will be able to photograph at a shallower depth of field (good for flower pictures) and you will be able to open your shutter speed as long as you need (good for waterfall photos).  If you ever intend to sell your nature photographs, you should own a dSLR.  A point and shoot will be sufficient if you would like to hang one of your pictures up on the wall, but a dSLR, when properly used, will give you the features and power needed to create the best nature photographs. 

Features To Consider

Size and Weight

As discussed above, you will want to consider the size and weight of your camera.  If you want to stay as light as possible, stick with a point and shoot, but if the quality of your photos is of the utmost importance, go with a dSLR.  Keep in mind, that there are many relatively light entry to mid-level dSLR cameras that will still take great photographs. 


If you want to blow your wilderness photographs up to large sizes, you should pay particular attention to the resolution of your camera.  Today, most point and shoot and dSLR cameras have more than 10 megapixels, but even a 10-megapixel camera will start losing clarity if you make a print any larger than 8” by 10”. 

Modes And Lenses

Most point and shoot cameras include a number of different preset settings that are very helpful for outdoor and wilderness photography.  These modes should include sunset, cloudy day, sunny day, and flower photography, which are all optimized for their specific conditions.

DSLR cameras generally do not have these preset modes because the user can have complete control of the camera.  Most wilderness photographers generally like to shoot in “aperture priority” mode, which allows you to adjust the depth of field while the shutter speed is automatically changed.  DSLR cameras also have the advantage of interchangeable lenses.  Certain lenses will be better suited for macro photography while others will shoot better landscapes.  These lenses will almost always take better photographs than the optimized modes of the point and shoot camera. 


With a point and shoot, you will need to compose the shot using the LCD viewfinder on the back of the camera.  It is oftentimes difficult to hold a camera steady while looking at the LCD screen so you may want to consider the purchase of a lightweight tripod (which may offset the weight savings of not purchasing a dSLR).  If camera shake is not an issue, you will be able to compose the best shots with the largest screen possible.  Keep in mind that the viewfinder is probably the most sensitive part of the camera, and a bigger viewfinder means a higher probability of breaking.

With dSLR cameras you will compose your shots through an eye piece.  By stabilizing the camera against your eye, you will essentially act as a tripod and should be able to hold your camera steadier.  The viewfinder size is really just most important for reviewing your photographs. 


Most point and shoot cameras use AA batteries, while all dSLRs use proprietary batteries.  AA batteries are cheaper, and it is just easy to throw some extra batteries in your backpack.  You do not need to worry about a charge in the batteries (unless you use rechargeable batteries), which is a great advantage.  Proprietary batteries on dSLRs will keep a charge for a long time, but it is very easy to forget to recharge your battery before every trip.

Memory Cards

All dSLR cameras use compact flash cards, which are generally more durable than the flimsy SD and XD cards used in most point and shoot cameras.  Some compact flash cards are completely weatherproof and can even be thrown in a clothes washer and still work.  This is a good piece of mind when enduring harsh weather of the back woods. 

Dust And Splash Resistant

Some point and shoot and dSLR cameras have features to withstand the harsh elements encountered on backpacking trips.  Point and shoots like the Olympus Stylus Tough 6020 is waterproof up to 10 feet and shockproof up to 5 feet.  It is certainly not indestructible, but it should hold up better than a typical camera.  Other dSLR cameras like the Nikon D700 and Canon 5D Mark II are dust and splash proof, which means that the seals on all the buttons can withstand a certain amount of water before the camera is negatively effected.  These more high-end cameras also have weather sealed lenses that will keep out water. 


If you purchase your hiking camera at a retail store such as Best Buy, you should consider the purchase of their warranty.  Be sure to completely understand the terms of the agreement before you purchase anything, but their standard replacement plan will actually replace your camera if it cannot be fixed.  This means that if you drop your camera in a river or your viewfinder gets broken, Best Buy will replace your camera at no charge.  I personally have had two cameras replaced using these protection plans. 

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