Cameras for rambling greenies

The DSLR camera I have been using quite happily for five years was beginning to show its age before I visited Tasmania last November, miscommunicating with its lenses, failing to pop up its built-in flash on request, or under-exposing a series of shots, so I spent some time looking at replacements for it. That survey came to include most segments of the camera market, not just direct replacements, so I thought I might share its results here. I hope it will be useful but please bear in mind that it’s a personal perspective.

My needs are, as my title implies, off the beaten track. I want gear that I can carry easily enough while hiking and I want to take photos of birds (small and distant), bugs (smaller still but usually very close) and landscapes. People portraits? Rarely. Buildings? Sometimes.   

Starting points

My starting point was my current line-up: Canon 70D DSLR with 100-400 mm zoom lens, 100 mm macro lens and a general purpose zoom lens. My investment in lenses was enough reason to look first at bodies compatible with them, i.e. Canon EOS and their full-frame cousins, although there’s nothing magic about the brand name: the same arguments would apply to anyone with a Nikon, for instance.

The Canon 70D is a mid-range, ‘enthusiast’, camera with an APS-C sensor rather than the full-frame sensor of the ‘pro’ models, 1D and 5D. Its nearest equivalents are its successive replacements, the 80D and 90D. The 90D isn’t (reportedly) much of an improvement on the 80D but it is still an improvement so it was a serious contender.

What about the full-frame Canon bodies? I borrowed an oldish 5D in Tasmania for long enough to see what I thought of it. Its upside was a slight improvement in picture quality. On the other hand its extra size and weight told against it twice over, firstly because it was more to lug and secondly because it was much harder to shoot one-handed at arm’s length (not standard practice, I know, but useful when pursuing bugs into their hiding places). It doesn’t have a built-in flash, either, so that’s even more extra weight to deal with.

The other point against a full-frame body is that the smaller sensor of the cheaper models means that their lenses are effectively longer: a 100mm lens on an APS-C acts like a 150mm lens on a full-frame camera, which is a significant advantage to a wildlife photographer. There are other differences, too, but they are fairly technical. This article explains them quite clearly.

Mirrorless cameras

Mirrorless cameras are relatively new but increasingly popular. They use a simplified system in which the image captured by the lens passes directly to the camera’s sensor for capture and is also projected to the electronic viewfinder (if there is one) and LCD screen. They are compact and lightweight, making them some of the best travel cameras out there.

Mirrorless cameras offer excellent image quality and portability, and some are compatible with lenses built for their bigger, older siblings, the standard DSLR range. This site offers a decent overview of the range. (It’s a commercial site but my appropriation of their page does not imply a recommendation of their business.)

However, I need a viewfinder! Our bright NQ sunshine and correspondingly black shadows make LCD screens very problematic outdoors, as anyone who has used their smartphone outside will know, so a mirrorless camera had to work with my existing lenses, and to have a viewfinder, to suit me. That combination wasn’t on sale at any reasonable price when I looked at them, unfortunately, although that is likely to change.

[Edit, 2.1.22: The Verge reports here that Canon sees mirrorless cameras as the way forward and plans to retire the SLR models within a few years.]

Back-ups for ‘real’ cameras

So it looks like the best new camera for me will be much like my old one. What about a spare or backup for it when I get it, or one to carry on a hike where I don’t want the weight of the bigger one?

A few years ago, one of the better point-and-click (aka ‘compact’) models would have been the natural choice but when I tried one in Tasmania I found they are now being squeezed – hard – by smartphone cameras.

Smartphones compensate for relatively poor lenses and tiny sensors with some really powerful in-camera processing and the results are getting better and better. There are aftermarket macro lenses and ring-lights for them, too. See my Green Path post, Photographing Insects with your Phone, for more.

And point-and-click cameras are being squeezed on the other side by mirrorless cameras. For now, my backup is my phone. If my next phone doesn’t have a better camera, then my next camera purchase may be a mirrorless body rather than another lens.

There is one more category, ‘bridge’ cameras, which needs to be mentioned only to dismiss it. It was always a very narrow slice of the market between compact and DSLR, and the mirrorless camera has eaten it.