I’ve been thinking about getting a new camera for climbing lately because I’m pretty tired of lugging my big Canon Rebel around. It takes up a lot of room in a pack or pad and is something I’d rarely take up on a climb with me. So going small is key to me when choosing a new camera for climbing. And since I’ve been doing so much research, I thought I might as well share what I’m finding.
The Olympus EPL-1: The best climbing camera for the amateur D-SLR shooter?
To understand why this camera works so well for climbing, you need a little back story on the technology. D-SLR cameras (the ones with interchangeable lenses) have always been bulky because they have a mirror inside them that flips up when you press the shutter button, thus exposing the scene being shot onto the sensor. Olympus was the first camera maker to remove the mirror and use a very small sensor in a camera with interchangeable lenses. The result was the EP-1, which wasn’t quite pocket-sized, but was a damn sight smaller than your average clunky D-SLR.
The EP-1 came out in 2009 and it cost about a grand; a bit too pricey for most climbing shooters who want an affordable and small, yet capable camera. An updated EP-2 came out soon after, but the price was about the same. But with the recent release of the EPL-1, the price dropped to around $550—the same price you’d pay for a Canon Rebel or similar Nikon entry-level camera. The Olympus does everything you expect from a full-fledged entry-level D-SLR camera. RAW capture, aperture and shutter priority, HD video, a hot shoe for flash, plus the ability to change out lenses for different angles of view. Notably, this camera also makes the leap into more creative photography easier for the novice. Rather than requiring the shooter to know about apertures (f/stops) and shutter speeds, the camera menu offers up options like “Make background blurry.” Normally you’d need to know that you want to select a wide aperture to achieve this (plus a close focusing point on your subject), but the camera helps make the technical process less mental.
In recent months a whole slew of these small, mirrorless cameras have come out, most notably from Panasonic and Sony. However, Panasonic’s offerings, like the GF-1, are very cool but still pricey by comparison. And Sony’s ultra small NEX is mired with menu navigation issues that everyone seems to be complaining about. Maybe they’ll get this worked out on the next generation. If they do, watch out: The NEX will probably be the climbing camera to get since it too has a competitive price point and is even smaller than the Olympus.
One drag about getting into the interchangeable lens game is the cost of those extra lenses, which are often more than what the camera itself cost. Olympus does sell a converter for the EPL-1 that allows it to use many older Olympus lenses, which you can often find used for much lower prices. However, these are full-sized lenses that will seem awkward and heavy on this small-bodied camera. You’ll be wondering why you bought a small camera just to slap fat lenses on it. The kit lens that comes standard on the EPL-1 seems good enough though, and you may not need to buy a lens for a long time. But when you start hankering for more creative options or telephoto ranges, you’ll be glad you have the option to gear up to other lenses, even if it’s pricey.
New cameras in this mirrorless category are coming out at a fast pace, and it’s only a matter of time before Canon and Nikon jump in the game. Innovation happens fast, but at the moment if I were going to jump into buying a small, interchangeable lens camera, it’d be the EPL-1.
Pansonic Lumix: Great choices for compacts
There are a couple of other options I’d consider in the non-D-SLR category. I’m a big fan of the Panasonic Lumix series of cameras and they have two worth mentioning.
Panasonic Lumix LX-3:
UPDATE: The Lumix LX-5 is now available and offers a longer lens range of 24-90mm
The Lumix LX-3 does everything a D-SLR can do, only it’s got a fixed lens. But it’s super compact (this thing is really tiny), shoots in RAW, has a hot shoe for accessory flash, records HD video, and is a great choice for someone wanting a flexible camera but not wanting to jump into the lens game. In fact, the lens on this camera is one of its main selling points. It’s got a 24mm wide-angle lens with a large aperture that’s great for low-light and using fast shutter speeds. And the wide-angle lens is great for capturing close-in scenes like bouldering in the woods when you can’t get back very far from your subjects to take in the whole shot. However, the lens is also the one major complaint about this camera since it has almost no telephoto range whatsoever (I think it tops out around 60mm). If it did offer more in the way of capturing distant subjects, this camera would be just about perfect. As it stands, consider your shooting style before buying—if you shoot a lot of telephoto, like climbers high above you on a route, beware. If you don’t shoot tons of telephoto, keep in mind that this camera has a big sensor and records large image files, so you can always crop in close later on the computer to get up-close shots. Sure, it’s a bit of a workaround, but it is a sensible option if you’re excited about this kick-ass camera. It's also got an optional tele-converter you can buy, but who wants to remember to carry one? Going price is about $400. This camera has been on the market for about 2 years, so it should be updated soon. Hopefully they’ll add some more telephoto range to the update and this thing will be a killer camera for climbing.
This last camera is a great choice for those who don’t need a lot of pro-camera features but still want creative options. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 has aperture priority, shutter priority, manual mode, the ability to switch between aspect ratios, and a pretty crazy-long lens all in a very small package. The lens goes from a fairly wide-angle 25mm (which is unusual in a pocket cam) to a whopping 300mm telephoto. I’m sure that photo quality suffers to some degree with a lens this compact covering this focal range, but of all the reviews I’ve read this is seldom a complaint. One complaint I did read that is worth considering was that there is a noticeable shutter lag. How noticeable I can’t say, but this could make a difference when trying to capture your pal dynoing if the shutter doesn’t close until after he snags the jug. But shutter lag is a fairly common issue in the compact camera category and is one of the sacrifices made for the size and convenience you get. This camera still deserves serious consideration if you’re in the compact market, especially as the price is about $300. There is also a similar model, the Zs5, that has few less features and is in the $250 price range.
Side note: The ZS7 belongs to a category of cameras called “travel zooms” and there is a great, in-depth review of almost all of the latest cameras in this category at dpreview.com
This is far from an exhaustive list on all of the cameras that could fit the bill for good climbing cams, but these are the main ones I've been looking at.
So which camera am I thinking about? It’s a hard call, but the way I see it is I’ve already got a D-SLR, and even though it’s clunky, I’m not sure I want to spend $500 just to shave some size—so the Olympus is out for now. I love the Lumix LX-3, but it’s still pricey and the lack of telephoto capability is something to think about. So I’m currently leaning towards the Lumix DMC-ZS5 because it’s pretty affordable (ie, I won’t freak out about taking it out near the water at the Linville Gorge boulders), and it offers many of the things I like about the LX-3 with a better focal range. Seeing as how I’ve got a D-SLR for creative photos already, I’m gonna go cheap, easy, and compact so I’m more likely to carry it with me at all times. Now I just need to scrounge up 250 bucks.
Anyone have a camera they love for climbing? I’d like to hear other thoughts or suggestions!