What camera should I take to Patagonia?
January 29, 2013 10:30 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend and I are leaving for a vacation in Chile in about a week. We'll be spending most of our time hiking and seeing glaciers and penguins in southern Patagonia, with a few days in Santiago at the end. I'd like to bring a compact, versatile, weatherproof camera with great image quality, 15-20x zoom, and good low-light performance -- but compromises must be made. What kind of camera should I take with me? My budget is $300-750.

I'd like to get a new camera to document this vacation. I currently own a Casio EX-Z50 from 2005. I like that it's small and that it allows a lot of manual control. I don't like its mediocre image quality, abysmal low-light performance, fiddly menus, limited zoom, and lengthy buffer clearing period before I can turn the camera off and retract the lens.

I don't normally take a lot of pictures, but I do when I travel. I've heard that Patagonia can be very rainy even in the summer. We'll be spending about 4 days of the trip hiking the W route at Torres del Paine, without access to power for recharging batteries. My main priority is to get a camera that will be good for this trip, but as the price climbs above the bottom of my range, I'd also like to get a camera that I'll use other times. My non-travel pictures tend to be outdoors: hiking, cycling, skiing, walking around cities. I've never really been hiking or doing anything other than Taking Pictures with a camera larger than a point-and-shoot, so I don't know what that's like. I care only a little bit about video, and wouldn't be devastated if it were missing entirely.

I've been reading a lot of camera reviews, and I think I'm at the point where I know which one or two models I would consider in any given category. My problem is that I can't decide which category I want.
  • Low-end mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (Sony NEX-F3, etc.): more versatile than my other options, but I don't really have the budget for more than the kit lens right now. Maybe also a pancake lens, but that would really be pushing my budget. I would be worried about damaging these, and they don't really fit in a pocket without that pancake lens. I'm also not keen on carrying more weight than I have to while hiking. The upsides are better image quality at a given price than my other options and more versatility if I decide I want to drop more cash on photography in the future.
  • Point-and-shoots (Canon S100, etc.): basically my current camera, only better in every way (except for zoom, which would be about the same). If only out of familiarity, I wouldn't be as worried about damaging a camera like this as I would an interchangeable lens one, but I would still be nervous about shooting on a rainy day. Better image quality than weatherproof cameras or travel superzooms.
  • Weatherproof cameras (Olympus TG-1, etc.): I hear Patagonia can be very rainy and windy, even in summer. I really like the idea of not having to be concerned about keeping my camera safe, not knocking my camera pocket on a rock, not getting my camera dusty, keeping my camera in a waterproof case (or plastic bag), etc. On the other hand, I probably won't get top-notch photographic performance in any regard out of one of these cameras: they won't have the best sensors, the best controls, or the best optics. I only go diving about once every other year, and even then I don't know if I'd take a camera.
  • Travel superzooms (Canon SX260, etc.): I notice that when I'm traveling, I give up on a lot of shots because I can't get close enough with the lens on my Casio. I don't know exactly how many wild animals or other zoom-friendly subjects I should expect to see on this trip, but I'm pretty sure that a lens maxing out at 100mm is not going to get me every shot I'd like. Unfortunately, reviews say these cameras tend to be slow, have poor low-light performance, and often take a hit on image quality in general.
I'm leaning towards either a weatherproof camera or a travel superzoom right now, but even after reading a truckload of camera reviews and looking at a ton of sample images I don't have a good sense for just how much real, non-pixel-squinting image quality I'd be giving up by going with, say, the Olympus TG-1 instead of the Canon S100. I also don't know exactly how rainy I should expect the Patagonian summer to be, or how paranoid I need to be about water damage with cameras.

So help me get my priorities sorted out: what kind of camera do I want? Are there options I'm not considering that I should be? What camera did you really enjoy taking on your last possibly-rainy outdoor vacation? What's going to make me happy?
posted by Serf to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I had written up a couple of paragraphs about why trying to get a zoom with a real long max length on it is a fool's errand in a camera like this, and about the misleading marketing surrounding "zoom" being sold as a multiplier (I.e. "10x"), but my ipad decided that because I opened another window to look up the focal length range for a Sony rx100, I must not want the stuff I'd typed in this window anymore, thus I start over.

So, anyway, I'm going to recommend the Sony rx100. It meets all your criteria except that its max focal length is 100mm equivalent. I think this is fine, since little tiny lenses like this always look pretty awful zoomed way in toward their maximums anyway. Realistically, long lenses like this are for shooting wildlife and sports. You're not shooting sports here, so that leaves wildlife. I think you're better off reframing your shots as wildlife in a setting and capturing a wider view with a decent lens than zooming way up close to get a blurry, grainy picture of an animal that you won't want to keep anyway. Good wildlife lenses are very expensive and very heavy, so I think you should concede that you're not shooting wildlife except as part of a landscape, and get a amera that will do everything else you want really well.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:03 PM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would suggest getting something ruggedized and super durable, just keep this trait in mind. You can easily add two others, like quality of image and something else. Regardless, you just don't want it to break if ya drop it, or if it finds itself in an odd spot in an odd situation and something odd happens... I think we're all familiar with those random "Oh Sh**!" moments.

Something ruggedized would simply scoff at most of those moments ;)

Then again, this is completely personal opinion. I just notice that people quite often lose or break things on expeditions... replacement/repair costs seem all too common.

Survival is human's basic instinct, make it your cameras? Who knows... haha

Good luck and good wishes!
posted by JamesBlakeAV at 12:47 AM on January 30, 2013

You really cannot beat the interchangeable lens cameras for quality. Especially now that the micro 4/3 has reached a quality that (arguably) rivals the low end DSLRs. Worth spending a few more pennies.

I got myself an Olympus OMD EM5 recently and I absolutely love it. A small bag of lenses will cover all situations (a pancake, a zoom and a portrait lens). There is a newer, cheaper smaller brother to the OMD now called the EPL5. Worth a look too: OMD vs EPL5
posted by 0bvious at 12:57 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Camera technology has changed utterly in the 20+ years since I spent 3 months in that part of the world - but I suspect the challenging climate (extremely heavy rain for days on end interspersed with strong sun) has not. Whatever you choose I would recommend you keep in a waterproof case along with some silica gel. For an easy life I also agree with those who suggest a rugged, water resistant model. A solar powered charger would be nice since, as you mention, the nearest power socket could be a long way off. More than anything else Patagonia is a place for landscape photography - after ruggedness I would put an ability to deal with panoramic images at the top of my list.
posted by rongorongo at 4:02 AM on January 30, 2013

I can't really comment on the camera (I have a several-years-old Canon Powershot SX200IS and it's been amazing, but it's not as rugged or waterproof as your trip needs...) but I will just say that you should definitely invest in extra battery packs and SD cards, along with extra waterproofed space for them. Having the flexibility to go out with two fully charged batteries and have the extra space for another thousand pictures has been really invaluable. You can store old SD cards separately, if you want to make sure pictures from the previous days will be safe and not damaged/stolen if your camera is.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:57 AM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: Hey, I've taken that trip! (Okay, probably not that *exact* trip, but something very similar, including hiking the W.)

I took hundreds of pictures on my trip and almost none of them were of wildlife. The scenery in Patagonia is so tilted towards magnificent vistas and desolate plains and endless glaciers and landscape, versus wildlife or close-in detail (as you might want if you were traveling to a rainforest or jungle), that I don't see a compelling reason for the zoom lens. Penguins are one notable exception, but they are extremely unafraid of humans and our penguin-watching excursion involved a lot of trying to not step on them. I can think of exactly one situation in which I wish I had a zoom lens over several weeks there.

So, I'd definitely go with a weatherproof or point-and-zoom. I think that we ended up going too far on the weatherproof route; our bombproof camera had no automatic lens cover and it turns out that it's even harder to keep smeary fingerprints off that lens when you're backpacking than it would have been to keep the damn thing in a plastic sandwich bag to protect its innards. I didn't at all anticipate how annoying that would be or how hard it would be to keep a clean, dry cloth on me at all times to clean the lens so definitely don't get a camera like that! If I had it to do again, I'd go with the smallest point-and-zoom (to easily fit in a jacket pocket) that had great image quality.
posted by iminurmefi at 6:53 AM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've been looking at the Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS as a point and shoot. I'm really hard on my electronics, having gone through two point and shoots in three years. It's gotten favorable reviews as a water/dust/shock resistant camera with decent image quality. The f/2 aperture means it'll do fair enough in low light.
posted by mlo at 7:27 AM on January 30, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everyone! You've definitely talked me out of the superzooms, and I think I've talked myself out of the interchangeable lens cameras.

0bvious, it looks like if I went the interchangeable lens route I'd have to stick with the kit lens for this trip. Almost all lenses seem to be at least $200, so even a single additional lens would put me over budget without even getting into cases / straps / bags / batteries / cards. It also seems like I'd rarely take the camera cycling or skiing, unless it's much smaller than it seems. So I don't know if I'd get a huge during or after-trip benefit out of one (compared to, say, the RX100). Am I giving this option less credit than it deserves?

iminurmefi, I hadn't even thought about lens smudging. How much of your trip would you have had a non-waterproof camera out of a sandwich bag?

Barring any surprising new information, at this point I'm deciding between the Olympus TG-1, the Canon S100, and (although the price is getting up there) the Sony RX100. The real question may now be: how careful do I need to be with non-waterproof point-and-shoots in the rain?
posted by Serf at 9:54 AM on January 30, 2013

A little out of the box...

Take a Pentax dSLR. The K-5 and K30 are weather sealed. The DA* and WR lenses are also sealed. For the best photos, this is the option. ISO 51200, weather sealed, 7 fps, 1/8000 shutter speed, etc.

Take a Pentax WG series point and shoot. Depending on the model, they are
Waterproof to 45 feet
Shockproof to 6.6 feet
Crushproof to 220 lbs pressure
Coldproof to -14 degrees f
GPS available
Macro mode with six LED illumination
1080p, up to f2.0 lens, ISO6400, etc.
posted by Leenie at 10:08 AM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: There was only once that the waterproof-ness of our camera was really needed (and so a plastic bag would have been required for a regular point-and-shoot), and that was when we went kayaking in Chiloe. Of course, the pictures turned out terrible, because it turns out gray sky + gray water + dead trees are not actually that interesting to look at. Could have definitely skipped bringing the camera for that excursion!

Other than that, I would have felt comfortable basically having the camera in my (waterproof jacket) pocket for all the hiking we did, including trekking in Torres del Paine and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and some boating to islands near Ushuaia/Isla Navarino. I wore my light rain jacket pretty much all the time I was outside being active, not because of the rain (which didn't happen every day, and when it did happen, you just waited 15 minutes for the weather to change) but because of the wind (which was much more constant). In my experience, it just wasn't very common to have drenching downpours that would require extra protection for the camera beyond what you're using to protect your own skin, so long as you get a camera small enough to slip into a jacket pocket.

Even now at home, I mostly use my camera for taking pictures when hiking or snowshoeing or backpacking, and I treat it the same way I do a smartphone. I exercise reasonable care to not drop it in a puddle or pull it out when it's raining really hard, and I'll stick it in a sandwich bag if I'm going to toss it in my backpack (for storage) rather than keep it on my person (for quick picture-taking), but I don't overly stress about it. Your level of clumsiness may differ but if you haven't shorted or smashed your smartphone then I don't know you need to worry about carelessly ruining your camera even in a windy/rainy place.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:58 AM on January 30, 2013

Another vote for the Pentax K5 (I am fascinated by the K5 IIs) or the Olympus OM-D E-5M. Both will produce high quality images, are weather sealed and are relatively small in size. Check out this MeFi post/advertisement for the Pentax K5.
posted by caddis at 12:34 PM on January 30, 2013

Pentax K5 and K3 apparently now on sale
posted by caddis at 1:32 PM on February 7, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry for the late conclusion to this question, but I ended up going with the Sony RX-100. It was perfect: easy to always have in my pocket, didn't take up a lot of space, and -- aside from a few rainy days -- I didn't worry about it too much. I ended up being very happy with its image quality. Thank you all so much for your advice!

Here are some of our photos from the trip.
posted by Serf at 6:44 PM on May 11, 2013

Those are some great photos. Glad you are happy with you camera. I have one of these too and it never ceases to amaze me how such a little camera can make such high quality images. Of course, the photographer still carries the load, not the camera, and boy have you done that here! Great stuff.
posted by caddis at 10:47 AM on May 12, 2013

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