What's a good digital point-and-shoot camera to take backpacking?
July 19, 2007 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm having trouble finding a new point-and-shoot digital camera to take backpacking. Can you help me find a model that fits my criteria?

I'm an avid backpacker, and my beloved Olympus Stylus 300 is starting to fail. I'm looking for a replacement that can withstand the rigors of life on the trail, that also has a viewfinder for easier composing while in the glare of sunshine. I was all set to buy one of the newer Stylus models (Olympus's "weatherproof" line) when I discovered, to my great dismay, that none of them have viewfinders! Further searching has proven that these two features are an elusive combination, but hopefully you guys can help me find something.

1) Do you know of any cameras that are weather-resistant AND feature a viewfinder? (In addition to google, I've tried several "find the right camera for you" tools online - especially the ones suggested in previous AskMe threads. Few of them ask about viewfinders, none of them mention durability, and browsing reviews and various electronics retailers hasn't turned up any winners.)

2) I really can't see myself buying a model without a viewfinder, so I might have to lower my expectations on the durability level. How delicate are "normal" digital cameras that don't advertise water or shock resistance? If they get damp, or get knocked around a little bit, are they ruined?

3) Is there any particular digital camera that you've had great success with in your active, outdoor pursuits? Please share your recommendations and/or horror stories to guide me.
posted by vytae to Technology (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I swear by the Canon SD line (we use an SD400), but they might not be rugged enough for your pursuits, although I have seen plenty of home inspectors use them and they have to go all kinds of unpleasant places.

As you've mentioned you've already check out sites recommended, if you haven't hit up DP Review, it's worth the visit.
posted by iamabot at 11:04 AM on July 19, 2007

I am an avid backpacker, and I use an old Panasonic Lumix camera, which I have preserved in its nearly-new state for 5 or 6 years with one of those floating, waterproof, sandproof Pelican cases. It's rugged, and it doesn't take up much more room than the camera would have in the first place. I've dropped it (in the closed case) from a distance of several feet onto rock, and not a bit of damage was done. I put pieces of foam in the case to keep the camera completely still.

What I mean to say is, perhaps you should look for the camera features you want, and leave the weatherproofing and protection to a separate case.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 11:09 AM on July 19, 2007

I know people who abuse the heck out of their SD line as well, but I wouldn't want to get mine wet, or give it a decent fall. We have Pentax Optio W10's at work that are routinely abused (water+falls), but alas, no viewfinder either.
posted by SirStan at 11:10 AM on July 19, 2007

The Ricoh caplio 500G wide is water resistant and have a viewfinder, but it might be a bit big and heavy to take backpacking (although I've never seen one in real life...)

I know of several Canon SD/Ixus that have failed, but alcohol was involved in all cases... (not only applied to the user, but also to the cameras :))
posted by rpn at 11:19 AM on July 19, 2007

My SD450 died after it tried to turn on in my bag - the lens couldn't extend properly, and it broke the mechanism inside. Luckily it was still under warranty, but I've been MUCH more careful with it since.
posted by antifuse at 11:22 AM on July 19, 2007

Also - bear in mind that the viewfinders on compact P&S cameras are often seriously innacurate. Unless I'm shooting with my SLR, I prefer to use the screen on the back as my viewfinder. With the SD450, I'll still get fantastic battery life as the screen shuts itself off in a short period of time of inactivity (ie no buttons pressed) and turns itself right back on as soon as you half-press the shutter.
posted by antifuse at 11:24 AM on July 19, 2007

Another Canon testimonial: My partner dropped my SD100 into a stream in Canada. Fortunately, his hiking buddy is a techy type and they removed the battery and card immediately. After a day in a sunny window, the camera came back to life. Plus, we were able to get the picture. It still works, BTW.

YMMV, of course. It was a very clear stream.
posted by robabroad at 11:30 AM on July 19, 2007

I'm a backpacker and geologist, and my cameras take a beating. So far I've loved Canons - I've dropped them, taken nasty falls with them in my pack and my hand, gone through snow, rainstorms, and boats, and never had any real, it-won't-ever-work-again problems.

I recently got a Canon Powershot A640, and I'm really happy with it. It's got a really good viewfinder, enough pixels that it doesn't make every pebble in a rock picture 1 pixel, and actually fairly decent telephoto capabilities. I can even turn off the LCD display and save battery power when I've been in the woods for a few days and need just that many more shots, and have no trouble using the viewfinder. Although I have heard some people complain the viewfinder isn't as accurate, I haven't had many problems.

I admit, though, I haven't had a real chance to test its ruggedness, but I have slung it around some airplanes, trucks, and field sites, and its been in my backpack a few times with some tools and rocks. Since I tend to walk with my camera in my hand quite a bit, I do have a homemade foam device I slip over the the camera to protect the screen and lens, which is really helpful when I fall. I like my homemade device better because it has the ease of a case with no zipping or buttoning, with more durability, and I can always throw the foam away and get more when it's dirty or smushed. But maybe that just works for me (shrug).

And seconding the Pelican cases, although if you're on a budget, getting something like a fishing tackle box or a waterproof first aid kit, then cutting foam to fit inside and to fit your camera also works.
posted by barchan at 12:02 PM on July 19, 2007

I've had good luck with a Canon SD400 as well. I take it skiing all the time, keeping in an interior jacket pocket. I've fallen on it more than once, it regularly gets cold enough so that the battery spontaneously dies, and the case is actually bent and popped slightly open on top. I've been treating it like this for about 3 years now and it's only a month or so ago that it started giving me problems (it doesn't recognize that there's space left on the memory card when there is).
posted by rachelv at 12:08 PM on July 19, 2007

I have an SD100 and left it outside in the early winter.

It got rained on.

Then it froze that night.

I think this repeated two more times.

Then I remembered where I had put it, brought it inside, let it dry for about a week.......

And it works!
posted by gregvr at 12:21 PM on July 19, 2007

Yep, more Canon Elph/Ixus love. I have a (now elderly) S200 that I simply haven't been able to destroy. I used it in the rain, dropped it more times than I can count, sat on it, and it keeps on ticking. The cameras are great, but what I can't gush about enough is Canon's service. I lost the battery hatch cover to that camera, they sent one out for I think $2. I then managed to break one of the integral lens cover shutters, they sent the part free.
posted by Skorgu at 1:05 PM on July 19, 2007

Not too sure of what model would work, but I would add one additional requirement, Use of AA batteries. Because most trees don't have 120vAC plugs to recharge proprietary batteries.
posted by Gungho at 1:07 PM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have a Canon A570 that I carry around in an Otterbox when not in use. I haven't dropped this one yet, but the A510 I owned previously got knocked about a bit.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 2:16 PM on July 19, 2007

I've got a Pentax Optio 33WR, water-resistant with rubber corners. I've dropped it, gotten rain and salt water on it, let it rattle around in a bag full of stuff, and it's still kicking. And it has a viewfinder (though, as antifuse mentions, it's not the most accurate feature). They've upgraded the camera since I got mine, so that particular model isn't available, but I think they make a 43WR now.
posted by bassjump at 2:30 PM on July 19, 2007

Seconding advice above about the SD400. I've carried mine on every backpacking trip I've made for the last two years. It's survived all manner of drops, been left out in the rain overnight, been used in temperatures racing from -15 to 100 degrees, and it keeps right on ticking. I bought a cheap $15 case for it that's probably helped keep in in better condition than it would otherwise be, but otherwise have taken no precautions with it.

It's very compact and very light and will fit in a jacket pocket easily, has at least a functional viewfinder, and takes fine pictures.

Also, an added bonus, the camera's stock panorama-making features work great, which is of definite benefit when backpacking anywhere with good views.

ps. As is the case with pretty much any digital camera, if you want to use it in the cold, you need to carry it in a jacket pocket or otherwise keep it at least moderately warm. Otherwise the battery will die.
posted by dseaton at 2:33 PM on July 19, 2007

Not a direct answer to your question, but... I resisted buying a camera without a view finder for a long time, but finally my desire for the featured in the Lumix TZ3 got too strong, and I decided to give it a try. I was sure it was going to take a lot of getting used to; in fact, it took about an afternoon.

Some stores have surprisingly liberal return policies for digital cameras (Costco, in particular). It might be worth picking up the new weatherproof stylus and giving it a workout. You may adapt sooner than you think. (Also, if weatherproofing isn't that big a deal, you might look at the TZ3. The 10x optical zoom makes it a terrific travel cam.)
posted by j-dawg at 3:45 PM on July 19, 2007

I too do my share of backpacking. However, I've been just fine with normal point & shoot cameras (ie, no ruggedization). Just get a case and bring it into your tent if it looks like rain.

Incidentally, I just got back from a weeklong venture on the Foothills Trail in South Carolina. I brought my brand-new Sony DSC-T100 along. It worked okay -- I had bought an extra battery for it but the first one ended up lasting the entire time without losing a single notch. However, I got annoyed with the flash being on almost all the time (including several sunlit landscape shots) so I turned it off. Turns out that makes for some really crappy pictures in any non-landscape situation.
posted by dondiego87 at 8:17 PM on July 19, 2007

Canon has a few interesting compacts (A570IS, SD800IS, A710IS, G7) with an (inaccurate) optical viewfinder.

As an avid backpacker I'ld look at pocketability and zoom range before weather-proofness; any pocket camera in a good bag should be able to resist a few drops and/of rain.

If you want durability, look at the pocket cameras with professional aspirations like the Canon G7; they should have a stronger (metal) case.

Another interesting option for a backpacker would be the Ricoh GX100 featuring a sharp wide-angle lens, good construction quality, optional Electronic ViewFinder in a shirt-pocket sized camera. Not a lot of tele-zoom and only available in USA from either popflash.com or adorama.

I've listed a few of the more interesting Point-and-Shoots:
posted by Akeem at 4:07 AM on July 20, 2007

I am a field ecologist and I can vouch for getting a small Pelican case for your camera. I use a Sony W70/W80 for my field work and it works great, good macro capability and more importantly, it fits in your front pocket for when you need to have it around for a few photos in a row.
posted by buttercup at 4:31 AM on July 20, 2007

Wow, it sounds like the Canon SD line is the favorite! I will check out all the suggestions given. Thanks very much for your help!
posted by vytae at 11:44 AM on July 20, 2007

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