Moving away from a heavy DSLR was a difficult transition for me as I began to adopt a more lightweight backpacking gear list a few years ago. Clothing, food, warmth, and comfort were all easy to sacrifice, as I knew I’d have them at home as soon as I returned from my trips. Photography was different though, for most trips there is no going back. You can’t recreate a sunset or simulate the spontaneous movement of wildlife. My first attempt to go ultra-light failed pretty badly when I tried to shoot exclusively with my iPhone 4S on Camino de Santiago in 2012. The pictures were fine for Instagram and thumbnails online, but anything larger than 5×7 prints or web thumbnails just came out poorly. It was here I began my search for the perfect balance of weight, cost, and image quality. After looking at smaller crop-sensor DSLRs, point-and-shoots, and mirror-less options, I knew that I wanted the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system and manual shooting options on the largest sensor I could afford.
When I began my search for a lightweight backpacking and travel camera in 2012, the pickings were pretty slim, and many cameras that were available had limited lens offerings. Fast forward to 2016 and the market is now flush with capable shooters, all capable of being paired with a lineup of lenses to match any shooters preferences.
I won’t be doing in depth reviews or spec analysis, just recommendations with my reasons. For an in depth look at each camera’s specs, I suggest looking at DPreview.com or CameraLabs.com.
**You can support Trail to Peak by purchasing any of these cameras with the links provided below.**
For my list of top cameras I’ll break it down into the following categories and provide lens suggestions if available.
- Full Frame Mirrorless
- APS-C Mirrorless
- Four Thirds Mirrorless
- Action Camera
- Point And Shoot
- Smart Phone
- Best Smart Phone Apps
- Recommended Software
- Best Camera Accessories
For those of you who are unfamiliar, take a look below at this image of sensor sizes to get an understanding of what some of these categories refer to. When it comes to image quality sensor size is king. Don’t be fooled by marketing claims of megapixels. For years, camera manufacturers jacked up megapixel counts for marketing purposes even when it had no bearing on increasing image quality. In many cases, it resulted in noisy harsh images, especially those shot in low light at high ISO. I’m not saying that megapixels aren’t important. They are. The extra detail for a landscape can make all the difference. Keep in mind though that the pixel size of a 24 mp full frame and an 8 mp 4/3 won’t be too far off.
When it comes to full frame mirrorless cameras, look no further than Sony. They are the top dog in this market for good reason. This market started with Sony releasing the A7, and has quickly grown to a pretty sizable offering of cameras. When it comes to image quality, you’re not going to do better than packing a full frame sensor into a lightweight body. This is the most expensive camera option on this list, but you’re going to get incredible image quality for what you’re buying.
Pros: 5 axis in body stabilization, solid metal build quality with weather resistance, fast autofocus, full frame 24.3mp sensor, shoots RAW, electric viewfinder and quality LCD,
Cons: Expensive compared to APS-C, more expensive lenses than APS-C, slightly larger and heavier than other options.
- Sony A7R II – 42.2 MP more expensive
- Sony A7S II – 12.2 MP 4K Video more expensive
- Sony A7R – 36.4 MP more expensive
- Sony A7S – 12.2 MP more expensive
- Sony A7 – 24.3 MP less expensive
- Prime lens: Sony 55mm F1.8 Sonnar
- Wide angle Lens: Sony 16-35mm Vario-Tessar
- All purpose lens: Sony 24-70mm f/4 Vario-Tessar
- Telephoto: Sony FE 70-300mm
If you’re looking for great images without the cost of purchasing a full frame mirrorless camera, a crop sensor APS-C camera is a great option. The APS-C sized sensor cameras are a few hundred dollars less than full frame, and the lens options are usually about half the price of their full frame equivalents. This is why I think the APS-C is the best value for hikers, backpackers, and travelers. I have been shooting with a Sony a6000 since 2014 and absolutely love it. You can see my review here. Sony has a new version of the a6000 in the a6300, and in my opinion, it’s the best camera for those looking to go lightweight.
Pros: Lighting fast autofocus, 4k video, weather sealed body, super sharp images, affordable
Cons: Less pro control when compared to upper level Sony A7 models
- Sony A6000 – Older model with less tech, almost half the price of a6300
- Sony A5100 – Cheaper, no viewfinder
- Prime lens: Sony SEL50F18/B 50mm f/1.8
- Pancake lens: Sony SEL16F28 16mm f/2.8
- Wide angle lens: Sony SEL1018 10-18mm
- All purpose lens: Sony SELP18105G E PZ 18-105mm
- Telephoto lens: Sony E 55-210mm
Alongside Sony, Olympus has to be given a lot of credit for helping revolutionize the camera industry with mirrorless cameras. The Olympus cameras come with a 4/3 sensor which is smaller than the Sony APS-C. Still, Olympus cameras deliver big time when it comes to image quality. The Olympus 4/3 series of cameras is also the most stylish in my opinion. The designers at Olympus have found a way to pack a ton of great tech into a svelte vintage looking body.
Pros: 5 axis image stabilization, electronic viewfinder, looks great, fast autofocus
Cons: 4/3 sensor with 16MP
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 – Very similar model
- Olympus OM-D E-M10 – Half the price in smaller body
- Olympus Pen F – Super small, more expensive, no view finder
- Olympus E -PL7 – Cheapest of the Olympus offerings, low tech specs
- Prime lens: Olympus 25mm f1.8
- Pancake lens: Olympus M. Zuiko 17mm f/2.8
- Wide angle lens: Olympus M ED 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6
- All purpose lens: Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-40mm F2.8
- Telephoto lens: Olympus Zuiko 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 ED
GoPro is a name that is synonymous with capturing epic adventure footage. A lot of this has to do with the fact that they were one of the first companies to corner the niche market. With the explosion of online video sharing, anyone can share footage at anytime. Most of this begins and ends with cellphone footage, but for those of us who like to push the envelope, GoPros come in handy. GoPros are waterproof when used with their casing, the durable, and they can be purchased with an infinite number of mounts. Just looking at a quick browse on Amazon, I see bike mounts, car mounts, dog mounts, chest mounts, and head mounts. The newest versions of the GoPro shoot 4K video which allows for some nice cropping and stabilization in post processing. You can also pair your GoPro with your phone as a secondary monitor.
Pros: Portable, light, durable, waterproof, 4k video, community of producers
Cons: Poor 12MP still images, poor low light performance, poor battery life, no native viewfinder or touch display
- GoPro Hero4 Silver – less expensive, only 2k video, comes with touch display
- GoPro Hero Session – Cheapest option, only 1440k, only 8MP stills, no display, smallest and most compact camera option
As I began planning to put this camera list together, I was hesitant to add point and shoots. Why? This is the fastest dying segment of the camera market due to the emergence of smart phones. Smart phone cameras do almost everything a point and shoot can do, and in some cases do it better. I can’t really think of too many situations where I would take a point and shoot over a smart phone. It makes sense to get a mirrorless camera, as the photo quality and manual controls will blow a smart phone camera out of the water. The only time I can think one would need a point and shoot is if they don’t have new smart phone, or just prefer the standalone features of a camera decoupled from a phone experience.
The Canon PowerShot G7 X is a great camera having said all of that. It has a 1 inch 20.2 MP sensor which is larger than just about any other point and shoot. This is why I think it’s worth putting on this list.
Pros: Large sensor for point and shoot, compact, portable, 1.8 lens with 24-100 zoom, great manual controls
Cons: Fixed lens, smallish sensor
For hikers, backpackers, and travelers looking to go lightweight, there is no better option than a smartphone. A smartphone can be your camera, video recorder, GPS system, computer, and phone, while providing the ability to share all of this content immediately. Smartphones also give the user the ability to edit photos and access post-processing software right away. Although the image quality may not be as good as a mirrorless APS-C of full frame, there is no denying the versatility of a great smartphone.
The reason I choose the iPhone 6S Plus as the top smartphone is due to it’s excellent build quality, ability to use domestic and international cell networks, wide range of great apps, optical image stabilization and a really good in-house camera app.
Pros: OIS, Apps, camera internal processing, available unlocked, build quality
Smart Phone Apps
Everybody has a favorite list of smartphone apps that they use while hiking, backpacking, and traveling. Here are some of my favorites:
- All Trails
- Earthmate (For My InReach Satellite)
- Google Photos
- Snapseed (Where I edit my phone photos)
- Sony Play Memories (transfer from a6000 to my phone)
I do all of my photo editing in Lightroom. This is one of the most popular software packages for photographers, pro and novice alike. The great thing about Lightroom is that you can use it as a quick and simple editing tool, or get deep into the mechanics of it and really go to work. If you plan on taking photos, you’ll wan’t to get post processing software. Look no further than Lightroom.
Recommended Camera Travel Accessories
- Altura Photo Professional Cleaning Kit
- APS-C Frame (CCD/CMOS) Digital Camera Sensor Swab Type 2 Cleaning Kit
- Sony 32GB Class 10 SDHC Card
- Peak Design Slide Camera Sling
- Peak Design Capture Camera Clip
- Peak Design Cuff Camera Wrist Strap CF-2
- Pedco UltraPod II Lightweight Camera Tripod