While the emphasis in "Backcountry Photography" has always been on technique, rather than gear, one of the most often asked questions concerns hardware:
Do I need an expensive professional digital camera to shoot good photos?
Luckily, the answer is easy: No! If you're ready to retire your tried‑and‑true 35mm film camera, but you don't want to invest a big chunk of your paycheck in professional gear, you won't go far wrong if you start out with a simple point‑and‑shoot camera. You can always move up. Or, if you're the type who likes to take control, and if you want the flexibility and versatility of interchangeable lenses, look for an entry‑level digital single‑lens reflex (DSLR). Here's a checklist of points to consider in weighing your options:
- Battery type and longevity
- Type of media card
- Resolution (number of pixels)
- Manual settings
- Weather sealing
- Availability and quality of auxiliary lenses
Sundry cautions and reminders: Cost involves more than the price sticker on the box. Many digital cameras use proprietary rechargeable batteries. These aren't cheap, and you'll probably want at least one spare. The same holds true of media (memory) cards, though the cost of the ubiquitous SD and SDHC cards has plummeted in recent years. Resolution is an even trickier call. More pixels are better than fewer — you can print larger pictures, for one thing — and technology has certainly moved on since the days when the 0.5 megapixel Canon PowerShot 600 represented the state of the art. But image quality isn't determined by published pixel count alone. The online reviews at sites like The Imaging Resource (see link below, under "More, Please!") will help you navigate these uncertain waters, as will the comments of fellow paddlers in the Paddling.net Reviews.
By the way, a Manual option makes sense even for paddlers who are usually happy to let their cameras call the shots. Sometimes you just have to take charge. And weather sealing? That's a no‑brainer for folks who shoot in rain, fog, or dust. (NB A weather‑sealed camera body does not mean the camera is waterproof. Showerproof, maybe, but certainly not immersion‑proof. This distinction is important.)
OK. Now that you have your camera, it's time to…
Most digital cameras have an Automatic mode. This makes all the decisions for you. You point the camera at your subject and press the shutter. The camera does the rest. That's what "point and shoot" means, and it's fine if all you want to do is capture snapshots for a blog post. If you plan to do more, however, you'll have to override the camera's built‑in brain from time to time. So it's a good thing that most digital cameras — even point‑and‑shoot cameras — give you an alternative to Automatic mode. But you have to know how to use it. And you have to start making decisions for yourself even before you shoot your first shot. In fact, one of the most important comes right at the start, when you program your camera's resolution, as the following question highlights:
I'm not sure I understand what "recorded pixels" means, but I guess it's important if I want to make prints. What do I need to know?
A digital photo is really just a computer file, and the larger you make the file, the more information in the form of picture elements (pixels) it can hold. This translates into a more detailed image. If you constrain file size unnecessarily, therefore, you limit image quality. Bigger is definitely better here. After all, you can always throw away any information you don't need, but you'll never get more than was saved when you took the original shot. You can't add back what wasn't there to begin with.
Why is this important? It comes down to how you use your pictures. If you're shooting for the Web, you can often get by with low‑resolution images, but if you plan to print some of your shots, you'll need all the pixels you can get, particularly if you want large (8 x 10 or larger, say) prints. Low‑resolution images yield grainy prints. It's as simple as that. You'll also need high‑resolution images for things like printed t‑shirts, mugs, and other items offered by your local custom print shop or sold through online galleries like Printfection, CafePress, and Zazzle.
My advice? Read the manual that came with your camera. Scan the index for phrases like "picture quality," "recorded pixels," or "compression settings." When you find the relevant section, follow the instructions and choose the highest setting. Of course, this means that individual shots will take up a lot of space in your camera's memory, reducing the number of pictures you can take before you have to download them to your computer and then delete them from your camera's on‑board memory. So buy the highest capacity media (memory) card that your budget permits — and while you're at it, buy a spare.
Now, with that behind us, we're really ready to shoot. Or are we?
I'm confused about aperture and how it relates to depth of field and shutter speed. Can you help?
Here's a brief summary: Exposure is determined by the interplay of aperture and shutter speed. Aperture is indicated by ƒ‑number. The higher the ƒ‑number, the smaller the aperture, and aperture dictates the size of your camera's window on the world. Large windows let in more light than small windows, so an aperture of ƒ/5.6 lets in more light than an aperture of, say, ƒ/22. Aperture also determines depth of field, the distance between the nearest and most distant points that a lens can simultaneously bring into acceptably sharp focus. The higher the ƒ‑number, the greater the depth of field. The inverse is also true: the smaller the ƒ‑number, the narrower or shallower the resulting depth of field.
Shutter speed is more easily grasped. Whereas aperture determines how large a window your camera throws open to the world, the shutter controls how long this window remains open to the light. A fast shutter speed freezes action; a slow shutter speed does the opposite, cumulating movement into a formless, fluid blur. Together, aperture and shutter speed determine exposure. Confused? The following photo pair should bring aperture, depth of field, and shutter speed into better focus: