Camino Camera Considerations

CaminoCamera

Click image above or HERE for video version!

When my best friend and I spent a month in Europe after college in the mid-90’s, I took a whopping 500 pictures. Today, of course, people take 500 pics of themselves during the course of a single night out – but back in the days of film, 500 was a rather insane number of pictures for a single trip. I took no video, as video cams were large and expensive. Now I can take better pictures and video with a device that fits in my pocket and basically costs nothing because I already use it as a phone. It requires no film, tapes, or developing. What a world!

So what about the Camino? The trip will be nearly as long as my Europe trip and while I might get to revisit some of the places I went in Europe some day, this will likely be my only Camino (or at least the only one on this route). So I want to make sure my pics and video are great.

SO far I’ve narrowed my choices down to three major possibilities: just use the phone, get a tough pocket-sized camera, or take a full-sized “pro” camera. Each of these has important benefits and costs associated with them. The exact models (which often change annually) are not as important as the types of cameras they are and the features they have. Here are the current contenders in my mind.

Phone Camera

phone

Without doubt the most lightweight (6 oz.), inexpensive ($80 – yeah, I’m cheap with phones), and simple option is to just rely on my phone. It takes 8mp pics and 1920x1080p video. Selfies are easy with its dual cameras and 5.5″ screen, and accessories are smaller and less expensive than those for larger cameras. The phone’s battery is long-lasting and it’s easily rechargeable with a portable powerbank. Plus, it’s my phone – so in a sense it’s a zero-cost, zero-weight option because I’ll have it whether I use it as a camera or not.

There are downsides to using a phone only, however. It has no optical zoom – so distance shots are going to be poor in quality, no image stabilizer – so video will be bouncy, it’s only got mono sound, the tiny lens suffers from light insensitivity, and its 8mp are loaded onto to a very tiny sensor, so resolution is an issue.* The phone is also not waterproof or even resistant, so weather needs to be taken into consideration.

Pocket Camera

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In Europe, I used a tough, waterproof pocket camera and I was very happy with it. I needed all of those features more than once, and the pics were great. While Pentax does have a digital version of that camera, the industry leader today seems to be the Olympus TG series. They’re not cheap – the most current model comes in at $450, and last year’s is still holding at $350. But they do some amazing things.

I won’t list all the features here, but the ones important to the comparison are that it shoots 12mp pics on a slightly larger sensor than the typical phone.* It shoots 1920x1080p video but has a (battery and memory eating) 4k option as well. The camera has a 4x optical zoom for clarity, a digital image stabilizer for smooth video, and stereo sound for better audio. This camera only weighs in at 8.8 oz. and the housing is tough as nails: waterproof (= can be used underwater), dirt proof, drop and crush proof . . . the TG series are badass cameras that can take a serious beating. What’s not to love?

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*Although many people just look at the pixel count, sensor size is very important because it affects how those pixels will resolve. For example, if you are comparing an 8MP  with a 12MP camera, the 12MP model could be worse if the sensors are the same size because the pixels must be smaller and are more affected by noise. The Olympus TG model is a good example of this: when Olympus replaced the TG4 with the TG5, it had the same sized sensor but less mp to increase picture quality!

The Olympus TG does not compare favorably to phones in every possible way, however. First, there’s the price: a $350-$450 item is a pretty major addition to the pilgrim’s kit. Second, selfies are difficult because the small 3″ screen does not pop out or rotate to the front. Third, the battery life is maybe half what it is on a phone, so you’ve got to carry extra batteries (and recharge them daily) if you want to record a lot.

Finally, the image quality increase over a phone’s may not be as dramatic as expected. Here are some comparisons from a  trip to Yosemite I took with some buddies. I was excited to see that one of them carried the Olympus TG5 and he let me have copies of his photos. I loved how the TG5 functioned on the trail and the pics were good, but I was surprised that my cheap phone actually held its own against the TG5 in several situations.

In well-lit shots, the two are actually pretty hard to tell apart even when the image is  blown up (click to enlarge):

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The Olympus showed its superiority when it came to low / mixed light, however. While the coloring can be manipulated, the higher resolution shown through in these shots:

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While both the pocket camera and the phone did fine in good lighting and mounted video, at the more extreme ends of the spectrum, the Olympus did a better job quality-wise.

Now, there are pocket cameras with much better lenses and sensors, but they are very expensive and lack the TG’s weatherproofing and toughness –  and that’s one of the main features I’d want in a small carry camera. If I am going to spend serious money on a camera based primarily on image quality, I’m going full sized.

Full Sized Camera

Pang85

Every image flaw caused by low lens quality or a small sensors looms large on a screen 5′ wide, and now that even cheap TV’s are hitting the 4k resolution mark, standard HD devices can barely keep up. While one can spend thousands of dollars on high resolution SLR / mirrorless cameras, an acceptable level of image quality can be found in the three-digit range.

When I started vlogging this year, the difference between my phone and the Panasonic G85 was stark:

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The image quality arises from several factors. The Panasonic shoots 16mp pics on a large sensor through its stock 5x optical zoom lens, and 1920x1080p (4k possible) video with an analog image stabilizer. The native quality can be easily boosted by the use of filters and lights. Selfies and video monitoring are possible because the 3″ screen pops out and can rotate to the front. The sound is stereo, and the camera can accept an external microphone.

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Old school photogs can think of it like this: a phone cam is like those cheap 110 cameras from the 80’s, the Olympus is like a 110 camera but with a good lens and electronics, and the Panasonic is like a 35mm SLR.

The difference in image quality between the Panasonic and the Olympus TG can be seen in both pictures and videos.

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The Panasonic is also weather-resistant (a very unusual feature in full sized cameras). Although the manufacturer goes to great lengths to say that the cameras is not waterproof, the fact that it is sealed against water and dirt at all raises my confidence in its ability to deal with weather.

Now the bad news. All this build quality comes at the price of size, weight, and, well . . . price. The camera runs nearly double that of the Olympus, and with just its standard lens it weighs in at a hefty 26oz. (It’s roughly the size of a grapefruit.) Yikes. This also means that accessory gadgets like tripods or carry bags are going to have to be bigger, heavier, and – again – more expensive.

Summary

This is a difficult decision to make on several levels, but I think the primary considerations for a Camino camera are price, size/weight, and image quality.

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The best quality images will undoubtedly come from a full sized camera, but they’re expensive. Even if money is no object, carrying a couple pounds of camera equipment around is going to be awkward, and the battery life is low.

A pocket-sized camera might seem to be the perfect balance of image quality and size/weight. In more difficult shooting situations, it is clearly superior to a mere phone. With the Olympus, you also don’t need to worry about it getting wet or dropped. However, it does not produce much better pics or video than phones in many shooting situations, selfies are sketchy, and the battery life is low.

Since you’d likely have a phone with you anyway, just using it might seem like the best choice for both price and size/weight. Plus they’re the best device for selfies and have good battery life. However, there is a fairly serious loss of image quality when it comes to low light or distance pics, and moving video shots are going to be shaky.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this has given you some ideas and considerations that will help as you make your decision. When it comes to choosing a camera for your Camino, I don’t have THE ANSWER for you. Because there isn’t one!

While it is relatively easy to list the objective benefits and costs of each choice, actually choosing comes down to subjective factors based on individual needs and desires. (And we haven’t even gone over accessories yet!)

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