Today's compact digital cameras are slimmer, lighter, and more durable than their predecessors—and their image quality is much better. They’re also a lot more portable and a lot less expensive than full-sized digital SLRs—meaning you’re more likely to carry them on your climbs—and many have features that even the pros respect, including image stabilization and continuous-shooting modes. If you want quality photos from your climbing trips, but don’t want to drop $2,000 or more on a digital SLR, a good point and shoot is a great option.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR Professional shooter Kennan Harvey—who carries a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 when he’s not toting his pro rig—recommends looking for three key features when researching cameras.
1. MINIMAL SHUTTER LAG. The annoying delay between pressing the shutter and when the photo is recorded is especially problematic when trying to capture climbers in motion.
2. A WIDE-ANGLE LENS. The camera should zoom out to least 28mm, and 24mm is better still. This is essential for taking one-handed shots of yourself and your partner on a belay ledge, and for creating a sense of steepness and exposure when looking down.
3. A “FAST” LENS. Faster lenses—those with a wider maximum aperture—make for better shooting in low-light conditions such as alpine starts and stormy retreats. In a point and shoot, consider f/2.8 fast, and f/1.8 very fast. Note that due to the mechanics of zooming, maximum aperture typically shrinks when you zoom in, so the lens will have a variable rating such as “f/2.8 – f/4.5.” Look at the lowest number (widest aperture) when comparing cameras.
Of the more techy features in new point and shoots, image stabilization is among the most helpful. “If you’re hanging on a wall, blowing in the wind, or reaching out over a ledge, image stabilization works remarkably well,” says Harvey. Another useful plus is continuous, or “burst,” mode, which improves the odds of catching a moving climber in a pleasing position.
Finally, consider the brightness of the environment in which you’ll be shooting. If mountaineering is your thing, with bright sunlight and snow everywhere, pick a camera with a viewfinder—an LCD monitor is very hard to see in bright conditions or with polarized sunglasses.
DRESS IT UP Once you pick a camera, create a bombproof case system to protect it. A variety of quality point-and-shoot cases can be found in most mountain and outdoor shops for $30 or less. Hard or soft cases come down to personal preference, but choose a case that’s just big enough for the camera, with a small pocket to hold an extra battery and a sturdy loop that will accept a utility carabiner. A dust-resistant closure system (such as a zipper plus a Velcro flap) is a must for desert climbers. Use the camera’s wrist sling, but connect camera to case with a thin, two-foot keeper cord (or fly fishing–style retractable keeper). Clip the case to your harness and carry it everywhere. After pulling the camera out of the box, read the manual thoroughly. Most point and shoots are intuitive and userfriendly, but you will undoubtedly discover features you didn’t know about. Two very useful options to look for and learn to use: focus lock and exposure lock.
SHOOTING BASICS “The same principles of photography apply whether you’re using a point and shoot or a $5,000 dSLR,” says professional photographer Corey Rich. He carries a Nikon Coolpix P7000 point and shoot with him “all the time,” he says. “I use one a ton.”
Basic principles include seeking the warm, interesting light of early morning or late in the day, when the sun is low in the sky. “When you’re sitting at breakfast or having cocktails in the evening, that’s when you’re supposed to be shooting,” Rich says.
And avoid the dreaded butt shot. “If you can help it, never volunteer as the belayer,” Rich says. “If you’re tethered to the climber, it’s impossible to get a great shot.” He recommends trying as many different angles as possible: Get above the climber or to the side; distance yourself to get a great landscape shot, or shoot up close to grab the climber’s facial expressions.
Consider both horizontal and vertical shots, and “keep pressing the shutter button constantly,” says Rich. “Don’t be afraid to take a lot of photos.
“It’s also important to think about the journey,” Rich adds, “and not just the individual shot. Shoot getting ready in the morning, putting climbing shoes on, looking up at the route, and getting shut down on the climb. The blood on the fingertips, the frustration— it’s important to capture everything, not just peak climbing shots.”
Most of all, keep your camera accessible at all times. “You can’t be making great photos if you can’t reach your camera,” Rich says. “It needs to be part of your rack.” Keep shooting no matter the conditions, as long as it doesn’t put you or your partner in danger. Make sure to keep your camera out even if you’re cold, tired, and hungry.
As Rich puts it, “Great shots are fleeting moments that don’t repeat themselves.”
COREY RICHShooting for: 22 years Most prized publication: “One of my first photographs that was ever published was in Climbing magazine. It was a photo of Rikke Ishoy climbing at the Happy Boulders in a blue bikini top [No. 173]. That played a huge role in influencing my career. I like to think it had something to do with the way I was using light and composition in the moment, but I’ve been told over the years that it had very little to do with my photograph.” If you aspire to be a pro... 1. Arrive early and stay late. This will get you the best light. 2. Remember that less is more! Carry as little camera gear as possible so that your time is spent thinking about the story and making images, rather than managing equipment. 3. Think safety first! No photo is worth dying for.
KENNAN HARVEYShooting for: 19 years Most prized publication: Cover of American PhotoIf you aspire to be a pro...1. Figure out whether mac and cheese, sleeping in your car, and unpaid credit card balances are your thing. 2. Move to Boulder, Salt Lake City, or California. That’s where the talent and good weather provide. 3. Start young and make friends with sponsored climbers, marketing managers, and other photographers. Plan on 90 percent networking, 10 percent shooting.