Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Best Camera for Climbing, Skiing and the Outdoors?

The Canon PowerShot S100 is my pick for the best camera you can take on an adventure. We've taken ours backcountry skiing, mountain biking, hiking and climbing. Most of the recent images  on this blog were shot with it and I've included a bunch of sample images with this post. I even used it to shoot this video in full hd (you can adjust the youtube settings to 1080p).

The s100 has a "High-speed Burst HQ" setting available in scene mode that takes 8 photos in one second (and then spends several seconds saving the photos). This is very handy for action photos like the one above (cropped). 

The new S110 is a minor upgrade of the S100 which adds a touch screen and wifi. These features aren't important to me so the s100 is still my pick fo the best camera you can buy to take into the mountains. I would choose the s110 if the s100 was no longer available as it is apparently usable without the touch screen (ie if you are wearing gloves).

I take the best photos when I'm not afraid to risk destroying my camera.  Powershots are built well. My old sd700 survived drops, squeeze chimneys, frozen nights, leaky Nutella sandwiches and ten minutes in the North Fork of the Skycomish River. More importantly the s100 is cheap enough on Amazon at the moment that I won't feel awful if I drop it off a cliff.

As soon as I got the s100 I started taking it on my daily mountain bike rides. Because it was new and shinny I wrapped it in an extra jacket, buried it in my pack and only dugg it out at stops.

Then, while riding through a scenic fall leaf-filled canyon, I heard a huge snort and a bull elk that had been sleeping in a dry stream bed jumped up next to me. If I had had my camera closer at hand maybe I could have gotten a great photo. Instead I got distant retreating elk butt shot:

Keep your camera close at hand or this happens.

Now I carry it in in a cheap case clipped to my shoulder strap or in a pocket if it is cold.

Key Features
  • Small and Lightweight.
  • Fast 24mm equivalent lens. This wide angle is key for getting shots of spaning vistas, close by subjects like climbers at belays and trying to jam the two things in the same frame. The speed helps keep the image sharp in low light.  
  • Bigger then normal but not too big sensor. A larger sensor helps with image quality at high iso's but reduces depth of field. Most of the time in the outdoors I want everything in focus which requires more depth of field. The s100's sensor is larger then most point and shoots but not as big as dslrs or point and shoots like the Sony RX100. This offers a lot of depth of field and decent high iso performance.
  • Thanks to the neutral density filter, large aperture and aperture priority mode you can still force it to take low depth of field blurry background photos when needed.
Narrow depth of field shot with highlights tweaked in Lightroom to increase detail in the clouds. 
  • Raw file output. The s100 can save raw files in addition to jpegs. Raw files contain more information about the scene then a jpeg and let you tweak exposure after the fact to recover detail in blown out highlight or black shadows. This is useful when you take a picture of a sunset behind a mountain and want detail in both the clouds and the dark mountain. I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 to process raw files.
  • Video. The s100 records 24 frame per second 1080p full hd and 30 frame per second 720p hd video. 30 fps full HD video would be better for shooting action but 24 fps is the classic cinema frame rate and gives video a nice filmy feel which works well for more laid back and scenic movies.
  • P mode with focus lock. The fully automatic modes take too much time to focus for me so I keep it in P mode. I follow the classic adage for slide film "expose for the highlights." I lock the focus and exposure on the highlights of my subject by pressing the shutter button halfway with the subject centered, frame the scene and then press the button the rest of the way. This method is particularly necessary for things like sunsets where you want the exposure to let the land end up black.

  •  It also has fully automatic, shutter priority, aperture priority, full manual and scene modes but I use those only when I need to as with the narrow depth of field bike wheel shot above.
  • The controls are easy to use wearing thin power stretch gloves. Being able to use the front control wheel around the lens to adjust iso is particularly handy. The smaller rear control wheel and dedicated red "take video now" button are also nice.
  • It has the same lens, sensor and imaging processor as the S110 but lacks wifi or a touch screen which are useless in the middle of nowhere with gloves on. It also has a molded grip and GPS that were both removed from the S110. I initially had high hopes for geotagging photos with the GPS but it takes too long to acquire a lock and drains the batter to quickly to be practical.
  • Pleasing color rendition. I find the default canon color profile to be very nice. The photos in this post are unaltered from the camera except for some highlight tweaks where noted. I often use the camera's "vivid reds" functionality which can produce a look similar to that of vintage Kodachrome slide film. 


The s100's main competitor is the Sony RX100. The RX100 has a larger sensor, better low light performance and can shoot 60 fps full hd video. It also costs $400 more and has only a 28mm equivalent lens. I find that wide angle, depth of field and replaceability are more important in a camera, so I went with the s100. 

My Whole Kit:

Highlights tweaked in Lightroom


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