"Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain... Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall - it's great when you stop."

Chris Darwin

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So, after having finally decided on getting short approach skis. I figured it was time to try and find a new camera to replace my old Canon Ixus 850IS.

My decision process was as follows:

As far as image quality, robustness and versatility go, Single Lens Reflexor would be the only right way to go. However, I mainly take photos when going climbing (with the main purpose always being climbing, not photography). To be able to take the shots while climbing without having to sacrifice too much time for it, the camera needs to small and light enough to fit inside my pocket (or to hand it on a harness). So we are talking about preferably well under 200g. Which is to say even the smallest SDLR's are way too heavy and too big for me. So I needed to start looking for small camera that is as close to SLR camera when it comes to image quality as possible.

Credit: Lensmate,  Shot on 2010-12-28 Photo taken.Licensed under: Public Domain.

This is particularly difficult nut to crack as demands for the camera used for climbing photography are quite a handful.

First of all, it is obvious, that any chance to have decent shots requires a good lens. In my book, this means the following characteristics:

  • High quality lens with following features
    • No optical distortions
    • For action shots, wide angle is what's needed. The wider the better. Talking in 35mm terms, 28mm equivalent is pretty much the norm nowadays, 24mm would be better.
    • For landscape, reasonably long tele is required. I am less impressed with very long tele, as even in my limited understanding of photography I know enough to figure out that they don't really work in a very small camera. Way too easy to shake (yes, image stabilizers are a bliss, but even their abilities have limits) and far too little light. That being said, panoramas would benefit for reasonably long tele, so somewhere around 150mm would be great.
    • In order to have any realistic hope for decent pics in low-light situations, the lens needs to be bright as possible (read: low f-values)

Lightning conditions vary quite a bit as well which pushes the envelope when it comes to metering and censor.

  • Lots of snow and ice are tough for white balance calculation. Add to that plenty of reflections and it is easy to see why getting the colors right is not an easy task.
  • When it gets dark it gets worse for compacts. In order to be able to fit a small and light lens to small camera, you can't put a full-size censor to the camera. In fact virtually all compacts have a very tiny censor, only a fraction of physical dimensions of censors used in SLR's. This combined with very high pixel count makes the pixels tiny. Which is a bad thing, as tiny pixels means that little light is captured. Of course, small lens with high f-value doesn't help in this matter at all. To make matters worse the f-value is only half the story anyway, f2.0 in SLR equipped with full size censor (35mm) is a very different thing as f2.0 in a camera equipped with 8mm censor. Therefore all pocketable compacts make huge sacrifices in comparison to SLR's in this regard. Luckily there are few compacts that take some steps to right direction away from the main stream.
Luckily, some issues can be digitally remedied using digital processing, be that either automatically inside the camera of afterwards using photo processing. This is where in-camera HDR and such come into play. However, in a difficult situations, post-processing in image editor is needed. To have good foundation for this, particularly the following features are usefull:
  • ability to shoot raw. Main reason for this being to have as much information available for fixing various issues occurring due to a number of shortcomings caused either by the demanding lightning situations, limits of lens and camera software or lack of photographic skill of the camera operator. All three happening simultaneously is pretty much the norm for me.
  • bracketing. The big idea about bracketing is to take multiple shots at once with different settings thus increasing the likelihood of one of them ending up good. Bracketing is also a good way of getting ingredients to to be combined as a HDR shot later on.
  • in-camera HDR (essentially a combination of bracketing and a process to combine bits and pieces from several photos shot with different settings (almost) simultaneously).
Ability to use optical filters can help as well. Using filters it is possible to adapt the lens to different shooting situations, thus increasing the possibility of getting the colors right.

As the camera is going to be used primarily when climbing (alpine, ice and rock), it should be able to take full-on conditions. This area is particular shortcoming of compacts, as you pretty much can have both weather-proof sturdy design and reasonable image quality, just not in the same camera.

  • impact-proofness
  • water-proofness
  • camera needs to stand up to harsh temperatures, preferably with not too great negative effect on batteries.
My compromise is to use not particularly weather prof camera that I tend to keep in a case and store it in my pocket. Should it be really wet, I can weather proof it by placing the case in a sealing plastic bag. Obviously far from ideal a solution, but weatherproof compacts of the moment just don't seem to be up to task at hand when it comes to image quality.

Ability to shoot high quality video is nice to have. However, as the main purpose for me is shooting stills, shortcoming is video shooting (such as lack of optical zoom or autofocus) are easier to accept than shortcomings in the primary set of requirements.

Eliminating cameras according to above mentioned criteria, I came up with two or three options, namely:

  • Canon Powershot S95CanonPowershot S95.
  • Panasonic Lumix CMC-LX5PanasonicLumix CMC-LX5.
  • Leica D-Lux 5LeicaD-Lux 5. Essentially the same camera as Panasonic LX5 but with some tweaks in software, Leica brand and different software bundle.
  • Leica, Panasonic and Sigma also make compacts (albeit bigger than those listed above) with APS-sized sensor. However, they are so much bigger, that they can't comfortably fit in a pocket. IMO, pocketability is the deciding factor when it comes to size. Too big to dump in a pocket and any reason not to bring SLR is pretty much lost. Leica model also has some other serious limitations not to mention astronomical price tag.

After researching some reviews (eg. this one)I decided on Canon Powershot S95. Mainly because it is significantly smaller than the other two and according to reviews, overall image quality is supposedly pretty similar (and better than most other compacts). There are some differences but I figured they pretty much evened out when taking into account various aspects of image quality. Downsides of Canon were usually mentioned to be:

  • Mediocre handling, partly because of a missing grip.
  • Poor battery life. Clearly far from ideal, but reserve batteries are small and pretty cheap, so not a non-started either.
  • Video is reported to lack autofocus and optical zoom while shooting video. Fortunately, CHDK is coming to rescue in this area. Furthermore, I'd prefer AVCHD (as opposed to Mov) and 1080p50 (as opposed to 720p24). However, the main application being photography, I believe I can live with these restrictions.

Luckily, some of these of S95 can be partially remedied with aftermarket bits and/or CHDK software.

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