D50 (courtesy, Nikon)

Are digital SLRs reliable enough for the high mountains?

After a disappointing performance on Mount Rainier, I have decided to retire my point-and-shoot and start carrying an SLR into the mountains with me. But what kind? Should I choose a pro-level for toughness and control? A compact for its light weight and portability? A manual focus for both light weight and durability? Or are digital SLRs now reliable enough for the cold and exposure in the mountains? Nick Los Angeles, California


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Well, let me start by saying that the mountain environment can be hard on any camera. Cold in particular is a big issue as low temperatures are murder on batteries, and today’s electronics-intensive cameras (even film-based ones!) are susceptible to fast battery drain. And no battery, no pictures.

D50 D50

That said, a professional-level camera generally will have undergone more engineering and testing to ensure it stands up under harsh environmental conditions. I hesitate to even discuss film any more—has anybody out there even bought a new film camera in the past two years beyond collector’s items on eBay? In that vein, however, a camera such as Canon’s EOS-3 ($850 for body only; www.canon.com) is one superb choice—rugged, reasonably light, designed for extensive use and with harsh weather in mind. And of course, if you’re at all serious about photos, a SLR (single-lens reflex) design gives you much more control, flexibility, and exposure accuracy than any point-and-shoot camera out there.

The EOS-3 is auto-focus, and relies a lot on electronics, but what camera doesn’t these days? You could go old-school though, and find something like a Canon F-1 for anywhere from $100 to $300 on eBay, depending on condition. The beauty of such a camera is that it still works if a battery croaks, although metering for exposure becomes a matter of guesswork at that point.

Digital pro-model cameras are finally becoming somewhat affordable, and are worth a serious look. Nikon’s D100 digital SLR sells for about $1,000 in body only (www.nikonusa.com), and features six-megapixel resolution, excellent metering capabilities, and of course the ability to accept more than 40 Nikon lenses. Nikon’s D50 is newer and a little more compact—sacrificing some features—but comes in at $650 for the body and still offers six-megapixel resolution. Olympus’ Evolt E-300 sells for a touch more ($800 including lens; www.olympusamerica.com) but has eight-megapixel resolution, which is pretty amazing. Olympus really re-thought the camera with this one—it looks nothing like a traditional SLR, with a flat-top body that’s more compact than the Nikons and Canons of the world.

Of course, you’ll have to be particularly careful to keep a digital camera warm, storing it inside your parka when in very cold conditions. But digital SLRs can handle it, and are well worth your consideration.

For more expert reviews of the best camera products, check out Outside Online’s all-new Cameras Buying Guide.

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021
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Lead Photo: courtesy, Nikon