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.
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 morehas 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 choicerugged, 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 compactsacrificing some featuresbut 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 oneit 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.
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