Cloudy Mountains
Leave only footprints, bring back only photos. (Photo: linearclassifier/Flickr)
Gear Guy

What’s the Most Affordable Way to Photograph the Outdoors?

I'd like to take better wide landscape shots when I'm traveling, but I'm not interested in investing in a really expensive camera.

Cloudy Mountains
Bob Parks

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When you’re out in nature, witnessing gobsmacking and all-encompassing vistas, you’re going to want to cram more vista into a single photo than a typical camera will allow. Compact cameras are great for taking pictures of people and buildings, but you need a wide-angle lens to capture the sweep of a beautiful landscape, or convey the full impact of a summit view.

Pros and serious hobbyists use expensive digital SLR cameras and specialized lenses to increase the field of view. For the rest of us, there are at least three good options, which we’ll run through after the jump.

The Best Affordable Outdoor Camera: Demandar Panorama Cell Phone App

The easiest way to capture mountaintop views for posterity is to use a handy, low-cost panoramic app for Apple and Android phones. For instance, DMD Panorama—a newcomer in this area—creates 360-degee panoramas in about 20 seconds. It’s one of the quickest, easiest apps of its kind thanks to a scheme in which you stitch the image together by lining up two onscreen icons. The app comes in iPhone ($1.99) and Android (free) flavors.

Panoramic apps are a back-to-the-future technology—one of the earliest panoramic cameras, the Kodak Panoram, also shot ultra-wide-screen images by physically swinging the lens with a steel spring. With modern phone apps, you act as the swinging lens.

The Best Affordable Outdoor Camera: Fujifilm FinePix S4500 Camera

Most compact digital cameras are able to make panoramas of mountaintop views. You would take several photos, then use the camera’s software to stitch them together.

But a number of affordable fixed-lens cameras now feature the wide-angle lenses that used to be reserved for expensive SLR models. These lenses give better results than stitching images together. (When shopping for a fixed-lens, wide-angle camera, look for a focal length of 24 to 35mm, that’s the equivalent of the focal length of a wide-angle lens on a standard 35mm camera.)

A great example of such a camera is the Fujifilm FinePix S4500 ($260). It has a 24mm lens, so it can pull in much wider chunk of any scenic vista you encounter on the trail. At 1 pound, 3.1 ounces, it weighs a lot more than a typical compact camera (which can weigh less than a third of that). But it also has a big optical zoom function, so it can pull in closely on distant subjects. This combination of being able to capture wide landscapes—or a huge group of friends in one shot—as well as shoot tight close-ups of birds or other animals makes the 14-megapixel FinePix a worthwhile addition to your pack.

The Best Affordable Outdoor Camera: Kogeto Dot iPhone Lens Accessory

A wide-angle photo might do a decent job of capturing your buddies inadvisably skinny-dipping in a glacial lake at 6 a.m. But a video in 360-degree format would be even better (I’m thinking viral).

Several lens-mounted gadgets turn an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S into a 360-degree video shooter, but Kogeto Dot ($49) has emerged as the best. The device, which was developed with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, comes with a piece of hardware that attaches to your phone’s camera lens and a free app that makes it all work. Kogeto has said that the technology will be available for certain Android phones this year, but nothing has hit the street yet.

Lead Photo: linearclassifier/Flickr

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