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Cameras and Lenses for Hill-Walkers

This week’s blog is a quickie, because I am on holiday. As usual in mid-February, I’m with a group of old friends in Scotland, hill-walking and generally enjoying each other’s company. As a hill-walker, part of the joy of mountains for me is photographing them, and I thought I would quickly write up some of the things I’ve learned over the years.

This blog is really about the cameras that I personally use. I don’t want to suggest that they are necessarily the best for the purpose; they are simply the equipment that I have which has worked for me. Other cameras are available!

A favourite shot – Terry on A’ Chràlaig
Nikon D700 with 70-300mm

Cameras and Lenses for Hill-Walkers: Weight v Quality

Hill-walkers, climbers and mountaineers are for ever trying to keep the weight they have to carry as low as possible. Broadly speaking, the highest quality photographs are taken on big cameras, and it is true that professionals who climb principally with a view to taking images for sale often carry some pretty heavy gear. But if your interest is the walking, and the image-taking is a secondary part of it, or even fairly primary but not with a view to publication, then lighter camera equipment will be very attractive.

Cameras and Lenses for Hill-Walkers: Phone Cameras

The easiest, lightest camera that most of us carry all of the time, and which is likely to be with you on the hill for all kinds of reasons, is your phone. For many hill-walkers, a phone camera may be all they feel they need in their mountain life. And even when I have another camera or cameras with me, I still take many on the phone because of its simple convenience – it is more easily to hand (jacket pocket) than the camera in my rucksack.

iPhonese20 shot looking back up the valley between Meall Corranaich and Beinn Ghlas on our way down.

You have reached the top and you want a quick group shot. The phone may well be quickest – your friends won’t want to hang around while you fiddle with rucksack and lenses. iPhoneSE20 on top of Meall Clachach, a mere pimple, near Killin.

Again, windy conditions held me back from getting the camera out, but I was desperate to catch the light on the slopes of Beinn Ghlas as my two friends battled through a furious gale.

Two more, but older, taken on my iPhone4. Speed was of the essence in the first one; weather and the need not to fall behind the party was of the essence in the second.

In all the phone photos shown, I had a better camera with me, but did not use it.

These days, any hill-walker with a phone is a photographer

Cameras and Lenses for Hill-Walkers: "Real" cameras

That is not the whole story, though. However good phones get, the laws of physics dictate what can be achieved with tiny lenses and sensors. Even current multi-lens models (offering some pretty good wide angle and depth of field effects) cannot deliver the quality of a dedicated camera with a larger sensor. I almost always carry a camera when hill-walking, and I have now tried quite a few over the years.

Clockwise from top left: Panasonic Lumix GF7 with kit 12-32mm lens; Panasonic Lumix GH3 with Samyang 7.5mm fisheye; Nikon D800 with Nikkor 50mm 1.4G series lens and the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000

From left: Panasonic Lumix GF7 with kit 12-32mm lens; Panasonic Lumix GH3 with Samyang 7.5mm fisheye; Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 and the Nikon D800 with Nikkor 50mm 1.4G series lens.

These two shots give some idea of the size (and weight) range among the cameras I currently use for hill-walking. The Nikon full-frame system gives awesome quality, but to carry a body like that and two or three lenses (with all your other gear) up a Munro in winter at 60+ years of age is not a joke, believe me. The Lumix FZ1000 does so much in one box, and the little Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras are so small and neat that I find myself leaving the big beasts at home, more and more.

Cameras and Lenses for Hill-Walkers: Bridge cameras

A “bridge camera” (or “super zoom compact”) is a single camera with a lens which can zoom a long way, but which cannot be changed. I currently have the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000, and previously used an FZ20 from the same manufacturer. The zoom range on these cameras is amazing, and they have good bright lenses that can handle a wide range of light conditions. The downsides (with both of those bodies, actually) are:

  1. lack of serious weatherproofing – and that is more of a drawback for a hill-walking camera than anywhere else.
  2. relatively poor wide angle coverage – these zoom lenses can’t give you really wide views. And very often in the mountains, wide is exactly what you want.

Snowdon – looking from the flank of Yr Wyddfa towards Lliwedd. Lumix FZ20. Only 5 megapixels, but what a camera!

Panorama on Snowdon using the Lumix FZ20. This high resolution shot has been spliced from a large number of separate exposures. The resultant quality made it suitable as the cover shot for my children’s book on mountaineering. It shows that a really wide angle of view CAN be achieved using a superzoom compact, if you are prepared to take multiple shots and stitch on your computer.

On the ridge of Slioch, one of my favourite Scottish hills. Lumix FZ1000

Looking towards the Torridon hills from the peninsula near Poolewe. Lumix FZ1000

Using a wide format / aspect ratio can give a sense of wide angle even when the actual angle of view of the lens is limited…

The top of Glencoe from the slopes of Beinn a’ Chrulaiste above Kings House.

On the ridge between Stob Ban and Mullach nan Coirean.

The view towards Loch Linnhe from the same ridge

Cameras and Lenses for Hill-Walkers: Small cameras with interchangeable lenses

Over the last few years I have invested a bit in the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera system made by Panasonic (under the Lumix brand) and Olympus. Given my positive experience and knowledge of the menus with the Lumix bridge cameras, it has made sense to use the Lumix MFTs. There are many body options available, but because for me this is my “hobby” gear and not my work gear, I have only ever bought secondhand and relatively old.

These cameras have relatively small bodies (some very small – ideal for hill-walkers) and can take a wide variety of lenses. I have just completed my first mountaineering week where I used the MFT system extensively, and I like the results.

On top of Beinn Ghlas – Lumix GF7 with 12-32mm kit lens set at 12mm.

Rainbow near Killin – Lumix GH3 with Samyang 7.5mm fisheye.

Three members of our group of hill-walkers on their way to the summit of Ben Lawers, as seen from the summit of Beinn Ghlas.  This was taken with the Lumix GF7 and 45-200mm lens at 200mm, followed by tight cropping on the laptop. Effective focal length (as if on a 35mm camera) probably 800mm or more. Distance between the summits 1,410m.

Summit of Ben Lawers from Meall Greigh – Lumix GF7 with kit lens 12-32mm

Summit of Ben Lawers from Meall Greigh – Lumix GF7 with Samyang 7.5mm fisheye

I really like these cameras. The GF7 was bought second hand for around 170 pounds. It is tiny. The quality is amazing. It’s one weakness is the lack of a viewfinder – I found the screen on the back very hard to use in brilliant sunlight and snow, and in high winds. It is also not very weatherproof – the GH series is.

Cameras and Lenses for Hill-Walkers: Crop-frame or full-frame digital SLRs

My professional kit is all based on the Nikon FX (full frame) system. Although we own a Nikon D90, I can’t find a single shot I’ve taken with it as a hill-walker. I have often taken one of my older FX bodies and some of my cheaper lenses up the hills (I have even lugged the Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 up Stob Ban!)

For great quality, with low noise and interesting depth-of-field effects, a full-frame system is the best I have used. These cameras are also well weather-proofed. But the weight…! Not for nothing do I generally trade lightness for absolute quality.

Here are a few full-frame favourites.

Ben Challum from Glen Lochay. Nikon D700 with Sigma 105mm lens

Nikon D800 with Nikkor 14-24 at the summit of Stob Ban. I took two decent-sized cameras up, but it was Owen’s last Munro and I didn’t want to risk missing the shot.

On the way up Bynack More in the Cairngorms. Nikon D700 with Nikkor 50mm 1.4 G series

This isn’t by any means a full technical review. It’s just a pointer to some of the things I’ve found. I love mountains, and I love photography. Sometimes I sell my mountain pictures, but mostly they are just for my pleasure, and for the dear old friends, the group of hill-walkers, I climb with. I hope you like the shots!

(A few of my mountain pics are on my “art” page, and I am happy to sell prints of any others on request.)

To contact me to enquire about my photography use my Contact Form or just text (07983 787889) or email me at

Photos © copyright Andrew King Photography

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