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Small Sensor = Think Differently

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Approaching Gokyo village. The high mountain in the distance is Cho Oyu, at 8,200 metres it is the sixth highest peak in the world. Hillary attempted a climb there in 1952 but didn’t succeed – a year later he and Tenzing were successful elsewhere.

Two months ago, when I was packing my trek gear for an upcoming Himalaya adventure, I experienced some mild confusion which is familiar to many of us: What camera should I take?

I wondered this at a time when the 4/3 and APS sensors are sometimes considered too small by the Zeitgeist, and the herd stampedes towards full-frame and medium-format sensors, or so the corporate marketing spruikers would have us believe.

A big mountain and a small sensor camera. Approaching the lodges at Gorak Shep (left front), the site of the Swiss 1952 base camp. The 1953 British and present day base camps are at the base of the glacier (centre of image). The face of Everest as seen from base camp in Nepal has an area a million trillion times greater than the size of the little 1/2.3 sensor in the Sony DSC W350. But the tiny Sony did a good job capturing this image.
A big mountain and a small sensor camera. Approaching the lodges at Gorak Shep (left front), the site of the Swiss 1952 base camp. The 1953 British and present day base camps are at the base of the glacier (centre of image). The face of Everest as seen from base camp in Nepal has an area a million trillion times greater than the size of the little 1/2.3 sensor in the Sony DSC W350. But the tiny Sony did a good job capturing this image.

At the risk of misleading myself with old technology, I went back to a 2012 archive of images from the last time that I was in that part of the world. For that trip my wife Dianne and I decided to travel light and use truly compact cameras. Mine was a 1/2.5 sensor 7MP Sony DSC W80 and hers was a much more modern 1/2.3 sensor 14MP Sony DSC W350. Each weighed less than 200gm (in fact, the the W350 weighed under 120gm with battery and memory stick, and was not much larger than a matchbox).

Both had tiny Zeiss zoom lenses with an approximately 30mm-100mm range. How good were they? Were they fit for purpose? It was instructive to check out the images obtained from those little compacts.

An airport with an extreme reputation

Most trekkers and climbers who approach Everest from the Nepalese side do so by flying into Tenzing-Hillary Airport in the small town of Lukla. It is considered to be possibly the most dangerous airport in the world, with a rock wall at one end and a ravine drop at the other. Being only a touch over 500 metres long and having a 12-degree gradient, the layout means that the tiny planes land into it uphill and brake hard before the rock wall at the end.

The planes take off downhill at full revs from the get-go, being sure to lift off before the white paint blocks near the downhill end of the runway. Buffeting sheer winds often make it quite hazardous. The pilots who fly into Lukla are true Top Gun types, with their leather flying jackets and a swagger that Tom Cruise could only imagine.

Lukla airstrip. A spectacular start to a great adventure.
Lukla airstrip. A spectacular start to a great adventure.

The people

The Nepalese people are wonderful. Quiet, and friendly. Humble and content. They appreciate a smile even if you don’t speak their language. The children are happy and playful. If it is people who make a society, then Nepal has a lot positive going for it.

The Nepalese are wonderful people. Their country is a joy to visit.
The Nepalese are wonderful people. Their country is a joy to visit.
The children do wonder why Western trekkers are there, trudging higher and higher.
The children do wonder why Western trekkers are there, trudging higher and higher.

Carrying gear

There are no roads above Lukla, so all supplies are carried by yaks (or a related pack animal) or human porters on the ever-upwards tracks linking villages. We decided that any cameras would need to be truly lightweight at altitude on our 18-day trek the long way to Everest Base Camp. Why travel light?

Well, every extra few hundred grams feels like another kilogram in the rarified atmosphere and sustained uphill climbs. At 5,000 metres the air has only half the oxygen content compared with sea level, and you need oxygen to get up steep slopes, with or without a camera.

We were already carrying two litres of water (=2kg) plus a full kit of extreme weather clothing (another 5kg or more) and the requisite sunscreen, lip balm and so forth. Dianne made it her mission to ensure that I always carried the extra weight of her Chapstick lip balm.

Freight trains in the Himalaya. Always move to the uphill side of the track even when a Yak train is coming through, because they don’t stop whether loaded or not.
Freight trains in the Himalaya. Always move to the uphill side of the track even when a Yak train is coming through, because they don’t stop whether loaded or not.
Alternatively, the porters move slower, but with sustained effort they are just as effective.
Alternatively, the porters move slower, but with sustained effort they are just as effective.

Big Vistas

The vistas are huge in the Himalayas, so a wide range of focal lengths are important. Hence, getting back to capturing images, it was evident that some zooming capability is a plus — either a zoom lens, or nowadays the ability to crop in the computer. The zoom range of the little Sony compacts certainly provided the required range from mid 20s mm to more than 100 mm equivalent.

Approaching Gokyo village. The high mountain in the distance is Cho Oyu, at 8,200 metres it is the sixth highest peak in the world. Hillary attempted a climb there in 1952 but didn’t succeed – a year later he and Tenzing were successful elsewhere.
Approaching Gokyo village. The high mountain in the distance is Cho Oyu, at 8,200 metres it is the sixth highest peak in the world. Hillary attempted a climb there in 1952 but didn’t succeed – a year later he and Tenzing were successful elsewhere.
View from Gokyo Ri, with our head guide Rinzin Sherpa keeping his ever watchful eye over over us.
View from Gokyo Ri, with our head guide Rinzin Sherpa keeping his ever watchful eye over over us.

Auto white balance.

The bright light and reflections from the snow give new meaning to the term “Auto white balance”. Yes, the glaciers are ‘white’, and it’s really important to keep your ‘balance’. They are slippery and it would surely hurt to fall on their hard icy surface.

Along the glacier into the Everest Valley. Without crampons it was careful, careful all the way.
Along the glacier into the Everest Valley. Without crampons it was careful, careful all the way.

The Critera List.

After reviewing the 2012 image archive, I realised that in the bright, clear light of the Himalayas small-sensor cameras can perform quite well. They are light and easy to carry. Additionally, for such travel photography where depth of field is often desirable and subject separation isn’t so important, it can be a small sensor that delivers the goods.

Out of confused considerations, a priority list crystallised. In order of importance I decided on the following

  1. Weight, to be as light as possible
  2. A good lens, for image quality
  3. In my case, a zoom lens with wide angle through to significant zoom reach, or an image quality that could be strongly cropped in computer
  4. Pocketability, able to fumble it into and out of a Goretex storm jacket in adverse conditions.
  5. Able to handle extreme conditions of dust, rain or snow.

So, what camera to take on the 2019 trip? One camera and a backup – in such a wonderful location it would be a real shame to have a camera malfunction without a replacement. What would you choose, dear reader? There isn’t a right or wrong answer. You’d just need to be comfortable lugging your kit at altitude when your lungs are screaming for oxygen. I like oxygen.

Wayne and Dianne (aka Wine and Dine) at altitude in 2012. Dianne is relaxed, I’m showing the effects of carrying the extra weight of that Chapstick lip balm of hers. Our guide couldn’t fathom my discomfort, but then again he didn’t have to carry that extra Chapstick.
Wayne and Dianne (aka Wine and Dine) at altitude in 2012. Dianne is relaxed, I’m showing the effects of carrying the extra weight of that Chapstick lip balm of hers. Our guide couldn’t fathom my discomfort, but then again he didn’t have to carry that extra Chapstick.
At the end everyone was happy. A quick group photo, then off for first shower for 19days, followed by a barley malt based beverage.
At the end everyone was happy. A quick group photo, then off for first shower for 19days, followed by a barley malt-based beverage.

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26 COMMENTS

    • Cheers John. In fact, Bisnu, one of our guides, had a lung capacity that John S and I could only dream of. Her was excellent helping us across the high stuff.

      • And of course Bisnu is a He, not Her.
        I’ve really gotta check my iPad spellings before I hit the Post Comment tab.

  1. Really impressive as well as interesting pictures. I’ve been telling myself lately that one-inch is the smallest sensor one should lookout nowadays, but what you show here suggests that is too dogmatic.
    I’ve never actually gone below 1/1.63 with my first two cameras (D-Lux 4 and V-Lux 1), and to be honest when I take them out nowadays I’m still satisfied with the quality they produce!

    • Yes John, I do wonder why there is such an obsession with large sensors amongst the camera community. Especially when smartphone cameras with small sensors are becoming quite good. Maybe the latest Leica moves into computational image capture are quite smart. Perhaps they have seen the future.

  2. Well done Wayne and lovely photos. Real ‘Climb Every Mountain’ stuff. On mountain treks, I am usually the one trailing behind Mrs Fagan, as I am spending ‘too much time’ taking photos. The highest we have been is near the top of Etna at 3,300 metres. I think that 5,000 metres would be too much for us, though.

    William

    • Thanks William. It was good fun to delve back into the archives, and I did spend more time checking out that 2012 trip than I expected. Good fun, I should do more of it, rather than have digital images parked away in backup folders.

  3. I recently ( a couple of weeks ago) flew to Beirut and Amman and then down for a five hour drive to the Wadi Rum. Before leaving, and after taking every camera I owned out of the drawer, I decided on the smallest – the Sony RX100vi with its wide angle and 200 zoom. The desert has never looked so good! In fat I now wonder why I would ever need another camera — but Ill wait on that decision!

    • Hmmm….. I’ve been carrying the RX100 VI around recently and I really do like it. I have the same experience as you, although the locations have been more prosaic. It does make one wonder, especially because it is so pocketable, very light and competent.

      • Hello Tony (and Mike). I agree that the RX100 VI is probably one of the current cameras that I would have taken if I owned one. And I do sometimes wonder why I moved out of the Sony world that I was in a decade ago – It just happened.

  4. I am looking forward to the rest of this. I once lived for eight months at over 5000 feet above sea level, you take a few weeks to get used to it and move normally, and I missed fish and chips 😂

    As for camera’s hmmmm 🤔

    I would probably buy a Ricoh GRii as cheaper now, new ones still about, light weight and would give me 28mm with a decent sensor behind it.

    For backup I would probably pick up something cheap second hand with a zoom lens that is light and easy going on batteries. Brand unimportant so could be A d Lux or something of the ilk even the pannie versions.

    While we are on batteries and chargers – did you not try the John S route to travelling light and find a local macfilos reader to loan a charger and batteries off?

    Dave

  5. You have whetted my appetite Wayne, lovely pictures, thanks. In my experience those small sensor cameras are very good for many situations if there is a lot of light especially with their zooms. What would I take? The X Vario plus X1 as back-up (using the same battery) and of course a smartphone. If I was really stuck for weight I’d just take the phone.

    • Hi Kevin. Yes, your Macfilos images continually remind me that I shouldn’t have sold my X Vario a couple of years ago…..and John Shingleton regularly reminds me of it when we have coffee. Will those drums never stop. A million mia culpa.
      In fact, I now realize that the X Vario would have been a great camera for my recent trip.

  6. Great images Wayne. The Himalayas are indeed a wonderful place with a sense of space I’ve never found anywhere else on the planet. I partcularly like the 2 images of the children. How did you adapt to height? I remember my wife and I having a difficult time in Bhutan at 4000 metres. I totally agree with your camera choice but how did you reload the batteries? I’m planning atrek in Mustang in the coming years and wonder how I’ll be able to charge them. Looking forward for more images of your trek as you have aroused my list for more pictures.
    Jean

  7. Hello Jean. I agree about the images of the children. Probably also my favourites in the set presented. It’s intriguing to wonder what they were thinking, and I feel those two images convey that wonder.
    Regarding batteries, small cameras use small batteries, and those batteries for can be bought aftermarket quite cheaply especially for earlier generation cameras. So, strategy I used was to take a handful of fully charged batteries, packed carefully in my hand luggage so that there was no issue with airlines. Besides, there aren’t any power points to recharge when trekking, so the multi battery approach was what I chose.
    And regarding adapting to elevation, we use World Expeditions for high altitude travels. Their senior guides are very well trained in high altitude medicine, and I’d trust them completely. You’ve prompted me on this so I’ll mention them a bit more in an upcoming Macfilos report.

    I’d also mention that all four of us on the recent trip did also take prophylactic Diamox for the three days leading up to first altitude stop at 3,600m, and then for that first day at altitude. 125mg twice a day, no side effects. It worked really well for us. We used the same approach in the Andes a couple of years ago and it also worked well for that trip. But do discuss it with your doctor or travel company before deciding on it for yourself.

  8. great photo’s and write-up, Wayne!

    hmm, interesting question. I actually wonder if my “old” Fuji X20 wouldnt be ideal of the cameras I own. But the battery situation would be dire.

    After three minutes thought, if weight/size was crucial, I’d be tempted to buy a Lumix LX100ii, carry several spare batteries and also make use of its usb charging ability via powerbanks.

    • USB in-camera charging is something that I think is becoming essential. I am currently able to use it on the Ricoh GR, Sony RX100 VI, D-Lux 7 and (fast and up-coming USB-C here) on the Panasonic Lumix S1. Three of my current cameras, the M10-D, Q2 and CL do not have in-camera charging and I now think of it as a negative point. Travelling with the other cameras is a less stressful experience. With the Leicas you have to remember to take the charger — something else to pack and, potentially, forget. USB cables, whether micro-USB or USB-C, are easy to replace almost anywhere in the world and you can use phone or tablet charger or, even, buy a cheap charger wherever you are. You can even charge the camera battery from an external phone charger battery. The Ricoh GR unfortunately uses an older USB connection but, none the less, it is easy to

      With Leica, there’s a pattern here. Wetzlar designers have not thought that in-camera charging is something people want. Panasonic-produced Leicas (such as the D-Lux 7 and C-Lux) do feature it. I believe Leica is wrong in its intransigence on this feature. It can’t be a matter of battery capacity, which I had presumably assumed with the SL, Q and M, because Panasonic have shown the way with the S1 which has an enormous battery. As for the CL, well there is absolutely no excuse.

          • I saw a photo in a camera magazine of a man on a glacier with a huge rucksack on his back. I wondered why an arctic explorer would feature in such a magazine. Then I realised it was only for his camera gear! I’ll call you the next time I mount an expedition to scale the West side of Brick Lane. If I disappear half way through I’ve probably fallen into a curry house.

    • Close, Jason, very close on a number of counts.
      The X20 uses its battery only for image capture, not wasting electrons on motorised zoom. And I’ve always liked the control of that old school manual zooming, rather than the less controllable electronic zoom toggle.

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