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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Weight, to be as light as possible
- A good lens, for image quality
- 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
- Pocketability, able to fumble it into and out of a Goretex storm jacket in adverse conditions.
- 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.