Trail Running Cameras

What good are trail running photography tips without a camera? Not much at all. With the dizzying array of digital cameras on the market, how is a trail runner to choose a camera? (yes, we’re completely ignoring film cameras – film. is. dead.) While we won’t tell you which camera to choose, we’ll lay out the major considerations, point out what we think are not considerations, and discuss some of favorites digital cameras for trail running.

Considerations

  • Price – With the economy in the tank, this is the first consideration that came to mind. However, price is always an important consideration in choosing a camera that could get up close and personal with a rock at any moment. For starters, stay on the penny side of $200. We think the $150 is a good price point, as it’s often where you find last year’s model, which has specifications just a hair off the latest and greatest model and yet remains more than sufficient. For those looking to be even more cost conscious, there are more than capable models to be found under $100.
  • Megapixels – We don’t see this to be much of a consideration for most users any more. If you are looking to buy a new camera, even a $50 camera will give you 5 megapixels and at $100 there are plenty of 8-megapixel cameras that are small enough for running. Do you “need” any better resolution that 8 megapixels? Probably not. Consider that a 6-megapixel photo will give you a high quality 8″ x 10″ print. (See megapixel vs. print size comparison) Heck, we’ve got a 23″ monitor here at iRunFar headquarters and a 5 megapixel photo still looks great to us when expanded to fill the screen. Then again do megapixel counts even matter? In the comments, Buzz wisely points out that megapixel counts do not necessarily translate into image quality. Here’s an explanation of the megapixel myth.
  • Durability – Remember, we’re runners, not professional dancers. we fall – a lot. In fact, we feel like slackers when there aren’t any scrapes on our knees. Therefore, any camera that joins us on the trail should be ready for some rough and tumble action. For that reason, we prefer metal body cameras and hope that they take pride in their scars. If you are likely to be taking you camera on particularly wet and wild adventures, consider a waterproof camera. [Reader Areojust wisely suggests opening your camera up and removing the battery (and memory card) if your camera does get damp.]
  • Size – Earlier in the week, Tom Sperduto gave the great advice that you should keep your camera at the ready. When running, this often means putting the camera in a small waist or chest pocket. It turns out that many of these pockets are just about the size of common digital cameras. However, that “just about” includes pockets that are too small for some digital cameras. If space is going to be an issue, be sure to consider the depth of the camera (that is, the smallest dimension), as that’s where we’ve often found the tightest fit.
  • Optical Viewfinder – Just a few years ago, we did all of our shooting through our cameras’ optical view finders. Now, we tend to use a mix of the optical view finder and LCD. Go with what you are comfortable with.

Non-Considerations

  • Camera Type – Point and shoot or Digital Single-Lens Reflex? Ok, there’s no reason to think this one over – leave the DSLR at home. Save the “fancy” equipment for spectating or a hike. In his comment, Buzz B. notes some reasons to leave the DSLR at home – weight and bulk. [He does note that the larger photo sensors in the DSLRs do result in higher quality images.]
  • Weight – In choosing between point and shoot digital cameras, don’t worry about the weight.

Sample Cameras
We won’t bore you with discussions of a multitude of cameras, but here are a few cameras that might interest you.

In Tom Sperduto’s trail running tips he noted the following cameras and why he used/will use them:

  • Nikon Coolpix S550 (Boston Marathon) – ~$170 – Chosen for size (it fits in the palm of your hand) and its exceptional picture quality.
  • Panasonic DMC-LX3S (JFK 50) – ~$400 – Better image quality in a slightly bigger camera.
  • Panasonic DMC-TS1 (possibly for the MMT 100) – A more rugged camera (waterproof, shock proof, and dust proof) and great video quality.
  • Holga (favorite trail running camera) – ~$40 – Bulky, nostalgic, medium format black and white film.

Without a doubt, the Canon PowerShot Digital Elph line is the official camera of iRunFar. We started off with the Canon PowerShot S230 early in the decade and haven’t looked back since. The two biggest things that this line has going for it are size and durability.

Our first Elph, the S230, measured just 3.4 x 2.2 x 1.1 in. while our most recent Elph, the Canon SD1100 IS, has a similar height and width, but a much slimmer profile at 3.42 x 2.16 x 0.87 in. We particularly like that there’s nothing sticking far out from the body of these cameras, which means there’s nothing to get in the way when sliding the camera into a tight pocket.

We will avoid the temptation to sensationalize the durability of the PowerShot line; however, they have a sturdy feel in hand and hold up well when dropped… repeatedly. We admit that our S230 eventually failed, but it was after many years of hard service. Without a doubt, we felt like we got our money’s worth out of that camera.

We are on our third PowerShot…. actually on our second AND third PowerShot. We like them so much that after apparently losing the second PowerShot, an SD1000, we quickly picked up the SD1100 IS only to have the SD1000 show up a short time later.

If we had to recommend a single camera, we couldn’t. Instead, we love both of our Canons. For the clumsy or the risk-averse, go with the SD1000. It’s more expensive (~$270) than the SD1100 IS and has slightly lower image quality (7.1 vs 8.0 megapixels), but its all-metal construction may be worth it. The
SD 1100 IS is less expensive (~$150) and stands in at 8.0 megapixels. The only drawback to the SD 1100 IS is that it incorporates more plastic into the design.

Questions

  • What camera do you use when you’re trail running?
  • What are your biggest considerations when choosing a camera for the trail?
  • Had any bad experience with a camera while trail running?
  • Any additional aspects that should be considered in choosing a camera for trail running?

There are 8 comments

  1. AnthonyP

    I've been using the Canon SD1000 every since you recommended it a few years back at GTR100. So far it has survived several falls, and one complete submersion in snow.

  2. aerojust

    I have been shooting with the Olympus Stylus 850sw. The picture quality is average in my non expert opinion. The reason I purchased it was for the water proof / shock proof features. I have shot with it in the rain and snow, while kayaking, running, swimming, and even while climbing a water fall. I even dropped it in a river during an adventure race, luckily to find it on the bottom of the river. Not having to worry about sweat / dust / water ruining my investment gives me a good feeling and I end up taking it when I normally would not take a camera. I just saw it on a web discounter for around $110 US. Much lower than what I paid for it. A few things to keep in mind if you purchase this camera. Make sure to take the battery out and leave the doors open after using it in damp environments. I had the battery terminals corrode and the charger would no longer charge it up. This seems to be a very common issue. The camera also quit working on me after the above waterfall trip. It was submerged in moving water for over an hour. I should have know better than to attempt that, its water proof range is stated to only 10 feet and the pressure of the flowing water was probably greater than the water pressure at 10 feet of depth. Luckily I let it dry out for a week or so and it started working good as new again. No problems since this incident. If you keep it clean and keep it out of running water you should be good to go. Perfect for sweaty / rainy trail running or strapping to the deck of a canoe or kayak.

  3. mountainrun

    Turns out I've been using the SD1000 since it first came out myself. Check out last 12 months:http://gallery.mac.com/buzzburrell#galleryI've done 50+ public photo shows from Canada to Colorado. Here's my trail photo tips:* Stop equating number of pixels with "image quality"! It would take pages to explain this, but the recent "megapixel" wars (manufacturer's compete to cram ever more pixels onto their tiny sensors) has fooled everyone and resulted in crap for cameras. Image quality plummets if you try to cram 10 MP onto the exact same size CCD they were using for 1.5 MP cameras a few years ago … think about it … something for nothing eh? Size does matter!* Tom probably recommended the Panasonic because they have bucked all the bogus trends: their new cameras have a faster lens (much better in low light), wider angle, AND they have created a new, slightly larger sensor, for improved image quality.* DSLR's are a dinosaur – NOT because they are "fancy", but because having the mirror flip up is idiotic – there's no reason to do that, it adds a ton of weight and bulk – it's just what old school photogs want to see in a "quality" camera. (The same reason they put corks in good bottles of wine when screw caps work far better). The real reason all pro's use DSLR's is because the sensor is 4X the size of the puny sensor in your point n shoot. A 6 MP image out of my D70 will look far better than the 10 MP image from my SD1000.* Lastly: "The best camera in the world is the one in your hand." You can quote me on that :-) This means for the active athlete, a small body and light weight matter a LOT … if it's too big, you won't bring it, which means, you won't have the shot.

  4. Bryon Powell

    Tony,I'm glad the SD1000 is working out for you. I absolutely love mine. Aerojust and Buzz,Thanks for the great feedback. I've move a few of your insights in to the post itself.

  5. Anonymous

    I personally favor the little Sony WGS 100/110 – it's good for low light stuff. For those of you that take your stuff (cameras or cell phones)swimming… Turn it off. Pull the battery and memory chip. Put it in a open ziplock bag of dry, white rice for for a couple of days in a sunny place. The rice acts as a dessicant, absorbing the moisture with the bag acting as a passive solar collector. Wait 2-3 days and voila! I tried this after teaching my Nokia to swim…it worked. Northern Virginia Minotaur

  6. goSonja

    I too run with the Olympus Stylus 1050 SW. It has taken a serious beating and is still working great. The waterproof feature was why I bought it and the drop-proof feature has come in handy too many times. It's a durable little bugger, and I really enjoy the video mode.

  7. HankRearden

    Consider the Pentax Optio W series. I have the W60. The picture quality is OK, but the main thing is that it is waterproof, not just water resistant. We have taken pictures and movies while underwater in pools and lakes. I don't know if I will buy a non waterproof point and shoot camera again.

  8. mtnrunner2

    Boy, I got to this party late, but I was searching trail running devices for video and ended up at iRunFar — no surprise there :)

    Funny, I'm still using an SD1100 IS after a couple of years and I've taken it on at least a couple hundred runs and dropped it a few times, and it's still ticking. The images and the size are very nice.

    I'm pretty obsessive about detail so raw amount of data does matter, but given the same number of pixels, for me it comes down to range and the look of the image. I happen to like the way Canon's image processors do an image; the emphasis is on sharp edges, detail and pleasing color and range. A good place for sample images is http://www.steves-digicams.com/. They use the same scenes over and over, which makes comparison easier.

    Caveat: I tested a couple of more recent Canon SD series cameras and there seemed to be more blurry in the corners than before. I'll test carefully next time I buy.

    My brother has the Canon S90 and its images are crazy good, it does RAW, and the low-light and range performance is very good. I may get one. It is a bit bigger than the SD series cameras though.

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