- 1. The Unlikely Trekkers
- 2. The Rambler's Bar
- 3. Lemmings & British drizzle
- 4. Helvellyn ascent
- 5. Kamikaze boulders
- 6. Derwent Water & Keswick
- 7. Verdict: Panasonic TZ-5
- 8. Verdict: Ricoh GR Digital II
- 9. Verdict: Canon PowerShot G9
- 10. Verdict: Leica D-Lux 3
- 11. Epilogue
The Unlikely Trekkers
It started off as a simple throw away comment from my colleague Damien: "What about a trip up to the Lake District? Do a bit of camping and walking?" But before long the maps had been bought, the research had been done, and the plans had been made to visit the Lake District over the May-Day bank holiday weekend for "a bit of camping and walking". As he had come up with the idea, our astro-enthusiast Damien Jacobs was duty bound to go. He was duly joined by his partner in crime, camcorder expert Daniel McMahon. By this point I had resigned myself to going with them, if only to make sure that we didn't lose two of Wex Photographic' technical team over the side of a mountain. The final member of the team came in the unlikely form of Tim Green, Finance Supervisor and home comforts enthusiast.
The plan had been to get away from it all and avoid anything work-like as if it were a rabid hyena, but like so many plans, it was ruined by our I.T. department. "You lot should take some cameras with you and review them. You know, show how they get on in a real life environment" suggested Alan, Head of I.T. and harbinger of gloom. Still, it wasn't a bad idea, and as 3 out of the 4 of us had nothing particularly suitable for photo capturing, it would do us a favour too. So that is how we found ourselves heading into the Lake District wilderness armed with 4 top end compact cameras complete with Sandisk 2GB SD cards and cases.
I already had my Leica D-Lux 3 and the others were given a free choice of compact cameras from our demo-stock. Tim chose the Canon PowerShot G9 with its solid build and manual control option, Daniel opted for the 10x zoom lens of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5, and Damien selected the fixed 28mm f2.4 lens Ricoh GR Digital II.
The Rambler's Bar
The derisory banter started almost as soon as we arrived in The Lake District. Our first stop was The Rambler's Bar in Glenridding, where we briefly rested to make our plans for that afternoon, sup the local ales and discuss cameras.
"You sure you've got the right camera?" said Daniel pointing at Damien's Ricoh, "It looks like a disposable!"
"Nothing wrong with this camera," Damien replied, "it's gonna gobble up the vistas."
To be fair, the Ricoh GR Digital is an unusual looking camera owing to its GR film heritage and lack of inbuilt viewfinder. It is exceptionally lightweight and just a little, well, plasticy. But with a quality wide angle lens and a price tag of well over £350, Damien was right to expect great things from this little camera, vista gobblin' and all.
The first picture of the trip was to be a group shot of us looking fresh faced and eager, so with the help of Leonard the Gorillapod and a vacant bar-stool I set up my Leica D-Lux 3 for a self-timed shot. Just as I got the camera set up level and pointing in the right direction, the barman asked if I'd like him to take the picture.
"Erm, no thanks," I replied. "It's all set up now so I'll do it like this."
And that was the main reason why I declined the kind man's offer. That and the fact that I had no wish to entrust £490 worth of Leica to a complete stranger. The Leica may well have the highest pedigree of the cameras we were carrying, but at just shy of £500 for a compact, it was going to have to perform miracles to justify its hefty price tag.
Daniel's Panasonic TZ5 borrowed heavily from the Leica pedigree by way of its Leica DC Vario-Elmar 28-280mm lens. With a 10x zoom, this camera was always going to be subjected to the "it's not the size, it's what you do with it" jibes, but the accompanying Optical Image Stabilizer system and a maximum ISO of 6400 suggested that it might be possible to do quite a lot with this camera. At least the Panasonic TZ5 could be accurately described as compact. By comparison with the other cameras, Tim's Canon PowerShot G9 was a brick. A solid, well constructed brick, but a brick none-the-less.
"Well, at least if the batteries run out you can still use it to get your tent-pegs in."
The armour-plated bomb-proofing turned out to be a good thing, as less than 10 minutes into our journey on day two, Tim adjusted a strap to loosen his back-pack and sent the G9 crashing to the ground. Actually, crashing is the wrong word. Splashing to the ground would be a more accurate description, as the G9 managed to land in approximately 2 inches of puddle. Whilst the Crumpler case absorbed most of the water, the G9's robust build absorbed the impact with absolutely no adverse effects whatsoever and, after some thorough drying by the camp fire that evening, the Crumpler case was suitably dehumidified and ready to re-house the camera.
Lemmings & British drizzle
None of the cameras were kept completely dry during the trip, the British weather doing its best to spoil our ascent of Helvellyn on the morning of day two. Rain, mist, drizzle, wind, hail. A typical May-Day bank holiday weekend, then. To make sure the Leica was always close at hand, I kept it in the pocket of my jacket, whipping it out whenever the view demanded it, which in The Lake District was every other step. As such, the Leica was regularly brought out in even the most persistent drizzle, but suffered no harm as a result.
Build quality also turned out to be an important quality of the Panasonic. Although Daniel managed to keep the camera on his person, he struggled keeping his feet on the ground. The final count of Daniel/ground interfaces was 8 and the Panasonic TZ5 survived each tumble with ease. On the rare occasions when Daniel wasn't throwing himself down hillsides he was marching us all up streams. For some bizarre reason best known to nobody, whenever Daniel was leading the group up a mountain, we would be battling a constant stream of water going in the opposite direction. This combination of suicidal gravity abuse and human water divining led us to believe that Mr McMahon was actually part lemming, part salmon, or as we called him, a Lemon. But encased within its Lowepro Rezo 20 pouch, the TZ5 survived all of this and took every scree and stream in its stride, even when Daniel didn't.
In many respects, Damien's Ricoh GRD II demanded the most from the user. Having a fixed 28mm lens with no means of zooming in meant that Damien had to position himself in the right spot to get the composition he wanted. Often this meant balancing precariously on the edge of a precipice, or hopping off the path through boggy marshes just to keep an ugly looking boulder out of the foreground of a photograph.
Whilst the rest of us would casually step slightly to the right and zoom in a little, Damien was navigating his way round gorse-bushes and hanging off ledges to get the shot. However, because of the compact and lightweight build of the camera and the fact that there was no zoom to operate, it was possible to use the camera and make all necessary adjustments one handed. In Damien's words, "Ideal if you are hanging off a cliff or Striding Edge." Which he was. Frequently.
Halfway up Helvellyn it had become apparent that one of the group was finding the going particularly tough. Tim, who had given up smoking on the day we left, was struggling and the extra weight of the Canon PowerShot G9 certainly wasn't helping him get up the mountain any quicker. OK, so it's not really that heavy. It's certainly far lighter than an SLR camera would be and yet it shares many of the same features, such as multiple exposure, focus and metering modes. It also had the benefit of a decent, image stabilised zoom lens. However, it was larger and heavier than any of the other cameras in use, but it would not be fair to blame the G9 for Tim's arduous ascent. Something smaller, approximately the size of a pack of cigarettes was probably more responsible...
The Leica D-Lux 3 also shares many of the functions of an SLR. It has Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual exposure modes, as well as offering a full auto setting and various scene modes. However, the Leica also has the option of shooting in RAW, a function more and more photographers are looking for. That said, I only had one 2GB card with me and this would only hold approximately 72 RAW files, so I chose to shoot in the highest quality JPEG setting. This allowed me to get in excess of 250 images on the card and to ensure I still didn't fill the card up prematurely, I made sure I deleted any unwanted images as I went along.
Unfortunately, this regular reviewing drained the battery far faster than I had anticipated, and by the end of the trip the power symbol was flashing empty on the LCD.
The self-timer functions of the Leica got a considerable amount of use, particularly in conjunction with Leonard the Gorillapod. There are two self-timer options; two second delay and ten second delay. The ten second self-timer was ideal for the group shots, giving enough time to get in position and perfect the outdoor-man type pose before the shutter fired. The two second timer was useful for longer exposure landscape shots, when it was used to fire the camera without me having to press the shutter button and risk jogging the camera.
Like the Leica, the Panasonic also only managed to last the 4 days by the skin of its teeth. The camera had been supplied to Daniel without a charger and although the battery had been fully charged on receipt, he didn't discover the missing item until he had fired off a large number of test shots. The TZ5 kept on ticking throughout the whole trip, but the battery died in the car on the way home. However, it had managed to rack up an impressive 450+ shots before giving up the ghost.
Whilst the TZ5 lacked the manual exposure modes found on the other cameras, it has a wealth of scene modes available - 24 in total. What's more, the main control dial has 2 scene options, so you can select your favourite/most used two and easily switch between them. This mode dial had one slight drawback which the Leica also suffered from - it was quite loose, leading to the mode dial position shifting when putting the cameras in or taking them out of their cases. What this meant in practice was that despite putting the camera away whilst in Landscape Scene mode, the next time the TZ5 was whipped out to snap a breathtaking view, the sweeping vista was actually captured in Underwater Scene mode. Despite the persistent precipitation, this was overkill and led to many pictures being taken twice.
Where the Lumix TZ5 excelled above and beyond the other cameras was its 10x zoom lens. This didn't get as much use as it might have done for the simple reason that wide-angle photography was the order of the day. The Panasonic had the benefit of having a 28mm focal length at it widest setting, meaning that it was as capable of vista gobbling as any of the others, but on the odd occasion where a far off detail in the mountains demanded to be captured, Daniel was the only man who could do so.
Panasonic TZ-5 - 28mm
Panasonic TZ-5 - 140mm
Panasonic TZ-5 - 280mm
Incidentally, the above photographs zoom in on a part of Helvellyn we named "Jacob's Scree". Despite only having got Tim to the top of the mountain by the narrowest of margins, Daniel had assured us that the jaunt down the other side was "a mere stroll down grassy slopes". Yeah, whatever.
Foregoing the traditional methods of descent, namely the paths, Daniel led us blindly down and down the ever steepening hillside until we rounded a corner of the trees to find what could loosely be described as an exceptionally steep slope or, more accurately, a grassy cliff. With no other means of getting down, we made a slow and careful descent, grasping the exposed roots of trees, tufts of grass and rocks to avoid tumbling our way to the river at the bottom.
Damien made the decision to make the descent via the scree running parallel, a cascade of loose stones and boulders that only an idiot and a fool would attempt to traverse. As it happened, we had two such people in our group, so Damien set off down the river of rocks with Daniel following closely behind. After a few trips, a couple of stumbles, and a kamikaze boulder bouncing its way past Daniel's head, they made the decision to come off the scree and down the grassy cliff with Tim and me.
We eventually arrived in a bruised and battered state at the tumbling river at the bottom. We were a mess. However, the cameras carried on as if we'd just strolled through the park to feed the ducks - they were enduring the trip better than we were.
Come the end of day two, when we'd set up camp and were looking back over the day's photographs, it became obvious that whilst the cameras were all performing rather differently, they were all equally up to the task. Although the cases were beginning to show signs of exposure, the cameras could almost have been returned to Wex Photographic and put back on the shelves (don't worry, they weren't). After a cup of cocoa, Tim (now known as Tim "The Bear" Green because of what he did in the woods) was feeling much better and even took the time to wander around taking pictures of our home for the next 12 hours, Harrop Tarn. Tim has previously used several digital compacts and has recently been considering a move to SLR photography. He quickly found that the auto exposure and scene modes of the Canon PowerShot G9 allowed him to point-and-shoot with ease as he had done previously with other cameras, however the G9 also allowed Tim to experiment with shutter and aperture priority, and even use the camera in full manual mode, an excellent way to learn. As a result, before the trip was over Tim had gained a good grasp of the photographic basics and may even postpone the move to SLRs and get himself a G9 instead.
Day three was a far gentler day for both us and our cameras. The mileage was much the same, but the gradient a little gentler. Despite the weather being remarkable good, the going underfoot was a tad on the soggy side, in much the same way that the Atlantic Ocean is a little on the damp side. By now we were all reasonably familiar with the cameras we were using and while the picture stops were fewer (we sank if we stopped in the same place for too long) the success rate was certainly higher.
Our journey took in glacial valleys, meandering rivers, exposed rock outcrops and lots of other thing my old geography teacher would have been very excited about. We photographed most of them.
By the end of day three, as we looked for a suitable place to pitch the tents we were all starting to flag. By this point, even the cameras were starting to get tired, with the battery levels on the Leica, Canon and Panasonic all starting to show a drop. The Ricoh was an exception. It didn't even show a single bar's worth of power loss the whole trip. True, Damien wasn't quite as snap happy as Daniel, but the fact that the GR Digital II had no zoom lens to power, meant that the battery lasted for far more pictures than any of the other cameras. This extra energy seemed to transfer itself to Damien, who, despite being at the end of a lengthy trek, thought nothing of wading over to a small island to decide if it was suitable for camping on. After he'd made the trip there and back and determined that it was suitable for camping, Daniel, Tim and I vetoed the location. Like our cameras, our energy levels were in decline and we had no wish to get unnecessarily wet. Damien dried off, put his socks and boots back on, and sulked like a small boy.
Derwent Water & Keswick
That evening (our last under canvas) we sat by Derwent Water and took in the mellow tranquillity of the surroundings. Then we attempted to photograph the mellow tranquillity. With the light all but gone, the automatic modes on the cameras simply couldn't cope with the lack of illumination. Even the Night mode shots produced dark and overly grainy images. The only option therefore was to switch to fully manual. This ruled Daniel's fully auto Panasonic out altogether, but the rest of us managed some passable results.
The morning of day four saw us and the cameras heading our way round the lake towards Keswick and the end of our travels. Our last journey by foot through the Lake District took in rocky bays, wood carvings and a couple of dead sheep, which Daniel photographed from every conceivable angle and which, to avoid offending or disturbing any vegetarians, animal lovers or ordinary people, I shall not show here. But rest assured that the Panasonic TZ5 captured them in all their skeletal glory, the 10x being used with great success to isolate some of the more macabre details.
Once we were in Keswick town centre looking for a suitable pub for a celebratory lunch, the compact nature of the cameras meant that we could still use them without standing out too much. Where an SLR might have been overly conspicuous and attracted unwarranted interest, these cameras were subtle and went unnoticed, leaving only our dishevelled appearance, unwashed odour and oversized rucksacks to bring attention to ourselves in a packed shopping precinct on a Sunday afternoon.
We had made it, but the adventures had taken their toll on us. By comparison, the cameras could have used a quick battery charge and they'd have been ready to go again. I wish I had their stamina...
Verdict: Panasonic TZ-5
Okay, first off, I'm not a photographer. I do video, but in the interests of not dragging my camcorder up a mountain, dropping it and spending the weekend crying like a baby, I jumped at the chance to try out one of these snazzy new compacts. I decided that the Panasonic TZ5 looked like just the model for me...
First thing to mention is the size. It's nice and small which not only meant that it was great for throwing into my trouser pocket when a new crag to climb appeared at the top of a hill, but also that the case I had attached to my rucksack was compact enough not to get in my way when scrambling.
Not being too photographically minded, the scene modes in the camera were a Godsend. There were 24 to choose from but being in the Lake District meant that I had mine set to "landscape" and "sunset", the only downside being that the mode dial was slightly loose and if I wasn't careful I would knock it into the wrong mode, which resulted in everything turning pink!
The one feature that I had the other guys beat on was the size of my zoom... At 10x, I was shooting into places the others couldn't hope to get! It was great at picking up climbers on distant mountains and didn't suffer from being soft even when fully zoomed in.
Battery life wasn't a problem either for this camera. I had tested it before I went and still got a full 3 days of shooting from it, resulting in over 450 pictures (300 is estimated), and some video footage.
The image quality was fantastic - the camera can shoot in several ratios including 4:3 and 16:9 (although this does crop the image size from 9mp to 7.5mp), so I chose to shoot in 4:3 at the highest quality jpeg setting and work on the images later in Photoshop. Straight out of the camera the images were very sharp with little if not no noise to speak of. I love Photoshop, and the chance to really push some of my craggy mountain pictures was one of the reasons I chose to take a still camera. All the pictures really stood up to some heavy processing and lots of re-saves with no visual loss of quality - I have a Nikon D50 myself and it even matched that!
Overall I was very impressed with this camera and highly recommend it. The image results were certainly a match for my SLR and it weighed a lot less!
Err, when is it you need it back?...
Verdict: Ricoh GR Digital II
For the trip and review I decided to take the Ricoh GRD II, hoping that its fast f2.4 aperture lens and fixed 28mm focal length would gobble up all the vistas of the Lakes!
I shot predominately in the Auto mode with Auto white balance and ISO, occasionally switching to Programme mode if I wanted to do anything other than a quick snap. The Ricoh was kitted up with a Lowepro Rezo 30 case, which fitted a treat and was easy to use.
Starting with the design and usability of the camera, it felt reassuring well built, with a classy, sophisticated almost elegant design; the Mercedes of the compact range. At only 200grams it wasn't going to add significantly to my pack weight, unlike a certain Mr Canon G9! The battery life was very good and with one full charge the battery didn't drop a bar during the four days with over 300 shots taken with minor flash usage.
It was intuitive to use, with all the operations being able to be adjusted with one hand - ideal if you are hanging off a cliff, or Striding Edge. Neat features like being able to allocate more popular functions to certain buttons and user set custom modes increased its functionality. One feature I liked was a locking button for the command dial so when you're getting the camera out of a case in a hurry, it's always on the correct mode you set previously. This combined with a start-up time of just over a second ensures no vital shots are missed - although landscapes don't often get up and run away!
The 2.7" LCD screen was bright and clear for playback, and framing wasn't impaired by strong sunlight. The GRD even has a level sensor indicator when you're framing up to ensure level horizons! The images were pin-sharp of close-up to far off objects right across the lens, and there was no optical zoom to scatter the light and degrade image quality.
Downsides were few and far between. Due to the fact it's a fixed focal length camera there is no optical zoom, only digital. Also being so wide an angle, if there was something in the view you didn't want, you would have to move around it rather then zoom-in over it, and making sure none of my colleagues were in that perfect sunset proved annoying.
Summing up, this is a well featured and well made, ideal landscape compact for when an SLR is unpractical. With a little experience and some time to get to know the GRD II, the results would certainly justify the price tag! Picture the scene...
You're in sunny Provence and the wind is blowing through your open-top Morgan...
You're on your way to the ambassador's reception...
You're Paul Smith linen suits and Dunhill travel collection...
You're in Ricoh GRD II territory!
Verdict: Canon PowerShot G9
First things first - I will admit I am pretty good with a compact (well I can point and shoot), but my expertise with a DSLR is about the same as a squirrel.
So with this in mind I decided to opt for something in-between, a Canon PowerShot G9. It has the ease of use of a compact along with a few extra options such as being able to adjust ISO, aperture and time value - slightly more options than the so called "Mercedes of the compact range"! Oh, did I mention the 6x zoom which I found essential?
"Yes, I dropped the camera on the first day. Into a big deep puddle. Slightly embarrassing."
Now, I will agree that the Canon was the heaviest of the bunch, but with so many functions, it was worth it. I decided to use the Crumpler John Thursday 90 to house the beast and I did have a small problem on the first day, when the weight of the camera (and my fumbling) made the Velcro on the case detach itself from my pack. Yes, I dropped the camera on the first day. Into a big deep puddle. Slightly embarrassing. Not to fear though, the durable design and the fact the G9 is so well built, meant it didn't even blink at the swim - unlike me who panicked like a turkey at Christmas.
I mainly used the camera in auto mode as the light was so varied it would have taken me a while to figure out the best setting and this was just not an option on our tight schedule. Towards the end of the tour of duty, I did start changing the aperture manually which was as quick and easy as laughing at the style of some of the other disposable, sorry, I mean compact, cameras that my esteemed colleagues had. All the functions are as you would expect from a Canon, clear and precise and controlled by a handy turn dial on the camera with the relevant selections being scrolled through on the 3.5inch LCD display.
In the auto setting I found the pictures I had taken to be high in detail and look crisp and clear. The images retained their sharpness even when zooming in, and the focus adjusted instantly so as not to miss that vital shot of a bleary eyed colleague in the morning. The G9 did exactly what you wanted when you wanted it to. As I have already touched on, changing the settings was quick and easy and the option to save custom settings is great as with one click, you have the setting you need.
The Design of the G9 is not spectacular, but first thoughts on seeing the camera is that it clearly has a powerful zoom, and a lot of extra functions. Again, it is a bit on the heavy side but if you compare this with other cameras in its class you don't mind as you are getting an Arnie rather than a Mr Bean.
The battery life was superb! I charged it before the trip and now four days after the trip and after many showings of the photos the battery level has hardly dropped.
As much as I would like to continue kissing the posterior of this camera there are a few downsides, primarily the viewfinder. Don't bother using it. It is hard to see out of, and what you are carefully aiming at ends up out of the picture. The camera itself was heavy and the start up time was a bit longer than I personally like. In addition, the noise (aural, not digital) when it started was a bit concerning (yes even before it went for a swim).
Overall the G9 is a great camera for someone who wants a bit more than a compact but not a full DSLR. It's easy to use and adjust and the fact that it has a wide range of options and can take a variety of pictures at the turn of a dial makes this camera truly superb.
Basically, it's just as you would expect from a Canon.
Verdict: Leica D-Lux 3
I'll be honest - I own this camera, I've used this camera many times before, and I love this camera.
I bought it for its combination of performance and design. It offers several scene modes plus full automatic mode if you're new to photography and want the camera to do the thinking for you. However, if like me you're used to using SLRs and are more familiar with exposure methods, this little Leica also offers an adjustable Program Mode, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and a full Manual Mode. All the manual modes are easily controlled via a small joystick/button on the reverse of the camera, and the camera also benefits from 3 different focusing options - full automatic, automatic macro and manual. In Automatic mode the focus can be changed from single to continuous, depending what you're shooting.
On this trip I tended to use aperture priority in combination with auto-focus. This gave me enough control in most cases but was still quick enough to mean that I didn't hold the group up when composing my shots. On the odd occasion when the camera's auto metering was struggling (for example, a dark, shadowed mountain side in the foreground, with a bright, illuminated sky in the background) I could either switch to manual exposure, or use the exposure adjustment to under or over-expose by up to 2 stops in either direction.
Perhaps my favourite feature of the camera is its standard wide-screen picture ratio of 16:9. This was absolutely ideal for taking in the breathtaking landscapes of the Lake District. However, if you want a more standard picture size, you can switch to either 3:2 or 4:3 ratios.
Despite having an optically image stabilised lens, a 2.8" 16:9 screen and a host of other electronic wizardry, the D-Lux 3 is also remarkably well built. Whilst it could never be described as heavy and certainly lacks the tank-like quality of the Canon Powershot G9, it still feels solid enough in the hand. During the hike around the Lake District, I tended to keep the camera in my pocket to make sure it was always within reach. The camera never once objected to these sub-standard living conditions and stuck by me throughout the whole trip, even when it got left in the porch of our tent, leaving it a little moist around the edges. But that's the point. Even though it was tough enough to survive this kind of abuse, it is also small and light enough to be kept in a pocket.
As I said at the start, I own and love this camera, but I am not oblivious to its shortcomings. The lens is image stabilised, but with a maximum zoom of 112mm, it's not really long enough for anything other than the odd cropped portrait style shot. The dial that switches between the exposure modes would easily get knocked when putting the camera in and taking it out of the case. This became increasingly frustrating, leading to me abandoning the case and keeping the camera in my pocket. In general the image quality is superb, but at ISO settings above 200 the image becomes very noisy. But perhaps the biggest turn off is the price. At £490 it is double the price of the Panasonic TZ5 that Daniel tested. Is it twice as good? Hmm, difficult one that, and in all honesty, probably not. But it is a cracking little camera, and if you can justify the inflated price tag, you won't be disappointed.
An ideal camera for this kind of trip.
I'll end this article as I should have started it, by explaining in a little more detail the nature of the trip. We started off from Glenridding carrying all the supplies and equipment we would need for the next four days, including tents, food, cooking equipment, clothing, water and of course, cameras. We were not booked in to any campsites on route; we were wild camping wherever we could find a suitable location that was flat and sheltered enough. We walked in rain, wind, hail, sleet and blistering sunshine, each carrying around 40-50lbs on our backs. We climbed rivers, descended cliffs, crossed bridges and fords, and covered approximately 30miles on our journey. We slept under canvas, cooked by campfire and frequently got wet. Some of us fell down. Lots.
Our cameras accompanied us through all of this, recording just about every moment deemed worthy of a photograph. Never once did any of them stall, pause, or murmur disapproval. They just kept on doing what they do best.
If you're taking a trip like ours, or any kind of outdoor walking activity, and you're considering purchasing a camera for the occasion, then I think it's safe to say that any of the four compact cameras tested here will do you proud. They did us.Back to top