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The Best Cameras, Binoculars, and Other Optical Equipment for Outdoor Use and Nature Photography, including Birdwatching

from Outdoor Equipment Report

What to Look For in Outdoor Cameras


Digital SLRs

Canon EOS Rebel T3i 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera and DIGIC 4 Imaging with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens

Review Excerpts:

... takes the consumer level dSLR a couple steps closer to the mid-level ... take properly exposed photos in most every situation, including difficult back-lit scenes. ... relatively strong construction ... the controls of the T3i are more than sufficient for your needs. ... the articulating rear LCD screen ... This may prove useful ... for macro use, or for using it from unusually low or high vantage points. ...

- dojoklo, on Amazon.com

... an excellent camera for me and I've been quite pleased with it. ... fantastically sharp images, true to color. ... so ridiculously fast that I can snap multiple pics in the time one picture took before. ... pictures are just amazing quality. ... amazingly clear footage ... the kit lens on this is really nice and easy to use. ... the battery we bought for the camera lasts very well ... I wish there was a plug-in mode or some sort of docking-station I could plug the camera into ... I really love this camera, ...

- W. Edwards, on Amazon.com

I was so surprised how light is the T3i, ... captures superb image quality with low noise and natural color ... the T3i gives me all I want, clear and hassle free pictures, ... longer battery life, and low consumption. ...

- Arsene Lupin, on Amazon.com

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Point and Shoot Digital Cameras

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX200V 18.2 MP Exmor R CMOS Digital Camera with 30x Optical Zoom and 3.0-inch LCD (Black) (2012 Model)

Review Excerpts:

It starts fast, focuses quickly, does not have shutter lag and is easy to handle and has tons of functions. ... the zoom allows good creativity and the low light capability produces detailed and pleasing shots. ... The camera is a lot of fun to use and it just begs you to be more creative ... Nice touch to use the optical viewfinder and have the screen turn off. ... good flash coverage and the slow-sync function is great ... auto mode is good for the stability/less blur in long range shots ... Shooting movies and the ability to shoot a good sized still at the same time is very impressive ... video quality is very good. ... the zoom works well when videoing. ... the audio capture is good. ... its affordable, has huge capabilities, more than acceptable image quality and fun. ...

- TechGuy, on Amazon.com

... the best point and shoot camera I have ever owned. ... great shots of birds, scenery ... great pictures of a full moon, showing incredible detail of craters. ...

- Carl Galloway, on Amazon.com

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Trail Cameras

Reconyx HyperFire HC500 Semi - Covert IR Game Camera

Review Excerpts:

This camera works really well. Trigger speed is very fast, picture quality very good. You're not going miss much with this one! ...

- J. M. Cronkright, on Amazon.com

... This camera works like a champ. It always works, it takes very few ghost pictures, and the battery life is EXCELLENT. ... At the end of the year my battery life still shows 98%. ... these things are built well and after 2 seasons ... it's a tank that should keep working.

- Tulsa Reader, on Amazon.com

This is by far the best camera I have ever owned. I went threw alOt of game cameras in the past an finally spent the extra money. I recommend this cam to everyone

- Chrisem, on Amazon.com

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Underwater Digital Cameras

Nikon COOLPIX AW100 16 MP CMOS Waterproof Digital Camera with GPS and Full HD 1080p Video (Orange)

Review Excerpts:

... Lightweight - For traveling, hiking, water sports, having a light camera is good. ... take photos in darker situations ... high-frame rate slow motion video are possible with this little camera. ... light to carry around in bag or even board shorts ... Tried "underwater" and auto modes. Both work well. ... You can go as close as about 1cm or closer. ...

- K. Chua, on Amazon.com

Good pics and I abuse this thing rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, and fishing. Had it under water many times, even in cold water! Would buy similar camera again!!!

- Branden Kern, on Amazon.com

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Flash Memory Camcorders

Panasonic HDC-HS80K HD HDD Camcorder (Black)

Review Excerpts:

I'm a professional nature photographer, ... just returned from a two-week photo trip to the Redwoods region. ... Very compact and almost fits into the palm of my hand. ... amazing how close it zooms in and how little hand-shake there is. ... records audio of what you have it pointed at and minimizes the background noise. I zoomed in on a Song Sparrow and heard the Sparrow very well and the ocean background noise was very minimal. ... I'v been very happy with this camcorder. ...

- Ron Mastrogiuseppe, on Amazon.com

... very compact and well designed camcorder. The performance so far has been great. ...

- anup78ca, on Amazon.com

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DVD Camcorders

Sony DCR-DVD650 DVD Camcorder

Review Excerpts:

... The video quality this camera gives is wonderful, and creates a steady image, ... The zoom range is impressive as well. Still images were great during the day, and the camera is FAST. ... didn't offer a lot in the area of night time picture taking and video capture. ... As a video camera, this product blows everything out of the water ...

- Joe Ackbar, on Amazon.com

... Nice design ... easy to use ... able to take still pictures in addition to the video ... option to use DVD or Memory Stick for recording/photos ... I am extremely happy with the purchase ...

- C. WILLIAMS (Alabama), on Amazon.com

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Professional Camcorders

Panasonic Professional AG-HMC40 AVCHD Camcorder with 10.6 MP Still and 12x Optical Zoom

Review Excerpts:

... the image quality of this camcorder is excellent, ... The lens maintains crisp focus right out to the edges, with no noticable chromatic aberration ... Low light capability is very good. ... At 18db gain, the image is crisp with very little grain. ... Colors are very true and well saturated, ... a very film-like image. ... good audio for most purposes. ... a balanced line or mike input all the way through, with or without phantom power. ... Battery life is ... Enough to get you through the day. ... The best feature is recording to inexpensive SD and SDHC cards. ... this camcorder will last until you drop it on the sidewalk or into a swimming pool. ...

- Rick Bennette "FineArtVideo.com", on Amazon.com

... For the price range, this camera delivers excellent image quality, both in daylight, and lowlight. ... this camera delivers superb images. Controls are easy to use, reachable, and well placed. ... it has delivered excellent results. Lightweight is a plus. Sharpness is very good. ...

- Viridiana Serrano, on Amazon.com

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Helmet Cameras

Contour ROAM2 Waterproof Video Camera (Black)

Review Excerpts:

... very impressive. ... nice wide view, but much less fisheye. The quality of the video image is very good. ... ultra-sharp and the colors are very good. The automatic white balance in the camera is also extremely good, and will self-adjust to present very true colors even indoors. ... The rotating lens and built-in laser line make it easy to set the camera to frame a perfect shot, ... one thing I don't like about the ROAM 2 - you must use the software each time you want to change resolution of video ... this camera performed flawlessly. ... The mic in the ROAM2 is very good ... The quality of the picture is superb ...

- Justin Opinion, on Amazon.com

... a great camera and it seems very durable. ... Video quality is Great ...

- James, on Amazon.com

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Binoculars

Vanguard Endeavor ED Binocular

Review Excerpts:

... you'll be hard-pressed to find a better performing pair binoculars for the money. ... Sharpness also seems extends all the way to the very edge ... The overall build quality of this binocular is really good ... I highly recommend these to those who want a really well built pair of binocular with really great optics but don't want to break their bank.

- Mark Twain, on Amazon.com

... I use binoculars almost exclusively for birding ... These bins are an absolute delight. ... The image clarity equals that of any of the high dollar units I have used ... The color definition is precise ... I had no problems following the ever moving birds I encountered ... the most comfortable binoculars I have ever used. ... The lock down diopter adjustment is just what I needed ... For the cost I cannot see how you could do any better. ...

- D. Blankenship, on Amazon.com

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Tripods/Monopods

SLIK PRO 700DX Professional Tripod with Panhead (615-315)

Review Excerpts:

... well made, very sturdy, very tall, and light for it's overall size. ... simple to operate with with one hand. ... The pan head has nice controls, has two useful bubble levels built in, ... the strength and light weight of round tripod legs, as well as the twist free virtues of box section legs. ... One thing that the photo here does not show is the replaceable black foam sleeves that cover the top leg sections. They make for a nice feel, offer protection to the tripod when it's bouncing around in the trunk of a car, probably damp a little vibration, and just plain look nice. ... reversible like the standard column, and allows the tripod to get real low for solid macro work at ground level. ... This tripod is an awesome value.

- Jim Krupnik, on Amazon.com

My favorite part of this tripod system has to be the simple but clever "Quick Shoe" ... I have no problems leaving this mounted to my cameras all the time. ... This tripod has two handy bubble levels, a max height of 74 inches ... Buy this tripod and it should outlast your camera.

- James Hatsis, on Amazon.com

Dolica WT-1003 67-Inch Lightweight Monopod

Review Excerpts:

... an excellent design, and a very good value. ... It does everything a monopod should do, and does those things well. It operates quickly and easily, and is very sturdy, ... good grip and cushion. ... Metal tip for hard surfaces; plastic tip screws out over metal tip for indoor surfaces. Neither tip can come loose and get lost. ...

- Stoney, on Amazon.com

... compact, light, inexpensive, and sturdy. ... If anyone just want a decent monopod that works great for any occassion, this is the one to go. ...

- David Wright, on Amazon.com

... well worth the money. It is sturdy and well constructed and comes with a carrying case. I do recommend you purchase a ball head quick release as an accessory.

- T Francis, on Amazon.com

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What to Look For in Outdoor Cameras

A digital camera, whether for still pictures, videos, or both, is a very useful tool for studying nature. Of course, it's fun to capture memories of family and friends sharing the adventure, but almost any camera will suit that purpose. But for studying nature, capturing the details of a strange plant or animal so that you can compare it to your field guides, there are some special considerations regarding what camera will work best.

There are five main considerations when looking for a camera for outdoor use:

Ruggedness

Let's face it: The camera you bring with you on hiking and camping trips will get some rough treatment. So make sure you choose a camera that can take a little punishment.

Of course, as an alternative, you might consider getting a camera that is so inexpensive that you don't mind replacing it frequently. Depending on how roughly you treat it, it might be more cost effective to get a new $50 camera every other trip than to get a $400 camera that doesn't last beyond five trips. That is a realistic approach for extreme conditions.

But for most of us, you can get a very decent camera that will survive many years bouncing along in your backpack. Also bear in mind that besides physical shock, a camera in the backpack or in the tent will have to endure changes in temperature and levels of humidity that the average consumer electronic device really was not designed to handle. Switches short circuit and/or corrode, focus and zoom motors jam up, and, worst of all, tapes stick to the recording heads of a camcorder.

For a video camera, the fewer moving parts the better. Generally, a DVD camcorder is more rugged than any tape-based camcorder, including Mini-DV. Solid state or "flash memory" camcorders are the most rugged currently available.

But for any camera, still or video, there's no substitute for experience. Read the reviews carefully, and specifically look for reviewers who have taken the camera into the field over a period of many months and years.

Compactness

You'll want your outdoor camera to be small and light enough that it won't be a burden in your backpack. That includes the lenses. For this reason, a good lens with a decent zoom range and decent performance at both ends of its range is better than a DSLR with several interchangeable lenses. Of course, interchangeable lenses have their advantages and can give you much better images. It's just a trade-off. A good multi-range lens is lighter than two excellent lenses, one for close-up and one for distance.

By the same token, you might want to look for a single camera that takes good videos and good still images. The distinction between a still camera and a video camera is getting fuzzy, as most still cameras can take short videos, and virtually all camcorders can also take stills. Generally, a camcorder that also takes stills will be a better choice than a still camera that also takes movies. It may be a matter of personal choice, but be sure you check the video and still picture quality before you choose. And consider how many memory cards you'll have to carry and keep track of if you fill them up with video on a camping trip.

Close-up Capability

Manufacturers and retailers tend to make a big deal of zoom capabilities, but don't forget macro capabilities. A large part of the reason you have a digital camera with you is so you can take a picture of that unidentified bug or flower to look up in your guidebooks back home. If the camera can't focus in on details close-up, you may be frustrated.

Without getting into intricate optical technicalities, let's just say that a good zoom and a good close-focus capability tend to work against each other. You'll pay extra for a lens that is good at both, but it is well worth the cost.

And since the camera manufacturers don't tout their close-up capabilities very much, make sure you check for it in the reviews. Try to select a camera and lens that can focus on details within a couple of inches in front of the lens.

Zoom Capability

Just as you'll want to focus in close to identify a flower or an insect, you'll also want to zoom in tight to identify a distant bird.

It's one thing to make a lens that can zoom to ten or fifteen times magnification, but it's another to do so without losing image quality. Don't just look for a high zoom value, check the reviews for good, bright, crisp images at long zoom. As mentioned earlier, a lens that can focus in close is often not so good at tight zooms, and your images may be dark or indistinct.

You'll hear some different opinions on the value of "digital zoom." We are of the opinion that digital zoom doesn't matter at all. Optical zoom is what focuses light from a more distant target on the full area of your image sensor. All digital zoom does is take the pixels from the middle of the image sensor and stretches them out to fill the full size of the final picture. Yes, there are times when you want to do that, but the best time to do it is on your computer when you have time to think about what you're doing and to make sure you aren't throwing away too much image quality. Don't crop your pictures in your camera out in the field. We strongly suggest that you simply ignore a camera's digital zoom capabilities. Since almost all digital cameras have some digital zoom capabilities, check to see if it can be disabled in your camera, and consider that a good thing.

Image Quality

Not so long ago, image quality in a comsumer digital camera was all about megapixels. That is no longer true. Now that even low-end cameras commonly have five megapixel sensors or better, we can pay attention to other features that contribute to good image quality. An 8 megapixel image focused by a cheap, blurry lens will not be as good as a 5 megapixel image with a sharp, precision lens.

If you're an advanced camera buff, you'll be able to make sense out of the ISO rating of the sensor (often adjustable, in high-end cameras), and the f-ratings of the lenses, spherical abberation, chromatic abberation, and such. For most of us, all you'll have to go on is the reviews. Check what the reviewers say about the quality of images taken under a variety of lighting conditions and at a variety of zoom settings. And read enough reviews that you can learn to recognize the difference between an irrationally exuberant neophyte and a serious lover of good photography.

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