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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sierra Light With A Compact

James Kay had to ditch his DSLR in favor of a basic point-and-shoot for a recent ultralight hiking trip. The small camera gave him a sense of creative freedom, and knowing how to work within the camera’s limitations, he brought back a stunning portfolio.

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Last light on Mount Agassiz, Mount Winchell and Thunderbolt Peak in Dusy Basin, Kings Canyon National Park.
As the wheels began to turn, I played with the idea of swapping out my DSLR for my Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS. As a compact point-and-shoot, the PowerShot's 12-megapixel sensor certainly doesn't have the resolution of my 5D's, but it's surprisingly good. While I might not be able to produce a razor-sharp 24x30 print with it, it would certainly provide excellent-quality images for the web or a nice 16x20 print and, obviously, it would be much better than no camera at all. I unzipped it from its case and placed it on my postage scale. The needle stopped at five ounces. Smaller than an iPhone, it fit in the palm of my hand. And its 5X zoom covered the same range as my 24-105mm L-series lens. Not bad… The wheels were now spinning furiously. Bingo. Decision made. My DSLR was going to take its own little vacation in my closet. One week later at the trailhead, I hoisted my pack and slipped the PowerShot into my shirt pocket. This was going to be fun.

The Return Of Spontaneity
Well before that trip, I had become familiar with the advantages of working with these point-and-shoot cameras. I often use them while working with students in my workshops to quickly show them how to frame a composition. It's much easier than using my DSLR with all its dials and settings. And then there's the creative aspect. Here's a great example: During one of my Capitol Reef workshops last spring, two of my students, Christine and Eric, shared one DSLR body. While one was working with the DSLR, the other walked around looking for images with a small point-and-shoot. While the rest of us had surveyed the scene, chosen what we thought was the best composition and were now simply waiting for the light to optimize while our cameras were firmly affixed to our tripods, Christine was walking around, quickly scanning the scene and snapping away at abstract patterns all around us. She captured some remarkable images.

Shooting star and tundra in Kings Canyon National Park.
It was a great lesson for everyone. Shooting with larger, tripod-mounted cameras can sometimes actually impede the creative process due to the very deliberate nature of the setup required. For example, at the end of a long day, who hasn't deliberated over a composition, trying to decide whether it's worthy of the time required to unload the backpack and set up all the gear? We may have missed some good compositions along the way. And who hasn't missed a great shot, such as that 10-second light beam bursting through the clouds, as we rush to set everything up? After all, in its purest form, photography isn't about the ability to capture and enlarge an image to the size of a billboard; it's about capturing fleeting light and dramatic compositions so we can enjoy them later.

This is exactly what I was looking forward to on that Sierra trip, more spontaneity, less deliberation—just let it flow. Without all the dials and levers to adjust, I soon discovered that chasing light with that little camera was a lot of fun. I had eliminated all that clutter and was now concentrating on photography in its most basic form as I scanned my surroundings for great light and compelling compositions. It felt like the first time I picked up a camera. I was hooked. And without all that extra weight, I was able to move through the landscape with ease and save my energy for those big climbs. Sure, there were a few times I regretted not having that big sensor, but all in all, I concluded afterward that I had made the right choice. Don't get me wrong, my point-and-shoot isn't going to replace my DSLR anytime soon, but I now hold that little camera in much higher esteem, and I've placed it among my indispensable items when I head out the door.


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