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.

Getting the most out of a point-and-shoot camera is about understanding the limitations. James Kay used a small Canon PowerShot on an ultralight hiking expedition in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, and these are some of the images he brought back. Above: Last light on the north ridge of Goodale Mountain, John Muir Wilderness.

Perhaps you were channel-surfing with me a couple years ago when I stumbled across a fascinating special about a team of underwater photographers working to document the prolific underwater habitat surrounding Cocos Island off the coast of Central America. The first 15 minutes of the program dealt with all the camera and diving gear the team would need on location. The camera slowly panned across an enormous pile of equipment assembled on the floor of the chief photographer's studio. It was enough to fill a shipping container.

That image leapt to mind in the summer of 2012 as I debated how much gear to bring on an expedition to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My climbing buddy, Ken Bilak, and I were looking to tackle a rugged 30-mile section of the Sierra High Route between Bishop Creek and Taboose Pass. As opposed to the John Muir Trail that, for most of its length in the Sierras, travels along low-altitude valley bottoms, this high-altitude, off-trail route parallels the jagged crest of the Sierras over high, boulder-strewn, windswept passes in the shadow of the range's most spectacular 14,000-foot peaks, a few of which we'd climb along the way.

As I assembled gear into a pile on the floor of my studio, I had to be ruthless in deciding what to bring and what to leave behind. Since we'd be negotiating SUV-sized boulders, steep scree slopes and occasional Class 3 climbing moves along the way, I didn't want a huge, ungainly backpack throwing off my balance. The goal was to travel fast and light with the minimum amount of gear necessary. As I whittled away at the pile, I kept glancing at the small chest pack, which contained my Canon EOS 5D Mark II and the 24-105mm lens attached to it. This lightweight setup is always my default choice for trips where I need to keep my gear's weight down.

After more whittling and refining, I finally reduced my camping gear to an acceptable minimum, but that camera pack was still the same size. It only weighed in at a little more than six pounds, but every pound counted, and the thought began to creep into my mind that perhaps I should just leave it behind entirely and take a vacation from photography. I'd be camera-free and could simply concentrate on the experience instead of always being preoccupied with looking around for that next shot. But, of course, as a photographer, that would be tantamount to heresy, wouldn't it? How could I possibly consider spending a week in "The Range of Light" without my camera?

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.

Kay used the point-and-shoot for small details, as well as expansive compositions. The camera gave him a sense of creative freedom. This is the view south from the summit of Split Mountain, Kings Canyon National Park, California.

Working Around Point-And-Shoot Limitations
Compared with RAW capture with a DSLR, there are a few technical considerations to keep in mind once that tiny memory card is full and you begin to transfer the files to your hard drive. Most importantly, most point-and-shoot cameras record only in JPEG format, which is a lossy compression format. To avoid degradation of your photos, when you first open the JPEG file in Lightroom, Aperture or whatever image-processing software you use, make your adjustments and then save the file as a TIFF, PSD, DNG or other lossless format.

You also may need to spend a little more time adjusting the images with your editing software. While these cameras do an excellent job of evaluating lighting conditions to produce a well-exposed image in moderate-contrast situations, they have a hard time dealing with a high-contrast scene such as a shadowed foreground with a bright background. In these situations, the camera's light meter will use an average reading, which can cause the highlights to overexpose. Check for this when you open the files in Photoshop and apply local corrections, if necessary, using adjustment layers. Then save the file as a PSD.

Most basic point-and-shoots also don't allow you to control the f-stop, so if you're shooting a subject where you need a lot of depth of field, choose the setting with that little icon showing a person in the foreground with a mountain behind. This is usually the default setting and will provide the most depth of focus.

Many of these point-and-shoots will let you choose between Program mode and Auto mode. Auto does a very good job of determining exposure, white balance and ISO, but if you want more control over these settings, use Program mode to adjust them manually. And, lastly, as with your DSLR, choose the camera settings that use the least amount of file compression and the highest number of recording pixels to get the optimum file with as much pixel data as possible.

Considering their small size, these cameras do a remarkable job. What would William Henry Jackson think? So, the next time you're out in the field, setting up a shot with your 36-megapixel super-sensor and you see a geek standing there with his dinky little point-and-shoot, don't just look down your nose at him, come over and introduce yourself!

To see more of James Kay's photography and sign up for his workshops, visit


    As a former climber, I can certainly understand the appeal of a pocket-size camera (although not for the easily-accessed Dusy Basin where I worked in large format) but these days, why limit yourself to a basic P&S, when there are cameras with that form factor which include RAW, manual controls, not to mention increasing sensor size ?

    I had a similar, go light, experience a few years ago when I went on a bicycling trip in Tuscany. I couldn’t take much gear, so it was just the Canon S95. This is a few ounces heavier than the ELPH James Kay used, but has RAW, full manual controls, etc. I had a blast, enjoyed the freedom, and brought back many memorable photos.

    Great article as usual, James! And the photos too!

Leave a Reply

Main Menu