My Pocket Camera Adventure

Taking advantage of the revolution in compact, non-DSLR cameras
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Portage around the Kings Rapid on the Colo River in New South Wales, Australia, taken with the Sony Cyber-shot RX100.

There’s a revolution happening right now in the world of quality pocket digital cameras, and I’m digging it. I carry my DSLR cameras most places I go and usually have no problem slinging one around my neck for any job. But when it’s pure adventure fun and not an assignment, I have to balance my photography with being a participant and moving efficiently through the country. This is where a smaller compact camera will fit the minimum baggage requirements perfectly. But, sadly, by the time I pack a compact or small DSLR camera for harsh environments, the padded bag or waterproof case turns the camera into a cumbersome package.

I guess the ideal micro-adventure camera would be one where you could just blink your eye to capture an image—nothing to hold, no box in front of your face with dials and meters to fiddle with. We’re certainly getting closer to that reality with the latest camera phones, pocket cameras, GoPro-type cameras and Google Glass. But what these and other digital subcompact cameras have suffered from for years is a tiny sensor producing poor image quality when compared to the bigger DSLR. In the past, if you wanted serious picture control and image quality, the only affordable solution was to get a compact DSLR camera. But that’s quickly changing.

In the past few years, social media and camera phones have pushed the popularity of photography into the hands of millions of new users. This has created a new market of photographers who want to step up their game and create better images. Would this kind of photographer want to pack a DSLR in his or her pocket? Maybe, but probably not.

So camera companies have been racing to put smaller cameras into the hands of camera phone users, and the results are many new high-end compact, mirrorless and now even pocket cameras— cameras that deliver SLR quality and performance in a much smaller package.

Back in the film days, I always owned a pocket camera that delivered high-quality images. In the ’80s, it was the Rollie 35S, in the ’90s the Contax T-VS. Since digital came about, the pocket cameras I’ve used were okay for web stuff, but the quality of the images out of my pocket cameras was never great, and when I dialed up the ISO in low light, the photo quality would plummet, and the best compacts were too big for a pocket. As a consequence, for the last few years, my only pocket camera has been my iPhone. What the iPhone taught me is the convenience and fun of an unobtrusive pocket-able camera.

In the midst of this recent flood of small cameras, I was determined to wait it out for a truly high-quality pocket camera that really could be a backup for my DSLR. Size, for me, is critical, so I set my camera sights past the excellent compacts and mirrorless cameras and kept my eye on the new pocket-sized micro-compacts. After testing a range of cameras, I assembled a wish list of some features I wanted in a pocket rocket.

Most important in a camera is the lens, so I wanted a high-quality, fast lens (ƒ/2.8 or better), and I wanted a zoom lens going from wide (24mm) to portrait (105mm). The sensor had to be big for low-light sensitivity, have low noise up to ISO 800 and have a resolution of at least 15 megapixels. For camera controls and mechanics, I wanted the ability to adjust aperture and exposure compensation quickly, a robust metal housing, a quick startup and shutdown, a tilt-swivel LCD screen, a fast frame rate, flash, a completely retractable lens (no lens cap, please) and 1080p video with a lens stabilizer. And it had to shoot RAW files. Okay, that’s more than a few things.

This year, several manufacturers came out with products that came close to meeting these criteria. I finally decided on the Sony Cyber-shot RX100. The eye of my RX100 is a sharp Zeiss Sonnar 28-100mm zoom lens. This is the same Zeiss Sonnar name found on my Rollie 35S and Contax T-VS! The heart and soul of the camera are an oversized 20-megapixel sensor and a fast processor. The only fault I can find with the camera after using it for half a year is that this camera is truly small! It’s hard to hold the camera without pressing buttons you don’t want to engage, but that just takes getting used to.

I’ve carried the RX100 on a variety of adventures, from mountain biking to rock climbing to packrafting. I shot the photo here on the last day of a rainy three-day packraft trip down the wilderness section of the Colo River in New South Wales. The low-water trip involved many, many portages over and around rocky rapids and across sandbars. The biggest portage was the Kings Rapid you see here. I went first, and near the bottom of the rock garden, I scrambled on top of a truck-sized block to photograph my boating partner as she negotiated the rocks. I balanced on top of a slippery house-sized rock as I held the camera above my head to get a better photo perspective looking upriver. This scene is a big dramatic landscape, and the tiny Sony with its sweet little Zeiss lens had no trouble capturing the drama of black rocks and white water, despite the falling rain and flat light. Using the camera on aperture-priority, I spun the camera’s big aperture ring to ƒ/4, checked the shutter speed (1⁄100 sec.) to make sure the image wouldn’t blur and began shooting. The camera settings were ISO 200 at 30mm, shooting in RAW capture mode.

The best part about making this and other photos during the three days packrafting is that the camera was fast and easy to use. When shooting, I could literally paddle with one hand and shoot with the other, letting aperture-priority metering and autofocus do their thing; plus, the little RX100 fit in a waterproof Pelican case a little bigger than the palm of my hand. Probably the only thing this camera is missing is Wi-Fi connectivity, a longer battery life and a flip-out screen, but, of course, size would have been compromised with those additions.

Now I’m waiting to see what comes next and how manufacturers respond to this new crop of pro-featured pocket cameras. Given their success, I don’t think I’ll have to wait as long to see more extraordinary subcompacts hit the market soon.

To see more of Bill Hatcher‘s photography, visit

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.