Outdoor Photography – Point and Shoot or DSLR?

Taking photos when outdoors is a great way to capture memories of outdoor adventures. But which camera to bring? A Point Shoot (P&S) or a DSLR?


Part of the reason why I love the outdoors is taking photos.

Something about capturing a beautiful overlook just right in the evening light is awesome.  Every time I look at a favorite photo, I can remember where I was, what I was doing and who I was with. I am almost there again.

My love of photography started off innocently enough. Took some photos, people complemented me on them, started taking more, became a little better and arrived at the point where I hate go on any trip without a camera.    Once I delved even deeper into my hobby a DSLR was bought.  So, yeah, I  am kinda hooked.  🙂

So what camera to take? Should  a full featured DSLR be brought with its amazing ability to make adjustments and have great detail?  Or should a simple, light and portable P&S be brought? Or maybe something in between?

Like all gear…it all depends.

First, i should state that I am NOT a professional photographer.  I am an outdoors person who happens to take photos on a ‘serious amateur’ level.  (As opposed to a photographer who spends a lot of time outdoors).   These are just my opinions based on what works for me.  A person who makes their living by taking photos may have a different and more technical take. Typical for me,  I will not go into specific model reviews but rather give a brief overview of the types.  This article should not be considered an in-depth review on camera types by any means,  but rather a quick overview from an outdoor person’s perspective.


DSLR Camera

A Digital Single Reflex Camera aka DSLR ,  to quote the Wikipedia articleis a  “….digital camera that uses a mechanical mirror system and pentaprism to direct light from the lens to an optical viewfinder on the back of the camera.”

What this means to a person like myself is the large lens/sensor  and depth of field allow much more detail than a point and shoot.  With the various settings, the photographer has much control over the shot and can craft the photo appropriately.  DSLRs also allow different lenses for different effects, more zooming or macro capability and so on.  For a hobbyist it means you can craft some really fine photos.


Island Lake in the Wind River Range

Red Columbine in the Pecos Wilderness, NM

Longs Peak along the northwest ridge

The disadvantages of  a DSLR in my opinion for an outdoors person:

  1. Size and weight –  The DSLR is bulky and can be a bit of a hindrance at times. From a backpacking perspective, add in the camera, accessories (such as extra lenses) and the case you need to carry your heavy and expensive equipment and the weight adds up. Ouch! For a person who likes to go as more of a minimalist, the ~2-3 lbs kinda hurts. Still, the photo quality can be a worthy trade-off.
  2. Hard to use for certain outdoor activities – As mentioned above, the DSLR can be awkward to use at times for certain outdoor activities. Squeezing through narrow slot canyons, climbing (esp when belaying. Trying using a DSLR one handed!) and more aggressive skiing does not work as well (at least for me. 😉 ) with a DSLR
  3. Price – Speaking of lenses and extra accessories, the price can add up! A basic camera with a kit lens (18-55mm) can start at $500 for a prosumer model like the Pentax K-x  and all the way up for more advanced models.  Add in other lenses, accessories and so on and you are talking a good chunk of change for an increasingly expensive hobby.   “Just one more lens..honest”.  😉

Not so much a disadvantage, but DSLRs require more care than a P&S, too.  Changing the lens can expose the imaging unit to dust. Be careful! To help mitigate this problem, I use a 18mm – 250mm “Superlens” that has slightly less refined image as a trade-off for more versatility and less of a need to swap the lens and expose the camera to dirt.  For most of my outdoor photography, I find it to work well (and still being something I can afford).

Point and Shoot (P&S) Camera

Inexpensive, light, not bulky and lots of features vs ones from even five years ago.  The image quality can be pretty high, too.

For most people, a simple P&S camera is all that is needed for outdoor photography.  Take a photo of a favorite view point, vacation photos, around the campsite and so on.

There is less control vs a DSLR and these types of cameras do not work in as many conditions as the DSLR for that reason.  Harder to use these camera in less than ideal lighting conditions with their ‘just the basics’ control.  Naturally, some P&S cameras have more control than others.

The major downfall of the P&S is the size of the sensor. Less detail and depth of field and more prone to off-color and  blurriness in certain conditions, too.

Still, the lightness and size makes it wonderful for many outdoor activities. For traveling, it is nice, too.   For climbing, it is what I take now (one handed belay shots! No scraping of camera  bag against the rocks! Fits in my cargo pocket!) and it is often my camera of choice for local day hikes where I just don’t want to schlep my DSLR.  Needless to say, those who are counting ounces in their pack and just want basic photos are very happy with a P&S camera.

I think the key with P&S cameras is to work within its limitations to get some good shots.  You won’t get the ideal close up of a flower or a perfect morning shot, but you can take some good to very good landscape and portrait shots in the right conditions.


On the way up to Chasm Lake

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

Summit of Grand Teton. My camera; shot done by Mark Thomas

As for what P&S to get, I am partial to Canons. Not only are the lenses a high quality, but they make the few (only?) P&S cameras that have an optical view finder and take AA batteries.  Why?

  • I think better and more accurate shots are taken with an optical vs a digital view finder.
  • The AA batteries are the old thru-hiker in me: I like to get supplies I can find in any town and not deal with a proprietary set of batteries. Admittedly, this point is not as critical for most esp with how long batteries last now

The model that took the shots above is a Canon Powershot A1200  and for $100 retail (in 2010), I’ve been pleased with it.

There are many other fine P&S cameras depending on what you are looking for (size? weight? features? price?) and one camera may be a better fit than another for your personal needs.


Hybrid Cameras

Falling somewhere along the spectrum between P&S cameras and DSLRs are the hybrid or cross-over cameras.  Usually having a larger sensor and more manual control than a P&S but with more of a P&S size/weight, these cameras fit a niche for those who want to take better shots than what a P&S offers but not have the weight and size penalty of a DSLR.

Some hybrids are more on the P&S of the spectrum and others are in line with a DSLR.  Much like the hybrid bicycle definition, the hybrid cameras are a broad category that encompasses many different makes and models.  Which one you get again depends on your preference for size and weight, budget, set of features desired, etc.  Naturally, these cameras are somewhere between P&S and DSLR cameras in the price range, too.

Previously, I had a hybrid camera before buying a DSLR.  At  8MP, it is somewhat obsolete by today’s standards .  Having said that, I miss the image control and quality versus the P&S I currently have.  A bit heavier, but still light and small enough to fit in a (large) cargo pocket.  I can use it one handed and get those close up shots desired and landscape shots.

As I do more alpine climbing, think I will invest in a (used) more recent hybrid to capture both those gorgeous mountain shots on the summit and more close up shots without having to schlep the camera up the rope (and, my climbing partner will be grateful I am not  letting go of the rope while belaying…right Mark ????? :D)   Naturally, it will come in handy for trips where I just don’t want to take the bigger camera.

Here’s some examples taken with various older Canon cameras. These are only  8MP shots, but still think they look good vs some P&S camera because of the larger sensor and more manual controls:

On the Continental Divide heading towards Santa Fe Peak

Wooly Actinella in the Mummy Range.  Notice the depth of field. Something difficult to get with a standard P&S

Aspen leaves.  A close up shot difficult to get with a P&S.

Aspen Trees in the Lost Creek Wilderness.  Fine details in the bark.


Camera Phones

With smart phones becoming increasingly more popular for backcountry use (sigh….), more and more people are using a iPhone or similar for their main photography. Not only comical photos of their pets or the mandatory “BFF 4-EVA!”  shots, but also for documenting their trips in the outdoors.

For casual use…why not? If a person wants to document the trip and just take a few casual photos of their friends and the scenery around them, it is perhaps OK. Sometimes convenience is better than higher quality. Take a photo, sync  up to your Facebook or Twitter account almost automagically and off to the races you go….

The convenience factor is also upped for the reason that many people use their smart phones to journal, hold guide books and maps and so on.  One device to do it all.

The downside? The photo quality is best for quick snap. The small sensor and lens means less detail and tolerance of non-ideal conditions than even most inexpensive P&S cameras. (Though that is changing).  And a lack of a real zoom lens can be a compromise as well.

Still, they do have their uses. I forgot to bring my camera (shame!) on one after-work hiking trip. All I had was my camera phone.

On the summit of S. Arapaho Pk, the sunset was awesome.  Took a photo and hoped for the best.

Not bad!



  • DSLR –  If you sell any photos commercially, enjoy making very large prints or want the highest possible quality photo, a DSLR is the way to go. The weight, size and price penalty is the highest for this type.
  • P&S – Want some nice vacation type photos that are still a good quality, go with a P&S camera. Limited in what you can do but price, size and weight can’t be beat for outdoor use.
  • Hybrid – Need some high quality photos, some manual control for variable conditions and need a good size sensor  but do not want the size and weight penalty of a DSLR? Go with a Hybrid.  Not quite as light as a P&S nor as good quality as a DSLR overall, but a nice compromise.
  • Camera Phone – Need casual documentation of your trips, want convenience and not necessarily the highest quality photos? Use a Camera phone.  Probably the absolute lightest camera system.

A note about photo software….

I should add that all photos taken with digital equipment are essentially unprocessed photos (esp with the .RAW format used on DSLR photos) and usually need some processing in software.  A .JPG photo has some processing; a .RAW photo has none.  You need to essentially be your own photo lab and process the photos.  You can do minor tweaks to correct the color or get really fancy to make more artistic photos.

Some popular software programs for this processing are:

  • IrfanView – I love this freeware program for uber-simple edits and batch resizing. Windows based.
  • Photoshop – The most well know and full featured photo editing software. Good if you really want to tweak and/or create more ‘artsy’ photos. Very complex program and $$$$.  For Mac and Windows
  • Photoshop Elements – I think of this program as Photoshop Lite.  Less $$$ and complex, has good features for the hobbyist. For Mac and Windows.
  • GIMP – An open source alternate to Photo Shop. Powerful, but a bit rough around the edges compared to PhotoShop. For geeks (who me? 🙂 ) the free price, features and ability to run on different platforms makes it a good alternative to PS. Runs on Linux, Mac and Windows
  • Photoscape – A simple, easy to use but surprisingly powerful photo editing software suite.  It’s not Photoshop (or even GIMP), but sometimes less really is more. For Windows. Freeware.

Ultimately, the key to good photography is not the equipment but  how you use it.  Good equipment will make it easier to take a good photo. However, unless you use the gear correctly and have the legendary “good eye” for great photos, does not matter what kind of equipment you have. A feel for the land, knowing how something will look on the screen and/or in print and being able to read the lighting and conditions around you and then using it appropriately with your equipment will make the photo a good one.  Equipment is just the means to an end.

Having said all that, I still love my DSLR for most outdoor photography and will take a P&S or Hybrid for more technical trips. A camera phone? Facebook updates only! 😉

Happy (scenic) Trails!

(And, finally, a shamless plug. Like my photos? Check out the Red Bubble site! 🙂 )

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11 years ago

In the P&S category, I’m using a Sony RX100, which I’ve completely replaced my T2i with. I’ve never been a professional photographer, and I loved my dSLR, but it always bothered me having well over a grand wrapped up in a hobby that I didn’t do enough with.

Sold everything, bought the RX100 and I haven’t looked back since. It’s an incredible camera.

11 years ago

The new Sony RX1 at $2800 has been lauded at taking shots better than other 10k dslrs in certain situations. Downside is viewfinder is an addon and that it’s not weather sealed from what I’ve read. There’s some other minor pitfalls but it’s an amazing camera!