This is the time of year the many people who are planning to climb Denali start to think about the equipment and gear that they will be brining on the mountain with them. Most people who climb Denali make the decision to bring a camera along with them, and just like any other gear, the choice of a camera can be a difficult one. Between personal and guiding trips, I have now been to the Alaska Range more than ten times and have never left my camera at home. I have seen many different types and brands of camera on the mountain and some are clearly better than others. Which camera is right for you, and how you plan to carry it depends on what your photographic goals are, but no matter what camera you bring along there are some things you will need to do both before your trip and while on your trip to assure you come home with great photos to accompany your great adventure.
Like it or not some cameras just don't work in the extreme environments of a very cold mountain such as Denali. Many small cameras that use proprietary batteries just don't hold up to the cold temperatures. The camera works fine, but the batteries are just not designed for the extremely cold temperatures. Large SLR cameras work great but are very heavy which rules them out for all but the most serious photographer. Luckily there are many camera options that work on Denali and I hope to give you some ideas of which one will work best for you.
Point and Shoot vs SLR
A point and shoot camera is lightweight and easy to carry and cheaper; a single lense reflex (SLR) is bulky and heavy and expensive. Most people I know use point and shoot cameras, and for most people they are the best option. I carry a Nikon SLR with a multi purpose zoom lens (and sometimes a tripod), because it allows me more freedom to shoot the exact photo I want. The debate here goes on forever all across cyberspace. Everyone seems to have an opinion, but almost no one has had the experience of dragging multiple different cameras up Denali. So what is the best option for you? The answer lies in how serious you are about your photography and how much weight you are willing to carry.
If you are a very serious photographer then by all means bring along an SLR, but remember, when you get to 11,000ft on the mountain you will begin to worry about how much weight you have. It is amazing the amount of items that get left at caches because they were just too heavy to carry.
If you do bring an SLR bring just one lens. Find a multi purpose zoom lens that will give you many framing options. You will not be able to wander away from camps or off the regular route to shoot the exact photo you want, so having some sort of a zoom lens will be a necessity. There is lots of light on Denali. Even during bad weather there is more light that you need for photography so you do not need a fast lens. This is good news, because fast lenses are expensive and heavy. Many of the standard kit lenses are a great choice. If you use a nikon the Nikon 18-200 VR is a great option that I have used on the mountain several times.
Point and Shoot
Specially designed "rugged" cameras that are supposed to be extra tough are terrible. I have never seen one of these work effectively on the mountain. You do not need a waterproof camera on Denali. The water is frozen, and the air is very dry. Even if your camera does get a little wet it will dry out quickly in the sun.
I have attempted to use GoPro cameras on the mountain several times, and while they work fairly well initially, the battery life is a deal breaker. GoPro has still not figured out their cold weather battery issues and until they do you should leave your GoPro at home. It will only last a few mins in cold temps.
So what works, and what does not? In my experience any camera that uses AAA or AA batteries is a great choice. There are several cameras that do work well on the mountain not all of them use AA or AAA batteries but all have good battery life. Another feature that is nice to have is a eye peice viewfinder vs. an LCD screen. Some screens do not work in cold temps, and it is often too bright to see the screen even on cloudy days. The screen also uses a lot more battery power. Below are a few compact cameras I recommend:
Nikon Coolpix L840 - A nice camera that shoots high quality photos
Cannon G16 - The best of the best for small cameras. Buy extra batteries as it does not use AAs.
Panasonic Lumix - None of the Lumix line use AA batteries, but they do have very good battery life.
Sony WX350 - Another good pocket sized camera with good battery life, but bring extras.
How to Carry Your Camera
Now that you have your camera you need to figure out how to carry it. Don't stick it in an inside pocket. I often hear people say you should keep the camera warm by sticking in your clothing. Don't do this. You are the only source of moisture on the mountain.
Carrying is easy with a point and shoot type camera, because it fits nicely in a pocket (an outside jacket pocket that is). I recommend a small camera case that fits on the shoulder strap of a backpack. This keeps the camera close by for quick use and outside clothing so there are no potential moisture issues.
For a large SLR I sometimes will keep the camera in my pack to protect it, but most of the time my camera hangs on the hip belt of my backpack. This allows me to get to the camera quickly, but can be a bit annoying when I am on more technical terrain. Another option that I have seen with SLR cameras is to hang it between the shoulder straps so it is right in front of you. From a comfort perspective this is not my favorite option, but you should try several different things to see what works best for you.
Cold Weather Camera Use
One of the most common myths I hear about camera use in the mountains is that the new digital cameras don't work in the cold. I have never seen a camera that does not work in the cold. The working temperature range for most electronics is well below the temperatures you are likely to encounter in the mountains. So your camera will still work. SLR camera shutters start to fail at about -40 ambient temps. It won't get that cold on denali. There are however some parts of your camera that could be less likely to work in very cold weather, so if you are going to Denali or Antarctica, keep reading; if not, you can skip to the next section.
Very cold temperatures do effect some non essential parts of a camera directly and other parts indirectly. One example is the LCD screen on the back of a camera. These can freeze at low temperatures, or just not work quite right, so you can't depend on that. Get yourself a camera with a view finder so you can see what you are shooting photos of. In VERY cold and dry conditions, even an eyepiece viewfinder can be a problem. On one trip I did to the Alaska Range, every time I held my camera up to my eye, my viewfinder fogged from the moisture near my body. These were the coldest temperatures I have ever encountered, and it is not likely that you will see these types of conditions. To put it simply, your camera is actually better suited to working in the cold than it is in extreme heat. On hot sunny days, don't leave your camera in the car. The batteries are another story that we will discuss next.
The problems most people encounter with their camera in cold weather are only indirectly related to the cold weather and can be avoided by a few simple rules. This brings us to the second most common myth of cameras in the cold. I often hear people say they keep their camera in their jacket so it stays warm. This works great with water bottles, but is not a good thing to do with a camera. Picture walking into a warm room with glasses on after having been outside in cold weather. Glasses fog, and so will a camera the second you put it back in your warm jacket. As long as it is dry outside, keep it outside. Cold is not your cameras enemy, changes in temperature are. This moisture problem applies to the inside of your tent as well. Tents can be very moist. I keep my camera in my backpack out of the tent at night and hanging on the outside of my backpack when I am moving during the day.
Your camera won't have any problems in the cold, but your batteries might. Batteries do not loose their power in cold weather; they are just not able to give quite as much of it up. So as soon as a battery is warmed up, it is good again. Older metal hydride and nickel cadmium batteries are not very good in cold weather. Battery technology is advancing very fast, and this has been a great thing for digital cameras. Most new camera batteries are Lithium ion. They are expensive, but they work well in the cold. If you camera uses over-the-counter AA or AAA, buy the more expensive lithium ion batteries. They will last twice as long and save you money in the long run.
If you don't want your camera to die on summit day, spend some time learning how long your batteries last. I know that given normal temperatures I can shoot all the photos I want with my Nikon SLR and spend a lot of time reviewing them and not run out of battery power for any trip three weeks or less. I carry two extra batteries just in case on Denali, and almost never carry an extra for any other trip. I have never run out of batteries with this system, but cameras vary. You should know about how many photos your camera can shoot on one battery and then subtract 30% to know what you might get in cold weather. I have seen lots of battery failures on small point and shoot cameras. I feel like more of these camera have problems than don't so be very careful which camera you buy. If you can find one that uses AA batteries that is the best option. Either way you will need to bring lots of extras on a long trip. No matter what you do make sure you have one fully charged battery for summit day. I have seen a lot of people come home with no summit photo because their battery died.
The only time I would think about leaving my camera at home is in very rainy weather, for example, the Cascades in early spring. Even then I usually bring it along anyway. Moisture probably won't completely kill your camera, but it might. Keep your camera in a plastic bag if it is raining. Skip the long photo sessions, since they probably won't be great photos anyway. I always try to think about where the most moisture is and keep my camera somewhere else. I will remove the camera from the plastic bag quickly shoot and then return it to the bag. Sometimes I open the bag poke the lens out and leave the rest of the camera in the bag while a shoot a couple of photos. I keep my camera in the tent when I am in wet climates and outside the tent when I am in Alaska. Remember, snow is not the same as rain. It is a lot easier to keep a camera dry in the snow than the rain. If your camera ever does get wet, immediately take the battery out and do not use it for the rest of the trip. Attempt to dry it out as soon as possible by leaving it in the sun or some other warm (not hot) area. Get a bag of rice wrap the camera in cheese cloth and bury it in rice for a week. I have heard of some people putting their electronics in an oven to dry them out, but I don't suggest you try this. I just had an amusing email from a fellow guide asking for everyone's phone numbers after cooking his phone in the oven and losing all the data. Heat is one of the primary enemies of electronics.
I just returned from a trip to Antarctica where temperatures were the coldest I have ever encountered. I spent some time shooting in volcanic vents which are warm and very moist. This creates some of the most difficult conditions for shooting that exist. In order for the camera not to fog the second it is taken into the cave it must be the same temperature as the cave. The temperatures outside the cave were -20 and inside they were often above freezing (thats over a 50 degree change). I entered the cave with the camera sealed inside a ziplock bag and placed the camera on the floor (the warmest part of the cave). After finishing all my other work I then pulled the camera out to shoot photos which was sometime as much as an hour after entering the cave. This is the only way to shoot in this type of environment.
The most important thing about having a camera in the mountains is using it. The best thing about shooting digital photos is that it does not cost you any more to shoot more photos. You won't automatically get better photos because you shoot more on a given trip, but if you consistently take a good quantity, two things will happen. You'll accelerate your learning of what works and what doesn't work in creating quality images, and if it becomes automatic to be taking photos throughout the day or throughout a climb, you are unlikely to miss great photographic opportunities - many of which are only there briefly. Shoot away!