Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fun with cameras

I am a big advocate of cyclists, runners and hikers carrying cameras during their outdoor activities. In my opinion, anytime one doesn't bring a camera along, it's just an opportunity lost. Yeah, yeah, I know, fitness, health, fresh air - these are all perfectly good reasons for outdoor activities that don't require photographic documentation. But the main reason I go outside is to experience the world, and being the natural-born journalist that I am, images only serve to enhance these experiences.

People are always asking me what kind of camera I carry. I use only one camera, a little point-and-shoot called the Olympus Stylus Tough. (Full disclosure. I received this camera as part of an Olympus sponsorship ahead of the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational. The only thing they really got out of that failed race from me is this Web page.) I love this little waterproof and shockproof camera, and it goes everywhere with me. It doesn't matter what the world doles out - rain, sleet, snow, blowing sand, 20 below, falling off high ledges during self portraits, bearing the brunt of the force in a mountain bike crash, smacking pavement after falling from a moving bicycle - the Stylus Tough can take it. It has seen a lot of loving abuse over the past year - hundreds of small adventures, thousands of miles and thousands of photographs.

Friends often urge me to break down and buy a "real camera." While I'm not opposed to owning a nicer camera, the fact is I would never take it on any of my bike rides. I've watched many of my avid shooter friends pull huge dry bags out of their packs, painstakingly remove their awkwardly large camera, spend five minutes screwing on attachments and adjusting settings, and shoot 40 images of the same ptarmigan, only to put it away and have it stay in their packs for the rest of the outing. I'm sure they get great images this way. But it really isn't my style. I like to stay on the move and document as many moments of my rides and hikes as I feel compelled to, without thinking about it.

That's why it's important to me to carry a camera I essentially cannot break, no matter how hard I try. I once read a review of the Stylus that sums it up as thus: "This camera is like a dancing bear - the appeal isn't in how well it dances, but the astonishing fact that it can dance at all." I disagree. Sure, like any point-and-shoot, the Stylus has its limitations. Some are more limiting than others. But at 12 megapixels, it can capture decent images. Beyond this, I haven't really bothered to play with very many of the camera's features, writing them off as probably worthless given the tiny, relatively cheap, indestructible nature of this camera. But today I experimented with the "digital zoom" feature for the first time.

Here's a naked-eye image of a bald eagle perched on branch overlooking the Lynn Canal and Chilkat Mountains. Nice setting, but the bird is pretty much lost in it.

Here's the same bird using the optical zoom. This is as far as I've ever gone with my camera, because digital zooms on tiny lenses generally suck - pixilated, grainy, unfocused, yuck, yuck, yuck. I'm perfectly willing to accept these lens limitations in exchange for the ease of carrying a camera everywhere I go. After all, I'm out there all the time. I'm bound to see some good stuff at close range eventually. I can let a few of those Kodak moments pass me by.

But that bald eagle was perched in such a perfect spot, I decided to experiment with the "yuck, yuck, yuck" digital zoom today. I'm not disappointed. Sure, the pixilation is there, a lot of the finer features are blurred out and the color is slightly muted. I'm never going to win any wildlife photography awards for it. But this image serves my main purpose, which is solidifying a memory of this great bicycle ride I did on Jan. 19, 2010, when I pedaled through a long and murky film of fog only to emerge in the first direct sunlight I've felt in two weeks, and to share this spectacular view of the Chilkats with a patient eagle. That's all I need.


  1. Jill, that first eagle shot is incredible. Olympus may have just redeemed some of their sponsorship investment in you, because you sold one of their cameras tonight. I've been drooling over your great shots for a while, wondering what your camera was (and assuming it was a big clunky pro camera such as your friends). In parallel, I've been looking for something that was slimline and could strap to my camelpack chest strap, be generally operated with one hand while staying balanced on one wheel, and still take a beating if I drop it in the process which I will. The Nikon coolpix fits the small profile, but the optics frankly suck. Unacceptable blurriness for something with the Nikon label.Plus when I dropped it while riding in Vietnam, the memory card popped out which I didn't realize until 40km later. First 50 pics of the tour lost.

    So if I don't start producing some "Jill-quality" pics now, there is no excuse but User Error.

  2. I totally agree. We have a similar camera, we're moving to AK (anchorage) in June. Glad we are well equipped.

    My husband is your new biggest fan. He thinks you are amazing for riding in all conditions. He rides a lot too and is challenging himself to ride more and in more challenging conditions so he can ride in AK.

    It's awesome to see so many pictures of our future home state from a person with a similar active lifestyle. Makes the move so much more intoxicating!

  3. Olympus should sweeten your contract this year because you just sold another camera.

    I've been using Canon Digital Elphs for a years on the merits of their photo-quality. But they only last about a year hanging out in my jersey pocket.Not exactly cost-effective. I do believe I'm gonna check out an Olympus.


  4. I love the shots I received for xmas the Stylus Tough 8000 for my commuting and outdoors activities. It is an awesome camera. Seeing your pics I just need to pull it out more and I have no excuses not to.

    Note: You may want to try the panoramic feature. It is a pretty cool feature.

  5. Your photography is great regardless of which camera. I use DSLR camera a lot for work but I just bought a point and shoot which I now take with me everywhere, it's the bee's knees.

  6. Agreed. We got this camera this past summer because all other point and shoots in the past didn't hold up. We figured if it can keep up with you and your grand adventures, it should kept up with our little mild excursions. :-)

  7. I like your blog because you combine nice text with beautiful pictures.
    We ourselves are also constant shooting pictures during our outdoor activities mainly with a Canon Ixus 800IS and a waterproof Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT1 ( this only because it uses SD cards and shoots HD video).
    Also its color is orange so that he can be found easily in the snow / underwater.
    Keep on shooting.

  8. Jill, my wife and I love, love, LOVE your photographs.

    If I worked for Olympus.....I'd be sending you any and all of the cameras they make just to have you use them and get your opinion.

  9. Add to me the list of new Tough series camera owners. Thanks for the inspirations.

  10. I've been looking for a new camera for a couple months now since my Sony took the brunt of my fall down a canyon. This will be the next one I look at, and most likely the one I purchase.

  11. hi, you can avoid using the digital zoom and cropping on your computer afterwards, you'll get the same quality

  12. Super sweet shots! Hard to haul a DSLR in an alpine pack; I'm with you- use what you've got. I find that even point and shoot cameras can work magic if I roam far enough off the grid.

  13. I'm so glad I found your blog. We're having the hardest winter in 30 years here in Inverness, Scotland and I've been using that as an excuse to drive to work instead of cycling.

    Thanks to your post from yesterday I'm inspired to get my bike back out of the garage and get back in the saddle.

  14. I've used the Stylus SW for the past year myself. Takes amazing photos for the size of the camera and my friends are impressed with the fact I haven't destroyed it yet through mountainbiking, snowboarding, and taking it underwater. My pictures with the Stylus SW can be seen here.

  15. Hi Jill,

    i love your blog and i've been reading it for a loong time. i'm not prone to comment outbursts, i swear. but as a serious photographer as well as a cyclist, i gotta say a couple things. so forgive the elitist rant in advance.

    part the first: what Joseph said above is absolutely true. "Digital Zoom" is a scam. If you're going to do anything with your photos on a computer after you shoot them you may as well turn it off and never think about it again. it's simply cropping the photo down in camera and you'd be better off having the option of cropping it however you want afterwards. you'll get the same loss of resolution anyway (that's the fuzziness you're seeing).

    part the second: not all pixels are created equal, damnit. the vast majority of people don't need 12, 15, 25 megapixels. if you're not printing larger than 8 x 10 or so, 6 or 8 is fine and will result in much better images, particularly when dealing with lower light levels. manufacturers are putting out cameras that take worse pictures becuase the marketing department keeps telling them they need more megapixels. we must rebel against the tyranny of megapixels! people want better pixels, not more of them, they just don't realize it. and you can't keep cramming them onto a tiny, tiny sensor without making tradeoffs. it's just physics.

    that is all. i love your pictures, by the way (yeah, i know, after all that). it looks amazing up there and i hope to get up there to do some shooting and riding myself someday. it's very true that the camera you have with you at the time is the best one. i use a fancy dslr, but a decent p&s is essential because i can have it with me ALL the time.


  16. Jill, you're blog is great and the pictures add so much to the well written posts.

    I love my Olympus Tough and it's the only camera that I take when dirt bike riding in the deserts and mountains. I've taken falls that have broken both the bike and myself, but the camera has held up great. It's always in a hip pocket and I'm constantly amazed when it turns right on after a crash.

  17. Great pictures!

    Great book as well - I devoured it on my flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. Don't know if makes me want to do the race or run from it all together!

    You are a rockstar for fighting that battle and winning!

  18. Mat ...

    Thanks for the info. I suspected as much about digital zoom. The feature isn't a bad thing for people (myself included) who don't have photo editing software of any kind on their home computers. Like you said, it's akin to cropping (although I think the digital zoom actually brings in the background mountains even closer in this particular image, more so than just cropping the third photo down.) I actually do a fair amount of in-camera editing, mostly using the automatic color correction feature (I know you're cringing now.)

    I'm such a technophobe that I've actively avoided purchasing a DSLR, because then I would have to learn how to use it. I've gone through periods where I consider taking my photography more seriously, but I usually come to the conclusion that I prefer it as a sidebar to my outdoor activities rather than an outright hobby.

    Interesting thoughts on megapixels. I always assumed that in digital photography clarity, a good lens was more important than megapixels anyway.

  19. I don't know anything about photography, but I do love your pictures.

  20. Hear hear for the Stylus series. I use your camera's predecessor, the Stylus 770SW (7 megapixel). I bought it after dropping a Kodak camera on the ground and being told by the manufacturer that it could not be repaired. I use it underwater, on rides, in the rain, rafting, whatever. Once my tech left it riding in a wet bucket with a little sand and gravel in the back of a pickup--no problem. If I would change anything I would add a viewfinder.

    Oh, and I sometimes get some great shots!

  21. Nice shots.

    I agree - carrying around a bulky camera while riding is a huge pain. It's also one reason why I have so few riding shots from my 35mm film days.

    Even my first compact digital was too big to carry in a bike jersey - and early Nikon Cool pix.

    A few months ago, I picked up a Canon SD970 IS and carry it everywhere. Yeah, the compact camera don't have the focal zoom and other aspects of SLR type cameras - but who cares - since I wouldn't carry that riding anyway. With compact camera, I'm getting riding shots I've never had - plus videos.

    The SD970 has been working okay, though lately is getting a little flakey focusing. I wonder from the constant banging around from being carried everywhere. Next camera will be similar to yours.


Feedback is always appreciated!