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.