Christmas gifts for geologists: cameras

Other suggestions: [Beverages] [Tough Gear] [Maps]
The arrival of digital photography is one area where technology has really changed the geological fieldwork experience. Of course, photos will never completely replace a good sketch, but when there’s only so much time you can spend at an outcrop, the ability to thoroughly document what you’re seeing, and review your photos on the fly to ensure that you’ve captured things properly, is a real boon. Plus, it gives us lots of cool photos, both geonerdy and just plain jealousy-inducing, to share with all and sundry.
So what do geologists look for in a camera? That’s a tough question of course, because everyone has slightly different preferences. But from a professional perspective, there are several features that I feel are particularly important:

  • A nice wide angle lens, for wide shots of landscapes (and outcrops). For me, this is much more important than the magnitude of the zoom, especially since in my experience you need a pretty high zoom factor for it to actually do more than make small things look a little bit larger.

  • A good macro mode. Essential for all those close-ups of things like ripples and microfossils.

  • The ability to manually adjust exposure, etc. Partly this is just because I’m a bit of a gadget boy, and like playing around with technology. But partly it’s that the most interesting features that you want to photograph aren’t playing nice with the ambient lighting, and you need to make some adjustments to ensure that they actually show up.

  • Good battery life. This is particularly important now that most cameras do not take normal batteries; these rechargeable lithium thingies are all very well until your camera dies when you’re stranded miles from the nearest electrical socket.

  • Toughness. Because I’m not just going to be using it on a walk through a park on a sunny day.

Since these features can be mutually exclusive (particularly in the balance between functionality and toughness), camera selection becomes a matter of finding an acceptable balance between these features. I currently own an Olympus 5060 Wide Zoom, which takes some pretty nice pictures (almost all of the photos I’ve put up on this blog were taken with this camera), and has a fabulous macro mode. But it is a little bulky, and I always fret about it when I take it out in bad weather. Perhaps because of this, I’ve recently been thinking about the Olympus 1030 SW:


According to the specs, this thing is tough: shockproofed against drops, fully waterproof to 10m depth (although I assume, like watches, that’s static pressure), dustproof, and even hardened against low temperatures (down to -10C). I know someone with an earlier model in this range who has used it for underwater photography, so it seems that these are not entirely idle boasts. The appeal is that it’s small enough to fit in your jacket pocket, and tough enough not to care. Of course, this is a camera more in the point-and-click vein that I’d usually like, and I’ve also never been that keen on cameras with no viewfinder.
Everyone should feel free to pitch in with their own views on this one. What features do you look for in a camera? What camera(s) do you actually possess? How do you rate them?

Categories: field gear, fieldwork, gifts and gadgets
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Comments (5)

  1. george.w says:

    I’ve had a number of Oly cameras in the same series as the 5060, and they’re awesome cameras. Note that the small front area of the lens on the 1030 means that a given fingerprint or speck of dust will have a proportionately greater effect on contrast. A friend had a Stylus 720 and said her pictures were “grainy” until I showed her how to clean a tiny lens.
    I’m currently using a Canon PowerShot S5IS, which has one awesomely fantastic feature: an articulated LCD screen. It makes macro photography a lot easier on the knees and allows waist-level and over-the-fence shooting as well. Durability is only about the same as the 5060 and nighttime photography could be better. (I carry it with the LCD facing the camera to prevent damage) Video is unusually good. Flash only turns on when you physically flip it up, which is great. The interface is a bit of a learning curve. I made a slip-on lens cap out of plastic to replace the useless one Canon provided.
    Overall I am extremely satisfied with the S5IS, but my next camera may be a Lumix DMC-G1. It has an articulated LCD, and the new 4/3 chip plus interchangeable lenses with very small size.

  2. hypocentre says:

    I am a Canon person. I have two cameras. One is a Canon 5D DSLR which is extremely good but a tad bulky. I’ve just got a Canon G10 compact camera, initially for doing gigapans as the 5D is too heavy for the robotic mount. I have to say I absolutely love it. 14.7 megapixels, 5x wide angle and fully programmable. There is a (somewhat expensive) waterproof case you can get for it too.

  3. Silver Fox says:

    Thanks for the nice review. You have summed up most of the essentials, I think.
    Are they all really going to non-standard (proprietary) batteries? I find that even though I have 4 recharged AA batts in my camera, and 4 others already recharged and available, that I still carry at least 4 non-rechargeables just in case. I’d hate to not be able to buy extra batteries easily; although it does help to be able to recharge using the car battery via inverter.
    I have a small Cannon with 4x zoom and wide angle, and macro is essential. I’d like a slightly longer zoom.

  4. Lassi Hippel‰inen says:

    I’ve got a previous model (u770SW), and I think you relly can dive with it to 10 metres deep. The wide angle end has some barrel distortion, but that’s the price of using a periscope configuration for the lens.
    If you need really wide panoramas, take several shots and stitch them together. The simplest way is to use Autostitch:
    The demo version runs also in Linux using WINE.

  5. Hamsterpoop says:

    I have been thinking about buying a digital camera for about a month now. I’m a geology student and am therefore limited budget wise, but I really want a cool little point and shoot camera that has a decent amount of useful functions for field work.
    After a bit of research I came across this: the Nikon Coolpix P6000
    What I like about it is its ability to tag each picture with a precise latitude and longitude using a built-in GPS.
    The problem though, is that the technology is fairly recent and reviews say that the GPS feature takes about 5 mins to track your position and that it doesn’t work if there is too much vegetation.
    So I’m not sure what to do. I would really like a DSLR, but as Chris said, toughness is a very important factor.