2018 July: Canadian Rockies, Columbia Mtns, Bugaboo & Kananaskis hikes

Radium Hot Springs made a great base for our day hikes in less-crowded areas of the Columbia Mountains and Canadian Rockies, in a two-week vacation from Seattle.

Photo gallery from this trip


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Trip details with selected photo highlights

Having just sold our VW Eurovan Camper to be upgraded with an RV next spring, we instead drove our Prius V car. We rented accommodations with kitchen in Brisco and Radium Hot Springs (which are cheaper than in Banff and Canmore). Two weeks from July 13-27 gave us eleven good day hikes in Yoho, Kootenay, and Banff National Parks plus Bugaboo and Peter Lougheed Provincial Parks.

In Revelstoke National Park, the Skunk Cabbage Trail allowed us stretch our legs and eat lunch in a natural setting with giant leaves.

Paget Peak Lookout and Cathedral Mountain. Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Paget Peak Lookout and Cathedral Mountain. Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


On a hot day in Yoho National Park (85F), we hiked turquoise Sherbrooke Lake combined with scenic Paget Peak Lookout (7 miles round trip with 1920 feet gain). Cathedral Mountain and Mount Victoria North Peak rose dramatically above us near Kicking Horse Pass.

On Stanley Glacier Trail, a waterfall plunges from the sheer walls of Stanley Peak, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

On Stanley Glacier Trail, a waterfall plunges from the sheer walls of Stanley Peak, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Canadian Rocky Mountains reflect in the Kootenay River, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Canadian Rocky Mountains reflect in the Kootenay River, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, Canada. Stitched from multiple overlapping photos. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Multiple trips through Kootenay National Park rewarded us with rows of Canadian Rocky Mountains reflected in the Kootenay River. A herd of scruffy mountain goats attracted a line of parked cars, but we drove onwards. On the spectacular Stanley Glacier Trail (6 miles round trip with 1200 feet gain), a waterfall plunged dramatically from the sheer walls of Stanley Peak.

Just down the road, a worthwhile short walk is Marble Canyon, which cradles turquoise Tokumm Creek just above its confluence with the Vermilion River. For over 500 million years before tectonic forces thrust up the Rocky Mountains, a shallow tropical sea deposited carbonate sediments that became the limestone and dolomite rock seen here (not marble).

A little further west are the orange-yellow Paint Pots. Historically, humans have mined these natural ochre beds, which formed by the accumulation of iron oxide around the outlets of three cold mineral springs. The Ktunaxa (formerly Kootenay), Stoney, and Blackfoot tribes collected ochre here for important ceremonies and trade. The yellow ochre was cleaned, kneaded with water into walnut sized balls, then flattened into cakes and baked. The red powder was mixed with fish oil or animal grease to paint their bodies, tipis (teepees), clothing or pictures on the rocks. In the early 1900s, Europeans hand-dug and sacked the ochre for hauling 24 kilometers via horse-drawn wagons to the Canadian Pacific Railway line at present-day Castle Mountain, where it was shipped by train to Calgary and became a pigment base for paint.

Marble Canyon embraces Tokumm Creek just above its confluence with the Vermilion River, at the north end of Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, Canada.

Marble Canyon embraces Tokumm Creek just above its confluence with the Vermilion River, at the north end of Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Bighorn Sheep / Ovis canadensis at Radium Hot Springs village, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Bighorn Sheep / Ovis canadensis at Radium Hot Springs village, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Every time I visit, wild Bighorn Sheep wander the outskirts of Radium Hot Springs village. Sinclair Falls is worth seeing from Juniper Trailhead, between Kootenay National Park entrance station and the hot springs.

The Hound's Tooth (2819 meters) rises above Bugaboo Glacier in Bugaboo Provincial Park, in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada.  (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Hound's Tooth (2819 meters) rises above Bugaboo Glacier in Bugaboo Provincial Park, in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. The Spires Trail to Conrad Kain Hut is 6 miles round trip with 2400 ft gain. This image was stitched from multiple overlapping photos. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


I booked our AirBnB (your signup supports my work) lodging in Brisco for 5 nights near my beloved Bugaboo Provincial Park, which is accessible via 75-minutes of dirt road in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains. Although short and scenic throughout, the Spires Trail to Conrad Kain Hut is very steep (6 miles round trip with 2400 ft gain), forged by climbers drawn to this park’s soaring rock pinnacles. The sun-drenched slope (85 to 91 degrees F in the sun) overheated Carol, who turned back just above the ladder. Starting closer to sunrise would have kept us cooler. I persevered to be rewarded by one of my favorite views in the world: the Hound’s Tooth nunatak rising above Bugaboo Glacier, plus Snowpatch Spire and other pinnacles soaring overhead.

The Lieutenants Range rises above Lake of the Hanging Glacier in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Lieutenants Range rises above Lake of the Hanging Glacier in the Purcell Range of the Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


While it still remains a wild adventure, consider hiking to the Lake of the Hanging Glacier, which features floating icebergs calved from Jumbo Glacier. The lake’s scenic reward was worth the effort of hiking over and under 60 fallen trees each way. Drive 1.5 hours west of Radium Hot Springs on the dirt Horsethief Creek Forest Service Road, preferably in a high clearance vehicle. On 2018 July 19, our low-clearance Toyota Prius V succeeded in crossing a planked wetland and two streams to reach the parking pullouts at 1 km from the trailhead, where a deep road dip finally blocked the car. From there we hiked 11.7 miles round trip with 3100 feet cumulative gain to the impressive lake. Fascinating lichen and rock patterns lie on stepping stones across the lake outlet. The spectacular Jumbo Glacier perches precariously above Lake of the Hanging Glacier. This wilderness wonder is threatened not only by global warming, but also from the huge Jumbo Glacier Resort planned/debated immediately south of Lieutenants ridge.

Swirling orange & blue rock pattern. Lake of the Hanging Glacier Trail, Purcell Range, Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Swirling orange & blue rock pattern. Lake of the Hanging Glacier Trail, Purcell Range, Columbia Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

For hikers, I recommend a newly-updated book covering this corner of BC: Mountain Footsteps: Hikes in the East Kootenay of Southeastern British Columbia (2018 Fourth Edition). (I call it “Strong Mountain Footsteps” for short.) This area has much to bring us back, such as hiking Jumbo Pass, Hourglass Lake, and Tanglefoot Lake.

Lichen polygons. Boom Lake Trail, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lichen polygons. Boom Lake Trail, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


In Banff National Park, the scenic Boom Lake trail featured the mother lode of lichen polygon patterns, a holy grail for this nature travel photographer.

Boom Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Boom Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lawson Lake reflects the limestone fangs of Mounts Maude, French (3244 m), and Jellico. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Lawson Lake reflects the limestone fangs of Mounts Maude, French (3244 m), and Jellico in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)


Carol and I backpacked from North Interlakes Trailhead to Forks Backcountry Campground (10 miles round trip, 800 ft cumulative gain) in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta. From Forks Campground we day hiked to North Kananaskis Pass (13 miles round trip/2700 ft). The pass revealed fields of seed heads of Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis, aka Pulsatilla occidentalis, in family Ranunculaceae), and acres of yellow Indian paintbrush (Castilleja). The next day we hiked to Three Isle Lake (5 miles round trip/1800 ft), then back to the car. In Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, roadside wildlife included a coyote casually crossing the road, plus a black bear.

The huge Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site was declared by UNESCO in 1984.

Seed heads of Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis, aka Pulsatilla occidentalis, in family Ranunculaceae). On the right is Mount Beatty Glacier. Photographed along the trail from Forks Campground to North Kananaskis Pass (13 miles round trip/2700 ft) in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Seed heads of Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis, aka Pulsatilla occidentalis, in family Ranunculaceae). The common name Pasque refers to the Easter or Passover blooming time of other species, and to the purity of the white sepals. On the right is Mount Beatty Glacier. Photographed near North Kananaskis Pass in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

For travel tips, see: BC & AB: Canadian Rockies & Columbia Mts

2018 April: SW USA. UT: Druid & Delicate Arches. AZ: Monument Valley; Hermit Trail. CA: Death Valley.

On a campervan trip to southwest USA from 7-26 April 2018, we enjoyed photographing some great sights shown in galleries below. Carol was delighted by her first visit to Death Valley National Park (further below), including sunrise at colorful Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, and Mesquite Flat Dunes.

Photo highlights from this trip


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Trip summary

Our 17-hour drive from Seattle to the desert playground of Moab in Utah was split with an overnight rest in pleasant Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in Idaho.

Important tip: By scheduling the trip to avoid the full week before and after Easter Sunday (both hectic school vacation weeks), our stay in tourist hotspots like Moab was markedly quieter and more enjoyable! Avoid crowded Jeep Safari week. We prudently booked our campgrounds several weeks in advance. Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley was first-come first served after mid April, with no problem getting a site, though shade is in short supply. Despite checking 4 months in advance, we couldn’t get into scenic Devils Garden Campground in Arches NP, which allows reservations up to 6 months in advance.

Our favorite Canyonlands RV Resort & Campground hosted our pop-top VW Eurovan Camper for four nights conveniently in downtown Moab. On nearby BLM land, red rock Hunter Canyon was a delightful hike of 4.5 miles round trip, blooming with fragrant yellow barberry flowers along a gentle potholed stream. A massive cottonwood tree nicely framed photos of Hunter Arch. Check out the roadside petroglyphs on Moonflower Panel and walk its half-mile canyon. In fantastic Arches National Park, we hiked from Klondike Bluffs parking lot to impressive Tower Arch via the Marching Men rock formations (2.8 miles with 1280 feet gain). The freshly snow-dusted La Sal Mountains provided a dramatic backdrop, such as seen southwest of Balanced Rock. Just before clouds rolled in, golden late afternoon sun illuminated iconic Delicate Arch (3.8 miles with 900 feet gain). Its parking lot was thankfully only half full during mid week. Don’t miss seeing the Ute Rock Art (1650-1850) on Wolfe Ranch side trail. A pullout southeast of Garden of Eden allowed off-trail access to Cove of Caves area on the back side of Double Arch. Walk on rocks and don’t disturb the black biologic soil crust. Also in the Windows Section, we visited Turret Arch and looped a mile around North and South Windows.

In the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Whale Rock and Upheaval Dome (beware of limited parking) made short but rewarding walks of 1.0 and 0.8 miles. We moved camp to spend 2 nights at dusty Needles Outpost Campground, picked for its hot shower (though Canyonlands’ nearby Squaw Flat Campground is more aesthetically attractive, at trailheads). Best of all was a long-anticipated 12-mile lollipop loop with 1980 feet gain from Elephant Hill Trailhead via Chesler Park to charismatic Druid Arch in the Needles District.

Driving south, I liked exploring little-known Recapture Pocket near Bluff. Fascinating Goosenecks State Park overlooks deep, curly meanders of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat. A side trip on Mexican Hat spur road gives a closer look at the red wavy patterns of Raplee Anticline (Lime Ridge) along San Juan River.

Just across the state line, don’t miss the spectacular sunset or sunrise at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona. At sunset, I rephotographed a favorite balanced rock in the foreground with West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte on the horizon beyond. Sunrise was easy to photograph, as The View Campground looks directly east to the iconic West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte.

We booked three nights in Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park, served by a handy free shuttle along on the South Rim. On the way into the park from the east, don’t miss the impressive Hopi artwork inside Desert View Watchtower, which was built by architect Mary Colter in 1932, integrating work by other southwest artists. Starting west of Yavapai Geology Museum, we enjoyed walking the 1.3-mile Trail of Time interpretive exhibit, backward in time from today toward the oldest rock in Grand Canyon, Elves Chasm gneiss, 1.840 billion years old. Our main hike was the scenic Hermit Trail from Hermits Rest to Lookout Point (7.6 miles with 2200 feet gain, plus walking between shuttle stop and campsite).

Death Valley National Park


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Late fall, winter, through early spring are good times to visit Death Valley National Park, which is otherwise beastly hot. During our visit 19-21 April 2018, some refreshing sprinkles formed a rainbow over the colorful geology. Parting clouds revealed fresh snow whitening Telescope Peak (11,043 ft), impressively high above Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level). Cresting the Panamint Range, Telescope Peak has one of the greatest vertical rises above local terrain of any mountain in the contiguous United States. At our feet, evaporation from Badwater Basin concentrated crystalline mounds of sodium chloride (table salt), plus calcite, gypsum, and borax (famously mined 1883-1889 with Twenty Mule Teams). Artist’s Drive was worth the short side trip to explore the colorful geologic formation of Artists Palette. More than 5 million years ago, multiple volcanic eruptions deposited ash and minerals which chemically altered into a colorful paint pot of elements (iron, aluminum, magnesium and titanium).

We were delighted to photograph sunrise illuminating a tapestry of golden yellow striated landscape patterns at Zabriskie Point. Next, driving around to Golden Canyon Trailhead begins a great hiking loop uphill to Red Cathedral then back downhill via Gower Gulch (6 miles with 800 ft gain), our favorite walk in the park. Around lunchtime, I enjoyed photographing pioneer-era mining and transportation machines outdoors at the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch. In rising 90+ degree temperatures, we retreated into the nearby national park Visitor Center to absorb the excellent orientation film.

To escape increasing heat, we drove up Emigrant Canyon Road to 4100-foot Wildrose Campground, where faucets provided tasty drinking water. Helpful tip: dry air cools by 5 degrees Fahrenheit for about every 1000 feet ascended (or 3 degrees for wet air). Along the winding road, we luckily spotted some Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) with two lambs. Campground quiet was suddenly shattered with the loud hee-haw braying of an alpha donkey keeping his herd in line. Invasive burros (Equua asinus, often called donkeys) can be found throughout the backcountry in Death Valley. Originally descended from the African wild ass, burros were introduced to North America. These invasive, nonnative burro populations can grow quickly, damaging native vegetation and spring ecosystems, thereby hurting native wildlife such as bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.

Along the hike to Fall Canyon’s dry waterfall (6.7 miles with 1250 feet gain) were some feisty juvenile chuckwallas (Sauromalus ater) with striped tails, some creamy yellow flowers of the desert rock nettle (Eucnide urens or desert stingbush) clinging to shaded canyon walls, plus some intriguing rock patterns. But this experience paled in comparison to our previous day in glorious Golden Canyon; so for dramatic build-up one should hike Fall Canyon or other hikes first.

Near Stovepipe Wells, the first light of sunrise high-lit Mesquite Flat Dunes so dramatically as to impress my wife Carol, who previously hadn’t been attracted by dunes. Optionally take your shoes off and enjoy this inland wilderness beach. I love being the first in the morning to form footprints across a tall virgin dune. Most nights, the slate of footprints is wiped clean and wavy. Discover why Lawrence of Arabia was personally attracted to the desert, saying: “It’s clean.”

Just outside Death Valley (on the way to or from Tecopah and Las Vegas), you can camp overnight at Shoshone RV Park and swim in a developed hot springs pool. Thought extinct in the 1960s, Shoshone pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis shoshone) were rediscovered in 1986 and protected by the land owner in nearby restored ponds. Found nowhere else on earth, Shoshone pupfish are unique to Shoshone Springs.

See also articles on each state: Southwest USA (Arizona, ColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Utah), California, and Texas.

BEST 2020 TRAVEL CAMERAS reviewed

Top recommended travel cameras (smartphone, pocketable, midsize) as of April 2020.

Tom Dempsey recommends the following portable camera gear for on-the-go photographers:

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Sony RX10 IV camera

The versatile Sony RX10 IV dust-resistant camera sports a superb 25x zoom 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 lens.

MORE DETAILS: TOP TRAVEL CAMERAS, Parts A-E

PART A. Top SMARTPHONE CAMERAS

zoom poorly but compensate for tiny cameras via vast computational power, with superior AUTO HDR, good close focus, and incredible ease-of-use with instant photo sharing. I recommend these:

An “unlocked” phone lets you pick a lower-priced wireless service provider and/or install a cheap foreign SIM in each country visited (as I did in Japan and UK). To save money on your USA wireless carrier, consider Consumer Cellular (external link), which accesses AT&T’s complete USA-only network most cheaply while providing top customer support. Get Consumer Cellular’s “all-in-one SIM” from Target stores or via mail, then insert into an unlocked GSM phone and activate with their help. For international roaming capability when away from Wi-fi, I now use Consumer Cellular’s T-Mobile service. With my wife on Consumer Cellular’s AT&T and me on their T-Mobile service, together we broaden our USA coverage.

Off by default, be sure to turn ON your phone’s “Wi-Fi Calling” Setting, which costs nothing extra. Wi-Fi Calls in the USA will be clearer, if cell reception is poor where Wi-Fi is strong. When you are outside of USA, Wi-Fi Calls eliminate roaming charges when calling US phone numbers. While you are roaming, calls made to non-USA numbers are charged per-minute rates by both the foreign and home mobile network operators. When abroad, only use Wi-Fi service to access internet data; turn OFF “Data Roaming” to avoid unexpectedly large bills.

PART B. World’s best POCKETABLE TRAVEL CAMERA

Although expensive, the best & brightest pocketable 8x-zoom camera is now the

The sweet spot for a sharp, portable zoom is now found in cameras which use a 1-inch-Type sensor size (explained in my Sensors article), as in Sony RX100M7.

Other recommended pocketable cameras

  1. Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens f/2.8-5.9). Read Tom’s ZS100 review.
  2. Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200 (2018, 12 oz, 24-360mm equivalent lens f/3.3-6.4) outguns all pocket-size 1″-sensor rivals with a versatile 15x zoom, but sibling ZS100 is sharper and brighter through 10x.
  3. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 versions IV, III, II, or I: within its limited 3x zoom is sharper and brighter than that sub-range of Panasonic’s 10x-zoom ZS100. Save money with used or earlier III, II or I versions — read Tom’s Sony RX100 III review.
  4. Best value pocketable superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS70 (2017, 11.4 oz, 24–720mm equiv 30x zoom, 20mp, Electronic ViewFinder/EVF). Or save on older ZS60. For the price of a newer ZS80, you should instead get the larger-sensor ZS100 above.

Weather resistant pocketable cameras

  • For hiking in the rain, try a waterproof smartphone. My Samsung Galaxy Note9 worked great in New Zealand rainforests (or use similar S9 Plus).
    • While a cheap CaliCase Universal Waterproof Case can take unsealed smartphones snorkeling underwater, beware that 2 out of 4 copies I received noticeably softened camera resolution due to a milky stain on the already-blurry plastic window.
  • Underwater, shockproof, dust-resistant: Olympus Tough TG-5 (2018, 9 oz, 25-100mm, f/2.0-4.9 lens) compromises image quality but makes nice underwater movies.

TIP: As a workaround for sluggish autofocus (AF) in cheaper compact cameras: prefocus (lock) on a contrasty edge of the subject by half pressing and holding the shutter button, then the subsequent full press will be instant, ≤ 0.15 second. But half-press autofocus lock doesn’t work in continuous focus or action modes. Don’t let an inferior camera frustrate your capture of action, people, pets, or sports. For surer action shots, consider a newer model with hybrid AF such as pocket-size Panasonic ZS100, Sony RX100, or midsize RX10 or Panasonic FZ1000, or an interchangeable-lens camera. 

PART C. World’s best MIDSIZE TRAVEL CAMERA

Smaller, cheaper midsize cameras with 1″-Type sensor

  • Best midsize camera for the money: Panasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz with fast-focusing 16x zoom lens 25-400mm equiv, bright f/2.8-4, 20mp, 1″-Type BSI sensor) rivals the zoom quality of APS-C-sensor and DSLR systems of this weight, for a cheaper price. The FZ1000 version II (2019, 28.5 oz) is worth the upgrade price for new lower-noise sensor and sharper LCD screen & EVF.
  • Panasonic FZ2500 (December 2016, 33 oz, 20x zoom 24-480mm f/2.8–4.5, 20mp): costs 25% less, adds a fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, increases viewfinder magnification (EVF 0.74x versus 0.7x), and has better menus and improves video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K) in comparison to Sony RX10 III. But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light, slightly lowering image quality; its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders; and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than RX10III’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)

Larger APS-C sensor, midsize camera for dim light, indoor action, events

Tiny 1/2.3″-Type sensor extends zoom range for midsize cameras

Tiny, noisy 1/2.3″-Type sensors are usually best leveraged with smartphones’ superior processing power, but mostly limited to wider angles of view. When you attach a larger-diameter lens to collect more light, these 1/2.3″-Type sensors can become useful to extend zoom range in the following midsize cameras:

  • Cheapest: Panasonic Lumix FZ300 (2015, 24.4 oz, 12 mp, bright f/2.8 lens 25-600mm equivalent, 24x zoom range, weather sealed).
  • Nikon COOLPIX P950 (2020, 35 oz, 24–2000mm equivalent 83x zoom lens f/2.8–6.5, 1/2.3″ sensor, 16mp). Fully articulated LCD. 290 shots per charge. P950 adds a flash hot shoe and can record RAW files (whereas older P900 only captured JPEGs).
  • Compare with bulkier Nikon COOLPIX P1000 (2018, 50 oz, 24–3000mm equivalent 125x zoom lens f/2.8–8.0 on 1/2.3″ sensor, 16mp) for dedicated birders and wildlife specialists. The P950 and P1000 are best intended for use at longer than 1000mm, because superior processing of modern smartphones generally beats them at wide angles (24-50mm equivalent), and rival 1″-Type-sensor midsize cameras outshine them at 24-1000mm (assuming maximum telephoto is digitally cropped by up to 2x).

GENERAL TIPS: Upgrade your camera every 2 or 3 years as I do to get better real resolution, lower noise at higher ISO speeds ( ≥ 800), and quicker autofocus. Since 2009, most cameras take sharper hand-held shots using optical image stabilization (branded as Nikon VR, Canon IS, Panasonic OIS, Sigma OS, Tamron VC, Sony OSS). Today’s cameras capture much better highlight and shadow detail, by using better sensors plus automatic HDR (high dynamic range) imaging and other optimizations for JPEG files. On advanced models, I always edit raw format images to recover several stops of highlight and shadow detail which would be lost with JPEG.

What makes an ideal travel camera?

The “best” travel camera is the one you want to carry everywhere. The best Light Travel cameras (as chosen above) should minimize bulk and weight while maximizing sensor dimensions (read article), zoom range, lens diameter, battery life ( ≥ 350 shots), and ISO “sensitivity” (for lower noise in dim light). An optimally sharp zoom lens should change the angle of view by 8x to 25x to rapidly frame divergent subjects, without the extra bulk or annoyance of swapping lenses. Lenses should autofocus fast (with hybrid AF minimizing shutter lag ≤ 0.3 sec), optically stabilize images, and focus closely (for macro). Travel cameras should pop up a built-in flash and also flip out (articulate/hinge/swivel) a high-resolution display screen to jump-start your creative macro, movie, and candid shooting at arm’s length. OLED displays usually outshine LCD. Sunny-day reflections often obscure display-screen visibility − but to save bulk, most pocket cameras sadly lack a viewfinder. A camera with a brilliant electronic viewfinder (preferably an EVF with ≥ 1 million dots) gives better feedback on the final digital image than a non-digital optical viewfinder

Related camera history: Tom Dempsey’s travel cameras adopted from 1978 until now.

PART D. Best-value DSLR-STYLE TRAVEL CAMERA

features an optical viewfinder using a legacy mirror box, for good price value:

For the best wide angle lenses for DSLRs, read Tom’s wide angle lenses article,

For the best telephoto lenses for DSLRs, read Tom’s article: “BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+” to seriously magnify wildlife, birds, and sports with optical image stabilization.

Recommended close focus, macro enlargement prime lenses for DSLR cameras 

  • Nikon AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED Macro Autofocus lens (15 oz) with fast SWM (Silent Wave Motor) and IF (Internal Focusing), captures true macro 1:1 reproduction ratio.
  • Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens for APS-C sensors (12 oz) captures true 1:1 reproduction ratio; for a Canon body.
  • Compared to the above 60mm lenses, longer macro lenses such as 100mm and 105mm give you a few more inches of comfortable working distance from the front of the lens (to avoid startling insects) and can have a different bokeh (character of out-of-focus areas), but at the cost of larger size, weight, and expense.

Instead of carrying one of the above prime macro lenses for a DSLR camera, consider adding a pocketable camera or smartphone which can focus very closely at wide angle with deep depth of field, and can serve as a backup for your larger/main camera. A pocketable Panasonic ZS100 captures good close-focus shots optimally sharp at 45mm equivalent (after the Macro/Flower symbol button is pressed).

In fact, I gave up lens-swapping and DSLRs many years ago. Instead, I carry the Swiss-Army-Knife of cameras: the 25x zoom Sony RX10 IV, which captures excellent macro at 600mm, sharpest at f/5.6 (read Tom’s RX10M4 review).

Historical DSLR comparison: Nikon version Canon

Nikon D3300 (released in 2014) offers more for your money (at a lighter travel weight) than Canon EOS Rebel cameras of 2014 and earlier. Also, the earlier Nikon D3200 beats Canon Rebel DSLR cameras of 2012. The best mirrorless designs can pack more quality into a smaller box, but DSLR cameras offer more specialty lenses, with a design legacy inherited from the 35mm film era, where an optical viewfinder’s mirror box adds bulk.

PART E. Best FULL-FRAME-SENSOR TRAVEL CAMERA

Full-frame-sensor cameras excel at indoor, night, and very-large-print photography, but require bulkier lenses, often with limited zoom ranges. Full-frame sensors can resolve more detail with less noise in dim light at high ISO 3200+ when compared to APS-C and smaller sensors of a given year. The lightest-weight, best-price-value, full frame-sensor camera is Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless camera (17 oz body, 24mp, 2013), or Sony Alpha A7 II (2014, 21 oz), or newer Sony A7R II. The A7 series requires Sony FE (full frame) E-mount lenses.

The A7R (2014, 16.4 oz) captures 36mp. In contrast, A7S (2015, 17 oz) has 12mp optimized with large photosites and more sensitive autofocus great for low-light videographers, but its stills require ISO 12,800+ to beat A7R’s 36mp image quality. Instead of having an optical viewfinder like a DSLR, the A7, A7II, A7R, and A7S have a great electronic viewfinder (EVF) with 2.4 million dots (XGA). The 3-inch tilting LCD has 1.23 million dots (except 921,000 on A7S). New Hybrid AF builds phase-detection autofocus into the sensor, capturing 5 fps with continuous autofocus. With contrast-detection autofocus only, A7S shoots 5 fps and A7R shoots 4 fps. Weatherproof bodies.

As an alternative, Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX1 full frame compact camera (2012, 17 oz with 35mm f/2 fixed-lens, non-interchangeable, 24mp) fits in a coat pocket; but the optical viewfinder/rangefinder is a costly add-on. Shooting as high as ISO 25,000 still captures usable pictures.

Nikon D750 DSLR camera (26.5 oz body, 24mp, 2014) is excellent. 6.5 fps continuous shooting. Tilting 3.2″ RGBW LCD screen has 1.23 million dots. Long 1230 shots CIPA battery life. Uses Full frame Nikon F Mount/FX Format lenses.

Nikon D810 DSLR camera (big 35 oz body, 36mp, 2014) camera demands highest quality full frame Nikon F Mount/FX format lenses and excites professional studio and landscape photographers with its very high resolution (3200 lph raw for D800 and better in D810) rivaling the quality of medium format film for making big fine-art prints. In dim light at dusk, dawn, or indoors, capture low-noise images at high ISOs 6400 to 12,800 — even ISO 25,600 can look good in small prints. Capture unprecedented dynamic range in raw files from bright to dark. Unfortunately it has very slow autofocus using LCD Live View (fixed by using mirrorless Sony A7). Frames per second at full res FX mode has increased to 5 fps for sports (versus 4 fps in D800, or 6 fps if DX frame size).

Nikon D610 DSLR camera (30 oz body, 24 mp, 2013) costs less than D800. Captures less noise than Sony NEX-7 by 2-3 stops of ISO when set at ≥3200. Raw resolution up to 2800 lph.

Tom recommends these accessories:

  1. Buy extra Wasabi Power brand batteries (from Blue Nook / Amazon.com).
  2. Portable Charger Battery Pack: Mi Premium Power Bank Pro 10000mAh, 18W Fast Charging Slim. Great for travelling away from electrical outlets! It efficiently powers a phone 40% longer than rival Anker PowerCore 10000, says PCMag. It thankfully supports pass-through charging of itself AND your device at the same time. Fits most phones; includes USB-C adapter cable.
  3. SanDisk Extreme PRO 128GB UHS-I/U3 SDXC Flash Memory Card (at Amazon) fits weeks of shooting, great for 4K video. Or cheaper: SanDisk 16GB Extreme SDHC Memory Card.
  4. A clear glass filter protects precious lenses from scratches & catastrophic drops. I speak from experience! Get a clear glass filter, NOT a UV filter, which modern multi-coated lenses have made redundant. Example: high quality B+W 72mm XS-Pro Clear MRC-Nano 007M Filter fits my Sony RX10 III (read article).
  5. Mount a circular polarizing filter (B+W brand at Amazon) only to remove reflections or haze, or to contrast clouds with polarized sky. Don’t forget to immediately take it off for all other conditions, as it can block 1-1.5 stops of light.
  6. 2x Cactus Wireless Flash Transceiver Duo triggers your flash or camera wirelessly at distances up to 328 feet.
  7. Critical editing & organizing software: Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan (Lightroom Classic CC 7.x and Photoshop CC) speeds modification (non-destructively), editing, sorting, and labeling of images. Lightroom version 6 added Photo Merge to Panorama and HDR. In 2016, Lightroom CC subscription added Boundary Warp essential for stitching panoramas quicker, and Dehaze to remove haze in skies & glass, as a leap beyond Clarity. (Adobe Photoshop software lets advanced users manipulate complex Layers such as for printing, or CMYK color space for publishing.) If your Lightroom CC subscription expires, you can still view, organize and export (but not Develop) images.
  8. Free editor for stitching panoramas from multiple overlapping images: Image Composite Editor (ICE) (from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group) was faster and sharper than my old Photoshop CS5.
  9. Canon Pixma Pro-100 photo printer (new in 2013, with 8 color dye cartridges) makes economical, vibrant high-quality prints up to 13 x 19 inches, lasting about 30 years behind glass before fading. But the following pigment inkjet printers make longer-lasting prints: Canon Pixma Pro-10 printer (2013, with 10 color pigment cartridges) and Epson SureColor P600 printer (2015, with 9 color Ultrachrome HD pigment cartridges, makes superior black & white prints, prints on thicker paper up to 1.3mm thick, supports roll paper, but costs $250 more plus 20% more per print).
  10. Tamrac digital camera bag protects your precious device on the road.
  11. Slik “Sprint Pro II GM” Tripod has a built-in quick-change plate, good for small cameras.
  12. Datacolor Spyder4Express Color Calibration System: Calibrate your PC monitor and laptop before printing photo files so editing efforts match color standards without color shifts. The pricier Datacolor Spyder4Elite Display Calibration System accounts for ambient light and calibrates projectors. Better yet, get a factory precalibrated monitor like mine: ASUS PA328Q 32″ 16:9 4K/UHD IPS Monitor
  13. Pacific Image PowerSlide X: Batch scan 50 slides, up to 10,000 dpi, excellent dynamic range of 4.2, with critically important Magic Touch infrared dust and scratch removal (ICE).
  14. Plustek OpticFilm 8200i SE scanner (2014) reincarnates your slides & film digitally, with important infrared/ICE removal of dust & scratches.

TIPS for travel in adverse conditions

  1. Weather & dust protection: Prudent bagging can avoid the extra expense of a weather-sealed body & lens – keep a camera handy, safely in a front pouch on your chest or hip (where it can be retrieved more quickly than from a pack on your back). Adverse fluctuations of temperature & humidity, or dusty conditions, or sea spray all require cameras to be double-protected in a zip-lock plastic bag inside the padded pouch. Use a soft, absorbent silk cloth to wipe away moisture or dust from lens & body before bagging.
  2. Cold batteries: Using camera batteries below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (or 4 Celsius) loses their charge quicker, causing camera shut down or lock. Revive and extend battery life in cold or below-freezing weather by warming an extra battery or two in an interior pocket near your skin and swapping with the camera’s battery after every 5-10 minutes of cold exposure.
  3. Satellite communication: Stay in touch everywhere in the world via Iridium satellite with DeLorme inReach Explorer (7 oz; buy at Amazon): send and receive 160-character text messages with GPS coordinates (accurate to five meters) to cell numbers or email addresses worldwide and post updates to social media. This new, affordable technology connects campers, hikers, hunters, backpackers, alpinists, and backcountry skiers who often venture outside of cell phone networks. The portable 7-ounce device includes a color-coded map with waypoints, elevation readings, current speed, average moving speed, and compass. Also, you can trigger an SOS, receive delivery confirmation, and communicate with DeLorme’s 24/7 search-and-rescue monitoring center.

Terminology and metric conversions

  • oz = ounces. Above camera weights in ounces (oz) include battery and memory card.
  • g = grams. Multiple ounces by 28.35 to get grams.
  • sec = second.
  • mm = millimeters. A centimeter (cm) equals 10 millimeters. Multiply centimeters (cm) by 0.3937 to get inches.
  • ILC = Interchangeable Lens Compact = “midsize mirrorless camera” term used above
  • DSLR = Digital Single Lens Reflex = a traditional camera where an optical viewfinder uses a mirror to see through the interchangeable lens.
  • EVF = Electronic Viewfinder.
  • LCD = Liquid Crystal Display.
    • OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) beats an LCD in dynamic range from darkest to brightest and consumes less power.
  • LPH or LPPH = resolvable lines per picture height = the best empirical measure of real resolution of a camera’s sensor for a given lens (independent of pixel pitch or megapixel count). A camera with higher LPH can make sharper large prints. Look up cameras on dpreview.com to find absolute vertical LPH judged by photographing a PIMA/ISO 12233 camera resolution test chart under standardized lighting conditions. Note which lens, settings, and camera body was used in each test, and compare with others within the same web site.
  • equivalent lens = To compare lenses on cameras having different sensor sizes, equiv or equivalent lens refers to what would be the lens focal length (measured in mm or millimeters) that would give the same angle of view on a “full frame35mm-size sensor (or 35mm film camera, using 135 film cartridge).
    • Compared lenses are “equivalent” only in terms of angle of view. (To determine sharpness or quality, read lens reviews which analyze at 100% pixel views.)
    • Crop factor” = how many times smaller is the diagonal measurement of a small sensor than a “full frame” 35-mm size sensor. For example, the 1.5x crop factor for Nikon DX format (APS-C size sensor) makes a lens labeled 18-200mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 27-300mm focal length lens used on a 35mm film camera. The 2x crop factor for Micro Four Thirds sensors makes a lens labeled 14-140mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 28-280mm lens used on a 35mm film camera.
  • Superzoom lenses
    • In 2013, “superzoom” referred to lenses of about 15x zoom range or larger. Steady quality improvements in the resolving power of sensors has made possible superzoom cameras in ever smaller sizes. As superzoom range increases, laws of physics require lenses to focus upon smaller sensors (light detectors) or else to increase lens size. For a given level (most recent year) of technological advancement, a camera with physically larger sensor (bigger light detecting area) should capture better quality for a given zoom lens range.
    • 10x zoom” = zoom lens telephoto divided by wide angle focal length. For example, a 14-140mm focal length zoom has a 10x zoom range (140 divided by 14). An 18-200mm zoom has an 11x zoom range (200 divided by 18).
  • equivalent” F-stop = refers to the F-stop (F-number) on a full-frame-sensor camera which has the same hole diameter as the F-stop of the camera lens being compared. The concept of “equivalent” F-stop lets you compare capabilities for creating shallow depth of field on cameras with different-size sensors. Smaller-sensor cameras use shorter focal lengths for the same field of view, so at a given F-stop they have a smaller physical aperture size, meaning more depth of field (with less blur in front of and behind the focused subject). Formula: F Number (or Relative Aperture) = actual focal length of lens divided by diameter of the entrance pupil.

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Sensor size comparisons for digital cameras - PhotoSeek.com

In this illustration, compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″ and 1/2.5” Type. For new digital cameras, a bigger sensor area captures better quality, but requires larger diameter, bulkier lenses. To optimize the size of a serious travel camera, consider 1-inch Type sensor or up to APS-C sensor size. “Full-frame 35mm” sensor / film size (36 x 24 mm) is a standard for comparison, with a diagonal field-of-view crop factor = 1.0 In comparison, a pocketable camera’s 1/2.5” Type sensor crops the light gathering by 6.0x smaller diagonally (with a surface area 35 times smaller than full frame).

Now, a break from cameras… I found an island of relief from the overly-dramatic news cycle: get inspired by what Bill Gates calls his new “favorite book of all time”: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), by Steven Pinker.