Canyoneering Cameras

January 18, 2016  •  2 Comments

When I started photographing canyons, I just took my landscape photography gear to task. Canon DSLR bodies and lenses, Gitzo tripods and RSS ball-heads and brackets. Although I experimented with HDR, I never liked it much, so I kept carrying my set of Lee ND Grad filters.

As I got deeper and deeper into canyoneering, it became obvious that I needed to minimize my photo equipment and needed more protection from impact and water. For a while, a small Canon DSLR, with either a 10-22mm EFs or a 17-40mm EF lens in a Mountain Smith photo cube inside a double dry-bag was my "to-go" setup. Sometimes, when logistics permitted, I would take a Gitzo Traveler tripod into the canyon.


Landscape Photography Canon bodies and lenses. Gitzo tripod with RSS head and brackets. F-Stop backcountry bag.

Canon bodies and lenses. Gitzo tripods. RSS Heads and brackets. F-Stop bags


Carrying gear deep into canyons

As the canyons got more technical, the approach to photography transitioned to a hybrid of "Landscape Photography" and "Action Photography"....something more in tune with "contextual portraiture". The determining factors shaping the equipment selection are:

  1. Low light -> Resulting in either:
    1. Use of tripod -> Resulting in:
      1. Route logistics become dominated by photo gear limitations.
    2. High ISO capable camera -> Resulting in:
      1. Camera needs to offer RAW format to have control over image noise associated with high ISO settings.
  2. Water Protection -> Resulting in either:
    1. DSLR water protection:
      1. Dry bags -> Resulting in:
        1. Not very reliable and constant in and out packing.
      2. Water Housing
        1.  Expensive and bulky. Some cameras overheat inside these housings.
        2. Hard access to camera settings.
  3. Wide angle availability:
    1. Canyons are narrow. Camera needs to support at least an ideal range of 16mm ~ 24mm.


This worked for a good while, until things became more vertical

For a while, all these factors kept pointing me back to some variation of my current gear, but sometime around 2014, Nikon released the AW1. A waterproof body with inter-changeable lenses, (10mm f/2.8 lens avaialble Nikon CX format) equivalent to ~27mm)  high ISO settings to deliver images in native RAW Nikon format NEF.


Nikon AW1Nikon AW1Nikon AW1 with 100mm f/2.8 lens

Nikon AW1 with 10mm f/2.8 lens

This seemed like the perfect camera for canyoneering. And for a while it was for me. This camera takes beautiful photographs.


Keyhole No 321Keyhole No 321

AW1 down in Keyhole

But during a photo-session in Keyhole in Zion....the camera developed a water leak. The leak manifested itself in the form of unresponsive buttons in the camera's back panel. Preview, menu, mode...buttons became unresponsive. The camera would turn on and off and take photos, but you could not change any current settings. A closer inspection revealed water inside the battery / memory card compartment. Somehow, water leaked through the back panel. The camera was still under warranty, so I sent it back to Nikon. They repaired the camera and sent it back. It took about 2,3 weeks. It took only about 2 more canyon descents for the repaired camera to fail again in the exact same manner. This time, I asked Nikon to replace the whole camera, no more "repairs". This process took a....long time. I think it was a couple of months for Nikon to inspect the camera and agree to replace it with a new one. All this this gave me ample time to research online and find similar reports of AW1s water leaks.


Olympus TG4Olympus TG4

Olympus TG4


About this time, Olympus announced the release of the TG4. At the time I got my AW1, Olympus only offered the TG3, which had all the required specs, but no RAW shooting. But now, the new TG4 offered Olympus native RAW format ORF. I got the TG4 and it turned out to be a very versatile more agile camera than the AW1, but not without its drawbacks:

  1. When shooting in RAW format, 4/3 format is not available, only the more squarish 2/3
  2. The Olympus built in lens, is super prone to chromatic aberrations, i.e purple fringing with counter-light shots.

Still, with the proper knowledge of the TG4's limitations, in the right hands, the camera can deliver stunning photos.

Red Heaven No 037Red Heaven No 037Beautiful horizontal lines whispering milenia.

TG4 hand held down a technical beautiful canyon.



Echo No 11Echo No 11Stillness and beauty deep in Echo Canyon in Zion National Park.

TG4 crisp detail and rendering

Nikon finally sent me back a new AW1, and I started to compare the 2 cameras head to head. I like AW1 photos better, both because of the 4/3 format and the crisp, clean quality seems more consistent under almost all conditions.


Canyoneering CamerasCanyoneering CamerasNikon AW1 vs. Olympus TG4

Nikon AW1 vs. Olympus TG4

So far the new AW1 has not leaked, but I am definitely baby sitting the camera against hard splashes and dirty / muddy water....two factors present in previous failures.

So there you have it. Two cameras to consider for the rough task of canyoneering photography. 






Adolfo Isassi
Good luck with your setup Jessica!
Great article, thanks! I've just converted to a Sony A7S (for low light ability) in a Meikon case. Not cheap, but extraordinary results! Will be documenting some exploratory Tasmanian (Australia) canyoning on the website, probably with a review of gear at some point too, so it's interesting to compare that against your much simpler setup - nice work!
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