The Itty-Bitty Runner’s Camera

Note: I wrote this five years ago. Cameras have advanced since then, but the principles apply. I now carry a 13.6-megapixel Sony Cybershot DSC-W300 (hey, I’m out of breath, and I’m a runner). Bought it for just over $300 maybe three years ago, and now it sells on Amazon for $40 to $60. Thus flees the glory of the world.

I’ve carried teeny-tiny cameras for 15 years, in training runs and trail races up to 100K (62.2 miles). A good pocketable camera can deliver surprisingly professional results – a photo of mine, taken circa 1990 with a friend’s borrowed itty-bitty Olympus Stylus during the mountainous Pacific Crest Trail 50K in the high Sierras, was printed full-page in Running Times.

I took the cover photo for my book, Fitness Intuition , with a minuscule Yashica T-4 on the flanks of Mt. Tamalpais during the 1996 What, Mi-Wok? Trail 100K. The T-4 was a wonderful runner’s camera for its time — many professionals carried a T-4 in a pocket when they didn’t feel up to lugging their elephantine Nikon F-4s or Canon F1s. The T-4 was renowned for its amazing Zeiss lens.

I’d like to share my experiences with the best runner’s camera I’ve found so far: the tiny Canon PowerShot SD 700is. I’ve posted samples here.

In its review of the 700is, the authoritative DPReview digital camera website said:

Whereas virtually ever other Ixus/ELPH camera [European names for the PowerShot SD series) I’ve reviewed over the last few years has failed, in some way, to produce image quality that quite lived up to the promise of such attractive and luxurious external design and construction, the SD 700 IS really does, for the most part, deliver the goods. Having started the review with the slightly weary feeling that – image stabilization aside – this was just going to be another pretty, but slightly disappointing ’style’ camera, I found myself more and more convinced that Canon had finally pulled something a little bit special out of the hat. For the first time in years I found myself using a Canon compact I really found hard to fault, and really wanted to keep.

The SD 700 IS is, in essence, everything a pocket camera should be; fast, easy to use, well designed and – above all – reliable.

I agree. The 700is is a marvelous little camera.

What’s to like? The tiny size, for starters – I carry the camera in the back pocket of my running shorts. Next, the wonderfully large 2.5″ screen, and – this is huge! – a viewfinder! I wouldn’t have been able to take the photo of the hawk using the camera’s LCD screen – the sun was too bright. Rugged construction, a very sharp lens, and – huge again! – image stabilization (it really works) round out the package. Also, the 35-140mm 35mm zoom lens equivalent is great. Without the longer zoom – no hawk.

Battery life is excellent, and SD cards are dirt cheap. (Carry several and capture video on the run – nice for recording panoramic views during a trail race). Pics are very sharp straight out of the camera, and – huge #3 – with the marvelous NeatImage, Visualizer, and Picasa programs (I’ll discuss them later), you can remove unpleasant grain from low-light pics, and quickly optimize image quality.

True, carrying the camera in running shorts does cause wear and tear – some buffing of the body and LCD is unavoidable. You can buy pre-cut, lay-down plastic film at Fry’s to protect the LCD. I always bring freezer baggies in my runner’s backpack during long runs, in case it rains or I sweat enough to damage the camera. But I prefer to have the camera quickly available in a shorts pocket. My former career as a Runner’s World photographer taught me not to be overly concerned about camera scruffiness.

Helpful Software for Runner-Photographers
NeatImage, mentioned earlier, is a program that removes grain from photos taken at higher ISO speeds (e.g., in low light). The NeatImage website offers before-and-after samples. You can use the program in standalone mode, so you don’t have to have Photoshop. (PC version only, alas.)

The wonderful (and free!) Visualizer Photo Resizer program lets you quickly resize batches of photos so you can upload the smaller versions to your blog or web site. The photos in my sample galleries were all resized using this marvelous program. (PC version only.)

Finally, the Picasa photo editing tools quickly improve photos with unpleasant underexposed areas. I take lots of landscapes with my little runner’s camera, and often I’ll want to capture distant features that are lighter than the foreground. I’m aware that digital cameras can easily “blow out” the highlights (make them too light, killing the detail). So I’ll point the camera somewhat above the horizon and press the shutter button halfway to set the exposure for the highlights, then bring the camera down and re-frame the image to include the foreground.

This nearly always causes the foreground features to be under-exposed (dark), and it can be difficult and frustrating to correct this in Photoshop. Picasa does a marvelous job of correcting these underexposed areas. It takes only a few clicks to bring out the foreground details and correct the colors – grass turns green, and the outlines of pine trees are visible.

Picasa is free (there are PC and Mac versions) and is very useful if you take lots of outdoors photos.