Don't be disconnected...
Talk to people and
you'll get the shots you want.
It's not the camera, stupid!
"It's not the camera that takes good pictures, it's the photographer!"...
That's what some photographers say with a condescending tone.
The interesting thing is that many of these photographers would never trade their
camera for another one. There must be a reason.
When you look at a picture, the result is in fact a combination
of the camera, the person using it, and the subject or the style of the photograph.
Some cameras are better for certain tasks in the same way some photographers are
better at a certain style. The result really is a combination of all three:
some styles suck, some photographers suck and... some cameras suck too.
Merritt and I are presenting here some cameras and solutions that worked for us, and for
others, for the purpose of traveling.
Merritt is the artist who doesn't like when the camera gets in the way,
I am the techno-photo-geek who follows the latest and brightest of what's happening on the market,
and we both equally enjoy shooting (consistently, the pictures in our slideshows are almost exactly
half from Merritt and half from me). Even if you feel that some of our choices may not apply
to you, we hope this page will still give you enough good advices for what you want to do.
And you want to travel, right?
Landscapes were the reason why we took on the trip.
Meeting people is what makes us extra glad we did.
How to take good pictures?
"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough" (Robert Capa)
It's probably the best summary of the most important thing you can do to improve your pictures, and it is especially true
for travel photography. The mistake most travelers make is to take almost only pictures of the road, the landscapes,
the motorcycle and the occasional monument. All these are fine, of course, but what your folks at home will
want to know is "What does it feel like to be in these countries?" and unless you are particularly good with words,
it is very difficult convey the atmosphere if you don't also bring back pictures of people - people going about
their daily life, people smiling at you, or people interacting with you. And for this, there is no miracle:
you must be close. Taking pictures is actually a good incentive to go out and meet people. You will quickly
notice that the longer you talk with someone, the better your pictures are. You won't even look at them as
"just pictures" anymore: they'll all have a story behind. They will be live memories.
Another reason to dare take pictures of people as well as landscapes is that years later when looking
at them, landscapes will often wake some nostalgia while people will almost always trigger a big smile!
Of course, there are many other techniques to know in order to take good pictures, besides getting closer.
You also need to understand your camera - and that means bing familiar with
parameters such as shutter speed, aperture, focus, focal length, depth of field, sensitivity, white balance etc...
The best way to learn (and continue learning if you already know) is to read what other people have written on the matter, and then
practice as much as you can. Digital cameras are good to practice: you can take as many pictures as you want and it
won't cost you one cent more than the price of the camera you already paid for. As for the learning, we present in
the next chapter
some of the books we found the most appealing.
Taking the risk of disappointing the purists, we are only going to talk about digital cameras.
Hardly anybody buys film cameras anymore, so if you are taking one on your trip I assume
you already own it and know it inside-and-out. Still here are two advices: (1) if you are
looking for a replacement one day, the Nikon F100
is a perfect workhorse for traveling, and (2) if you are shooting slides, don't
have them processed on the road, but ship them home. We had half our shots ruined in Africa and South-America.
15 years ago, it used to be simple to choose a camera. You had 2 or 3 choices at Canon, Nikon and Minolta,
and numerous pocket cameras from different brands that were all more or less identical. Now, with the digital boom,
we have a dozen brands, each with an offering of 5 to 10 cameras that they entirely renew once a year (if not more).
The Paradox of Choice
seems to have been written with the digital market in mind. Here are some excerpts
of the editorial reviews:
- "Psychology professor Schwartz provides ample evidence that we are faced with far too many choices on a daily basis,
providing an illusion of a multitude of options when few honestly different ones actually exist".
- "Choosing something can force us to wade through dozens, even hundreds, of brands.
We are, the author suggests, overwhelmed by choice, and that's not such a good thing.
There comes a point, he contends, at which choice becomes debilitating rather than liberating.
Did I make the right choice? Can I ever make the right choice?"
If you too find that choice becomes debilitating, we have zeroed in on a few models that
should give you ample satisfaction. We used as sources our experience, other
travelers' experience, consumer reports and product reviews. The main criteria to
select a camera are, in equal levels of importance: price (there is only so much one can spend),
quality of the lens and availability of optional lenses (especially wide-angle), size of the camera
(the smaller it is, the more likely you are to carry it with you at all times and take pictures),
ease of use (if the UI sucks, you won't use it) and reputation of reliability of the brand.
You may have noticed that I don't mention the number of megapixels that is displayed so prominently
by the manufacturers, and it's because of what photographers call the Megapixel Myth
How to get a camel through a camera's eye?
Use a wide-angle lens!
On the other hand, I insist on the wide-angle lens
(or wide-angle converter), and it's because of the little
quote from Robert Capa: if you get closer and closer to your subject, you will probably need a wider and wider lens.
Finally, note that many of these little cameras have a really nice movie mode
People tend to forget it, like we did for more than a year :-(, so practice and use it once in a while!
One cheap (and good) camera
The Canon A520 was released last year, that's why it's cheap now, but it's still an
excellent all-around camera. It arrived on top of the list at Consumer Reports.
It's so good, we offered it to Merritt's mom. It even accepts a wide-angle lens
(with the addition of a small lens adapter). Add a memory card, a cheap set of batteries with charger... and you're all set.
These two cameras fit into any pocket: you will love it when traveling. Larger cameras
too often stay in the suitcases and you end up missing many photo opportunities (and
always the best ones, of course!).
We selected the Sony P200
(which we have) because it's tiny, really fast (very little of the dreaded shutter-lag),
the interface is clear and it accepts a wide-angle lens (with an adapter). Don't forget to add a memory card or two.
Sony recently released a new crop of cameras. The good news is: the P200 wasn't replaced (it's still top) but they had to reduce
its price to fit amongst the new ones. Enjoy the bargain.
The other camera we selected is a Canon Digital Elph SD600 (also called Digital Ixus 60 in Europe). The Elph series are probably
the best built of all small cameras and they give beautiful results. The only problem we see is that the widest their lens
can go is 38mmm. To compensate, they do have a feature called Stitch Assist which allows to stitch several shots
together and create a panorama. It works very well for landscapes but that can't be used for interiors or for people photography.
Still, the Elph is an excellent camera and you will quickly become a fan like all its users. The one we recommend is from the latest crop.
We haven't used it yet but its predecessors have been so consistently good over the years, we have no hesitation putting it in the list.
Add a spare battery from Lenmar, it's 1/3rd the price of the Canon-brand battery.
With a flip-out screen, nobody notices when you're shooting around corners.
These cameras are bigger, you will probably need a bag to put them away and carry them
when you're not using them. Only more advanced photographers will be able to take advantage of all their
functions as they offer pretty much everything you can find on a SLR: you can select
the metering mode, focus mode, shooting mode, and even bracket your exposure and white balance.
A feature we love with both cameras we recommend is the flip-out LCD screen
: you can aim from
unusual angles and take pitures of people without them noticing.
Both cameras have been very recently discontinued (Feb 2006) and they don't have any good replacement.
Nikon and Canon are pushing customers to spend the extra money and buy an entry-level SLR instead (the idea
being to keep them captive in the future because of lens compatibility). I hope better alternatives will develop.
In the meanwhile, you might be able to find one on Amazon or EBay...
The Nikon Coolpix 8400 has the widest angle of all compact digital cameras (24mm) and with an adapter, you can
even bring it down to a wooping 18mm. If you like it wide, this baby is for you. We had its ancestor, the Nikon 5000,
for a couple of years and we still miss it.
The Canon G6 was the latest incarnation of the respected G series, excellent all around. Like the Nikon, it's better than
the models recently released, especially for travelers.
Big camera, big lens, small...
If you are going to buy a SLR, we assume you already know what you are doing, so we'll be brief
and only present what we have and... what we would dream to have. It's all Nikon. There is
at home an eternal feud between Nikonians and Canonists but on the road, people seem to prefer Nikon.
The two entry-level SLRs the D50 and D70 are very similar. The D50 misses some of the more technical controls of
the D70 (notably, it dropped the DOF preview button) and only takes SD cards instead of CompactFlash. For the complete list of differences,
. The D70 comes with an excellent kit lens: a 18-70mm
(which means 24-105 in film equivalent) that justifies the extra bucks. Beyond that, if you still have plenty of money aside,
consider the 18-200 VR lens (with vibration reduction) which might be the best lens available for the traveler, and
the D200 body that's completely weather sealed.
In the end, our recommendations - depending on how much you want to spend - are: (1) Nikon D70 + kit lens, (2) Nikon D70 body-only
with 18-200 VR lens and (3) Nikon D200 with 18-200 VR lens. Of course, any of these outfits will benefit quite well of
a super-wide angle such as the Sigma 10-20: that thing will probably get you as close as Capa meant it to be!
How many cameras?
There are two main reasons why you might want more than one camera:
- Your main camera is a SLR or a medium-size camera and you would like something smaller to carry
at all times with you. This is what Merritt and I have most of the time on the road, and we don't not
regret it. Many of the pictures in our slideshows are taken with the small Sony because the big
Nikon stays in the hotel room or in the suitcases at the campsite. Most of the time, we only
take the SLR with us when we decide to go out for a shoot.
- You have several lenses for your SLR. In that case, you might want two bodies to avoid changing lenses
all the time. An ideal configuration would be to have a ultra-wide angle (10-20) and a longer lens
(either the 18-70 or the 18-200VR). There are two problems in having just one body: you miss photo
opportunities when the lens that's currently mounted is not the one you need for the shoot; and each time
you change lens, you take the risk of having dust getting into the camera and onto the CCD sensor. When dust
gets onto the CCD, all the pictures show the spots and you can't clean it up by yourself. It must be done
by a service center and it costs around $200 (so be careful when changing these lenses in the wind!).