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Cameras

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.

Which camera?

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.



Small cameras

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.



Medium-size cameras


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.

Problem: 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 Cameras


Big camera, big lens, small...
ahem...
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, look here. 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:

Photography Books

Beginners to Intermediate

The National Geographic Field Guides to Photography are excellent for beginners, and those who think they already know what they need will still find something interesting in there. "Secrets to Making Great Pictures" is excellent; everybody with a camera should have read it. "Digital" is for those who are beginning with digital photography. "Landscapes", "Travel" and "People and Portraits" build upon "Secrets" for additional techniques.



Intermediate to Advanced

For more advanced photographers, here are three remarkable books... "Photography (8th Edition)" is one of the most complete book on the art and craft of photography. It is used in many schools (which might be why it's so heavy and expensive!). "The Photoshop CS2 Book for Digital Photographers" guides you step by step through dozens of incredibly useful techniques with Photoshop. Beautiful. Finally, a classic for the geeks: "The Negative" by Ansel Adams. The part about the darkroom doesn't apply to many people anymore but the rest of the book, 50 years later its release, is still a reference to understand the light.



Memory

How much memory?

The first rule for memory is to buy at least enough for an entire day of shooting, whether it's with one or several memory cards. Note that if you have enough memory for a full day, you should also make sure you have enough battery: that's why for all the cameras we also give the links to buy extra batteries.

Depending on the resolution of the CCD sensor (the famous megapixels), the settings on the camera (fine/normal) and the file format (jpeg/raw), the pictures take anywhere between 1Mb to 10Mb each (usually around 2Mb for the cameras presented here in their default settings). It means that a 512Mb card usually enough space for more than 200 pictures, and for most people it's plenty enough.

So why are the links above all pointing to 1GB memory cards? As the technology evolves, the capacities increase and the prices drop, but it's not linear and currently the best deal is with 1GB cards. Why? 1GB is the "sweet spot" in the current market offerings: a 1GB card costs less than two 512Mb cards, and a 2GB card costs more than twice the price of a 1GB. This is quite recent, in January 2006, the sweet spot was still with the 512Mb cards. We'll keep watching for you...

Besides with a bigger card than you really need, you can take short movies and not run out of space - and the day you buy a newer camera with plenty more pixels, you can still reuse the same card.

Backup

Shoot, burn, clear, repeat

You really should carry an iPod along with the Apple Camera Connector in order to backup your picture on the road. This is all described in the Electronics page. Then every so often you can go to an internet-cafe and ask the person to burn some CDs from the pictures that are stored on the iPod.

Now if you don't carry an iPod: as you rely on internet-cafes to burn your pictures on CD in order for you to clear the memory cards and continue shooting, you will probably need to carry large provisions of memory because you might not find every day (not even every week) an internet-cafe that has a CD burner. Also, since a CD can only hold around 700Mb, you might want to only carry cards of 512Mb in order to simplify the job to the person watching over the internet-cafe ("take each card and burn it on a separate CD") because he/she might not have half your knowledge in computer matters. You may also want to carry your own USB memory card reader.

Advices for Buying Online

Be a happy shopper

Cameras are probably the item for sale on the internet where you are the most likely to get conned (after Viagra maybe?). However it is very easy to avoid bad experiences and come back over and over as a happy shopper. The Golden Rule is to akways stick to a reputable store. In the US, these are Amazon.com (but read below!), B&H Photo-Video, Adorama, and big chains such as Wolf Camera, Ritz Camera, Good Guys and Circuit City. Merritt and I would not shop anywhere else for camera gear, and especially not at a Brooklyn camera store or any store that shows a deal almost too good to be true. We can't detail here all the different scams that these store fronts are capable of (there are too many of them) but you are warned.

Amazon is one of the best places to buy stuff on the internet. There is a slight problem, though: the Amazon web site is also a store front for other companies to sell their stuff. When you buy at one of these smaller companies, even if the entire transaction is guaranteed by Amazon, you might not have the same shopping experience as if you had bought directly from Amazon. Look at the picture below:



The same battery is sold at $38.80 at Ace Digital Club, $38.95 at Adorama, $42.94 at Amazon and $44.19 at Computer Brain. In that case, we would without hesitation buy at Amazon even though the item is 4$ more. Why? Because, besides additional safety, it's very easy to have free shipping at Amazon (just order a few more items) while the smaller stores are always going to charge you something (in that case between $5.50 and $15.50 at Ace Digital Club - which would have completely swallowed the difference in price).

Sometimes though, you might have (or might want) to buy at one of these smaller stores because the item is not carried directly by Amazon, or because the price difference makes it rather interesting. In that case, always check the feedback that other customers have left for that store. The feedback can be found by clicking on the link that shows "Ships from and sold by..." followed by the name of the store. If the store doesn't have a lot of feedback (just a few dozens or hundreds) or if it gets too many negative feedbacks, especially in recent months, shop somewhere else.

Voilà! You know as much as we do now...
Happy shopping!