Compare digital camera sensor sizes: 1″-Type, 4/3, APS-C, full frame 35mm

To optimize the portability of a serious travel camera (recommended here), get 1-inch Type sensor size or as large as APS-C sensor. Above this range, full-frame sensors overly increase camera weight for most travelers. Below “1-inch” size, sensors can suffer from poor image quality (especially in dim light) when making large prints. The archaic inch-sizing of sensors is clarified in the illustration and the table further below with relative sizes and millimeters.

For a given year of technological advance, a camera with physically bigger sensor area tends to capture better image quality by gathering more light, but at the cost of larger-diameter, bulkier lenses. Recent digital sensor advances have shrunk cameras and increased optical zoom ranges while preserving image quality. If you avoid using their poor digital zoom, even top smartphones such as Google Pixel, Samsung S6/S7 or Apple iPhone 6s can potentially make good 18-inch prints, and they excel at instantly sharing images. A powerful image can be created any decent camera in the hands of a skilled or lucky photographer. But for superior optical zoom, better performance in dim light and sharper prints, get a bigger camera.

Below, compare sensor sizes for digital cameras:

Sensor sizes for digital cameras.

In the above 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 pocket 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).

Click here for my latest camera recommendations

1″-Type sensor size is now optimal for travel camera portability:

I upgrade my digital camera every 2-4 years because the latest devices keep beating older models. As of 2016, a 1″-Type sensor size is perfect for a portable, lightweight travel camera, as in the following which capture excellent dynamic range (bright to dark) with exceptionally fast autofocus:

Or the following top APS-C-sensor camera lets you interchange lenses (though I prefer the above all-in-one solutions for travel convenience):

The next step up to full-frame-sensor cameras costs extra, adds bulk, and is only needed if you regularly shoot in dim light higher than ISO 6400, or often print images larger than 2 or 3 feet in size to be viewed closer than their longest dimension by critically sharp eyes.

But huge effective billboards can be printed from compact 3-megapixel cameras (read my article)

How to compare cameras

  • My CAMERAS article updates Light Travel camera recommendations several times per year.
  • If possible, compare cameras shot side-by-side under a variety of actual field conditions (which I do just before selling a former camera to confirm the quality of the new replacement camera). I like to “pixel-peep” a side-by-side comparison of two different cameras capturing the same subject under same lighting conditions. Be sure to mentally or digitally normalize any two given shots to compare their fine detail as if printed with equal overall image size.
  • I judge image quality and resolution not by megapixel (mp) count but instead by comparing standardized studio test views at 100% pixel enlargement and checking resolvable lines per picture height (LPH), at the authoritative dpreview.com (owned by Amazon since 2007) and handy Comparometer at imaging-resource.com. Check other review sites analyzing a camera’s telephoto in addition to standard lens.

For me, yearly advances as of 2014-16 put the sweet spot for a serious travel camera between 1”-Type and APS-C size sensors. Most cheaper compact cameras have smaller but noisier sensors such as 1/2.3″ Type (6.17 x 4.56 mm) — tiny enough to miniaturize a superzoom lens (above 15x zoom range), but poor for capturing dim light or for enlarging prints much beyond 12-18 inches.

Smartphones can have even tinier sensors, such as 1/3.0″ Type (4.8 mm x 3.6 mm) in iPhone 5S. Top smartphone cameras have improved miniature sensors to the point where citizen journalists can capture newsworthy photos with image quality good enough for fast sharing and quick international publication. My Samsung Note 5 smartphone (same camera as S6/S7 with 1/2.6″ sensor) captures sunny 16mp images sufficient to make a sharp 18-inch print, virtually indistinguishable from that taken by a larger camera. Tip: avoid the digital zoom on smartphones, and instead move closer before shooting or crop at editing time, if needed to isolate subjects.

Read this pointed perspective on how far image quality has progressed from early DSLR to 2014 smartphone cameras. Historically, evocative images can clearly be captured regardless of camera size or modernity. But for a given year of technological advance, tiny-sensor cameras can have severe limitations compared to physically larger cameras in terms of print enlargement, autofocus speed, blurred performance in dim or indoor light, and so forth. The “best” travel camera is the one that you are willing to carry.

More details:

The non-standardized fractional-inch sensor sizing labels such as 1/2.5-inch Type and 1/1.7″ Type confusingly refer to antiquated 1950s-1980s vacuum tubes. When you see those archaic “inch” size labels, instead look up the actual length and width in millimeters reported in the specifications for each camera:

Table of camera sensor size, area, and diagonal crop factor relative to 35mm full-frame

Sensor Type Diagonal (mm) Width (mm) Height (mm) Sensor Area (in square millimeters) Full frame sensor area is x times bigger Diagonal crop factor* versus full frame
1/3.2″ (Apple iPhone 5 smartphone 2012) 5.68 4.54 3.42 15.50 55 7.6
1/3.0″ (Apple iPhone 5S smartphone 2013) 6.00 4.80 3.60 17.30 50 7.2
1/2.6″ Type (Samsung Galaxy S6 & Note 5 in 2015) 6.86 5.5 4.1 22.55 38 6.3
1/2.5″ Type 7.18 5.76 4.29 24.70 35 6.0
1/2.3″ Type (Canon PowerShot SX280HS, Olympus Tough TG-2) 7.66 6.17 4.56 28.07 31 5.6
1/1.7″ (Canon PowerShot S95, S100, S110, S120) 9.30 7.44 5.58 41.51 21 4.7
1/1.7″ (Pentax Q7) 9.50 7.60 5.70 43.30 20 4.6
2/3″ (Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone with 41mp camera; Fujifilm X-S1, X20, XF1) 11.00 8.80 6.60 58.10 15 3.9
Standard 16mm Film Frame 12.7 10.26 7.49 76.85 11 3.4
1” Type (Sony RX100 & RX10, Nikon CX, Panasonic FZ1000) 15.86 13.20 8.80 116 7.4 2.7
Micro Four Thirds, 4/3 21.60 17.30 13 225 3.8 2.0
APS-C: Canon EF-S 26.70 22.20 14.80 329 2.6 1.6
APS-C: Nikon DX, Sony NEX/Alpha DT, Pentax K 28.2 – 28.4 23.6 – 23.7 15.60 368 – 370 2.3 1.52 – 1.54
35mm full-frame (Nikon FX, Sony Alpha/Alpha FE, Canon EF) 43.2 – 43.3 36 23.9 – 24.3 860 – 864 1.0 1.0
Kodak KAF 39000 CCD Medium Format 61.30 49 36.80 1803 0.48 0.71
Hasselblad H5D-60 Medium Format 67.08 53.7 40.2 2159 0.40 0.65
Phase One P 65+, IQ160, IQ180 67.40 53.90 40.40 2178 0.39 0.64
IMAX Film Frame 87.91 70.41 52.63 3706 0.23 0.49

* Crop Factor: Note that a “full frame 35mm” sensor/film size (about 36 x 24 mm) is a common standard for comparison, having a diagonal field of view crop factor of 1.0. The debatable term crop factor comes from an attempt by 35mm-film users to understand how much the angle of view of their existing full-frame lenses would narrow (increase in telephoto power) when mounted on digital SLR (DSLR) cameras which had sensor sizes (such as APS-C) which are smaller than 35mm.

With early DSLR cameras, many photographers were concerned about the loss of image quality or resolution by using a digital sensor with a light-gathering area smaller than 35mm film. However, for my publishing needs, APS-C-size sensor improvements easily surpassed my scanning of 35mm film by 2009.

An interesting number for comparing cameras is “Full frame sensor area is x times bigger” in the above table.

  • In comparison to full a frame sensor, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5-inch Type sensor crops the light gathering surface 6.0 times smaller diagonally, or 35 times smaller in area.
  • An APS-C size sensor gathers about 15 times more light (area) than a 1/2.5” Type sensor and 2.4 times less than full frame.
    • APS-C sensors in Nikon DX, Pentax, and Sony E have 1.5x diagonal field of view crop factor.
    • APS-C sensors in Canon EF-S DSLRs have 1.6x diagonal field of view crop factor.
  • 1 stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of gathered light. Doubling a sensor’s area theoretically gathers one stop more light.

Lens quality & diameter also affect image quality

For improving image quality, the quality and diameter of the lens can rival the importance of having a physically larger sensor area. Prime (non-zoom) lenses usually are sharpest for larger prints, but zoom lenses are more versatile and recommended for travelers.

Small sensor can beat larger with newer design (BSI) plus faster optics:

In my side-by-side field tests, the sharp, bright 25x zoom of Sony RX10 III resoundingly beats the resolution of 11x SEL18200 lens on flagship APS-C Sony A6300 at 90+ mm equivalent telephoto, even as high as ISO 6400. (Wider angle zoom settings show little quality difference.) Apparently RX10’s faster f/2.4-4 lens plus backside illumination (BSI) technology magically compensate for the sensor size difference, 1″-Type versus APS-C. Like most APS-C-sensor cameras in 2016, A6300 lacks BSI. Surprisingly little noise affects RX10’s image quality at high ISO 6400 in dim light. Its larger lens diameter gathering more light also helps in this comparison (72mm filter size of RX10 III versus 67mm SEL18200 on A6300).

Larger lens diameter can help dim light photography:

In my field tests, the linear sharpness of Sony’s high-quality SEL1670Z 3x zoom f/4 lens on flagship A6300 is only about 5% better than Sony RX10 III f/2.4-4 in bright light in the wider half of its 24-105mm equivalent range, but no better in dim light. I expect that RX10’s catch-up in quality under dim light is due to superior light sensitivity of BSI sensor plus larger lens diameter gathering more light, 72mm versus 55mm.

Using sweet spot of full-frame lenses on APS-C may not improve quality:

In principle, you might expect a slightly sharper image on an APS-C sensor when using the sweet spot of a lens designed for a full frame (which has a larger imaging circle), but results actually vary, especially when using older film-optimized lenses. In fact, a lens which is designed and optimized specially “for digital, for APS-C” can equal or exceed the quality of an equivalent full-frame lens on the same sensor, while also reducing bulk and weight (as in the Sony E-mount example further below).

Theoretically, new full-frame lenses “designed for digital” (using image-space telecentric design) may perform better on a digital sensor than would older lenses designed for film:

  • Unlike film, digital sensors receive light best when struck squarely rather than at a grazing angle.
  • Digital cameras perform best with lenses optimized specially “for digital”, using image-space telecentric designs, in which all the rays land squarely on the sensor (as opposed to having incoming rays emerge at the same angle as they entered, as in a pinhole camera). The light buckets (sensels) on digital sensors require light rays to be more parallel than with film (to enter at close to a 90 degree angle to the sensor).
  • Film can record light at more grazing angles than a digital sensor. Because older film-optimized lenses bend light to hit the sensor at more of a glancing angle, they reduce light-gathering efficiency and cause more vignetting around the edges (which is somewhat mitigated by the image circle being cropped by the APS-C sensor, which uses just the center part of the full-frame lens).
Side-by-side testing works better than theory to distinguish lenses:

Compare the following two Sony E-mount zoom lenses, full-frame versus APS-C:

  1. 2015 full-frame “Sony E-mount FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS” lens (27.5 oz, 36-360mm equivalent).
  2. 2010 APS-C “Sony E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS (silver SEL-18200)” lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv).

Both lenses are optimized for digital, yet the APS-C lens is much lighter weight and performs equal to or better than the full-frame lens. Side-by-side comparisons and also DxOMark tests on a Sony A6000 camera show that while they are about equally sharp, the Sony 24-240 has more distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberration than the 18-200mm.

Raw format and advantages of large sensors over small

Cameras with larger sensors can achieve a shallower depth of focus than smaller sensors, a feature which movie makers and portrait photographers like to use for blurring the background (at brightest aperture setting, smallest F number value) to draw more attention to the focused subject. Conversely, smaller-sensor cameras like the Sony RX10 III and RX100 III tend to be much better at capturing close-focus (macro) shots with great depth of focus (especially at wide angle), at ISO up to 800. But the macro advantages of small-sensor cameras can diminish in dim light or when shooting at ISO higher than 800.

Landscape photographers often prefer to capture a deep depth of focus, which can be achieved with both small and large sensor cameras (often optimally sharp using a middle aperture F number value such as f/4 to f/5.6 on 1-inch Type sensor or f/8 on APS-C, while avoiding the diffraction of small pupil openings at high F number values such as f/22 on APS-C or full-frame).

To maximize raw dynamic range of brightness values from bright to dark, use base ISO (around ISO 100 or 200 in most digital still cameras), rather than higher ISO settings which amplify noise (blotchiness at the pixel level, most-visibly in shadows). However, using the latest full-frame sensors at high ISO values 6400+ can capture unprecedentedly low noise and open new possibilities for dim-light action photography at hand-held shutter speeds, indoors or at night.

Without the help of a flash, night and dim indoor photography is best with a full-frame sensor to gather more light with less noise. Low-noise night photography is usually best shot on a tripod at slow shutter speeds in raw format between ISO 100 and 800 (or as high as 1600-3200 on the latest large sensors).

For a given year of technological advance, cameras with larger sensors typically capture a wider dynamic range of brightness values from bright to dark per image than smaller sensors, with less noise. In 2016, Sony’s 1″-Type backside illumination (BSI) sensors capture sufficient dynamic range for my needs.

Camera raw format allows editing recovery of several stops of highlight and shadow detail which would be lost (truncated) in JPEG file format (if overexposed or underexposed). Alternatively, PC software or camera firmware using HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging lets any size of sensor greatly increase an image’s dynamic range by combining multiple exposures. But for me, the great dynamic range of a single raw file (from 1″-Type BSI or APS-C sensor) usually makes shooting extra images for HDR unnecessary.

Despite advanced circuitry, cameras are not smart enough to know which subjects are supposed to be white, black, or midtone in brightness. By default, all cameras underexpose scenes where white tones (such as snow) predominate, and overexpose highlights in scenes where black tones predominate. IMPORTANT TIP: To correctly expose for all tones, you need to lock exposure upon an actual midtone (such as a gray card; or on a line halfway between light and shadow) in the same light as your framed subject.

For greatest editing flexibility, rather than shooting JPEG format, serious photographers should record and edit images in raw format, which is supported in advanced cameras (but often not in small-sensor devices). Editing raw format fully recovers badly-exposed images − allowing you to “point and shoot” more freely than with JPEG. Even so, I carefully shoot to expose each histogram to the far right while avoiding truncation of highlights, in order to capture the highest signal-to-noise ratio in each scene. Try to stay close to base ISO 100 or 200. I typically first shoot a test shot on automatic Aperture-preferred priority, inspect the histogram, check any blinking highlight warnings, then compensate subsequent shots using Manual Exposure (or temporary Exposure Lock grabbed from the scene). Tonal editing of JPEGs can quickly truncate color channels or accumulate round-off errors, often making the image appear pasty, pixelated, or posterized. White Balance (Color Balance) is easily adjustable after shooting raw files, but tonal editing often skews colors oddly in JPEG. 12-bit Raw format has 16 times the tonal editing headroom and color accuracy compared to JPEG (which has only 8 bits per pixel per red, green, or blue color channel). In their favor, automatic point-and-shoot JPEG camera exposure modes get smarter every year, making advanced larger cameras less necessary for many people.

Detailed full-frame comparison of low-light Sony A7S 12mp versus A7R 36mp

How can we distinguish the image quality captured by different cameras? Images are best compared at a normalized pixel level (with fine detail examined on a monitor as if printed with equal overall image size) after shooting side-by-side in the field with comparable lens and shutter speed settings. Consider two sibling full-frame-sensor cameras:

  1. Sony Alpha A7S (12 mp of large-bucket photosites optimized for high ISO, low light, and videography plus stills, new in 2015) versus
  2. Sony Alpha A7R (36 megapixels of smaller-bucket photosites optimized for high resolution, new in 2014)

Despite its tinier but denser photosite buckets (also called sensels or pixel wells for catching light photons), the 36mp Sony Alpha A7R beats the dynamic range of 12mp Sony Alpha A7S in a normalized comparison of raw files (see dpreview article). While both cameras spread their photosites across the same surface area of a full-frame sensor, the 36mp A7R trumps the 12mp A7S for exposure latitude flexibility in raw post-processing at ISO 100 through 6400. Overall image quality of the 12mp A7S doesn’t beat the A7R until ISO 12,800 and higher (but only in the shadows through midtones under low-light conditions). Sony A7S is better for low-light videographers, whereas A7R is better for low-light landscape photographers who value high resolution and dynamic range.

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CROATIA: Plitvice Lakes National Park

On a sunny August morning 2013, we walked the well-worn boardwalks of Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes as part of a month starting from Venice, day-hiking the Dolomites of Italy, and looping into Slovenia and Croatia.

Above are images of Plitvice Lakes National Park automatically played in a show. (PAUSE || or START SLIDESHOW as desired with buttons at lower right.) But mobile devices just display a fixed image, so click center to enlarge as a set of images with full captions in GALLERIES mode (where Add to Cart button lets you buy photos).

Plitvice Lakes National Park (Nacionalni park Plitvicka jezera) was founded in 1949 and is honored by UNESCO as World Heritage Site. Waters flowing over limestone, dolomite, and chalk in this karstic landscape have, over thousands of years, deposited travertine barriers, creating natural dams, beautiful lakes and waterfalls. Warming conditions after the last Ice Age (less than 12,000 years ago) allowed the natural dams to form from tufa (calcium carbonate) and chalk depositing in layers, bound by plants. Plitvicka Jezera is a municipality of Lika-Senj County in the Republic of Croatia, in Europe.

Practical tips for visiting Plitvice Lakes

  • Try to visit in the off season, as Plitvice Lakes National Park suffers severe overcrowding in the summer. Park hours are 7:00-20:00 for ticket booths, boat, and shuttlebus, but you can stroll into the park any time without boat/bus. The park is most crowded 10:00-15:00. On a Friday in early August, a 7:00am start helped us for a few hours before boardwalks became mobbed with people. Jostling with people shoulder to shoulder hurts the natural ambiance.
  • If you need to prioritize, the Upper lakes (Gornja Jezera) are most impressive. Walking briskly, you could spend a minimum of an hour at each of Lower and Upper Lakes plus half hour connection by boat or 40 minutes by trail. Hike uphill for the best views. Most people are satisfied after visiting a few hours. But dedicated photographers may want to allow an extra day or two to allow for changing weather and lighting.
  • Croatian currency is the kuna (HRK). Park entrances require cash. Paying in Euros gave change in kuna coins and bills, which may be worthless outside of Croatia.
  • Drive one way from Venice to Plitvice Lakes in about 4.5 hours (394 km).
  • The decaying infrastructure of Croatia still needs a bit of repair after the Croatian War of Independence 1991-1995, in contrast to wealthy northern Italy.

Accommodation and daily park entrance fees

  • The park entrance fee is 110 kuna per day (for entry, boat, and shuttle bus) if staying in offsite lodging, although it is paid just once if you stay in one of the following pricey park hotels:
    • The park’s on-site Hotel Bellevue (cheaper but dreary), Hotel Plitvice, and Hotel Jezero are expensive for basic rooms, costing much more than local Bed and Breakfasts (B&B). These hotels have convenient free parking, whereas the lots at Entrance 1 or 2 charge 7 kuna per hour.
    • Croatian currency is the kuna (HRK), and park entrance requires cash. Paying in Euros gave change in kuna, which is only good inside Croatia and may be hard to exchange outside.
  • In peak season, reserve lodging for Plitvice Lakes at least a day or two in advance to get more comfort per money spent.
    • After we searched among “no vacancy” hotels in mid afternoon, mid week, we settled upon a supposedly “3 star” lodging at Plitvice Lakes (Hotel #7) which sadly matched the quality of a “1 star” of Italy. A shared bathroom down extremely narrow stairs, thin walls, worn furnishings, and no air conditioning on a hot day gave us a bad memory of Hotel #7. Try these:
  • Certain local Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs) may be your best bet (2013 prices), conveniently reserved at Booking.com (which doesn’t charge booking fees like referral links via airline websites), or call each directly:
    • Vila Vuk $87 double, plitvice-lakes-vila-vuk.com, address: Mukinje 45. Contact: Tibor Vukmirovic, Tel + 385 (0) 53 774-030, Email: tibor.vukmirovic@gs.t-com.hr
    • Telephone tips: Only within Croatia do you dial the number (0) shown within parentheses. How to dial Croatia from Slovenia: 00 + 385 + Areacode + #. For mobile phones: 00 + 385 + 9xx.xxx.xxx.
    • Villa Lika $80 double, address: Mukinje 63, just south of the lakes, Tel +385 53 774 302.
    • Pansion Breza $80 dbl, Plitvica Selo 21, Tel +385 91 559 9600
    • Villa Mukinja, +385-98-1877-346, www.plitvice-lakes.com
    • House Tina, www.housetina.com, address: Grabovac 175, north of park. €40-112 double with breakfast. Tel 00385 47 784197 Mobile: 00385 98 9634048.
    • Knezevic Guest House $85/night double, www.knezevic.hr, in Mukinja, Tel 053-774-081, mobile 098-168-7576.

For great travel tips updated each year, get Rick Steves’ books on Croatia at Amazon.com (buying at this link supports Tom).

Sony RX100 review: best pocket camera 2012-15

The world’s best pocket-sized travel camera improved in 2015:

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 version IV (best-ever pocket camera 2015, 10.5 oz) bests earlier version III with:

  • a new Exmor RS stacked CMOS sensor, with faster operation but same image quality
  • 15 fps electronic shutter
  • viewfinder dots 2.36mp (formerly 1.44mp)
  • new 4K (UHD) video
  • improved dynamic range in video and JPEG (using S-Log2 gamma setting under Picture Profiles)
  • greatly-improved Auto ISO
  • fast eye-tracking AF
  • instant magnification of AF point in playback

The 24-70mm equivalent f/1.8-2.8 lens remains the same, but battery life has decreased to 280 shots (down from 320 shots in version III).

The earlier Sony RX100 camera version III (best-ever pocket camera 2014, 10 oz) beat previous version II with the following new features:

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 version III Digital Camera

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 version III Digital Camera

  • Widens its angle of view to 24mm (with brightest aperture f/1.8).
  • Significantly sharpens its 70mm telephoto, which is now brightened to f/2.8. (Zoom reach was shortened from 3.6x to 2.9x, but generous 20 megapixels allow much cropping for a good digital zoom.)
  • Adds a pop-up SVGA OLED electronic viewfinder with 1.44M dots!
  • Tilts its 3″ LCD further to a full 180 degrees.
  • Adds a Nuetral Density (ND) filter, great for allowing slow shutter speeds (such as to blur moving water) in bright sunlight.
  • Compared to Sony RX100 III, the rival Canon PowerShot G7X camera has no viewfinder, poor battery life, unreliable focus and poor manual focus magnification. In its favor, Canon G7X has brighter lens from 24-50mm equiv (up to 2/3 stop better), longer zoom 24-100mm equiv (versus 24-70mm), touchscreen and LCD that flips 180-degrees for selfies, in a body having the same weight, size and sensor, capturing similar image quality in studio comparisons.

Earlier versions:

Look for a great value on a used Sony RX100 version 1 (model DSCRX100/B) at Amazon (worth the price premium over a used Canon S110, both introduced in 2012).

Sony RX100 beats rival brands of pocket-sized cameras with unusually fast 0.15 sec autofocus, an unprecedented 20 mp 1″ sensor (capturing 2.6 times the light area of a Canon S110), and sharp LCD (1,228,800 dots). To better grasp its slippery body, add Sony AG-R2 attachment grip. Below, read my full review of version I:

Tom’s review of Sony RX100 version I

The world’s best pocket-sized camera of 2012, Sony RX100 camera version 1 (8.5 oz, model DSCRX100/B), packs the largest sensor (1-inch Type) ever designed into such a small body. Its high image quality and autofocus speed beat any other zoom camera under 16 ounces! Both RX100 versions I and II have 3.6x optical zoom (28–100mm equiv), with brightest aperture f/1.8 at wide angle zoom and f/4.9 at telephoto. But as expected, images will be sharpest when shot at a few stops down, around f/4 to f/5.6. A trip to Italy in summer 2013 reconfirmed my excitement about the RX100: its 20-megapixel sensor can resolve more detail than my former 12mp Nikon D5000 DSLR camera using kit lens at ISO 200 to 400. 

Compared to the competing Canon PowerShot S110 camera (7 oz, 2012) or Canon S95 (7 oz, 2010, pictured below), Sony RX100’s high-resolution 20mp sensor can actually double the area of sharp prints. Also, cropping a 20-megapixel image from its shorter telephoto easily beats the quality from an 120mm-equivalent image from the S110. The RX100’s sensor pixels dedicated to phase-detection AF impressively accelerate hybrid autofocus to as fast as 0.15 second at wide angle (0.26 sec at tele). In its favor, a Canon PowerShot S110 (2012) is 25% smaller by volume, starts its zoom wider at 24mm equivalent, adds touch screen, has friendlier menus, and costs around 40% less when new (but costs about the same when used: see Sony RX100/B version I at Amazon). Compare features in the Table at bottom. [These compact designs have a good 3-inch LCD but no viewfinder, unless you upgrade to RX100 version III, which also widens its angle of view to 24mm equivalent.]

Pocket-sized wonders: Compare camera lens and size of Sony DSC-RX100 (left) versus Canon PowerShot S95.

Pocket-sized wonders: Compare camera lens and size of Sony DSC-RX100 version I (left) versus Canon PowerShot S95.

To better grasp the slippery body of a Sony RX100 (and other compact cameras), order a Custom Grip from Richard Franiec (shown above) or Sony AG-R2 attachment grip. Protect your RX100 in a Tamrac Digital 1 Photo Bag, with room for extra Wasabi Power NPBX1 batteries.

The unusually large 1-inch Type sensor inside a Sony RX100 is 2.8 times bigger in surface area than a 1/1.7-inch Type sensor in a Canon S110, S95, or G series camera. (Compare sensor sizes in separate article.) The larger-diameter RX100 lens gathers more light onto its sensor than any other pocketable zoom camera, capturing superior quality.

To beat the image resolution recorded by an 8.5-oz Sony RX100, competitors require increasing camera weight to 16 ounces or more! For example: a 16-oz Sony Alpha NEX-6 (16mp) with 16-50mm Retractable Zoom lens beats RX100’s quality above ISO 800 (and adds a fantastic viewfinder with 2,359,296 dots). Surprisingly, studio tests show that a little 8.5-ounce Sony RX100 can beat or equal image quality from a 29-ounce Nikon D5000 DSLR with kit lens (12mp APS-C sensor, 2009) from ISO 200 up to 1600. Image quality and resolution is judged not by megapixel (mp) count but instead by comparing standardized studio test views at 100% pixel enlargement and checking resolvable lines per picture height (LPH).

1895 Heritage House (Kanab, Utah) illustrates the high resolution of a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 compact camera (18mm, f/5.6, 1/400th sec, ISO 125) - PhotoSeek.com

100% pixel enlargements from the 1895 Heritage House (Kanab, Utah) illustrate the sharp resolution of a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 compact camera (f/5.6, 1/400th sec, ISO 125, zoomed to 18mm, which is “48mm equivalent”).

More details:

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 version I digital camera has a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T Lens with

  • 3.6x optical zoom: 10.4 – 37.1mm (28–100mm equivalent)
  • good “Optical SteadyShot” Image Stabilization
  • fast f/1.8 brightest aperture at 10.4mm wide angle
  • f/4.9 brightest aperture at 37.1mm tele
  • As expected, images will be sharpest when shot at a few stops down from brightest aperture, best around f/4 to f/5.6. Beyond that, due to physics, higher f-stops will soften images with diffraction, especially at f/11, the RX100’s smallest lens opening.
  • For telephoto subjects, an RX100’s moderate 3.6x zoom easily beats the quality of cropping images from a fixed-lens (non-zoom) camera in this size class.

The RX100 captures full HD 1080/60p video with stereo sound. Its aluminum body pops up an effective flash. Record stills using raw, JPEG, or both. Its unusually fast autofocus and 10 frames per second burst mode capture action much easier than previous pocket cameras.

My test shots on a Sony RX100 (20mp) were more than 50% sharper than a Canon S95 (10mp) throughout the zoom range, from close focus to infinity. Note that in studio comparisons, Canon S110 (12 mp) is less than 10% sharper than Canon S95. Cropping images from my RX100 beats the real resolution of a bulkier Canon PowerShot G9 from wide angle through 150mm equivalent.

Purple flower close-up, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada, USA.

The Sony RX100’s 20-megapixel sensor has plenty of room to crop from native 5472 x 3648 down to 1500 x 1000 pixels to frame the above close-focus image. Purple desert flower, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada. (Zoomed to 10.4mm widest angle, f/7.1, 1/400 second, ISO 125, manual focus)

Table: Compare Sony RX100 version I with Canon PowerShot S110 and S95

For travel portability with top image quality, a Sony RX100 version I camera clearly beats my former Canon PowerShot S95 (2010) and rivals my DSLR camera quality of  just 3 years ago. Get a great value on a used Sony RX100 version 1 (model DSCRX100/B) at Amazon (around $200 as of May 2015, same price as a used Canon S110, both introduced in 2012).

Green boxes or green text indicate features beating the other camera(s) in that row:

CAMERA FEATURES Sony RX100 camera version I Digital Camera (2012) model #DSCRX100/B

 

Canon PowerShot S110 camera (2012) Canon PowerShot S95 (2010)
Total weight with battery and memory card: 240 g (0.53 lb / 8.5 oz). Sony RX100 is only 23% heavier than Canon S110 or S95

 

198 g (0.44 lb / 7 oz). 195 g (0.43 lb / 7 oz)
Camera body size: 4.00 x 2.29 x 1.41″ / 10.16 x 5.81 x 3.59 cm (only 22% larger volume than S95)

 

3.9 x 2.32 x 1.06″ (9.9 x 5.9 x 2.7 cm) 3.94 x 2.28 x 1.18″ ( 10.0 x 5.8 x 3.0 cm)
Megapixels (mp) resolution: 20 mp, 5472 x 3648

 

12 mp, 4000 x 3000 10 mp, 3648 x 2736
Sensor type: 1-inch Exmor CMOS Low-Light Sensor (13.2 x 8.8 mm): 2.8-times-larger sensor area than Canon S110 or S95

 

1/1.7″ CMOS (7.44 x 5.58 mm) 1/1.7″ CCD (7.44 x 5.58 mm)
Lens (“equivalent” in terms of 35mm full frame): 3.6x optical zoom, 28–100mm equiv, f/1.8
– f/4.9. Cropping down from the RX100’s 20mp resolution at telephoto
easily beats image quality from the extra telephoto reach of the Canon
S110.
5x optical, 24–120mm
equiv, f/2 – f/5.9. Canon S110 has a widest angle of view of 74 degrees
horizontally (versus 66 degrees for Sony RX100 and Canon S95)
3.8x optical zoom, 28–105mm equiv, f/2.0 – f/4.9
Autofocus (AF): Hybrid autofocus as fast as 0.15 seconds at wide angle (0.26 sec at tele)

 

Contrast-detection autofocus Contrast-detection autofocus
Drive speed: frames per second (fps): 2.5 and 10 fps

 

2.1 fps 0.9 fps
Close focus distance: 5 cm (1.97″): Cropping RX100 beats the macro enlargement resolution of S110 or S95

 

3 cm 5 cm (1.97″)
Battery life (CIPA): 330 shots

 

200 shots 200 shots
LCD (no viewfinder): 3-inch Xtra Fine TFT LCD Display with WhiteMagic: 1,228,800 dots

 

3-inch LCD: 461,000 dots TFT PureColor II G Touch screen LCD 3-inch LCD: 461,000 dots
Movies/video: Records stereo sound, 1920 x 1080 (60 fps) progressive or interlaced, 1440 x 1080 (30 fps), 1280 x 720 (30 fps), 640 x 480 (30 fps)

 

Records stereo sound, 1920 x 1080 (24 fps), 1280 x 720 (30 fps), 640 x 480 (30 fps) Records stereo sound, 1280 x 720 (24 fps) 640 x 480 (30 fps), 320 x 240 (30 fps)



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PAUSE || or START SLIDESHOW as desired with buttons at lower right. But mobile devices just display a fixed image, so click center to enlarge as a set of images with full captions in GALLERIES mode (where Add to Cart button lets you buy photos). 

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Sony A6000 & NEX top Nikon for travel, 11x lens

Please read my separate Sony A6300 review before delving into the earlier Sony A6000, NEX-6 and NEX-7 below.


For photography on-the-go in 2012-15, I ditched my DSLR and carried a Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera with optimally sharp, versatile E-mount Sony 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens, together just 33 ounces. In 2014, the new Sony A6000 replaced NEX cameras:

2014-15: Sony A6000 with 16-50mm Lens (2014, 12 oz body + 4 oz lens) introduced blazingly Fast Hybrid Autofocus built into a 24mp sensor and antiquated the earlier NEX-7 and NEX-6 discussed below. Sony A6000 is the world’s best travel camera of 2014-15, capturing the sharpest images with the fastest autofocus in the smallest box. Using Continuous autofocus at an amazing 11 frames per second, A6000 will track moving subjects right up to the edges of the frame, even recognizing and tracking faces. Compared to earlier Sony NEX-6 or NEX-7: the A6000 is superior except lacks a horizontal level indicator and has poorer resolution in the viewfinder (1.44 million dots vs 2.36 million; with slightly smaller magnification 0.70x versus 0.73x in terms of 35mm-equivalent) (or 1.07x versus 1.09x in terms of APS-C). For on-the-go photography and international travel, carry one or both of the following portable cameras:

  1. Sony Alpha A6000 camera mounted with 16-50mm E-mount lens (16 oz total) or sharper Sony 18-200mm OSS E-mount SEL18200 silver lens (33 oz total).
  2. Sony DSC-RX100 camera version III (10 oz, 2014) − read my RX100 article.

The “best” travel camera is the one you want to bring everywhere. Before the Sony A6000 was introduced, for the sharpest images from the smallest box, a top choice was Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera with 24 megapixels (mp) or Sony NEX-6 with 16-50mm Retractable Zoom lens — much smaller than a DSLR camera! Mirrorless interchangeable lens compact (ILC) cameras have revolutionized travel photography beyond the legacy of DSLR designs.

The archive article below reviews Sony NEX-7 and NEX-6 advantages, disadvantages, workarounds, lenses, autofocus/Manual/macro tips, firmware updates, and compares to a Nikon D5000 DSLR and Sony RX100 pocket camera.

Horse wrangler on dusty Park Butte Trail, Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington, USA.

A cowboy guides horses along dusty Park Butte Trail in Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington. Capture great spontaneous shots with Sony E-mount 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens. Good travel photography demands an 11x zoom like this for rapidly framing from wide angle to telephoto within seconds. (Photo zoomed to 140mm telephoto, 1/125th sec, at f/8, on Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera.)

Mount the 18-200mm lens on Sony Alpha A6000  which has very fast Hybrid Autofocus (beating NEX-6 and -7). Sony says A6000 autofocus (as fast as 0.06 seconds) is the world’s fastest on a mirrorless camera with an APS-C image sensor as of 2014.

Sony NEX-7 and NEX-6 versus Nikon D5000

The Sony Alpha NEX-7 shaves 12 ounces and improves large-print quality by up to 40% compared to my former DSLR, a Nikon D5000 with Nikon 18-200mm VR II lens (a top 2009 camera weighing 45 oz including lens, cap, hood, battery and strap). Sony Alpha NEX-6 shaves 14 ounces and improves image quality by 25% compared to a Nikon D5000 with 18-200mm lens.

Drop the bulky DSLR mirror box and upgrade to the instant feedback of an exquisite OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF) in a Sony Alpha NEX-6 or NEX-7 camera, to double the area visible through the viewfinder compared to most DSLR cameras! (1.09x linear magnification for NEX versus 0.78x for Nikon D5000 and others, measured in terms of APS-C.)

NEX-7 autofocus speed is fine for landscapes and moderate action (see horse rider photo). But the newer NEX-6 (now beat by A6000’s AF) accelerates autofocus with Hybrid AF (modifying a 16mp sensor with pixels devoted to phase detection), reducing shutter lag near DSLR speed.

For framing distant subjects or wildlife, digitally cropping the amazing 24 mp resolution of a Sony NEX-7 now saves me from carrying an extra telephoto lens when trekking. (When shot on a Nikon D5000, image resolution from 70 to 250mm on my former 26-ounce Nikon 70-300mm zoom lens is effectively beaten by the all-in-one Sony 18-200mm lens on a higher-resolution NEX-7, when cropped to match the angle of view of up to 250mm.)

A pricey NEX-7 has a huge 24mp sensor (highest for APS-C Type cameras in 2012) for larger prints and sharper cropping to enlarge wildlife or birds. More economical was the 16-mp NEX-6, which thankfully added Hybrid AF (improved autofocus speed), a physical mode dial, Wi-Fi connectivity, and Quick Navi menu (all of which are sadly not found in NEX-7, which annoyingly requires 3 menu button presses to change modes P, A, S, M, SCN, etc). For travel, the LE version Sony 18-200mm OSS black SEL18200LE lens  (16-oz) is a good match for NEX-6, whereas NEX-7 demands a Sony 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS silver SEL18200 lens (18.5 oz) or prime lenses further below.

On the go, protect your camera and 18-200mm lens in a Lowepro Toploader Zoom 50 AW Bag (which I carry on a custom chest harness for hiking and traveling).

Read my review/BUY page to compare with other camera brands such as Canon and Nikon — see how I decided that NEX was best!

More details

In 2013, sharp photographers could pack the most-portable punch with the amazing Sony Alpha NEX-6 with 16-50mm Retractable Zoom lens (12 oz body + 4 oz lens, 24-75mm equiv), which saved $350 and 2 oz of body weight compared to a Sony NEX-7 camera.

Both NEX-6 and NEX-7 cameras squeeze more impressive features than ever into a small box:

  • A high-res OLED Electronic Viewfinder (2,359,000 pixels, superb 1.09x magnification) gives more accurate feedback on a final digital image than a non-digital optical viewfinder. The sharp EVF appears larger than the camera’s external screen and is easier to see in bright daylight.
  • A tilting 921,600-dot LCD jump-starts your creative macro, movie, and candid shooting comfortably at arm’s length.
  • NEX-7 beats rival APS-C sensor cameras for resolution, with 3400 resolvable lines per picture height (LPH) from raw files (versus 2800 LPH for NEX-6 and 2400 LPH for Nikon D5000, each measured on prime lenses).
    • NEX-7 raw files (name extension .ARW) resolve more detail than a costlier full-frame-sensor Canon EOS 6D or 5D Mark III (2800 LPH) from ISO 100-1600. For capturing lower noise, full-frame cameras of 2012 require ISO settings above 1600 to clearly beat NEX-7 or -6.
    • Upgrading to a resolution higher than NEX-7’s costs much more:
  • NEX-6/NEX-7 capture excellent dynamic range (bright to dark) and the lowest noise at high ISO compared to APS-C rivals.
    • Using ISO 6400 capturing dim action indoors, my NEX-7 shot publishable images for a spotlit theater production.
  • TIP: When shooting at ISO ≥800, capture 1 stop less noise by using Anti Motion Blur (my favorite) or Hand-held Twilight mode. Both modes can automatically set ISO up to 6400, thereby working around Auto ISO being sadly restricted to ≤1600.
    • Hand-held Twilight (a Scene mode under SCN) helps get sharper low-noise, low-light shots of static subjects without a tripod for ISO ≥800. Six frames are auto-shot continuously then stacked into a single JPEG image to lower noise levels (requiring 8 seconds processing time, delaying the next possible shot). Hand-held Twilight mode cannot create a raw file, but the resulting improvement in hand-held JPEG image quality couldn’t otherwise be captured.
    • Anti Motion Blur (set directly on virtual mode dial) likewise makes a JPEG file but favors faster shutter speeds to freeze action or steady hand-held telephoto, at the cost of setting ISO higher (noisier) than Hand-held Twilight mode.
  • Sweep Panorama mode instantly stitches exciting JPEG panorama images horizontally or vertically (although manually stitching panoramas from multiple raw files is reliably superior in  Adobe Lightroom software version 6 or in Adobe Photoshop software).
  • Sony NEX ingeniously pops-up a small flash, which can be tilted up for bounce. For brighter reach and to avoid shadows from 18-200mm lens, mount Sony HVL-F20AM flash on NEX-7 (but NEX-6 requires Sony ADP-MAA Multi-Interface Shoe Adapter).

Travel zoom lenses for Sony Alpha A6300, A6000, A5100, and NEX cameras

  • For remarkable portability, instead of the Sony E-mount 18-55mm lens Standard Zoom bundled with some NEX-7 kits, consider the world’s most compact 3x zoom lens for APS-C:
  • Sony E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS silver (SEL-18200) lens (18.5 oz) on a NEX-7 captures the highest quality images for the smallest weight of any 11x zoom system for APS-C sensors of 2013.
    • This 18-200mm “all-in-one” lens captures sufficiently-high quality for my professional print publications, such that no other lens on this page need be carried.
    • See “Advantages/Disadvantages of Sony 18-200mm OSS lens” sections further below.
    • The Sony 18-200mm silver (SEL-18200) lens with 67mm filter size is clearly sharper than the newer, slightly smaller 16-oz Sony 18-200mm OSS black SEL18200LE lens  with 62mm filter size (new 2012, colored black). I recommend SEL-18200 for NEX-7 or NEX-6, but the black LE version (SEL-18200LE) only for a NEX-6 due to its lower resolution.
    • Tip: Blur Index Test A (2011) shows SEL-18200 is sharpest around f/5.6 to f/8 through its 11x range.
    • Other lens choices below depend upon your budget and willingness to swap lenses:
  • Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS Alpha E-mount wide-angle zoom lens (8 oz, 2.75×2.5 inches, SEL1018, 2012) is significantly sharper than SEL-18200. Sharpest at f/5.6 to f/8 as you zoom, with least distortion from 14-18mm, good for shooting architecture indoors and out, plus landscapes and slot canyons.
  • Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS E-mount lens (27.5 oz, 36-360mm equiv, 2015) favors telephoto reach in a good 10x travel zoom (about equal in sharpness to similar SEL-18200).
  • Sony E-mount PZ 18-105mm F4 G OSS (15 oz, SELP18105G, 2014) 6x zoom, APS-C-only lens: suffers from large (correctable) pincushion distortion. SELP18105G is as sharp as SEL-18200, and is a bit sharper than SEL-18200LE in the image center from 50-105mm.
  • Sony Vario-Tessar T* E-mount 16-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens (11 oz, SEL1670Z, 2013) 4x zoom, beats kit lens sharpness. Slightly beats SELP18105G and SEL-18200 from 18-70mm.
  • Sony E-mount 55-210mm (SEL55210) lens is sharper than SEL-18200. Reviewer Kurt Munger says “If you have a travel zoom, like Tamron NEX 18-200mm or Sony NEX 18-200mm, and find yourself using it mostly at the long end, the Sony 55-210mm would be a much better choice if sharpness is your major concern.”
  • Sony E-mount 70-200mm F4 G OSS lens (30 ounces, SEL70200G, 2014) premium glass supports new Sony A7/A7R full-frame-sensor (FE Series) cameras, as well as Sony A6000, NEX-7, and NEX-6.

In 2016, Sigma’s lens line-up is now available for Sony E-Mount bodies by using a Sigma Mount Converter MC-11 (2016, ~3 oz, $250, compatible with Sony A7 FE-mount series, A6300, A6000, and NEX) giving full stabilization and autofocus for Sigma’s Canon-mount and Sigma-mount lenses. Here’s a super telephoto option:

Note that Sony A-mount 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II lens (53 oz, 3.7 x 7.7 inches, SAL-70400G2, 2013) or previous Sony SAL-70400G lens can be adapted onto a NEX camera using Sony LA-EA2 Adaptor (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus) but lacks OSS, thereby limiting hand-held photography and increasing tripod usage.

SEL vs SAL Sony lenses

For NEX, I recommend Sony “SEL” E-mount lenses, but not necessarily lenses coded SAL. Sony SAL lenses are designed for full-frame (and APS-C) Alpha DSLR cameras, requiring a hefty 7-ounce A-mount adapter (Sony LA-EA2 Adaptor) for lens autofocus to work on an E-mount NEX. The few choices for E-mount (SEL) lenses may motivate adapting certain SAL lenses onto a NEX. But using an adapter may decrease quality and doesn’t support image stabilization on a NEX. Also, SAL lenses are heavier, requiring larger diameter glass than would an E-mount lens of the same focal length designed for APS-C-only.

NEX-6/NEX-7 cameras don’t need an adapter to support full-frame E-mount “FE Series” SEL lenses (announced October 2013 along with Sony A7 and A7R full frame E-mount cameras). The pricier FE Series glass diameter transmits an image circle large enough to cover a full frame sensor, meaning that the (smaller) APS-C sensor in NEX cameras can take advantage of the sharp center sweet-spot with little vignetting.

Prime (non-zoom) E-mount lenses for Sony A6000 and NEX-7

If you don’t mind swapping lenses or spending more for the sharpest possible images, a bright prime lens takes full advantage of a 24mp A6000 or NEX-7 (but not so much for a 16mp NEX-6 or NEX-5). Prime lenses (having fixed-focal-length and bright maximum aperture) are a bit sharper than kit zooms sold with a camera. Below are four good prime lenses for a NEX-7:

  1. Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS E-mount prime lens (SEL-50F18, 7.1 oz)
    • has Optical SteadyShot (OSS) for sharper hand-held photos without a tripod
    • offers good value for the money (about $300)
    • has pleasing bokeh for portraits at f/1.8 to f/2.8 (but its angle-of-view is too narrow to be an all-purpose “standard” lens)
    • is sharpest from about f/4 to f/8 (on Blur Index Test B for SEL50F18 on a NEX-5).
    • is up to 3 stops brighter than Sony’s 18-200mm lens (SEL-18200), from f/4.5 to f/1.8
      • Caveat: If sharpness is your only goal, the Sony 50mm lens only beats SEL-18200 at f/5.6 to f/8 when tested on a NEX-5 (which may also be true for NEX-6). However, SEL-50F18 may beat SEL-18200 at a brighter range of F stops on a NEX-7 (see dxomark.com). Test results on a NEX-5: compared to SEL-18200 Blur Index Test A (2011) zoomed to 50mm (where brightest aperture is f/5), a prime Sony 50mm lens (Blur Index Test B for SEL50F18) has slightly sharper corners at f/5.6 to f/8. But the Blur Index for SEL-50F18 from f/1.8 to f/2 resembles SEL-18200 at f/16, its f/2.8 is as sharp as SEL-18200 at f/11, and its f/4 is as sharp as SEL-18200 at f/8.
  2. Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS E-mount prime lens (SEL35F18, 5.5 oz)
    • has Optical SteadyShot (OSS) for sharper hand-held photos (without a tripod), as slow as a quarter of a second, an improvement of over 3 stops slower shutter speed!
    • serves well as a high-quality standard lens (about $450).
    • is sharpest at f/5 at infinity and f/4 at two feet.
  3. Sony 24mm f/1.8 E-mount prime Carl Zeiss Sonnar lens (SEL-24F18Z, 7.9 oz, sadly lacking OSS)
    • may be sharpest of the four, but costs several times the others’ price (about $1100).
    • Blur Index Test C shows that SEL-24F18Z is sharpest around f/2.8 to f/5.6.
    • **When tested on a NEX-5, compared to SEL-18200 Blur Index Test A (2011) zoomed to about 24mm (where its brightest aperture is f/4), a Sony 24mm lens (SEL-24F18Z) is slightly sharper at the corners at f/4, blurrier from f/8 to f/22, and impressively sharp at f/2.8 (like SEL-18200 at f/5.6), but its f/1.8, f/2, and f/11 are blurrier than SEL-18200 at f/11. (You must average results at 18 and 35mm zoom settings on SEL-18200 Test A to interpolate 24mm for comparison to Sony Zeiss 24mm lens.)
  4. Sigma 30mm f/2.8 DN prime lens for E-mount (4.8 oz, sadly lacking OSS)
    • is a great value standard lens (about $200), excellent for landscapes, but not as sharp or bright as Sony SEL-24F18Z.

**Note: Real world lens use often makes lab testing moot. In Blur Index Tests A, B, and C (above) done on a 16mp NEX-5 in 2011, the 50mm and 24mm Sony prime lenses don’t have a striking advantage over using the SEL-18200 lens; but later tests at dxomark.com (2013) indicate clear advantages of using these prime lenses on a 24mp NEX-7. The above Blur Index Tests A, B, C measure sharpness at the optimal focus plane, found by focus bracketing on a NEX-5.

Today’s constantly improving quality and diversity of cameras give us many great tools for the job. Portrait photographers often want lenses designed for attractive bokeh (the artistic character of out-of-focus areas) at bright apertures such as f/2.8 and f/1.8. But optimal sharpness for a lens on APS-C and full frame cameras is usually a few stops down from brightest aperture, as shown in the above Tests A, B, C. Landscape photographers like me often say “f/8 is great” as we care about both highest resolution of detail and depth of field. Depth of field/focus increases at higher F numbers such as f/11 to f/16, but diffraction through progressively smaller openings limits sharpness (blurs the resolution of image detail).

Prime lenses tend to be sharper than zooms. But I find that a Sony 11x zoom (silver SEL-18200) easily captures publication quality on NEX-7 and instantly frames rapidly-changing travel subjects without the extra bulk and annoyance of swapping lenses.

Secret MENU one-time settings improve Manual Focus for NEX-7

  1. CAMERA > AF/MF Select > DMF  (helpfully allows Direct Manual Focus with turn of focus ring after autofocus lock during half-press of the shutter release button)
  2. SETUP > AF/MF Control > Toggle  (is better than “Hold” option to better grasp the camera steadily)
  3. SETUP > MF Assist > ON  (enlarges MF view, optimally for 2 seconds)
  4. SETUP > MF Assist Time > 2 seconds
  5. SETUP > CUSTOM KEY SETTINGS > AF/MF Button > AF/MF Control   (lets AF/MF Button enable MF mode / lens focus ring)

In dim or low-contrast lighting, if autofocus fails to lock (thereby preventing DMF), try MF mode, arranged as above. Point the AEL swivel-switch to AF/MF, then press AF/MF Button to invoke MF, then turn manual focus ring on lens. When set as Toggle, MF mode stays in effect even after pressing the shutter button, unless cancelled by pressing AF/MF Button again or any other button. (Note: Sony’s 18-200mm lens has no built-in MF switch and relies on the above body settings.)

To set up MF default and create an AF button (to disconnect half-press focusing by shutter release button), you can change two settings above:

  • CAMERA > AF/MF Select > MF
  • SETUP > AF/MF Control > Hold 
  • Now holding down the AF/MF Button locks autofocus (instead of half pressing the shutter button).

Sony A6000 beats Olympus OM-D E-M5 and E-M10 systems

The best splash-proof, dust-proof, hardy midsize camera of 2014-2015 for travel (with Micro Four Thirds sensor) was the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera (Mark I) (2012, 15 oz weather sealed body) with splash-proof M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ lens (24-100mm equiv, 7.5 oz, with splendid video, macro down to 36×27 mm).

  •  Compare cameras:
    • Sony A6000 with 16-50mm lens (2014, 12 oz body + 4 oz lens with Fast Hybrid Autofocus, 24mp) beats Olympus OM-D E-M5 in price, AF speed, and more (except E-M5 has a weather sealed body).
    • Olympus OM-D E-M10 Camera (Mark I, 2014, WITHOUT a weather-sealed body) is $300 cheaper than an E-M5, for equal image quality. But Sony A6000 easily beats Olympus E-M10 (due to larger sensor APS-C versus Micro 4/3, faster autofocus, smaller body, longer CIPA battery life of 420 shots per charge versus 320, faster 11 fps continuous shutter, and more movie modes; with equal viewfinder & LCD).
  • Olympus OM-D E-M5 features: high res Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), tilting 610,000-dot OLED LCD, 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilization, best 16mp sensor. The external, clip-on weather-sealed flash unit fits easily in a pocket.
  • Note that its more versatile travel lens with extended telephoto doesn’t have weather sealing:

Sony A6000 beats Sony RX10 and Panasonic FZ1000

  • Panasonic FZ1000 camera (2014, 29 oz with lens) f/2.8-4 lens 25-400mm equiv, 16x zoom. 1-inch-Type, 20mp sensor. Fast autofocus. Fully articulated LCD. Notes:
    • For the same weight but twice the price as FZ1000, you can upgrade to Sony A6000 with 18-200mm lens and APS-C sensor (having 3x bigger light-gathering area, but maybe not as sharp at long end of telephoto).
    • The Panasonic FZ1000’s brightest “equivalent F-stop” (f/7.7 to f/11 equiv from 25-400mm equiv) is not as bright as Sony’s E-mount 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 lens (f/5.25 to f/9.45 equiv from 27-300mm equiv). [Definition: “equivalent F-stop” is the F-number on a full-frame-sensor camera which has the same hole diameter as the brightest F-stop of the camera lens being compared, and lets you compare control over shallowest depth of focus/field.]
  • Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 camera (2013, 29 oz) is more compact, with 8x zoom lens, f/2.8 maximum aperture (which is f/7.6 equivalent in terms of 35mm-size-sensor-systems throughout its 24-200mm equivalent).

Note that other midsize cameras with smaller sensors generally capture fuzzier images:

  • Olympus Stylus 1s (2015, 14 oz with 28-300mm equiv f/2.8 lens) is the world’s smallest camera having an 11x zoom on a 1/1.7″ type sensor. Its great electronic viewfinder is same as Olympus OM-D E-M5. Good 410-shot CIPA battery life.
  • The following cameras have a tiny 1/2.3-inch Type sensor which should beat cell phone quality, requires bright outdoor light, and is suitable for sharing images online or making small prints:
    • Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ300 (2015, 24.4 oz, 12 mp, bright f/2.8 lens throughout 25-600mm equivalent, 24x zoom range, with OIS/Optical Image Stabilization, HD Video with sound, and raw file support) introduces weather sealing to keep out dust and moisture. Save money on earlier, non-sealed FZ200 or FZ70.
    • Nikon Coolpix P900 (2015, 32 oz, 16mp, 24–2000mm equivalent 83X zoom lens)
    • Olympus SP-100 camera (2014, 21 oz, 16mp, 50x zoom, 24-1200 equivalent, 1 cm close focus, nice 920k dot EVF): innovative On-Camera Dot Sight helps track distant birds or moving subjects.

Mirrorless Sony A6000 versus bulkier DSLR/mirror cameras

DSLR cameras are best for interchanging more lens choices and for shooting action (sports, birds) reliably with little shutter lag when using their optical viewfinder. “DSLR” means Digital Single Lens Reflex, where a mirror lets the viewfinder see through the lens. During a shot, the mirror briefly flips up to expose a digital sensor. However, almost all DSLR cameras of 2014 and earlier have excruciatingly slow autofocus (2-4 seconds) in Live View on the LCD − except for Canon 70D (2013, 27 oz, with Dual Pixel CMOS AF built into its 20mp sensor), and for Sony’s super fast Translucent Mirror Technology (a fixed mirror). Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology speeds past the excruciatingly slow Live View autofocus of most rival DSLR designs:

However, the newer Sony A6000 with 16-50mm lens (2014, 12 oz body + 4 oz lens, 24mp) with Fast Hybrid Autofocus mirrorless camera puts similar 24mp sensor quality into half the body size, while focusing unusually fast with hybrid AF built into the sensor.

Why not NEX? Negatives with workarounds:

  1. Autofocus and Manual Focus:
    • NEX-6 introduces Hybrid AF, with autofocus nearly twice as quick as NEX-7.
    • Although its autofocus is generally fast, usually without much lag, a NEX isn’t as good for shooting fast action (like birds in flight) with tracking-autofocus (which I rarely use), where traditional DSLR cameras can focus faster than mirrorless ones.
    • For better autofocus in dim light using a NEX-7, turn OFF the AF Illuminator in MENU>SETUP, or else focus will likely be taken from the background within a big green indicator box filling most of the frame. (The AF Illuminator lamp is blocked by the fat 18-200mm lens and reportedly works poorly with other lenses.)
    • In low light conditions or at longer focal lengths, autofocus can stick (freeze), out-of-focus (also disabling DMF because focus fails to lock), requiring several seconds or minutes to recover. Fix by turning camera OFF then ON. The MF button (above) might help, but usually not. (Will NEX-6 hybrid autofocus fix this occasional problem?)
  2. Lens choices are few for Sony NEX E-mount, such as for telephoto:
    • Workaround:
      • For telephoto photography of small wildlife or birds at a distance, easily digitally crop a 24mp NEX-7, shot with the sharp, stabilized Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS e-mount SEL18200 silver lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv)
        (Optical SteadyShot) zoom lens, optimally shot from f/5.6 to f/8. See lens recommendations above.
    • Nikon VR II and latest Canon IS lenses may beat Sony’s OSS for stabilizing hand-held shots by up to one stop of slower shutter speed (but NEX low-noise at high ISO can make up the difference).
    • Because they’re targeted for camera bodies with sensor-shift image stabilization, Sony A-mount (SAL) telephoto lenses lack optical stabilization (no OSS) and require a hefty A-mount adapter to work on a NEX camera.
      • A sharp Sony A-mount 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II lens (2013, 53 oz, SAL-70400G2) or previous SAL-70400G can be adapted onto a NEX camera but lacks OSS, thereby limiting hand-held photography.
      • Sony A-mount to NEX E-Mount lens adapters include:
        • Sony LA-EA2 (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus)
        • LA-EA1 (with Manual focus only, NO AUTOFOCUS).
    • For lightweight travel: Kenko 400mm fixed-f/8.0 Mirror Lens with T-mount Adapter for NEX (12+2.4 oz, Manual focus only).
  3. Important Playback tips: 
    • Auto Review responsiveness is now instant (fixed by NEX-7 firmware update v1.01). During Playback, the Center button nicely zooms to 100% pixel level to check sharpness and toggles back to the full image. When deleting a single image, don’t be alarmed by “Deleting Files” plural message — just the one image is deleted.
    • Each time you record (a Still image, MP4 video, or AVCHD video), the Playback screen shows only that file type, hiding other image types, but yikes, where? Toggling between file types requires obscure key sequences:
      • Press Down on the control wheel to display thumbnails of a given file type, press Left, press Center button, choose the type of file that you want to view, then finally press Center button again. Very annoying!
      • Or, press MENU > Playback > ViewMode > Folder View (Still) / Folder View (MP4) / AVCHD View.
      • Or, to Playback the thumbnails of the file type which were not last recorded, record a quick test file of the type you want then press Playback then Down (then delete the test shot).
    • As with Nikon cameras, Sony NEX-7 / NEX-6 have poorer menu/button structure than user-friendlier Canon and Panasonic cameras, thereby requiring extra time to learn the oddly-buried menus.
  4. Battery life:
  5. Huge files:
    • 24-megapixel files from a Sony NEX-7 are so huge (full of luscious detail) that you’ll need to spend more money upgrading to the latest, most powerful computer with lots of RAM and 64-bit Operating System (not 32-bit), in order to optimize memory-handling in important programs such as Adobe Lightroom software (and Adobe Photoshop). Each Fine JPEG file typically consumes 6 to 7 megabytes of card/disk space and requires downsizing before sending two or more per email.

CAMERA COMPARISON TABLE: NEX-6, NEX-7, Nikon D5000

For travel portability with top image quality, Sony NEX-6 and NEX-7 cameras easily beat my former Nikon D5000 DSLR dating from just 3 years previous (green box is best):

CAMERA FEATURES Sony Alpha NEX-6 (2012) mirrorless camera + Sony 16-50mm E-mount Retractable Zoom Lens (SELP1650) Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera (2011) mirrorless camera + Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS e-mount SEL18200 silver lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv) Nikon D5000 (2009) DSLR camera + Nikkor 18-200mm VR II lens
Weight with battery + lens: 16 oz =
287 g / 12 oz body + 4 oz lens
33 oz =
14 oz body +19 oz lens
43 oz =
23 oz body + 20 oz lens
Camera body size: 120 x 67 x 43 mm (4.72 x 2.64 x 1.69″) 120 x 67 x 43 mm (4.72 x 2.64 x 1.69″) 127 x 104 x 80 mm (5 x 4.09 x 3.15″)
Megapixel (mp): 16 mp, 4912 x 3264 24 mp, 6000 x 4000 12 mp, 4288 x 2848
Sensor type: APS-C, CMOS. Focal length multiplier 1.5x. APS-C, CMOS. Focal length multiplier 1.5x. APS-C, CMOS. Focal length multiplier 1.5x.
Autofocus (AF) type: New, quicker Hybrid AF combines fast phase detection with contrast detection. Good AF in movies/video. Fairly fast contrast-detection AF. Good AF in movies/video. Fast phase-detection AF using viewfinder, but very slow 2-3 second AF in Live View on LCD. No AF in movies/video.
Drive speed frames per second (fps): Up to 10 fps “Speed Priority Continuous” with focus fixed at first shot, or 3.7 fps “Continuous Shooting” with autofocus on each shot. Up to 10 fps “Speed Priority Continuous” with focus fixed at first shot, or 3.7 fps “Continuous Shooting” with autofocus on each shot. Up to 4 fps Continuous with autofocus on each shot.
Close focus distance: 10 inches, 1:4.7 reproduction with 16-50mm lens. 10 inches, 1:3.7 reproduction with 18-200mm lens, albeit rather fuzzy. Read Macro topic at bottom of article. 20 inches, 1:4.5 reproduction with Nikon 18-200mm lens.
Battery life (CIPA): 360 shots on one charge 430 shots 510 shots
Viewfinder: 2,359,000 pixels electronic/EVF covers 100% with 1.09x magnification (0.73x equivalent in terms of full frame)! 2,359,000 pixels electronic/EVF covers 100% with 1.09x magnification (0.73x equiv)! optical pentamirror covers 95%; with 0.78x magnification (0.52x equivalent in terms of full frame), sadly just half the viewing area of NEX-7 or NEX-6!
LCD: 3 inches. 921,000 pixels. Xtra Fine LCD with Tilt Up 90° and Down 45° 3 inches. 921,000 pixels. Xtra Fine LCD with Tilt Up 90° and Down 45° 2.7 inches. 230,000 pixels, fully articulated, but hard to use in Live View due to painfully slow autofocus speed, 2-3 seconds.
Movies/video: MPEG-4, AVCHD, stereo microphone (mono speaker), good AF. 1920 x 1080 (60, 24 fps), 1440 x 1080 (30 fps), 640 x 480 (30 fps) MPEG-4, AVCHD, stereo microphone (mono speaker), good AF. 1920 x 1080 (60, 24 fps), 1440 x 1080 (30 fps), 640 x 480 (30 fps) Motion JPEG, mono sound recording, no autofocus in movies/video. 1280 x 720 (24 fps), 640 x 424 (24 fps), 320 x 216 (24 fps)
Built-in flash: 6 m range with 16-50mm Retractable Zoom. (New NEX-6 hot shoe requires Sony ADP-MAA Multi-Interface Shoe Adapter to mount Sony HVL-F20AM flash which fixes built-in flash’s shadow of 18-200mm lens from 18 to 50.) 6 m range (plus hot shoe for external flash: Sony HVL-F20AM flash fixes built-in flash’s shadow from 18 to 50mm on 18-200mm lens) 17 m (at ISO 100) (plus hot shoe for external flash)

More details about the great Sony 18-200 travel lens

Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS e-mount SEL18200 silver lens (18.5 oz, 27-300mm equiv) lens is the most versatile travel lens for A6000 and NEX.

Sony Alpha NEX-7: 13 ounce mirrorless ILC body, 2012, 18-200mm OSS lens.

Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera with versatile Sony E-mount 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens (33 ounces total) is the world’s best all-in-one travel system.

Add two essential scratch-resistant, multi-coated filters to this SEL-18200 lens:

  1. Tiffen 67mm Digital HT Ultra Clear filter to protect the lens. (Get clear, not UV, because all lenses already filter ultraviolet light.)
  2. Tiffen 67mm Digital HT Circular Polarizer filter to remove reflections from water, plants, and shiny surfaces, or to increase contrast between darkened, polarized blue sky and non-polarized clouds. Only mount a polarizer when it makes a desirable change to the scene somewhere within a rotation of 90 degrees when held up to your eye. Don’t leave the polarizer on the lens, as light passing through the extra glass is reduced by a stop or two. Also, a polarized view of the world is artificial.
Advantages of Sony 18-200mm OSS lens:
  • Sony SEL-18200 lens weighs only 18.5 oz for an 11x zoom (27-300mm equivalent focal length, in terms of 1.5x crop factor for APS-C).
  • Sony SEL-18200 lens includes Optical SteadyShot (OSS) – image stabilization to steady handheld shots by 2-4 stops slower shutter speed, important for on-the-go travel photography.
    • At 200mm, OSS stabilizes hand-held shots more sharply as slow as 1/60th of a second shutter speed (maybe not as good as latest Nikon VR II or Canon IS by up to one stop of shutter speed).
    • At 18mm, OSS stabilizes to about 1/15th second. (1/8th second is usually blurry, needing tripod.)
  • Surprisingly, when mounted on a 16mp NEX-5 or NEX-6, Sony’s 18-200mm OSS lens can be sharper than a prime Sony 24mm f/1.8 E-mount Carl Zeiss Sonnar (8 oz, SEL-24F18Z) lens from apertures f/8 to f/22 (but cannot reach the prime’s sharp f/2.8, has softer corners at f/4, and may soften contrast). But on a 24mp NEX-7, prime lenses have a clearer advantage.
    • For brighter shooting f/1.8-2.8, see “Prime lenses for Sony NEX” further above.
  • SMART TIPS for Sony 18-200mm OSS lens:
    • For sharpest results from 18-200mm, shoot in the sweet spot between f/5.6 to f/8 (easily set in Aperture Priority mode). Wider openings will soften the image and smaller openings such as f/16 cause unwanted diffraction. A Blur Index Test for SEL-18200 shows:
      • 18mm is sharpest at f/3.5-5.6
      • 35mm is sharpest at f/5.6
      • 50mm is sharpest at f/8
      • 70mm is sharpest at f/5.6-f/8
      • 100mm is sharpest at f/8-f/11
      • 200mm is sharpest at f/6.3-f/8.
      • Note: While f/16 can increase depth of field (depth of focus), f/16 resolves detail blurrier than most brighter apertures (wider openings, as above) on this 18-200mm lens (and most SLR lenses in general), due to diffraction through a smaller opening.
    • Easily correct its noticeable chromatic aberration and distortion automatically in Adobe Lightroom 4: Develop > New Preset > Lens Corrections (check box), and apply to every image upon Import. See how this works on a single image by using Develop > Lens Corrections > Profile > Enable Profile Corrections.
  • Simplify travel gear by carrying a single 18-200mm, 11x zoom lens. I prefer carrying a 33-ounce NEX-7 system with one lens instead of my previous 71-ounce Nikon two-lens system:
    • Sony SEL-18200 equals or beats the quality of the popular Nikon DX 18-200mm VR II lens.
    • From 18-200mm on a Sony NEX-7, image quality is up to 40% better than my previous Nikon D5000 camera with a Nikon 18-200mm VR II lens.
    • Delightfully, cropping shots from 24mp Sony NEX-7 using this Sony 18-200mm lens beats the resolution of my 26-oz Nikon 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom lens from 70 to 250mm on a Nikon D5000 (but not from 250 to 300mm).
    • Upgrading to a Nikon D3200 camera (2012, 18 oz body) with 24mp sensor would clearly sharpen images from a Nikon 70-300mm lens beyond Sony’s 18-200mm lens, but swapping/juggling two big lenses hinders the joy of travel.
  • Sony’s “LE” version (black-colored SEL-18200LE) of its 18-200mm lens is okay for a NEX-6 but not for NEX-7.
  • Due to larger sensor (APS-C), mounting SEL-18200 on NEX-6 or NEX-7 beats using a Panasonic HD 14-140mm lens on Micro Four Thirds Sensor cameras (with same 2-pound system weight).
Disadvantages of Sony 18-200mm OSS lens:
  • Flash shadow: Sony 18-200mm lens (SEL18200) casts a shadow from 18 to 50mm using NEX-7 pop-up flash, fixed by mounting taller Sony HVL-F20AM flash on a NEX-7 (for which NEX-6 requires Sony ADP-MAA Multi-Interface Shoe Adapter due to a newly designed hot shoe).
  • Compromised optics: Perfectionists say the amazingly sharp 24mp sensor on a Sony NEX-7 demands lenses with optics better than an 18-200mm (11x) lens. See above: “Best lenses for Sony Alpha NEX cameras.”
    • In its defense, Sony 18-200mm (SEL-18200) lens quality equals or exceeds that of competitors’ 18-200mm or ≥11x lenses.
    • In zoom lenses with ranges smaller than 11x, most camera brands (Nikon, Canon, etc) offer better optical quality in various larger, heavier, or brighter lenses (“faster” f/2.8 maximum aperture). But a lens with zoom range less than 11x lacks flexibility of composition and requires frequent swapping with other lenses, thereby interfering with creative momentum and hindering travel convenience.
  • Poor close focus: SEL-18200 lens can focus as close as 12 inches from the tip of the lens for 1:3.7 reproduction onto the sensor, but I capture sharper macro with deeper depth of field using a high-quality compact camera such as Sony RX100 cameraor earlier Canon PowerShot S95:

Fields of White Avalanche Lilies bloom in late July along the trail in Spray Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. Two overlapping photos were stitched into a composite having greater depth of focus. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Right photo: White Avalanche Lilies bloom along Spray Park Trail, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. In light bright enough to shoot at ISO 100 to 400, when zoomed to their widest angle of view, small-sensor cameras can focus closer while capturing much deeper depth of field than normal lenses on larger-sensor cameras. Focus stackingTo further increase depth of focus, two overlapping photos were manually stitched into a composite, using Layers in Adobe Photoshop. In two separate shots, I focused on the flower at 5 cm (Macro mode) and on Mount Rainier at infinity, using a pocket-sized Canon PowerShot S95 camera lens set to 6mm (widest angle). 

Sony NEX firmware updates

Sony NEX-7 downloadable firmware update v1.01:

  1. Firmware 1.01 thankfully makes Auto Review instant and usable. Fixed problem: Auto Review was formerly unusable due to long delay/black screen before automatically displaying the shot image.
  2. Firmware 1.01 now lets a (buried) menu disable/enable the overly-prominent movie record button which is frequently pressed accidentally. A better fix is to glue a rubber washer/gasket over the movie button with hole in the middle to allow access while preventing bumping. (NEX-6 not only solves the problem better by relocating the movie button but also adds a more practical mode dial for changing P, A, S, M, SCN, etc.)

Unfortunately, NEX-7 doesn’t have the new Hybrid AF (for faster autofocus) found on NEX-6.

Your NEX-6 should have Sony E-mount lens firmware update v2 (dowloadable) to enable Hybrid AF when mounting these Sony lenses:

  • Sony 11x zoom 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 (SEL-18200) lens
  • Sony Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 (SEL-24F18Z) prime lens (analyzed further above)
  • Sony standard zoom 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 (SEL-1855) lens
  • Sony telephoto 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 (SEL-55210) lens

Drop cable: record free HD TV on Channel Master CM7500 DVR

Watching television requires a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) to skip annoying commercials and view desired content on your own schedule. Recording free HD TV via antenna improved in 2014-2015 with the Channel Master CM7500 DVR (which replaced their buggy model CM7400):

  • Channel Master DVR+ (Bundle CM7500BDL2): subscription-free digital video recorder with web features and channel guide (buy at Amazon.com to support Tom’s site)
    • Simplify your life by watching local HD TV channels for FREE, received over-the-air from an antenna.
    • Dropping monthly cable or satellite television DVR service fees will save you more than $50 per month. One-time purchase of a subscription-free CM7500 quickly pays for itself.
    • Pause and record live TV and skip commercials on local digital and HD channels, sharp as a tack within cities.
    • CM7500 now includes a free TV program Guide of up to 2 weeks downloaded daily from the internet, requiring a wired Ethernet connection (highly recommended).
      • Alternatively, you can update the 2-week TV Guide using their CM USB wireless Internet adapter (which was not reliable in my house, despite CM Support tests not showing any problems in their lab) which comes bundled with CM7500BDL2.
      • (The earlier model CM7400 required $48/year fee for the 2-week Guide or else a free Guide of just 1-3 days into the future.)
    • Attach your own portable 2 TB hard drive with USB 3.0 (avoid USB version 2.0 which may cause noise or skips).
    • Fall 2014 firmware fix for CM7500: lets “New Programs Only” record properly (without creating duplicate recordings of Repeat broadcasts of TV shows or series).

With the national transition from analog to digital television forcing our hand in 2012, we dropped our basic cable service and we switched to receivin HDTV the “old-fashioned way” − free over the air via antenna. (Comcast’s new 2012 signal encryption required fees of at least $50+ per month for recording anything using a DVR.)

Update: in Fall 2015, competitor CenturyLink introduced optical fiber to our neighborhood, and we switched back to paid subscription TV using their excellent PRISM service, plus internet and landline telephone, all bundled on the same high-speed optical fiber, much superior to copper cable. As of 2105-2016, we’re enjoying the extra channels and recording capabilities of PRISM for reasonable cost compared to Comcast’s 2014 cable service. (The only negative is that our landline phone no longer works if the power goes out, a rare occurrence.) 

By connecting to a good antenna (such as a roof-mounted RCA ANT751R Outdoor Antenna Optimized for Digital Reception as we did), the CM7500 DVR can capture locally-broadcast channels in stunning High Definition (HD), without the lossy compression used by cable or satellite TV providers. Our roof antenna works great in Seattle. Use any old TV antenna because HD uses similar broadcast frequencies. Installing in your attic is easiest, but outdoor antennas get better reception (and require proper grounding, which I installed myself after a day of labor).

You’ll need an internet connection plus a good router (such as our ASUS RT-N66U Dual-Band Wireless-N900 Gigabit Router) for secure whole-house internet broadcast or for splitting off multiple Ethernet outlets as I do − handy for on-demand movies and for automatic firmware upgrades of all your devices (Channel Master DVR, Blu-Ray player etc). The better routers have protruding broadcast antennas. For me, the CM7500 worked great using a wired Ethernet connection (strung by me over 50 feet under my house from the Router to the CM7500), but failed unreliably using the CM USB wireless Internet adapter.

Compared to the rival machine Simple.tv 2, the Channel Master DVR+ (CM7500) operates more conveniently and captures better quality at lower lifetime price. TiVo Roamio costs nearly twice as much.

Bonus for photographers

When you upgrade your home TV system, a large LCD LED digital television can now display photographs and videos very impressively via simple HDMI connection to a laptop computer:

  • In 2012, we upgraded our living room with a 60-inch 1080P-resolution Samsung digital TV with LED Backlight technology, which displays photographs with excellent tonal impact. Impressive full-array backlight LED LCD television technology with local dimming has noticeably deeper blacks and greater dynamic range than edge-lit LED LCD and is worth the slightly thicker box. LED LCD televisions use half the power of bulky old CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) models.
  • Glowing LED televisions show presentations even brighter and sharper than an expensive professional projector such as the Canon Realis SX60 SXGA (1400 x 1050 pixels) LCD Multimedia Projector (2500 ANSI Lumens, 10 lbs).
  • Add a 6-channel/speaker surround sound system to complete your great home theater.
Buy gear at Amazon.com to support Tom’s site

More information

Find your locally broadcast TV channels at Antennaweb.org

Check www.antennaweb.org to discover which channels your television tuner is likely to receive within your zip code area in the USA.

For example, with the RCA ANT751R Outdoor Antenna pointed at about 160 degrees from magnetic north, we strongly receive the following Seattle area channels from within zip code 98177:

  • 4.1 = KOMO-DT, 720p resolution — ABC network
    • 4.2 = KOMO-2
  • 5.1 =KING-DT, 1080i resolution — NBC network
    • 16.1 =KONG-DT, 480p resolution, sister station to KING-TV, with NBC and additional content.
  • 7.1 =KIRO-DT, 1080i resolution — CBS network
  • 9.1 =KCTS-DT, 720p resolution — PBS, public television
    • 9.2 =VME, KCTS 9, public television
    • 9.3 =Create, KCTS 9, public television
  • 11.1 =KSTW-DT — CW network
  • 13.1 =KCPQ-DT, 720p resolution — FOX network
    • 22.1 =KZJO-DT/MNT — MyNetworkTV is a syndication programming service and is a sister company to Fox.
  • plus more channels in digital Standard Definition (SDTV, 4:3 ratio, 480i, interlaced NTSC) and High Definition (HDTV, 1080i or 720p resolution).
Installation parts needed for RCA ANT751R Outdoor Antenna Optimized for Digital Reception
  • Test the antenna in your attic: if reception works fine, then installation is easier than on the roof. You may need about 50 feet of coaxial cable to reach the TV.
  • If mounting on the roof or outdoors:
    • Buy enough #10 single-strand copper grounding wire (local hardware store or Home Depot), either bare or insulated, to extend in one unbroken length from the roof antenna, through the 75-ohm coaxial grounding block, to your house ground, in as direct a downward line as possible along the way.
    • grounding wire stand-offs from Radio Shack, to hold wire out from house.
    • 75-ohm coaxial cable grounding block from Radio Shack.

Legality of home recording for personal use

In the seminal case of Sony v. Universal City Studios (1984), the US Supreme Court held that when consumers record television programming available to them at a given time for personal viewing at a later time (“time-shifting”), they are engaged in a “fair use” of copyrighted material and do not violate the Copyright Act. The fair use applies to personal (non-group), non-commercial viewing.

What are the definitions for HDTV, SDTV, 1080p, 1080i, 720p,  and 480p video signals?

  • Most HD cable and satellite TV systems provide you with 1080i resolution.
    • Some cable and broadcast systems also provide 480p: enhanced-definition or extended-definition television (EDTV, 480p, roughly 852 × 480 pixels). EDTV could potentially be as sharp as a DVD movie at 480p except data will have been lost if the source video was from interlaced 480i, such as from SDTV.
  • Over-the-air High Definition Television (HDTV) digital broadcasts have a resolution of 1080i or 720p, which are virtually indistinguishable.
    • Expect 1080i (where i means interlaced video signal) television to look identically as sharp as 720p (where p means progressive video signal).
    • Factors of perception make interlaced vertical resolution only 50 to 70% of progressive resolution.
  • Standard Definition Television (SDTV) is only 480i (about 654×480 pixels, except interlacing almost halves its vertical resolution for moving pictures).
  • Blu-Ray Disc movie resolution can be  720p (1280×720 pixels) or 1080p (1920×1080 pixels).
    • The older DVD movie format is limited to 480p (720×480 pixels, Digital Video Disc).
  • 1080p (with progressive video signal)
    • 1080p is not broadcast by any over-the-air channels in the US (as of 2012 and several years to come). If you have a 1080p TV, the commercially broadcast HD signals (currently 1080i or 720p) are converted to 1080p for display.
    • 1080p (progressive) is definitely sharper than 1080i (interlaced), but your eyes must be close enough to the screen to tell the difference.
      • When viewing a 60-inch TV, you would need to sit closer than about 8 feet to fully appreciate the sharper picture of 1080p compared to 1080i or 720p.
      • When viewing a 50-inch TV, you would need to sit closer than about 6.5 feet to fully appreciate the sharper picture of 1080p compared to 1080i or 720p.
      • See how sharp 1080p is by looking closely at a 1080p digital camera movie on a 1080p HDTV or 1050-pixel-high computer screen (or sharper).
    • Some pay-per-view (PPV) movies now come in 1080p.

Compare prices of basic cable TV to DVR services via satellite and cable

  • In our case, as LIMITED BASIC cable subscribers ($15 per month as of October 2012), our old dying VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) wouldn’t be able to handle the digital signals coming in 2013.
  • As you might expect, the Standard Definition version of cable signals (SDTV, 4:3 ratio, 480i, interlaced NTSC) looks very fuzzy on our sharp new 60 inch Samsung 1080P digital HDTV with LED Backlight technology. COMCAST/XFINITY wanted $2.70 per month extra to get High Definition (HD TV, most likely 1080i resolution) versions of local channels on top of LIMITED BASIC $15 per month.
  • In Seattle (and other major cities), receive at least 5 local High Definition channels FREE over the air via cheap antenna. Any good shows on channels not received can usually be viewed a year later, free on DVD from the Seattle Public Library.
  • From COMCAST/XFINITY, the minimum DVR option added $16.99/month on top of a $67.49/month STARTER package for a total of $84.48/month, which is a big jump over LIMITED BASIC.
  • The Channel Master CM7500 or CM7400 HDTV DVR can record from a TV antenna but not from XFINITY/COMCAST’s cable boxes required after January 2013 (at least in Seattle).
    • Unfortunately, most cable or satellite TV companies scramble channels or use SDV (Switched Digital Video) devices which require a proprietary DVR with a subscription of more than $50 per month. This includes TiVo (which in effect requires a compatible cable TV subscription).
    • In October 2012, I tested our LIMITED BASIC cable television service (through XFINITY/COMCAST in Seattle/King County): the Channel Master CM7400 DVR could record just unscrambled Clear QAM channels directly from the cable, but could not record from the new digital box required by XFINITY/COMCAST all-digital conversion slated for January 2013.
  • Because we get both internet and television service via the same coaxial cable with COMCAST/XFINITY, dropping LIMITED BASIC television actually did not save any money, due to the lost discount (around $15 per month) of “bundling” internet plus TV. So if you don’t want a DVR, then you might has well keep LIMITED BASIC or EXTENDED BASIC cable TV.
  • If you want a DVR, satellite companies such as Dish TV and DIRECTV can cost less than cable but still charge at least $50 per month (after the first 6 months).
  • Eliminating your monthly cable or satellite television bill can save more than $50 to $85 per month. That’s over $600 to $1020 per year savings.
  • The above facts led us to buy the subscription-free Channel Master DVR recording from an RCA ANT751R Outdoor Antenna. Compared to subscription TV, the new equipment pay for itself in less than a year then starts saving you significant money.

Problems and workarounds for earlier model Channel Master CM7400 1080p HDTV DVR

If you have the earlier version Channel Master CM7400 DVR (Digital Video Recorder), you should upgrade to the next version: Channel Master DVR+ / Bundle CM7500BDL2. By upgrading, you won’t have to deal with the following problems and workarounds:

The Channel Master CM7400 1080p HDTV DVR (2012-2013, no longer sold as of 2014) automatically reads the free over-the-air program GUIDE (schedule) provided for 1-3 days into the future by each station. Once you PROGRAM A SERIES** on a given channel, all future episodes of that TV series automatically record in whatever time slot they appear, searched and recognized literally by name. Alternatively, pressing MENU then the OPTIONS button lets you set up Manual Recording by fixed time slot (like on an old VCR, independent of program name). The optional Premium Guide ($4 per month paid to Channel Master) provides a program GUIDE to identify shows by name two weeks into the future.

** A freezing or “PROGRAM A SERIES” problem (bug) occurs in latest Channel Master software version 1.0.97 and earlier:

  • Randomly about every 1-3 weeks, our Channel Master CM7400 freezes operation (often with frozen clock time displayed), requiring a hard Restart/Reset. Other users on Amazon.com have reported this problem where the device hangs. You can Restart/Reset by holding down the power button for 5 seconds until it starts flashing (automatically rebooting) (or by unplugging/re-plugging the power cord). Restart/Reset won’t affect already-recorded programs or future programmed SERIES. (Avoid SETTINGS > “Reset to Factory Defaults,” which erases all recorded programs and series.)
  • To work around the problems:
    • It may help to #1) subscribe to Premium Guide service and Reset to Factory Defaults or #2) only use Manual Recording (instead of  “PROGRAM A SERIES”).
      • But a few weeks after Technical Support gave us the useful Premium Guide service as a workaround (#1), the CM7400 forgot all of our programmed future shows until restored by rebooting. We lost 3 days of shows that failed to record. The CM7400 is apparently unreliable once every 1-3 weeks and requires checking every day to see if it requires rebooting in order to record anything in the future with “PROGRAM A SERIES…”
    • Final workaround, #3: Put the CM7400 on an electrical timer to automatically power OFF then ON to reboot once per day at 3:00pm (or 5:00am, or when no show is likely to be recorded). This solution leaves it ON all day (except for a timed half hour OFF), requiring more power and wear-and-tear than Standby Mode. This automated reboot fixes the “PROGRAM A SERIES” bug (confirmed after 6 months of testing through June 2013). Although this serious bug casts doubt on Channel Master quality, the dearth of subscription-free DVR companies leaves us with few alternatives. The electrical timer has fixed the problem except for once when the DVR crashed a few hours after the 3:00pm reset, thus failing to record any programmed shows until the next reset.

Because the Channel Master CM7400 DVR creates a lot of heat (even in Standby/Off mode), keep it in an open (not closed) location near your TV. (Fixed in 2014 model CM7500 which runs cooler and more reliably.) After 7 months of use, we enjoy its superior features compared to our old VCR. To avoid various already-solved problems, be sure to immediately download the latest software/firmware during initial Setup, easily via your home router, and save frustration by attaching an electrical timer to CM7400 (workaround #3).

CANADA: Coast Range: Whistler Resort, Garibaldi, Joffre Lakes

Coast Range: Whistler Resort, Garibaldi & Joffre Lakes Provincial Parks

The Resort Municipality of Whistler is not only one of the most scenic ski areas in North America, but also hosts great summer hiking and mountain biking. Whistler has become a thriving center for year-round outdoor sports in the Coast Range of British Columbia, Canada. Hiking at Whistler is well worth the 10 hours round trip drive from Seattle, if you stay for a minimum of 3 nights — but allow extra traffic time for the slow border crossing between Canada and USA. (Read more about expedited entry / US Immigration.) Stay in a condominium or campground and hike the scenic trails featured below. The official visitors’ web site www.whistlerblackcomb.com helpfully books lodging and provides hiking, mountain biking, and skiing maps. Nearby Garibaldi Lake is one of my favorite wilderness trips (day hike or backpack).

Photo gallery of Whistler Resort, Garibaldi Provincial Park, and Joffre Lakes Provincial Park

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The Peak 2 Peak Gondola connects Whistler Village Gondola with Solar Coaster Express on Blackcomb Mountain for sightseeing or skiing variety. Buy a season pass if using lifts more than 2 days. Built in 2008, Peak 2 Peak Gondola holds world records for the longest free span between ropeway towers (3.03 kilometers or 1.88 miles) and highest point above the ground (436 meters or 1430 feet).

I recommend the following hikes near Whistler:

  • On Whistler Mountain, hike the High Note Trail to views of turquoise Cheakamus Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park and onward to Harmony Lake, back to Whistler Village Gondola at Roundhouse Lodge (6 miles or 10k, with 2200 feet descent and 1000 feet ascent). Start the walk with a ride to the top of Whistler Peak Express Chairlift, which is a short walk downhill from Roundhouse Lodge.
  • Hike the Overlord Trail on Blackcomb Mountain (2440 meters) for flowers and good views in the Spearhead Range across Fitzsimmons Valley. Starting from the top of Solar Coaster Express Chairlift on Blackcomb Mountain, walk round trip for 1 to 6 miles (2k to 10k), with up to 1700 feet of ascent, ending with a chairlift back down to Whistler Village.
  • Driving 25k south of Whistler, backpack 1 or 2 nights to turquoise Garibaldi Lake, hiking to Panorama Ridge and Black Tusk. Garibaldi Provincial Park is east of the Sea to Sky Highway (Route 99) between Squamish and Whistler in the Coast Range. A hiking loop to Garibaldi Lake via Taylor Meadows Campground is 11 miles (18k) round trip, with 3010 ft (850m) gain. Panorama Ridge is 6 miles (10k) RT with 2066 ft (630m) gain from either Taylor Meadows or Garibaldi Lake Campground (or 17 miles RT with 5100 ft gain from Rubble Creek parking lot).
  • Drive an hour on the main highway northeast from Whistler to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, BC. A rough, rocky, steep hike of 10 kilometers round trip ascends (400 meters up) by a rushing stream to three beautiful turquoise lakes. The Lower, Middle, and Upper Joffre Lakes are colored by glacial silt which reflects green and blue sunlight. The road onwards to Lilloet is very scenic.
Global warming/climate change:

As of 2005, Overlord Glacier had retreated 880 meters from its terminus of year 1929. From the early 1700s to 2005, half (51%) of the glacial ice cover of Garibaldi Provincial Park melted away (Koch et al. 2008, web.unbc.ca). The record of 1900s glacier fluctuations in Garibaldi Park is similar to that in southern Europe, South America, and New Zealand, suggesting a common, global climatic cause. Read more about global warming/climate change.

See related articles

Recommended Canada and Montana guidebooks from Amazon.com:

Search for latest “Canada Rockies travel books” at Amazon.com. Search for latest “Montana travel books” at Amazon.com.

2003: 2011: 2010: 2010:

2012: 2011: 2011: 2010:

TRAVEL sustainability: environmental & social impacts

Seven billion people need sustainability. Learn from ecotourism and nature travel.

Our strong drive for travel has filled every corner of the earth with humans, who now dominate the earth. Our surging population of 7 billion people must now protect other species and sustain the natural world from which we ascended.

The term ecotourism arose in the 1980s to encourage socially responsible travel, personal growth, and environmental sustainability in destinations where we’re attracted by natural flora, fauna, landscapes, and/or cultural heritage. Conventional mass tourism has often trampled or disrespected the places that draw visitors, whereas ecotourism aspires to sustain the quality and character of destinations. Caveat emptor — “let the buyer beware” of green washing marketing which makes claims but fails to substantially nurture nature or support social concerns. The following countries have set admirably high standards for ecotourism and overall sustainability: Costa Rica, Belize, NorwayNew Zealand, and Switzerland. Go and see for yourself. Wherever you travel, insist on resource sustainability in your spending choices. Consumer and voter decisions have big consequences for the quality of future life on earth.

Machhapuchhre (or Machhapuchhare), the Fish Tail Mountain is a sacred peak, illegal to climb, in the Annapurna mountains, Himalaya range, Nepal.

Right: On a monument at Annapurna South Base Camp, Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags invoke compassion for all beings. Sunset illuminates Machhapuchhre (Fish Tail Mountain) in Annapurna Sanctuary, the Himalayas, Nepal

Global human impacts: As transformers of the earth, we’re now in charge of sustaining other species.

Surging human population pressures now force the extinction of other species at a disturbingly high rate. Global human impacts are now a force “on par with volcanism or tectonic shifts” (said National Geographic Society in 2002) on land, air, and sea:

Human impacts on land:
  • People have transformed half of earth’s land area through planting, grazing livestock, paving, and building. Untouched wilderness has become a rare commodity. Harried urban dwellers are finding green escapes to be ever more crowded.
  • Half of all forests that stood 8000 years ago have been replaced by farms, ranches for grazing, damaged land, or single-species tree farms (for example in New Zealand).
    • Example: In Greece, farmers replaced native cedar forests with vast olive groves on mountainous terrain, causing an environmental disaster over a period of 6000 years: the topsoil washed away, creating the dry, rocky landscape seen throughout much of Greece today. Crete used to be 90% forested, but is now only 17% forest.

Video from the Smithsonian.com: What Is the Anthropocene and Are We in It?

Human impacts on the air we breath:

Air pollution from humans has left few places on earth untouched. Visibility in remote Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona) is often clouded by car exhaust from distant Los Angeles.

Global warming and climate change:

For 650,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide has never been above this line, until after 1950 through now, when levels have skyrocketed in a short time.

For the past 650,000 years, heat-trapping atmospheric carbon dioxide has never been above 300 ppm (parts per million), until after 1950 through now, when levels have skyrocketed in a short time, due to the human industrial age. (Chart from Wikipedia Commons.)

Human impacts on oceans:
  • 75% of the world’s marine fish stocks are either fully exploited, overfished, depleted or recovering from overfishing, according to the United Nations FAO 2004 world fisheries report.
  • Due to humans elevating atmospheric carbon dioxide by 35% since the industrial revolution, ongoing acidification of the oceans poses a serious threat to marine food chains that support shellfish and fishing economies. Between 1751 and 2004, the ocean surface acidified by almost 30% (from pH 8.25 to 8.14 according to Jacobson, 2005).
  • Since the 1990s, sea level rise has increased to 1.3 inches (3.2 centimeters) per decade due to melting glaciers and warming, expanding oceans. See for yourself in Venice (Italy) and other low coastal areas worldwide.
Photo gallery of global warming and climate change

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Take action to help sustain livability on earth.

  • Eat lower on the food chain — consume more vegetables, fruit, nuts, and whole grains. Eat less meat and less processed food.
    • For each calorie eaten, meat demands many times more of earth’s limited water and land resources than a vegetarian or vegan diet.
    • Pound for pound, beef production generates greenhouse gases that contribute more than 13 times as much to global warming as do the gases emitted from producing chicken, and 57 times as much as for potatoes (says Scientific American magazine).
  • Reduce consumption, recycle waste, and conserve energy. Avoid the “Tragedy of the Commons,” where independent actions in self-interest can deplete shared resources, contrary to everyone’s long-term best interests.
  • Share rides, combine errands, and ride public transportation.
  • Support education and family planning worldwide to promote quality of life for humans and all other species.
  • Don’t let fake news and extremists sway your better judgement. Vote for experienced leaders who work well with others to balance civil society with nature.
  • Think globally, act globally. Our consumer buying decisions reverberate worldwide. Everyone is connected.

To better balance global human impacts, my wife and I support environmental and social organizations such as:

Everyone worldwide is genetically one family.

Today, science confirms that “race”, skin color, eye color and other physical features are genetically superficial, on a genetic continuum, with gene differences of less than 1 out of 1000 between us. Our differences are only skin deep, and everyone on earth belongs to the same closely related family, who spread from Africa less than 2500 generations ago. Accepting these scientific DNA findings helps us feel closer to people from other countries, cultures, and tribes.

According to DNA marker studies, all humans who are alive today are descended from a single woman who lived only 150,000 years ago and later from a single man who lived 60,000 years ago, both from central Africa. All non-Africans living today descended from a small tribe who left Africa only 50,000 to 60,000 years ago (according to Y chromosome marker studies by Dr. Spencer Wells and others) — this one tribe spread aggressively and replaced all earlier types of humans (such as Neanderthals). Read more from books:

2007: 2004:

“Race” is genetically superficial.

Everyone on earth shares 99.9% of the same genetic code. But what about race? DNA evidence says that all non-Africans alive today had ancestors with brown or black skin less than 2500 generations ago. Sometime in the past 2500 generations, one letter out of 3.1 billion in the DNA code mutated in one person, disrupted melanin deposition in the skin, and produced the line of white Europeans. In the first Asians, a small independent genetic change reduced melanin in the skin by a different process.

Evolution can happen much quicker than scientists thought previously. According Hans Eiberg and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen in 2008, the genetic mutation for blue eyes happened only 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, well after agriculture was invented, in one individual somewhere around the Black Sea. Darwin’s blue eyes may have come from a misspelled letter in the DNA of a Neolithic farmer! (See “Modern Darwins” in National Geographic Magazine February 2009.)

Surprisingly, human genes differ very little from those of a mouse, except in how our genes are regulated as we grow from cells. We are closely tied to the web of all life. As the supremely dominant species, humans must take responsibility for earth stewardship.

Machu Picchu, Inca archeological site in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, Andes mountains, Peru, South America.

Right: Spanish conquistadors passed in the river valley below but never discovered Machu Picchu, which is at 7870 feet elevation in a remote location of Peru. In 1983, UNESCO listed the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site, which is now one of the most visited places in South America. (Panorama stitched from 3 overlapping images).

Sheep graze in a pasture beneath Tararua Wind Farm, largest in the Southern Hemisphere. Location: North Island of New Zealand, 10 km northeast of Palmerston North on a ridge in the Tararua Ranges.

Above: Humans have migrated to the ends of the earth to cut farms from virgin forests and compete for new resources, such as on New Zealand. Sheep are dwarfed by the towering turbine blades of Tararua Wind Farm, the largest wind power installation in the Southern Hemisphere, located on ranch land 10 kilometres northeast of the city of Palmerston North, on a 5 kilometre long ridge in the Tararua Ranges, North Island, New Zealand.

Photo gallery of human impacts on world ecosystems

Images below by Tom Dempsey stimulate thoughts on how people have impacted world ecosystems over human history. People have modified vast ecosystems by burning ancestral forests into grasslands, industrializing agriculture, and paving and building to support today’s worldwide population of 7 billion. Human transformation of nature is often irrevocable, as when species are forced into extinction. Plant and animal pioneers can quickly reclaim areas left alone by people, but invasive weed species introduced by humans often overwhelm previously-diverse natural environments.

Above, browse the gallery and thumbnails easiest with a mouse device. But mobile devices display just a fixed picture, so please touch (click) to enlarge as a set of images with full captions (where Add to Cart button lets you buy photos).

The joy of travel.

Love for world travel fills my life with wonder and purpose. Travel is the best education.

When we visit other countries, most people eagerly welcome us, gladly accept money in exchange for goods and services, and want to practice their English as we attempt to speak their language. Most people worldwide are peace-loving, friendly, and smart enough to treat you as an individual, not as a representative of your country’s current political regime. Most countries proudly welcome their guests, treating people with the Golden Rule − the ethic of reciprocity.

Fairly-regulated free trade with other countries encourages world peace through mutual interdependence. While we travel with humility and submit to the kindness of strangers, let’s seek mutual understanding, scientific knowledge, environmental sustainability, and human rights with reasonable responsibilities.

See also: Truth in journalism: check facts here.

Tom Dempsey (see my About page) is a photographer based in Seattle, Washington. My formal education includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Atmospheric Science and a Minor Degree in Statistics from the University of California at Davis, with High Honors (1975-79). But personally, a lifetime of world travel has been more important than my formal education. See also my profile on linkedin.com

Thought for the day:  “The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.” — poet Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)

Recommended books

Recommended nonfiction books

2012: 2012: 2011: 2009:
2011: 2009:

  • Ideas That Matter: The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century (2012) by Anthony Clifford Grayling, “winnows a universe of ideas, ideologies, and philosophies into a personal dictionary for understanding the new century.”
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt, explores the origins of our divisions (culturally dependent moral intuition) and points the way to mutual understanding. Our tribal groupishness leads to our greatest joys, religious divisions, and political affiliations. In a stunning final chapter on ideology and civility, Haidt shows what each side is right about, and why we need the insights of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to flourish as a nation.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) by Steven Pinker, analyzes and describes historical declines of violence since ancient hunter-gatherer societies evolved into civilizations with centralized authority and commerce. Progressive morality has risen to a peak, which suggests grounds for guarded optimism. The most violent societies per person have been pre-state tribes. Violence has declined per person over human history because nation-states (the “Leviathan”) and rule of law have assumed a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Desperately poor countries are the most likely to have civil wars. Most murders are done by people taking the law into their own hands, in moralized self-interest. Religions have been a net negative violent force, often against Enlightenment values, against the flourishing of individuals, and against human rights. Excessively moralistic ideologies (tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical) throughout history have caused the most war, conflict, and death. Pinker warns that historical trends in the decline of violence (especially after World War II) are not necessarily guaranteed to continue. His thesis is descriptive, not predictive. Books, reading, and education have an empathetic value to reduce violence through the understanding of others. Reason allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points.
  • Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (2009) by Maarten Troost, takes a pointedly funny look at the complex nation of China.
  • Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks (2011) by Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings, makes a great gift for anyone who loves maps.
  • Heroes of the Environment: True Stories of People Who Are Helping to Protect Our Planet (2009) by Harriet Rohmer

USA: LOUISIANA: Origins of Zydeco and Cajun Music

Origins of Zydeco and Cajun music

by Tom Dempsey, Seattle, Washington

Introduction.

My love for zydeco dancing inspired researching the history of zydeco music. I learned that over several generations, Acadians became “Cajuns” and the word “Creole” changed meaning several times. In rural isolation, the music of Creole and Cajun people evolved roughly in parallel until about the 1940s. After the end of World War II, rural Creole musicians of Southwest Louisiana adapted urban blues and jazz to their La La house party music and gave birth to what we now call zydeco. The roots of zydeco grow deep in the history of the various groups who have intermixed in Southwest Louisiana . . .

Acadian settlers were expelled.

Back in the early 1600s, French settlers immigrated to Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia, Canada), bringing with them old folk songs of medieval France. In 1755, they were expelled by the British. The Acadian settlers scattered across the world, and many regrouped in Southern Louisiana. Their brutal exile and frontier experience brought themes of death, loneliness, and ill-fated love to their music.

The Spanish governors of early Louisiana offered the Acadians choice land in the prairies of Southwest Louisiana, where most began raising cattle and subsistence crops. As the population of wealthier English-speakers grew, many Acadians retreated into the swamp and marsh areas of the Mississippi River Delta to eke out a living by fishing, logging cypress, and harvesting Spanish Moss (for use in bedding and insulation).

Spanish Moss

  • Spanish Moss is not really a moss, but a member of the pineapple family (bromeliads).
  • The Spanish called it “Frenchman’s wig,” while the French termed it “Spanish beard.”
  • Spanish moss is not a parasite, but lives off of air and water.

“Creole” changes definition.

In the early Louisiana settlements, the term “Creole” referred to people of French or Spanish parentage who were born in Louisiana. As the slave trade grew in the late 1700s, the word “Creole” referred to slaves born in the colonies (esclavos Criollos, in Spanish), versus those brought from Africa (esclavos Africanos). “Creole” also meant “homegrown, not imported.”

Many non-enslaved Creoles, light-skinned blacks, or mulattos formed an aristocratic society in New Orleans during the time of slavery. However, it was the isolated Creoles of the rural prairies of Southwest Louisiana who would later invent zydeco music in the 1940s.

Today, the nouns “Creole” and “Cajun” have the following common interpretations in Louisiana:

  • “Creole” usually refers to “a French-speaking black of Southwest Louisiana.” However, some whites also call themselves Creole. For example, some white Cajuns may call themselves “Creole” when speaking French, and may call themselves “a French person” when speaking English. Furthermore, “Creole” has different meanings outside of Louisiana.
  • “Cajun” commonly refers to “a usually French-speaking white who traces heritage back to Acadia and France.” However, some people having Afro-Caribbean heritage also call themselves Cajun.

Different people may have strong feelings around their chosen usage of the words “Creole” or “Cajun.” Intermixed heritage blurs any attempt at defining labels such as Creole, Cajun, black, or white. When you meet someone from South Louisiana, etiquette suggests that you find out what they call themselves before you call them Creole, Cajun, or any other label. For the sake of consistency, I use the most common meanings in the remainder of this article.

Gumbo, Gombo.

  • In West Africa, gombo refers to okra (the sticky green pod of the okra plant).
  • In Louisiana, gombo can refer to the okra-thickened soup or stew called gumbo, as well as to the name of the regional Creole spoken dialect, Gombo (or Gumbo).
  • French-speaking people of South Louisiana use the word gumbo to refer to okra when speaking French, but the soup called gumbo in English does not necessarily contain okra.

Acadian becomes “Cajun.”

Isolation, close family ties, and strong Catholic faith knit the Acadians into a tight cultural group whose style mixed with their close neighbors: Native Americans, Afro-Caribbean refugees from the West Indies, non-enslaved blacks, and various European immigrant groups. Isolated families had only themselves for entertainment, so most learned how to play musical instruments. Many Acadians made their own fiddles. The mostly-illiterate Acadians didn’t write down their French language, which necessitated passing on stories and legends through songs. The name “Acadian” slowly evolved into “Cajun.”

As the people of rural South Louisiana mixed, the “Cajun” musical style was shaped in important ways by Creoles, Native Americans, and others. In the late 1800s, German settlers introduced affordable accordions which were adopted by both Cajun and Creole musicians. Cajun and Creole musical styles at this time grew in parallel: mostly two-steps and waltzes meant for dancing, played by accordion and fiddle.

Internal and external influences on Creole and Cajun music.

Many black field workers prayed and gave thanks by singing, clapping their hands, and stomping their feet in a syncopated style called juré, which is an important root of zydeco music. By 1900, the juré songs merged with Creole and Cajun influences into a musical tradition called La La. Rural Creoles held musical house parties known as La La’s in prairie towns such as Opelousas, Eunice, and Mamou.

A Contemporary Anecdote

  • In 1995, I met a a Cajun craftsman, Johnny, at Acadian Village in Lafayette, Louisiana, USA.
  • As a child, Johnny was not allowed to speak French in school. He couldn’t even leave class for the bathroom unless he asked in English.
  • Over the course of his lifetime, public attitudes reversed towards speakers of Louisiana French. Ironically, his son could not graduate from high school without completing the four-year French requirement!

 

In 1928, phonograph companies began to record Cajun and Creole music to sell more record players. These early recordings melded French contredanses and Anglo-American jigs and reels with the syncopated rhythms and vocal improvisation of black Louisiana slaves and the wails of local Native Americans. “Ah-yeeeee! … Et toi!”

The inflow of oil workers and their love for country and western music began Americanizing Cajuns and Creoles. From about 1935 to 1950, Cajuns and Creoles replaced the accordion with fiddle and steel guitar, and added bass guitar and drums. After World War II, a yearning for “old time” music brought the accordion back to Southwest Louisiana, about the same time that rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll caught fire nationwide. Creole and Cajun musicians also influenced each other, for example Creole musicians Amade Ardoin and Canray Fontenot made essential contributions to Cajun music.

Cajun revival.

CODOFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, was founded in 1968 by the Louisiana state legislature. CODOFIL is empowered to “do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana for the cultural, economic and touristic benefit of the state.”

In 1974, Lafayette began a Cajun music festival which expanded into the present-day Festivals Acadiens held every September.

The beginning of Zydeco.

In the late 1940s, Louisiana’s Creole musicians became inspired by the rhythm and blues and jazz played on radio and juke boxes, so they eliminated the fiddle and brought out the rubboard. From then on, the music of Creoles diverged from Cajun music. Rural Creoles combined La La with the blues and jazz of urban blacks to create the rollicking and syncopated sounds of zydeco.

History of the Rubboard 

  • The vest frottoir, or rubboard, helps drive and define the music of traditional rural zydeco bands in Southwest Louisiana.
  • Precursors to the rubboard evolved in Africa and the Caribbean in the form of a scraped animal jaw, a notched stick, and later, a washboard.
  • In the pre-zydeco 1930s, sheet metal was introduced to Louisiana for roofing and barn siding.
  • The first rubboard was created for Clifton Chenier’s brother, Cleveland, in the 1940s.

 

In 1954, Boozoo Chavis recorded the first modern zydeco song, “Paper in My Shoe,” a regional hit. Unfortunately, a royalty dispute provoked Chavis to leave the music industry.

After Chavis left, Clifton Chenier popularized songs such as “Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés” (“The snap beans aren’t salty”). This title was a common expression describing times hard enough to provide no salted meat to spice the beans. The French words for “the snap beans,” les haricots (pronounced “lay zarico”), became “le zydeco,” which named this new musical genre. Clifton Chenier reigned as the “King of Zydeco” with a career lasting 30 years, featuring a Grammy earned in 1984. By the time of his death in 1987, Chenier had brought zydeco to international attention.

Boozoo Chavis returned in the mid-1980s with a series of hits which helped ignite a zydeco revival that continues today. After the mid-1980s, both zydeco and Cajun music and dance burst into worldwide popularity.

Comparing contemporary Zydeco and Cajun music and dance.

The rubboard player often drives the energy of zydeco music by emphasizing strong, syncopated rhythms. Zydeco usually has no fiddle, and the music resonates with sounds from jazz, rhythm and blues, and more recently, hip hop. Cajun music, which usually has no rubboard, sounds closer to country music, often melodic and sweet. Cajun musicians tend to play two-steps and waltzes in alternation, whereas zydeco musicians play mostly two-steps, and few waltzes.

The distinctions between zydeco and Cajun music affect the dancing styles. Cajun jitterbug, with its many turns and unique broken-leg step, is smoother and more precise; but zydeco dancing is more soulful, as expressed through greater hip action. Small, crowded dance halls have kept zydeco dancers in place on the dance floor, rather than circling the room like Cajun dancers. Dancing in a tight space to the pulsing and syncopated zydeco beat promotes a bouncy, vertical style with few turns. In contrast, dancing around the room to melodic Cajun music encourages smooth, horizontal movements with more turns.

Dancing into the future.

When I danced in Richard’s Club near Lawtell, Louisiana in 1995, I noticed that older dancers danced zydeco more subtly. Younger folks danced zydeco more conspicuously, sometimes adding moves such as hip hop in the apart position, sometimes dropping their single held hand. One young couple gyrated with a flamboyant African style in the apart position. The hip hop variations spun off from the “New Zydeco” style, where they stepped on every beat and embellished with small kicks.

From Creole family dance halls in Southwest Louisiana, a two-step and a waltz evolved into the many styles of zydeco dancing found today across America. Traditional zydeco dancing is done subtly, smoothly and upright by couples in a closed position. But the “Boozoo Evolution” of the 1980s (named for Boozoo Chavis), made the dance bouncier, often open, bent-kneed, and lower to the ground. In the 1990s, the “Beau Jocque Revolution” added the flamboyant flavor of hip-hop. Zydeco dancing appears to be evolving from a couples dance towards individual free-style.

Just as the dancing styles change over time, zydeco (and Cajun) music continues to evolve as musicians tour the world and absorb new influences. This vibrant music will assuredly thrive as we dance in the new millennium.

— by Tom Dempsey, May 1996 — with books and link references updated on April 2012, below:

Recommended Cajun and Zydeco books and music:

Search for the latest “Louisiana travel books” on Amazon.com.

2003: 1999: 1999:

Other research used to write this article:
  • Rounder Records (buy on Amazon.com) (info on flyer for the 1995 “Red Hot Louisiana Music Tour”).
  • Tabasco home page: www.TABASCO.com
  • Cajun Music and Zydeco, photographs by Philip Gould with an introduction by Barry Ancelet (Louisiana State University Press, 1992). Dance-hall sights. The sounds can be savored in a Rounder compact disc with the same title.
  • “What Is A Creole: One Creole’s Perspective” by Herman Fuselier, Creole journalist from Opelousas, LA, 1995.
  • What Is Zydeco?” by Herman Fuselier, 1995.
  • “What Is A Cajun: One Cajun’s Perspective” by Shane K. Bernard, a Cajun historian of Cajun culture and regional music, 1995.
  • The Times-Picayune newspaper, September 9, 1995: “Steppin’ Out” by Katheryn Krotzer-Laborde. The author quotes zydeco dance teacher Diana Polizo-Schlesinger comparing zydeco and Cajun music and dance.
  • Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, 250 W. Park Avenue, Eunice, LA 70535. Telephone (318) 457-8499.
  • Charles Cravins, from Zydeco Extravaganza.
  • “Music: Hot Off the Bayou”, by Michael Walsh with reporting by David E. Thigpen, Time Magazine, May 8, 1995.

USA: Idaho

In Idaho, hike the Sawtooth Mountains, explore gold mining history in Custer and “Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park, and admire rainbows glowing in the mist of Mesa Falls.

Idaho favorite photos:

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Sawtooth National Recreation Area

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The Sawtooth Range (part of the Rocky Mountains) are comprised of the pink granite of the 50 million year old Sawtooth batholith. Drive, day hike, and backpack to impressive peaks and pretty wilderness lakes. Park your car/RV at one of the campgrounds, and at sunrise, see peaks of Sawtooth Wilderness reflect in Little Redfish Lake or Pettit Lake.

Sawtooth Wilderness

Sawtooth Wilderness, managed by the US Forest Service within Sawtooth National Recreation Area, has some of the best air quality in the lower 48 states (says the US EPA).

Backpack or day hike to scenic El Capitan, Alice Lake, and Twin Lakes. The pyramidal peak of El Capitan (9846 feet or 3001 elevation) reflects in the outlet stream of Alice Lake (Pettit Lake Creek) in Sawtooth Wilderness.

Backpack or day hike 11.8 miles round trip to Baron Lakes viewpoint: From Redfish Lake Lodge (redfishlake.com) take the earliest boat in the morning to Redfish Lake Inlet Transfer Camp, riding about 10 minutes. Hike 3.2 miles then turn right at the fork and begin climbing. At 4.2 miles see Alpine Lake, then switchback past three smaller lakes. At 5.9 miles, see the breathtaking view of Baron Lakes (Upper, Baron, and Little) and jagged points along the ridge of Warbonnet Peak (10,210 feet elevation). Optionally descend past the Upper Lake to reach the shore of Baron Lake at 7.9 miles one way.

Idaho history, ghost towns, Custer, Yankee Fork

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“Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park and Salmon-Challis National Forest Historic Area

Yankee Fork Gold Dredge operated from 1940-1952 near near Custer Historic Site, Idaho. This floating gold dredge chewed a wide swath of stream gravel leaving rocky dredge tailings along 5.5 miles of the Yankee Fork, a tributary of the Salmon River, near Stanley, Idaho. It recovered an estimated $1,037,322 in gold and silver at a cost of $1,076,100.

Explore the former gold mining town of Custer which dates from 1879-1910. Custer Historic Site now preserves this ghost town near Stanley. The city of Custer was named after General George Armstrong Custer, who was killed in battle in 1876. Custer is now part of the “Land of the Yankee Fork” State Park and Challis National Forest Historic Area. The past comes alive when you see old relics such as an ore stamping mill, old wooden rocking chair, plunge bath tub, gears of a hand cranked clothes washer, a foot cranked Singer sewing machine, lanterns, a wooden wagon (pictured in show).

The Sunbeam Dam, on the Salmon River, Idaho, was built in 1910 to make electricity for the Sunbeam Mine, which was abandoned in 1911 after bankruptcy. The dam and cliff were breached in 1934 to allow salmon and steelhead to migrate to their spawning beds.

Mesa Falls, North Fork of Snake River, in Caribou-Targhee National Forest

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Upper Mesa Falls plunges 114 feet over a 300 foot wide cliff face along Henrys Fork (also known as North Fork, a tributary of the Snake River) in Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeastern Idaho. Turn off Highway 47 on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway about 15 miles north of the city of Ashton. On sunny days from about 9 am until 1 pm, the mist from powerful Upper Mesa Falls creates a beautiful rainbow. The falls flow over Mesa Falls Tuff, which formed 1.3 million years ago. A cycle of rhyolitic volcanism from the Henrys Fork caldera depositing a thick layer of rock and ash which compressed and hardened over time. Between 200,000 and 600,000 years ago, the river eroded a wide canyon which was subsequently partly filled with basalt lava flows. The Henrys Fork of the Snake River carved a channel through the basalt to create today’s inner canyon.

See a more distant view of Lower Mesa Falls (65-foot plunge) along Henrys Fork from a roadside viewpoint, separate from the Upper Falls viewing area.

Recommended books for Idaho

Search for latest “Idaho travel books” at Amazon.com.

2011: 2010: 2007: 2008:
2001: 2004: 2005: 2007 map:
2009: 2010:

How to acclimatize to high altitude

Learn how to adjust to high altitude without getting sick:

Ascending too quickly above 10,000 feet elevation can cause nausea, headaches, or sleeplessness due to acute mountain sickness (AMS, altitude sickness, or soroche in Spanish).

For most people, the best way to acclimatize above 10,000 feet elevation is to “climb high and sleep low.” In other words, day hike to higher elevations, but sleep no more than 2000 feet (600 meters) higher each day. Take time to naturally adjust to higher altitudes without relying on a drug with side affects such as Diamox — compare with the safer Ginkgo Biloba herb below. How fast you acclimatize is unpredictable and can vary for the same person on different occasions. Descending quickly towards sea level is the best cure if you become altitude sick.

Ginkgo Biloba versus Diamox

If tight trip schedules restrict time available for safe acclimatization, try the natural herb Ginkgo Biloba (available over the counter without a prescription), which has fewer undesirable side effects than Diamox (Acetazolamide), the drug most commonly prescribed by doctors for preventing altitude sickness. Common side effects of Diamox include frequent urination (risks dehydration), numbness and tingling in fingers and toes, taste alterations, blurred vision, and risk of kidney stones. Ginkgo Biloba has far fewer side effects (though it may not prove as effective as Diamox, and pregnant women and people taking antidepressants should first consult their doctor). Don’t take Ginkgo Biloba and Diamox together, as they nuetralize each other’s effect.

Directions: Take 100 to 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 3-5 days before ascending, and continue for 2-3 days at maximum sleeping altitude. In the year 2000, a Ginkgo Biloba clinical study on Pike’s Peak with 40 college students reduced altitude sickness by 50% compared to the placebo group.

Starting at sea level, my sleep was significantly better in my first 2 nights in Cuzco (at 11,000 feet) when taking Ginkgo Biloba herb in 2003, compared to my trip in year 2000 without the herb. On our high altitude Huayhuash Trek in the Andes of Peru, most of our group of 11 men took 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 5 days before ascending, and no one experienced serious problems from mountain sickness. In Nepal, we extended acclimatization time by first trekking Annapurna Sanctuary before the higher Gokyo Valley (Mount Everest area) and felt no significant altitude problems.

Coca leaf tea (mate de coca) in South America

In South America, your risk of feeling nausea due to altitude may also be reduced by drinking local coca leaf tea (mate de coca), the mild, traditional Andean stimulant. I found it pleasantly helpful. A cup of coca leaf tea is comparable to the affect of tea or coffee (but without the caffeine withdrawal hangover). As of 2012, coca tea is legal in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador, most commonly served in the Highlands. But don’t bring coca leaves back home, as they are illegal in Brazil, the United States, and most countries outside of South America, despite the low coca alkaloid content. (In the USA, only a few companies are licensed to import and de-cocainize coca leaves such as for pharmaceuticals or soft drinks.)

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Acclimatization Example: Cordillera Huayhuash trek daily elevations

Before trekking in the high altitude Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru 2003, we acclimatized comfortably as follows:

  • A public bus from Lima drove from sea level over a 13,400-foot pass and down to Huaraz at 10,000 feet elevation.
  • We slept for three nights at 10,000 feet in Huaraz and did two higher elevation day trips:
    • We crossed a 14,900-foot pass twice on a bus tour to Chavin at 10,360 feet elevation on the other side of the Andes.
    • We drove to 13,400 feet and hiked downhill 10 miles to Huaraz.

That prepared us well for the following 8-day high altitude trek (the Huayhuash Reverse C Route):

Trek Day: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8
Highest/Pass 10,660 feet 13,448 15,580 15,370 15,250 15,744 15,700 15,700
Camp Height 10,660 feet 13,448 13,776 14,100 13,940 14,270 14,500 14,400 bus pickup

How high can humans live?

At 18,000 feet you breath only half the oxygen compared to sea level. Research indicates that humans cannot live permanently above an elevation of 18,000 feet without suffering a gradual physiological deterioration that eventually leads to death. Mountaineers who anticipate spending time above 18,000 feet must fatten themselves before the climb to offset their inevitable weight loss.

Workers at the Aucanquilcha sulfur mining camp in Chile lived for years at 17,500 feet above sea level, and ascended each day to work the mine at 18,800 feet. A settlement in Bolivia matched this 17,500-foot record altitude maximum for permanent human habitation. As of May 2003, National Geographic Magazine reports that 16,730-foot La Rinconada, Peru, is the highest permanent human habitation.

Air retains a constant 21 percent of oxygen content (the rest is mostly Nitrogen) throughout all surface altitudes. But as you climb to higher altitudes, the weight of the air column above you decreases, thus lowering air density. As you ascend, the oxygen available per lungfull decreases as follows:

Altitude | Available Oxygen, Compared to Sea Level (average observed at 45 degrees latitude**)

  • 0 feet (sea level) | 100% (base for comparison)
  • 5,000 feet | 80 % of sea level oxygen per lungfull
  • 10,000 feet | 69% of sea level oxygen
  • 15,000 feet | 56% of sea level oxygen
  • 18,000 feet | 50% of sea level oxygen
  • 20,000 feet | 45% of sea level oxygen
  • 29,000 feet | 31% of sea level oxygen per lungfull

**The above figures are averages that apply only to the mid latitudes (45 degrees latitude, North or South). Oxygen available per lungfull also varies slightly by latitude as follows: you will gasp for air about 5 percent harder when climbing at 20,000 feet on Alaska’s Denali (Mount McKinley) than when climbing at the same altitude in the Himalayas. Denali is at 63 degrees north latitude, the Himalaya at 28 degrees north latitude, and the Cordillera Huayhuash at 10 degrees south latitude. Denali rises to 20,320 feet but has the oxygen availability of a 23,000 -foot peak in the Himalayas.

The centripetal force of the earth’s spin shapes the atmosphere (and the earth itself) into an “oblate spheroid”, flattened at the poles and bulging at the equator. At a given altitude, oxygen available per lungfull is highest at the equator (0 degrees latitude) where the atmosphere is deepest (such as at Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa), and lowest at the poles (90 degrees latitude) where the atmosphere is shallowest. 

PERU 2000, 2003 treks, Machu Picchu

Peru delights your heart with spectacular mountains, amazing ancient ruins, and colorful cultures. In 2000 and 2003, I enjoyed trekking in Peru to Machu Picchu, Lares, Santa Cruz Valley (in the Cordillera Blanca), and Cordillera Huayhuash. We booked all trekking trips directly by e-mail and fax using the excellent Peru-based company Aventura Quechua. Peru is one of the best exotic travel bargains from the USA (much closer than Nepal). Visitors from the Americas will have little jet lag to Lima (Peru Time PET=EST Eastern Standard Time).

See also: my newer PERU 2014 article, when my family group trekked Around Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca and did the complete Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit.

Favorite Peru photos 2000, 2003, 2014

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May 10-30, 2003 Peru trip:
  • We trekked the awesome Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru’s second highest range, for 55 miles over eight days, with loads carried by donkeys. We averaged 7 miles and 2000 feet up and down per day. Our camps varied from 10,660 feet to 14,500 feet elevation. We crossed five 15,000-foot passes, the highest measuring 15,700 feet elevation.
  • Visit the important ancient ruins of Chavin (1000-300 BC), a long day trip from Huaraz.
  • Visit Machu Picchu 3 days plus the spectacular Inca Salt Pans at Salinas.
May 19 – June 12, 2000 Peru trip:
  • We trekked with friends to the following three areas:
    • Trek 4 days on the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, with loads carried by porters.
    • Trek 3 days from remote Lares to Patacancha (north of Cuzco), with loads carried by llamas and horses.
    • Trek 5 days on the Santa Cruz Circuit in the Cordillera Blanca mountains, Huascaran National Park, with loads carried by donkeys and bus.
  • We avoided altitude sickness by ascending gradually with each trek, walking a total of 85 miles over 12 days, reaching 15,600 feet elevation in the spectacular Cordillera Blanca mountain range.

Peruvian trekking season and climate

The climate is generally wonderful for trekking in the mountain dry season from May through September. Days are about 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit, and nights about 38 degrees. However, the classic Santa Cruz Trek (near Huaraz) and especially the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu can be crowded in June-July.

Weather forecast for Machu Picchu (or other specific peaks worldwide): www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Picchu-Picchu

You will encounter fewer fellow travelers in May or September, which have excellent weather. Many other equally spectacular destinations have few tourists all year, such as the Cordillera Huayhuash trek.

Coastal Peru is one of the driest deserts on earth, watered only by rivers descending from the Andes. Coastal Peru, which includes the capital at Lima, has a climate opposite to that of the mountains: a short summer of sunny, sticky days from January to March, followed by 9 months of gray mist called the garua.

Lima, capital and gateway of Peru

Visit the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia in Lima. The dry coastal air preserved ancient mummies for up to 1000 years. Flying from Lima to mountainous Cuzco gives a good aerial view of the coastal desert.

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Cuzco

The attractive town of Cuzco (or Cusco) nestles in a valley at 11,000 feet, and offers impressive Inca history, Spanish colonial architecture, high-quality handicrafts, comfortable lodging, and a pleasant year-round climate. The Spanish name “Cuzco” comes from qosqo, or “the earth’s navel,” in the Quechua language (Kichwa shimi, Runashimi, or Spanish Quichua)  Runakuna, Kichwas, and Ingas). In 1983, UNESCO listed the city of Cuzco as a World Heritage Site.

Although restaurant touts and craft vendors can be annoyingly assertive around the main tourist areas of Cuzco, you can’t blame them for wanting to make a living. Local products are often of high quality and inexpensive: fresh food, Cusquena beer, woven rugs, decorated ceramic plates, and various handicrafts. As of 2003, the city cleaned up the central square by banning roving vendors and moving them to a covered market building several blocks west.

Petty crime is high, but your your body is safer from harm in Peru than in the United States. Hang on to your valuables — one woman in our group lost a loosely secured small camera to a mother with children who distracted her and pressed closely. Be vigilant in cities, and you’ll find Peru to be safe and enjoyable for touring. Easily escape urban problems by trekking and visiting rural country. The campesinos (country folk) are friendly, conservative, and colorfully dressed.

Cuzco, the longest continuously occupied city in the Americas, is built upon the foundations of the Incas and several previous cultures. Many of the buildings incorporate Inca walls as a footing several feet high. Francisco Pizarro officially founded Spanish Cuzco in 1534. Santo Domingo Church was built on top of Coricancha (“Golden Courtyard” in Quechua language), Cuzco’s major Inca temple, and was twice destroyed by earthquakes, in 1650 and 1950. At Tambomachay, the Incas diverted a spring through impressive stone work. The Incas perfected stonecraft to a degree which amazes us today. Not even a piece of paper can fit between stones in the finer temples.

Lares to Patacancha Trek

This moderately strenuous trek through rugged, little-visited country in the Cordillera Urubamba, crosses passes at 13,800 and 14,200 feet between the towns of Lares and Patacancha. A five hour bus ride from Cuzco took us to Lares, where you can soak in developed hot springs. Llamas and horses carried our loads, and we camped at 12,500 feet for two nights. A woman said she weaves for a month on a rug which she sells for only $35 US. Her village is too remote for the government to extend electric lines and she subsists on raising alpacas, much as did her Inca ancesters. We met children who walked 6 miles each way to school. A flock of 30 wild Ibis birds flew overhead. We enjoyed trekking with Aventura Quechua.

Urubamba Valley

Visit the ancient experimental agricultural terraces of Moray.

Inca Salt Pans at Salinas: Since Inca times, workers have redirected a salt-laden spring onto these extensive terraces for evaporation into salt. At a small mill, workers add iodine to the salt and package it into different grades of purity.

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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Trekking is the most rewarding way to reach Machu Picchu. Or take the train to Aguas Calientes, where a bus climbs to Machu Picchu on the ridge above town (or walk for 1 to 1.5 hours one way). In 1983, UNESCO honored the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site.

The Peru National Institute of Natural Resources requires overnight trekkers on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu to hire a guide and pay entrance fees.

Our group of 12 hikers enjoyed great food on a tenting trek with Aventura Quechua who organized 2 guides, 2 cooks, and 22 porters. Trip leader Wilbert attracted us ever higher with his Andean flute. He played several more instruments, spoke eight languages, earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from a Peruvian university, and had a playful sense of humor. We trekked the standard Inca Trail 32 miles in four days, ascending a total of 8600 feet. A bus took us from Cuzco to the end of the road in the Urubamba Valley at Chilca (railroad kilometer 82), where we met our porters and began walking with day packs on a bridge over Urubamba River. Starting at 7700 feet elevation, we trekked as high as 13,770 feet (Dead Woman’s Pass), before descending on the fourth day to the sacred Inca city of Machu Picchu (8200 feet), where a bus descends to Aguas Calientes. Spaniards passed in the river valley below but never discovered Machu Picchu.

At Machu Picchu, climb a very steep, scary, exposed stairway to a great view atop Huayna Picchu, the main peak. Don’t ascend when steps are wet.

Huaraz, Peru

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Santa Cruz Trek

The Santa Cruz Trek is the most popular trek of the Cordillera Blanca range, which is the highest tropical mountain range in the world, reaching 22,205 feet at the top of Huascaran. We walked for five days in Huascaran National Park, crossing as high as 15,600 feet at Punta Union Pass. Donkeys carried our loads, and we camped at 12,100 feet elevation for one night, 13,800 feet for two nights, and then 13,100 feet on the last night. Read about acclimatization. In 1985, UNESCO listed Huascaran National Park as a World Heritage Area.

On day 2 of the Santa Cruz Trek, we walked beneath the ice wall of Caraz (19,700 feet). One of the most spectacular camp spots in Peru (at 13,800 feet) is surrounded by three major mountain massifs with spiky peaks reaching nearly 20,000 feet above sea level. Alpamayo (19,500 feet) must be one of the prettiest mountains in the world, and reminds me much of Ama Dablam in Nepal. Attractive lupine flowers bloomed on spectacular meter-tall stalks in Tingopampa Valley below Punta Union Pass and Mount Taulliraju (19,100 feet elevation). The next day, rain, hail, and snow extinguished our view of Tingopampa Valley as we crossed Punta Union Pass (15,600 feet). Luckily, rain affected us only 2 days out of 23 in Peru (May 19 – June 12, 2000).  We descended by bus to Llanganuco Valley and lakes (12,000 feet elevation), in view of Huandoy rising to 20,981 feet, the second highest mountain in the Cordillera Blanca. Hike by waterfalls to scenic “Lake 69” (14,600 feet) at the base of Chacraraju (20,052 feet), and see the immense twin-peaked Huascaran (22,205 feet), highest mountain in Peru.

Chavín de Huántar ruins

As a long day trip from Huaraz, Peru, take a bus over a scenic 15,000-foot pass to visit the ancient ruins of Chavín de Huántar, at 10,300 feet elevation at the bottom of Cordillera Blanca’s eastern slopes halfway between the Amazon forest and coastal plains, in the Department of Ancash in Peru. 3000 years ago, the innovative Chavin builders engineered the Castillo with underground ducts for natural air conditioning. The most striking feature is the Peidra del Lanzón (“Stone of Lanzón”) or “Lanzon de Chavin“, a 13-foot-high carved white granite stele monument at the meeting point of four underground tunnels in the Castillo (or castle). The Lanzon, the supreme deity of Chavin de Huantar, intertwines the head of the feline deity of Chavin de Huantar and the human body of the shaman of the pre-Chavin period. In 1985, UNESCO listed Chavín de Huántar as a World Heritage Site.

The advanced Chavin culture of 1000 BC to 300 BC greatly influenced all later civilizations in Peru, including the famous Inca Empire of a millennia later, 1430-1572 AD. The farming city of Chavin became populous by controlling important trade routes which crossed from coast to interior and from north-to-south along the cordillera. Modern artist Pablo Picasso remarked, “Of all the ancient cultures that I admire, Chavín is the one that surprises me most. To tell the turth, it has been the inspiration for much of my work.”

Willkahuain

Willkahuain is an ancient Wari site near Huaraz, Peru. From 600 to 1000 AD, the Wari (or Huari) people conquered their neighbors in the central Andes. They imposed their way of life on local cultures, and also fashioned strong stone buildings with good ventilation and earthquake resistance. Wari influence gradually wained as local groups regained control. The militaristic and urban culture of the Wari may have influenced the remarkable expansion of the Inca from Cuzco Valley in 1430.

Cordillera Huayhuash Valley Circuit

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Trekking the “Valley Circuit” around the stunning Cordillera Huayhuash requires altitude acclimatization and good physical fitness (but you don’t need to be a climber on this non-technical trail). The Cordillera Huayhuash challenged mountaineers in the gripping 2003 British docudrama “Touching the Void.” Within Peru, only the Cordillera Blanca (Huascaran) is higher.

From May 21-28, 2003, I trekked with 10 other men for 55 miles in eight days halfway around the awesome Cordillera Huayhuash. Our route is known as the Backwards C, which is a portion of the complete Valley Circuit of the Cordillera Huayhuash. We hiked across the continental divide of the Andes into the remote upper reaches of the Amazon Basin, then back over the divide to a different road head. Donkeys carried gear and arrieros (donkey drivers) set up camp ahead each day, leaving us to carry light day packs. We averaged walking a moderate 7 miles and 2000 feet up/down each day in beautiful weather. We crossed six passes over 15,000 feet in elevation above sea level (as high as 15,700 feet). The scenery and thin air took my breath away!

See also: my newer PERU 2014 article, when my family group trekked Around Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca and did the complete Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit.

Before trekking in the high altitude Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru in 2003, we acclimatized as follows:

  • We took 100 to 120 milligrams of Ginkgo Biloba herb twice a day starting 5 days before ascending, and continued for 2-3 days at maximum sleeping altitude.
  • A public bus from Lima drove from sea level over a 13,400-foot pass and down to Huaraz at 10,000 feet elevation.
  • We slept for three nights at 10,000 feet in Huaraz and did two higher elevation day trips:
    • We crossed a 14,900-foot pass twice on a bus tour to Chavin at 10,360 feet elevation on the other side of the Andes.
    • We drove to 13,400 feet and hiked downhill 10 miles to Huaraz.

That prepared us well for the following 8-day high altitude trek:

Trek Day: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8
Highest/Pass 10,660 feet 13,448 15,580 15,370 15,250 15,744 15,700 15,700
Camp Height 10,660 feet 13,448 13,776 14,100 13,940 14,270 14,500 14,400 bus pickup

Cordillera Huayhuash is currently a Reserved Zone, which recognizes the rights and traditional land use by the eight communities of the area. Please respect the area by informing yourself before going. The following book helps plan a trek, identify routes, and name peaks during the trip:

Climbs and Treks in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru” by Jeremy Frimer 2005  ISBN #0-9733035-5-7

Touching the Void

Siula Grande (20,800 feet / 6344 meters) is the subject of the gripping 2003 British docudrama “Touching the Void.” In 1985, climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates scaled the treacherous Siula Grande, one of the last unconquered mountains in the Andes, but after Joe broke his leg, their descent became one of the most amazing survival stories in mountaineering history. We photographed the east face, but they climbed Siula Grande from a valley on the other side (the west face). The movie is based upon Joe Simpson’s harrowing book, “Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival” (published 2004, 1993, 1989).

Cordillera Raura

We exited our “Backwards C” Huayhuash trek in the Cordillera Raura mountains. The source of the Amazon River lies on the east side of the Cordillera Raura, as determined by the Royal Geographical Society in 1950: the tiny glacial lake Laguna Niñococha feeds Rio Lauricocha, then Rio Marañon, then the Amazon. To reach the source of the Amazon, trekkers can depart from the regular Huayhuash circuit near Huayhuash village on Day 7, go eastwards to Caquish, wade across Rio Lauricocha, climb to Laguna Niñococha and finish at the mining town of Mina Raura, on the road head to Churin and Lima (8 days total from Chiquian). You can also hike a complete Huayhuash loop (11 days) or other worthwhile variations.

Strikes can delay buses, cars, and flights

Before, during, and after our Peru trip in 2003, teachers, truck drivers, and campesinos held frequent but peaceful strikes. The campesinos (country people) blocked most major highways with rocks and felled trees, threatening to stop our bus returning to Lima from our Huayhuash Trek. But our energetic guide Koki ran for nine hours round trip to the nearest phone to confirm that our bus had already driven to our meeting point two days early to avoid strikers! President Toledo called a national emergency and cleared the roads, fortunately allowing us to keep our original schedule. Many thanks go to Aventura Quechua, the excellent local guide service (with whom I have trekked to Huayhuash, Machu Picchu, Cordillera Blanca, and Lares).

Peruvian History

While Lake Titicaca (on the border with Bolivia) is an earlier and more important cradle of Andean civilizations, Cuzco Valley gave birth to the powerful Inca Empire. Peru’s greatest native legacy to the world is the potato plant, which is now a staple crop spread world wide.
An ancient mummy seems to cringe in sorrow or intense feeling at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia y Arqueologia (National Anthropology and Archeology Museum), Lima, Peru, South America.)

The Inca Empire and Spanish Conquest

Archeology suggests that in a 700-800 AD military expansion, the Wari people may have settled the Cuzco Valley and become the Inca’s ancestors. Quechua oral history says that the first Inca, Manco Capac, the son of the sun god (inti), founded the city of Cuzco in the 1100’s AD. After 1430 AD, the Incas burst out of Cuzco and quickly imposed their culture from southern Colombia to central Chile.

The Incas used their absolute rule and organizational genius to build vast terraces for growing food on the steep Andes mountains in a moderate climate, away from the dry desert coast and above the mosquito-filled Amazon Basin. The Incas developed textiles, pottery, metals, architecture, amazingly fitted rock walls, empire-wide roads, bridges, and irrigation, but never discovered the wheel, arch, or writing. Despite their amazing accomplishments, the Inca Empire lasted barely a century.

Over in Europe, Catholic Pope Alexander divided Africa and Brazil to Portugal, and gave the Americas to Spain. With Church approval, Spanish fortune hunters accompanied by priests sought riches in the Americas. With lucky timing, conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532 at a moment that found the Incas vulnerable from a just-ended civil war. With just a few dozen conquistadors bringing superior weaponry, horses, and guile, Pizarro captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca. Despite receiving a fabulous a gold-filled room as ransom fulfillment, Pizarro soon killed Atahualpa. After realizing that the Spanish were here to stay, the successor Inca Emperor, Manco, met with fellow Inca chiefs at Lares in spring 1536 to plan a rebellion, raising an army of 100,000 to 200,000 to surround Cuzco against just 190 Spaniards (including 80 on horses). Despite vastly superior numbers, their clubs, spears, slingshots, and arrows were no match against armored and mounted Spanish Conquistadors brandishing steel swords. Manco Inca’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, and he was forced to retreat to Vilcabamba in the Amazon jungle, where he was killed in 1544. In 1572, the Inca Tupac Amaru organized another rebellion, but was also defeated and executed by the Spaniards. The Spanish Conquest lasted 40 years, from the ambush of Inca Atahualpa at Cajamarca, to Tupac Amaru’s beheading.

Sadly, the near-socialistic support system of the Inca was now destroyed by the cruelty of feudal Europe. The “Indians” (now known as Andeans or campesinos) were now triply-exploited by 1) their native chief (curaca), 2) their Spanish governor (encomendero), and 3) their Spanish priest, who all exacted undue tribute payments. The Incas’ mita system of forced labor for the common good was misused by the Spanish for mining gold and silver for the Crown. Eventually the Spanish forced 80% of the former Inca Empire to work for tribute, mines, or textile mills, stopping just short of slavery. After the Spanish Conquest, Peru’s population declined from 7 million to 1.8 million due to disease, war, famine, culture shock, and demoralization.  Read The Conquest of the Incas (2003), first published in 1970 by John Hemming.

Politics and Economy

President Fujimori, Three-Term President

On election eve in May 2000, my wife Carol and I joined the thriving crowds of Cuzco’s night life who bustled without incident around the intimidating police clad in full riot gear who surrounded the main square. Although Peru is officially democratic, the sole opposition candidate, Toledo, protested alleged poll-rigging by dropping out of the presidential race, leaving Fujimori for a third term, making him the most senior leader in the Americas after Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Corruption allegations heightened after Fujimori’s intelligence chief Montesinos was caught red handed on video, and in November 2000 Fujimori resigned from office and fled to Japan. Although he ruled more autocratically than democratically, the United States plus many Peruvians appreciated Fujimori for eliminating the Maoist “Shining Path” terrorist organization, improving Peru’s economy, building schools, and expanding electricity to rural areas. However, Peru’s campesinos (country people) felt more hurt than helped by Fujimori’s austerity programs, and would have voted for Toledo.

President Toledo in 2003

Toledo rose from poverty to become a Stanford-trained economist, and in 2001 proudly became Peru’s first democratically elected President of Andean descent. Unfortunately, his campaign promises to reduce poverty and create jobs failed to bear fruit. When I returned in May 2003, campesinos, teachers, truck drivers, and health workers were striking (peacefully) every week. One day I witnessed the main Avenue del Sol in Cuzco fill with thousands of peacefully striking teachers (maestros) plus another group. On day 7 of our 8-day Huayhuash Trek, we heard on the radio that campesinos had blocked most major highways with rocks and felled trees for the past 2 days, which might block our bus returning us to Lima. Upon learning this, our energetic guide Koki ran for 9 hours round trip to the nearest phone to confirm that our bus had already driven to our meeting point 2 days early to avoid strikers! Toledo declared a national emergency on May 27 and reopened the roads, allowing us to keep our original schedule. This national emergency put about half of the country under the control of the military and weakened many civil rights, allowing the government to detain protesters and enter homes without search warrants. President Toledo desperately reshuffled his cabinet in June 2003, which did nothing to help his minimal control over Congress. Our three different guides in Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Huaraz all yearned again for the strong, effective hand of Fujimori.

Peru’s Economy in 2003

The upper classes in Peru mainly earn their income from exports of gold, copper, zinc, natural gas, textiles, and agricultural products. Strong exports in 2002 gave Peru a trade surplus for the first time in over ten years. From 2001 to 2003, Peru had low inflation, good economic growth, and a thriving black market, at the expense of heavy regulation, worker dislocation, and social unrest. The disparity between rich and poor is very large. Half of Peru lives on less than $2 a day. The “Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act” gives Peru preferential tariffs to the U.S. market and boosts agricultural and textile exports, but also suppresses the livelihood of poor Coca leaf farmers, whose traditional product dates from pre-Inca times.

Despite turbulent politics, Peru makes a wonderful vacation. Allow two extra flex days in your schedule to handle delays in transportation due to frequent strikes.

Recommended books for Peru

Search for latest “Peru travel books” at Amazon.com.

May 2013: 2010: 2013: 2014:
2011: 2011: 2004: 2004:
2008: 2003/1970: