Join Tom in 2017: England Coast to Coast, Wilderness Travel

Join expert photographer Tom Dempsey in the UK this summer 2017 for deluxe hiking England Coast to Coast in 14 days with one of the world’s top tour companies, Wilderness Travel. 

Instead of teaching a workshop, I will be professionally photographing this tour (accompanied by my wife and friends), creating images for Wilderness Travel’s fabulous Catalog of Adventures. Along the journey, feel free to ask me photography questions, enjoy a wonderful hiking package, and share our hunt for memorable images.

Of the following England Coast to Coast 14-day tours, please tell me your availability:

  • Jul 23-Aug 5, 2017
  • Aug 20-Sep 2, 2017
  • WT has approved my photography commission for one of the above trips. Contact Tom Dempsey with your vote of attendance.

The coast-to-coast journey across England from the Irish Sea to the North Sea is one of the great hikes of the world. Wilderness Travel has perfected this classic walk, hiking the most spectacular stretches as we cut a swath across England’s historic and literary landscape and through three magnificent national parks. We bring you from west to east, putting the prevailing wind at your back, from the romantic Lake District into the upland pastures of the Yorkshire Dales and across the dramatic purple-heather moors of Bronte Country to reach Robin Hood’s Bay on the wild North Sea. En route, we visit delightful villages and ancient castles, stay at welcoming inns, and sip a pint or two at friendly country pubs—this is hiker’s England at its best!

Sony A6300/A6000, best APS-C dim-light sports/action camera; rivalled by RX10 III

Are you looking for a great camera having an APS-C-size sensor? The best, most-portable APS-C camera can capture quick sports action and subjects in dim light with fast autofocus: Sony Alpha A6300 camera (buy at Amazon with 16-50mm lens) (2016, 14 oz body + 4 oz 24-75mm equiv zoom). Or save hundreds of dollars on earlier Sony A6000 (2014, 12 oz body), nearly as capable.

However, a smaller 1-inch-Type BSI sensor can now equal or beat virtually every advantage of APS-C cameras (which at best have no more than 5% advantage in real resolution or maximum print size). Compared to Sony’s RX10 III camera (read my review) which has an amazingly bright 25x zoom lens and more advanced stacked backside illumination (BSI) sensor, both Sony’s A6300 and A6000 now demand only the sharpest zoom or prime lenses to justify their APS-C sensor, for example:

Sony A6300 camera

Sony A6300 mirrorless digital camera

  • Sony 10-18mm f4 OSS E-mount lens (8 oz, SEL1018, 2012) captures exceptionally crisp wide angles for architecture & landscapes at 15-27mm equivalent (mostly wider than the 24mm equivalent of RX10 III, though you can easily stitch images to compensate).
  • Sony E-mount 16-70mm F4 Vario-Tessar T ZA OSS SEL1670Z lens (2013, 11 oz) clearly beats Sony’s 16-50mm kit lens, but costs $600 more! SEL1670Z lens is sharpest around f/5.6 across its range. However, my June 2016 field tests surprisingly revealed that a SEL1670Z mounted on A6300 isn’t much better than the new Sony RX10 III camera. In side-by-side tests, from about 16-50mm (24-75mm equivalent) in direct sunlight, and for closest focus in dim light around 45mm equivalent, SEL1670Z can resolve enough extra detail to make about 5% wider/taller prints than Sony RX10 III, but otherwise not. From 75-105mm equivalent in most lighting situations, or in dim indoor light across its range, SEL1670Z is equaled or beaten by RX10 III in half of my hand-held shots at optimally-sharp apertures. RX10 III’s remarkable performance in dim light is probably explained by its efficient BSI sensor design, plus its larger diameter lens of 72mm (versus just 55mm filter size on SEL1670Z), gathering more light.

While Sony’s E-mount 16-50mm kit lens is exceptionally compact, it isn’t as sharp as SEL18200 or E 18-55mm lenses. And since the May 2016 introduction of Sony’s RX10 III camera with superior optics, I no longer recommend using the following 10x or 11x zoom lenses on Sony A6300 or A6000 or NEX:

In order to equal or beat RX10 III, owners of a Sony A6300 or A6000 may need one of the following hefty, pricey Sony FE Series (full-frame) lenses:

  • Sony FE 24-70 mm F2.8 GM SEL2470GM lens (2016, 31 oz) is brighter than the F3.2-4 of RX10 III at this 36-105mm equivalent zoom range on A6300.
  • Sony FE 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 G OSS SEL70300G lens (2016, 30 oz) reportedly grabs good sports & wildlife shots on A6300. But within this range from 105-450mm equivalent, I suspect that the significantly faster F4 of RX10 III rivals the image quality of SEL70300G lens when tested side by side. RX10 is a better value and more portable for travel.
  • Sony FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS SEL70200GM (2016, 52 oz) has bright, premium glass, advantageous for dim light photography, a full stop faster than RX10 III (which is F4 within this 105-300mm equivalent range). Has anyone compared this side-by-side with RX10 III in the field? — please “Leave a Reply” at bottom.
  • Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS SEL70200G lens (2014, 30 oz) has premium glass, but is no brighter than the F4 of RX10 III within this 105-300mm equivalent range.
  • Sony FE series lenses support Sony A7 series full-frame cameras, and also APS-C-sensor E-mount cameras (A6300, A6000 and earlier NEX-6 & NEX-7).

Clearly, Sony’s A6300 & A6000 are now outgunned for outdoor travel photographers, as Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III camera (buy at Amazon) packs the ultimate all-in-one travel tool into just 37 ounces. The RX10’s weather-sealed, bright f/2.4-4 lens (72mm filter diameter) with remarkable 25x zoom is sharp across the frame from 24-600mm equivalent, well into birding territory (read my Telephoto article). With the latest 1”-Type stacked BSI sensor, RX10 captures great depth-of-focus details, everywhere from close flower shots to distant bird feathers. In my testing, RX10 III clearly beats the 11x SEL18200 lens (62mm filter diameter) on flagship APS-C Sony A6300 anywhere above 90mm+ equivalent telephoto, even as high as ISO 6400, due to the faster lens and BSI technology compensating for sensor size difference. At wider angles, 27-80mm equivalent, they capture similar quality in bright outdoor light — but in dim or indoor light, A6300’s larger sensor can sometimes resolve more detail on SEL18200. The sharper zoom SEL1670Z is only about 5% better than RX10 in bright light, and no better in dim light.

Conclusion: Among APS-C sensor cameras, Sony A6300 is my pick for top quality and best value; but now the Sony RX10 III with a smaller 1-inch-Type BSI sensor, combined with superb 25x lens, is a much better value than APS-C for travel, sports or wildlife photography. To gain up to about 5% in real resolution over RX10 III, the Sony A6000/A6300/A6500 cameras require interchanging only the brightest, highest-quality lenses (such as pricey f/2.8 lenses, Sony FE 24-70mm or FE 70-200mm). Lesser-quality lenses on APS-C are now antiquated by the all-in-one Sony RX10 III camera.

Sony A6300 camera improves upon earlier A6000 as follows:

  • 425 phase-detection autofocus (AF) points across the sensor (versus 179 in A6000). These cameras use a hybrid of on-sensor phase detection (for depth awareness) and contrast detection autofocus (for high precision).
  • Big viewfinder OLED 2.36 million dots with optional 120 fps refresh (versus 1.44 million in A6000).
  • Battery life increased to 400 shots, or 350 with EVF (versus 360 shots, or 310 with EVF in A6000).
  • A6300 is one of the top APS-C cameras at high ISO: A6300 improves ISO 1600 clarity by about a half stop, ISO 3200 by a full stop less noise compared to A6000.
  • A6300 introduces UHD 4K video (3840 x 2160 pixels at 30p). With Samsung apparently orphaning its NX1, the A6300’s video abilities are only rivaled by Panasonic GX and GH models.
  • Horizontal level gauge added.
  • Body is now magnesium alloy, environmentally sealed.
  • 14-bit raw format introduced (when using mechanical shutter) versus 12-bit raw in A6000.
  • improved Auto ISO settings

All these improvements in the A6300 come in a slightly heavier 14.3-ounce body weight (with battery & card; versus A6000’s 12.1 oz), still significantly lighter-weight than most DSLR-style cameras.

Suggested accessories for Sony A6300 and A6000:

If you don’t need a viewfinder, a cheaper Sony A5100 adds touchscreen and includes A6000’s hybrid autofocus system.

Read about A6300’s predecessors and more lens analyses: Sony A6000 & NEX top Nikon for travel, 11x lens.

Panasonic ZS100 pocket 10x zoom bests Sony RX100 for travel

In 2016, the most portable 10x zoom on a 1-inch-Type sensor is Panasonic LUMIX ZS100 camera (Amazon) (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent, 21mp). ZS100 is now my favorite camera which can fit a large shirt pocket. Read why larger sensors can improve image quality.

Although rival Sony RX100 (read my review) is admittedly sharper throughout 3x zoom, Panasonic ZS100 focuses closer at more zoom settings and enormously extends optical telephoto reach. Anywhere from 3x to 10x zoom (70-250mm equivalent), the ZS100 easily beats digital cropping of Sony RX100’s furthest reach (70mm in versions III & IV). ZS100’s good telephoto remarkably expands your capture of wildlife and distant small subjects, more sharply than pocketable rivals or smartphones (see heron photo further below).

Panasonic ZS100 vs Sony RX100 III size

Compare lens and size of Sony DSC-RX100 III with Panasonic ZS100 digital camera. The ZS100 is definitely fatter but can still squeak into a large shirt pocket.

Compare body sizes:

  • 102 x 58 x 41 mm (4.02 x 2.28 x 1.61) Sony RX100 versions III and IV
  • 111 x 65 x 44 mm (4.37 x 2.56 x 1.73″) Panasonic ZS100

Panasonic ZS100 beats macro focus of Sony RX100

ZS100 captures best macro (close focus) when zoomed by 2x, near 44mm equivalent, to minimize excessive corner softness seen at wider angles of view. You must first press the Macro (Flower symbol/left toggle) button to focus closest. In contrast, Sony RX100 III focuses closest only at 24mm equivalent (widest angle of view), lacks a dedicated macro mode, and cannot enlarge subjects as much. Panasonic ZS100 can enlarge small subjects more sharply than Sony RX100.

Because macro was one of my main reasons for carrying an RX100 (to supplement a larger-sensor APS-C system with 11x zoom which captured poor macro), a ZS100 now serves better as our backup travel camera for my wife to carry.

Surprisingly good telephoto sharpness

Carrying a pocket camera with 10x zoom around town lets me capture unexpected moments like this at a distance:

Panasonic ZS100 shot at 250mm

Above: A Great Blue Heron on a boat spears a fish along the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop in Seattle, Washington. At 250mm equivalent zoom in sunny conditions, the Panasonic Lumix ZS100 camera captures surprisingly good detail in the heron’s head and feathers (portions shown at 100% pixel view). Even the shadowy “Yamaha” letters look reasonably sharp at the edge of the frame. Photographed at ISO 125, f/5.9, 1/1000th sec.

The above overall image (originally 20 megapixels, 5472 x 3648) can be cropped to isolate the heron at 1764 x 1348 pixels, which is enough to print sharply about 7″ high (at 250dpi). Much better than a smartphone camera, Panasonic ZS100 gives you lots of leeway to share digitally cropped telephoto shots on the internet, as in the example below shrunk to 600 pixels high:

Great Blue Heron spears fish

A Great Blue Heron spears a fish. Photographed along the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop in Seattle, Washington, USA.

Sony RX10 III superb 25x travel zoom outshines 11x on APS-C

New in May 2016, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III (buy at Amazon) is now my ultimate travel camera. Its weather-sealed body includes a bright f/2.4-4 lens with incredible 25x zoom, sharp across the frame throughout its remarkable 24-600mm equivalent range, well into birding territory. I no longer need to carry a pocket camera for improving close-focus shots, as RX10 already has a 1”-Type sensor. With deeper depth of focus than APS-C or larger-sensor cameras for a given f-stop, it enhances details from close flower shots to distant bird feathers at 600mm equivalent telephoto. This all-in-one marvel is also my top pick for portable wildlife telephoto. The chunky RX10 III weighs just 37 ounces (including battery & card; plus adding 5 oz for strap, lens filter, cap & hood makes 42 oz). RX10 III is the world’s most versatile camera for on-the-go outdoor photographers. Further below, compare with rivals and learn about important hidden settings and accessories.

Sony RX10 III camera

The versatile Sony RX10 III weather-sealed camera has a 25x zoom range, 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 lens.

In a breakthrough for travel photographers, Sony has more than doubled my former zoom range while improving image quality. The professionally-sharp, bright 25x zoom of RX10 III resoundingly beats the resolution of my previous favorite Sony 11x zoom lens SEL18200 on flagship APS-C Sony A6300 anywhere above 90mm+ equivalent telephoto, even as high as ISO 6400. To my delight, RX10’s faster, larger-diameter lens (72mm filter size) plus backside illumination (BSI) sensor technology together magically compensate for the sensor size difference. At wider angles, 27-80mm equivalent, both capture similar quality in bright outdoor light. Advantageously, RX10 stretches to a wide view of 24mm equivalent. In dim/indoor light, A6300’s larger sensor can sometimes resolve more detail than RX10III, but not consistently in my real world comparisons using SEL18200 and SEL1670Z lenses. Impressively, Sony claims SteadyShot stabilization of up to 4.5 stops of benefit (in terms of slower shutter speed handheld) for this model DSC-RX10M3.

For me, RX10III’s only weakness is frequent failure to lock focus on the far telephoto end 400-600mm equivalent in dim light or on low-contrast subjects, which can be worked around by using Manual Focus (or by switching brands for faster AF on rival Panasonic FZ2500 compared below).

Superb quality and unprecedented versatility now make Sony RX10 III my main travel camera. 

Three extracts from the edges and center of this Chilean Flamingo image show the crisp 600mm-equivalent telephoto reach of Sony RX10 III:

Chilean Flamingo, Woodland Park Zoo

Field tests confirm that Sony RX10 III is sharp across the frame at all zoom settings (optimally sharpest around f/4 from 24-400mm equivalent and at f/5.6 from 500-600mm). Even at maximum telephoto 220mm (600mm equivalent), extracts from both the edges and center are notably crisp (enlarged at 100% pixel view in the above photo). {Shot at optimal aperture f/5.6, for 1/1600th second at ISO 100. In Adobe Lightroom, raw file exposure was adjusted +1.86 EV, Highlights -84, plus Sharpening. The photo is from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington.}

More details:

As of 2016, I rank the world’s top travel cameras as follows, shown best first and smallest last:

  1. Sony RX10 III (May 2016, 37 oz, 25x zoom 24-600mm f/2.4-4): the best travel camera of 2016 handily beats its closest rivals having 1” BSI sensor. It has a nice tilting LCD, but no touchscreen.
  2. Panasonic FZ2500 (December 2016, 33 oz, 20x zoom 24-480mm f/2.8–4.5): costs 25% less, adds a fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, increases viewfinder magnification (EVF 0.74x versus 0.7x), autofocuses faster, has better menus and improves video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K), in comparison to Sony RX10 III. But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light, slightly lowering image quality; its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders; and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than RX10III’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)
  3. Panasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz, 16x zoom 25-400mm f/2.8-4.0): best price value (costs half of RX10 III). Adds fully-articulated LCD and autofocus for action & sports is a bit faster than RX10 III.
  4. Pocketable: Panasonic ZS100 (price at Amazon) (2016, 11 oz, 10x zoom 25-250mm equivalent f/2.8-5.9): Read my ZS100 review. ZS100 introduces the first pocketable 10x zoom on a 1-inch-Type sensor, capturing close macro at more zoom settings and enormously extending optical telephoto reach beyond my 3x-zoom Sony RX100 (read my 2012-15 review). Anywhere from 3x-10x on Panasonic ZS100 beats digital cropping of rival Sony RX100 (which stops at 70mm equivalent in versions III and IV).
  5. Half-price pocketable: Panasonic ZS50 (2015, 9 oz, 30x zoom 24–720mm f/3.3–6.4, 12 mp) is a nice little camera with a rare viewfinder and a small 1/2.3″ sensor that still beats smartphone quality. (TZ70 outside of North America.)

Sony RX10 III beats the following midsize rivals for versatile lightweight travel:

  • APS-C flagship Sony Alpha A6300 (2016, 33 oz = 14 oz body + 11x zoom 27-300mm equivalent f/3.5-6.3 lens): its interchangeable-lens capability is made redundant by RX10’s sharp and bright 25x zoom. See my side-by-side test images further below.
  • Canon PowerShot G3 X camera (2015, 26 oz, 25x zoom, 20mp) has 24-600mm equivalent f/2.8-5.6 lens (which is neither as bright nor as sharp as Sony RX10 III). The G3 X buys you lighter travel weight, but you must separately add a pricey $240 viewfinder. Also its older, poorer 1″ sensor is a stop or two worse at ISO 800+ compared to FZ1000 or RX10.
  • The following 44-ounce Nikon 1 interchangeable lens system of 2014 is now outdated:
    • Nikon 1 V3 camera (2014, 14-oz body, 18mp) mounted with Nikkor VR 70-300mm CX format lens (19 oz) has a sharp 189-810mm equivalent zoom but relatively slow f/4.5-5.6 aperture. Capturing normal angles of view requires inconvenient swapping of the 70-300mm lens, such as to 10-100mm CX-format lens (27-270mm equiv, 10.5 oz) for Nikon 1.
    • With fewer megapixels (18mp versus 20mp) shot on a poorer, noisier sensor (at least 2 stops noisier at ISO 400+) using a slower lens, Nikon 1 V3 cannot beat Sony RX10 III.
  • In February 2017, Nikon cancelled its proposed DL camera line of premium compact cameras (DL 18-50, DL 24-85 and DL 24-500 announced in 2016). Nikon DL24-500 would have had a relatively slow f/2.8-5.6 lens (28 oz, 21x zoom, 21mp).

Recommended accessories for Sony RX10 III:

What do I know?

For lightweight travel gear capturing publishable images, I’m not tied to any one system or brand. Instead, I prefer upgrading to the latest, best tool for the job (then selling the old gear locally via Craigslist, in-person for cash). I’ve enjoyed the 24mp APS-C sensor in Sony NEX-7 from 2012-2016 and successor A6300 using Sony’s 18-200mm SteadyShot lens (27-300mm equivalent). Before that, Nikon gear served me well over 11 years (see Tom’s gear history), such as Nikon D5000 APS-C with 18-200mm VR II lens. I began photography in 1978−97 with the classic Olympus OM-1N 35mm-film camera. But switching to digital Canon PowerShot cameras from 2003-07 gave me instant feedback and more freedom from the tripod. Now as of 2016, the 1-inch-sensor Sony RX10 III preserves publishable image quality while radically extending zoom range to 25x. The proof is in the pudding: check out my portfolio.

What do others say? Reviewer Ken Rockwell says the RX10 III is “superb for sports; it really does lock-on to faces and track them as they run down the field, and its non-rolling electronic shutter lets it run silently at 5 real frames per second as it tracks everything…and the RX10 III is astonishing in how much it does so well.” Be sure to turn on Eye AF for instant focus on humans.

Sun starburst (at f/16 using Sony RX10 III camera) shines on lichen growing on twisted old tree wood at Glacier Pass. Backback to Mirror Lake in Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa–Whitman National Forest, Wallowa Mountains, Columbia Plateau, northeastern Oregon, USA. Hike 7.3 miles from Two Pan Trailhead (5600 ft) up East Lostine River to camp at popular Mirror Lake (7606 ft). Day hike to Glacier Lake via Glacier Pass (6 miles round trip, 1200 ft gain). Backpack out 8.7 miles via Carper Pass, Minam Lake and West Fork Lostine. From September 11-13, 2016 Carol and I walked 22 miles in 3 days. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Sony RX10 III can create a special sun starburst effect, only at aperture f/16: see Recommended settings: secrets of the Sony RX10 III” further below. The photo is from Eagle Cap Wilderness (read Tom’s article), Wallowa–Whitman National Forest, northeastern Oregon, USA.

RX10 III rivals a sharp 4x zoom F4 lens on APS-C sensor

According to my side-by-side testing, Sony’s RX10 III camera has a remarkable equality to the flagship APS-C Sony A6300 in dim light, due to RX10 III’s more-efficient BSI sensor design plus its large diameter lens of 72mm gathering more light (versus the much smaller 55mm filter size on the pricey SEL1670Z comparison lens).

Details: In my June 2016 side-by-side tests in bright sunlight, Sony’s sharp F4 16-70mm 4x zoom lens (SEL1670Z, 24-105mm equivalent) mounted on A6300 can resolve linear details only up to 5% better than my Sony RX10 III camera at wide angles of view. SEL1670Z is also sharper for macro in dim or bright light (using closest focus at around 45mm equivalent). But in dim light or at 75-105mm equivalent telephoto, the two systems on average capture equally sharp images, despite the sensor size difference (APS-C versus 1-inch-type).

These field tests demote the APS-C flagship A6300, making it no longer my top travel camera. The gain is nearly insignificant for A6300 to make at most 5% wider or taller prints compared to Sony RX10 III; and A6300’s advantage requires direct sunlight at wide angles of view, or macro. From 75-105mm equivalent in most lighting situations or in dim indoor light across its range (except 45mm macro), SEL1670Z is equaled or beaten by RX10 III in half of my hand-held shots at optimally-sharp apertures, with image stabilization turned on.

You must inconveniently interchange a much heavier, pricier set of lenses on A6300 to rival the quality of RX10 III’s sharp 25x F4 zoom.

My Sony A6300 (read Tom’s review) can still be useful as a lightweight camera for action and indoor event photography (such as weddings) at wider angles of view, such as at 24-105mm equivalent using Sony’s 16-70mm F4 SEL1670Z lens. (The SEL1670Z lens has good macro when set at 30mm, which is 45mm-equivalent in terms of full-frame’s angle of view.) The A6300 has a bit quicker autofocus such as for tracking of moving subjects, which I rarely use. But future upgrades to Sony’s A6300 will require new advances, such as more megapixels and the creation of backside illumination (BSI) sensors at APS-C size, in order to gain a clearer advantage over the groundbreaking Sony RX10 III.

How does Sony RX10 III compare to full-frame?

For a significant jump up in quality, night photographers and big-print professionals can consider using fast lenses on Sony a7R II (price at Amazon) (2015, 22 oz body), a big 42-megapixel full-frame mirrorless camera, featuring the world’s first 35mm-size BSI CMOS sensor, plus a 5-axis image stabilization built into the body, hybrid autofocus, and 4K video, good for capturing the northern lights or indoor action.

But for me, full-frame systems are too bulky and expensive for travel, especially in terms of zoom range. If money is no object, using Sony’s 10x zoom FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 lens (28 oz) on A7 IIR’s 42mp sensor (50 oz total camera+lens) should buy quality at wide angles better than RX10III’s smaller 20mp sensor (37 oz). But RX10III’s f/4 quality should beat cropping down the 42mp to reach the 500-600mm equivalent necessary for wildlife and bird photos. Realistically, A7 IIR’s incredible sensor so greatly exceeds the quality of the FE 24-240mm lens that only sharper, faster lenses should be considered. In comparison, RX10 III is much more portable (37 oz versus 50+ oz) and its 20 megapixels are plenty for my professional publishing needs.

In historical perspective, the Sony RX10III makes prints far bigger than my full-frame 35mm film cameras used 1978-2004.

Compact 25x zoom RX10 III beats APS-C travel systems using 11x to 19x

In 90% of my test shots (see examples below), the RX10 III beat image quality from the much bigger sensor (APS-C) in Sony’s flagship A6300 mounted with 11x Sony SEL18200 silver lens (27-300mm equivalent). Similarly, I expect RX10 III should also beat the 10x zoom Sony FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS E-mount SEL24240 lens (see at Amazon) on A6300. RX10 III should likewise outperform Tamron’s 19x zoom 16-300mm equivalent lens and best all current 11x-17x zoom lenses by Nikon, Canon and Sigma (when mounted on APS-C systems of up to 24 megapixels), based upon how similarly SEL18200 compares to them in reviews at SLRgear.com, DxOMark.com, and others.

According to my practical field tests, the 20-megapixel RX10 III excels at close focus (best macro enlargement around 40-50mm equivalent), at 24-27mm wide angle, and at stunning telephoto from 80-600mm equivalent, well into the range of wildlife/bird photography. No rival comes close in its weight class.

In comparison, Sony’s flagship APS-C camera, the A6300 mounted with my trusty 11x travel zoom (silver model SEL18200 with relatively slow aperture f/3.5-6.3) resolved slightly more image details only within a sweet spot from 30-60mm equivalent (where 24 megapixels could beat RX10’s 20mp), especially at ISO 640+. But to my delight throughout 90-600mm equivalent, the RX10 III consistently beat the SEL18200 lens through ISO 6400, due to brighter lens, superior optics and BSI technology, a stellar performance from a sensor 3 times smaller!

Note: Sony’s 11x SEL18200 lens suffers substantial bloating from barrel distortion at its widest angles of view (27-42mm equivalent) and is squeezed by pincushion distortion at 50-150mm equivalent (which I corrected using Adobe Lightroom’s Enable Lens Profile Corrections in the examples below). In contrast, the RX10 III captures crisp rectilinear lines, great for architecture photography — thankfully recorded with distortions and chromatic aberrations all auto-corrected by default using a “Built-in Lens Profile” in both JPEG and raw, straight out of the camera!

Despite superior autofocus performance by Sony Alpha a6300 (price at Amazon), especially in dim indoor light, its success rate capturing detailed images suffers when using Sony SEL18200 lens, which is sharp at center but rapidly fuzzier towards the edges, especially at 100-300mm equiv.

To rival the crisp 25x zoom of 37-ounce RX10 III, an APS-C-sensor camera would need to interchange lenses on a pricier system weighing more than 55-66 ounces − inconvenient for travel. For example, Sony’s 14-ounce A6300 body now begs for the following bulkier, pricier system to replace the Sony 11x SEL18200 lens:

  1. Sony E-mount 16-70mm F4 Vario-Tessar T ZA OSS SEL1670Z lens (Amazon) (2013, 11 oz).
  2. Sony FE 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 G OSS SEL70300G lens (2016, 30 oz).
  3. Sony DSC-RX100 (IV, III, II, or I) pocket camera for decent macro.
Critical photo comparisons of Sony RX10 III versus A6300 with SEL18200

For realistic comparison, test images on this page have been shot as raw files, corrected, and optimized. Sony RX10 III images shown at 100% pixel view have been upscaled from 20 to 24 megapixels to line up against the Sony A6300 images shot on SEL18200 lens (for normalization as in a same-size print comparison). Active animals were shot at 1/500 second in Shutter Priority mode to freeze motion blur. Static subjects were shot near camera-equivalent apertures to equalize depth of focus (for example, f/4 on 1” sensor has same pupil diameter as f/7.1 on APS-C, as calculated from their relative diagonal crop factor of 1.77). ISO was shot on Auto then reported for each shot.

In the following comparison at 340mm equivalent, the RX10 III captures superior sharpness in the bird’s feather details:

Compare Sony at 340mm, ISO 2500

Above: Shooting in challenging shady lighting at 340mm equivalent at ISO 2500 using Sony RX10 III camera clearly beats the sharpness of Sony’s 11x SEL18200 lens at its maximum 300mm equivalent on A6300.

In the following dim indoor image shot at high ISO 6400 without flash, the superior optics of Sony RX10 III clearly beat a Sony A6300 with SEL18200 lens, both zoomed to 195mm equivalent:

Test 195mm ISO6400 Sony RX10III vs A6300 SEL18200

Above: Two test shots are compared at 195mm equivalent at ISO 6400 using Sony RX10 III versus A6300 using 11x silver SEL18200 lens. RX10 is slightly sharper at center and clearly superior at upper left and lower right edges. Tests confirm that Sony’s SEL18200 lens is notably soft around the edges anywhere from 100-300mm equivalent, causing it to lose against Sony’s brighter RX10 III lens despite the sensor size difference.

In the following image at 27mm equivalent at base ISO 100, the RX10 III wins by a hair over A6300 with SEL18200:

Sony RX10III vs A6300 at 27mm

Above: Compare at 27mm equivalent, ISO 100, Sony RX10 III versus A6300 with 11x SEL18200 lens.

Other testing shows that after correcting for distortion, the Sony A6300 with 11x SEL18200 lens can only beat RX10 III in dim lighting within a sweet spot from 30-60mm equivalent (assisted by its 3-times-larger sensor). But in bright outdoors, you see little difference at wide angles of view. In effect, the A6300 begs for a sharper lens, such as Sony 16-70mm F4 or a set of prime lenses which require interchanging (too inconvenient for my travel photography). Comparatively speaking, A6300 with 11x zoom now lacks sufficient quality and versatility for a given travel weight. For my typical outdoor nature photography on the go, RX10 III captures superior edge-to-edge details at more zoom settings.

Recommended settings: secrets of the Sony RX10 III

  • Through most of its 25x zoom range, RX10 III is sharpest when shot about f/4 aperture; but f/5.6 is sharpest at 500-600mm equivalent. In effect, these optimal f-stops give you the best balance between diffraction (through smallest apertures) versus chromatic aberrations (possible in all cameras at brightest openings; luckily hardly noticeable in RX10 III due to automatic in-camera corrections before writing JPEG and raw files to the memory card).
  • Stopping down to f/16 aperture, RX10III creates a wonderful starburst effect emanating from intense pinpoints of light such as the sun, lightbulbs, etc (see starburst photo further above). Warning: as on most cameras, f/16 looks notably softer in focus when analyzed at 100% pixel view, nearly halving the resolution compared to f/5.6 or brighter apertures, due to diffraction through the tiny f/16 hole. (At all apertures brighter than f/16, the starburst is NOT created, such as at f/2.4 to f/4, where rounded blades smooth the opening for more attractive bokeh, the appearance of the out-of-focus areas.) Using Adobe Lightroom CC, I like to stitch panoramas where the shot with the sun has an f/16 starburst, but the remaining combined shots without the starburst use the much sharper f/4 or f/5.6.
  • For sharper hand-held shots at 600mm maximum telephoto, leave Image Stabilization ON and use 1/100th second shutter speed or faster.
  • Increase zoom racking speed: from 24 to 600mm in just 2 seconds, by setting Zoom Speed = “Fast” in Menu > Settings Tab 2 > Set #3. That’s twice as fast as the 4-second Normal default. I mostly prefer Normal, for finer framing control, except for fleeting wildlife or sports. The Zoom Speeds of Fast and Normal apply to still shots; but Movie recording mode thankfully automatically invokes a slower, virtually silent zoom to avoid jarring video viewers. RX10III’s power zoom being locked on track at all settings avoids the annoying zoom creep (slippage when pointed upwards or downwards) behavior of most 11x manual (non-power) zooms made by Sony, Nikon and others for APS-C cameras. The short 2 or 4 seconds to rack through RX10III’s incredible 25x zoom beats the longer inconvenience of changing lenses required on interchangeable lens systems such as APS-C or full frame, which I formerly used 1978-2015.
  • Assign the following to the Fn button for quick access: ISO Auto Min SS = minimum shutter speed at a given ISO = STD (standard), SLOW, SLOWER, FAST, FASTER
  • Turn on Eye AF for instant focus on human eyes throughout the zoom range, especially for action/sports.
  • Turn OFF the Pre-AF option, for more reliable half-press focus-locking and quicker autofocus in the telephoto range, especially 400-600mm equivalent.
  • Use the quick Memory Recall (MR on mode dial, initially set within a hard-to-understand menu) to quickly set a whole palette of settings, which otherwise would be frustrating to find and set separately in the disorganized menus.
  • Instead of hunting through MENUs, put favorite settings on the Fn button as follows: MENU Tab 2 > item 5 > “Function Menu Set“. For example, I set these: Drive Mode, Flash Mode, Flash Compensation, Focus Area, ISO, Metering Mode, Smile/Face Detection, SteadyShot for video, HFR Frame Rate, Center Lock-on AF, ISO AUTO minimum Shutter Speed.

Video tips:

  • Video settings are scattered across Tab 1 (items 2, 8, 9), Tab 2 (items 1, 2, 5, 6) and Tab 6 (item 3). Some of these settings can only be changed when the top Mode Dial is set to Movie mode (icon shaped like a film frame with spindle perforations). But luckily the MOVIE button can record with the current video settings no matter where the Mode Dial is set.
  • For videos, you can set hidden P, A, S and M exposure modes using MENU Tab 1 > item 8 > “Movie” (when Top Mode Dial = Movie mode): press Center button then scroll through PASM video options. To get a constant exposure during a video, use video M (Manual) mode: set ISO 100 (or as desired to a constant ISO number, but not AUTO ISO), set Aperture with ring on lens, and set Shutter Speed with either of the back two dials. To control subject-motion blur, set slow S (Shutter Speed) for more blur (as slow as the inverse of the frame rate in frames per second, fps). A Shutter Speed about twice as fast as the frame rate gives the most “normal” look. Set a faster Shutter Speed (more than twice the frame rate) for a choppier, more jittery video, like in the film “Gladiator”.
  • Play with the amazing High Frame Rate (HFR) video mode, shot in XAVC S 1080p HD format. For example, slow down action by 8 times at 480p (shooting frame rate) at 60p50M (frame rate of movie playback). I like setting Shoot Time Priority; and REC Timing=End Trigger, which records the 2 seconds BEFORE you pressed the Record Button! Limitations: only 2 seconds of real time are recorded (with 10-20 second delay writing to card); minimum ISO is 800; you must lock focus and exposure before recording; and HFR requires fast SD Memory Card Speed Class 10 or UHS Speed Class 1.
  • Assign a dedicated button to Focus Magnifier for use in Videos (else none is available). Tips: Focus is faster at brightest apertures (lowest f-number). Use S-Log2 for high contrast scenes to better see shadows and highlights simultaneously, as in wildlife videos (but will likely require editing to compensate for the flat dynamics).

RX10 III negatives, problems for Sony to fix

  • RX10III frequently fails to lock focus on the far telephoto end 400-600mm equivalent in dim light or on low-contrast subjects. Sony, please add Phase Detection AF pixels to the sensor. The work-around is to use Manual Focus (or switch brands to faster AF on rival Panasonic FZ2500; or use Sony A6000, A6300 or A6500).
  • Sony menus are extremely disorganized, slowing access to important features. For example, video settings are scattered across Tab 1 (items 2, 8, 9), Tab 2 (items 1, 2, 5, 6), and Tab 6 (item 3). These badly need consolidating. AF settings are also scattered across different menu tabs. The workaround, as with past Sony cameras, is to memorize or write down where things are randomly hidden. Also, please allow MENU Tab 1 > item 8 > “Movie” (setting PASM modes for video) to be assigned to the Fn button.
  • RX10III lacks an electronic ND filter (Neutral Density), which is especially important for video in bright light, at bright apertures for shallower depth of focus. Workaround: simply attach a glass ND filter to the threads on the front of the lens when needed, the old-fashioned way. This could be almost as quick as trying to find settings in the notoriously disorganized Sony menus. Otherwise, RX10III is reputedly great for video. However, Panasonic FZ2500 has an ND filter and is probably superior for videographers.
  • In M/Manual mode, you must turn off Auto ISO every time, set ISO manually, then set back to Auto ISO when switching back to P, A or S mode. I prefer Manual mode to always default to manual ISO. Sony, please don’t force Manual mode’s ISO to that of the other PAS settings, and vice versa! Manual means manual.

Conclusion

For travel in 2016, the all-in-one Sony RX10 III overpowers its rival superzoom cameras with 1″-Type sensors. More significantly, the above field tests show that RX10 III resoundingly beats my previous favorite travel system, the Sony 11x zoom SEL18200 lens mounted on the larger-sensor APS-C Sony A6300 camera. Moreover, this APS-C flagship is at best 5% sharper than RX10III when using the wider end of a premium 4x zoom lens, but no better in dim light! I would rather have an all-in-one 25x zoom which astoundingly extends sharp f/4 telephoto reach to 600mm equivalent. For portable outdoor photography in 2016, nothing beats the superb, fast optics of the 25x-zoom Sony RX10 III (price at Amazon).

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 travelers. Below 1″ 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.

Recent digital sensor advances have shrunk cameras and increased zoom ranges while preserving image quality. Evocative images can clearly be captured with most any decent camera. Top smartphones such as Google Pixel, Samsung S6/S7 or Apple iPhone 6s can potentially make good 18-inch prints. But for superior zoom, better performance in dim light and sharper prints, get a bigger camera. 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 than a smaller-sensor camera system.

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.
  • 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) − see dpreview.com and handy Comparometer at imaging-resource.com. Check other review sites analyzing a camera’s telephoto in addition to standard lens.
  • 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.
  • Even better, 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).

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 for a sharp 18-inch print, virtually indistinguishable from that taken by a larger camera.

Read this pointed perspective on how far image quality has progressed from early DSLR to 2014 smartphone cameras. Evocative images can clearly be captured with most any decent camera. But tiny-sensor cameras have considerable 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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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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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).

Digital Graduated Filter & Adjustment Brush revive photos

The crucial digital Graduated Filter or Adjustment Brush tool can optimize dark and bright tones in selected areas of any digital image file (JPEG, raw, TIF). Adobe Lightroom software (or Apple Aperture) adjusts photos easily, but Adobe Photoshop takes more effort to accomplish the same thing.

Your eyes see deeply into shadows and highlights which most cameras unfortunately render too dark or bright by default. Many cameras made after 2008 can alleviate common contrast problems in JPEG shots if you know how turn ON their special mode for highlight, shadow, contrast, or dynamic range (named differently by brand):

  • Canon: i-Contrast and Highlight Tone Priority
  • Nikon: Active D-Lighting is great for JPEG, but can slow down shooting performance. When shooting raw, turn off Active D-Lighting.
  • Fujifilm: DR, and D-Range priority
  • Olympus: Shadow Adjustment Technology (SAT)
  • Sony: Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO)

I applaud the above advances in camera contrast control, which most JPEG photographers should leave ON. Film never gave you so much contrast control.

But you’ll control tones much better by shooting raw file format and adjusting specific areas of the image as needed, using Adobe Lightroom‘s digital Graduated Filter or Adjustment Brush as explained in Parts I and II below.

When you shoot landscape images on JPEG or film, a glass neutral-density graduated filter is often required to balance bright sky with dark foreground. Raw files now digitally replace the glass graduated filter. Compared to JPEG shots, raw files have at least 16 times the color depth per pixel and expand recoverable dynamic range by 2 to 3 stops in APS-C sensor cameras, like magic (or by only half a stop using small sensors, such as in a 2008 Olympus E-30 camera with Micro Four Thirds sensor.)

If your camera shoots raw files, adjust tones manually in your raw converter software such as: Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture, Adobe Photoshop, free FastStone.org editor, or raw file software provided on your camera’s CD/DVD. Lightroom has revolutionized my photo workflow speed and organization. Learning is best “hands on.” Download a free trial copy of Lightroom from Adobe.com. Then Import your own landscape image with sky and dark foreground, and play with the steps below. Learn Lightroom within a few days. Buy Adobe Lightroom here to support my work. Or students, teachers, and school staff can get cheap academic discount through Adobe.

Part I: Adobe Lightroom: great Graduated Filter and Adjustment Brush

The following three Figures illustrate how to adjust image tone and apply a digital Graduated Filter or Adjustment Brush in Adobe Lightroom version 2.3. Other photo editing programs can do some of this, but Lightroom boasts tools which are better, quicker, and nondestructive, with Undo to any step of the photo’s edit History database.

Figure 1: Original image

Figure 1 shows the original image as shot and saved in raw file format (Nikon .NEF file with 12-bit color depth per pixel). Notice the colorful histogram in the upper right of the Develop module of Adobe Lightroom version 2.x. The histogram data piles up against the far right, indicating that the whitest and brightest areas of the image are overexposed and truncated. Luckily on 2009 DSLR cameras, raw files let you recover 1-2 stops of overexposure (and up to a stop of shadows).

Example of using Graduated Filter in Adobe Lightroom: original image

Figure 1: Original image as shot and saved in raw file format, and Imported into the Develop module of Adobe Lightroom version 2.x. National park of Reserva Geobotánica Pululahua, a dormant volcano north of Quito, Ecuador.

Figure 2: press Auto Tone button or adjust each tone slider

Click the Auto Tone button (circled in pink in Figure 2 below) for a quick fix. Auto Tone automatically adjusts the sliders for Exposure, Recovery, Blacks, Brightness and Contrast.

If you don’t like the automatic result of  Auto Tone, choose Edit>Undo (or CTRL+Z in Microsoft Windows) (or Reset All for that image in the Library module), then adjust sliders individually. To be more precise, move the Exposure slider leftwards (to darken) and/or the Recovery slider rightwards to recover the data in the overexposed areas (which would have been irrecoverably truncated if shot as JPEG). In this image, increasing Recovery to 23 and decreasing Contrast to 18 recovered all of the truncated highlight data. Also, blacks were darkened from 5 to 12. Mid tone Brightness was shifted darker (from 50 to 46).

Example of using Graduated Filter in Adobe Lightroom: Auto Tone

Compare Figure 2 (above) with Figure 3 (below) to absorb the gist of this article without needing to read everything.

Example of adding a Graduated Filter in Adobe Lightroom

Figure 3:  Add a Graduated Filter in Develop module of Adobe Lightroom version 2.x. Brighten the foreground (on the lower two thirds of image) by adjusting Graduated Filter sliders as follows: brighten Exposure to +1.2 stops, Contrast to +47, and Clarity to +18 (which can be set before or after drawing the Graduated Filter).    National park of Reserva Geobotánica Pululahua, a dormant volcano north of Quito, Ecuador.

Figure 3: draw the Graduated Filter and adjust its tonal sliders

Click the Graduated Filter tool icon just below the histogram (shown boxed in pink), or press G. A box will drop down a set of six sliders as shown (or buttons). Toggle between slider mode (much preferred) and +/- button mode by clicking the light/dark pair of squares just below the word “Edit.”

Drag to draw the transition area of the Graduated Filter onto the image. Where you first click the mouse is zero effect, and the point where you release the mouse button after dragging is 100% filter effect. Three parallel hairlines appear on the image showing the starting, middle, and stopping points from your mouse drag.

Hovering the mouse over the middle hairline (away from the center dot) turns it into a curved double headed arrow which allows grabbing and rotating the Graduated Filter, to align with the mountain horizon. To shrink or enlarge the transition area of the Graduated Filter, grab the top or bottom hairline and drag. You can grab and drag the middle line’s center dot (circled in pink) to move the whole filter.

 You can add multiple Filters to the image (just like Layers in Photoshop but easier). To modify settings of each filter, you must first select the center dot which turns black (indicating selected/active). Delete key will remove a selected filter. The filter’s center dots only appear when the mouse hovers over the image area, and disappear when hovering outside. Warning: pressing H once by mistake toggles the appearance, or confusing disappearance, of the dots marking locations of Graduated Filters; press H again to restore appearance.

 If the straight line of the Graduated Filter tool doesn’t line up correctly with parts of image, instead use the more flexible Adjustment Brush, which looks like a paintbrush and can draw your “filter” (mask) to any shape! Use the mouse scroll wheel (if any) to quickly change the brush size. To erase previously Brushed areas, hold down the ALT key while drawing, which makes the circular cursor label change from + (plus) to – (minus). To see a red mask indicating the affected area that you drew for the Adjustment Brush, hover the mouse pointer over over its active black (selected) dot, or toggle with the O key.

Part II: How to apply a digital graduated filter in Adobe Photoshop or other software

Cut your editing time by more than half by using Adobe Lightroom as above, instead of Adobe Photoshop. No need to read onwards.

Do you need even more control? Layers and Adjustment Layers in Adobe Photoshop (CS, CS2, CS3, CS4, CS5)  can also create a digital graduated filter or adjust with very precise Selections.

A “digital graduated filter” or “neutral-density graduated mask” can revive most landscape images using Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom:

    1. We want to capture images which accurately portray the tone of what we saw and felt.
      • Unfortunately, most cameras poorly capture the total range of light from bright to dark in a sunlit subject that includes shadows. In comparison, your eyes can quickly perceive subjects in dark shadows in great detail simultaneously with brightly lit areas.
      • As a workaround, use a “digital graduated filter” or “neutral-density graduated mask” to separately optimize the areas of shadows and highlights. Separately optimize the sky and foreground of a landscape image. First, digitally select the dark foreground (all except the sky) of the image. Then adjust its white point, mid tone level, black point, color saturation and Clarity (local contrast). Then digitally select the bright sky and optimize with different filter settings. Each distinctive tonal area of the image should be adjusted separately. The term “mask” refers to the part of the image which is excluded from the filter settings.
    2. Shooting raw files is much better than shooting JPEG if you plan to optimize/edit the image.
      • Always properly expose the highlights at at shooting time. Make sure the shot is well-exposed by maximizing the area under the bell-curve of the histogram. The camera’s handy histogram displays brightness values from 0 to 255 from left to right. Expose brightly enough to push the histogram curve as far right as possible, making sure that it flattens to zero at brightness value 255 (far right edge), without truncated data climbing up the right side. Overexposed JPEG files cannot recover highlight detail. Any subject that is overexposed (brighter than 255) in a JPEG file will be truncated at brightness level 255, losing highlights.
      • Thankfully, raw file converter software can recover an additional f-stop or two of highlight information brighter than 255 from DSLR raw files (or about half a stop for compact, small-sensor camera raw files) and rebuild the smooth histogram 0 to 255 using image data from improved dynamic range. You can also recover a similar amount of tonal information in the shadows/blacks while controlling mottling noise!
      • Do all your tonal editing in raw files (or 16-bit TIF files exported from raw) in order to avoid posterization. You can revive many JPEG shots, but in big enlargements, the quality can be noticeably worse than when derived from raw and 16-bit TIF.
    3. Do as much of your editing as possible on the raw file itself using raw file converter software. For further editing such as to make more accurate prints, output a 16-bit TIF file. Or edit JPEG files if that’s all you shot, but if the edited image looks pasty or posterized, undo and reduce how far you changed tonal sliders.
    4. On your computer, run any photo editing software that supports tonal changes on selections, layers, adjustment brushes, or graduated filters. Open the raw, TIF or JPG file. To avoid compression losses each time you save a JPG file, save the original JPG image file as a non-lossy TIF, and edit just the TIF, preferable with 16-bit color depth.
    5. Shadows (or foreground) adjustment: Select just the shadows plus non-sky mid tones, excluding the sky:
      • Using Adobe Lightroom 2: Lightroom is much quicker and easier than Adobe Photoshop while achieving similar excellent results (except Photoshop is better for preparing images for printing sRGB format or for pre-press CMYK work).
        • Under the Develop tab, select the shadows plus non-sky mid tones (excluding the sky) in the image by dragging/drawing a Graduated Filter (and tilt as needed) or a very large Adjustment Brush.
          • Then adjust Exposure (shifts the whole histogram brighter or darker), Brightness (shifts just the mid tones, keeping the brightest and darkest values constant), Contrast (widens or compresses histogram), Saturation (intensifies color purity), and Clarity (increases local contrast to better define large edges and shapes; very useful on almost every shot!).
        • In the same way, select and adjust the highlights (bright areas such as the sky) in the image by dragging/drawing another Graduated Filter or very large Adjustment Brush.
      • Or using Adobe Photoshop:
        • Create a Levels Layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Levels…). On this new Levels Layer, draw a black mask over the sky using the Gradient tool. Or click the Quick Mask button, and draw using the Brush Tool (set to a very big soft-edged Airbrush with color reset to black).
        • Slide the white value end-point slider (“256” level) to the leftwards in the Levels 1 histogram until you almost start cutting off the right edge of the bell curve. This sets the white point and lightens your shadow selection.
        • Adjust the mid tone slider in the Levels 1 histogram, making the image darker or lighter as needed to match what your eyes saw in reality. Don’t overdo. Go back and readjust, as each setting affects the others. (Often an additional Curves Layer will do a better job of balancing mid tones.)
        • Slide the black value end-point slider (zero “0” level) to the right in the Levels 1 histogram until you start cutting off the left edge of the bell curve, or as needed to match what your eyes saw in reality.
        • Readjust the black point, mid tone and white point sliders as needed, because their interaction changes image appearance. Don’t overdo. If the edited image looks pasty or posterized, Undo or go back in History and reduce how far you changed tonal sliders.
    6. Highlights (or sky) adjustment:
      • using Adobe Lightroom 2: use same technique as step 5 for shadows above.
      • using Adobe Photoshop:
        • Invert the above shadows/mid tones selection to make a new Levels Layer for the highlights selection, as follows in Adobe Photoshop: Select>Load Selection>”Channel: Levels 1 Mask”. Then choose Select>Inverse. Then choose Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Levels…. This makes Levels 2, for the highlights.
        • Move the black value end-point slider (zero “0” level) to the right in the Levels 2 histogram until you start cutting off the left edge of the bell curve. This sets the black point and darkens the highlights.
        • Adjust the mid tone slider darker or lighter as needed to match what your eyes saw in reality. Be careful to keep the sky/highlights looking natural. Beware of adjusting the white value end-point slider “256” level) for the highlight selection (Levels 2). If the edited image looks pasty or posterized, Undo or go back in History and reduce how far you changed tonal sliders.
    7. Your photographs will now have more emotional impact like you perceived in the field.

Digital versus film for travel photography

Tom began using 35mm film (135 film cartridge) in 1978 and switched to digital cameras after 2004. This article explains why:

Digital versus Film for Travel Photography 2009” PDF document
compares and reviews digital cameras versus film through 2009.

See my latest camera model recommendations.

Read the book “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” for the story of how a photographer’s switch from film to digital cameras inspired new creativity. Get more out of your digital camera using Tom Dempsey’s helpful tips.


Support my work — buy anything after clicking this Amazon.com link.

TOM’S CAMERA GEAR HISTORY 1978-2016

PhotoSeek creator Tom Dempsey reveals his favorite photographic gear adopted from 1978-2016.

For travel and nature photography, I look for portable, high-quality cameras on a moderate budget. Since 1978 I have regularly updated my technology as follows (newest at top, oldest at bottom). See also: BEST TRAVEL CAMERAS REVIEW.  

Below, buy linked items at Amazon.com to support Tom’s work.

Current main camera: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III (37 oz; Tom’s usage from May 2016−present)

Sony RX10 III camera

The versatile Sony RX10 III weather-sealed camera has a superb 25x zoom 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 lens.

New in May 2016, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III (buy at Amazon) is my ultimate travel camera, only 37 ounces (with battery & card, plus adding 5 oz for strap, lens filter, cap & hood makes 42 oz). Its weather-sealed body has a bright f/2.4-4 lens with vast 25x zoom, sharp throughout its remarkable 24-600mm equivalent range. I no longer need a pocket camera for improving close-focus shots, as RX10 already has a 1”-Type sensor — its depth of focus, deeper than APS-C sensor cameras for a given f-stop, enhances details from close flower shots to distant bird feathers all the way to 600mm equivalent telephoto. RX10 III is the world’s most versatile camera for on-the-go photographers. Read my full review of Sony RX10 III.

Indoor event photography camera (18-33 oz; Tom’s usage from April 2016−present)

Introduced in April 2016, the best value camera for capturing indoor events or action with fast autofocus is my Sony Alpha A6300 (buy at Amazon with 16-50mm lens) (2016, 14 oz body + 4 oz 24-75mm equiv zoom). Sony’s A6300 (read my review) demands the sharpest E-mount lenses to leverage its APS-C sensor, in order to rival the marvelous optics of Sony RX10 III. For indoor events using the A6300, my older Sony SEL18200 lens struggles to keep up with RX10 III outside of a 30-60mm equivalent sweet spot.

Pocketable backup camera #1: (11 oz; Tom’s usage from 2016−present)

Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (buy at Amazon) (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens) has an impressive 10x zoom on a 1″ sensor body which can fit in a large shirt pocket. The Panasonic ZS100 (read my review) is more versatile than a 3x zoom Sony RX100…

Pocketable backup camera #2: Sony RX100 version III  (10 oz; Tom’s usage from 2014−present)

Sony RX100 (read my review) version III pops up an electronic viewfinder (OLED SVGA 1.44M dots), widens its lens view to 24mm equiv (brightest aperture f/1.8), zooms to a sharper and brighter 70mm f/2.8 telephoto, tilts its 3″ LCD to a full 180 degrees and adds a Nuetral Density (ND) filter, all substantial upgrades from version II. Sony RX100 (price at Amazon) has an impressive 1-inch-Type sensor (20mp), unusually fast 0.15 sec autofocus, and a sharp LCD (1,228,800 dots). To better grasp its slippery body, add a Sony AG-R2 attachment grip.

Bowling Ball Beach, Schooner Gulch State Park, south of Point Arena, Mendocino County, California, USA. Pacific Ocean waves have weathered coastal bluffs (steeply tilted beds of Miocene Galloway Formation, Cenozoic Era mudstone) to expose spherical sandstone concretions resting on bowling lanes. Concretions form because minerals of like composition tend to precipitate around a common center. The panorama was stitched from 2 overlapping photos. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Bowling Ball Beach, Schooner Gulch State Park, south of Point Arena, Mendocino County, California, USA. Panorama was stitched from 2 overlapping photos. © 2012 Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com

Tom’s latest computer and software (A, B, C, D, E)

A. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for Windows or Macintosh (Tom’s usage from 2007−present)
  • I highly recommend Adobe Lightroom software which elegantly organizes images and speeds editing!
  • As of April 2015, Lightroom version 6 now thankfully includes good Photo Merge to Panorama and to HDR, with raw file input and high-quality output to Adobe Digital Negative DNG files.
    • An equally good option for stitching panoramas from multiple images is the FREE Image Composite Editor (ICE) released in 2015 from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group − faster and sharper than using Adobe Photoshop CS5.
  • Save money on Adobe products using your academic/student/teacher discount, if applicable. (By the way, in 2012 Adobe competitively cut in half the retail price of Lightroom.)
  • Lightroom gets 2-3 times the organizing & editing done per week compared to Canon ZoomBrowser or Adobe Photoshop with Bridge.
  • Lightroom smartly stores its non-destructive editing commands & labels in a powerful database (and in .XMP sidecar files for raw), compatible with JPG, TIF, and most camera raw files.
    • To protect your edits and metadata changes against the rare event of a damaged Lightroom catalog, be sure to “Automatically write changes into XMP” (which unfortunately isn’t the default) set under Lightroom’s Edit menu > Catalog Settings > Metadata.
    • But backing up DNG file edits must be done manually, with the command “Update DNG Preview and Metadata” under Metadata menu. DNG is advantageously compressed 20% smaller than camera raw, but using sidecar+raw instead may be faster and more secure against file corruption. The writing time for a whole DNG file takes much longer than a quick write to a tiny sidecar XMP file. So long as you “Build Previews 1:1” at Import time as I do, Lightroom preview speeds should be similar or better using raw+sidecar compared to DNG (?). Synchronizing a folder of thousands of images should be much quicker with raw+sidecar than with DNG.
    • I don’t see an advantage to convert old or import new raw shots to DNG. As of 2015, Adobe Lightroom version 6 still handles my oldest raw files from Canon Powershot G5 camera of 2003 and Sony NEX 7 raw (2012-15).
  • Lightroom easily and automatically exports image files to attractive web pages, or to files of any size, such as for e-mail or Microsoft PowerPoint presentations (automatically converting from its internal Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB color space, to sRGB and so forth). Lightroom can optionally place a copyright watermark on exported images.
  • Upgrade history: A great upgrade from 1.4 to 2.0 added graduated filters, localized editing brushes, and a quicker interface to Adobe Photoshop such as for Photomerge (stitching panoramas, now included in Lightroom version 6.x). If you buy a new camera that captures raw files, check if the latest Lightroom update has added support for it. (For example, Lightroom Version 1.1 introduced RAW support for Nikon D40X camera, 1.4 added Nikon D60, 2.4 added Nikon D5000.)
  • A disadvantage of Adobe Lightroom ties you to the expense of updates required for future camera raw file compatibility. Here are some cheaper workflow software options:
    • FastStone Image Viewer 3.6 Freeware, www.faststone.org is FREE. Fast and capable, especially if you use raw files. Downloads, views, edits and exports still images, including most camera raw files. FastStone does not view or download movies or sound files.
    • Canon Zoombrowser is FREE with purchase of Canon cameras. Handily downloads, views, edits and exports Canon still images, movies and recorded sound files. (Simpler than FastStone Viewer.)
    • Apple iPhoto is not bad, but each edit creates a new file.
    • Note that Apple Aperture has features similar to Adobe Lightroom, but in 2014, Apple ceased development of its Aperture and iPhoto apps and replaced them both with the Photos for OS X app. Note that Version 3 and later of both Apple Aperture and Adobe Lightroom helpfully cataloged movie files.

      A Japanese maple turns orange in autumn. The Seattle Japanese Garden was completed in 1960 within UW's Washington Park Arboretum. Address: 1075 Lake Washington Blvd E, Seattle, Washington 98112, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

      A Japanese maple turns orange in autumn. The Seattle Japanese Garden was completed in 1960 within UW’s Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington, USA. © Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com

B. Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Photoshop: As of Spring 2013, Photoshop version CS6 and later is now rented by the month or paid yearly to run the product, which can now expire if you don’t revalidate every 6 months through Adobe Creative Cloud via internet connection. (In contrast, Adobe Lightroom is cheaper and never expires, although raw file support for new cameras requires regular upgrades.)
    • Upgrade history: Adobe upgraded to CS5.5 in 2011, to CS5 in Fall 2009, to CS4 in Fall 2008.
  • The earlier Photoshop version CS5 works fine for me.
    • Most people don’t need Photoshop, since Adobe Lightroom covers most editing needs. While Adobe Lightroom handles 95% of my editing, the remaining 5% of my very best images, printing, and book production still require Photoshop.
    • Upgrade history: CS5 through CS3 have support for 16-bit Adjustment Layers and greatly improved Photomerge, to seamlessly stitch 16-bit panoramas from multiple 16-bit images. Now Lightroom 6.x includes Photomerge.
C. Microsoft Powerpoint 2007

makes flexible photo shows combining images, music, videos, labels & charts with nice cross-fades between frames for display on a computer or digital projector. (Proshow Producer is a great alternative with flexible output formats at all resolutions.)

D. Recommended best value PC specifications for Adobe Lightroom & PhotoShop 2012-2013
  1. Use a 64-bit Windows or Apple operating system (not 32-bit).
  2. Recommended processor: quad-core 3.5 GHz Intel i7-3770K Ivy Bridge (or i5-3570K saves money)
  3. Recommended RAM: 12 to 16 gigabytes of Random Access Memory
  4. Recommended graphics: GeForce GTX570 (note that pricier Quadro 2000 isn’t necessarily better)
  5. Recommended hard drive: 2 terabytes, 7200 RPM is good enough (or 10,000 RPM if affordable)
  6. Recommended: Solid State Drive (SSD): 256 gb for PhotoShop swap files
  7. Recommended: Blu-Ray player, writer/DVD recorder (made optional due to large cheap 16gb memory cards, USB memory sticks, or cloud storage)
  8. Recommended: USB 3.0 ports
Tom’s current Personal Computer system (from December 2012−present):
  • HP Envy Phoenix H9SE-W8 Desktop PC
    with: 16 gb SDRAM DDR3 1600 MHz, Intel Core i7-3770K CPU 3.5 GHz, 3 TB SATA hard drive 7200 RPM plus ExpressCache HP 16GB Disk Cache SSD (for faster startup), 1.5 GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 graphics card, 600 watt power supply, and 64-bit Windows 8 operating system.
  • LCD monitor: 24 inch Dell 2407WFP-HC Ultrasharp widescreen Flat Panel, 1920 x 1200 pixels, and 1000:1 Contrast Ratio.
Computer speed tips for older systems 2007-2012
  • Install Photoshop, Lightroom program and database onto a RAM drive or SSD for faster speed of loading and running.
  • Photoshop sped up when I added a very fast internal hard drive (10,000 rpm) to host the swap file of Adobe Photoshop CS3. Adobe Lightroom versions 1.3 and 1.4 also sped up when “Lightroom Catalog.lrcat” image database was moved onto the fast drive.
    • Despite having 4 gigabytes RAM memory on your computer, Photoshop CS3 only takes advantage of one gigabyte of memory before memory starts slowly swapping to disk. Workaround: Upgrade to faster CS4, a 64 bit application.
  • My previous computer 2009-2012 was a Dell XPS 420 Workstation (2.4 GHz Quad-Core processor) with 4 gigabytes RAM memory, running Windows Vista operating system, using the 24 inch Dell 2407WFP-HC Ultrasharp widescreen Flat Panel LCD monitor, 1920 x 1200 pixels, and 1000:1 Contrast Ratio. Main image storage was on a 2 terabyte RAID 0 internal hard-drive pair backed up to 1.5 or 2 TB external USB drives. To write to CD/DVDs on my Dell Workstation and Laptop, for some reason I had to use the provided Roxio program, instead of Windows XP or Vista (which poorly handleCD/DVD disk writing).
  • For external backup or storage, get an external 1 or 2 Terabyte (TB) drive with eSATA or USB 3.0 connection. eSATA is as fast as your internal hard drive connection, much faster than Firewire or USB 2.0. New computers after 2011 may come with fast USB 3.0.
  • On your laptop, for more reliable mouse control on your touchpad, disable the annoying Tap feature, which often mistakes your mouse finger movements for a click or double click. Disable Tap in Windows XP or Vista > Control Panel > Mouse > Touchpad. Instead of the Tap feature, rely on the Left and Right buttons.
E. Tom’s presentations and shows using Microsoft PowerPoint on projector or HD TV
  • 60-inch Samsung digital HD TV monitor with LED Backlight (Tom’s usage 2012 – present)
    • As of October 2012, our living room shows are upgraded with a spectacular 60-inch Samsung digital TV with LED Backlight technology, displaying photographs with excellent tonal impact and realism. 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. Mount on the wall to save floor space. LED LCD televisions use half the power of bulky old CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) models. Connect the large digital television via HDMI socket to a laptop computer.
    • Darkening the room is no longer necessary because LED televisions make presentations brighter than projectors (such as Canon Realis SX60)!
  • Our Canon Realis SX50 digital projector (Tom’s usage December 2005 – present) displays impressive multimedia presentations using Microsoft Powerpoint run on a notebook computer, dynamically brighter and better than a slide film projector. The SX50 is well optimized to show images in default sRGB mode, as captured by digital cameras. For projecting motion picture DVD’s from a Progressive Scan DVD player, the Canon SX50 creates a spectacular movie theatre experience, especially if you have a 6-speaker Surround Sound system.
    • Suggested upgrade: Canon Realis SX60 SXGA (1400 x 1050) LCD Multimedia Projector, 2500 ANSI Lumens, 10.1 lb (4.6 kg); or get the above HDTV if you don’t need portable shows.
    • Canon Realis SX50 features: SXGA+; 1400 by 1050 pixels; great 1000 to 1 contrast; 2000 actual lumens; true 720p HD broadcast for movies. $4000 in December 2005, then price dropped to $3500 in October 2006. This digital Canon SX50 projector has keystone correction, a great dynamic range (from highlights to shadows), and sharper focus than slide film projectors such as the Kodak Carousel 4600.
    • On my old Kodak Carousel 4600 film projector, the contrast ratio is smaller, requiring a darker room than the SX50; and you must wait for the curved film in each slide mount to warm up and pop into focus, which still annoyingly leaves the edges or center out of focus, even with the compensating lens and autofocus. In contrast, digital projectors focus crisply & brightly across the entire image!

Scanner: Konica Minolta DiMAGE Scan Dual IV (Tom’s usage from 2006−present)

A solo hiker walks atop the Pulpit Rock (Prekestolen) 1959 feet above a car ferry on Lysefjord, Forsand municipality, Rogaland county, Ryfylke traditional district, Norway, Europe. The nearest city is Jørpeland, in Strand municipality. Published in Wilderness Travel Catalog of Adventures 1998, 1996, 1988. Winner of "Honorable Mention, Photo Travel Division" in Photographic Society of America (PSA) Inter-Club Slide Competition May 1988. Published 2009 on a commercial web site in Amsterdam. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

I scanned this image from 35mm film that I shot in 1981 on an Olympus OM-1N camera: A solo hiker walks atop the Pulpit Rock (Prekestolen) 1959 feet above a car ferry on Lysefjord, Forsand municipality, Rogaland county, Ryfylke traditional district, Norway, Europe. Published in Wilderness Travel Catalog of Adventures 1998, 1996, 1988. Winner of “Honorable Mention, Photo Travel Division” in Photographic Society of America (PSA) Inter-Club Slide Competition May 1988. Published 2009 on a commercial web site in Amsterdam. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

  • Konica Minolta no longer sells or supports scanners or cameras, so consider another brand such as follows:
    1. Plustek OpticFilm 8200i SE film scanner (2014).
    2. Epson Perfection V700 Photo Scanner with Digital ICE™ technology for dust spot removal, scans 12 slides at once in 8×10 inch area. 6400 dpi. Optical density 4.0 Dmax. Compatible with Windows XP and various Macintosh versions.
    3. Earlier excellent scanner: Epson Perfection 4990 Photo Scanner with Digital ICE™: This flatbed scans up to 8×10 inches, many images at once automatically. 4800 x 9600 dpi resolution, 48-bit color depth, and 4.0 Dmax (dynamic range). Compatible up to Windows XP, and various Macintosh versions.
  • Konica Minolta DiMAGE Scan Dual IV (discontinued)
    • makes much better scans than my former Nikon LS-2000 (below), requiring little extra Photoshop adjustment [except for laborious manual dust removal required on 12/16-bit mode scans — where a workaround is to use Photoshop’s Filter>Dust & Scratches feature, but that often reduces image detail]. If you will be making lots of scans, get a different scanner that supports automatic dust removal using ICE or a similar infrared technology. Features: $240 in 2006; 3200dpi, or about 4284 by 2892 pixels from a scanned slide. Dynamic range higher than film, so it captures all shadow & highlight detail. This 3200 dpi resolution sufficiently captures all the clarity in 99% of my images taken on a tripod with consumer-quality SLR lenses. Photoshop can effectively enlarge using a bicubic algorithm. (I feel that 4000 dpi on a different scanner wouldn’t get any more useful information out of 99% of my film slide images). Universal USB connection. Unattended batch scan of 4 slides, each with custom settings. Requires Windows XP (which I run on a Notebook computer). Scanner doesn’t work with Windows Vista.
  • 2000 – 2005: Nikon LS-2000 Super Coolscan scanner
    • 2700 ppi, makes ~2400×3600 pixels from slides, dynamic range=3.6, $1330 plus $430 stack loader; SCSI interface; can automatically batch scan 30 slides, all at the same setting.
    • Using Nikon LS-2000 scanner, I have made prints 28×42 inches at 240dpi, which look good at a viewing distance of about 36 inches or further, scanned from Fujichrome Velvia slides (digitally enlarged from 2400×3600 pixels in two stages in Photoshop).
    • By 2003, this Nikon LS-2000 workhorse was antiquated by cheaper, better scanners, but instead of upgrading to the Nikon LS-4000, I bought new digital cameras, which offer more flexibility, higher quality, much faster work flow, and scan subjects directly. The SCSI connection on the Nikon LS-2000 was incompatible with my Dell 9300 Notebook computer. I sold the LS-2000 scanner with stack loader (for $405 on e-Bay), and purchased the above superior Minolta scanner for only $240.

Printer: Epson Stylus Photo 2200 (Tom’s usage from 2005present)

  • Makes wonderful prints (equal to or better than the typical chemical photographic process) up to 13×44 inches, rated at 80-year longevity on special Epson papers (when mounted behind glass).
  • Features: 7-color Ultrachrome inks, high quality ink jet printer. Combination of Photo Black (or Matte Black) and Light Black improves neutral and Black & White tones, and extends the dynamic range of prints. [I upgraded to the 2200 from the earlier but excellent Epson Stylus Photo 1270, for which ink costs about 25% less.]
  • Better printers of this size have since been released.
    • The 8-color Epson Stylus Photo 2400 prints on paper up to 13 x 44 inches and improves gray scale and dynamic range for blacks & shadows (essential for Black & White prints), using long lasting K3 inks, superior to the Epson 2200 or 1270/1280.
    • The 8-color Epson Stylus Photo 3800 Printer (released 2007) prints on paper 17×22 inches using long lasting K3 inks. The 3800 takes up a surprisingly small footprint on your office desktop.

Tripod: Slik “Sprint Pro II GM” with built-in quick change plate (Tom’s usage from 2005−present)

  • Slik Sprint Pro II GM Tripod with Ballhead
  • Weighs only 33 ounces (or 30 ounces without the center column) and is great for travel, superior to other travel tripods that I’ve evaluated (including Velbon MAXi343E, Manfrotto, or even Gitzo tripods costing three times more). To handle the weight of an SLR with lens weighing heavier than a pound, some photographers may prefer a more substantial change plate. Carry a penny or quarter to tightly screw lock the quick release plate securely to camera.
  • Features: The stiff magnesium alloy legs are sufficiently stable for cameras up to 3 or 4 pounds (especially if you don’t extend the bottom leg section; or if you hang on extra weight) and have very fast locking levers (of sturdy plastic). This tripod rises to eye level (64 inches), collapses to 18 inches (or 16 inches if you remove the quick-release ball head). The metal ball head swings 90 degrees each way, to two vertical positions, and turns freely around, all tightened with one effective lever. Legs can optionally splay out independently in 3 locking positions down to 6.4 inches off the ground. For macro, the center column can be reversed underneath for great shooting flexibility at ground level, and unscrews into a short section (saving 3.3 ounces). (The convertible spike leg tips which I never used are now just rubber in the Pro II, saving a little weight and collecting less soil.) The earlier model “Pro” which I used for 2005-2008 was 3 ounces heavier than the Pro II after adding the superior quick change plate: Slik “Sprint Pro GM” Tripod ($90), with Manfrotto 3299 Quick Change Plate Adapter ($35, quick release), 36 ounces total. Stiff aluminum legs. Leg tips convert from spike (outdoor) to rubber (indoor use) with a simple lockable twist.

Support Tom’s work — buy anything at Amazon.com.


The above products surpass the following older equipment which I no longer use:

Sony Alpha NEX-7 with Sony E-Mount 18-200mm lens (33 oz; Tom’s usage July 2012−April 2016)

A mounted horse wrangler leads a spare horse down the dusty Park Butte Trail, Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington.


A cowboy guides horses on dusty Park Butte Trail, Mount Baker Wilderness, Washington. Camera: Sony Alpha NEX-7 at 140mm with Sony E-Mount 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens.

Sony DSC-RX100 version I  (8.5 oz; used by Tom in 2013-14, is now my wife’s main camera, replacing Canon G9):
Canon PowerShot G9 (13 oz) (used by Carol Dempsey July 2009−2014)
Above the Arctic Circle, ascend a slippery steep trail to Reinebringen for spectacular views of Reine village, highway E10, and sharply glaciated peaks surrounding Reinefjord, on Moskenesøya (the Moskenes Island), Lofoten archipelago, Nordland county, Norway. Panorama stitched from 3 overlapping photos. (© Carol Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Stitched from 3 overlapping images shot by Carol on a Canon PowerShot G9 camera: Above the Arctic Circle, ascend a slippery steep trail to Reinebringen for spectacular views of Reine village and sharply glaciated peaks surrounding Reinefjord, on Moskenesøya (Moskenes Island), Lofoten archipelago, Nordland county, Norway. (© 2011 Carol Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

  • Canon PowerShot G9 was my wife’s main camera. 35-210mm equivalent lens, image stabilized.
  • Disadvantages: Grainy at ISO 400 and too noisy at ISO 800+. Workaround: A Canon PowerShot G11 gives two stops ISO improvement, flip out LCD, 28-140mm lens, and DIGIC IV.
  • The newer, smaller Sony DSC-RX100 camera effectively beats G9 real resolution from 35-150mm (by cropping RX100’s 20mp images where needed for digital telephoto) and has two stops lower noise at ISO 800+. But G9 is sharper for macro (albeit more distorted) and at telephoto 150-210mm equiv.
  • G9 is a good 13-ounce camera with quality similar to an 8-megapixel DSLR of 2009 at ISO 80.
    • Comparisons: The 28-140mm Canon PowerShot G10 has similar sharpness, making good 5×7 prints at ISO 400, with DIGIC III processor. A Canon A650 IS saves money with similar JPEG quality and adds flip-out LCD but no raw file support.
Nikon D5000 DSLR with Nikkor 18-200mm VR II Lens (45 oz) (Tom used July 2009 − June 2012)

The Nikon D5000 plus Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom is one of the best photo systems of 2009 for active travelers, sufficiently lightweight to carry all day in a chest bag.

  • 23 ounce body with battery & strap. Mount with 22-ounce Nikon DX 18-200mm VR II Zoom (with cap and hood) with up to 4 stops image-stabilization (up to 8 times slower hand-held shutter speed).
  • 12 megapixels 4288 by 2848 pixels, makes good prints to 23 by 30 inches or larger. Excellent quality to ISO 1600, and ISO 3200 is usable for smaller prints. Image quality similar to higher priced Nikon D300. CCD sensor size is Nikon DX format 23.6 x 15.8 mm.
  • 2.7 inch tilt and swivel LCD (new, unusual for a DSLR) with rudimentary live view which focuses very slowly, as with all DLSRs through 2010 — focusing through viewfinder is much faster. Captures movies with monophonic sound.
  • I protected the camera in a Clik Elite Large SLR Chest Pack This chest pack fits SLR camera with a lens up to 5.5 inches. Test the fit thoroughly within the store’s return period. The straps may work better for someone with larger-than-average shoulders. The upper shoulder pads are comfy, but the wide back pocket built into the back straps sorely rubbed into my left shoulder blade. I fixed by cutting away the lower back straps 2 inches below the V shape and resewing the two nicely padded upper shoulder straps to the lower part of a tested older harness.

Nikon 18-200mm AF-S ED VR II lens:

  • 20 ounces / 560 grams without cap and hood, new in 2006 (with version I of VR Vibration Reduction).
  • 18-200mm focal length 11x zoom is perfect for travel (with 27-300mm equivalent field of view in terms of 35mm film). Minimizing lens swapping saves time, reduces dust spots on sensor, and promotes creativity.
  • Hand hold shots in up to 4-stops dimmer light using Vibration Reduction (VR). Reduced tripod setup cuts shooting time in half, increasing creativity. Using the image-stabilized lens combined with good image quality on the Nikon D5000 up to ISO 1600 (even ISO 3200 is useful now) improves hand-held photography by about 1-2 stops compared to Nikon D60 (2008) and 6-8 f/stops compared to Canon Powershot Pro1 (2004) which shot noisy images above ISO 100.
  • Focuses to 18 inches (0.5 meters) throughout the zoom range. Largest magnification is at 200mm telephoto closeup: 3.5 inches wide (or an area of 93 x 62 mm).
  • Filters for Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens:
    • Hoya 72mm UV filter both sides coated, in purple box; for important lens protection. “Both sides coated” is cheaper than MultiCoated (Hoya SMC), and should be fine for 95% of your shooting. To avoid flare risk, take off filter if shooting into sun or indoors under spot lights. (My last filter saved my lens by breaking the fall of the lens, camera & tripod which tipped over onto concrete in Luray Caverns!)
    • 72mm B+W brand Circular Polarizing filter. Only polarize to remove reflections or haze. In the sky, maximum polarization is a 90 degree angle from the sun, but be careful not to
      over darken blue sky. (A cheaper polarizer may throw off your white balance.)
    • Tiffen P ND .6 Graduated Nuetral Density Filter for balancing bright sky with foreground subjects. For speed, I hold this “neutral density graduated filter” up to the lens manually without a holder.
  • How to optimize lens quality: By being so versatile, this Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens does suffer from some quality compromises, so I sharpen results from 70mm to 200mm by shooting from f/8 to f/11.
    • At 135mm, its fuzziest zoom setting, use f/11 to f/16 for sharper results.
    • When shooting flash with this 3.9″ lens, shoot above 24mm and remove the lens hood, or else a lens shadow will appear in the bottom of the image. Or mount a high flash on the hotshoe such as Nikon Speedlight SB-600 or 700.
    • With VR set ON, I can sharply hand hold shots as slow as 1/8 to 1/30th second for respectively 18mm to 200mm.
    • Caveats for the Nikkor VR 18-200mm lens: Architectural photographers (who need straight lines) won’t like the barrel distortion at 18mm wideangle (hard to correct for this lens), or the pincushion distortion between 35mm and 70mm (easily correctable using Adobe Photoshop>Filter>Distort>Lens Correction). Macro photographers should get a sharper dedicated macro lens or use a compact camera which focuses closely with great depth of field.
  • Alternative lens: Tamron Di II VC AF 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 LD Aspherical (IF) MACRO, new in Fall 2008, zooms impressively to 15x, while stabilizing hand-held sharpness close to the image quality of 18-200mm 11x lenses from brands Nikon VR and Canon IS. Tamron 18-270mm costs less than the Nikon 18-200mm lens. But I didn’t like Tamron’s long slippery lens creep when you point the camera up or down, and focus appeared inconsistent in my tests versus the Nikon 18-200mm on a tripod in indoor light. Tamron’s 15x doesn’t help much versus Nikon’s 11x because you can slightly crop Nikon’s sharper 200mm shots and print equally large. Nikon’s focus ring has instant manual focus override, whereas you must
    inconveniently flip a switch on the Tamron.

70-300mm F4.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor lens:

  • 26 ounces; 5.6″ length; 4.9 foot minimum focus; also compatible with full frame Nikon D3 DSLR.
  • For sports, wildlife and birder photographers. According to testing by www.photozone.de, the Nikon 70-300mm captures about 5 to 20% sharper resolution than the Nikon 18-200mm VR.
  • This lens proved its worth on our wildlife trip to Galapagos Islands and Ecuador in 2009.
  • Unfortunately this 70-300mm lens cannot focus closer than 4.9 feet. For travel, consider carrying the Nikkor 70-300mm VR lens together with kit lens Nikkor 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6G DX AF-S VR (with good closest macro area 63 x 42 mm), or with the 18-200mm VR II lens (93 x 62mm closest macro area).

Accessories:

  • Hoodskins (800-818-3946): Protect your LCD from scratches by applying this clear plastic film, and preserve the resale value of your camera. Hoodskins Model HSK-4 for 3.5- to 4-inch LCD screens can be cut with scissors to fit smaller LCDs.
  • Wireless remote control transmitter for shutter release: Nikon ML-L3 ($18) is important for any tripod photography (city lights, fireworks).
Canon PowerShot S95 (8 oz) (Tom used Feb 2011 to Feb 2013)
Nikon D60 & D40X DSLR with Nikkor 18-200mm VR Lens (40 oz total) (Tom used D60 2008−09, D40X 2007−08)
Galapagos Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis, subspecies: urinator) at Suaraz Point, Española (Hood) Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, South America. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

Photographed using a Nikon D60 DSLR using 18-200mm lens (© 2009 Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com): A Galapagos Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis, subspecies: urinator) preens feathers at Suaraz Point, a wet landing on Española (Hood) Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, South America. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010.

  • The Nikon D60 or D40X plus all-in-one 18-200mm VR lens is a great system for active travelers, sufficiently lightweight to carry all day in my chest bag.
    • D60 or D40X camera body weighs 18 ounces (including battery & strap).
    • The Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm 3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens weighs 22 ounces with cap and hood (released in 2006, adopted by me in 2008). Its wonderful new VR (Vibration Reduction) feature stabilizes the sharpness of hand-held shots by up to 4 stops of shutter speed − remarkably unchaining travel photographers from the constraints of a tripod!
      • This D60 or D40X with 18-200mm lens system is comparable to Canon Rebel XSi with Canon 18-200mm IS.
    • The D60 thankfully introduces a good sensor dust-removal system, plus VR kit lenses. (The previous Nikon D40X model, which I used from May 2007 to August 2008, required tedious dust spot corrections, but nowhere near as bad as slide film).
      • The D60 introduces Active D-Lighting to attractively lighten shadow detail in JPEG shots, but Active D-Lighting doesn’t affect my raw shots — RAW gives superior editing leeway, so I generally avoid shooting JPEG (now that memory cards are getting cheaper than in the near past, allowing plenty of room for the larger RAW files).
    • D60/D40X sensor captures 10 megapixels = 3872 x 2592 pixels, making good prints to 23 by 30 inches or larger. Excellent quality to ISO 800, and ISO 1600 is usable for smaller prints. Same image quality as the higher priced Nikon D200. CCD sensor size is 23.6 x 15.8 mm (six times the light gathering area of the sensor in my earlier compact Canon Pro1).
    • The Nikon D60/D40X has a bright 2.5 inch LCD and shoots a generous 300 to 420 images per charge (using a Digital Concepts 1200 mAh battery, at 40 to 70 degrees F, using the LCD briefly on most shots; most shots using VR and 10% using flash). The batteries last 2.5 times longer than Canon Pro1 batteries and weigh an ounce less per battery. Long battery life is important for trekking away from electricity such as in Nepal, where six batteries lasted for two weeks shooting 2800 images without recharging on the D40X.
  • Adobe Lightroom version 1.1 introduced support for the Nikon D40X camera, and version 1.4 supported Nikon D60.
  • 2008-09: my wife uses the shirt-pocket sized Canon SD700 IS (below), which serves as my backup that adds movies & sound recording.
Canon PowerShot SD700 IS Digital ELPH, ultra-subcompact digital camera (7 oz; Tom used October 2006−2007)
  • This amazingly tiny and lightweight camera can be carried in your pocket, takes still shots with publication quality up to 12 by 16 inches, and serves as a main camera for my wife and backup camera for me.
  • Features: 6 megapixels (2816 x 2112 pixels). Image-stabilized zoom lens 5.8-23.2 mm, f/2.8-5.5 (or 35-140 mm lens in 35mm-film-camera terms); 0.79-inch macro focus. Movies can be 15, 30 or 60 frames per second, with dynamic exposure and digital zoom as you shoot, which is better than the Pro1. Great DIGIC II processor. We bought the optional housing for shooting underwater.
  • Disadvantages: No raw file mode. It has good exposure +/- compensation, but cannot set or view the F/stop aperture or shutter speed (except shutter speed thankfully displays live when the camera shake warning also displays).
  • The SD700 was succeeded by the SD850. Excellent alternatives to the SD700 IS: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N2; or Canon SD800 IS ELPH. Slightly larger, higher quality alternatives in 2007: Canon PowerShot A710 IS, or PowerShot G7. Upgrades released in 2008: G9, G10.
Canon PowerShot Pro1 compact digital camera (25 oz; Tom used August 2004 − March 2007)
An orange and green leaf rests on polygons of orange and gray lichen in Denali State Park, Alaska, USA. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Photographed using a compact Canon PowerShot Pro1 camera (© 2006 Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com): An orange and green leaf rests on polygons of orange and gray lichen in Denali State Park, Alaska, USA. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010.

  • For its time, the Canon PowerShot Pro1 was a great all-in-one camera for traveling.
  • Features: 8 megapixels = 3264 x 2448, makes good prints to 23 by 30 inches. Professional “L series” 7.2-50.8 mm zoom lens, with fast f/2.4-3.5 widest aperture, or 28-200 mm, in terms of 35mm-wide-film cameras (horizontal angle of view from 65.5 degrees wide, to 10.3 degrees at telephoto). Close macro focus to 1 inch (using 5 megapixel Super Macro, f/3.0 at 90 mm). The electronic viewfinder EVF is great when the LCD is hard to read in bright sunlight. High resolution Movies. JPEG images require little Photoshop touch up; and the raw format preserves superior image quality. Battery life is half of the earlier Canon G5, so I carry a few more batteries. CCD sensor 2/3 inch type (8.8 x 6.6 mm).
  • Using the Pro1’s wide angle lens at maximum f/8, everything is in focus from 1.4 feet to infinity when you focus at 2.7 feet (the “hyperfocal point”; all objects at distances from half of the hyperfocal distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp). Using the Pro1’s 50.8 mm telephoto at f/8, if you focus 132 feet away, then everything is in focus from 66 feet to infinity; and focusing the same telephoto at 20 feet, you get 6 feet of total depth of field from front to back.
  • April 2005 upgrade: Canon Pro1 Firmware version 1.0.1.0 (free on Canon Support Web Site, released December 2004) doubles the shutter release speed, reducing shutter lag from about 0.6 to 0.3 seconds.
  • But in 2007, the discontinued Canon Pro1 was outclassed by the more capable Fujifilm FinePix S9100, which is the same weight but physically larger.
Canon PowerShot SD500 Digital ELPH ultra-subcompact digital camera (7 oz; Tom used May 2005 − Sept 2006)
  • This tiny and lightweight camera can be carried in a pocket, takes still shots with publication quality up to 12 by 16 inches, and served as a main camera for my wife and backup camera for me for 1.5 years.
  • Features: 7 megapixels = 3072 x 2304 pixels. Zoom lens 7.7-23.1 mm, f/2.8-7.1 Wide, f/4.9-13.0 Telephoto (or 37-111 mm lens in 35mm-film-camera terms); 2-inch macro focus. Movies can be 15, 30 or 60 frames per second, and now with dynamic exposure and digital zoom as you shoot, which is better than my Pro1. Great DIGIC II processor.
  • Drawbacks: No raw file mode. Has good exposure +/- compensation, but cannot set or view the F-stop aperture or shutter speed.
  • To maximize depth of field, set the SD500 mode dial to Manual and toggle the Infinity button (until you see the mountain symbol). Using the SD500’s 7.7 mm (37 mm equivalent) wide angle lens at maximum f/7.1, everything is in focus from 2.3 feet to infinity when you focus at 4.6 feet (the “hyperfocal point”). At the 23.1 mm (111 mm equivalent) telephoto maximum f/13, everything is in focus from 11.5 feet to infinity when you focus at 23 feet.
  • We bought the SD500 for $450 in May 2006, and sold it on e-Bay 1.5 years later. In October 2006, we upgraded to the well-reviewed Canon PowerShot SD700 IS ELPH above (which introduces excellent image stabilization in a longer zoom 35-140 mm f/2.8-5.5 lens, which helps compensate for the lower resolution of 6 megapixels; and shutter-button lag is now reduced to a very fast 0.1 to 0.3 seconds).
Film versus digital photography 2004-2009; and how to ensure digital longevity

FILM VERSUS DIGITAL (read my 2009 article).

While film can fade, high-quality digital image file formats should last perfectly into the future so long as you copy backups onto the latest storage media which are readable by up-to-date software.

To avoid unrecoverable exposure problems and posterization, always record 12-bit (or 14-bit) camera raw format files at shooting time to create digital archive files that have 16 (or 64) times the tonal editing headroom compared to JPEG (which has only 8 bits per pixel per red, green, or blue color channel).

If your editing software ever threatens to evolve beyond compatibility with older raw files (which are proprietary to each camera), first convert to a modern “universal” raw format such as Adobe Digital Negative, DNG files, to ensure future compatibility. As of 2015, Adobe Lightroom version 6 still handles my oldest raw files from Canon Powershot G5 camera of 2003, and I haven’t yet seen the need to convert old files to DNG. For secure backup of my Lightroom edits, I like “Automatically write changes into XMP” (Lightroom > Edit > Catalog Settings > Metadata), in case the Lightroom catalog ever becomes corrupted and must be restored by re-importing raw image files + sidecar XMP files.

Canon PowerShot G5 compact digital camera (19 oz) + telephoto lens (9 oz) (Tom used 2003−2004)
A Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) is shown at Bonorong Wildlife Park, Briggs Road, Brighton, Tasmania, Australia. Wombats are burrowing grass eaters, and can be thought of as the marsupial ecological equivalent of a bear. Wombats are found in forested, mountainous, and heathland areas of southeast Australia including Tasmania, plus an isolated group in Epping Forest National Park in central Queensland. The three living species of wombats are marsupial mammals in the Vombatidae family. They dig extensive burrow systems with rodent-like front teeth and powerful claws. Their unusual backwards-facing pouch avoids gathering dirt onto its young. Although mainly crepuscular and nocturnal, wombats also venture out to feed on cool or overcast days. Wombats are herbivores, mostly eating grasses, sedges, herbs, bark and roots. Published on Australian geocaching coin 2010, displayed in support of Wilder Foundation 2009, 2010, and exhibited at Oceanario de Lisboa, Portugal 2007. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

A flip-out-and-twist LCD allowed me to lower my Canon PowerShot G5 camera into the enclosure to frame at wombat level, with permission at Bonorong Wildlife Park, Tasmania, Australia. Published on Australian geocaching coin 2010; displayed in support of Wilder Foundation 2009, 2010; and exhibited at Oceanario de Lisboa, Portugal 2007. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

The Canon PowerShot G5 convinced me to stop shooting film! The G5 was half the size and weight of my earlier Nikon N70 SLR outfit (below), yet had a brighter lens, and rivaled the quality I got from scanning film using the Nikon LS-2000 film scanner (which was later superseded by better scanners). G5 Features: 5 megapixels = 2592 x 1944, 35-140 mm zoom (equivalent), f/2.0-3.0, + fixed 245 mm or 1.75x attachment lens. Its great flip-out-and-twist LCD became a critical feature that I never knew I needed before, for macro, wildlife, and people shots.

Fujichrome Velvia 100F 35mm color slide film (Tom used 2004)

is more realistic and not quite as vivid as Velvia 50, but has twice the speed, and could have become my new mainstay film, except for the superiority of a digital camera for my travel and nature photography.

Kodak Ektachrome 100VS 35mm color slide film (Tom used 2001−03)

I was very happy with this vivid film when I need one stop faster than Fuji Velvia. (I disliked the flat colors of Fuji Provia 100 or 100F.)

Epson Stylus Photo 1270 Printer (Tom used 2000−04)

made wonderful prints up to 12×44 inches, rated at 25-year longevity on special Epson papers (when mounted behind glass). 6-color high quality ink jet printer. My home prints on the Epson 1270 now exceeded the quality of professional chemical silver-based prints. (The 1270’s successor was the similar Model 1280; and after 2004, nicer 7-color printers became available such as the excellent Epson Stylus Photo 2200 above, and 4000.)

Fujichrome Velvia 50 ASA 35mm color slide film (Tom used 1999−2004)

This classic film became my new mainstay, until I switched to a digital camera in 2004.

Nikon N70 SLR 35mm-film camera + 2 lenses = 54 ounces (Tom used 1998−2004)Silhouettes of photographers at sunrise on Mount Nemrut, Republic of Turkey.

Doubled light gathering power and gained a nice built-in flash, at the cost of slightly more bulk and weight. Fully automatic + manual. In April 1999, I upgraded lenses to: Sigma 28-105 mm f/2.8-4 Aspherical Zoom; and Sigma 70-210 mm f/3.5-4.5 APO Telephoto Zoom Macro (2:1 magnification). Nikon N70 was released in 1996.

Gitzo “Weekend Compact Performance” tripod (Tom used 1998−2004)

2.9 pounds with lightweight ballhead, plus Kirk quick release plate. When the camera is not attached, the Kirk plate can lose its release knob unless you screw it all the way down, which partly defeats the quick release purpose. The screw-locking legs on this Gitzo model are very slow to set up and take down, and the small ball head constantly came unscrewed (a design flaw). I upgraded to a lighter, faster & cheaper yet equally sturdy tripod further above.

Fujichrome 100 Sensia I & II film (Tom used 1992−1998)

became my new mainstay: fast & sharp with adequate color.

Film experiment 1988-2000: I occasionally used Kodachrome 200 film

but I was usually unhappy with the grainy results.

Film experiment 1986-92: I occasionally used Kodachrome 64 film

which is faster than Kodachrome 25, but color is not as vivid.

Film classic 1978-92: The great Kodachrome 25 film

was my mainstay, plus I occasionally used Kodak Ektachrome 200 film with good, sharp results. Even though it is one of the longest lasting films, some of my Kodachrome 25 slide images are fading after 25 years. Ektachrome fades quicker than Kodachrome.

Classic camera: Olympus OM-1N SLR 35mm-film camera + 2 lenses = 48 ounces (Tom used 1978−97)
From Männlichen Gipfel, see Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau in the Berner Oberland, Switzerland, the Alps, Europe.

I photographed this popular image on a Olympus OM-1N SLR 35mm-film camera (© 1981 Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com): From Männlichen Gipfel see the peaks of Eiger (Ogre 13,026 feet on left), Mönch (Monk), and Jungfrau (Virgin 13,600 feet on right) in the Berner Oberland, Switzerland, the Alps, Europe. Published multiple times and even featured in a Swiss movie by Meret Nora Burger.

Trusty and rugged. Fully manual camera. Attachable flash. I started with fixed 50 mm and 135 mm Zuiko lenses, then upgraded to a Tamron 28-70 mm f/4 zoom, and a Sigma UC II 70-210mm, f/4-5.6, 1:4.7 macro, telephoto zoom lens. From 1978 to 1997, I used lightweight SLIK 500G and other tripods for travel. The OM-1 can take 8-hour night sky star-trail photographs, which can require special battery supplements on modern battery-intensive cameras, such as the Nikon N70 film camera, and especially digital cameras.

Terminology and metric conversions

  • oz = ounces. Above camera weights in ounces (oz) include battery and memory card.
  • g = grams. Multiple ounces by 28.35 to get grams.
  • sec = second.
  • mm = millimeters. A centimeter (cm) equals 10 millimeters. Multiply centimeters (cm) by 0.3937 to get inches.
  • ILC = Interchangeable Lens Compact = “midsize mirrorless camera” term used above
  • DSLR = Digital Single Lens Reflex = a traditional camera where an optical viewfinder uses a mirror to see through the interchangeable lens.
  • EVF = Electronic Viewfinder.
  • LCD = Liquid Crystal Display.
    • OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) beats an LCD in dynamic range from darkest to brightest and consumes less power.
  • LPH or LPPH = resolvable lines per picture height = the best empirical measure of real resolution of a camera’s sensor for a given lens (independent of pixel pitch or megapixel count). A camera with higher LPH can make sharper large prints. Look up cameras on dpreview.com to find absolute vertical LPH judged by photographing a PIMA/ISO 12233 camera resolution test chart under standardized lighting conditions. Note which lens, settings, and camera body was used in each test, and compare with others within the same web site.
  • equivalent lens = To compare lenses on cameras having different sensor sizes, equiv or equivalent lens refers to what would be the lens focal length (measured in mm or millimeters) that would give the same angle of view on a “full frame35mm-size sensor (or 35mm film camera, using 135 film cartridge).
    • Compared lenses are “equivalent” only in terms of angle of view. (To determine sharpness or quality, read lens reviews which analyze at 100% pixel views.)
    • Crop factor” = how many times smaller is the diagonal measurement of a small sensor than a “full frame” 35-mm size sensor. For example, the 1.5x crop factor for Nikon DX format (APS-C size sensor) makes a lens labeled 18-200mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 27-300mm focal length lens used on a 35mm film camera. The 2x crop factor for Micro Four Thirds sensors makes a lens labeled 14-140mm to be equivalent in angle of view to a 28-280mm lens used on a 35mm film camera.
  • Superzoom lenses
    • In 2013, superzoom often refers to lenses of about 15x zoom range or larger. Steady quality improvements in the resolving power of sensors has made possible superzoom cameras in ever smaller sizes. As superzoom range increases, laws of physics require lenses to focus upon smaller sensors (light detectors) or else to increase lens size. For a given level (most recent year) of technological advancement, a camera with physically larger sensor (bigger light detecting area) should capture better quality for a given zoom lens range.
    • 10x zoom” = zoom lens telephoto divided by wide angle focal length. For example, a 14-140mm focal length zoom has a 10x zoom range (140 divided by 14). An 18-200mm zoom has an 11x zoom range (200 divided by 18).
  • equivalent” F-stop = refers to the F-stop (F-number) on a full-frame-sensor camera which has the same hole diameter as the F-stop of the camera lens being compared. The concept of “equivalent” F-stop lets you compare capabilities for creating shallow depth of focus (depth of field) on cameras with different-size sensors. Smaller-sensor cameras use shorter focal lengths for the same field of view, so at a given F-stop they have a smaller physical aperture size, meaning more depth of field (with less blur in front of and behind the focused subject). Formula: F Number (or Relative Aperture) = actual focal length of lens divided by diameter of the entrance pupil.

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Print sharpness depends upon viewing distance & resolution

How Image Quality affects Maximum Print Size.

Clearly, a higher-quality image can be printed bigger than a fuzzier one. But maximum print size is subjective, depending upon your viewing distance and acuity standards. Surprisingly, a giant billboard along a highway can be printed from a little 3-megapixel camera!

Subjectively speaking, an excellent 8 to 10 megapixel camera made back in 2007 can create images for prints perceived as sharp when viewed at a distance equal to the print’s longer dimension or further away. For example, for most people a 20- by 30-inch print from an 8-10 megapixel DSLR camera looks sharp when viewed at about 30 inches.

Further, for a good 3+ megapixel camera, maximum print size is unlimited when viewed from at least twice the print’s longer dimension away. But when viewed closer, a subjective formula for maximum print size is suggested further below. Consider this surprising example:

  • A 20-foot-wide billboard produced from a good 3 megapixel camera can look great viewed from 40 feet away, but can look fuzzier when viewed closer. Different observers will judge the “fuzziness” differently, subjectively. A typical 3-megapixel image might be 2000 pixels wide by 1500 high. When you print that image 8 inches wide (at 250 pixels per inch, or PPI) and view it 16 inches away, it will look just as sharp as the more distantly viewed billboard. Stand 40 feet from the billboard and hold the print 16 inches from your eye, and they will line up perfectly. Both have the same viewing angle relative to your eye and both have 3 megapixels of information, so they will look equally sharp, theoretically.

Image quality directly affects maximum print size, depending upon many factors:

  • shooting with sharp focus
  • sufficiently fast shutter speed to freeze subject motion and prevent shaky hands moving the camera during exposure
  • proper exposure, brightness
  • sufficiently low ISO settings to reduce noise
  • better raw file optimization: in-camera JPEG conversion versus superior raw conversion on a computer
  • better sensor & processor: larger sensor, latest technology (such as backside illumination, BSI), better processor efficiency, higher signal-to-noise ratio
  • good lens quality with large diameter

Formula for minimum print-viewing distance:

The following subjective viewing distance formula for the acuity of the human eye is for well-printed images, from any high quality camera of any megapixel specification. As most prints are viewed at a distance of at least 15 inches, printing a camera’s native pixels at 240 ppi seems sufficiently sharp for most people (or somewhere between 180 and 300 ppi):

Optimal viewing distance in inches = 3500 divided by optimal ppi.

  • For example: a 240 ppi print can look sharp when viewed at 15 inches or greater, which is about the closest that most people look at prints (14.6 inches = 3500 / 240 ppi). In this example, the pixels designated within the file at 240 ppi are assumed to be native (not digitally enlarged), from a well-shot image.
  • Another example: a 10-megapixel Nikon D40X camera captures 3872 x 2592 pixels, native size. Take the longer dimension of 3872 pixels and divide by 240 ppi, which equals a 16 inch print, which should look sharp when viewed at 15 inches or further from your eye. Enlarging this image, by doubling its long side to 32 inches, will look sharp when viewed at least twice as far away (30 inches from your eye). The same native optimal image size enlarged by tripling the long side should be viewed at least 3 times as far away (45 inches).
  • This formula is subjective, meaning your judgment of image sharpness may differ from mine. Adjust your optimal ppi as needed to customize this formula.

Printing tips:

For best prints of up to 48 inches on an ink jet printer, resize the file’s resolution in the range of 240 to 300 ppi (pixels per inch), at your desired length and width. This optimizes the print for the acuity of typical human eyes at common viewing distances, such as for small handheld prints, and also for large prints on a wall viewed a step or two away. Adobe Photoshop’s “bicubic” resizing works great; or use Adobe Lightroom.

If more than doubling a dimension, resize in steps, to avoid imperfections. For example, to increase an image from 16 inches to 48 inches high, resize height to 32 inches first, then resize again to 48. Maintain image proportion of height to width. After resizing, sharpen (or Unsharp mask) the image as the last step before printing.

  • As you smoothly enlarge the image in steps in an editor, keep the file’s recommended 240-300 ppi constant, in order to avoid the appearance of pixelation in the print upon close examination. Enlarging will increase the number of pixels beyond native camera size by the square of the increase in the long side. For example, doubling the long side quadruples the number of pixels beyond native size. Tripling the long side increases by 9 times the number of pixels beyond native size.
  • File ppi versus printer DPI: Setting a file’s resolution to 240 ppi is unrelated to setting the printer’s dpi (dots per inch) for laying down ink, which is a different topic — for final prints, simply choose the printer’s “Highest Quality” setting, which will automatically optimize dpi for the printer’s ink.

Compare cameras:

Seeing is believing. Compare images from two cameras side by side using 100% pixel view at

www.imaging-resource.com/IMCOMP/COMPS01.HTM

  • Compare compact camera images (with sensor size 1″-Type or less) at ISO 400 and 800, where blotchy noise becomes obvious.
  • For DSLR and mirrorless cameras, compare at ISO 1600 and 3200. 

For better quality images, buy the latest-model camera (read my recommendations). I prefer a camera with a larger diameter lens and physically larger sensor which is better optimized than its competitors, as judged when 100% pixel views are compared at ISO 800 or higher. Back in 2007, sensor designs exceeding about 6 to 8 megapixels in small cameras (subcompacts less than 10 ounces) usually didn’t help increase effective print size, due to hardware limitations of tiny lenses and sensors at that time. But by 2016, technological leaps allowed a 16mp sensor in a little Samsung S6/S7 smartphone to make good 18-inch prints! In this example, upgrading to the latest model pays off handsomely.

Historical camera comparison from year 2012: Based on review sites dpreview.com and imaging-resource.com, I rate the following travel cameras on ISO 400 quality, starting with best first, and worst last, with roughly equivalent cameras connected by slash / marks: 

Canon EOS Rebel T3i/T2i/Nikon D5100/D3100 > Nikon D5000 > Nikon D60 > Nikon D40X or Canon EOS 400D Rebel XTi SLR > Fujifilm FinePix S6000fd > Panasonic DMC-FZ50 > Canon PowerShot G7 > Panasonic DMC-FZ8 > Canon PowerShot A710 IS > Panasonic DMC-LX-2 > Canon PowerShot SD700 IS > Canon PowerShot Pro1 (which requires ISO 50 to best the G7).

Look up the LPH for cameras, sometimes reported on dpreview.com: resolvable lines per picture height (sometimes abbreviated LPPH). A camera with higher LPH can make sharper large prints. LPH is a good empirical measure of real resolution of a camera’s sensor for a given lens (independent of pixel pitch or megapixel count). dpreview.com reports the absolute vertical LPH judged by photographing a PIMA/ISO 12233 camera resolution test chart under standardized lighting conditions. Note which lens and camera body was used in each test, and compare with others within the same web site.