LIGHT TRAVEL book teaches, inspires outdoor photography

“Light Travel: Photography on the Go” by Tom Dempsey teaches and inspires outdoor photography by revealing the magic of portable digital cameras. The book tells my story of how a switch from film to digital cameras inspired new creativity.

Gift this dream book to anyone who likes travel or cameras.  Learn how to pick a camera, compose and edit, and capture evocative images worldwide.

Currently available for $14 as a digital file in PDF format: ask me to email an invoice for easy payment by credit card. [My printed edition has only a few copies left, reserved for my classroom students.]

 

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

What readers say:

  • “I purchased your great book and I’ve read it cover to cover. It’s just wonderful.  Congratulations.  Those pictures!  …the locales delighted me. It’s just lovely.” — Scott W. of Seattle, WA.
  • “Dad said to tell you that your book has the best technical information he’s seen.  And your photos are beautiful….  He says it’s an amazing book, a great book, and he likes the detail you go into.  He says it would be a great text book.” — Nancy & Bill Rauhauser.
  • “Wanted to let you know I received your book today.  I am so thrilled with it .   I would like to thank you and Carol for sharing your talents  and the wonderful photo journal of your travels.   I just purchased my first Digital SLR camera (Rebel Xsi & the Canon ef-s 18-200 lens) and have much to learn.  I look forward to reading your book and applying (I hope) all the wonderful information you have shared on  photography.” — Sherry H.

Photoseek Publishing, ISBN #978-0-578-03918-3

Compare Pentax K20D, Nikon D90, D60

Pentax K20D is good for Nepal trekking, but Nikon D90 mounts 18-200 VR lens and D60 is lighter. Lens angle of view factor.

Question from Brian to tom @ photoseek.com, September 2008

…I will be going on a trek to the Everest region in spring of 2009.  I am really excited about the trip.  I have been thinking about adding on the Gokyo Lakes trek also.  This is how I happened across your web site.  Your images are truly incredible.  BY FAR the best I have seen.  So, thanks for your site!  Your images have convinced me to add on the Gokyo Lakes trek to the Everest Base Camp trek.  After all, when will be the next time I will have this opportunity?  The web is a pretty amazing creation isn’t it?  I am looking forward to the trip.  I will have to buy a new camera for it.  I have been using an old Pentax PZ-1p for a long time.  I am looking at the Pentax D20 which operates on double A batteries as opposed to Lithium cells.  Do you have an opinion on that?  I guess I think it would be easier to carry around a lot of double A instead of trying to charge or replace the Li cells.  I have about 4 lens but for ease I am thinking of 28-90mm and 100-300mm.  These lenses are not that fast so maybe the 50 mm 1.4 lens.  Thanks again for your art, it is breathtaking and inspirational (heck, it has convinced me to do an add on trek!)  Have a great weekend, Brian — Friday Sept 26, 2008

Tom Dempsey answers

Hi Brian: the view from the peak of Gokyo Ri in Nepal is very spectacular and worth the effort!  Annapurna Sanctuary was also spectacular and actually more enjoyable due to lower altitude (only 14,000 ft) and fewer days on the trail.

Nepal Trekking Tip: I recommend wearing a scarf over your mouth to keep out dust and better hydrate each breath in the high altitude air, to reduce the “Khumbu cough” that nearly everyone experiences above 10,000 feet elevation..

Here is a full review of the Pentax K20D, where dpreview.com gives their highest rating “Highly Recommended”:

  • Read the detailed review of Pentax K20D: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/pentaxk20d/
  • “Robust body with dust and weather seals, high build quality.”
  • Dust reduction by anti-static coating and optional sensor ‘shake’. Dust alert makes sensor cleaning simpler.
  • Not so good: “The live view mode is neither as seamless as Sony’s implementation nor as useful for tripod-based work as Olympus’s and consequently feels like a feature that has been added purely to make the camera more marketable.” (Live view is a feature new to DSLR cameras, a bonus, previously found in most compact digital cameras.)
  • The extra megapixels in the K20D (14.6 mp) don’t gain any enlargement quality advantage over the competing Canon Rebel Xsi/450D, or Nikon D90 (12 mp each).
  • For me, the biggest problem of the Pentax K20D (and Nikon D90) is the weight: body with battery: 800 grams (1.7 pounds).

If you are going to get a camera that heavy, 1.7 pounds, I recommend considering the Nikon D90 (specifications on dpreview.com) which weighs the same, has similar price, has useful live view, shoots HD movies (which the Pentax doesn’t do). For travel, consider mounting the Nikon D90 with the all-in-one wonder lens, like I use on every trip: Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm 3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (20 ounces / 560 grams; new in 2006; about $800) which lets you hand hold images in up to 4-stops dimmer light, using Vibration Reduction (VR). No lens changing required!  I hardly ever use a tripod now, which is a big change for me from earlier cameras. Pentax doesn’t offer an equivalent high quality, image stabilized lens, so far as I have heard.

To save 8 ounces of weight, you might consider the Nikon D60 (17 ounce camera, with battery), which I currently use exclusively along with the Nikkor 18-200mm VR travel lens. I may later add a longer telephoto for better animal photography. The D60 plus 18-200mm VR lens is only 38 ounces.

For batteries, I buy enough rechargeable batteries to last the time I am away from power, like two weeks for Nepal. (11 batteries was more than enough — I only used about 6 batteries before recharging). I get about 400 shots per charge on the Nikon D60 and D40X. (Keep a spare warming in your pocket for temperatures below 45 F., and change it every ten minutes if temperatures are near freezing.)

Have a great trip!  — Tom Dempsey, photographer, Seattle, Washington

Brian’s Question: I have a 28-90 (42-135 digital equivalent) that I use most of the time.  On a trip like this, do you think additional zoom capability is necessary? or is 135mm enough?  Could always swap out with a 100-300mm, but like yourself I am a minimalist and on the trip I would rather not worry too much about camera equipment and having to deal with filters (UV and polarizer only)…

Tom Answers: I would definitely bring more zoom power on this trip of a lifetime to Nepal. (I rarely used polarizer in Nepal, because at high altitude the polarized sky turns too black, and it flattens the image appearance too much.)

Brian’s Question: Regarding an 18-55mm lens sold with a camera kit, is that a real 18-55 or is it a 27-83mm based on the conversion? Also, are the available lenses designed to focus light on the digital light sensor for digital SLR, and not film emulsion?  Are our older lens that we used for film less “effective” when mounted on a DSLR because they have not been designed for a sensor rather film?

Tom Answers: Many photographers like using the heavier conventional lenses on their APS-C cameras, because they save money, and they only use the sweet spot in the center of the lens, for sharp, undistorted images. The newer lenses “designed for digital” “or designed for APS-C” usually capture equal quality images, with less weight and bulk. In my opinion, using either the old or new lenses, the latest APS-C DSLR cameras capture much better quality than scanning 35mm film. Please confirm quality differences with specific lens reviews:

The sensor size determines the angle of view conversion factor (to give you the equivalent angle of view of a film camera lens shooting 35mm size film). APS-C size cameras have a sensor about 24×16 mm, such as the Pentax K200 or K100 (or Nikon D60 or Canon digital Rebel). Divide 35mm by 24mm and you get about a 1.5x angle of view conversion (or some call it focal Length Multiplier; or others call it a field of view crop factor), when using 35mm film camera (“full frame”) lenses on an APS-C sensor camera. Good explanation:

http://www.dpreview.com/learn/?/Glossary/Optical/Focal_Length_Multiplier_01.htm

If you are accustomed to 35mm film terminology, when you buy a digital APS-C camera coming with a lens labeled as a 18-55mm real focal length, then you can know that it captures an angle of view equivalent to a 27-83mm lens on a “conventional” film camera (multiply by 1.5x). Most digital SLRs can use conventional 35mm lenses. But such lenses are designed to create an image circle that covers a 35mm film frame and are therefore larger and heavier than necessary for sensors which are smaller than a 35mm film frame. ‘Digital’ lenses (such as Canon EF-S lenses, Nikon DX Lenses, Olympus 4/3″ System) are lighter because their image circles only cover the sensor area.”

Pentax K20d first impressions

Brian’s followup January 13, 2009 to Tom Dempsey:

Well, I received the Pentax k20d from B and H last week.  I spent about three days with the manual and playing with the menus, custom functions and in general screwing around with the camera to get familiar with it.  It is quite similar to the Pentax PZ-1p that I have used for years.  This camera is well built, solid feel in my hands.  Has plenty of features that I will make use of while not bogged down with complicated functions of a pro camera.  The camera functions well mechanically and the image stabilization works well.  All in all, a great camera at a fantastic price.  If I used Canon or Nikon prior to this I would stay with those brands but as a Pentax user, the K20d delivers the goods to the market it was designed for.

Nikon D60 upgrades D40X

In August 2008, I upgraded to the Nikon D60 from Nikon D40X digital SLR camera (DSLR). The D60 thankfully introduces a good sensor dust-removal system, plus Vibration Reduction (VR) kit lenses (good for resale). The previous model Nikon D40X (used since May 2007) required tediously correction of dust spots in a photo editor. To be fair in retrospect, correcting dust and scratches was much worse with scanned slide film!

By the way, the Nikon D90 (new in October 2008) offers superior resolution with 12 megapixel sensor, a 920,000-pixel 3-inch LCD with live view, and 1280 x 720 (720p) movie support 24fps with mono sound, but its 26 ounce body is heavier than the 18 ounce D60 or D40X. One appreciates lighter weight cameras when trekking all day with a camera bag. When combined with the all-in-one Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens (20 ounces), the Nikon D60 (or D40X) offers the best 2008 quality for the weight for active travelers — camera and lens together weigh only 38 ounces.

[ I have upgraded cameras since this article was posted. Click here for Tom’s latest camera recommendations. Click here for my personal photo gear history. ]

Dynamic range

Nikon’s new Active D-Lighting feature in the Nikon D60 (and D300) only improves dynamic range of JPEG shots, and has no effect on raw files. Better dynamic range captures more detail simultaneously in both bright and dark parts of images. If you shoot any JPEG files, be sure to use Active D-Lighting (although it delays preview of your latest shot by 2 seconds; and delays the next shot after a quick burst of four).

However, if you only shoot raw files like I do, Nikon’s Active D-Lighting is useless and slows performance, so leave it disabled.

Canon offers a superior dynamic range feature helping both raw and JPEG, called “Highlight Tone Priority” mode, new in the Canon EOS 40D and Rebel XSi. The Canon Rebel XSi is one of the best lightweight cameras for travel, similar to the Nikon D60 or D40X.

Raw is better than JPEG

Raw gives you several extra stops of dynamic range versus normal JPEG files on the latest DSLR cameras. Raw also extends the dynamic range of advanced non-SLR compact cameras such as the Canon G9, though by half as much versus a DSLR, due to a smaller sensor. If you need to edit shots after shooting as I do, shooting raw gives much better quality than JPEG, especially to preserve details in bright highlights, and to change white balance. To get the most out of every image, I recommend using a good raw editor such as “Adobe Photoshop Lightroom version 2.0”:

Adobe Lightroom expedites photographic work flow

I love Adobe Lightroom (currently selling for $299, or $99 upgrade; or save about 50% with academic discount), which elegantly organizes images, and drastically reduces my time spent in Adobe Photoshop. My photo editing is now quicker than ever from download to edit to output. The excellent upgrade from Lightroom version 1.4 to 2.0 thankfully adds graduated filters, localized editing brushes, and a quicker interface to Photoshop such as for Photomerge, stitching panoramas. It easily and automatically exports image files to handsome web pages, or to files of any size, such as for e-mail or for Microsoft Powerpoint presentations.

More details: Adobe Lightroom automatically outputs to standard sRGB color space (or Adobe RGB if desired), while working internally with the broader color space of Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB. Adobe Lightroom smartly stores its non-destructive editing commands and labels in a powerful database (and in .XMP sidecar files for raw), and is compatible with JPG, TIF, most raw and .XMP files. If you buy a new camera with raw, check if the latest Lightroom update has added support for its raw files — for example, Adobe Lightroom version 1.4 added support for the Nikon D60 camera, and version 1.1 added Nikon D40X.

BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+ for wildlife: Sony RX10 III vs APS-C, 4/3 cameras

How well can travel cameras magnify distant birds for a given weight and price? For serious wildlife photography on a budget, nothing beats Sony RX10 III:

Sony RX10 III camera

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

  • $1600: 37 oz for 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 zoom lens on 1″-Type sensor: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III (buy at Amazon) is now my ultimate travel camera (weighing just 37 ounces including battery & card; plus adding 5 oz for strap, lens filter, cap & hood makes 42 oz). This compact camera includes a weather-sealed, bright f/2.4-4 lens with incredible 25x zoom, sharp across the frame, from wide angle to wildlife telephoto. Its stacked Exmor RS CMOS backside illumination BSI 1-inch-size sensor technology plus a big 72mm-diameter lens help it rival a flagship APS-C system, even in dim light: read my RX10 III review. [Capturing great depth of focus, the lens has a “full-frame-equivalent” brightest aperture of f/6.5 at wide angle to f/10.8 starting at 100mm equiv.]

The following rival systems can potentially capture higher quality using a larger sensor and larger-diameter glass to collect more light, but are much heavier, pricier and require swapping out the bulkier telephoto to reach normal angles of view with yet another lens:

  1. $2900: 52 oz for 200-800mm equivalent zoom lens mounted on Micro Four Thirds sensor:
    Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm F4-6.3 Power OIS lens (2016, 35 oz, 72mm filter size, 3.3 x 6.8″) mounted on Panasonic DMC-GX8 camera (2015, 17.1 oz body, 20mp), both weather-sealed. This Micro 4/3 sensor has twice the light-gathering area compared to 1-inch type (but RX10 III somewhat compensates with 1″ sensor with a superior stacked Exmor RS CMOS backside illumination BSI technology, not found in Panasonic GX8’s 4/3-Type sensor; and their lenses have equal 72mm diameter). This “slower” Panasonic lens opens as bright as f/4 down to about f/5.6 within the overlapping range 200-600mm equivalent of Sony RX10 III, which has a faster f/4 constant real aperture, up to a full stop brighter at 600mm, possibly equalizing image quality. [This Panasonic lens has a “full-frame-equivalent” brightest aperture of f/8 at 200mm equivalent and f/12.6 at 800mm, meaning that the first half of its zoom can achieve shallower depth of focus than RX10 III.]
  2. $1750: 83 oz for 225-900mm equivalent lens on mirrorless camera with APS-C sensor:
    Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens for Canon EF (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2″, 95mm filter size), mounted on Sigma Mount Converter MC-11 for Canon SGV lenses for Sony E (2016, ~3 oz, $250, for full stabilization and autofocus of Sigma’s Canon-mount lenses onto Sony E-Mount bodies) on Sony A6000 camera (2014, 12 oz body) or A6300. This lens may be the best telephoto quality & reach for the money, if you don’t mind bulky lens-swapping. Or on Nikon:

  3. $8300-8900: 153 oz for professional 750mm equivalent lens on APS-C sensor:
    Nikon 500mm f/4G ED AF-S Vibration Reduction (VR II) Nikkor Lens (137 oz, 5.5 x 15.4″) mounted on Nikon D3300 (2014, 16 oz). Upgrading to Nikon D5500 (2015, 15 oz) adds $100. A new lens upgrade costs $2000 more: Nikon 500mm AF-S NIKKOR f/4E FL ED VR Lens (2015, 109 oz, 5.51 x 15.24″). [This lens has a “full-frame-equivalent” brightest aperture of f/6 at 750mm equivalent, which gives it the shallowest depth of focus on this list; but it ties with the “actual” f/4 relative aperture brightness of RX10 III.]

    • Professional lenses like this are a heavy, bulky, and costly commitment for travelers. Further below, read more about wildlife telephoto lenses for DSLR cameras, including acronyms explained (for image stabilization, ultrasonic focusing motors, and APS-C-only optimization) from major brands (Nikon, Canon, Sigma, Tamron, Sony).
Chilean Flamingo, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Sony RX10 III is sharp across the frame throughout its breathtaking 25x zoom, including at maximum telephoto 220mm (600mm equivalent) shown above. Sections of the Chilean Flamingo are shown at 100% pixel view. Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA.

The following good value compact wildlife cameras are cheaper than Sony RX10 III and likewise don’t interchange lenses:

  1. $1200: 33 oz for 24-480mm equivalent 20x zoom on 1″-Type sensor: Panasonic FZ2500 (2016, 20mp) with f/2.8–4.5 lens, fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, great viewfinder magnification, best video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K). 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.)
  2. $900: 29 oz for 25-400mm equivalent 16x zoom lens on 1″-Type sensor: Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ1000 camera (2014, 20mp) with f/2.8-4 lens, fast autofocus, fully articulated LCD. Good quality lets you crop down from 20mp to digitally extend telephoto reach.
  3. $600: 32 oz for 24–2000mm equivalent 83x zoom lens on 1/2.3″ sensor: Nikon Coolpix P900 (2015, 16mp). The tiny 1/2.3″ sensor should beat cell phone quality, suitable for web sharing or small prints, though requires bright outdoor light.
  4. $400: 21 oz for 24-1200mm equivalent 50x zoom lens on 1/2.3″ sensor: Olympus SP-100 camera (2014, 16mp, 1 cm close focus, nice 920k dot EVF): innovative On-Camera Dot Sight helps track distant birds or moving subjects.

See Tom Dempsey’s latest camera recommendations. Buy at Amazon.com product links on this page to support my work.

More Information

No longer is a DSLR camera with a mirror required for excellent birding and wildlife photography with quick autofocus. The following compact camera with excellent 20-megapixel 1″-Type sensor has a high-quality 25x zoom lens which reaches 600mm equivalent birding territory:

Or for Sony A6300, A6000, NEX-6, and NEX-7 mirrorless E-mount cameras (read article):

Cropping 24 megapixels can beat better lens on older 12mp camera

In 2012, cropping my 24-megapixel Sony NEX-7 with all-in-one 18-200mm lens handily beat the real resolution formerly obtained from 70 to 250mm on Nikon’s good 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G VR lens used on my 12mp D5000 DSLR camera. But upgrading to a 24mp Nikon D3200 camera (2012) or Nikon D3300 camera (2014, 16 oz) restores the advantage of Nikon VR 70-300mm lens. In 2016 came the excellent Sony FE 70-300mm F4.5-5.6 G OSS lens (30 oz, SEL70300G), great for use on Sony A6300 making 105-450mm equivalent. But I prefer the all-in-one 25x zoom Sony RX10 III, introduced around the same time.

However, because the DSLR legacy still runs strongly among professional photographers, the remainder of this article discusses suitable DSLR telephoto lenses…

Wildlife telephoto lenses for DSLR (mirror) cameras

DSLR wildlife telephoto lenses optimal for on-the-go travelers

An optimally “lightweight” wildlife lens for Nikon DSLRs is Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G ED-IF lens (26 oz, 105-450mm angle of view equivalent), which resolves detail throughout its range 5 to 20% sharper (for bigger prints) than the versatile Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom (20 oz, 3 x 3.8″, 2009) travel lens. Alternatives:

A good DSLR camera is Sony Alpha SLT-A65V camera (buy at Amazon.com) (2012, 22 oz body with SteadyShot INSIDE Stabilization) with good travel lens Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 ZA DT lens for Sony Alpha (24-120mm equiv, 16 oz). For wildlife and sports, add an excellent Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G A-mount lens. Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology speeds past very slow Live View autofocus of rival Nikon and Canon DSLRs (except the fast Canon 70D). The tilt/swivel 3.0-inch LCD aids hand-held macro and candid travel shots at arms length. Nikon or Canon lens-based image stabilization may beat Sony’s sensor-shift SteadyShot by up to a full stop of slower shutter speed.

For sharper handheld shots, get optical image stabilization built into the lens (Nikon VR, Canon IS) or body (Sony SteadyShot INSIDE). Superior lenses having fast f4 or f/2.8 brightest aperture excel for indoor action but are a heavy burden when traveling.

Newer DSLR lenses optimized for digital

Today, many lenses sold for DSLR cameras are still the older, heavier ones designed for full frame (35mm film size) cameras. By upgrading to newer lenses that are “Optimized For Digital APS-C”, you can save bulk and weight and enjoy comparable image quality with less vignetting.

A few newer lenses are “designed for APS-C only” and 250mm or longer, useful for a wide range of subjects including wildlife shots:

  • Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens (29 oz, 3.3 x 4.7″, 2012)
  • Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS (Image Stabilization): 2.8 x 4.3 in (70 x 108mm), 13.8 oz (390g). Canon Rebel APS-C crop factor of 1.6 gives it a field of view equivalent to a 88-400mm lens on 135 film.
  • Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens for Nikon (2014, 19 oz) 18.8x zoom with splash-proof design for cameras with APS-C sensor, for Nikon F-mount, Canon EF-mount, or Sony A-mount.
  • Tamron Di II VC AF 18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 LD Aspherical (IF) MACRO (2008, Model B003)
    • 15x zoom lens for Canon mount and AF motor supporting Nikon.
    • Lightweight 19.4 oz (550g), compact 101mm × 80mm (3.8″ × 3.1″).
    • Di-II is Tamron’s lighter weight design exclusively for APS-C sensors.
    • Minimum focus distance 19.3 inches throughout. Magnification ratio 1:3.5 at 270mm (74 x 49 mm coverage).
    • Tamron claims image sharpness similar to competitors (18-200mm Canon IS, Nikon VR, Sigma OS lenses) at same light weight, while zooming more, 15x versus 11x. Canon 18-200mm IS stabilizes images best of the bunch. Canon’s crop factor 1.6 makes 18-270mm equivalent to 29-432mm. Nikon’s 1.5 crop factor makes a 27-405mm equivalent.
    • I didn’t like the Tamron 18-270mm VC lens (returned) and instead upgraded to Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom Lens. The Nikon 18-200 “VR I” focused more reliably in low indoors light on a tripod and cropping its 200mm images beat Tamron’s 270mm. The Tamron autofocuses slower and lens creeps badly when pointed up or down.
      • Avoid older version which lacks VC: Tamron Di-II AF 18-250mm F/3.5-6.3 LD Aspherical (IF) Macro. 430g (15.2oz).

Brand terminology for image stabilization, APS-C-optimization, and fast ultrasonic focusing motors

Lighten your load by shopping for the new, smaller lens formats DX, EF-S, DC and Di IIdesigned for digital for APS-C size sensor cameras only:

  • Nikon/Nikkor DX format lenses for APS-C only (with “VR, Vibration Reduction” desired)
    • Nikon DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens (29 oz, 3.3 x 4.7″, 2012) all-in-one travel lens
    • Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom Lens (new in 2006 with VR I) is great for travel because its size and weight are optimized for Nikon cameras with DX sensors (APS-C size, as in Nikon D3300, D3200, D3100, D5100, D60, & D40X cameras). The DX lens design eliminates the extra glass which would have been required to cover a full 35mm size frame. Nikon DX format cameras have a “field of view crop factor” of 1.5, so this lens labeled 18-200mm can be thought of as a 27-300mm in 135 film terms.
  • Canon EF-S lenses for APS-C only (with “IS, Image Stabilization” desired)
  • Sigma DC lenses for APS-C only (with “OS, Optical Stabilization” desired)
  • Tamron Di II lenses for APS-C only (with “VC, Vibration Compensation” desired).
  • Note: Because the above DX, EF-S, DC and Di II lenses are designed for cameras with APS-C size sensor only, they will cause vignetting (darkened corners) at the wide angle end of their zoom if used on “full frame sensor” SLR cameras, such as on the expensive Nikon D3 (FX format), Nikon D700, Canon EOS 5D, or pricier Canon EOS 1D camera.
  • For sharper handheld shooting in significantly dimmer lighting situations without a tripod, insist on lenses designed with image stabilization (VR, IS, OS or VC above). By eliminating much time formerly spent setting up a tripod, I can better keep pace with non-photographers on group treks.
    • Note that the Sony Alpha (A-series) builds the image stabilization into the camera body with sensor-shift technology, which is a fine idea, except that comparable Nikon D60 and Canon Rebel cameras of 2009 gain back Sony’s handheld advantage through lower noise at a higher ISO settings. Then using a Nikon VR or Canon IS lens beats Sony’s handheld low light performance.
  • Also look for the fastest focusing lenses with ultrasonic motors to capture flighty animals, a feature branded as follows:
    • Canon – USM, UltraSonic Motor
    • Nikon – SWM, Silent Wave Motor
    • Sigma – HSM, Hyper Sonic Motor
    • Tamron – PZD, Piezo Drive autofocus system powered by a fast and quiet standing-wave ultrasonic motor
    • Olympus – SWD, Supersonic Wave Drive
    • Panasonic – XSM, Extra Silent Motor
    • Pentax – SDM, Supersonic Drive Motor
    • Sony & Minolta – SSM, SuperSonic Motor
  • The quality of new lenses usually equals or exceeds comparable past models.

Wildlife and birding lenses for APS-C cameras

For serious photography of wildlife or birds using an an APS-C size sensor camera, use telephoto lens labeled at least 300mm (angle of view equivalent to 450mm lens on 135 film or 35mm sensor). If your telephoto lens falls short of this, then you can crop to enlarge, at the cost of fuzzier images due to lowered resolution. A maximum aperture of f/5.6 or f/6.3 saves money and weight, yet can take decent images in good daylight (usually sharpest if stopped down one or two stops from wide open). Professional wildlife and bird photographers can sharpen image quality with heavier, more expensive lenses with f/4 or f/2.8 brightest aperture, in a 500mm or longer conventional lens (equivalent in terms of 135 film or 35mm sensor), possibly using a full frame 35mm-sensor camera.

CROP FACTOR: Cameras with APS-C size sensors have an “angle of view crop factor” that extends the telephoto by 1.5x for Nikon (or 1.6x for Canon) cameras, when compared to using the same lens on 135 film or 35mm sensor. For example, a favorite travel lens labeled “18-200mm” focal length has the angle of view of a “27-300mm” in terms of 135 film or 35mm sensor, on a Nikon DX format camera such as the Nikon D5100, D5000, D3300, or D60. A Nikon AF-S DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II Zoom Lens makes a great all-around travel lens, with a big 11x zoom that minimizes lens changes so that you don’t miss a shot. However, this 200mm telephoto is too short for serious wildlife photo enlargements, unless you are satisfied with web display or small 4×6 prints of animals. A Nikon DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens would better reach distant birds.
An iridescent blue, orange and green Danfe (or Danphe) Pheasant, the national bird of Nepal, Namche Bazaar in Sagarmatha National Park.

Photo: In Sagarmatha National Park near Mount Everest, that flash of iridescent blue, orange and green is a Danfe or Danphe Pheasant, the national bird of Nepal. Telephoto tips: 

  1. On APS-C size sensor cameras (such as Nikon DX format), for bigger prints of wildlife or birds, use a lens focal length of at least 300mm (which has an angle of view equivalent to a 450mm lens on 135 film or a 35mm-size sensor, a diagonally field of view of 8 degrees & 15 minutes). 
  2. An editor can act as a digital zoom: In Adobe Lightroom editor, I cropped to 10% of the original image to make an acceptable 4×6-inch bird print (but any larger print would look fuzzy at reading distance). The pheasant, 70 feet away in fog, would have been sharper if I had used a telephoto longer than 200mm on my APS-C sensor camera.
    [
    2007 photo: Nikon D40X DSLR, 10mp 3872 x 2592, cropped to 858 x 1002 pixels; published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. ]

Full-frame conventional lenses are bigger and heavier

The expensive “full frame” DSLR cameras (such as Nikon D600 camera, Nikon D700, or Nikon D3 with FX format; Canon EOS 6D, 5D or pricier Canon EOS 1D) require the conventional lens size which focuses sharply to the area of 35mm film, about 36 x 24 mm. Many new lenses are “optimized for digital” to work with both conventional and APS-C size sensors, to reduce vignetting (darkening at corners). For example, Sigma brand lenses labelled DG and Tamron Di lenses are the conventional size, optimized for both full frame and APS-C sensor cameras (though sometimes working better for one particular format).

Using these large, conventional lenses on APS-C size cameras can have some plus and minuses:

  • Advantages of conventional size lenses: The small APS-C size sensor (measuring about 22 x 15 mm) uses just the central area of the conventional 35mm lens, or the “sweet spot”, where images are usually sharpest, with lowest distortion (by not using the outside edges). Also, older lenses may be cheaper, easier to obtain, or already owned in your kit. And if you upgrade from an APS-C camera to a full frame DSLR, the conventional lens may stay compatible.
  • Disadvantages: Conventional size lenses are bigger and heavier (versus the newer Nikon DX, Canon EF-S, Sigma DC, and Tamron Di II lenses “for APS-C size sensor cameras only”), and most people won’t eke an advantage from conventional lenses versus the APS-C-only lenses.

In the lens brand list below, Popular Photography magazine October 2008 rates the following excellent travel lenses as roughly equal in image quality: Nikon 70-300mm 4.5-5.6G VR (which I’ve enjoyed using); Canon 70-300mm DO IS USM; and Sigma 120-400mm 4.5-5.6DG APO OS HSM AF:

Canon full-frame (EF-mount) conventional lenses with IS (Image Stabilization) for wildlife & travel images:

  • Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM. 3.2 x 3.9 in., 25.4 oz (82.4 x 99.9 mm, 720g), makes a great extension to the IS kit lens sold with the Canon EOS 450D / Rebel XSi
  • Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens (new December 2014, 55.3 oz) 3.7 x 7.6″, 77mm filter, 4 stops image stabilization, L-series weather resistance, reduced ghosting and flaring, 3.2-foot closest focus, new Rotation-Type Zoom Ring prevents dust sucking.
    • 1998 version: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Lens. 48.0 oz (1380g), 3.6 x 7.4″ (92 x 189mm), 77mm filter, 1.5 stops image stabilization, 6.5 feet closest focus, push-pull zoom (sucks dust)
  • plus bigger professional lenses with wider maximum aperture

Nikon/Nikkor full frame (F Mount) conventional lenses with VR (highly desirable Vibration Reduction) for wildlife & travel photography, in order of increasing price:

  • Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G ED-IF lens (equivalent to 105-450mm angle of view in terms of 135 film). 26 ounces; 5.6″ length; 4.9 foot minimum focus. Compatible with full frame Nikon D3 DSLR. Lens size and price point attract sports and wildlife/birder photographers. Nikkor 70-300mm is sharper than Nikkor 18-200mm VR.
  • Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED Autofocus VR Zoom Nikkor Lens: (120-600mm equivalent angle of view when used on a Nikon DX mount/APS-C camera) 3.6 x 6.7 inches; 48.0 oz (1360 g). Ken Rockwell says “This lens is a miracle…to shoot still subjects with long exposures without needing a tripod…but for sports you may want the 70-300 AF-S VR.” One reader complained that this lens “does not have AF-S, so I found the focusing too slow for moving birds…and it didn’t bring birds in close enough”.
  • Nikkor AF-S VR Zoom 200-400mm f/4G IF-ED lens: 4.9 x 14.4 inches; 115.5 oz (3275 g). One of my readers was “impressed with the speed of its AF and the quality of the pictures, but the lens is awfully large and heavy”. About $5500.
  • Nikon 500mm f/4G ED AF-S Vibration Reduction (VR II) Nikkor Lens: 5.5 x 15.4 inches; 137 oz/8.54 pounds.
  • plus bigger professional lenses with wider maximum aperture

Sony Alpha DSLR full frame conventional lenses:

  • Sony SteadyShot INSIDE Stabilization (the sensor-shift built into Sony Alpha DSLR camera bodies) is a half or full stop of shutter speed worse than Nikon or Canon lens-based image stabilization, but Sony lenses may cost less for similar quality.
  • Sony A-mount 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 SSM G (SAL-70300G) lens for Alpha DSLR (27 oz/760g), 1.2m minimum focus distance, filter size 62mm. Tip: for sharpest images, set aperture at f/8 to f/11 at zoom settings 70 to 300mm.
  • Sony A-mount 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II lens (53 oz/3.3 lb/1500g, 3.7 x 7.7 inches, SAL-70400G2, 2013) (or SAL-70400G lensboth for Alpha DSLRs) can be adapted onto a NEX camera using Sony LA-EA2 mount adaptor (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus) but lacks OSS, thereby limiting hand-held photography and increasing tripod usage. Minimum focus distance 1.5m, filter size 77mm. This SAL-70400G2 SSM II lens is very sharp wide open at 400mm, has 4x faster autofocus, less flare/ghosting, and higher contrast images than previous version. As with comparable rival lenses, they have poor bokeh >250mm compared to prime lenses.

By the way, I don’t recommend using Sony A-mount lenses (such as 70-300mm or -400mm) on E-mount bodies (such as A6300, A6000 or NEX). Designed for in-body stabilization for Sony Alpha DSLRs, A-mount lenses all lack OSS (thereby requiring more tripod use on E-mount bodies). A-mount lenses also require a hefty A-mount adapter on E-mount bodies:

  • Sony LA-EA2 adaptor (7 oz, with translucent mirror for fast phase detection autofocus)
  • Sony LA-EA1 adapter (with Manual focus only, NO AUTOFOCUS).
  • You’d be better off using E-mount lenses on Sony A6300, A6000 or NEX.

Tamron and Sigma make good value full-frame conventional zoom lenses suitable for shooting birds and wildlife plus a wide range of other subjects, fitting many different brand camera bodies:

  • Tamron 28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD Zoom Lens (2014, 19 oz) for Canon EF, Nikon F (FX), Sony Alpha mounts: attractive for wildlife/travel photography with ultrasonic PZD motor. Tamron “Di” lens designed for both full frame and APS-C sensor cameras. 42-450mm equivalent lens on Nikon DX format cameras (APS-C with 1.5x field of view multiplier), where the angle of view zooms from 75°23′ to 8°15′. Close focus 19 inches. Internal Focus (IF).
  • Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD (2014, 69 oz/4.30 lb/1951 g, 4.2 x 10.2″) for Canon EF mount, Nikon F mount, and Sony Alpha A-mount: 225-900mm equivalent on APS-C. UltraSonic Drive autofocus motor. Shoot at around f/8 for sharpest results (given sufficient tripod use and/or shutter speed). Excellent dollar value. Comparisons:
    • The 2008 Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM is no sharper at 500mm than the Tamron is at 600mm.
    • This Tamron 150-600mm matches image quality at half the price of Nikon AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR.
    • The Tamron’s modern optics easily beat the 1999 Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM.
  • Tamron AF 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di LD Macro lens. 3.0 x 4.6 in. 435g (15.3 oz). Not image stabilized.
  • Tamron SP AF200-500mm F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) lens. 3.7 x 8.9 in. 1237g (43.6 oz). Not image stabilized.

The following full-frame conventional zoom lenses by Sigma are a good price-value, fitting several different brand camera bodies:

  • Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2 in). Note: Sigma’s heavier, professional 150-600mm Sports version (2015, 101 ounces, 11.5-inches long) is splash and dust-resistant, focuses as close as 102-inches, and has 24 elements in 16 groups.
  • Sigma APO 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens (2008, 67.4 oz, 3.7 in. x 9.9 in.) filter diameter 86mm.
  • Sigma APO 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM lens: (61.7 oz/1750g, 3.6 in. x 8 in)
  • Sigma APO 80-400mm F4.5-5.6 EX DG OS lens: Optical Stabilization helps by about 2 stops or so. Does not have HSM and may be slow to focus. 1750g/61.9 oz, 3.7 x 7.6 in.
  • Sigma APO 50-500mm F4-6.3 EX DG HSM lens: 1,840g/64.9 oz; 3.7 in. x 8.6 in. It has no optical stabilization; but good DSLR cameras can compensate by a few stops using high ISO settings.
  • plus bigger professional lenses with wider maximum aperture.
  • Sigma glossary of terms: DG = Sigma’s conventional full-size lens. In the future, look for newer, smaller 300mm and longer SigmaDC” lenses for APS-C only. OS = Optical Stabilization, very desireable. HSM = Hyper Sonic Motor for quiet and high-speed AF (Auto Focus), very desirable.

Tokina full-frame conventional lens for wildlife:

  • Tokina 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 ATX 840 AF D: Angle of view 29° 50’ to 6°13’ on APS-C camera; Minimum focus distance 2.5m (8.2 ft.); dimensions 3.1 in. (79mm) X 136.5 mm (5.4in.); 1020 g (35.9 oz); introduced June 2006, for Canon EOS and Nikon D. Unfortunately no image stabilization.

Check prices at Amazon.com. — buying at the links on this page supports Tom Dempsey’s work.

TELEPHOTO TIPS: How to avoid out-of-focus shots on any camera

  • Make sure image stabilization (IS, VR, OS, VC, or OIS) is turned on for all hand held shots (especially when using telephoto), to counteract blurring due to hand shake at slower shutter speeds.
  • Focus will be most difficult towards longest telephoto end of the zoom, due to hand shake and lens limitations, especially in low light. At 400mm using Canon IS or Nikon VR on an APS-C sensor, shoot at about 1/125th second or faster for sharper shots. For APS-C cameras in general, divide the lens mm by two, and the inverse is near the slowest possible sharp shutter speed when image stabilization is turned on. Raising ISO will help achieve faster shutter speeds.
  • Most DSLR lenses are sharpest stopped down by one or two stops from wide open: f/8 is easiest to remember as a good optimum that reduces the chromatic aberrations of wide open and prevents the light diffraction of small openings at high aperture numbers such as f/22.
  • Automatic multi-point focus usually hunts for the closest, brightest object, and is often not what you wanted to focus on, but can react faster than your fingers for capturing wildlife, sports, and action.
  • For shooting non-moving subjects on most cameras, a single AF point in the center (not multi point automatic) is more accurate. Lock focus, recompose, then release the shutter. On many cameras, when using single AF point, it’s easy to accidently press the “AF point selection” off center or forget that it’s off center, focusing on a location different than you thought. Some of the heavier, pricier DSLR models can lock AF point selection to avoid the common problem.

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.
  • 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.

Buying anything at the above Amazon.com links supports my work.

Canon PowerShot G9 versus Canon 40D DSLR with f/2.8L IS lens

For family travel, Tom compares a big f/2.8L IS lens on heavy Canon 40D DSLR to a compact Canon PowerShot G9 camera on tripod:

Asia Contemporary: A demon guards at the bottom of a gilded chedi (or stupa), at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), which is a shining complex of buildings within the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. The Grand Palace (or Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang, in Thai) in Bangkok, Thailand, was built on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River starting in 1782, during the reign of Rama I. It served as the official residence of the king of Thailand from the 18th century to the mid-20th century. Photo by Carol Dempsey. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Carol Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

Asia Contemporary: A demon guards at the bottom of a gilded chedi (or stupa), at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), which is a shining complex of buildings within the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph by Carol Dempsey, using a Canon Powershot SD700 IS ELPH, which is a camera about the size of a deck of playing cards.

Photographer Tom Dempsey replies to Raul Panelo’s message (shown at bottom) March 03, 2008:

Dear Raul, You probably already know that your skills as a photographer are much more important than the camera you choose. That being said, your high quality Canon 40D (and 20D) DSLR outfit has some important differences versus the 13-ounce Canon Powershot G9:

Here are the main advantages of your excellent DSLR camera outfit:
  • Prints larger than about 16 inches will be noticeably sharper and less distorted from the DSLR, versus from the Canon G9.
  • The shutter response is instantaneous on a DSLR, whereas the G9 has a slight delay of 0.4 to 0.6 seconds. (Workaround: half-press the shutter to pre-focus, then click at the right moment).
  • On the DSLR, for a given image noise/quality level, you can hand hold shots in 2 to 4 stops dimmer light using ISO 800-3200 (versus the G9 set at ISO 100-200; assuming you turn on IS image stabilization in both cameras for sharpest hand held performance). Using these settings, images may be indistinguishable in quality from DSLR versus G9, when viewed on any High Definition HD monitor or projector, or when printed less than about 12 inches in size. Your f/2.8L lenses for your Canon 40D are so good and sharp, that your personal judgement is required to determine the G9 breakeven point for print size, which I estimate at between 16 and 8 inches. Larger prints will look sharper from the Canon 40D.
  • DSLR cameras perform much better in dimmer light, because their larger lens glass diameter focuses much more light onto a sensor 6 times larger in area than in the G9.
  • Your proposed 1.4x lens extender loses a stop, but costs less than buying a new lens, and reduces bulk versus carrying an extra lens. Offhand I don’t know the actual quality difference when you extend your 70-200mm 2.8L IS by 1.4x. The tele extender might duplicate the effect (and quality?) of your Canon 75-300mm 4-5.6 IS, thus saving you extra bulk of carrying the 75-300mm when traveling.

…versus the Canon Powershot G9:

  • The G9 can work around many of its low light limitations by shooting always at ISO 100-200 (even 400 looks surprisingly good), and by mounting on a tripod, in the case of low light shots that exceed its excellent 2-4 stop hand-held “IS” capability. You may not see much difference between G9 images and DSLR images when you compare shots at ISO 100-200 and prints smaller than about 12 inches.
  • The G9 has big advantages of portability, fun factor, movie & sound recording, and good built in macro focusing down to 1 cm (very useful small macro image area 17 x 22 mm, better magnification than your DSLR lenses, unless you have a dedicated DSLR macro lens).
  • Underwater camera: The $170 Waterproof Case WP-DC11 converts the Canon G9 into a high quality underwater camera for snorkeling Maui, Hawaii, Galapagos Islands, Belize, Mexico, the Caribbean Sea or other great destinations. However, our camera’ s waterproof housing fogged up in the cold Galapagos waters. Instead, get a dedicated underwater camera listed on my BUY page.
  • Compact cameras are great for traveling with family, because they are more portable and faster to whip out, as you juggle family gear and interact socially. (However, to capture better quality in dim light, the G9 needs a tripod about 2 to 4 f/stops sooner than DSLR cameras with APS-C size sensors, such as the Canon D40.)
  • With the G9 shooting RAW, you can capture publication quality images up to about 12 inches (maybe larger).

  • To put this discussion in perspective: using a JPEG image from the Canon SD700IS ELPH (which has image quality lower than the Canon G9), I printed one of my wife’s Bangkok Grand Palace shots 16×12 inches for display in our living room, and the quality looks the same as my own prints using better cameras! In my mind, that infers the G9 quality on par with your DSLR up to 16 inches, in good daylight shooting.

Recommended travel tripod for compact or DSLR cameras:

  • I love my travel tripod, which I have tested 2005-2008 with both small and DSLR cameras:
  • Slik “Sprint Pro GM” Tripod ($90), which weighs only 2 pounds and is great for travel, superior to other travel tripods that I’m aware of (including Velbon MAXi343E, Manfrotto, or even Gitzo tripods costing three times more).
  • For quickest on/off camera mounting, add the Manfrotto 3299 Quick Change Plate Adapter ($35, quick release).
  • The stiff aluminum 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). At this good price, simply buy a new tripod if it breaks.
  • The Slik “Sprint Pro GM” tripod rises to eye level (64 inches), collapses to 19 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 3.5 ounces). Leg tips convert from spike (outdoor) to rubber (indoor use) with a simple lockable twist.

Tom’s 2008 equipment:

  • My own travel preference is to carry the lightweight Nikon D40X (with image quality equal to the more expensive Nikon D200) mounted with just one do-everything lens, the Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED (2-4 stops hand held vibration reduction), which makes a good quality 38-ounce camera+lens system carried in a chest bag.
  • Compared to using a Canon G9, this Nikon D40X system eliminates most tripod use, shoots faster in dimmer light, shoots a wider angle and longer telephoto (27mm-300 equivalent Nikkor lens; versus 35mm-210 for Canon G9) and captures better quality, sufficient for me to sell 24 inch or larger prints (when viewed at 24 inches or further).
  • The 13-ounce G9 is still very attractive as a camera for family travel and 16-inch prints. I would not mind having a G9!

Have a great trip in Maui!
— Tom Dempsey, photographer, Seattle, Washington

——————————————————————————————-

Above, Tom answers the following questions … From Raul Panelo, March 03, 2008 To: tom @ photoseek.com
Subject: Travel Advice Needed

Hi Tom! First of all, thank you for sharing your expertise in travel photography. I have learned a lot from your site www.photoseek.com I need advice on what equipment to bring on my upcoming vacation to Maui. I currently have the following: Canon 20D, Canon 40D cameras; lenses: Canon 16-35mm 2.8L, Canon 24-70mm 2.8L, Canon 70-200mm 2.8L IS, Canon 50mm 1.4, Canon 75-300mm 4-5.6 IS. I want to shoot landscapes, people and macro shots. After reading your website, I’m now thinking of buying the Canon G9 for a take it anywhere camera. Do you think this is a good choice for me? I’m also thinking of buying the 1.4x extender for the 70-200mm to extend my range. Lastly, I am looking for the best tripod to use with either my SLRs or the G9 if I end up buying it. I’m traveling with my wife and 2 daughters ages 6 & 11. I’d like to travel as light as possible but at the same time have the ability to capture wonderful images. Thanks in advance for your help. — Raul Panelo

———– Reply from Raul March 03, 2008: —————————————
Tom, Thank you so much for your quick and detailed response. Based on your answer, I’ll definitely take my SLR in case I capture something I’d like to print and hang on the wall later. I’ll also check your tripod recommendation. The price on the Sprint Pro GM is definitely reasonable given your description. You may post my question and your answer on your blog. Your blog is a great resource for many and if your answer helped me, I’m sure many more will benefit. Thanks again for being so generous with your expertise. — Raul

2008: Panasonic FZ8 vs FZ7, Canon G7, G9, SD700

Tom compares Panasonic FZ8, FZ7, Canon G6, G7, G9, SD700 IS (2008 cameras), and JPEG versus raw.

“Hi Tom …I was very keen to buy Canon G6 , but as now out of production & very difficult to get hold of , even second hand . The G7’s reviews are mixed especially the absence of RAW [file support]. Do you think this is a big disadvantage , is it something an amature would have much use for ? What are your views of the G7 ? Your photos on your website look great , do you use a Polariser filter to get the colour contrasts ? Particularly enjoy your trekking photos in Switzerland.”  — Regards, from Tony Lord February 6, 2007
[ Information here dates from 2008 for people interested in older cameras. Click BUY > CAMERAS to see the latest recommended gear. ]
Tom Dempsey replied as follows including new information as of February 2008:
  • If like Tony you are attracted to a camera such as the Canon G6, I suggest upgrading to the class-leading image quality of the Canon G9, with 3-inch LCD, raw file support, and 12 megapixels; introduced 10/2007.
  • To save money, try ebay.com or craigslist.org for finding a Canon G6.
  • From compacts to SLRs, today’s digital cameras are much better than cameras of only 2 years previous. Performance of pocket cameras today can sometimes exceed older 35mm film SLRs.
  • Note that your photography skills are much more important than the camera you use. One of the best cameras to have is a small one which you can carry everywhere, such as the shirt-pocket sized Canon SD700 IS, with which I captured these images:

    Powdery snow islands dot Commonwealth Creek in Commonwealth Basin, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

    Powdery snow islands dot Commonwealth Creek in Commonwealth Basin, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

Image on right: Snow & ice saucers formed on rocks in Commonwealth Creek, Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, Washington. Commonwealth Basin makes one of the best snowshoeing trips in the Snoqualmie Pass area along Interstate 90.
A tiny camera such as the Canon SD700 IS ELPH is easy to keep warm in your pocket to capture winter snapshots while snowshoeing or skiing. The Canon SD700IS also lets us record movies of our tango dance instructor (with permission) to remember the steps. It handily records pictures of different flooring, cabinet, and lighting designs as we comparison shop for our kitchen remodel. My wife Carol likes to keep this tiny Canon ELPH (about the size of a pack of playing cards) handy in her purse or daypack for capturing images that inspire her quilting designs.
A yellow flower of a Glacier Lily grows on Scorpion Mountain, a hike (9 miles round trip, 2500 feet total gain) near Skykomish, US Highway 2, Washington, USA. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)
Above left: A glacier Lily on Johnson Ridge in late June, on the hike to Scorpion Mountain (9 miles, 2900 feet round trip), a hike in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, accessible from US Highway 2 near Skykomish, Washington. Digital cameras like the tiny Canon SD700 IS have great macro abilities.
  • If a camera is too big, then you might decide not to carry it everywhere, thus missing many great shots.
  • The Canon G7 is a better camera than the smaller Canon SD700IS. You could be very happy with a G7 which can conveniently fit into a big shirt pocket. The G7 has 10 megapixels, image stabilized 35-210mm f/2.8-5.9 lens, great 0.4″ macro close focus (about 1 cm ) at 35mm, sophisticated DIGIC III processing, bright 2.5″ LCD visible at high angles. [Upgrade to Canon G9for 3-inch LCD, raw and 12 megapixels; introduced 10/2007.]
    • Unfortunately the G7 has no flip-out-and-twist LCD which was a great feature of the Canon G5. [See the excellent Fujifilm FinePix S9100 for a tilting LCD.]
    • The G7 has no raw mode (and battery life is shorter than the G5). [The excellent Canon G9 offers raw.] Also, I prefer a camera which starts zooming with a wider angle such as 28mm equivalent for flexibility indoors, tight spaces, or wide landscapes (workaround: stitch images together).
    • If you want to print images bigger than about 18 inches, you would need a camera with a lens diameter larger than the G7, to capture more light.
  • Also consider the Panasonic FZ8 as an inexpensive and versatile travel camera for standard sized prints. [FZ8 is cheaper than G7 or G9, but image quality suffers in comparison due to smaller sensor.] FZ8 features: 36-432mm (35mm equiv) 12x zoom lens with stabilization, now includes raw mode, 7.1 megapixels, weighs only 310 g (11 ounces). My brother who is a very discriminating photographer bought a Panasonic FZ7 (which has no raw mode) as a travel & backpacking camera for convenience such as when traveling with children — he likes the FZ7 (versus his older bigger & heavier film system Olympus OM-1). [He later upgraded to the FZ8.] The FZ8 improves upon the FZ7, and probably can make bigger prints.
  • Raw vs JPEG: Most consumers (not professional photographers) are usually happy with JPEGs and not using raw, since raw requires an extra conversion step, which takes a few extra seconds per image (or minutes if you adjust the image). The extra step in using raw adds a lot of extra time when processing dozens or thousands of images like I do — but for me raw is very much worthwhile due to the extra 1 to 2 stops exposure & white balance latitude and editing headroom, which translates into larger print capability, such as 20×30 inches from my Canon Powershot Pro1 (when print is viewed at 30 inches). Sometimes the extra information in raw gives you enough exposure & editing headroom to let you print up to twice as big versus JPEG. The raw conversion step need not take much extra time since you can automate raw conversion to make the defaults look much like the JPEG would have. Raw is much more forgiving than JPEG and lets you adjust white balance, exposure, tone, contrast, saturation, sharpness and so forth after shooting. With JPEG you need to be careful to shoot with the right exposure & white balance, at the risk of irretrievably losing highlight or shadow information (or both).
  • Be cautious when using a polarizer with digital, since may oddly affect white balance, and can make skies look unnaturally dark. But sometimes a polarizer is very important in removing reflections on water & green plants or increasing contrast in the sky, so I keep a polarizer in my kit.
Good luck with your photography.
Bright yellow algae grows in a tarn (mountain pond) which reflects peaks of Dents des Veisivi (left) and Aiguilles de la Tsa (right) above Arolla Valley, part of Val d'Hérens, in Valais (Wallis) Canton, Switzerland, Europe. Hike the High Route (Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route) for classic mountain scenery. Panorama stitched from 2 images. Published in Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures "Inn to Inn Alpine Hiking Adventures" Catalog 2006-2009, 2011. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Above: Striking yellow algae in a tarn reflecting Les Dents des Veisivi, above the Arolla Valley, Switzerland. On this day we hiked about 8 miles (2900 feet up, 3300 feet down) from Arolla to La Gouille, then we bused to our hotel in Les Haudères. Published in Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures 2006 & 2007 “Inn to Inn Alpine Hiking Adventures” Catalog. Photographed with a Canon Powershot Pro1 camera.

Clint Janson wrote Feb 7, 2007:
“I just discovered your website and viewed all of your Alp hike pages. I have to go back!!! My wife and I stayed in Gimmelwald a few years ago and did some hiking, but it was in march and in the snow and low clouds. Thank you for posting your wonderful pictures of one of the greatest and most beautiful areas in the world. I sent the linkto my Wife (who grew up in Europe and spent many holidays in the Alps) and I know she will be home sick. (which means a trip soon!) Thanks again, you are a very talented Photographer.”

2007: compare Nikon D40X SLR, Canon Pro1, G7, Panasonic FZ8

In 2007, I upgraded from a Canon Powershot Pro1 (2004) to Nikon D40X SLR (2007), mounted with the flexible Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (27-300mm equivalent).

[ I have upgraded cameras since this article was posted. Click here for Tom’s latest camera recommendationsClick here for my personal photo gear history. ]

Cicada insect, Queen Charlotte Track, South Island, New Zealand. Published in "Light Travel: Photography on the Go" by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Cicada insect, Queen Charlotte Track, South Island, New Zealand. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Compact versus DSLR cameras

  • Compact cameras can focus very closely with good depth of field, and their live LCD view (like a high definition video camera, capturing stills, movies & sound) makes framing shots easy at arms length over your head or on the ground.
    • To photograph this 1-inch cicada insect (above), I flipped out the LCD at a good viewing angle, I knelt comfortably, and slowly stretched my arms fully towards the insect. In the low forest light, I stabilized the camera against the ground for a sharper image at a slow 1/10th second exposure at f/6.3 aperture. I easily framed the insect by looking down on the live LCD, though accurate focus took several tries.
    • An SLR would have required me to put my head on the ground with my eye to the viewfinder, in a very uncomfortable & dirt-stained position. Also, my tripod would have taken too long to set up before the insect flew away.
    • The Super Macro feature (not found in SLRs) gives extra magnification (at 5 megapixels for the Canon Powershot Pro1, capturing better resolution than digitally cropping the Pro1’s normal 8-megapixel Macro Mode). The Pro1 can focus as close as 1 inch / 2.5 cm using 5 megapixel Super Macro Mode ,which can be impressively “fast”: f/3.0 at 90 mm equivalent.
    • The all-in-one lens in many other modern compact digital cameras can focus as close as 0.5 inches or 1 centimeter, great for macro shots, much closer than most standard SLR lenses.
    • All-in-one lenses and live LCDs on compact cameras let you more spontaneously and creatively capture fleeting moments. You can switch very quickly from macro close focus, to wide view distant focus, to telephoto. Even the smallest compact cameras can make decent prints to 16 inches or A4 size.
  • Disadvantages of SLR-style cameras: Heft and bulk may discourage you from carrying the SLR camera when you need it. Since a good shirt-pocket sized camera can make good prints to 16 inches, an SLR is overkill for most people. A bigger camera won’t make you a better photographer – you can get great shots with most any camera (click here for examples). Since most SLRs don’t have a live view on the LCD (due to their viewfinder mirror blocking the sensor), you must look through their viewfinder to frame shots, which is difficult for low-to-the-ground macro photographs, or for shots held overhead. SLRs may require the inconvenience of switching to separate (expensive) lenses such as for macro. Switching lenses gathers dust on the sensor, which can be hard to clean.
  • Advantages of SLRs over compact cameras:SLRs make bigger prints. SLRs capture less noise at higher ISO settings, giving much better light sensitivity. SLRs shoot with faster shutter response (with little shutter lag) to capture fleeting moments. SLRs capture images with less distortion using higher quality sharper lenses.
    • Of my images in New Zealand this year, I could have improved the print quality of about 50% of the photographs if I had taken them with the D40X SLR with 18-200mm VR lens, which has a longer telephoto and at least 6 f/stops greater light sensitivity.
    • Only 10% of my images (in the form of macro images; movies & sound recordings) would have required my compact Canon Powershot Pro1.

The following question from Chris De Schepper May 16, 2007 motivated this article:

I noticed that you bought a Nikon D40x [described on Tom’s Equipment page]. I am still in doubt about the Canon G7 and I can buy a Nikon D40 with kit lens for nearly the same money. Maybe it would be smarter to get the DSLR and buy eventually later on a cheaper compact. Is there an obvious difference in quality between the pictures taken with your Nikon D40x and your Pro 1 ? I have always used an analogue slr camera and assume that the big advantage in use would be the optical viewfinder in bright sunlight. I would use it a lot for hiking. Disadvantage being the weight of course, but the Nikon is not so heavy. If I buy the G7 I would also buy the adapter for a polaroid filter. kind greetings –  Chris

Tom Dempsey responds:

Nikon D40X SLR, versus compact Canon Pro1, G7, or Panasonic FZ8

In May 2007, I started using a great new lightweight travel camera, the Nikon D40X SLR, mounted with a 27-300mm equivalent zoom with 4 f/stops VR image stabilization. The D40X is Nikon’s answer to the similar lightweight Canon EOS 400D Digital Rebel XTi camera (2 ounces heavier).

I compared the same images shot side by side with my favorite compact camera, the Canon Powershot Pro1, (released 2004) versus the Nikon D40X (new in 2007) mounted with the powerful Nikkor AF-S DX VR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens (27-300mm equivalent), which has four f/stops faster hand-held shooting using Vibration Reduction (VR).

Results: The D40X SLR (10-megapixels) captures the same or better quality images in bright daylight, but significantly better quality in low light than the Pro1.

The Canon Powershot Pro1 (8 megapixels) still stands up surprisingly well to the SLR: even though its sensor area is 6 times smaller, the Pro1’s great Canon “L” 28-200mm f/2.4-3.5 lens has excellent light gathering power & sharpness. The Pro1 (25 ounces with battery) compares remarkably well despite being older, much smaller and lighter than the D40X with 18-200mm VR lens (38 ounces with battery). Where there is enough light, such as for outdoor landscapes in the sun, the Pro1 seems equally sharp as the Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens on the D40X.

Putting a better lens on the D40X might more clearly exceed the Pro1’s quality, but that would require multiple separate zooms (extra weight and inconvenience). I prefer an all-in-one zoom lens solution for travel photography, such as this Nikkor VR 27-300mm equivalent. (Note that 8 versus 10 megapixels are not a significant difference when choosing between cameras.)

A compact camera with flip-out-and-twist LCD (such as the Canon Pro1) is more fun to use and great for macro (see cicada insect image above), but the Nikon D40x will capture better images when using the Nikkor 18-200mm VR 11x zoom lens in a greater variety of hand-held dim lighting conditions. Other users report that the D40X captures quality equal to the excellent Nikon D200, which weighs 13 ounces heavier.

Upgrading to the Nikon D40X improves the printing quality of over 50% of my shots, versus using compact cameras such as the Canon Powershot Pro1. As a supplement to the D40X, I will continue using a pocket camera such as the Canon Powershot SD700IS which is great for movies, sound recording, and certain spontaneous shots when I’m not carrying the bulkier SLR. For me, using an image stabilizing (VR) lens is very important to make the SLR more clearly superior in overall performance & quality to justify its size and weight, versus a compact camera.

Compact cameras still offer an all-in-one photography solution at a great price value when compared to SLRs. If you choose a compact camera as an alternative to an SLR, I highly recommend optical image stabilization, and raw file support to compensate for the noisier small sensor.

Click BUY menu at left to see the latest Best Travel Cameras.

Compare the Canon G7 and Panasonic FZ8:

  • Panasonic DMC-FZ8: 36-432mm f/2.8-3.1; 12x image stabilized zoom lens; 7.2 megapixels; only 12 ounces with battery; slightly less bulky than the Canon Pro1 but half the weight. 5 cm closest macro focus. Sharp 2.5-inch LCD (which unfortunately doesn’t flip out). Raw support. A great price value. 1/2.5″ sensor size. Truly powerful and fun to use, this camera is very small & lightweight, making good prints up to A4 size (around 18 inches). Image quality is good at ISO 100 to 200 (but noisy at ISO 400 or higher). The raw file support can compensate for noise reduction problems (Venus III processor). Read the full review, “Highly Recommended (just)” at this external link: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/panasonicfz8/
  • Canon G7: If you don’t need raw mode, you could also be very happy with the excellent Canon G7, which can conveniently fit into a big shirt pocket (one inch flatter than the FZ8), and can make good prints up to 20 inches. [Better yet, upgrade to the Canon G9 supporting raw files.] The G7 has an 35-210mm f/2.8-5.9 lens, 6x image stabilized zoom, 10 megapixels; only 13 ounces with battery. Great 1 cm / 0.4″ macro close focus at 35mm. Bright 2.5″ LCD visible at high angles. 1/1.8″ sensor size (bigger than the FZ8). Image quality is good to ISO 400 (one stop better than the FZ8). Sophisticated Canon DIGIC III processing. Read the full review, “Highly Recommended (only just)”: http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/canong7/
  • Disadvantages of Canon G7 and Panasonic FZ8: These compact cameras only zoom as wide as 35 or 36mm equivalent; but I prefer a camera which zooms at least as wide as 28mm for flexibility indoors, tight spaces, or wide landscapes (workaround: stitch images together). In comparison, SLRs can shoot good images at ISO 800-1600 and can make bigger, higher quality prints. These cameras all lack a flip-out-and-twist LCD (which is a great feature of the earlier Canon G5 and Pro1).

More details regarding the Nikon D40X SLR with Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens: Continue reading