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

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

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

Below, compare sensor sizes for digital cameras:

Sensor sizes for digital cameras.

In the above illustration, compare digital camera sensor sizes: full frame 35mm, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, 1-inch, 1/1.7″ and 1/2.5” Type. For new digital cameras, a bigger sensor area captures better quality, but requires larger diameter, bulkier lenses. To optimize the size of a serious travel camera, consider 1-inch-Type sensor or up to APS-C sensor size. “Full-frame 35mm” sensor / film size (36 x 24 mm) is a standard for comparison, with a diagonal field-of-view crop factor = 1.0. In comparison, a pocket camera’s 1/2.5” Type sensor crops the light gathering by 6.0x smaller diagonally (with a surface area 35 times smaller than full frame).

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

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

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

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

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

How to compare cameras

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

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

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

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

More details:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lens quality & diameter also affect image quality

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

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

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

Larger lens diameter can help dim light photography:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raw format and advantages of large sensors over small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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 1978-2017

PhotoSeek creator Tom Dempsey reveals his favorite photographic gear adopted from 1978-2017.

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 Lightroom for Windows (Tom’s usage from 2007−present)

I highly recommend Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan (Photoshop CC + Lightroom) which elegantly organizes images and speeds editing! 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. Lightroom can optionally place a copyright watermark on exported images.

  • New in 2016, Lightroom CC’s Boundary Warp feature is essential for building panoramas quickly, and Dehaze (in Adjustment Brush and Develop>Effects tab) provides a big help beyond Clarity to reveal details behind hazy skies, glare, or other conditions. (Not supported in LR version 6.)
  • In April 2015, Lightroom version 6 added Photo Merge to Panorama and to HDR, with raw file input and high-quality output to Adobe Digital Negative DNG files.
    • A good FREE option for stitching panoramas from multiple images is 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 discount for academic/student/teacher, if applicable. (Also, in 2012, Adobe competitively cut in half the retail price of Lightroom.)
  • Lightroom helped me edit and organize 2-3 times more per week compared to Canon ZoomBrowser, or to 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 in converting old or importing 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).
    • To simplify your workflow and printing, use sRGB color space outside of Lightroom (Edit>Preferences>External Editing tab), such as when launching Photoshop. Costco makes great 40-year prints on Fuji Crystal Archive Paper using default sRGB color space at 300 dpi. Most monitors and cameras use sRGB color space as a default practical standard.
  • A great Lightroom 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.)
  • Adobe Lightroom ties you to the expense of updates, or ongoing CC subscription, required for raw file compatibility for future cameras that you may purchase. If your Lightroom CC subscription expires, you can still view, organize and export (but not Develop) images.
FREE editor alternatives:
  • Polarr.co edits very well, especially the $20 Pro version with important Brush Mask and batch processing. But Polarr loads only 50 images at a time, and requires external organizing software. Polarr image size must be ≤40 megapixels (so you must edit the entire set of images before using a stitcher like FREE Image Composite Editor to merge a large panorama).
  • FastStone Image Viewer 3.6 Freeware, www.faststone.org. 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 Photos (or earlier iPhoto) is not bad, but each edit creates a new JPEG file. In 2014, Apple ceased development of its Aperture and iPhoto apps, replacing both with “Photos for macOS.” Version 3 and later of both Apple Aperture and Adobe Lightroom helpfully cataloged movie files.
  • Google Photos: good across multiple platforms but requires internet connection. 16mp max per photo. 15 gb free storage on Google Drive (then $2/month per 100 gb up to 30 TB as of 2017).
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

While Adobe Lightroom handles 95% of my editing, the remaining 5% of my very best images, printing, and book production still require Photoshop. Most people don’t need Photoshop, since Adobe Lightroom covers most advanced photo editing needs.

  • Adobe Photoshop: As of Spring 2013, Photoshop version CS6 and later is now rented by the month or paid yearly to run the CC version, 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. Photoshop version CS5 worked well for me. 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 antiquated by Lightroom 6.x and CC with Photomerge).
C. Microsoft Powerpoint 2016 for Windows, via Office 365 Home subscription

makes flexible photo shows combining images, music, videos, labels & charts with nice cross-fades between frames for display on a computer or digital projector. Subscribing to Microsoft Office 365 Home includes PowerPoint, Word, Excel, and Outlook; supports 5 PCs or Macs, 5 tablets, and 5 phones; has unlimited customer service; and is cheaper than buying standalone copies separately for PC and laptop.

Alternative show software: Proshow Producer has flexible output formats at all resolutions.

D. Tom’s laptop shows use Microsoft PowerPoint on a 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, 1920 x 1080 pixels, 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 or SX50).
  • Best projector under $1000: BenQ HT2050 DLP HD 1080p Projector (at Amazon.com) – 3D Home Theater Projector with All-Glass Cinema Grade Lens. Or older, slightly cheaper BenQ HT1075 is almost as good.

My older Canon Realis SX50 digital projector (Tom’s usage December 2005 – present) displays impressive multimedia presentations using Microsoft Powerpoint run on a notebook computer, dynamically superior to a slide film projector. The SX50 projects a spectacular movie theater experience, especially with a 6-speaker Surround Sound system. The Canon Realis SX50 projector 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. It has keystone correction, a great dynamic range (from highlights to shadows), and sharper focus than slide film projectors such as the Kodak Carousel 4600. The SX50 is well optimized to show images in default sRGB mode, as captured by digital cameras.

On my trusty old Kodak Carousel 4600 film projector, the contrast ratio is more limited, requiring a darker room than Canon 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!

E. Tom’s computer hardware
Tom’s current Personal Computer system (from 2017−present):
Tom’s laptop computer (from 2017−present):
  • HP Spectre x360 – 15t Touch Laptop:
    15.6″ 3840×2160 pixels diagonal UHD UWVA eDP BrightView WLED-backlit screen. Intel Core i7-7500U 2.7-3.5 GHz, 4 MB cache, 2 cores, plus 16 GBNVIDIA GeForce 940MX (2GB GDDR5 dedicated) video graphics. 16 GB DDR4-2133 SDRAM. 1 TB Solid State Drive (SSD). 64-bit Windows 10 Pro operating system. Product #X6W04AV. I love its elegant profile and truly useful touchscreen! Good keyboard.
Recommended best value PC specifications for Adobe Lightroom & PhotoShop 2012-2013
  • Use a 64-bit Windows or Apple operating system (not 32-bit).
  • Recommended processor: quad-core 3.5 GHz Intel i7-3770K Ivy Bridge (or i5-3570K saves money)
  • Recommended RAM: 12 to 16 gigabytes of Random Access Memory
  • Recommended graphics: GeForce GTX570 (note that pricier Quadro 2000 isn’t necessarily better)
  • Recommended hard drive: 2 terabytes, 7200 RPM is good enough (or Solid State Drive/SSD, or 10,000 RPM if affordable)
  • Recommended: Solid State Drive (SSD): 256 gb for PhotoShop swap files
  • Recommended: external portable Blu-Ray player, writer/DVD recorder (made optional due to large cheap 16gb memory cards, USB memory sticks, or cloud storage) can be used on both laptop & PC.
  • Recommended: USB 3.0 ports
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 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, I had to use the provided Roxio program, instead of Windows XP or Vista (which poorly handle CD/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.

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.

My discontinued Konica Minolta DiMAGE Scan Dual IV (used 2006present) 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.

My old Nikon LS-2000 Super Coolscan scanner (Tom’s usage from 2000 – 2005):

  • 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 impressive prints (equal to or better than the typical chemical photographic process) up to 13 x 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.]
  • Epson later upgraded as follows:
    • 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.
Best value printers for photographers as of 2017:
  • Canon Pixma Pro-100 photo printer (new in 2013, with 8 color dye cartridges) makes economical, vibrant high-quality prints up to 13 x 19 inches, lasting about 30 years behind glass before fading.

But the following pigment inkjet printers make longer-lasting prints:

  • Canon Pixma Pro-10 printer (2013, with 10 color pigment cartridges).
  • Epson SureColor P600 printer (2015, with 9 color Ultrachrome HD pigment cartridges, makes superior black & white prints, prints on thicker paper up to 1.3mm thick, supports roll paper, but costs $250 more plus 20% more per print).

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. Shot on a Sony Alpha NEX-7 camera at 140mm using 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):
Tom’s Personal Computer system (from December 2012−2016):
  • 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.
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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BEST 2017 TRAVEL CAMERAS reviewed

Top recommended travel cameras (pocket, midsize, DSLR, full frame) as of June 2017:

Research by Tom Dempsey recommends the following portable cameras and gear best for on-the-go photographers. Yearly advances now put the sweet spot for serious travel cameras in the size range from 1”-Type to APS-C sensors (read article).

Sony RX10 III camera

The world’s most versatile midsize camera: Sony RX10 III has a weather-sealed 25x zoom 24-600mm equivalent, bright f/2.4-4 lens.

As smartphones typically blur shots in dim light and zoom poorly, upgrading to (A) a pocket-size 1″-size-sensor camera (read my review) will help make bigger prints. But for publishing, I prefer (B) a midsize Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III camera (price at Amazon) with versatile 25x zoom lens which outshines APS-C sensor systems anywhere near its weight class — read my RX10 III review.

Traditionalists wanting more lens choices and optical viewfinder may pick (C) a bulkier DSLR-style camera with APS-C sensor. Elite photographers seeking dim-light images at high ISO 6400+ may prefer a heavier (D) full-frame sensor camera

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A. World’s best pocket-size camera:

Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (buy at Amazon) (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens) outguns all pocketable 1″-sensor rivals with a versatile 10x zoom (read my ZS100 review).  Other options:

  1. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 (IV, III, II, or I) (price at Amazon) only zooms to 3x but is noticeably sharper and brighter than ZS100. Add a Sony AG-R2 attachment grip. Fit into Tamrac Digital 1 Photo Bag with extra Wasabi Power NPBX1 batteries. Save money with used or earlier III, II or I versions — read Tom’s Sony RX100 review.
  2. Pocket superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS60 (2016, 10 oz, 24–720mm equiv 30x zoom, 18mp, EVF) or older ZS50.
  3. Cheapest: Canon PowerShot ELPH 170 IS (2015, 5 oz, 25-300mm equiv lens, 1/2.3″ sensor).
  4. Underwater, shockproof, dust-resistant: Olympus Tough TG-4 (2015, 8.7 oz, 25-100mm equiv) compromises image quality but is good for underwater movies.

Continue reading

BEST WIDE ANGLE LENS for APS-C; or stitch panorama

On your APS-C sensor camera, would you like a view wider than the kit zoom lens, which is limited to 18mm or 16mm (27 or 24mm equivalent)? The following specialty zoom lenses shoot unusually wide angles of view, with great depth of focus (such as for tight interior spaces, architecture, real estate, slot canyons, or sweeping landscapes):

For Sony Alpha A6300A6000 and NEX mirrorless cameras (APS-C size sensor):

  • Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS Alpha E-mount wide-angle zoom lens (8 oz, 2.75×2.5 inches, SEL1018, 2012) thankfully has OSS image stabilization for more hand-held photography free of a tripod. Its angle of view is that of a 15-27mm in terms of full-frame equivalent. SEL1018 is good for shooting architecture indoors and out, plus landscapes and slot canyons. (It is significantly sharper than Sony’s 18-200mm, SEL18200 lens.) SEL1018 is sharpest at f/5.6 to f/8 as you zoom, with least distortion from 14-18mm.
  • Although SEL1018 wasn’t designed for the full-frame Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless Digital Camera (2013, 17 oz body) or Sony Alpha A7 II camera, you can easily crop away the corner vignetting for surprisingly satisfying results.

For Nikon DX and Canon EF-S DSLR cameras with APS-C sensor, the wide-angle choices unfortunately lack image stabilization:

  • Tokina 12-28mm f/4.0 AT-X Pro DX lens (19 oz, 2013) is sharper than the following older lenses:
    • Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC HSM
    • Tamron 10-24mm F3.5-4.5 Di-II
    • Tokina 12-24mm f/4.0
  • Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II wide angle lens (19 oz, 2012) has sharper, faster, professional-level, pricier optics, best leveraged on a 24 megapixel camera such as Nikon D3300 (2014, 16 oz body).
  • Caveats: The above wide-angle Tokina lenses are not image-stabilized, and thereby increase tripod use; instead, consider the stabilized Sony 10-18mm OSS lens. Image stabilization (such as Nikon Vibration Reduction/VR or Canon IS or Sony OSS or Tamron VC) is most important for telephoto lenses to counteract hand held shake at slow shutter speeds. When built into some wide angle lenses, this feature helps you shoot more sharply at slower shutter speeds (such as in dimmer light), helping to blur flowing water or moving subjects while keeping non-moving subjects sharp in the same image.

Note: These wide angle lenses don’t work well for close-focus (macro) photography − instead use specialty macro lens. 

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Stitch panoramas instead of buying a specialty wide-angle lens

Instead of buying a specialty wide-angle lens above, it’s cheaper to stitch a panorama from multiple shots:

  • To easily capture landscape images wider than your 18mm kit lens, simply stitch a panorama from a series of adjacent images shot with your existing lens.
  • Stitching multiplies megapixel count to compensate for compromised sharpness of megazoom and kit lenses. But if you want to enlarge prints bigger than 2 or 3 feet without the need for stitching, shoot with sharper lenses such as the above Tokinas on a tripod.

Prayer flags express compassion at this monument to fallen climbers, at Annapurna South Base Camp (ABC) in the Annapurna Range of Nepal.

The above panorama was stitched from three overlapping images. Prayer flags express compassion at this monument to fallen climbers, at Annapurna South Base Camp (ABC) in the Annapurna Range of Nepal. Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010. Published in Wilderness Travel 2010 Catalog of Adventures.

How to build a panorama:

If you don’t have Adobe Lightroom 6 or CC, or PhotoShop, to manually build your panoramas, try one of these:

  • Image Composite Editor (ICE) for Windows only, FREE from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group. (I found that ICE was faster and sharper than using the old Photoshop version CS5.)
  • Hugin: FREE for Mac & Windows. Hugin is harder to learn & use than Microsoft’s ICE.

Nowadays for most people, a smartphone camera is the easiest way to make sweeping panoramas with decent quality. Just select the Panorama option, hold the phone vertically, press (or speak the command for) the shutter release, and sweep steadily left to right, followed by a second press of shutter release to finish recording. Fairly quickly, you’ll see the resulting panorama. Pinch zoom to check sharp details in the recorded image. Smartphones made after 2015 can capture good shadow detail in fairly sharp panoramas by default (using AUTO HDR).

Most digital cameras have an automatic Panorama mode on their mode dial, but I find that automatic panorama modes often blur detail as you sweep the camera, or they can fail with an error message unless you carefully practice the steady sweeping motion. Your results may vary. (Some compact cameras don’t allow holding vertically during the sweep, so just horizontal shots are stitched, thereby making a less-useful proportion: an overly squat and wide image.)

For the best quality, I prefer to shoot a panorama manually on a good camera (with large sensor) as a series of steady shots as follows:

  1. Hold the camera very still for each shot, swiveling as if the center of the lens were mounted on a fixed post. Shoot quickly (but steadily) if subjects are moving.
  2. Overlap each image by a third, one after another in a row, column, or array.
  3. The distance at which important subjects are focused can optionally vary shot to shot, near or far.
  4. If brightness varies drastically across the intended panorama, try to expose for a true midtone within each separate frame, but ensuring that exposure transitions aren’t extreme, shot to shot. If panorama has a consistent brightness, try shooting with a fixed Manual exposure. Shooting raw instead of JPEG gives you more leeway to simply use autoexposure.

A tripod is not needed if light is sufficiently bright for sharp hand-held photography. Look for a camera with a built-in level indicator such as in Panasonic ZS100 or Sony RX10 III or Sony Alpha A6300.

Adobe Lightroom notes:

Adobe Lightroom Version 6 (released April 2015) and later includes Photo Merge to Panorama (and to HDR): Photo > Photo Merge > Panorama

But as of 2017, the quickest and best Photo Merge is in Lightroom CC (Creative Cloud version), which adds the wonderful Boundary Warp with Auto Crop, which retains about 20% more image around the edges (without needing frequent time-consuming touch ups around the edges in Photoshop). Lightroom CC stitches raw files into a top quality Digital Negative panorama .DNG file which can be edited with large tonal leeway AFTER stitching, just like raw. This is a big time-saver compared to earlier versions of Lightroom or other programs, where you had to edit each image first, THEN stitch. Always edit from the original raw file format (or from the largest, highest quality JPEG directly from the camera; because each time you re-save a JPEG, it loses quality).

For travel, zoom flexibility beats interchanging specialty lenses

For travel portability and convenience, I prefer an all-in-one camera such as Sony RX 10 III (read my review) which sharply captures 24-600mm equivalent, with up to 4.5 stops of stabilization benefit (slower shutter speed handheld). RX10 III is sharper across the frame at more zoom settings than the following 11x to 19x travel zooms shot on 24mp APS-C:

  • Nikon VR, Canon IS, or Sony OSS 18-200mm 11x zoom travel lenses (at Amazon).
  • 19x zoom Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD MACRO lens (Amazon).
  • These lenses equal the kit lens sharpness, without the need for constant swapping of two or more lenses in the field. Their image stabilization feature (VR, IS, OSS, or VC) supports 2 to 4 stops slower hand held shutter speed, which is critical for on-the-go photographers who want to minimize tripod usage.
  • When compared to faster Pro lenses, the handy Nikon VR or Canon IS 18-200mm travel lenses gain in image stabilization and compositional zoom versatility what they lose in absolute optical sharpness. Stitch sets of 18mm images into wide or tall panoramas. Better yet, zoom to 22mm and set aperture to f/8 to optimize sharpness on the Nikon 18-200mm VR lens. Check lens reviews or test it yourself to find the sharpest zoom and aperture settings for your specific lens. If in doubt, remember f/8 is great! (typically when using a camera with an APS-C or 35mm size sensor)

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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.

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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

ANTARCTICA

From Ushuaia, Argentina, we cruised 12 days to Antarctica, through Beagle Channel and across the treacherous 400-mile Drake Passage, February 9-20, 2005. My father, my wife, a friend and I explored the frozen Antarctic Peninsula for 6 of the 12 days. Our voyage on the good ship Explorer was run by the excellent value tour company now called G Adventures (formerly GAP). We left winter in Seattle to enjoy summer in Buenos Aires, Patagonia (in Argentina & Chile), and Antarctica from February 3 to March 11, 2005.

Favorite photos from Antarctica

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Antarctica photo tips
  • Don’t approach penguins closer than 15 feet, according to Antarctic tourism rules. But if you lie down on the ground more than 15 feet away, curious Gentoo penguin chicks will often walk over to inspect you closely.
  • For best photography of wildlife and icebergs, get a telephoto lens 300mm or longer (≥450mm in terms of full frame) with optical image stabilization.
  • Bring a good DSLR or mirrorless camera with 11x (or greater) zoom lens as described in the BUY>CAMERAS menu.
Antarctica travel tips
  • Find a cruise ship with the fewest passengers (90-130) to increase your land excursion time. Only 100 people per ship are allowed on land at a given time.
  • The shortest Antarctic Cruise is 10 days, and we went for 12 days. If affordable, extend your cruise (to 22 days) to spectacular South Georgia Island to see vast colonies of Emperor Penguins.
  • Don’t forget a prescription medicine patch to prevent motion sickness on the rough Drake Passage (5 days round trip on treacherous seas)! We were very, very sick for a solid 24 hours until staggering around to find someone on board who was willing to give us the patch cure, which you simply attach to your neck.
After our trip in 2005, the M/S Explorer sank November 23, 2007

Just two and a half years after our successful trip on the M/S Explorer, the ship sank! In telling this harrowing story in November 2007, Reuters News Pictures Service published three of my M/S Explorer images from 2005. The Explorer, owned by Canadian travel company G.A.P. Adventures (renamed to G Adventures in 2011), took on water after hitting ice at 12:24 a.m. EST on Friday November 23, 2007. 154 passengers and crew climbed into lifeboats and drifted some six hours in calm waters. A Norwegian passenger boat picked them up and took them to Chile’s Antarctic Eduardo Frei base. There they were fed, clothed, checked by a doctor, and later flown to Punta Arenas, Chile. The ship sank hours after the passengers and crew were evacuated.

Antarctic wildlife, icebergs, and cruise ship photo show

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Deception Island photo show

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Ushuaia, Argentina photo show

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Global Warming

Since the industrial revolution began, humans have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration by 35% through burning of fossil fuels, deforesting land, and grazing livestock. The world’s climate scientists agree that human-caused carbon-compound gas emissions are accelerating global warming, rapidly melting glaciers, and raising ocean levels worldwide. Humans have forced a grand warming experiment affecting all life on earth, with unknown consequences.

  • Sea level is currently rising by 1.3 inches (3.2 centimeters) per decade.
  • Since the industrial revolution began, excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from humans has acidified the oceans by almost 30%, with possibly drastic affects on shellfish and fisheries (from pH 8.25 to 8.14 in the period from 1751 to 2004 according to Jacobson, 2005).
  • Climate change may be most dire for subsistence farming societies in Africa and Asia.

Industrial nations are challenged to replace fossil fuels with energy sources that don’t increase atmospheric greenhouse gases. Other than hydroelectric, solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources plus energy conservation, few viable alternatives currently exist to replace growing industrial addiction to oil and coal. Nuclear energy has serious problems of safety and long-term storage of radioactive waste. Japan’s tragic 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused expensive nuclear plant meltdowns, forcing long-term evacuations of hundreds of thousands of residents.

Humans must reduce global demands upon earth’s resources to sustainable levels before consequences become dire. One of our highest priorities should be worldwide family planning to stabilize earth’s human population in a better balance with nature.

A map of southern South America (Patagonia) marks cruise from Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina) across Drake Passage to Vernadsky Base run by Ukraine in Antarctica. Extent of winter and summer ice is indicated.

Climate change in Antarctica

Global warming is measurably highest in the Northern Hemisphere (which has the most land mass) and on the Antarctic Peninsula. The Antarctic Peninsula is a relatively small but climatically important piece of the continent of Antarctica which juts into the westward path of the strongest and fastest of all ocean currents, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC).

Two-thirds of the planet’s freshwater is frozen in Antarctica. Surprisingly, Antarctica is actually a desert in terms of annual precipitation — only 200 mm (8 inches) along the coast and much less inland. The average temperature of the continent of Antarctica is predicted to rise slightly over the next 50 years. But warming deep ocean waters just off the continental shelf may be the biggest threat: if floating Antarctic ice shelves melt too fast over the sea, the pressure of land-based feeder glaciers will send extra ice to melt, thereby accelerating global sea level rise. The extra ice that flows off and melts from Antarctic land will be partly offset by increased snowfall over Antarctica expected as warming climate evaporates extra moisture into Antarctic air masses. Climate scientists are feverishly studying these complex questions:

  • An article in American Scientist Magazine July-August 2008 reports:
    “The average midwinter temperature here [at Palmer Station, on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula] has increased by 6 degrees Celsius since 1950; this is the highest rate of warming anywhere on the planet, five times the global average….Whereas the continent proper has not warmed appreciably in the past century, there has been a 3.4 degree increase in the mean annual temperature along the peninsula….If the trend continues,…[after] the middle of this century… sea ice will not form in most years, leading to a regime change in the ecosystem….We sound an urgent call to mitigate all the factors under human control that are contributing to global climate change.” The three scientists who wrote this speak with the authority of having “spent a collective total of 36 seasons at Palmer.”
  • A study published 2009 in the journal Nature reported that the annual temperature for West Antarctica has warmed by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past 50 years (to about 50 degrees below zero) and has exceeded the slight cooling measured in East Antarctica (says lead author Eric Steig of the University of Washington, Seattle).
  • Suggested reading:  National Geographic Magazine August 2007.

Read more about global warming, climate change, and lifestyle sustainability.

Recommended Patagonia, Argentina, Chile, and Antarctica books and maps

Search for latest Patagonia travel books at Amazon.com:

2009:

Search for latest Argentina travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2010: 2011: 2006:

Search for latest Chile travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2011: 2011: 2010:
2006: 2008:

Search for latest Antarctica travel books at Amazon.com:

2012: 2008: 2009: