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 1978-2018

PhotoSeek creator Tom Dempsey reveals his favorite photographic gear adopted from 1978-2018.

For travel and nature photography, I look for portable, high-quality cameras on a moderate budget. I’m not tied to any one system or brand. Instead, I upgrade to the latest, best tool for the job. Former gear is easily sold locally via Craigslist.org, in-person for cash.

Summary

From 2016-18, my 1-inch-sensor Sony RX10 III and IV cameras have preserved publishable image quality while radically extending zoom range to 25x. From 2012-2016, I enjoyed the 24mp APS-C sensor in Sony NEX-7 and successor A6300 using Sony’s 18-200mm SteadyShot lens (27-300mm equivalent). Before that, Nikon gear served nicely over 11 years, such as Nikon D5000 APS-C with 18-200mm VR II lens. I began photography in 1978−97 with the classic Olympus OM-1N 35mm-film camera. But switching to digital Canon PowerShot cameras from 2003-07 gave me instant feedback and extra freedom from the tripod. My online portfolio includes images from 1981-present. – Tom Dempsey

See my latest recommendations: BEST TRAVEL CAMERAS REVIEW.
Below, buy linked items at Amazon.com to support Tom’s work. 

Tom’s Camera History 1978-present

Since 1978 I have regularly updated my technology as follows (newest at top, oldest at bottom).

Current main camera: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV (37 oz; Tom’s usage 2018-present)
[slower-focusing previous version RX10 III used from May 2016−2017]

Sony RX10 IV or III camera

The versatile Sony RX10 IV or III dust-resistant camera has a superb 25x zoom 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 lens.

Read my review of Sony RX10 IV/RX10M4, the ultimate travel camera. I acquired Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III (Amazon) when first released in May 2016 (read my review of version III). Upgrading to Sony RX10 IV (buy at Amazon) in 2018 bought faster autofocus, touchscreen AF, and reorganized menus. Both III and IV are just 37 ounces (with battery and card); plus adding 5 oz for strap, lens filter, cap & hood makes 42 oz. Its “sealed body” keeps out dust and 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 field, 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 IV is the world’s most versatile camera for on-the-go photographers.

TIP: Despite Sony’s claim of “dust and moisture-resistant” body, DON’T EXPOSE YOUR RX10 IV or III CAMERA TO RAIN (even if immediately wiped off), as wind-driven droplets killed my RX10 III. Despite its weather sealing effectively keeping dust and condensation out of the lens throughout 16 months, one fateful rainstorm short-circuited its focus and LCD (sadly outside of its 1-year Sony Warranty). Rather than risking an estimated $656 repair (whose 90-day guarantee is voided by “liquid damage”), I bought a new European RX10 III (in York, England, to complete my UK photo shoot) which I soon sold on Craigslist in Seattle, after upgrading to the superior RX10 IV.

Sunset seen through gnarly pine trees at Mather Point Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA. (© Tom Dempsey)

Sunset seen through gnarly pine trees at Mather Point Overlook, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA. (Shot on Sony RX10 IV at 24mm equivalent © 2018 by Tom Dempsey)

Indoor event photography / night photography camera: Sony Alpha A6300 (18 oz with kit lens, or 25 oz with sharper 16-70mm F4 lens; 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 (2016, 14 oz body + 4 oz 24-75mm equiv zoom) (buy at Amazon with 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS kit lens). To try to beat my RX10M3, I sold A6300’s inferior kit lens and upgraded to a pricier, sharper Sony Vario-Tessar T* E-mount 16-70mm F4 ZA OSS 4x-zoom lens (11 oz, SEL1670Z, 2013), which slightly beats Sony SELP18105G and SEL-18200 from 18-70mm. But the sharp, versatile Sony RX10 IV has nearly antiquated my A6300 (which is only 0-5% sharper).

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 IV or III. For indoor events using the A6300, my older Sony SEL18200 lens struggled to keep up with RX10 III or IV outside of a 30-60mm equivalent sweet spot. Improved autofocus on RX10 IV now means I tend to leave the A6300 at home to reduce luggage when flying abroad, except on professional shoots where I need a top camera for backup, indoor events and sharper night photos.

Tom’s pocketsize backup camera: (11 oz; usage from Aug 2018−present)

Bowling Ball Beach, Schooner Gulch State Park, south of Point Arena, Mendocino County, California, USA. © 2012 Tom Dempsey)

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 in lanes. Concretions form because minerals of like composition tend to precipitate around a common center. (Panorama stitched from 2 overlapping photos shot on Sony NEX-7 with Sony E-Mount 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens. © 2012 Tom Dempsey)

Tom’s smartphone camera (usage from 2015-present)

  • Samsung Galaxy Note9 with 512 GB storage, handy stylus (7.1 oz, plus screen protector and case): improves the camera and extends battery. Waterproof rating IP68 = deemed to withstand dust, dirt, sand, and submersion up to a depth of 1.5m underwater for up to thirty minutes.
  • Tom used 2015-2018: Samsung Galaxy Note5 with stylus (6 oz, plus screen protector and case)

Tom’s underwater camera: Olympus TG-4 (8.7 oz, 25-100mm equiv; usage from 2017−present)

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

A. Adobe Lightroom Classic CC for Windows (Tom’s usage from 2007−present)

I highly recommend Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan (Lightroom Classic CC + Photoshop CC) 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 place a copyright watermark on exported images.

  • Major improvement in 2017, CC Lightroom version 7.1: the Auto adjust button now works so well that I may use it every time, for huge savings on editing time! Apply it upon Import as a “Develop Settings > User Preset > (created previously with ‘Auto Settings’ checked)”. This new Sensei powered “Auto” uses artificial intelligence to adjust the most important Develop settings for Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, Vibrance, and Saturation.
  • If you have photos that were previously edited in a much older version of Lightroom, be sure to select them all and use “Develop module > Settings > Update to Current Process” to make available the latest editing capabilities for Auto, Shadows, Highlights, Adjustment Brush, etc.
  • 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.)
  • Lightroom bug sorting videos: To properly sort videos by Capture Date, put them in folders separate from still files, or else the movies will appear in unexpected order. Reported workaround: Select all the videos; then Metadata > Edit Capture Time; then click OK (without needing to edit each one).
  • 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. (© 2013 Tom Dempsey)

A Japanese maple turns orange in autumn. The Seattle Japanese Garden was completed in 1960 within UW’s Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington, USA. (Shot at 33mm equivalent on Sony NEX-7 with Sony E-Mount 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens © Tom Dempsey)

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 (Product #X6W04AV):
    I love its elegant profile, great keyboard & handy touchscreen!
    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. .
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.
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. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Tom Dempsey scanned this image from 35mm film that he 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’s Scanner: Konica Minolta DiMAGE Scan Dual IV (usage from 2006−present)

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.

Tom’s Printer: Epson Stylus Photo 2200 (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).

Tom’s Tripod: Slik “Sprint Pro II GM” with built-in quick change plate (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:

Pocketable backup camera: Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (11 oz; Tom’s usage from 2016−July 2018)
Pocketable backup camera: Sony RX100 version III  (10 oz; Tom’s usage from 2014−2016)
  • 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 as 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.
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. © Tom Dempsey)

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).
Fields of White Avalanche Lilies bloom in late July along the trail in Spray Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (© Tom Dempsey)

Fields of White Avalanche Lilies bloom in late July along the trail in Spray Park, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, USA. (Shot on Canon PowerShot S95 at 10 megapixels with 28mm equivalent lens, f/6.3, 1/1600 second, ISO 200 © 2012 by Tom Dempsey)

Canon PowerShot S95 (8 oz) (Tom used Feb 2011 to Feb 2013)
  • Canon PowerShot S95 is half the size and half as sharp as a Canon PowerShot G9. Fits handily in a shirt pocket for people shots. 10 megapixels. 28-105mm equivalent lens, f/2-4.9. 1/1.7″ type sensor (7.44 x 5.58 mm). Good close-focus flower shots with deep depth of field, better than the closest focus of Nikon 18-200mm VR II lens on Nikon D5000.
  • Upgrade: Canon PowerShot S110 camera, or superior Sony DSC-RX100 camera (twice as sharp with much faster focus).
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): 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. (Copyright Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Photographed using a compact Canon PowerShot Pro1 camera (© 2006 Tom Dempsey): 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) at Bonorong Wildlife Park, Briggs Road, Brighton, Tasmania, Australia. (© 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. (© Tom Dempsey) 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.

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.

Silhouettes of four photographers at sunrise on Mount Nemrut, in the Republic of Turkey. (© 1999 Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

Silhouettes of four photographers at sunrise on Mount Nemrut, in the Republic of Turkey. (© 1999 Tom Dempsey) Published in “Light Travel: Photography on the Go” book by Tom Dempsey 2009, 2010.

Nikon N70 SLR 35mm-film camera + 2 lenses = 54 ounces (Tom used 1998−2004)

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 longtime mainstay 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): 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 field on cameras with different-size sensors. Smaller-sensor cameras use shorter focal lengths for the same field of view, so at a given F-stop they have a smaller physical aperture size, meaning more depth of field (with less blur in front of and behind the focused subject). Formula: F Number (or Relative Aperture) = actual focal length of lens divided by diameter of the entrance pupil.

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Print sharpness depends upon viewing distance & resolution

How Image Quality affects Maximum Print Size.

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

I’ve found that a good 8 or 10 megapixel camera made back in 2007 can create images for prints perceived as sharp when viewed at a distance equal to the print’s longer dimension (or further away). For example, a 30- by 20-inch print from an 8 megapixel DSLR camera looks acceptably sharp when viewed at about 30 inches. As of 2017, midsize cameras having 20 to 24 megapixels can make 30-inch prints that look sharp at about 18 inches away.

In general, for a good shot on a 3+ megapixel camera, maximum print size is unlimited when viewed from about twice the print’s longer dimension away (or further). Further below are subjective sharpness formulas suggested for determining optimal viewing distance and corresponding maximum print size. Consider this surprising example:

  • A 20-foot-wide billboard produced from a good shot on a 3 megapixel camera (2000 x 1500 pixels) can look great viewed from 40 feet away, but may subjectively look fuzzier when viewed closer (according to formulas suggested further below). Now print that same image 8 inches wide (at 250 pixels per inch, or PPI) and hold it 16 inches away from your eyes, while standing 40 feet from the billboard. Both of these prints have the same viewing angle relative to your eye and will look equally sharp, despite the huge difference in print size (40 feet wide versus 8 inches).

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

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

Formula for optimal (minimum) print-viewing distance

Because most prints are viewed at a distance of at least 15 inches, printing a camera’s native pixels at 240 Pixels Per Inch (PPI) appears sufficiently sharp for most people (or somewhere between 180 and 300 PPI).

The following subjective viewing-distance formula for human eye acuity is for well-printed images, from any modern high-quality camera of any megapixel specification (preferably with 1-inch Type sensor or larger):

Optimal viewing distance in inches = 3500 divided by optimal PPI

or: 14.6 inches = 3500 / 240 PPI

  • Example A: a 240 PPI print can look sharp when viewed at 15 inches or greater, which is about the closest that most people look at prints. In this example, the pixels designated within the file at 240 ppi are assumed to be native (not digitally enlarged), from a well-shot image.

This formula is subjective, meaning your judgment of image sharpness may differ from mine. Adjust your preferred optimal PPI as needed to customize this formula.

Formula for maximum print size when viewed as close as 15 inches

Maximum print size = longest dimension in native pixels divided by optimal 240 PPI 

  • Example B: a 24-megapixel Sony A6300 camera captures 6000 x 4000 pixels, native size. Take the longer dimension of 6000 pixels and divide by the optimal 240 PPI, which equals a 25 inch print, which should look sharp when viewed at about 15 inches or further from your eyes. Maximum print size and minimum viewing distance have a linear relationship: for example, doubling the observers’ minimum viewing distance to 30 inches lets you print the longer dimension up to 50 inches for this 24 MP camera.
  • Example C: a 10-megapixel Nikon D40X camera captures 3872 x 2592 pixels, native size. Take the longer dimension of 3872 pixels and divide by the optimal 240 PPI, which equals a 16 inch print, which should look sharp when viewed at about 15 inches or further from your eyes. Enlarging this image by doubling its long side will look sharp when viewed at least twice as far away (30 inches from your eye). Tripling the long side should be viewed at least 3 times as far away (45 inches) to avoid subjective blurriness.

Printing tips:

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

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

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

Compare cameras:

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

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

  • Compare compact camera images (with sensor size 1″-Type or less) at ISO 400 and 800, where blotchy noise becomes obvious.
  • For DSLR and mirrorless cameras of APS-C size and larger sensors, compare test images of the same subject shot at ISO 1600 and 3200. 

For better quality images, buy the latest-model camera (read Tom’s recommendations). I prefer a camera with a larger diameter lens and physically larger sensor which is better optimized than its competitors, as judged when 100% pixel views are compared at ISO 800 or higher.

Back in 2007, sensor designs exceeding about 6 to 8 megapixels in small cameras (subcompacts less than 10 ounces) usually didn’t help increase effective print size, due to hardware limitations of tiny lenses and sensors at that time. But by 2016, technological leaps allowed a 16mp sensor in a little Samsung S6/S7 smartphone to make good 18-inch prints! In this example, upgrading to the latest model pays off handsomely.

In an impressive 2016 feat of miniaturization, daylit-image quality from the pocketable 20-megapixel Panasonic LUMIX ZS100 camera (buy at Amazon) can rival all of my cameras used over 34 years through 2012 (beating my cameras up to 4 times heavier, up to 11x zoom range, up to 12 megapixels, at base ISO 100).

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

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

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

Canon PowerShot SX10 versus G series

Canon PowerShot SX10-IS

Canon PowerShot SX10-IS

Canon PowerShot SX10 IS macro and telephoto versus G series.

Question: “My wife purchased a Canon PowerShot SX10 IS on line for me as a Christmas present. Do you have any experience or information which describes its ability in macro situations? I assume the 20x zoom is great (and look forward to using it for birds), but have they shortchanged us on the other end, or does the lens do it all? I take a lot of wildflower pictures and want to make sure that it will produce good results for the closeups I like to take. My eyes are aging, so I want to make sure the camera will auto focus when I need it to. Sorry my questions are so general…”     (from A. B. in Paradise, CA, December 2008)

 Tom responds in December 2008:

Check owner opinions for Canon SX10IS at:

www.dpreview.com/reviews/read_opinion_text.asp?prodkey=canon_sx10is&opinion=41875

Canon compact digital cameras are among the best available. The Canon Powershot SX10IS is a good choice for price value, with amazing abilities compared to earlier cameras. Canon’s official site www.usa.canon.com/consumer/controller?act=ModelInfoAct&tabact=ModelTechSpecsTabAct&fcategoryid=144&modelid=17630

claims excellent macro performance, which I trust will be quite good, based upon earlier Powershot cameras:

Focusing Range Normal: 1.6 ft./50cm-infinity (W), 3.3 ft./1m-infinity (T)
Macro: 0.39 in.-1.6 ft./1-50cm (W)
Super macro: 0-3.9 in./0-10cm (W)

Super Macro mode can shoot objects that are zero distance from the lens! You cannot get any closer than that!

SX10IS  sounds like a great macro camera. (Macro close focus with superior depth of field is one of the strengths of compact cameras over DSLR style cameras.)

Macro is this camera’s strength. Its weakness is most likely at the telephoto end, such as difficulty focusing on and shooting at moving birds (a problem any compact camera will have). It could still be a good compromise for shooting birds, half the size and weight and much cheaper than a DSLR style camera. A tripod would be helpful for sharper shots at telephoto. At all zoom settings, I recommend setting ISO at 400 or lower to avoid noise (blotchiness at the detail level at ISO 800 or higher), unless you need to hand hold the shot. By default the camera uses Auto ISO, which might do okay in most of your daytime outdoor shots.

The SX10IS is 1.5 pounds (large and bulky compared to the G9 or G10), surprisingly wide 20x zoom range, 28-560mm equivalent lens, probably decent quality, with good Image Stabilization (IS), a must-have in any camera.

Its sensor is unfortunately quite small, 1/2.3 ” (6.16 x 4.62 mm), which limits the size of your prints, or low light shooting abilities, compared to cameras which have larger sensors such as the Canon Powershot G9 or G10 (which cost $100 more). If your goal is mainly prints smaller than 10 inches, then the SX10IS should be fine. Larger prints with it are possible if you shoot steadily and carefully, within its limitations.

You might also look at the Fujifilm Finepix S100FS (34 ounces; 28-400mm lens), which will take higher quality images if you shoot RAW mode, but is somewhat larger and heavier than the SX10IS.

Your needs may differ from mine. Personally, I need good enough quality to sell and publish large landscape prints, and I would pick a Canon Powershot G9, G10, G10, G12, or pocket sized S95  for fun, smaller carry-everywhere size, combined with great quality images (better image quality than SX10IS) and good macro. However, the telephoto is nowhere near as long in the G series versus SX10IS, so cropping images could compensate to similar ballpark quality. A birder hobbyist shooting mostly in bright daylight or sunlight may prefer SX10IS for the long telephoto.

PHOTO CLASSES: camera workshops with Tom Dempsey, Seattle

Classes at Lifetime Learning Center (LLC) with instructor Tom Dempsey

My next LLC class will likely be “Smartphone Photography” starting in February 2019, in Winter quarter.

Sign up at Lifetime Learning Center
(206) 949-8882 or email llc_2000@hotmail.com 
Location: Lake City Presbyterian Church
3841 NE 123rd Street
Seattle, WA 98125

Tom Dempsey (standing left) teaches photography students at Lifetime Learning Center, Seattle.

Dream Alps Photo Workshop with Tom Dempsey: July 26 – Aug 03, 2019

Master your digital camera surrounded by breathtaking Swiss peaks! We will enjoy short walks to areas of concentrated beauty, where I will be teaching photographic skills to our cozy group of 6 to 10 participants. A professional Alpenwild guide will lead our spectacular 8-night Alps tour.

Sign up at Alpenwild.com by early February 2019 for the summer 2019 class. Develop your photographic genius with a pro in Switzerland.
From Mannlichen, view Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau, Grindelwald Valley, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland, Alps, Europe.

Above: The Eiger in Switzerland, by Tom Dempsey.

Private lessons in Seattle

  • Jump-start your creative camera skills. Gift photography lessons to yourself, family, and friends. $40 per hour is a bargain for one-on-one lessons with an expert teacher. Sign up for digital photography workshops in the Northgate/Broadview area of Seattle, Washington, with instructor Tom Dempsey. We typically meet one-on-one in a public place such as Panera Bread eatery in Northgate Mall.
  • Email Tom @ photoseek.com or call (206) 372-7673 mobile phone.

Past workshops

Tom taught the following classes at Lifetime Learning Center in Seattle:

  • 2018 Apr 30-May 16 for 6 days MW: “Editing Digital Photography”. Learn how to edit digital images with emotional impact, true to the subject. Because cameras don’t record like our eyes see, we must compensate with smart tonal adjustments in Apple Photos, in my favorite Adobe Lightroom, or in your preferred editor. We’ll cover cropping, tonal editing (exposure, contrast, & Adjustment Brush), histograms, and color theory. We’ll review before and after edits of students’ emailed photo homework.
  • 2018 Jan 8–Jan 31 for 8 days MW: “Smartphone Photography
  • 2017 Oct 31–Nov 16: “Digital Photography on the Go
  • 2017 April 4, 6, 11, 13, 18, 20:  “Editing Digital Photography
  • 2016 November 1–17: “Digital Photography on the Go”
  • 2016 March 28–April 18: “Digital Photography on the Go”

I am an Artist in Residence for Alpenwild.com offering photography workshops in the Alps.

In Summer 2011, Tom Dempsey taught a 5-day Alps Photo Workshop to Venice and the Dolomites Mountains, guided by Gary Scott of Right Path Adventures, DolomitesWalkingTours.com

Testimonials

  • “Tom, I really appreciate your patience in explaining the color wheel, techniques of editing, and how to access various settings on our digital cameras.” – Nora MacDonald
  • “Thank you for all your help in making me more comfortable with my camera. A great class!” – Rochelle Goldberg
  • “I’ve really been enjoying this, Tom, and I think what I’ve been learning here is improving my eye for painting as well as photography. Thank you!” – Kay.
  • “After taking two classes with Tom Dempsey, my skill at composing photographs has improved greatly. Tom is a skilled photographer, and a knowledgable and patient teacher. He does his homework, presents well, listens respectfully to the comments and questions of his students and follows up. Tom gets back to us with emails to answer additional questions as well. He presents information at the correct level for his audience, whether individually or in the group. I really appreciate Tom as an instructor and plan to sign up for his photo editing class.” – Deb West, who has attended three class series plus private tutorials

Images from my book, “Light Travel: Photography on the Go“:


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

BEST 2018 TRAVEL CAMERAS reviewed

Top recommended travel cameras (smartphone, pocketsize, midsize, DSLR, full frame) as of September 2018.

Tom Dempsey recommends the following portable camera gear for on-the-go photographers:

  1. Smartphones (Part A) compensate for tiny cameras via computation, but zoom poorly and can struggle in dim light. Top phones include Samsung Galaxy S9+, Google Pixel 2 and Apple iPhone.
  2. Sharper prints can be made from the top pocketsize camera (Part B; read my RX100M6 review): 8x zoom Sony RX100 VI (Amazon) with 1-inch Type sensor. Or save 55% using Panasonic ZS100. Cheaper still is a smaller-sensor Panasonic ZS70.
  3. For publishing, I prefer this midsize camera (Part C)Sony RX10 IV (Amazon) with versatile 25x zoom lens which outshines rival APS-C sensor systems. Read my RX10M4 review. Much cheaper, a crisp 16x-zoom Panasonic FZ1000 (29 oz) beats the bulk & cost of DSLR systems.
  4. Traditionalists wanting an optical viewfinder, more lens choices, and night photography may pick a bulkier DSLR-style camera with APS-C sensor (Part D). A good-value 32-ounce DSLR travel system is Nikon D3500 mounted with Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC lens.
  5. Much pricier and heavier full-frame sensor cameras (Part E) may attract elite photographers seeking indoor or night images at high ISO 6400+. With its digital sensor size matching legacy 35mm film, Sony Alpha A7 II is a good value.

Support my work by buying products at any Amazon.com link below…

Sony RX10 III camera

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

TOP TRAVEL CAMERAS in more detail

Part A. Top smartphone cameras

zoom poorly but compensate for tiny cameras via vast computational power, with superior AUTO HDR, good close focus, and incredible ease-of-use with instant photo sharing. I recommend these:

Unlocked” lets you pick a lower-priced wireless service provider. Outside your home country, eliminate roaming charges via your phone’s “WiFi Calling” feature; or buy a cheap SIM with generous data.

To save money on your US wireless carrier, try my favorite: Consumer Cellular (external link), which uses the full AT&T network more cheaply, with top customer service. (Tell CC that Thomas Dempsey #102558526 referred you.) If cell reception is poor where WiFi is strong, turn on your phone’s “WiFi Calling”, which also works in most countries outside of USA when calling US phone numbers.

Part B. World’s best pocketsize travel cameras:

Although expensive, the best & brightest pocketable 8x-zoom camera is now the

Since Sony RX100M6 is very expensive, consider the following cheaper options (best travel zooms shown first):

  1. Panasonic Lumix DSC-ZS100 (2016, 11 oz, 25-250mm equivalent lens f/2.8-5.9). Read my ZS100 review.
  2. Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS200 (2018, 12 oz, 24-360mm equivalent lens f/3.3-6.4) outguns all pocketable 1″-sensor rivals with a versatile 15x zoom, but sibling ZS100 is sharper and brighter through 10x.
  3. Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 versions IV, III, II, or I: within its limited 3x zoom is sharper and brighter than that sub-range of Panasonic’s 10x-zoom ZS100. Save money with used or earlier III, II or I versions — read Tom’s Sony RX100 III review.
  4. Best value pocketable superzoom: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS70 (2017, 11.4 oz, 24–720mm equiv 30x zoom, 20mp, EVF). Or save on older ZS60.
  5. Cheapest: Canon PowerShot ELPH 170 IS (2015, 5 oz, 25-300mm equiv lens, 1/2.3″ sensor).
  6. Underwater, shockproof, dust-resistant: Olympus Tough TG-5 (2018, 9 oz, 25-100mm, f/2.0-4.9 lens) compromises image quality but makes nice underwater movies. Or, a cheap CaliCase Universal Waterproof Case takes your smartphone snorkeling underwater, but beware that 2 out of 4 copies I received softened camera resolution with a milky stain. For hiking in the rain, try a waterproof Samsung Galaxy Note9 or S9 Plus.

TIP: As a workaround for sluggish autofocus (AF) in cheaper compact cameras: prefocus (lock) on a contrasty edge of the subject by half pressing and holding the shutter button, then the subsequent full press will be instant, ≤ 0.15 second. But half-press autofocus lock doesn’t work in continuous focus or action modes. Don’t let an inferior camera frustrate your capture of action, people, pets, or sports. For surer action shots, consider a newer model with hybrid AF such as pocketsize Panasonic ZS100, Sony RX100, or midsize RX10 or Panasonic FZ1000 or interchangeable-lens camera. 

Part C. World’s best midsize travel camera:

But if you mostly photograph indoor action (such as kids & pets) or events (weddings) or need advanced autofocus in dim light, consider a larger APS-C sensor:

Other good midsize cameras include:

  1. Panasonic FZ2500 (December 2016, 33 oz, 20x zoom 24-480mm f/2.8–4.5, 20mp): costs 25% less, adds a fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, increases viewfinder magnification (EVF 0.74x versus 0.7x), and has better menus and improves video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K) in comparison to Sony RX10 III. But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light, slightly lowering image quality; its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders; and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than RX10III’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)
  2. Best midsize camera for the money: Panasonic FZ1000 (2014, 29 oz with fast-focusing 16x zoom lens 25-400mm equiv, bright f/2.8-4, 20mp, 1″-Type BSI sensor) rivals the zoom quality of APS-C-sensor and DSLR systems of this weight, for a cheaper price.

A smaller, noisier 1/2.3″-Type sensor extends zoom range in the following midsize cameras (but images from one of the above cameras should be crisper, even when cropped to achieve equivalent telephoto):

  1. Panasonic Lumix FZ300 (2015, 24.4 oz, 12 mp, bright f/2.8 lens 25-600mm equivalent, 24x zoom range, weather sealed).
  2. Nikon Coolpix P900 (2015, 32 oz, 16mp, 24–2000mm equivalent 83X zoom lens).

TIP: Upgrade your camera every 2 or 3 years as I do to get better real resolution, lower noise at higher ISO speeds ( ≥ 800), and quicker autofocus. Since 2009, most cameras take sharper hand-held shots using optical image stabilization (branded as Nikon VR, Canon IS, Panasonic OIS, Sigma OS, Tamron VC, Sony OSS). Today’s cameras capture much better highlight and shadow detail, by using better sensors plus automatic HDR (high dynamic range) imaging and other optimizations for JPEG files. On advanced models, I always edit raw format images to recover several stops of highlight and shadow detail which would be lost with JPEG.

What makes an ideal travel camera?

The “best” travel camera is the one you want to carry everywhere. The best Light Travel cameras (as chosen above) should minimize bulk and weight while maximizing sensor dimensions (read article), zoom range, lens diameter, battery life ( ≥ 350 shots), and ISO “sensitivity” (for lower noise in dim light). An optimally sharp zoom lens should change the angle of view by 8x to 25x to rapidly frame divergent subjects, without the extra bulk or annoyance of swapping lenses. Lenses should autofocus fast (with hybrid AF minimizing shutter lag ≤ 0.3 sec), optically stabilize images, and focus closely (for macro). Travel cameras should pop up a built-in flash and also flip out (articulate/hinge/swivel) a high-resolution display screen to jump-start your creative macro, movie, and candid shooting at arm’s length. OLED displays usually outshine LCD. Sunny-day reflections often obscure display-screen visibility − but to save bulk, most pocket cameras sadly lack a viewfinder. A camera with a brilliant electronic viewfinder (preferably an EVF with ≥ 1 million dots) gives better feedback on the final digital image than a non-digital optical viewfinder

Related camera history: Tom Dempsey’s travel cameras adopted from 1978 to now.

Part D. Best-value DSLR-style travel camera

features an optical viewfinder using a legacy mirror box, for good price value:

Best wide angle lenses for Nikon DX format (APS-C sensor):

  1. Tokina 12-28mm f/4.0 AT-X Pro DX lens for Nikon (2013, 19 oz) is sharper than f/3.5-f/4 rivals.
  2. Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX II wide angle lens (2012, 19 oz) has sharper, faster, professional-level, pricier optics.
  3. Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM lens (2013, 28.5 oz, 3.1 x 4.8″, 27-52.5mm equivalent) is the world’s first zoom having a constant f/1.8 brightest aperture and is the sharpest wide-angle lens (including primes) as of 2014! Shoot this “Art” series lens sharpest at around f/2.8 throughout the zoom. Sigma DC lenses are optimized for cameras with APS-C size sensors.
  4. See related article: “BEST WIDE ANGLE LENS for DSLR.”

The following telephoto lenses seriously magnify wildlife, birds, and sports with optical stabilization and also full-frame coverage, for Nikon bodies:

  1. Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens for Nikon (2015, 68 ounces, 4.1 x 10.2 inches, best telephoto reach for the money).
  2. Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM for Nikon (2012, 120 ounces, 4.8 x 11.5″) unbeatable sharpness, bright f/2.8 zoom.
  3. See related article: “BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+

Recommended close focus/macro lenses for DSLR cameras (for macro enlargement of insects and plants, copy work, and extra-sharp general photography):

  • Nikon AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED Macro Autofocus lens (15 oz) with fast SWM (Silent Wave Motor) and IF (Internal Focusing), captures true macro 1:1 reproduction ratio.
  • Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens for APS-C sensors (12 oz) captures true 1:1 reproduction ratio; for a Canon body.
  • Compared to the above 60mm lenses, longer macro lenses such as 100mm and 105mm give you a few more inches of comfortable working distance from the front of the lens (to avoid startling insects) and can have a different bokeh (character of out-of-focus areas), but at the cost of larger size, weight, and expense.
  • Instead of carrying one of the above prime macro lenses for a DSLR camera, consider carrying a pocket camera or smartphone which can focus very closely at wide angle with deep depth of field, and can serve as a backup for your larger/main camera. Better yet, don’t get a DSLR — instead, do everything well with 25x zoom Sony RX10 III or IV (Tom’s review; with best macro at 600mm f/5.6). Or a cheaper Panasonic ZS100 captures good close focus shots at 45mm equivalent after Macro/Flower symbol button is pressed.

Historical DSLR comparison: Nikon D3300 offers more for your money (at a lighter travel weight) than Canon EOS Rebel cameras of 2014 and earlier. Also, the earlier Nikon D3200 beats Canon Rebel DSLR cameras of 2012. The best mirrorless designs can pack more quality into a smaller box, but DSLR cameras offer more specialty lenses, with a design legacy inherited from the 35mm film era, where an optical viewfinder’s mirror box adds bulk.

Part E. Best full-frame-sensor travel camera:

Full-frame-sensor cameras excel at indoor, night, and very-large-print photography, but require bulkier lenses, often with limited zoom ranges. Full-frame sensors can resolve more detail with less noise in dim light at high ISO 3200+ when compared to APS-C and smaller sensors of a given year. The lightest-weight, best-price-value, full frame-sensor camera is Sony Alpha A7 Mirrorless camera (17 oz body, 24mp, 2013), or Sony Alpha A7 II (2014, 21 oz), or newer Sony A7R II. The A7 series requires Sony FE (full frame) E-mount lenses.

The A7R (2014, 16.4 oz) captures 36mp. In contrast, A7S (2015, 17 oz) has 12mp optimized with large photosites and more sensitive autofocus great for low-light videographers, but its stills require ISO 12,800+ to beat A7R’s 36mp image quality. Instead of having an optical viewfinder like a DSLR, the A7, A7II, A7R, and A7S have a great electronic viewfinder (EVF) with 2.4 million dots (XGA). The 3-inch tilting LCD has 1.23 million dots (except 921,000 on A7S). New Hybrid AF builds phase-detection autofocus into the sensor, capturing 5 fps with continuous autofocus. With contrast-detection autofocus only, A7S shoots 5 fps and A7R shoots 4 fps. Weatherproof bodies.

As an alternative, Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX1 full frame compact camera (17 oz with 35mm f/2 fixed-lens, non-interchangeable, 24mp, 2012) fits in a coat pocket; but the optical viewfinder/rangefinder is a costly add-on. Shooting as high as ISO 25,000 still captures usable pictures.

Nikon D750 DSLR camera (26.5 oz body, 24mp, 2014) is excellent. 6.5 fps continuous shooting. Tilting 3.2″ RGBW LCD screen has 1.23 million dots. Long 1230 shots CIPA battery life. Uses Full frame Nikon F Mount/FX Format lenses.

Nikon D810 DSLR camera (big 35 oz body, 36mp, 2014) camera demands highest quality full frame Nikon F Mount/FX format lenses and excites professional studio and landscape photographers with its very high resolution (3200 lph raw for D800 and better in D810) rivaling the quality of medium format film for making big fine-art prints. In dim light at dusk, dawn, or indoors, capture low-noise images at high ISOs 6400 to 12,800 — even ISO 25,600 can look good in small prints. Capture unprecedented dynamic range in raw files from bright to dark. Unfortunately it has very slow autofocus using LCD Live View (fixed by using mirrorless Sony A7). Frames per second at full res FX mode has increased to 5 fps for sports (versus 4 fps in D800, or 6 fps if DX frame size).

Nikon D610 DSLR camera (30 oz body, 24 mp, 2013) costs less than D800. Captures less noise than Sony NEX-7 by 2-3 stops of ISO when set at ≥3200. Raw resolution up to 2800 lph.

Tom recommends these accessories:

  1. Buy extra Wasabi Power brand batteries (from Blue Nook / Amazon.com).
  2. Portable Charger Battery Pack: Mi Premium Power Bank Pro 10000mAh, 18W Fast Charging Slim. Great for travelling away from electrical outlets! It efficiently powers a phone 40% longer than rival Anker PowerCore 10000, says PCMag. It thankfully supports pass-through charging of itself AND your device at the same time. Fits most phones; includes USB-C adapter cable.
  3. SanDisk Extreme PRO 128GB UHS-I/U3 SDXC Flash Memory Card (buy at Amazon) fits weeks of shooting, great for 4K video. Or cheaper: SanDisk 16GB Extreme SDHC Memory Card.
  4. A clear glass filter protects precious lenses from scratches & catastrophic drops. I speak from experience! Get a clear glass filter, NOT a UV filter, which modern multi-coated lenses have made redundant. Example: high quality B+W 72mm XS-Pro Clear MRC-Nano 007M Filter fits my Sony RX10 III (read article).
  5. Mount a circular polarizing filter (B+W brand at Amazon) only to remove reflections or haze, or to contrast clouds with polarized sky. Don’t forget to immediately take it off for all other conditions, as it can block 1-1.5 stops of light.
  6. 2x Cactus Wireless Flash Transceiver Duo triggers your flash or camera wirelessly at distances up to 328 feet.
  7. Critical editing & organizing software: Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan (Lightroom Classic CC 7.x and Photoshop CC) speeds modification (non-destructively), editing, sorting, and labeling of images. Lightroom version 6 added Photo Merge to Panorama and HDR. In 2016, Lightroom CC subscription added Boundary Warp essential for stitching panoramas quicker, and Dehaze to remove haze in skies & glass, as a leap beyond Clarity. (Adobe Photoshop software lets advanced users manipulate complex Layers such as for printing, or CMYK color space for publishing.) If your Lightroom CC subscription expires, you can still view, organize and export (but not Develop) images.
  8. Free editor for stitching panoramas from multiple overlapping images: Image Composite Editor (ICE) (from Microsoft Research Computational Photography Group) was faster and sharper than my old Photoshop CS5.
  9. 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) and 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).
  10. Tamrac digital camera bag protects your precious device on the road.
  11. Slik “Sprint Pro II GM” Tripod has a built-in quick-change plate, good for small cameras.
  12. Datacolor Spyder4Express Color Calibration System: Calibrate your PC monitor and laptop before printing photo files so editing efforts match color standards without color shifts. The pricier Datacolor Spyder4Elite Display Calibration System accounts for ambient light and calibrates projectors. Better yet, get a factory precalibrated monitor like mine: ASUS PA328Q 32″ 16:9 4K/UHD IPS Monitor
  13. Plustek OpticFilm 8200i SE scanner (2014) reincarnates your slides & film digitally, with important infrared/ICE removal of dust & scratches.

TIPS for travel in adverse conditions

  1. Weather & dust protection: Prudent bagging can avoid the extra expense of a weather-sealed body & lens – keep a camera handy, safely in a front pouch on your chest or hip (where it can be retrieved more quickly than from a pack on your back). Adverse fluctuations of temperature & humidity, or dusty conditions, or sea spray all require cameras to be double-protected in a zip-lock plastic bag inside the padded pouch. Use a soft, absorbent silk cloth to wipe away moisture or dust from lens & body before bagging.
  2. Cold batteries: Using camera batteries below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (or 4 Celsius) loses their charge quicker, causing camera shut down or lock. Revive and extend battery life in cold or below-freezing weather by warming an extra battery or two in an interior pocket near your skin and swapping with the camera’s battery after every 5-10 minutes of cold exposure.
  3. Satellite communication: Stay in touch everywhere in the world via Iridium satellite with DeLorme inReach Explorer (7 oz; buy at Amazon): send and receive 160-character text messages with GPS coordinates (accurate to five meters) to cell numbers or email addresses worldwide and post updates to social media. This new, affordable technology connects campers, hikers, hunters, backpackers, alpinists, and backcountry skiers who often venture outside of cell phone networks. The portable 7-ounce device includes a color-coded map with waypoints, elevation readings, current speed, average moving speed, and compass. Also, you can trigger an SOS, receive delivery confirmation, and communicate with DeLorme’s 24/7 search-and-rescue monitoring center.

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” referred 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 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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Sensor size comparisons for digital cameras - PhotoSeek.com

In this 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).

Join me and get inspired by what Bill Gates calls his new “favorite book of all time”: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), by Steven Pinker.

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 field (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 or PhotoShop to 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. 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 the all-in-one Sony RX10 IV camera (read my review) which sharply captures 24-600mm equivalent, with up to 4.5 stops of stabilization benefit (slower shutter speed handheld). Its 25x zoom is sharper across the frame at more zoom settings than the following 11x to 19x travel zooms shot on 24-megapixel APS-C cameras:

  • 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 travel zoom 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 yourself to find the sharpest zoom and aperture settings for your specific lens. For example, the f/4 Sony SEL1670Z lens for A6500/A6300/A6000 is sharpest at f/5.6 across its 4x zoom range.

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LIGHT TRAVEL book teaches, inspires outdoor photography

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

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

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

 


Add any of the above images to your Cart for purchase using my Portfolio site.

What readers say:

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

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

Compare Pentax K20D, Nikon D90, D60

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

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

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

Tom Dempsey answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentax K20d first impressions

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

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

Nikon D60 upgrades D40X

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

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

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

Dynamic range

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

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

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

Raw is better than JPEG

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

Adobe Lightroom expedites photographic work flow

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

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

BEST TELEPHOTO ZOOM LENS 300mm+ for wildlife: Sony RX10 IV 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 IV or 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.

  • $1300-$1700: 37 oz for 24-600mm equivalent f/2.4-4 zoom lens on 1″-Type sensor: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III or faster-focusing Sony RX10 IV / RX10M4 (price at Amazon) is now my ultimate travel camera (weighing just 37 ounces including battery and 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 field, 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 field 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 field 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 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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USA: ALASKA

In Anchorage, Alaska, rent a recreational vehicle (RV) in late August for 1-3 weeks to experience unique Alaskan culture, glaciers, fjords, fall colors, hiking, and the northern lights. This photo-filled article gives trip itineraries, map, and book recommendations for South-Central Alaska.

Favorite images from Alaska


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Suggested Alaska itinerary

We flew Northwest Airlines from Seattle to Anchorage and rented an RV for 24 days August 15 to September 8, 2006. I also shared a rental car and backpacked inexpensively July 5-23, 2002 near Anchorage, Girdwood, Chugach Mountains, and Kenai Peninsula.

Keep your schedule flexible and listen to the latest 2-day weather forecasts. Good forecasts let us book sunny days for the spectacular ***Phillips 26-Glacier College Fjord Cruise from Whittier and ***Denali flightseeing with Talkeetnaair.com from Talkeetna. In 2006, a steady downpour washed out the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Denali for 2.5 days. By flexibly reversing our planned route and first visiting Valdez and Fairbanks, the Parks Highway was reopened by the time we looped through back to Anchorage.

Key to activity ratings:   *** Must do.   ** Do.   * Maybe if time allows

1 week in Alaska

Fly to Anchorage, rent a camper or RV, and drive for a week or more (about 600+ miles) to see everything on the Kenai Peninsula, which is a great microcosm of Alaska. Or instead of RV rental, many people enjoy the Alaska Railroad train, which connects Anchorage to Kenai Peninsula (Whittier), Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. If weather is clear, *** flightsee over the amazing glacial wilderness over Denali from Talkeetna (Talkeetnaair.com) or Anchorage Airport.

Seward Highway to Kenai Peninsula


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  • Girdwood: Visit the fun town of Girdwood (40 minute drive from Anchorage), which has a good a ski resort, nice hiking, and historic mining ruins. ** “The Bake Shop” has great pizza, fresh bread, cinnamon rolls, healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner near Alyeska Resort. Sunday Craft Market.
  • Whittier:
    • Whittier is a major cruise ship and train gateway to Anchorage. Pay a toll and drive through Whittier Tunnel (Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel), the longest combined vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America (2.5 miles, one lane wide, shared with train).
    • The excellent *** Phillips 26-Glacier College Fjord Cruise departs from Whittier and traverses 145 miles through the pristine passageways of Alaska’s Prince William Sound (College & Harriman Fjords). Cruise from 1:00-5:30pm to see whales, sea lions, sea otters, Kittiwake Rookery, plus spectacular tidewater glaciers. “Catamaran with no seasickness, money back guarantee.” Price includes a good hot meal. September discount. (For comparison, from Valdez, the separate Columbia Glacier tour with Stan Stephens features a glacier that is receding and declining in scenic impact.)
    • Easily hike ** Portage Pass and Glacier, 2 to 4 miles with 700 feet gain, to see a spectacular glacier tumbling ice bergs into a lake. Turn right on a national forest road just a few hundred yards east of the Whittier Tunnel for free parking at trailhead. (If you drive the couple of miles further into Whittier, parking costs at least $5 per day.)
  • Seward:
    • ** Alaska Sealife Center gives a good introduction to coastal ecosystems.
    • *** Hike Exit Glacier, 1 to 8 miles round trip, up to 3000 feet gain. Don’t miss my favorite hike in Alaska — a well graded trail with ever-improving glacier views as you ascend. Make noise and watch for bears. Example of climate change in Alaska: From 1815-1999, Exit Glacier retreated 6549 feet, melting an average of 35 feet per year (according to www.nps.gov/kefj/).
    • ** Kenai Fjords National Park has an attractive cruise to Northwestern Fjord & Glacier. Tom cruised to the impressive Aialik Glacier in 2002, seeing whales, Steller sea lions, and bird life.
    • Camp on Seward’s waterfront for a fee, or park your RV in a free pullout overnight on the road to Exit Glacier.
  • Ninilchik & Kenai: * Russian Orthodox Churches
  • Homer, 5 hours one-way drive from Anchorage:
    • ** Wander through this artsy town at the “end of the road.” Walk beaches and tide pools from Homer or Homer Spit. Try your luck at the “Alaska Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.” Pratt Museum of Sealife covers art, natural history, native cultures, homesteading, fishing, marine ecology, and Exxon Valdez oil spill.
    • *** Kachemak Bay State Park requires a water taxi ride across Kachemak Bay to Glacier Spit.
      • ** Hike Grewinkgk Glacier & Lake: Walk 5 miles (500 feet gain), from Glacier Spit to Saddle for pick-up, or 6.5 miles (150 feet gain) round trip from Glacier Spit.
      • *** Hike Alpine Ridge Trail for views into deep glacial valleys. Day hike 5-14 miles (2000-4000 feet gain). Optionally tent near start.
      • Overnight lodging options for Kachemak Bay State Park:
        • Camp overnight at Rusty’s Lagoon.
        • Hike a short way with a backpack to camp on the beach at Glacier Lake.
        • Reserve rental cabins on Halibut Cove Lagoon and Tutka Bay. $65 peak and $50 non-peak as of 2011. Bring your own pads, sleeping bags, stove, toilet paper, lights. No electricity. Wood stove for heat.

2 to 3 weeks in Alaska

Do the above week, and add a 1200+ mile RV driving loop seeing Valdez, Fairbanks, and Denali National Park (map at bottom).


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Along the Parks Highway: ***Denali State Park
  • is closer to Anchorage than Denali National Park and gives dramatic front-lit views of Mt. McKinley/Denali from the highway or trails. Weather for best photography is often better at sunrise than at sunset.
  • Hike ***Kesugi Ridge: At Parks Highway milepost 147, camp at Byers Lake Campground, where trail starts. Hike 8.5 miles round trip with 2100 feet gain from Byers Lake to Tarn Point. Or loop Byers Lake. Get USGS 1:63,000 map.
  • Hike ***Little Coal Creek Trail at north end of park. Hike any distance 2 to 10+ miles for great views and pretty terrain.
Talkeetna
  • The town of Talkeetna inspired the quirky television series “Northern Exposure” (set in fictional Cicely, Alaska and filmed in Roslyn, Washington) and has a good distant view of Denali and the Alaska Range.
  • If weather is clear, don’t miss ***flightseeing over Denali from Talkeetna. Expect $195 to $300+ per person for 1 to 3 hours (2011). Try Grand Circle Denali with an exciting glacier landing (which adds ~$75). Talkeetnaair.com gave us clear bubble windows and expert feather-smooth landings. Flightseeing from Anchorage Airport adds $100.
*** Denali National Park
  • Trains and buses arrive from Anchorage, but a rental vehicle is more flexible and a camper/RV is delightful. Driving distances:
    • From Denali, driving to Valdez via Fairbanks is the same distance (489 miles) as to Valdez via Palmer.
    • Denali Park to Fairbanks (121 miles) to Valdez (368 miles)
    • Denali Park to Wasila (195 miles) to Palmer (12 miles) to Valdez (262 miles).
  • Seasonal timetablefor wildlife, mountain views, and Alaskan fall colors:
    • Best fall colors and moose watching are in late August***. Watch for the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) in the middle of the night.
    • Weather: Mt. McKinley/Denali (20,320 feet) is only visible 1 out of 3 days. Rain falls as light showers or drizzle for half the time in summer. Least cloudy time is early morning, which requires overnight tenting at Wonder Lake.
    • Photography is best on Denali National Park road in early or late daylight hours because Denali is backlit much of the afternoon. (From Denali State Park (see below), the mountain is fully front lit.)
    • In early September, moose bash antlers amongst the spruce & willow shrubs, hoping to win breeding rights, along the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road and on Horseshoe Lake Trail. At this time, temperatures are in mid-30’s to 60’s, averaging 58° F.
    • August 20 to early September display peak fall colors at Denali NP. Color varies greatly around the park and changes fast:
      • Peak #1: August 28 is the usual peak date for tundra colors/reds at >2500′ elevations. **Hike through red colored landscapes around Highway Pass/Stoney Hill and Polychrome Pass. The tundra peak color usually lasts until September 3-5, depending on elevation, wind, rain. Some color persists longer in Wonder Lake and lower Savage.
      • Peak #2: September 10 (plus or minus 3 days) is the usual color peak of golden aspen along Nenana Canyon.
    • In early September, a week after Denali park’s peak color, **Chena River State Recreation Area (east of Fairbanks) reportedly has great red tundra colors in the fall.
    • Yellow tree leaf fall colors on Kenai Peninsula change a few days after Denali, with aspen golds usually peaking Sept 15-18th. Glenn Highway has great gold aspens against rugged mountain background. Just a few days after Kenai comes the Anchorage area’s color peak, the last in south-central Alaska.
    • Third week of September: snow closes Denali Park Road.
  • *** Denali National Park Green Shuttle Bus:
    • To travel past Mile 20 on the Denali Park Road, you must ride one of the several types of shuttle bus (Green, Camper, or Tour). The Green and Camper buses are cheapest and most flexible, plus you get more of a tour.
    • Denali National Park’s Green Shuttle Bus takes 11 hours round trip from the Wilderness Access Center (WAC, near park entrance) to Wonder Lake, 86 miles one way.
    • From the bus you are likely to see lots of wildlife, including Dall sheep, moose, brown bears (“grizzlies”), foxes, wolves, and so forth. A “Grand Slam” means seeing moose, caribou, wolf, and bear on one bus ride (rare). We saw 15 brown bears on each of two days riding the Green Shuttle bus. Spot Dall Sheep around Polychrome Pass (hiking) and Igloo Creek Campground (mile 34).
    • The earliest bus has the best wildlife viewing. For Denali views, sit on left side outbound and right side inbound. There is no time on the shuttle for hikes at Wonder Lake unless you go early, get off for a few hours, then take the last shuttle out, a 14-hour day, or reserve tent camping overnight.
    • Riding the shuttle all day is very tiring unless you get off and walk for a few hours along the road or in the wilderness, or camp overnight.
    • The bus starts at the Wilderness Access Center and picks people up at campgrounds. 2 people per seat, overhead racks for soft & lightweight items & jackets. Beginning at mile 20, a visitor can exit a bus to do some day hiking or exploring, then return to the road when ready and re-board the next shuttle (green) bus that has space available. During peak hours/peak season this can be a wait up to an hour or more. The bus stops every 1.5 hours for restroom break.
    • Tip: Shave 3 hours on the round trip bus to Wonder Lake by staying at Teklanika Campground in a hard-sided RV/camper:
  • *** Teklanika Campground, Denali National Park 
    • Camping at Teklanika makes the shuttle bus round trip to Wonder Lake 3 hours shorter (making a more tolerable 8 hours round trip). Enjoy remote wilderness in the comfort of your hard-sided RV.
    • Drive to Denali Road Milepost 29 at Teklanika River, the furthest allowed for private campers (except for end-of-season lottery winners).
    • Rules: 3 nights minimum stay. RV or hard sided vehicles only. Once arrived, RV cannot move until exiting (back to Milepost 20 and further towards the park entrance). 8 people per site max. Open May 20 – Sept. 17. Use dump station at Riley Creek Campground before driving to Teklanika.
    • Prior to driving in, Teklanika Pass (“Tek Pass” $31.50 as of 2011) is required for shuttle bus transportation during your 3-day stay. Tek Pass admits you onto the park shuttle on unlimited standby basis (with first day guaranteed).
    • When booking a Teklanika Pass, schedule a Shuttle Bus for your first full day in Denali (the first day you actually “wake up” at Teklanika Campground) – preferably choose a Wonder Lake or Kantishna Shuttle Bus for your Tek Pass. (If you reserve Polychrome, Toklat, Eielson or Fish Creek for your Tek Pass, you will have to switch buses on a space available basis to Wonder Lake/ Kantishna.)
** Richardson Highway, Valdez to Fairbanks


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  • ** Valdez has a very spectacular fjord and mountain setting, despite the bustling oil industry.
    • ** The last thirty miles of Richardson Highway south to Valdez has beautiful sweeping vistas, canyons, and waterfalls.
    • ** Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site: Step out of the car and/or hike at Thompson Pass just outside Valdez in Chugach Mountains, Chugach National Forest.
    • Reserve Valdez RV campgrounds in advance, due to summer popularity.
    • * Columbia & Meares Glacier cruise with “Stan Stephens” Columbia Glacier is declining in beauty. Instead try ***Phillips 26-Glacier College Fjord Cruise from Whittier (see above).
  • **Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark and quirky McCarthy make a worthwhile side trip off Richardson Highway.
    • Kennecott is one of America’s wildest & most photogenic ghost towns, a copper mining town dating from 1889-1938.
    • Use the Kennecott Shuttle to avoid 120 miles round trip on a rough potholed road (although the road has improved over the years).
    • Chitina is a native American village, located 325 miles from Anchorage, with views of the Wrangell Mountains. My wife stayed with the RV at the public Copper River Campground across the long bridge near Chitina, while I took the Kennecott Shuttle for 60 miles one way to McCarthy for an overnight stay.
  • **Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve was proclaimed a national monument in 1978 and a world heritage site in 1979. In 1980, it was established as a national park and preserve, the largest in the USA.
    • The **Park Visitor Center is well worth visiting at Richardson Highway Milepost 106.8, between Glennallen and Copper Center. See the spectacular movie presentation.
    • **Nabesna Road offers spectacular scenery and access to a seldom seen, wild corner of Alaska, in the headwaters of the Copper River.
      • 42 miles long, paved for the first 4 miles, then 2wd gravel, but stream crossings may require high clearance or 4wd: Trail Creek (Mile 29), Lost Creek (Mile 30.8), Boyden Creek (Mile 34.3) — all are usually dry or have only a shallow flow over the road surface, some with soft bottoms.
      • ** Primitive free campgrounds: Mile 6.1 Rufus Creek. Mile 12.2 Copper Lake Trailhead. ** Mile 16.6 great view of peaks. Mile 17.8 Dead Dog Hill Rest Area. Mile 21.8 Rock Lake Rest Area.
      • ** Mile 15-18: notice the prominent Wrangell Mountains, built from the Wrangell Lavas 10 million years ago to present. The conspicuous high glaciated conical summit to the southwest is Mount Sanford, the fifth highest mountain in the United States (16,237 feet), a strato-volcano (or composite cone). Mount Wrangell is the more distant, rounded and glacial covered dome southeast of Mount Sanford, with its summit of 14,163 ft, the largest andesite shield volcano in North America, the park’s only active volcano, releasing occasional steam plumes. Shield volcanoes have more frequent, but less violent eruptions. North of Mount Sanford and nearer to the road is the jagged prominence of Capital Mountain 7,731 ft, an eroded shield volcano, like Tanada Peak 9,240 ft (the jagged dark colored ridge north and east of Mt. Wrangell), formed between one and two million years ago and eroded only during the last million years. On a clear day, Mount Jarvis can be seen over the right shoulder of Tanada Peak. Flowing northward from the great ice fields of Mount Wrangell is the Copper Glacier, melting into the Copper River which flows northward, then westward along the end of the Wrangell Range, then southward to the Gulf of Alaska near Cordova, cutting through the coastal barrier of the Chugach Mountains, and marking most of the Park’s western boundary.
      • Mile 24.7 Watershed Divide (3,320 ft). Leaving the Copper River watershed which drains into the Gulf of Alaska and entering the Yukon River watershed which drains into the Bering Sea.
  • Follow the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (an amazing engineering feat) northwards and cross the impressive **Alaska Range.
  • Fairbanks: **Museum of the North, at the University of Alaska.
Glenn Highway (Glennallen to Anchorage)


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  • Drive 304 miles from Anchorage to Palmer to Glennallen to Valdez.
  • Anchorage
    • camp at *Eagle River Campground (Glenn Highway Milepost 11.6) for a beautiful natural setting close to the city. Moose are common.
    • * Alaska Zoo.
  • Palmer
    • The * Musk Ox Farm makes a fun visit (near Palmer at Glenn Highway Milepost 50, open in the summer from 10-6pm). A “musk ox” (ovibos moschatus) is not an ox and has no musk glands! Instead, it is a relative of sheep and goats. 3000 musk ox live in Alaska and 100,000 more live worldwide in the far north. Due to their habit of huddling together in a circle (with calves in the center) when threatened, the species nearly went extinct after the invention of guns.
    • * Knik Glacier & Pioneer Ridge Trail: Hike 2200 feet up to the first picnic table on Pioneer Ridge trail, a fairly steep 4 miles round trip, for a good view of the Knik Glacier and River.

Southeast Alaska: the Alaska Panhandle, 1-2 weeks

Southeast Alaskans say April/May has best weather and fewer tourists than summer. In Southeast Alaska, we may drive our own camper from Seattle to Prince Rupert, Canada, then ride ferries (without our vehicle) round trip to Juneau. Board ferries spontaneously as passengers without a car. Bus or rent a car at various ferry stops. Ferrying a vehicle would cost $800 and require reservations 4-6 months in advance.

Key to above activity ratings:   *** Must do.   ** Do.   * Maybe if time allows.

Alaskan animal and wildlife photos


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Recreational vehicle rental in Alaska

To experience the great Alaskan outdoors, driving an RV (recreational vehicle or motorhome) or camper has big advantages over tenting or lodging.

  • Campground slots are much easier found spontaneously than hotel lodging. The only campgrounds we needed to reserve (from August 15 to September 8, 2006) were Teklanika (RV) and Wonder Lake (tent) in Denali NP.
  • Camping puts you in closer contact with nature than a hotel room. An RV is just as comfortable and more convenient than a hotel.
  • Unpack luggage just once into an RV, instead of repacking every day to and from hotels.
A. RV versus pickup camper

ClippershipMotorhomes.com gave us excellent value RV rental in 2006:

  • Clippership Motorhomes gives free airport pick up (907) 562-7051 or 800-421-3456. 8-5 pm every day.
  • 20 or 22-foot Economy Class $2200 for 24 days August 15 – September 8, 2006 = $90/day plus gas (includes 8% MOA tax & 3% state tax), 2400 free miles then $.15/mile. Housekeeping package $15 each. Reserve with deposit $250, then upon arrival pay $250 more deposit. Aside from gravelled campgrounds or short access roads, all gravel roads are prohibited. Highway fuel inefficiency is 9 miles per gallon of gasoline.
  • Includes: Sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, pots and pans, knife, fork and spoon for each traveler, pancake turner, measuring cup, baking pan, scrubber, cooking spoons, can opener, grater, colander, paring knife, butcher knife, coffee pot, mixing bowls, pot holders, cutting board, potato peeler, broom, dust pan, water hose, level, trash can and instruction manual. Add the convenient housekeeping package: $15.00 per person: dishes, glasses, pitcher, kitchen towel, dish cloth, first aid kit, dish soap, paper towels, toilet paper, bath soap, toilet chemical, matches and hangers.

Small RV and pickup camper rentals may cost equally, even off season.

  • A pickup camper gets better gas mileage than an RV, but its daily rental rate can be higher than a small RV.
  • Save 20 to 30% on your motorhome RV rental by renting before or after high season, which runs from about July 1 to August 15.
  • A pickup mounted with a camper shell will take you over rougher roads to more places than a motorhome or RV.
  • As priced in 2006, pickup campers offered no off-season price savings.
B. Flying versus driving to Alaska

Renting a vehicle in Anchorage saves 4000+ miles of driving from the Lower 48 States. Much of the famous Alaska-Canadian (ALCAN) Highway is through monotonous forest. Driving from Seattle to Anchorage (5300 miles round trip) would have added two weeks of driving expense. Driving your own vehicle from the Lower 48 may be worthwhile for trips of 4 weeks or more. For trips of 1-3 weeks, fly and rent a vehicle.

C. Car + tenting

Sleeping in your own tent is the cheapest accomodation in Alaska, but wind, rain and bugs (which bite mid June to mid July) make tenting uncomfortable for all but the young and hardy.

D. Car + lodging

Car plus lodging costs about as much as renting an RV. Lodging often must be reserved well in advance in popular areas of Alaska. Lodging can be scarce in the beautiful areas where you may most want to experience nature, whereas RV camping or overnight parking areas are much more plentiful.

South Central Alaska map, USA, 24 days by RV (Recreational Vehicle) including Anchorage, Denali National Park and Preserve Park Road, Mount McKinley flightseeing from Talkeetna, Parks Highway, Kenai Peninsula, Sterling Highway, College & Harriman Fjords cruise from Whittier, Seward, Homer, Glenn Highway, Richardson Highway, Valdez, McCarthy, Wrangell Mountains, Fairbanks, North Pole. (© Tom Dempsey / PhotoSeek.com)

Above: A map of South Central Alaska shows our 24-day itinerary in a rented RV (recreational vehicle): starting at Anchorage, see Kenai Peninsula, College and Harriman Fjord day cruise, Valdez, McCarthy, Fairbanks, Denali, and Alaska Range flightseeing from Talkeetna.

Weather and when to visit

  • May 10 to September 15 is generally a good time to visit most parts of Alaska.
  • Alaska Time Zone = Seattle (or Pacific Time Zone) minus one hour.
  • Long daylight: June 21 is the longest day of the year, with 19 hours of daylight in Anchorage, 22 in Fairbanks, and 18 hours in Southeast Alaska. Any time between Spring and Fall equinoxes, the days are significantly longer in Alaska than at lower latitudes.
  • Peak tourist season is mid-June to mid-August. Before and after that are “shoulder season” discounts 10 – 25% at some hotels and tours.
  • Hiking season: Snow in high country or Arctic regions does not melt until about late June. June is “post-hole” season, so named for each step falling through melting snow.
  • Fall colors: Peak fall colors of the red tundra in Denali are late August to early September. On the Kenai Peninsula, aspen tree yellow & gold leaf fall colors usually peak September 15-18th, a few days after Denali National Park. The Glenn Highway (from Anchorage to Glennallen) has great gold aspens against rugged mountain background. Just a few days after Kenai comes the Anchorage area’s yellow color peak, which is the last turning of leaf colors in south-central Alaska.
  • May is generally drier in Alaska, with about a 25% chance of measurable rain on the average day. Alaska gets rainier as the summer progresses. By August, the chance of rain increases to about 50% on a given day.
  • Climate zones:
    • Rainiest areas are on the ocean side of mountain ranges.
    • In south-central Alaska‘s summer (Anchorage & Homer), expect rain one third of the time, cloudy one third, and sunny one third. Peak mosquito season is the end of June and the first part of July in marshy lowlands, but no problem on breezy alpine ridges. Bugs are no problem after late July. South-central Alaska has 70% of the state’s population and the most roads and hiking trails. The varied climate transitions from the mild and wet southern coast, to the colder and drier interior to the north.
    • Fairbanks and the interior north of the Alaska Range have significantly sunnier weather than further south. The snow melts faster in the interior in Spring than in south-central Alaska. Early summer season has thunderstorms and forest fires. The interior of Alaska has more mosquitoes than south-central Alaska, starting in mid-June, but the bugs die away after the first frosts in late July. The best interior hiking is in the Alaska Range and the Yukon-Tanana uplands near Fairbanks.
    • Southeast Alaska (Juneau to Ketchikan) is the rainiest area in Alaska (with local variability). Locals say April/May has the best weather with the least rain and fewer tourists.
    • Southwest Alaska (including Katmai National Park) is wet and windy, and stretches 1400 miles down Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands.
Global warming: climate change in Alaska

Over the past 50 years, Alaska’s winters have warmed by 6.3°F (3.5°C) and its annual average temperature has increased 3.4°F (2.0°C) (Karl et al. 2009). Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the continental United States. As stated by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007): Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global sea level. This warming is very likely (more than 90% certain) related to anthropogenic (human caused) greenhouse gas emissions.  Read more about global warming and climate change.

Bring to Alaska

  • NOAA weather radio. Or get weather forecasts via cell phone/internet. Many walkie-talkies can receive NOAA weather radio (updated every 6 hours) within about 10-15 miles of main cities. Hikers and backpackers should check two-day weather forecasts frequently.
  • compass
  • binoculars for wildlife viewing
  • Sleep mask – even on September 1, skies are surprisingly light for 16 hours in Anchorage!
  • DEET insect repellant wards off the mosquito “unofficial state bird”: If mosquitoes worry you, complete your trip before they hatch in mid-June, or visit the last week in July or later when the first night frosts eliminate most insect problems. If visiting during mosquito season (mid-June to mid-July), DEET is the only proven repellent.
  • Motion sickness remedy (a prescription patch works best) for sea & air (though we didn’t need it).
  • If camping overnight at Wonder Lake or elsewhere, bring camping gear: tent, stove, pots, sleeping bag, pad, backpack, safety matches, etc.

Recommended Alaska guidebooks

Search for latest “Alaska travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).

2013: 2012: 2012: 2012:
2012: 2009: