BEST 2017 TRAVEL CAMERAS reviewed

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

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

Sony RX10 III camera

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

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

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

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

A. World’s best pocket-size camera:

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

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

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Compare Pentax K20D, Nikon D90, D60

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

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

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

Tom Dempsey answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentax K20d first impressions

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

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

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

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

Sony RX10 III camera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. $1200: 33 oz for 24-480mm equivalent 20x zoom on 1″-Type sensor: Panasonic FZ2500 (2016, 20mp) with f/2.8–4.5 lens, fully articulated LCD with touchscreen, great viewfinder magnification, best video specs (ND filter, Cine/UHD 4K). But FZ2500’s lens collects a half stop less light, slightly lowering image quality; its telephoto doesn’t reach long enough for birders; and its CIPA battery life of 350 shots is shorter than RX10III’s 420 shots. (FZ2500 is FZ2000 in some markets.)
  2. $900: 29 oz for 25-400mm equivalent 16x zoom lens on 1″-Type sensor: Panasonic LUMIX DMC-FZ1000 camera (2014, 20mp) with f/2.8-4 lens, fast autofocus, fully articulated LCD. Good quality lets you crop down from 20mp to digitally extend telephoto reach.
  3. $600: 32 oz for 24–2000mm equivalent 83x zoom lens on 1/2.3″ sensor: Nikon Coolpix P900 (2015, 16mp). The tiny 1/2.3″ sensor should beat cell phone quality, suitable for web sharing or small prints, though requires bright outdoor light.
  4. $400: 21 oz for 24-1200mm equivalent 50x zoom lens on 1/2.3″ sensor: Olympus SP-100 camera (2014, 16mp, 1 cm close focus, nice 920k dot EVF): innovative On-Camera Dot Sight helps track distant birds or moving subjects.

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

More Information

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

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

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

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

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

Wildlife telephoto lenses for DSLR (mirror) cameras

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

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

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

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

Newer DSLR lenses optimized for digital

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildlife and birding lenses for APS-C cameras

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

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

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

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

Full-frame conventional lenses are bigger and heavier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sony Alpha DSLR full frame conventional lenses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokina full-frame conventional lens for wildlife:

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

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

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

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

Terminology and metric conversions

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

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