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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…versus the Canon Powershot G9:

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

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

Recommended travel tripod for compact or DSLR cameras:

  • I love my travel tripod, which I have tested 2005-2008 with both small and DSLR cameras:
  • Slik “Sprint Pro GM” Tripod ($90), which weighs only 2 pounds and is great for travel, superior to other travel tripods that I’m aware of (including Velbon MAXi343E, Manfrotto, or even Gitzo tripods costing three times more).
  • For quickest on/off camera mounting, add the Manfrotto 3299 Quick Change Plate Adapter ($35, quick release).
  • The stiff aluminum legs are sufficiently stable for cameras up to 3 or 4 pounds (especially if you don’t extend the bottom leg section; or if you hang on extra weight) and have very fast locking levers (of sturdy plastic). At this good price, simply buy a new tripod if it breaks.
  • The Slik “Sprint Pro GM” tripod rises to eye level (64 inches), collapses to 19 inches (or 16 inches if you remove the quick-release ball head). The metal ball head swings 90 degrees each way, to two vertical positions, and turns freely around, all tightened with one effective lever. Legs can optionally splay out independently in 3 locking positions down to 6.4 inches off the ground. For macro, the center column can be reversed underneath for great shooting flexibility at ground level, and unscrews into a short section (saving 3.5 ounces). Leg tips convert from spike (outdoor) to rubber (indoor use) with a simple lockable twist.

Tom’s 2008 equipment:

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

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

——————————————————————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compact versus DSLR cameras

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

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

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

Tom Dempsey responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compare the Canon G7 and Panasonic FZ8:

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

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