Archive for the ‘gear’ Tag

Winter Photography, Part V: Get Away from the Road   6 comments

Are you tired of seeing Mount Hood covered in snow yet?

Are you tired of seeing Mount Hood covered in snow yet?

Let’s continue the series on photography in wintertime.  With the holiday season approaching, we all have more time off from work.  So don’t spend all of it inside baking cookies (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).  Get out and shoot some too.  We’ve covered the getting there part, plus how to dress for winter.  Now it’s time to hit the trail.

This morning I watched a few other photographers in Zion National Park.  They were, as usual, sticking to the roadside.  By far most pictures are captured from within a few yards of the road.  I don’t completely avoid it of course, having gotten some great shots even by standing on top of the car.  But although it’s even more tempting in winter to shoot near the car, getting away from the road is key to making the kinds of photos that are unique to your own vision.

The top of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park, Utah.

The top of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park, Utah.

The last post focused on winter clothes, but there are a few other things that can help greatly when you’re traveling in snowy or icy conditions.  So let’s look at how to stack the odds in your favor during a winter outing.

  • Camera Pack – Fit:  Though not unique to winter, it’s even more important to have a camera backpack that fits and carries well.  The typical blocky camera pack isn’t really good for hiking, but its shortcomings are even more pronounced in snow or ice where the simple act of walking is more challenging.  So find one that carries most of its weight closer to your back and doesn’t swing the weight around.  A sternum strap & waist belt are very helpful, for example.


  • Camera Pack – Size:  Since you’ll be carrying some extras beyond photo gear, it’s necessary to get a pack that has a roomy compartment for clothes and other non-camera stuff.  If you already have a pack that is fairly large and comfortable, but without a dedicated compartment for extras, try taking out a few velcro dividers meant for extra lenses and making a place for the extra stuff.


  • Filling that Pack:  In summer, typically short photo hikes can be done without a lot of the safety equipment that’s necessary both for longer hikes in summer and outings of all distances in winter.  So think carefully about which lenses to take and take out any extra camera gear that you may not need.  This makes room for extra clothes, some food plus the 10 essentials.
Now this isn't how I planned to fill my pack!

Now this isn’t how I planned to fill my pack!

  • Just in Case – Ten Essentials:  Google the 10 essentials, but realize in winter two of them are especially important:  light and fire.  Take a good headlamp with extra batteries (and don’t forget extra batteries for the camera).  Being able to easily make a fire is very important in wintertime.  Waterproof matches and a ziplock full of dry newspaper and other tinder (and perhaps some fire-starting compound) can save your butt!

Horsetail Falls, Oregon.

Feet – Extra Help    

Once you have good warm boots (see last post), consider where you’ll be hiking.  The snow and ice of winter often demands something more for your feet:

  • Traction Devices:      If you don’t plan on going through deep snow much, you don’t need snowshoes or skis (see below), but if you’ll be in icy conditions, consider the small traction devices that slip on over your boots.  Yak-Tracks are a popular brand.  True crampons are too much; they’re for mountaineering.


  • Snowshoes are popular with winter photographers for good reason.  They’re simple to use and sure beat wading through hip-deep powder snow.  Buy a pair that is appropriate for your size and weight.  I would avoid the super-small and light kind; they’re for the crazies who run races in them; they normally don’t float enough in soft snow.



  • Snowshoe Technique:  Practice walking in snowshoes before you carry your camera pack, then add the gear on the next hike.  While you do need to walk with a slightly wider stance and lift your feet more, most novices exaggerate this movement, wasting energy.  The idea is to sort of shuffle, lifting just enough to avoid getting tangled up and tripping.  If you never trip and fall, you probably aren’t learning to do it right.
  • The Ski Option:  I’m biased, but in my opinion skis are the best way to get around in snow.  Sure it takes a little more time to learn than snowshoes, but that time is paid many times over with more speed and more fun when you’re out.   In most terrain, I can leave snowshoers in the dust when I’m skiing.  With short days, trying to catch the light, snowshoes are too slow for some destinations.  And fun?  On downhills snowshoers are plodding while I’m whooping and hollering.
A rare selfie: Enjoying sunshine & powder, La Sal Mtns., Utah.

A rare selfie: Enjoying sunshine & powder, La Sal Mtns., Utah.

  • Using Cross-Country Skis:  Modern cross-country skis are shorter, wider and much more stable/easy to use than the long skinny skis I learned on.  And this kind have been out long enough now to go used.  Just get a basic set of touring skis, boots and poles.  With the money you save I recommend taking lessons.  It probably goes without saying, but your camera needs to be stowed safely in your pack when skiing.  I wear a small bag for my camera (Lowepro Toploader) over my chest, clipped to the straps of my backpack.  Load distribution is even more important when you’re skiing, so make sure your backpack doesn’t swing around as you move.
An alternative way to get around in winter that isn't covered in this post.

An alternative way to get around in winter that isn’t covered in this post.

Near sunset, I skied past this natural ice sculpture high up on Silver Star Mtn., Washington.

Near sunset, I skied past this natural ice sculpture high up on Silver Star Mtn., Washington.

Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography, Part IV   10 comments

An old fence-line tops a ridge and Colorado's San Juan Mountains show off their autumn colors.

An old fence-line tops a ridge and Colorado’s San Juan Mountains show off their autumn colors.

This is the final installment in this short series on learning photography.  Check out the first three posts on this topic for tips on how to make the most of your time and money when you set out to get serious about making images.  Enjoy some images from my most recent two trips.


Quality is number one in the lens arena.  When I bought my first serious DSLR (a Canon 5D Mark II), I made the mistake of buying a Sigma 24-70 mm. lens with it.  I never was happy with that lens, and ended up returning it for a Canon.  Of course you can’t do that in most places, but I had bought it in Singapore.  The guys in the shop were very surprised to see me return almost a year later.  I had told them where I was from so they didn’t expect to ever see me again.  But I like Singapore. It’s a fine place to break a long flight to somewhere like India or Nepal, a convenient jumping off point for Borneo, Indonesia & PNG, and the atmosphere (and food!) on the street is great.

After some spirited negotiation, I traded the Sigma in for a Canon and from that point on stuck with quality, mostly Canon L lenses. There are important exceptions to the L rule regarding Canon.  Not really knowing Nikon I can’t say for sure, but I expect it applies as well.  There are a few non-L Canon lenses that match the image quality of L lenses.  One example is the EF-S 17-55 mm., an excellent lens made specifically for crop-frame cameras.  Another is the 100 mm. macro (the older, non-L macro).  Conversely, there are a few Canon L lenses that have somewhat lower image quality (though all L lenses have high build quality).

Fog and a full moon combine to create a unique atmosphere in which to shoot along the Buffalo River, Arkansas.

Fog and a full moon combine to create a unique atmosphere in which to shoot along the Buffalo River, Arkansas.

With Nikon there isn’t such a clear way to tell which lens has better build/image quality like with the red ring of Canon L lenses.  But Nikon lenses with gold rings and “ED” in their names generally represent higher quality.  Bottom line is you need to evaluate lenses on a case by case basis. Even some 3rd party lenses are worth considering.  Though I can’t vouch for any Sigma or Tamron lens, I do know they carry good models.

I can personally vouch for Tokina’s wide-angle zoom, the 16-28 mm. f/2.8, and pretty much anything made by Zeiss is quality both in build and clarity (and will put a dent in your wallet!).  Note that Zeiss has traditionally made only fixed (non-zoom) lenses with manual-focus only.  However, they’ve been departing from that practice lately, building zooms for Sony.  They may be about to do the same for Canon and Nikon.

Note that I haven’t mentioned any kit lenses. That’s because I think you should try to eschew kit lenses, even starting out.  If one comes with your camera and you’re sure you can make a little money by selling it, by all means get it and sell it off.  Or use it until you can afford to upgrade.  Once again there are exceptions.  The Canon 24-105 mm. f/4L is sold as a kit lens with their 5D cameras, and though some will argue, this is a very good lens.

Heading up for a fall hike in the mountains, San Juan Mtns., Colorado

Heading up for a fall hike in the mountains: San Juan Mtns., Colorado


When starting out you should probably just go for the “wedding setup”.  If you’re like me you loathe the idea of shooting a wedding (or even attending one, hehe!).  But that doesn’t mean you won’t do very well in a wide variety of situations with the lenses that most wedding shooters go with.  That is, a mid-range zoom in the neighborhood of 24-70 mm. focal length plus a 70-200 mm. zoom. This focal length (24-200 mm.) is mandatory for you to cover. You don’t necessarily need to cover every millimeter of it of course; for example, if you plan on going with fixed-focal length lenses.  But try to cover most of it.  Slightly less important (unless you’re into landscapes, where it’s a necessity) is a wider-angle zoom in the range starting at 14-16 mm. on the wide end and going up to 24-40 mm. on the long end.

Okay, that’s two to three lenses, depending on money & whether you will be doing a lot of landscapes.  I would, early on, add a fast 50 mm.lens, fast meaning one with a wide maximum aperture (f/1.8 or so).  This will allow you to shoot in low-light without spending a ton of money (50s are cheap).  If you are indeed going to be shooting indoors with plenty of portraits (such as weddings – ugh!), you’ll need to get faster, more expensive lenses.  In a zoom, this normally means a maximum aperture of f/2.8.  If you’ll be doing a lot of landscape or general photography, lenses with maximum aperture of f/4 are just fine.  I wouldn’t go slower that that except for lenses longer than 300 mm.  And I wouldn’t go with lenses that have a variable maximum aperture.  Again, this leaves out most kit lenses, most of which have variable maximum apertures.

Prairie dog town, Oklahoma

Prairie dog town, Oklahoma


Unless you’re very sure you want to get deeply into macro photography straight off, I would wait to get a macro lens. Sure, you can skip the 70-200 mm. f/4 lens and get a 100 mm. f/2.8 macro instead.  This would give you a good portrait lens and of course allow macro.  But you’re giving up the flexibility of a 70-200, particularly in the landscape arena.  Instead of going macro right away, you can instead buy a Canon 500D close-up lens.  It screws on like a filter to any lens (doesn’t need to be Canon), yielding high-quality close-up images.  It works very well with a 70-200 mm. zoom lens, and goes for about $150.


This is where many companies have sprung up trying to cash in on the photography craze.  Resist the urge to go crazy on extras.  You will need the following: tripod, tripod head, mounting plates, backpack or other camera bag, a filter or three, camera protection and cleaning stuff.  For the latter, get a couple very good cleaning cloths, maybe a lens pen, plus swabs and solution for the sensor.  You would think all lens cloths are the same, but they aren’t.  I really love my “Tiger” cloth, a large orange cleaning cloth made by an outfit called Kinetronics.

I like this type of rail fence, not just for its looks but because it is so easy to climb!


While you don’t need to buy the best there is, you do need to go with quality here.  I would strongly consider a carbon fiber model if money allows, but a regular  aluminum tripod, though heavier, will do the job as well.  Manfrotto is one of several companies with well-built medium-priced tripods that come in both aluminum and carbon-fiber versions.  Just don’t go too cheap ($150 or under).  You can easily buy several tripods, not being happy with any of them, and end up going with a good one costing at least $200. The reason for this is the aggravation that results from using a tripod that is made cheap or is too lightweight.  Better to just pony up in the beginning.  Used is always an option with tripods of course, but make sure it’s only a year or two old.

That’s just the tripod legs.  You still need to get a head, and it may be best to buy your tripod and head separately.  You can either go with a pan- or ball-head. A ball-head will enable you to quickly pick any angle and lock it down. A pan-head is better for video and for panning. Unless you already know which you prefer, I’d get a ballhead.  Again, spend a little more and get a good one; at least $200 should do it.  One with an Arca-Swiss type of clamp is best, for its ease of use. It clamps onto a plate that you mount on the bottom of your camera (or lens when using telephotos).

Get a plate made specifically for your camera and match it well to the clamp on the ball-head. The same brand for both head and plate is good but not strictly necessary.  Check when you get it that the fit is perfect; if it’s not send it back and get a plate that matches.  You can’t afford to fool around with this, since all your expensive gear could go crashing if it’s not mounted very securely to your tripod.  By the way, I use an L plate, which wraps around one side of the camera, allowing it to be mounted vertically on the tripod head.  Though more expensive than a regular plate, it is much more stable and offers protection too.

A burnished looking landscape in central Oklahoma.

A burnished landscape in central Oklahoma.


For some reason this is the hardest thing to resist going crazy on.  I’m not generally a gear-head, but I really love camera backpacks.  If I didn’t exert serious willpower I’d own a dozen.  Unless you see yourself doing only street photography (for which many prefer shoulder bags), or something like sports (where backpacks are clunky), I would just go for a comfortable camera backpack.  Backpacks aren’t just for hikers; they allow a lot of gear to be carried in the most efficient way possible.  We’re getting into the topic of travel here, so I’ll save the discussion of backpacks and luggage for another post.

If you want to go with an optional second bag, I’d get a smaller one for those times you want to carry only your camera and a lens (or two). You could get a smallish shoulder bag, or one of the Lowepro Toploaders, which have shoulder slings but can also be attached to an optional chest sling (I use this for XC skiing).  You can get a lens case that attaches optionally to the Toploader.  Then you have camera, two lenses plus accessories in an easily-carried, protected bag.

One more fall colors shot from my trip to SW Colorado in October.


In the film days filters were a big deal.  Not so much anymore, since software can simulate most of what filters used to do.  One thing software doesn’t really simulate is polarization.  So I think a circular polarizer is necessary, especially if you’re into landscapes.  You can get just one that is the size of the largest lens you’ll use it on, then get step-down rings that allow it to fit smaller lenses.  I have two for convenience.  Neutral density filters are good to have if you’re into landscapes, and they come in handy in other situations too.  I’ve already posted on these in detail.

Should you get UV filters for each of your lenses?  It depends.  They don’t really do anything except help protect your lens.  But get just one scratch on a lens and you’ll wish you had bought one.  Despite what some say, they are more sure protection than a hood (which you should also use).  The main knock on them is they put another layer of glass between you and the image, potentially impacting quality.  So if you’re going with them you need high-quality UV filters (B&W brand or better).  If you’re pretty careful with equipment, I’d probably skip them.  But if you’re like me, rough on your equipment, they may be worthwhile.

Morning light hits rose hip leaves.

There is one more thing you should definitely get when you buy a camera, and that’s protection.  First off, get something to protect your LCD display(s).  Unlike lenses, these will scratch if you look at them.  The best option in my opinion are the thin, rigid stick-on covers.  Not the flexible stick-on film you buy in packages of 20.  I’m talking about the rigid ones you buy just one of, made by GGS & others.  They’re thin & inconspicuous and yet very durable.  Some even come in a package of two, one for your main rear LCD & one for the small LCD on top of many DSLRs.  Put them on as soon as you get the camera out of its box.  Also consider a rain-cover if you’ll be shooting somewhere with a wet climate.  Even if it’s just a shower-cap &/or thick terry towel (which is what I use), always have it in your camera bag.

Do you need a flash?  Some cameras have built-in flash, but these rarely produce good results.  In my opinion you should learn to shoot in natural light first, then later on, if desired, you can learn about using off-camera flash and other artificial lighting.  If you plan, right off the bat, to shoot indoors a lot, you might want to get a good off-camera flash plus accessories to get the most out of it.  I’d stick with the same brand as your camera, but you don’t necessarily need the top of the line model.  For instance, I have the Canon 430 EX II ($250) plus a synch cord (to fire the flash from above or to the side of the camera).  I also have a hand-held diffuser and reflector.  I don’t use this stuff much, but it’s all I need for fill light plus the occasional indoor portrait.

Well that just about does it.  Thanks for sticking with this lengthy post!  I hope it helped in your quest to get the right gear (but no more), and to lessen some of the sticker shock that comes with getting serious about photography.  Have a fun weekend!

Yesterday evening I was wandering around at sunset when I saw this barn sitting quietly in the day’s last light.

Friday Foto Talk: Learning Photography, Part III   6 comments

A muddy Canadian River at sunrise, Oklahoma.

A muddy Canadian River at sunrise, Oklahoma.

I’m late posting this Friday Foto Talk, shame on me!  My excuse is that I was in the woods for the last few days, away from internet and cell service.  This is the 3rd in a 4-part series on learning photography.  Not what to learn but how to go about it.  This short series has mostly been aimed at those who have just recently begun to get serious about photography.  But everyone will get something out of it.  I believe every photographer, no matter how experienced, is a learning photographer.  So be sure and check out the first two parts if this is your first visit.

My blog has deliberately steered clear of gear talk.  I’ve talked about how best to use various kinds of lenses and filters to create various looks, but I’ve deliberately avoided brand names.  I don’t believe brand has anything to do with the images you create.  As mentioned in Part I, the goal is to buy just enough but not too much gear when you’re just starting on the road to serious image-making.  Later on, if money permits, you can add on to your kit.  You’ll know much better what will genuinely enhance your photography.

Foggy forest early one recent morning in the Ozarks of Arkansas.

Foggy forest early one recent morning in the Ozarks of Arkansas.


Though brand doesn’t matter to the ultimate quality of your images, you’ll nonetheless need to decide what you’re going with at the beginning.  Can you change your mind later and switch?  Sure, it’s easy enough to sell a camera and lenses.  (They go together: each brand of camera fits only lenses made for that brand, or 3rd party lenses with mounts specific to the brand.)  Of course, if you change your mind you’ll lose some money buying new and then selling later.  But more important than that, you’ll need to learn a whole different menu system.  You don’t need to add to what you have to learn, so I recommend keeping things simple.  Pick one brand and stick with that choice until you are a competent photographer (about two years).

It’s a fact that Canon and Nikon remain dominant.  Sure, Sony has established itself, even among pros.  Also, the new mirrorless compact format has made Panasonic a big player.  But the big two are what most professionals continue to use.  And they’ll be easier to sell if it comes to that.  If you have plenty of dough, consider one of the luxury brands (Hasselblad or Leica).  But remember, you’re just learning.  Though image quality is what you’re going for from day one, there’s no need to go crazy just to produce your first 10,000 (worst) images.

A ranch nestles beneath Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.


If you are just now getting serious, if you are going to be jumping up from a point and shoot or your phone, you have a couple important decisions to make.  First is format.  You have the option to start out with the compact mirrorless format.  You could also learn on a film system, like medium or large-format.  I think the mirrorless format is a good option for beginners, but I’ll save that whole discussion of mirroless vs. DSLR for another post.  Film has that cachet, but in the learning stage I’d go digital.  Film is not dead (yet), but your learning curve will be significantly shorter with digital. The rest of this post assumes you are going with a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) system.


I would seriously consider limiting your choice to Canon, Nikon or possibly Sony (again assuming you’re not splurging on a luxury brand).  The best plan is to rent each for a weekend and see which you like using better.  Canon and Nikon both keep their value somewhat better than Sony, a big factor later when you want to sell something.  All three have a fairly intuitive user interface.  All three are fairly reliable, but with any of them, you can wind up with a lemon.  If you’re starting out with a used camera, your decision may hinge simply on what you can get a good deal on.  Your decision will also depend on what lens lineup you like best, which brings me to…


I recommend renting before you buy here too.  Perhaps the best option if you decide on Sony is to buy high-quality lenses made by a 3rd party which come with Sony mounts. Zeiss glass is very well regarded, but pretty spendy unless you buy used.  If you decide on Canon or Nikon, you have a large lineup of lenses to choose from, lenses made by the same folks who make the camera.  Expect these lenses to work a little better with your camera, in general, than those made by 3rd parties.  When I say “work better” I’m not talking image quality. I’m speaking of electronics (quicker & more accurate autofocus, for e.g.).  Sony has been relying on 3rd party lenses, but that includes a recent commitment by Zeiss to make zoom lenses for them.  So Sony’s lens gap may be a thing of the past in the near future.

Beautiful Colorado blue spruce, San Juan Mtns., Colo.

Beautiful Colorado blue spruce, San Juan Mtns., Colo.

I honestly can’t recommend one brand’s lenses over the other.  It is, however, widely believed that Canon does big telephoto lenses better than Nikon, and that Nikon does very wide-angle zooms better.  In the middle of the range (~24-200 mm. focal length), the two are for all intents and purposes not distinguishable.  Since this is where the lion’s share of our photos are taken, it really is a tossup between Canon and Nikon.  Of course if you plan on getting into sport or serious wildlife photography, you may choose Canon because of its (slightly) better long glass.  If you’re a landscape shooter, Nikon might be the one simply because you can get their excellent 14-24 mm. wide angle lens.

Though I’m primarily a landscape person, I don’t mind shooting Canon for the following reason: There are several good alternatives to the Nikon 14-24 mm. out there, made by third parties.  And Canon itself makes two or three fixed focal length wide-angle lenses that produce the same quality as the Nikon wide-angle zoom.  With landscape photography, the speed of autofocus and other electronic considerations are not as important in the wide-angle as the telephoto realms.  You can even get a 3rd party manual-focus wide-angle lens (like a Zeiss) and be perfectly happy doing landscapes.  Try manual- or slow auto-focus with wildlife or sport and you’re done for.  So if you plan on shooting both landscape and wildlife, for example, Canon may hold a slight edge.

Now that I’ve succeeded in contradicting myself and, despite my claims to the contrary, recommended a brand (ahem), we can move on to what’s really important to a just-learning photographer.  That is, what do I need to buy?  Not what brand, what gear.

Amazing lichen, Oachita National Forest, Arkansas

Amazing lichen, Oachita National Forest, Arkansas


If money is not a serious concern, buy new across the board.  If money concerns you to some degree, buy a new camera but look in the used market for lenses.  As long as you check out the merchandise before you buy, lenses are pretty easy to buy used.  Cameras can be a little more iffy.  I’m not saying quality used cameras can’t be had.  I’m just pointing out how hard it is to decide that based on a quick examination in some Starbucks somewhere.  If money is a big concern, start off with used equipment, including camera and accessories.

The reason money may be more of a concern than what you expect is that the most important factor in image quality is the glass (lenses) not the camera.  Lenses are where most of your investment should be, and good glass is not cheap.  You can argue that average lenses are fine to start out, but consider just one of several reasons for buying good glass to start out.  When you’re trying to produce nice sharp images, it can be hard to distinguish softness related to lens quality from softness that stems from your own mistakes.

There is one more piece of gear where you need to start out with high quality.  Can you guess?  The camera perhaps?  No, not in my opinion at least.  You can get a good basic camera that is in the middle of the range and be fine.   No, it’s the tripod and tripod head (more on that later).  So to sum up, get a good basic DSLR to start, don’t skimp on the tripod, and buy lenses that you’ll be happy to keep using well after you’ve become good and have upgraded your camera.

Texas longhorn cattle roam the grasslands in Wichita Mtns., National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.


If I was writing this a couple years ago I might recommend serious consideration to a a crop-frame camera, at least to start with.  That’s because they tended to be less expensive than full frames, while still delivering great usability and quality.  That advice is less true now that less expensive full frames (like the excellent Canon 6D) are on the market. It’s also less true because lenses continue to be designed and built primarily for full-frame cameras.  Don’t misunderstand me.  Most lenses can be used with either format.  But since everything is at a longer effective focal length on a crop-frame, lenses at the wider end of the spectrum need to be built specifically for crop-frames; they won’t work on a full-frame.

So where does that leave us?  I would make your decision based on what kind of photography you plan on doing most.  If you really want to get into wildlife or sports, I’d go for a crop-frame; it will give you extra reach in terms of focal length.  If you’ll be doing mostly landscapes, get a full-frame.  If you’re going for portraiture, it’s a toss-up.  But I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and recommend a full-frame camera if you’re not sure or you wish to explore a variety of photography.  Your second camera could always be a crop-frame if you find yourself getting more and more into wildlife or sports.

That’s enough for now.  I’ll continue with the all-important subject of what sorts of lenses to buy next time.  Have a great weekend!

Sunset over the prairie.

Friday Foto Talk: Tips for Travel Photography, Part I   22 comments

Early morning in Glacier National Park is a good time to spot wildlife such as this moose enjoying the solitude at Two Medicine Lake.

Early morning in Glacier National Park is a good time to spot wildlife such as this moose enjoying the solitude at Two Medicine Lake.  Canon 70-200 mm.lens at 140 mm, 1/100 sec. @ f/11.

Travel is a subject near and dear to my heart.  Years ago I abhorred the idea of traveling to other countries.  Too much hassle, too much waiting around for connections, being at the mercy of other (bad!) drivers.  Besides I had an entire continent to explore here at home.  I was young and impatient.  But now I love to travel, and it goes so well with my love for photography.  I like both road-tripping here in North America and going overseas.  Both are equally enjoyable in their own way.

When traveling it's good to seek out compositions that include locals plus the iconic sights you're visiting, such as here at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

When traveling seek out compositions that include locals plus the iconic sights you’re visiting, such as here at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  Canon 17-40 mm. lens at 17 mm., 1/5 sec. @ f/22, tripod.

It’s the July 4th holiday, our birthday here in the U.S. of A.  It’s a time when people either camp out or stay at home celebrating with good food cooked on the outdoor grill.  Fireworks are booming in my ears right now.  This holiday means that summer vacation time is upon us.  Travel is a part of the plans of many people this time of year.  For me, autumn is my favorite time to travel, though anytime will really do.

So now is a great time to post on travel photography.  This first part will focus on gear and related issues.  The second part (next Friday) will focus on some of the other things I’ve learned about taking pictures while traveling.  I would love if you add in the comments below any tips you have learned during your own travels.

Travel photos are good when they include slice of life images such as this one in Mexico of honey sellers passing the time playing cards.

When traveling try to include slice of life images.  On a Mexico street honey sellers pass the time playing cards.  Canon 24-105 mm. lens at 28 mm., 1/80 sec. @ f/5.6.


      • Keep it simple:  Take as much gear to keep you covered for most (but not all) of the situations you might face.  For example, if you’re visiting Paris, Istanbul or other interesting cities, make sure to take a mid-range zoom.  This means something like a 24-70 mm. for a full-frame camera or 17-55 mm. for a crop-frame camera.  If you are going to be traveling to a wildlife haven like Yellowstone or Africa, you will want the longest lens you can get your hands on.  Keep the accessories to a minimum.
      • Lenses:  So once you have the mid-range covered, which is where you will take most of your photos, other lenses depend on what you will be doing.  You need a wide-angle if you are planning landscapes (or tight interiors).  You need a longer zoom or telephoto zoom for wildlife and some other landscapes.  That is 3 lenses.  But consider taking just one (or two – see below) instead.  You can take a wide-range zoom (like the Canon or Nikon 18-200 mm.) to cover nearly any situation you might encounter.  For the high-quality crowd, Canon makes a 28-300 mm. L-class lens, but it does not come cheap.
Architecture is a hard subject to avoid when traveling, so it's key to try creative angles, such as this one taken from inside a colonial building at Xela, Guatemala.

Architecture is a hard subject to avoid when traveling, so try creative angles, such as this one from inside a colonial building at Xela, Guatemala.  Canon 24-105 mm. lens at 67 mm., 1/40 sec. @ f/16

      • Lenses II:  If you will be checking out a lot of cathedrals, museums, etc., take a fast 50 mm. lens.  If your mid-range is fast (f/2.8 or faster) then this might not be necessary.  But if you’re taking a wide-range zoom as mentioned above, a lens that tends to be slow (smaller maximum aperture), a 50 mm. f/1.8 or f/1.4 will really pay off for not much added weight and space.  This will allow you to take pictures in low-light conditions.

What do I do?  I usually take four lenses: a mid-range zoom (24-105), a wide-angle zoom (16-28), a tele-zoom (70-200), and a fast 50 mm.  If shooting wildlife I substitute a longer telephoto lens for either the wide angle or the 50.  I also take a 1.4x tele-extender plus a screw-on close-up lens, flash, filters, tripod…oh and either an extra camera body or a point and shoot.  As you can see I go fairly heavy, but I’m always planning to go lighter next time!

An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, CA.

An old wagon at Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, California.  Canon EF-S 17-55 mm. lens at 17 mm. 1/200 sec. @ f/11, from a lying position.

      • Which camera?  Decide how serious a photographer you are.  If you’re fairly casual take a fixed-lens point and shoot camera, perhaps a super-zoom.  Today’s superzooms go well past 1000 mm.!  You might also consider a mirrorless camera for travel.  These are sort of mid-way between a point and shoot and a DSLR in terms of quality and size.  Although Panasonic and Olympus pioneered this style of camera (which like DSLRs use interchangeable lenses), the other manufacturers have since begun selling their own.  These compact cameras do amazing quality for their size.  They even capture great video too.  They fall a bit short on handling noise, but you can mitigate that by taking pictures in good light!  I take a DSLR, which is the heaviest option.
      • To Tripod or not:  I would take a tripod, but get a travel model that is just stable enough to handle your gear yet is compact.  Lightweight is not as crucial as compactness.  If you are a serious wildlife photographer or are very serious about your landscapes and low-light photography, a bigger, more solid tripod is necessary.  But for great sunsets and long-exposures of waterfalls, the stars, etc., even a compact tripod will greatly improve your pictures.  If you’re going to be doing mostly city and people shots, a tripod is probably not necessary.
Proof that it's better to be lucky than good: Too cheap to hire a guide, just before sunset I ran into this herd of cape buffalo in Zambia.

Proof that it’s better to be lucky than good: Too cheap to hire a guide, I ran into this herd of cape buffalo in Zambia just before the sun set.  Canon 100-400 mm. lens at 360 mm.  1/50 sec. @ f/5.6, hand-held.

      • Camera Bag:  Take a camera backpack or shoulder bag that is really comfortable.  Test it out.  Don’t get something you heard was great and then use it for the first time on the way to your gate.  Make sure it’s the right size and usable.  Don’t get something so small that it will be stuffed to the gills once it’s loaded.  Best to have a little extra room; it’s easier to use that way.  See below for carry-on size considerations.
      • Integrating with other Luggage:  You can get a camera bag with rollers, a godsend if you have heavy gear.  But if your main luggage case has rollers, it could get awkward.  I like to be able to handle all my bags myself without a cart.  So I go with a rolling backpack for my main luggage and wear my camera pack on my back.  You could do the reverse of course.  I use a little sling bag for my mini-laptop, guidebook, water bottle, snacks, etc.  I like having the backpack option for my main luggage in case I need to schlep everything all at once over rough ground.  I can wear my main luggage on my back while the camera backpack goes on my front  and the sling bag strangles me!  A real beast of burden situation but it works.
While visiting the Redwoods in California, I found it a little hard to get pictures that didn't just look like a bunch of trees.  So I started experimenting with point of view, here placing the camera very low over a huge down log.

While visiting the Redwoods, I found it hard to get shots that didn’t look like just a bunch of trees. So I started experimenting with point of view, here placing the camera very low over a huge down log.  Canon 15 mm. fisheye lens, 1.0 sec. @ f/11.

      • Carry-on Size:  Realize that most of the time, airlines will give you the benefit of the doubt on the size of your carry-on if it doesn’t look big.  (By the way, your camera gear should always always go with you as a carry-on.)  Feel free, if necessary, to buy a bag right up to the limit for carry-on size.  And if it’s under the limit in one dimension, it can generally be a little over in another dimension.  My experience with airlines is they don’t like a big boxy carry-on.  If you get a bag that is relatively slim and/or narrow, it can be several inches longer than their maximum length.
      • Security:  While it is rare, unfortunately your gear is vulnerable to being stolen by those who have gone to the dark side.  Try your best to keep it on your person at all times.  If you must leave it in your room, use either a safe  (if it’s small enough) or get a Pacsafe locking net bag.  These enclose your camera bag and then lock to something permanent with a padlock.  You can get these steel-cored net bags in several sizes.  If your room has a cabinet, put your locked camera bag in there and lock the cabinet with a small travel padlock.  I’ve often left my gear secured in the office, but I always chat up and befriend (i.e. tip) the proprietors first.
It's fun when traveling to visit places from favorite novels, such as here at Cannery Row in Monterey, California.  Hello John Steinbeck!

It’s fun when traveling to visit places from favorite novels, such as here at Cannery Row in Monterey, California. Hello John Steinbeck!  Zeiss 50 mm. f/1.4 lens, 1/200 sec. @ f/11.

      • Security II:  I tend to have more trust in some countries than in others, and it varies a lot within each country.  I trust places with a lot of other tourists the least, since your fellow travelers are definitely potential thieves plus local thieves will target those areas.  I trust Latin America much less than I trust the Buddhist countries of south Asia.  (Not that I think Catholics are more prone to thievery!)  In the U.S., I don’t trust cities as much as rural areas.  It all comes down to common sense of course.  The upshot is theft can happen whether you take precautions or not.  Home-owner’s or renter’s insurance that covers your gear when traveling can be a lifesaver.  I had a policy that paid me $16,000, the value of all my stuff when it was stolen in Nicaragua.

That’s it for this first part.  It gets more fun when we move to actual travel in Part II next Friday.  If you’re interested in any of these images just click on them for pricing options on the high-res. versions.  They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for tuning in to Friday Foto Talk!

The sun goes down on the idyllic island of Roatan in Honduras.

The sun goes down on the idyllic island of Roatan in Honduras.  Canon 70-200 mm. lens at 160 mm., 1/30 sec. @ f/11, hand-held.

Friday Foto Talk: Does the Camera Matter?   5 comments

This shot of the Columbia River in Washington under morning light was made with a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 24-105 f/4L IS lens.

This shot of the Columbia River in Washington under morning light was made with a Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 24-105 f/4L IS lens.

I normally try to stay away from talk of gear.  This is the only day of the week in which I ever blog strictly about photography matters, but even here I stay away from gear reviews and the like.  Last Friday I looked at how water and your camera get along (or not!).  I suppose I dipped my toe into the gear waters when I did that.  So today I’m going to go in a little deeper.  But don’t worry, I’m not about to sell out.  I’ll keep it gear-neutral, and you won’t see any cheerleading.

I’ve been a Canon user since I switched to digital.  Nothing against Nikon, Sony, etc. of course.  I simply looked at the lens lineup, cost of a good camera to begin with, and went for it.  It happened that Canon’s 5D Mark II was the best value at the time I was purchasing, and Canon’s lens choice seemed a tad better than Nikon’s.  I shot Nikon film cameras, and could easily switch if a compelling reason came up.

Phantom Ship is a rock island sticking up in one corner of Oregon's Crater Lake.

Phantom Ship is a rock island sticking up in one corner of Oregon’s Crater Lake.

After I purchased the 5D Mark II I did not want to spend a lot more right away.  So I bought a Sigma lens with it, then a couple cheaper Canon lenses.  I wasn’t happy with the quality, in general.  So it wasn’t long before I took the plunge and bought a few Canon L lenses.  I also bought a Canon 50D as a backup, then a zoom lens that is specific to that camera type (crop-frame).

Through all this, I learned one important lesson: Next to the photographer and subject/light, the lens (not the camera) makes the most difference to the quality of image you get.  The camera does matter, don’t get me wrong.  I used a super-zoom point and shoot camera for some years when I was not seriously into photography.  Although the colors were okay, the images tended to be plagued by digital noise.  Noise tends to reduce clarity and make colors look unnatural.  Essentially, noise can ruin an image.  In general, the more expensive the camera, and the larger its sensor, the better it handles noise.

A viewing platform hanging over the lip of Multnomah Falls in Oregon is not for those afraid of heights.

A viewing platform hanging over the lip of Multnomah Falls in Oregon is not for those afraid of heights.

There are plenty of other reasons to get a nicer camera.  Ergonomics is important.  The way the camera feels in your hands and how easy it is to reach and naturally operate the controls is a factor, but depending on how outside the norm the size of your hands are, it’s my experience that you get used to whatever you use.  More important for me is a viewfinder that you can put your eye up to.  I have a point and shoot and use it when I’m in situations where the only camera I want to have needs to fit into my pocket.  This little camera (a Canon S95) handles noise amazingly well for its small sensor size, but I will never like using a screen to take a picture.  I just can’t compose as well.

A great pyrenees (Pyrenean mountain dog) appears to be having trouble staying awake.

A great pyrenees (Pyrenean mountain dog) appears to be having trouble staying awake.

One reason I don’t think is a good one to consider when shopping for a camera is the brand’s “cachet” or name recognition.  Nobody wants to admit they pay attention to this kind of stuff, but deep down we all know we do.  When I’m around other photographers, I’ve noticed other Canon shooters are more likely to strike up a conversation with me than are folks with other brands.  Silly huh?  I know one thing for sure.  If I had the money to go out and buy a Canon 1Dx, or a Nikon D4 (the two full-pro models), I might feel pretty cool around most other photographers.  But there will come that moment when somebody with a Hasselblad H5D (40K) or a similarly priced Leica S with fancy lens will show up.  Then what do you do?  It’s keeping up with the Joneses, a game you can’t win.

A red-winged blackbird sings in an eastern Oregon marsh.

A red-winged blackbird sings in an eastern Oregon marsh.

So back to the question: does the camera matter?  The short answer is yes but not as much as most think.  Glass (lenses) is always more important to the quality of your images, as is your overall skill and comfort with the camera.  The best camera is the one you have with you when you are presented with perfect light and subject.  This is an old truism that will always hold.

All of that said, today I have on the way a brand new Canon 5D Mark III.  I pulled the trigger yesterday and took advantage of a free one-day shipping offer.  It will replace my beloved 5D Mark II, which took a bad fall and bath last week.  That camera is at Canon’s repair, and will be fixed, but not cheaply!  Now I have 3 DSLRs and need to sell one.  My previous backup, the 50D, might be the one to go.  But that camera has given me nothing but sterling service for 3 years and is still going strong.  I might instead sell the 5D Mark II.  I’m not really sure.

Fairy Falls in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge appears to glow in sunlight diffused by the deep forest.

Fairy Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge appears to glow in sunlight diffused by the deep forest.  This was captured with my Canon 5D Mark II and Tokina 16-28 mm. f/2.8 wide-angle zoom.

The Mark II is a full-frame camera with video while the 50D is a crop-frame without video.  The Mark II is a 21 MP camera while the 50D is a 15 MP camera.  But you have more reach with a crop-frame (it basically gives you extra zoom capability), nice to have when your main camera (in my case a 5D Mark III) is a full-frame.  I think most people would sell the crop-frame and keep the Mark II as a backup.  But for me it isn’t so simple and I haven’t made up my mind yet.  So feel free to give me your opinion if you have one.  Let me know if you are in the market and are interested in either camera.  Maybe you can help me make up my mind.

Have fun shooting!  I’ll post pictures from my new camera soon.

This image of a fisherman beneath Crown Point in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge was captured with my Canon 50D plus Canon EF-S 17-55 mm. f/2.8 IS lens.  Not bad for a backup!

This image of a fisherman beneath Crown Point in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge was captured with my Canon 50D + Canon EF-S 17-55 mm. f/2.8 IS lens. Not bad for a backup!

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