April 3, 2012

Cameras for Cruising - Technical boring post

Evan here.  As the more technically minded of our family I thought I'd contribute a few thoughts on cameras for current and prospective cruisers.  We currently (at last count) have 6 cameras and 1 video camera aboard.  And sometimes I think that's barely enough. Seriously, we do take a lot of photographs because of Diane's work as a writer. Good photos really can help sell a story - but they do a nice job of illustrating a blog as well.

What do we have aboard, and why?  Let's start with the big guns, the Digital SLRs or DSLRs.

  • Canon 7D
  • Canon 20D
Why do we shoot with a DSLR? Better pictures. Now a great photographer can make great photographs with a lousy camera - but most of us aren't great photographers. A DSLR can help the less photographically challenged among us achieve better results.  However, my pet peeve is when somebody looks at a particularly nice photo I have taken and says "Wow, great photograph. You must have a great camera."  To which I usually reply rather sarcastically "Yeah, and Hemingway had this awesome typewriter...".  Off the soapbox.  DSLRs do offer a range of benefits:

- shallow depth of field
- more accurate and faster autofocus
- much better low light (high ISO) performance
- faster frame rates
- better viewing in challenging lighting (dark or bright sun)
- a range of lenses to allow wider views or more reach than a typical point and shoot

Why do we have 2 DSLRs?  Simple - one is a backup. When you're shooting for money, you can't tell that Tahitian Ukele Maker that the camera is busted and we'll have to come back another time. You bring two bodies, each with a suitable lens.

Our newer 7D has a host of benefits over it's older sibling, but amazing autofocus (helped me get this shot: Maia and the dolphin ) and high ISO performance are two ones that really are most apparent. We did save a lot of money by not upgrading every generation (the 20D is about 4 generations removed from the current 60D, it's closest relative)

Right, on to lenses. Our lens collection cost more than the 2 bodies put together. Which is how it should be. An old photography truism is "spend money on glass". And have we ever. Here's our lens collection and why we have it.
  • 17-55 F2.8 IS. This is a fast (F2.8 is fast for a zoom) walkabout zoom with typical focal lengths for a cropped sensor DSLR. The IS means it has image stabilizing, so it can be hand held at slow shutter speeds than normal. It's also quite heavy and expensive - about $1000 or so. But it is sharp throughout it's range and I shoot with it wide open without hesitation.
  • 18-55 F3.5-F5.6 IS.  Covering nearly the same focal range, this is the cheap backup, about $150, or 1/8 of the super duper lens. We were very happy to have it when the expensive zoom seized up 1/2 way across the Pacific. And it's nice light weight means its a great hiking lens when you don't want to carry a lot of weight. Stopped down to F8, it produces sharp images, but shoot it wide open and you see it's nowhere near as crisp as the big brother. This is the type of lens most people get when they buy a kit, and they don't know what they are missing if they never step up to a better lens. There are mid-priced zooms for ~$500-700 that offer 90% of the performance of the expensive zooms for example. In the Canon range you would be better of with a 17-85 F3.5 - F5.6 or 15-85 these days

  • 24-85 F3.5-F4.5 (This is mostly a legacy lens from film days - but I was happy to have it when Di went camping last weekend and I needed something semi-wide to shoot some dinghy accessories for a story).  In 35mm film days this was a great lens, but on a cropped sensor DSLR it's not very wide (38-135mm equivalent)

  • 50mm F1.8 This is the super shallow depth of field portrait lens. Everybody with a DSLR should consider a prime (non-zoom) lens with a wide apeture. They are relatively cheap (about $100-250) and offer a lot of creative effects with selective focus. Also brilliant in low light.  F1.8 is 2 stops faster than the cheap zoom F3.5. 2 stops faster is FOUR times the light getting in. (You can also consider a 24/2.8 or 35/2 or a 28/1.8)
  • 70-200 F4 L.  You need a telephoto. Why have a DSLR and only have 1 lens? This is a particulary super sharp telephoto in the Canon family. Much better than the 70-300 cheap and slow version. But if you have to economize a telephoto is probably a good area to do so - probably less than 10% of our photos are shot with this lens. If you are an avid nature photographer (birds, whales, etc) you can't have enough focal length.
  • 1.4x Extender.  So you buy an extender. This attaches to the telephoto lens to give 280mm focal length or 420mm equivalent in 35mm film terms. Which is a lot of reach really. Note - most extenders do not work well (or won't physically fit) on the cheaper lenses. You're better off with just the plain cheap 70-300 telephoto. Get one with image stabilization.
  • I'm currently jonesing for a 10-22 super wide angle. Di probably won't read this far down so don't mention it to her. I'll rent one for a day or two and see if I really need one.
What brand? Canon or Nikon would be my usual recommendation unless you have a bunch of Pentax lenses from the film days. They offer the best range, best repair support, and if you're in a moderate size city, you can usually rent Canon or Nikon lenses and flashes easily for a day or so for that special occasion when your lens dies. Generally I've found that you can sell used lenses for only slight depreciation if bought new and same price if bought used. We used to have a macro lens that we just didn't use. So I sold it for what I paid for it. Don't keep a lens you're not using - boats are too small!

Now that I have made my long winded post for why you want a DSLR, let's consider the compacts. We have 3 point and shoots of various vintages.

One was the first digital camera Diane got for a Chrismas present many years ago. It's still working mostly fine but it's nominally Maia's.

Two is a cheap Canon A-series I found in a parking lot. Again, works fine, nothing special.

Three is another Canon P&S. We bought this used because it came with a full underwater housing. We really like having a camera with underwater capabilities. So much of our memories of crossing the Pacific are entwined with snorkeling among the amazing sea life.

Friends who have 'ruggedized' point and shoots that are good for 10' or 15' of depth did find they sometimes flooded when snorkeling just that much deeper. So beware if you use those types - they also seem to have a fairly high failure rate in consumer blogs.

But you need a point and shoot or two - for those days you're carrying a lot of groceries in the market a big camera is too much, or you're trying to be discrete. Or just a backup to the DSLR should it fail.

I'm not a big fan of the current crop of 'smaller sensor' interchangeable lens cameras. They have a limited lens range, and really aren't that much smaller than the smaller DSLRs. And they tend to be similarly priced. They also usually use electronic viewfinders instead of looking through a glass prism - which are not as nice.

If you think a DSLR and lenses are too expensive and bulky, consider the higher end P&S like the Canon G12 or Nikon P7100 - the 'enthusiast' level P&S.  Of the Pansonic Lumix series. Anything with a fast F2.8 or faster lens.

Don't forget some accessories:
  • Velbon Tripod - with a quick release plate (you can't believe how much better using a tripod with a QR plate is compared to doing without). Not often used, but vital when you need long exposures, like sea turtles crawling up the beach at midnight - seriously
  • Gorillapod - the mini portable travel tripod
  • Canon 430EZ flash
  • a big Pelican case to keep them dry and safe from tropical humidity. And to avoid lens fungus. Throw in some silica gel to keep it dry inside.
  • drybags for shore excursions
  • photo management and processing software. We use Lightroom. It's very good.  Apeture is somewhat similar.
Please please back up your photos regularly. If you have friends flying to visit you, buy a big portable hard drive, copy everything to it, and have them take it for safekeeping. Having multiple backups in physically separate locations is always prudent.

Oh, yeah I did say 6 cameras didn't I? #6 is the one in my iPhone.  Happy picture taking.


NatGeoWannaBe said...

The 10-22 is a pretty sweet lens. I use it with our Canon Xti (as well as the 50mm 1.8, 70-200mm 2.8 is usm, and the kit lens).

Highly recommend checking it out.

Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat said...

No! No more lenses--says Diane. He has to use up the ones he's got. If I can't have more shoes...