Thursday, October 31, 2013

Camera equipment

Vermillion Cliffs

Joshua Tree
We wanted to document the journey we were about to undertake. Being keen photographers means we took quite bit of photography gear with us. The first thing we therefore looked at was safety. 'How do we make sure that the equipment doesn't get stolen?' 'How do we prevent the photos from being stolen?' The answer to both was simple: Holan panniers! They are more difficult to break into than the average car and we will never leave the motorbikes unattended with our gear on it. Next thing we looked at was which camera?

Tequila, Mexico
We had a bit of an unusual situation. First of all I didn't have a digital camera before we left(!) Yes I know, I'm old fashioned. Our son had just a simple point and shoot but wants to go to the photo and film academy after this trip to become a photographer and cinematographer. In short we felt he needed something more than a point and shoot to develop his skills.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Jasper, Canada
This brings me to the main 3 different types of cameras available. The point and shoot, the point and shoot plus zoom and the SLR. Which type suits you best depends on what you want to do with it. There are hundreds of different types/models available in each type and new ones seem to pop up overnight so I won't go into detail here on each and every model available. There are salesmen all over the world that can do that a lot better than I can. 

Worthington glacier, Alaska
Point and shoot
Small cameras that, under ideal circumstances, can work quite well. They are easy to use, cheap to buy and take up little space. Being easy to use is partly because of the limited possibilities they have. No options for manual exposure or any other form of manual settings possible. If you just want to be able to make a quick snapshot as a memento and don't want to be bothered with settings and options then this might be the best camera for you.

Point and shoot Plus
There are actually 3 types of cameras in this segment. The Point and shoot plus a zoom lens, the point and shoot plus a super zoom lens and the more advanced point and shoot. I put them all under the same category as in my humble opinion they are basically all point and shoots with extras. I'm personally not a fan of the super zooms. Having 40x zoom may look handy but the image quality suffers and motion blur becomes a serious issue on long focal lengths. To me they don't make much sense and it's interesting to note that both Canon and Nikon's top of the range in this segment do not have the super zoom lenses. The higher priced models in this segment make quite good photos and most have quite good video options too. There are options for manual control on most to compensate for specific light conditions.

SLR (Single Lens Reflex)
You'd think they could come up with a somewhat more pronounceable name than Single Lens Reflex, but apparently not. Many decades ago we had cameras with two lenses, one that took the photo and one that showed what we were photographing on a focussing screen, see example. I had two of those and the photo quality was outstanding as they record their image on large format film, or to put it in modern language: the chip size was just over 57x57mm. The invention of the SLR camera made the twin-eye obsolete. The same lens that took the photo was now also used to project an image, via a mirror, on our focussing screen. The mirror quickly moves out of the way when we want to take the photo, to allow the lens to project an image on the film (or now image sensor). After exposure, the mirror returns to it's former position. The word 'Reflex' in SLR refers to the movement of the mirror. 

Jasper, Canada
Cameras in this segment have interchangeable lenses and full manual control. They come in two images sensor sizes, APS-C and Full size. Obviously the bigger the sensor size, the better the quality. The prices between the two differ enormously and lenses for the full frame sensors are much more expensive too. Consideration should be given to the range of lenses available, as switching to a different brand of camera at a later stage will be very costly as lenses are not interchangeable between different brands.

Beartooth Pass, Montana
Aad's Pentax K30
I wanted just a camera. I don't want a computer with a lens on it that has more so called handy features and settings than a PlayStation. I just wanted a camera like they used to be but then digital. A camera where I would pay for the image quality, not for the gizmos I don't need. Both Nikon and Canon didn't offer me that, unless I wanted to pay an absolute fortune for the camera body alone. Another problem I saw with Canon is that their image processor 'doctors' too much on the images, making them unrealistic.
Mt. Cook, South Island, New Zealand

Ideally this would be the camera of my choice,
if I had the time required to make photos this
way and if I had a trailer behind the bike...
Mouraki Boulders, NZ
After a lot of reading, looking at images and deliberations I chose the Pentax K-30. I feel it's a photographers' camera without all the gizmos that come with other models. The image quality is, according to all tests, comparable with much more expensive offerings from Nikon and it doesn't have an array of utterly small knobs and buttons. It's made for real hands, not little Japanese ones. The camera is also water and dust proof, which to me is more important than all the bells and whistles the competition offers.

Dunedin, New Zealand
I've made over 40.000 photos with the Pentax K-30 so far and I'm happy with my purchase. Very happy!
The image quality is great, it's easy to use and
ruggedly build. It 'lives' in my tank bag and with the roads we take it gets a real beating but handles it all. We've had everything from soaking wet to stinking hot, freezing cold and extreme dust. As the Pentax is weatherproof and extremely ruggedly built, it's the camera we use for shots under difficult circumstances. The pictures it delivers are top quality, especially under low light conditions it absolutely shines! The only two 'negatives' I can find are the screen, which is too high in contrast, and it's noisy. The noise is simply the reflex of the mirror, but it makes photographing people and animals more difficult.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Mike's Nikon 5100
Mike was looking at it from a different perspective. He's into macro photography, different angles (sometimes really weird ones too…) and chases wildlife for hours, just for that one perfect shot. He wanted a fast camera and a quiet one. He also wanted a adjustable screen. He didn't like the Canon images either and opted for a Nikon 5100. He's happy with his choice and has made well over 30.000 shots already without any problems. The Nikon is a good camera that suits him well, and the screen is very handy indeed. It does make it more vulnerable though.

Arches, Utah, USA
Which lens
Lenses are just as important as the camera itself. A wide zoom range is nice but generally speaking the longer the zoom range, the lower the image quality. If that wasn't the case we would all have 10-3000 zooms. Zoom lenses are always a compromise. Prime lenses still offer the best quality as they are optimised for that one focal length, but aren't the most logical choice when travelling. I started with the standard 18-55 and 55-300 zooms from Pentax. A big mistake. Not because of the lens quality, there is nothing wrong with that. It's the continuous lens changes in dusty conditions that caused a continuous battle with dust on the sensor. The reason I didn't buy the more logical Pentax 18-135 in the first place was the extremely negative test report in Photozine. 

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
A lively debate on various forums and webpages followed. Opinions are of course personal views but the hundreds of photos which appeared all over the web taken with this lens, proved just how good it is. Having had the 18-135 lens for a while now, and seen the high quality ad extremely sharp images it produces, makes me wonder what they were testing in Germany. It's a great lens, solidly build, weather resistant and a pleasure to use.

Las Vegas, USA
For the Nikon we opted for the 18-105 lens. The image quality is good and it focusses very fast, which makes it easier to following a moving object. The only downside I have found so far is that there doesn't seem to be a good digital lens correction filter for it in Photoshop. The digital filter available from Pentax is brilliant. The digital lens filter 'takes care' of vignetting and lens distortion. The Nikon 18-105 and the Pentax 18-135 are both almost ideal travel lenses. More zoom and a wider angle would be nice but image quality would suffer. Both have UV filters mounted to them, mainly to protect the lenses.

Recording video on a photo camera
Our two SLRs have the option to record video too. In general it works great, under low light conditions they work even better than the JVC video camera we have as well. There are a few things to consider though. Essentially they are still photo cameras, which means they don't keep in focus when you zoom. The continuous focus option doesn't work when shooting video on either of our SLRs. They also do not have power zooms, so unless you are extremely smooth in your hand movement, zooming is out. We've also noted that using the SLRs as video cameras uses a lot of battery power. The recent video recording we did of a 3 hour concert (too big to upload to Youtube, sorry) drained both the batteries even though we turned the brightness of the screens completely down. You will also need high speed memory cards to be able to do HD video. 

Arizona, USA
La Penita, Mexico
A tripod is looked upon as old fashioned. The old wooden camera's needed them but in today's world they are seen as unnecessary, especially by the brigade that point their smartphones out of the window while driving. Under perfect light conditions and with wide angle or standard lenses you may not need a tripod. For longer focal lengths and longer exposure times it's a very different story. I have a reasonably stable hand but 150 mm and over will still be sharper when I use a tripod. We have also made night shots that required exposure times of several minutes, which are pretty much impossible to do without a tripod.

As space is limited we chose a small tripod from Slik, the Slik Mini. It has it's limitations, being lightweight for instance means it's not much use under windy conditions, but it's a gem to use otherwise. It's made from aluminium and a lot sturdier than most plastic offerings. Although only three years old when I write this it has been used so often and bounced around on so many terrible roads that we're impressed with the quality.

Yellowstone, Wyoming, USA
Jasper, Canada
Batteries and chargers
Something we didn't need before digital cameras are batteries. The Pentax 67 had one battery for the exposure metering unit but as I didn't use that much, it wasn't a problem for the battery to run out. My exposure meter was a Sekonic that uses a solar cell which doesn't need a battery. Now, with digital cameras, the battery is vital. We have two batteries for each camera, and as they all use different batteries… we have 3 different battery chargers that all operate on 12V so we can charge them on the motorcycles. Each camera came with it's own battery, the second battery for each and the 12V chargers came from online battery specialists which sell them for $10,- instead of $50 or $70 each. The cheap batteries work just as well as the 'factory' ones, in fact one of them works even better.
If we have the luxury of a powered campsite then a 12V power supply from a portable fridge supplies all the battery chargers with power. Oh and do bring a soldering iron to re-solder the connections on the printed circuit boards of the chargers when you travel 'roads' like we do… all, yes all(!) of them have failed us and had to be re-soldered to get them working again. We have a gas operated one as they are smaller, power independent and work very well.

Arches, Utah, USA
What is missing?
What would we bring next time? What is missing from what we have with us now? The first thing I'd say is something like Gorilla Pods. They can clamp on just about anything and would allow us to take shots we simply can't do at the moment. The other would be more portable HDs to store and backup them on… We do have a backup of everything thanks to Apple's marvellous TimeMachine, but we should have taken more spare disks as well as they do fail. It would be great to be able to send photos home, or to a cloud server, via the web. Just as an extra precaution against theft. With current mobile internet speeds and the ridiculous prices charged by phone companies for a signal, that's not yet possible with the several hundreds of gigabytes in photos and video we have taken so far. We'd also bring a digital audio recorder next time to record audio independently from the cameras.

Las Vegas, USA