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Point and Shoot Cameras

Many people are more concerned with finding a camera that will be easy to carry and take good pictures – whether it be happy snaps of family and friends or good quality travel pictures – than finding a camera with a thousand functions they will hardly, if ever, use.   This article is for you…

The major features you should be concerned with are:

  1. FX, DX or APS-C digital capture sensor. This simply refers to the size of the digital sensor in the camera.  A FX sensor is a full frame sensor – something that is very rare in point and shoot cameras and refers to more of a what you see is what you get approach.  The FX sensor is still very expensive and is generally only found in upper level professional cameras. The DX and APS-C sensors are smaller digital sensors  that do a very good job of capturing images. They are somewhere between ½ and ¾ the size of the FX sensor. The smaller sensors can go into more compact, lighter weight cameras.  The quality of DX and APS-C sensors is very comparable, so either one really works well for our purposes.  Since they are smaller versions of the FX sensor, you are still getting high quality digital captures.  Things to look for in your digital sensor are the color depth level  (8-bit, 10-bit, 12-bit, 14-bit or 16-bit), the higher the color bit level the better the color the camera produces, and ASA/ISO settings. The range of ASA/ISO or light sensitivity settings is a bet to let you know the quality level of the sensor. The best color is going to come from lower settings such as 100, 200 or 400 and the low light pictures will probably come from 800, 1600 or 3200 settings. Please note that grain and noise will increase as the ASA/ISO settings are increased.
  2. A good quality lens – preferably a glass or optical zoom lens. Some lenses are better than others and the quality characteristics are defined by the quality and clarity of the glass, lens coatings (to prevent glare and provide natural color) and aperture settings (the lower the aperture setting the more light can be captured).  Newer lenses are coming with Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization built in, which is a great feature to allow hand holding the camera in lower light or fast moving situations without getting camera shake.
  3. A good preview (LCD or LED screen on the back of the camera). Most point and shoot cameras are now operated at a distance with people looking at the screen on the back of the camera when they compose and take the picture.  A good quality screen that you can see is a must.  Most cameras are coming with 2.5 to 3.5 inch screens that offer an image you can still see well in bright sunlight.
  4. MegaPixels (size of the image it produces). A common misnomer is that the more pixels you have in the image, the better the image will be. This is only true if you want very large prints. A bad picture is still a bad picture, having it larger only makes it worse. A good quality 8×10 print can be made from 8 Megapixels.  Most people will not print their photographs on paper larger than 8.5 x 11 inch (letter size) paper so the 8 megapixel (or anything above) quality should be fine.  The more pixels (or Megapixels) you have the better the printed enlargements. All the cameras will produce a good image on your computer screen, it is the final print size that will dictate how many megapixels you need to look for when shopping fora camera.
  5. Format of the pictures. This refers to the digital format the camera generates and saves. Most cameras now offer (in order of quality) RAW, TIFF and JPEG.  If you see Fine, Normal and Small, these generally refer to the size of a JPEG file. If the camera will allow you to shoot both RAW and JPEG at the same time it is usually a good camera.  A quick word on RAW files… RAW simply stands for unprocessed file – so it really has no good viewing format other than the camera manufacturer’s software or Adobe viewing software. Unfortunately each camera manufacturer produces its own version of a RAW file – Nikon uses NEF, Canon uses CR2/CR3, Hasselblad uses FFF or triple F (a carryover from Imacon).  The value of a RAW file is that it can be manipulated and output to multiple file formats at various sizes without affecting the original captured image. Think of a RAW file as the digital equivalent of negatives.  JPEG files are the least quality files because they are compressed files, they are literally shrunk to be made smaller. JPEG files are also limited to 8-bit color maximum.  Every time you save a JPEG file it is recompressed and looses a little bit of information.  The JPEG or JPG file format was created to use less bandwidth when transmitting files over radio and Internet connections. It is a great way to share files and is the smallest supported format (so you will get more pictures on your flash card), but is the lowest quality file your camera will support.
  6. The ability to use at least some manual settings. There is a reason manual functions exist. We know that most people are lazy and if there is an automatic or program mode we will probably use it. In many instances pictures could be improved by using at least one manual function – being able to change the shutter speed to either stop action, prevent camera shake or to intentionally show motion; being able to change the aperture to get more depth-of-field (more in focus) so both the foreground and background are in focus for landscapes, or less depth-of-field for portraits to separate the person from the background.  Setting the ISO/ASA manually is a benefit in many circumstances when you know what you want the end result to be.  And the ability to turn off the automatic flash can be a picture saver in itself.
  7. Light Meter Settings – Most modern cameras come with two or three different light meters. These meters are very accurate compared to the meters we had 10 or 20 years ago. There are reasons to use the various light meters and having the choice between them is a feature I really like. The choices are generally Averaging or Evaluative (sometimes called Matrix or Honeycomb) metering where it takes many light readings within the scene and recommends or sets the proper exposure, Center Weighted Metering (where the camera only reads the light in the center 30% to 40% of the frame) or Spot Metering (where the meter only reads a 1% to 5% spot in the center of the frame).
  8. Tripod Socket – most cameras come with a tripod socket on the bottom. It will look similar to a screw hole, because that is how it is used – by screwing the tripod or tripod plate to the camera body.
  9. Flash Memory and Batteries – Please make sure to check what type of batteries your camera takes and make sure you get a second battery if you are going to shoot many pictures. And don’t forget that picture taking is contagious, so make sure you get at least two large fast flash cards for your camera.  I highly recommend 4 Gig. flash cards that are at least 133x in speed – some go over 400+x in terms of speed, but that may be overkill for a budget camera.  Check to see if your camera support Compact Flash or SD Flash before you buy.  Download our pictures to your computer hard drive and back them up regularly. I also promote Adobe Lightroom as a viewing, editing and organizational tool.
  10. One last thought is to go to your local retail store – WalMart, Best Buy, Fry’s, Ritz, Showcase, etc. and physically hold the camera(s). Make sure it conforms to your hand and that you can easily access the features you want or need.  Test several cameras to make sure you are getting the right one.

Recommended Cameras include:

Canon PowerShot G Series – currently the G10

Canon PowerShot SX series (several models)

Canon PowerShot A2100 IS

Nikon CoolPix P Series

Nikon CoolPix S series

Nikon CoolPix L100

Olympus Stylus 9000 Series

Olympus Stylus 7000 Series

Olympus E-P1 (pricy, but a beautiful mix of SLR and Point and Shoot features)

Kodak Z Series Cameras

Sony CyberShot HX1

Sony CyberShot H20

DSLR Cameras – Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras

Cameras come in different varieties, mostly separated into three categories:

1. Consumer (Basic) to Advanced Amateur – Lightweight, easy to use with a lot of automatic modes and can be found at nearly any store that sells cameras. They are very often all in one cameras (often referred to as point and shoot cameras) and low end Digital SLRs (single lens reflex cameras that offer the option of interchangeable lenses). The price range is generally $150 to $1000+ depending on the feature set. If you are a photography student on a budget or have a serious photographic bug to itch and don’t want to go broke then you should consider one of the following higher end consumer cameras: Nikon D90 (12.3 megapixels), Canon Digital Rebel T1i (15.1 megapixels), Canon XSi (12.2 megapixels), Nikon D5000 (12.3 megapixels) or Canon 50D (15.1 megapixels). The reason I am only recommending Canon and Nikon is because most serious photographers gravitate that way to be able to rent additional equipment or accessories and swap or borrow each others equipment. All of the recommend cameras shoot in camera RAW and JPEG mode for the most flexibility and highest quality files. Canon and Nikon cameras can also be serviced at most camera repair outlets in the world, not just the US… they are the two 800 pound gorillas in the photographic world.

There are literally hundreds of consumer cameras produced by many manfacturers and it would take too much time to try to choose the best cameras for personal vacations or family pictures on the consumer level, but I would base my decisions on several factors – ease of use, quality output, accessories, and availability of supplies (type of batteries, memory and/or film the camera uses).  There is a separate article on Point and Shoot Cameras.

2. Prosumer and Advanced Amateur – These cameras are a substantial step up from the typical consumer based cameras. Most prosumer cameras are SLRs and since 2006 most of them are Digital SLRs. These cameras have a majority of the functions offered to professionals and only a slightly less durable build. The price for entry is fairly high, because the camera body comes by itself and most accessories have to be bought separately (i.e. lenses, flash, compact flash cards, etc.). Prosumer cameras are very good options for professionals as a second or backup body and for advanced amateurs, higher level photography students and those who find professional equipment cost prohibitive. The cost is usually in the $1,500 to $3,500 range. The most common Prosumer cameras are the Nikon D700 (12.1 megapixels, full frame sensor), Nikon D300 (12.3 megapixels, smaller DX sensor) and the Canon 5D Mark II (an amazing 21.1 megapixels in a full frame sensor), are outstanding cameras.

3. Professional – High end Digital SLR cameras with automatic functions, manual over ride modes, fast automatic focusing, high burst rates (continuous frames per second), heavy and/or durable construction build (which leads to physically heavy cameras), wireless file transfer to computers, etc. another differientating factor is that all these cameras have a full frame sensor. The price for a professional digital SLR is generally $3,000 to $8,000. The leaders in this category are the Nikon D3X (24.5 megapixels), Nikon D3 (fast 12.3 megapixels), Canon 1DS Mark III (21.1 megapixels) and the Canon 5D Mark II (21.1 megapixels at a very reasonable price – yes it does overlap in the Prosumer and Professional categories). Canon has an edge in the professional market at the moment because Nikon let their professional customer service go down over several years (they have seen the light and brought it back) and Canon beat them to market with higher megapixel digital cameras that had great image quality. All these cameras are excellent and each has their strong points. Currently Canon has a price advantage in the professional category.

Professional cameras are going to fall into other categories as well, the most common being medium format, large format or view cameras and panoramic cameras. Most of these are not suited to the typical traveler.If you have questions on these cameras please do not hesitate to contact me and I’ll help point you in the right direction(s).

The current race is no longer centered on megapixels, although image size and pixel density continue to be a factor, the ability to use very low or very high ISO/ASA settings, color quality (more natural colors) and lack of noise (especially in longer exposures; such as night photography, low light conditions and sporting events) are where most of the research and development is headed.

When you purchase digital cameras please take note on how they are packaged. Most SLR cameras are sold as a body only. All accessories must be purchased separately.

A camera is only as good as its lenses. Lenses make a tremendous difference in image quality. Lenses can help you focus (auto focus or larger apertures to allow more light through the lens for focusing), can maintain or decrease contrast (due to higher quality glass or special glass elements), can control color through their coatings, can provide stability in shaky conditions (via the vibration reduction or image stabilization feature), etc.

Accessories include:

1. Lenses – I have a collection of lenses, each used for different purposes, and always carry a variety of lenses in my bag. I recommend three lenses, some people carry less, others carry more.

a. Wide Angle (18mm, 20mm, 24mm or a zoom such as a 17-35mm or similar) – officially anything below 43mm.
b. Normal (35mm, 50mm or a zoom such as a 28mm-70mm)
c. Telephoto (longer lenses… 135mm, 150mm, 180mm, 200mm, 300mm, 70mm-200mm zoom, 80mm-400mm zoom).

Everything in photography is expensive, but the camera body and the lenses are the most important parts of the equation. The quality and speed of the lens is reflected in the price. f/2.8 lenses are very good. Some standard lenses go below the magic f/2.8 number, but zoom lenses rarely do. You actually get what you pay for in glass, it is one of the few places where a little extra money makes a big difference in the final product.

2. Flash – not a pop up flash, but one that can be mounted on top of the camera in the hot shoe, on the side of the camera or used off camera. Canon and Nikon both make excellent flashes. A good flash can cost $200 to $400+. An internal camera flash is good for very short range photographs, mainly portraits and pictures less than ten feet from the camera. I recommend a top mounted flash or off camera flash to get more power and the ability to bounce it off walls or ceilings for a more muted or diffused natural looking light.

3. Compact Flash Cards, SD Memory Cards or other camera memory Cards – plenty of space for your digital pictures. I recommend nothing smaller than two gig. high speed memory cards. Most of the cameras above use compact flash cards (although the Nikon D80 uses SD memory). I recommend at least one, if not two, 2 or 4 gig. 133 Mhz. compact flash cards. It is much easier than you think to fill a card up, particularly when shooting in RAW mode or RAW + JPEG mode.

4. USB 2.0 Card Reader – a fast transfer of digital picture files to your computer or portable viewing device. Will work with PC or MAC.

Please note that USB 3.0 card readres should be available by the end of 2009 or the first quarter 2010.

5. Portable Downloader or Portable Viewing Device – This may come in the form a of a portable hard drive that has a card reader built into it. Simply plug the compact flash card into the hard drive and it downloads all your data which allows you to erase the compact flash card and continue using it. Manufacturers include Wolverine, Epson, Jobo and Smart Disk.

6. Comfortable Camera Bag – a camera bag or back pack that you feel comfortable carrying all day. Load it up and see how much it weighs, carry it around for a while and make any adjustments before you leave. I recommend Tenba, LowePro, Tamrac and/or anything else that you feel comfortable carrying on your shoulder(s) and/or back all day.

7. Small, Lightweight Tripod – A tripod that is fairly unobtrusive (all tripods get in the way, but smaller ones are more often tolerated), light weight, easy to carry and must fit in your suitcase. I recommend a quick release head so it is fast and easy to place cameras on/off a tripod, but it is a personal preference. Please note that you often have to buy tripod legs and tripod head as separate pieces. Tripod legs and tripod heads can range from $30 to $600+ depending on what material(s) they are made of – aluminum, composite metals, carbon fiber, etc.

8. An additional battery (or set of batteries) is recommended, but is only warranted if you shoot a lot. If your cameras or music devices take AA batteries, buy a fresh pack or two before you leave. They are usually easy to find overseas, but you never want to get caught without them.

9. Microfiber Cleaning Cloth – I love these things. Use them to clean lenses, glasses, etc. They are approximately $5 to $7 depending on the brand name and where you buy them.

International Driving Permit

If you intend to rent a vehicle (car, truck, SUV, motorcycle, etc.) in a country outside your own, you will probably be asked to provide your country driver’s license and an international driver’s license. The license is fairly easy to get, it just requires a little time to go to the local AAA (American Automobile Association) location or AATA (American Automobile Touring Association) office. At a minimum you will be asked to show your current driver’s license with at least a year until expiration, two 2-inch by 2-inch passport sized pictures and a pay a small fee to obtain a valid International Driver’s License.

Please check out the following sites for more information and PDF forms.

Remember to ask about vehicle renters insurance, safety requirements, country driving requirements and driving laws as well as driving etiquette when driving outside your own country. Each country has its own laws and when we are must abide by their laws.

United States Department of State

National Transportation Library

AAA (American Automobile Association)

Passports

I can only answer for Unites States citizens as I am not aware of the process for other countries. United States passports can be applied for at any United States Postal Service (USPS) branch. The postal service has released the following press release regarding passports.

“The cost of a passport at the Post Office is based on the age of the applicant and includes the passport and Department of State processing fee. For those 16-years and older, the charge is $97. Anyone younger than 16 years is charged $82. The U.S. Department of State recommends allowing at least six weeks for passport processing. Passport applications must be made in person at a participating Post Office. Applications cannot be made online.

Those choosing the Postal Service to apply for a passport have one more added benefit: photos can be taken in many Post Offices offering the passport service. When applying for a passport, customers must present proof of U.S. citizenship (a birth certificate or previous passport) and proof of identification (previous passport, driver’s license, military identification card).

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 requires that by Jan. 8, 2007, travelers by air or sea to or from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda will be required to have a valid, U.S. passport.

Passport applications can be made at 5,300 Passport Acceptance Locations in Post Offices around the country. A complete list may be found at http://www.usps.com/passport. ”

Another good passport link is the United States Department of State where all the federal guidelines are outlined and explained.

Forms for passports are available on both sites as PDF downloads.

The AAA (American Automobile Association) offers world wide travel planning services, passport services, international driving permit services, etc. If I am correct, you get a set of passport pictures free with membership.

Some places such as Kinkos/FedEx and Wal-Mart offer picture service for passports on a walk-in basis. Expect to pay around $8 per 2-inch by 2-inch instant passport picture.

Berlin to Budapest Trip

Several people have asked about recent travels. I am happy to announce that the latest trip is from Berlin to Budapest (including a 7-day Danube river cruise on the brand new Amalagro river cruise ship) starting on April 27, 2007 and going through May 13, 2007. It is a 17-day trip that includes great sightseeing and touring as well as the opportunity to take some incredible pictures. The trip, planned through University Educational Travel (UET), takes us from Berlin to Dresden, Prague and Vienna before ending in Budapest. The heart of Europe is yours to experience. We will have good guides, a few group tours and a free time in each location to do our own shopping, photography, sightseeing, etc. Please see the links above for more information or contact me via the form on the contact page.

Travelling is something that I enjoy and I try to help others scratch their travel itch by planning trips to include all high quality hotels (nothing below 3-star), good meals when we have group meals, all travel arrangements, etc. Leave the details up to me and enjoy your vacation.

I am a photographer, history buff and an overall curious person, we will go, see and experience places off the beaten track (as well as the must see iconic sites) to make things a little more interesting and to delve into the culture of the place(s) we visit. As always, I give free photographic lessons and advice, digital or analog (film), and will help you capture the essence of the places, people and culture as we travel together.

If you are just looking for a few travel web sites or are looking for travel information please visit the Links section of the site under the Travel heading or the Travel Tips section of the site by clicking Travel at the top of the page.