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Travelling Tim - Photographic Equipment
30 years is a long time to be taking travel photographs, and in that time, my camera equipment has changed a great deal. This page lists the equipment I've used, then and now, and comments on some of my choices, decisions, and experiences along the way.
I started off in 1979 with an Olympus OM1 and a few basic lenses from the excellent Zuiko range. There was a lot of experimentation to find the ones that suited me the best, and I tried a variety of fixed and zoom lenses. This is great when you are at home, but not such a good idea if travelling. When setting off on a long trip, there is always the temptation to take too many lenses, just in case they might be useful, but the weight always adds up, the straps on the camera bag dig further and further into the shoulders, and the temptation builds to send the excess home again.
After 5 years in central London, I got a job working in the Antarctic with the British Antarctic Survey. A great excuse to stock up on fancy camera equipment: I bought a pair of OM2s, some more lenses, and the best flash gun that Olympus did at the time. My lenses at that time were the standard 50mm, 24mm f2.8, 135mm, 200mm, 400mm, and a couple of wide angle zooms. As I was based on Signy Island, in the South Orkneys, and only travelled elsewhere by ship, the weight and volume wasn't a problem. The OM2s worked very well in the cold, and never gave me a problem.
Back from the Antarctic, and the newer, fancier, Olympus OM4 had just come out. I bought one, after reading all the hype, intending to ditch the OM2s, but battery usage on the OM4 was very high, and I found that they were always going flat just when I needed them. In the end, the OM4 got little use - it just wasn't reliable, and so I stuck to the OM2s for most of the time. Eventually I sold one of them, but the original one finally wore out in 2004. That's a life of 20+ years: not bad for a mechanical object these days! I wonder if today's digital SLRs can match that? Probably not.
I took a break from serious photography, and with slide-film getting in short supply by the early 2000s, the writing was on the wall, and I bought a small digital, the Sony DSCP43, to take a few snaps with: mainly items that I was selling on eBay when I down-sized my life and sold my house in Ireland. I got a ride on an Overland truck from London to Cape Town, and took the Sony with me on the 6 month journey through Africa. A big mistake, in so far as I missed the chance to obtain photos of a saleable size: the Sony is only 4Mega pixels. I hadn't planned to take useful photos, but when you have been taking them for as long as I have, I quickly got back into the swing of photographing the amazing sights and scenes that I encountered.
In one way, though, the Sony wasn't a mistake to take on a rough Overland journey, mostly camping in hot and dusty conditions. It has a fixed lens, rather than a zoom, and as such is better prepared for rough conditions. When you switch on one of the standard 'point and shoot' digital cameras that people use these days, the lens-cover opens by itself, and the lens extends to its normal position. However, if a bit of dust or grit gets in the mechanism as it telescopes out, what happens is that the lens-sections jam, but the motor keeps on going. The 'clever' electronics knows that the lens hasn't fully extended yet, so keeps power on the motor until its sensor confirms that the lens is in its final position. This state is never reached, so what happens is that the motor forces itself on a jammed lens, and thus strips the teeth from the little plastic gearwheels inside. They can't be fixed, of course, and no one carries spares, so the end result is a camera that is totally written off, and only suitable for the garbage bin. I saw 4 cameras die like this in Africa: more recently, the same thing happened in South America. If you are reading this, and about to go to somewhere dusty and extreme, be warned! If you already have such a camera, buy a supply of sturdy zip-lock bags, and keep the camera in one as much as possible.
Back from Africa, and with plenty more travel planned, I realised that 'once a photographer, always a photographer', and that if the way ahead was digital, I'd have to get a digital SLR that could produce the kind of photographs I needed: ones that I could sell. Within the budget I'd set myself, the choice was down to Cannon or Nikon. Which was better? Which should I choose? For many reasons that I won't go into here, I settled for Nikon, and bought their latest 12.3 Mega-pixel body, the D300. To go with this, I chose 2 lenses: the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm 1:3.5-5.6 G DX SWM VR ED IF, and the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm 1:4 G DX SWM ED IF. This choice of lenses was helped to a great extent by comments on the Ken Rockwell website : a site that I hold in great regard for its honest, unbiased opinions on a range of photographic equipment. His comments proved to be correct this time too, and 18-200mm has proved an excellent work-horse for a busy travel photographer, easy to use and very convenient as an all-rounder. A friend who later travelled with me in 2008 bemoaned the fact that Cannon didn't have an equivalent. I hear that now they have, so someone in Cannon must be checking out the opposition and making the correct suggestions!
I took the D300 and its 2 lenses with me on my next major trips in 2008 and 2009: a 6 month Overland journey from London to Beijing and back, a 6 month journey back to my favourite country, India, and a long visit to Canada where I spent some time volunteering on an Organic Farm, and the rest of the time learning to sail on a square-rigged tall ship: the three-masted barque, Picton Castle. The photos I produced speak for themselves: the Nikon D300 does a great job, and for the money, is an excellent camera for the aspiring Travel Photographer on a medium budget.
Returning to South America in 2010 after a break of many years, I treated myself to a second D300 body as a spare, in case of theft or damage to the original one. It has also proved very useful when constant lens changing is expected, too. Although it doesn't take very long to change lenses on a Nikon camera, that short time can often prove to be too long when the photo I had in mind disappears or turns in to something else. There is also the constant threat of dust getting on to the sensor whenever a lens is removed from the body. The Nikon D300 does have a sensor-cleaning function, which is good to a certain extent, but sometimes its only when you've downloaded the photos to the computer and examined them at full size do you realise that dust has crept in un-noticed, and a number of shots are thus spoilt.
I also purchased a Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm 1:1.8 D lens, that lives on the spare D300 body most of the time. It has a very good image quality even compared to other lenses costing far more. Visit the Ken Rockwell website to see some of the comparisons for yourself. I decided that there was no need to get the 50mm 1:1.4 lens, as the extra speed it gives is minimal, and the sharpness is not as good as the 1:1.8. The extra speed that the 50mm gives over the other lenses is useful at times, though, as I try and photograph with available light whenever possible. After the familiar weight of the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm 1:3.5-5.6 G DX SWM VR ED IF and the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm 1:4 G DX SWM ED IF, the D300 with the Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm 1:1.8 D takes a little getting used to: its just soooooo light! No need to use the left hand for zooming or focusing either, so I guess that the camera body gets held a little firmer - of course that's useful in low light conditions too.
For my current Overland journey through Africa and the Middle East (Gibraltar - Cape Town - Cairo - Istanbul) I have decided that a longer telephoto lens is needed, so have purchased a Nikon AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED lens, that will be useful for the more demanding of wildlife shots that I hope to encounter. I plan to use it on the spare D300 body so that it is ready when needed, with the 18-200mm on the main D300 body for the majority of the shots. This will give me the ability to swap between lenses without the delay of changing a lens, and more importantly, removing the risk of dust getting on to the sensor in extreme environments. As Ken Rockwell says, 'The 80-400mm is small, sharp, light and has very little distortion and flare, possibly the only 80-400 zoom on the planet that can do this'. Visit the Ken Rockwell website to read a review of this lens.
Time goes by, and I have never been 100% happy with the 18-200mm lens. Whether it was just a bad batch, or whether the lens design has its shortcomings, I have never been sure, but I have had focus issues with it for a long time, with many missed shots ruined only by lack of exact focus. After using it for a number of years, it has started to get a big 'sticky' from dust or dirt too, and is definitely showing signs of ageing. I took it along to the Nikon workshops in Kuala Lumpur, but they said it would cost more to fix than it was worth. I then had to think whether I should get another of the same model, or move to something else. I am intending at some point to move to a full-frame camera, so it made sense to get a new lens that is compatible. After much reading, I decided on the NIKKOR AF 70-200mm f2-8g ED VRII, which seems to rate very highly wherever it is mentioned. It is rather a large and heavy lens after the 180-200, but the build quality is superb, the action is as smooth as silk, and the image quality is really excellent. Visit the Ken Rockwell website to see what he has to say about it.
The extra weight of the 70-200mm takes a little getting used to, and the lens manual warns about supporting the lens+body from the body alone, so this means that carrying both for long periods using a standard camera neck strap is out. I chatted to some other pro-photographers about this and was quickly put on to the BlackRapid range of camera straps, and specifically the Black Rapid RS-7 Curve camera strap. This attaches to the tripod socket on the lens, and allows the camera + lens to slide neatly to a position just above my right waist when not in use. I've been trying it out for a few weeks now, and have to say that I am impressed.
The 70-200mm is slightly longer than the 80-400mm, and so won't fit in the bigger top-loading LowePro bag that I had been using up to now. I had been thinking of moving away from LowePro recently anyway, as one of the zips on my other TLZ bag parted from its backing, and despite sending an email + image of the problem to the UK LowePro distributor, I was totally ignored with no way to get the zip replaced. Popping into the Jacobs Digital camera store on London's Oxford Street (now, sadly closed), I checked out the other makes that were suitable, and quickly realised that the Thinktank range is far above any of its competition. I now have two of their 'Digital Holster' range, and am happy that they will stand up to all of the rough handling that my next major Overland journey will put them through.
Compared to the faster shutter speeds of the Olympus + slide film, I have found that on some occasions, camera-shake is an issue. The requirement to take multi-bracketed shots of the same image just can't be met with a hand-held camera either, so a tripod is a major necessity for me. When the amount of walking that I regularly do is considered, weight is a major factor for all camera equipment. Nikon isn't making carbon-fibre bodies or lenses yet, but that option is available for tripods, and I chose the carbon-fibre 055CXV3 by Manfrotto, with a light-weight ball head and quick-release shoe to go with it. The price is about double that of its aluminium cousin, but the weight is about half, and that's what really matters in the long run. The Manfrotto is sturdily built, quick to erect, and perfectly steady: it has proved an excellent tripod wherever I've used it.
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