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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Photography Techniques  >  Travel Photography Equipment

Travel Photography Equipment

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 12802
1 Introduction  (648)
2 Camera Bodies  (149)
       2.1 Batteries  (792)
       2.2 Digital Camera Sensors  (879)
3 Cleaning Your Sensor  (608)
4 Lenses  (547)
       4.1 Mid-Range Lenses  (203)
       4.2 Wide Angle Lenses  (121)
              4.2.1 Fisheye Lenses  (150)
       4.3 Telephoto Lenses  (274)
              4.3.1 Mirror Lenses  (412)
       4.4 Cleaning Lenses  (192)
5 Flash  (770)
       5.1 Fill Flash  (388)
       5.2 Color Balance  (246)
       5.3 Shooting at Night  (375)
6 Filters  (1515)
7 Tripods and Camera Bags  (521)
       7.1 Camera Bags  (1614)
       7.2 Tripods  (1048)
8 Other Items (1350)

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1 Introduction

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The Grand Canal
(Venice, Italy)
canals, europe, grand canal, horizontal, italy, venecia, venezia, venice, photograph
Going on vacation and looking to get some good photos while you're having fun? Or, is photography your main objective to your travels, and you're hoping to land a great photo of a stunning sunset in Venice, Italy? However casual or serious you may be, choosing the right photo equipment for travel photography is critical. This chapter discusses the many different aspects of what you'll need for travel photography. It is by no means a comprehensive list of camera gear you'll need in general.

Needless to say, unless you already own a film-based SLR camera, you are well advised to start your photo buying binge on digital photo gear. It's the 21st century; if you aren't already aware of why you should be shooting with a digital camera, you may want to read up on other big changes you may have missed over the past ten years. (For instance, there was thing in the late 90s called the tech bubble. It made for some entertaining reading.)

Here, I discuss equipment types, but I will make no specific product recommendations. You should expect to do research on current product offerings from resources that specialize in reviews and analysis. Top national newspapers and other consumer periodicals have websites that contain up-to-date columns written by reviewers who know and understand you, the target audience. Also, internet search portals are great for finding such resources. Contrarily, and odd though it may sound, asking professional photographers about what camera to buy can be fraught with problems, as they typically don't shoot with the same objectives as you do. Nor do they tend to be familiar with the tourist mindset and temperament. If you ask a pro what kind of camera to buy, for example, they're likely reply with something like, "well, it depends on the kind of pictures do you want to shoot." This is the first sign that you're speaking to someone that hasn't been around non-professional photographers in a long time. (In fact, I never advise people what to buy—I only explain what things do, how they work, and most importantly, dispel myths out there about what people think are true, but aren't.)

So, you should start by reading reviews. Once you're "informed" about a subject, it doesn't necessarily help you decide what to buy. The next step is to seek advice from those who are more like you. Again, here's where internet search engines come in handy: look for discussion forums where people discuss products. I often refer people to www.dpreview.com and www.photo.net. Reading discussion forums is a good start for getting a general feeling for whether particular products are considered worthwhile from people who have no vested interest in promoting them. Again, you need to read opinions from peers, not professionals. A pro may have a stinging review of a product because it doesn't offer what he needs, but it may be perfectly suitable for your needs. In light of that, be careful reading "too much" information on discussion boards. There is also a lot of disinformation out there as well. You're looking for a general consensus, not the nit-picky details.

When you feel you've narrowed your choices down to the top gazillion products from the bazillion offerings, go to a physical store and look at them. Nothing beats holding something in your hand and putting to the test all the advice that those reviewers and forum members had to say.

Because I happen to use Canon equipment, I will often cite the gear I use as examples of general ideas. However, this is by no means an endorsement of Canon as a company, or its products. In fact, most name-brand products from well-known manufacturers can yield excellent pictures and have many happy customers. If you have yet to purchase your first camera, you may want to start at What camera should I buy?.

Canon EOS 1Ds
tech, ds mark, photograph
For even the most modestly interested amateur photographer, SLR cameras will provide far more pleasing results than point-n-shoot cameras. They provide more creative control, not to mention the advanced technology and flexibility to open up your photo opportunities beyond the standard "daytime snapshot." That said, I don't entirely dismiss the classic point-n-shoot camera either. They're still quite powerful, and getting more so every day. So, I'll be touching base with them whenever possible, though you may find that many topics discussed cross over to either type.

It is beyond the scope of this book to act as a buying guide, but if you are looking to purchase new equipment, it is imperative that you do so well in advance of any travel you have planned. It's very hard to learn new equipment on the road, and if anything goes wrong, your options are limited.

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Town and Harbor Overlook (2)
(Isola Giglio, Tuscany, Italy)
europe, harbor, isola giglio, italy, ocean, overlook, towns, tuscany, vertical, photograph
Nothing's worse than losing battery power when you're about to take a picture from the top of the Statue of Liberty for a rare and amazing rainbow. And since digital cameras eat batteries faster than a golden retriever can get toast off your baby's high-chair, it's most imperative that you're prepared with enough juice to keep your camera going. The best thing you can do is study your camera's manual to understand each of the following intimately:

blue-bullet.gif What kind of batteries will it accept, and not accept?

Almost all digital cameras use rechargeable batteries, but some will also take standard AA batteries you can buy in any store. However, many cameras not only won't use those standard batteries, but using them may actually ruin your camera. If you're in a pinch and need to get emergency power, know what your alternate battery power options are.

blue-bullet.gif How many pictures does the camera take on a single charge?

There are many variables involved, such as whether you use a flash (and how much), if you're using the preview screen to edit pictures, if you use the camera to download images from your memory card, and so on. Experience with your camera is the only reliable test for this kind of info. Many newer cameras have battery status monitors that will tell you how close you're getting to requiring a recharge, so it's important that you're familiar with this.

blue-bullet.gif Does your battery charger have a power converter built in?

Granted, this is more of a problem if you travel to foreign countries that don't use the same voltage you have at home. You may not be able to recharge your batteries at all if your camera's power supply doesn't have a voltage converter. A power adapter is not the same as a converter; you need to actually convert the voltage or you'll ruin your camera. Most low-end point-n-shoot cameras do not have power converters like this, so when you're in foreign countries, you must either find a compatible power source, or buy a real converter. (These tend to be much more expensive than adapters.) As usual, read your manual to see if this may be a problem for you.

blue-bullet.gif Learn how to conserve batteries

Many cameras' manuals will describe which functions eat more battery power than others. If battery conservation is important due to travel constraints, this information could be critical. Obvious points are the use of the preview screen, automatic shut-off timer, the use of the flash, etc.

blue-bullet.gif Understand your travel itinerary

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Telc (b&w) (2)
(Telc, Czech Republic)
black and white, czech republic, europe, horizontal, telc, photograph
If you're going to be roughing it in the wild, on safari, trekking across mountains, diving or snorkeling, or going into thin air at altitude, prepare by buying enough batteries to last the worst-case scenario: that you're shooting a lot. Having enough batteries to last between times when you can recharge is good planning. Also, batteries notoriously lose power quickly in cold weather, but they regain it back when warmed up again. If you're going to be in the snow, have two sets of batteries that you can swap in and out of the camera and a pocket close to your body.

Film cameras are vulnerable to weak batteries for different reasons: they don't just "die" like digital cameras do. Instead, they tend to linger in a state of unpredictability, often exhibiting confusing behavior that appears to look like something else is wrong with the camera. In fact, more unexplained malfunctions in film cameras can often be attributed to dying batteries than other problems. (Extreme moisture from humidity is the second most elusive problem.) Digital cameras don't have this problem. Instead, they show you a blinking battery icon somewhere on the confusing LCD panel, and while you're asking everyone around you what it means the first time you see it, you suddenly figure it out by yourself when the camera just shuts off completely. And it is then—and only then—that you suddenly become the master photographer, because you begin to see all sorts of award-winning photos that you can't take because your batteries are dead. The genius phase will pass, however, usually by the time your batteries have been recharged.

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Fall Foliage (6)
(Yosemite, California, USA)
california, fall foliage, falls, foliage, horizontal, nature, plants, sky, sun, sunbeams, sunrays, trees, west coast, western usa, yosemite, photograph
In a digital camera, the sensor is the part that captures the image onto a media card, similarly to how film cameras capture images onto film. Fortunately, technology has evolved to the point where even the most mediocre digital cameras can take good photos for the casual tourist on vacation. But there's no need to settle for cheap—you can get much better technology without a huge incremental bump in cost. How far you want to take this is where it gets more interesting. Your decision will be guided by other elements to the camera (to be discussed next) besides just the image resolution of the sensor.

Just about every camera sold today has enough resolution (measured as "megapixels") to yield excellent photos. As you'll notice, though, you can buy the same camera with incrementally higher pixel resolution. Should you get a camera with more resolution than its lower-resolution counterpart? This is a nagging question, and you'll hear advice everywhere about how you don't "need" more resolution than, say, six or eight megapixels, because that's enough to make good-sized prints. That's certainly true if all you're looking at is size. But, if you're also interested in the quality of the image, you'll want the higher-megapixel cameras. Why? Because the technology required to make sensors yield better, smoother pictures, also happen to yield more megapixels in the sensor. It's like how TVs that have much, much better color rendering will also happen to have much larger screens. There's no point in putting advanced technology into a smaller product, whether it's TVs or camera sensors.

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Sensors come in two sizes. Higher-end pro-level cameras have full-frame sensors similar to 35mm film cameras. All others have "small format" sensors, which capture a small portion of the image from the lens. To make it appear the images are the same size, its pixels are "fattened" to fill the gap. The same method is applied in "digital zoom."
tech, sensor, graphic, photograph
There is another aspect to image sensors that's important; they come in two sizes: Small Format, and Full Frame. The latter is the same as a standard 35mm camera, the legacy size inherited from the days of film. By contrast, a small-format sensor is like putting a smaller rectangle in the center of a bigger rectangle. (Some people liken the effect to the difference between regular TV and HDTV.) In fact, the smaller sensor is two-thirds that of a full-frame sensor. The resulting image is like cropping off the edges of a full-frame image. Instead of filling in that empty space with white or black, the camera just "enlarges" the picture (by blowing up the pixels) to yield the same sized print as before. This is what is referred to as "the magnification factor." When people hear the term, though, they think the image is magnified optically, when it's really just being blown up digitally, which is a very different thing.

Digital magnification (also referred to as digital zoom) is usually expressed using phrases like "1.6 magnification factor." This is intended to convey a translation for lens length measurements, not optical magnification. Using the 1.6 example, a 100mm lens will produce a photo that looks like it was taken with a 160mm lens, a 400mm lens looks like a 640mm lens, and a 28mm lens looks like a 35mm lens. Although this terminology makes it sound as though the image is "magnified," it's not—it's simply cropped and then enlarged. Why the important distinction? Because when the enlargement is optical, you get more pixels and you preserve the optical characteristics of the lens (such as the fisheye effect in the sample image). When the enlargement is digital, you actually wind up with less pixels, and a lower-quality image. To make things worse, some cameras give you the option of zooming in even further digitally—up to 10x in photo cameras, and 25x in video cameras—which degrades image quality even more. The degradation of image quality is particularly visible with telephoto lenses, whereas the degradation of optical quality is more visible with wide-angle lenses (including the fisheye).

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Church (b&w) Contrast
(Dublin, Leinster, Ireland)
black and white, buildings, capital, churches, cities, contrast, dublin, eastern ireland, europe, horizontal, ireland, irish, leinster, photograph
Many people are already experienced the problems with small-format sensors and wide-angle shots, so most camera manufacturers have had to introduce special wide-angle lenses made for small-format sensors, some of which go down to 10mm (to yield an equivalent 16mm shot). These certainly address the optical problem, but you're still getting less pixels (hence, a lower-quality image) because of the smaller format. This is only a stop-gap measure, because these special lenses only work on digital SLRs with small-format sensors. If you ever upgrade to a full-frame SLR, you'll have useless lenses.

As we all know, technology is progressing very quickly, and the lifespan of the small-format sensor is fading. It may not be long before most cameras are full-frame. At the moment, however, full-frame SLRs are more expensive, which affect your purchasing decision. If I can help tip the scales a little more, I'll also add that SLRs that use full-frame sensors tend to have other, more advanced and useful features than their small-frame counterparts, making the purchase all the more worthwhile in the end. So, if you are even moderately serious about travel photography, I'd urge the full-frame route.

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Steel (b&w)
(Aukland, New Zealand)
auckland, black and white, horizontal, new zealand, steel, photograph
The most frustrating annoyance with digital SLRs is that dust gets on the sensor. (This is not a problem with digital point-n-shoot cameras because the lenses don't come off, making the interior chamber dust-proof.) As you can guess, dust usually enters when you change lenses, so it's obvious to suggest that you should practice changing lenses in a way that minimizes the time the chamber is exposed. What's more, try to master the technique where the chamber faces down, so keep anything from falling in. (My technique is hang the camera downward while the strap is around my neck, and hold the lens bottom-up to insert it into the mount. This may take some practice.)

Still, dust can also get onto the sensor through the lens itself if it's a large zoom lens with a zoom ring that physically moves back and forth. (Canon's EF 100-400mm lens is one of the best of its kind optically, but it'll throw lots of dust into the sensor chamber.) The natural tendency is to clean the sensor, which doesn't sound like a bad idea to the uninitiated. However, this is fraught with various problems.
red-bullet.gif  It is very easy to damage the sensor (voiding your warranty).
red-bullet.gif  Camera manufacturers don't provide sanctioned tools for doing it yourself.
red-bullet.gif  Compressed air makes matters worse because it can project particles that damage the sensor, or it can deposit liquid byproducts onto it.
red-bullet.gif  Brushes can bring in more dust than they get rid of, or they only succeed in just moving it around inside. There are anti-static brushes made by some small-companies, but they have been met with mixed reviews. Highly vocal fans on photo discussion boards can be persuasive, but my experience with them have been mediocre. The best I can say is that they're better than cloth and compressed air, and good enough for removing very large chunks of gunk.

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Stuffed Peppers
(Otranto, Puglia, Italy)
europe, foods, horizontal, italy, peppers, puglia, stuffed, photograph
The best way I've read about is to cut up a rubber kitchen spatula into a shape that fits easily inside the sensor chamber, wrap it in an anti-static Pec Pad, and spray it lightly with K-12 (the pads and K-12 solution are normally used to clean film). Then, gently swab the sensor in a mowing-the-lawn type pattern, making sure you don't leave any residue. This should take a second or less. The problem then becomes determining whether you've succeeded in actually cleaning the sensor. The only way to test is to take a picture of a white object (stop down the aperture all the way for close depth of field on the sensor), download the image to a computer, blow it up to full size, and examine each segment of the sensor to see where you've managed to move the dust this time. Clean the spots you missed by repeating the process all over again. Beginners should set aside an entire day for this project. Experienced people find they only need to set aside about two hours.

The thing is, since cleaning can make a dust problem worse, I usually don't bother cleaning my sensor till I return home from a trip. And I take the really simple and lazy way out: I send it to a lab.

Once again, technology is not far behind. At the time of this writing, Canon has announced a new camera that has a self-cleaning mechanism inside. It does this with an extra sheet of material that literally "shakes" the dust off of itself. Whether this actually works has yet to be tested by a broad consumer audience, but it's good to see someone's working on it.

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Don't use a lens bigger than your head
(Shannon, Ireland)
childrens, county shannon, europe, ireland, irish, shannon, shannon river, vertical, photograph
A very close second in importance to the digital sensor is the lens. More expensive lenses do have better glass, but that doesn't mean that less expensive lenses can't take great pictures too. Unless you know that you "need" higher-end glass, there's no reason to think you need to go outside your budget for the sake of your lens. The important thing is selecting lenses within the zoom-range you want to cover.

For point-n-shoot users, the lens is built into the camera and you have no ability to change it. Here, you need to get your entire focal range from a single lens, so you can expect to buy a camera whose lens goes from about 28mm or 35mm all the way up to 105mm to 200mm. The broader the range, the more flexibility you have in the picture styles. However, with big ranges will come big prices. One thing to look out for, is digital zoom. This is a useless and deceptive feature, because all it does is use the same pixels in a normal photo and merely "blow them up bigger" (thereby cropping out of the frame what no longer fits). This almost always results in a lower-quality image that even aging grandparents can see. ("Why does Timmy have pock-marks on his face?!" "It's the digital zoom, Gramma. We didn't think you'd notice.") To avoid potentially serious family squabbles, use only the optical zoom part of your point-n-shoot camera. We'll get into the various types of zoom ranges with the short and long focus ranges in a minute.

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Zooming in Tight
(Nassau, Bahamas)
bahamas, capital, capital city, caribbean, cities, horizontal, island-nation, islands, jim lisa, lisa, nassau, nation, resort, royal bahamian, sandals, smiles, tropics, vacation, wedding, photograph
If you use an SLR, where you can change the lenses, there is no such thing as digital zoom. The lens properly handles everything on its own. Your options are greater, too. That is, you can buy lenses that span a greater total zoom range, and have them broken into separate lenses that handle subsets within the range. My equipment covers the entire focal range from 16mm to 400mm using three separate lenses: wide angle, mid-range, and telephoto.

When buying multiple lenses, or when considering a single lens with a very broad focal range, there's a trade-off between flexibility and weight/bulk and quality. The greater the zoom range in a single lens, the lower the quality of the image at each end of the range. This is simply due to laws of physics of how mirrors bend light. The greater the zoom range, the less capable the mechanics are within the lens to preserve image quality at the close end of the range. The problem is reduced by shortening the zoom range of the lens. However, having many shorter zooms requires having more lenses to lug around. So, there's your trade-off. Again, I find that three lenses that span the entire range into subsets maximize the trade-off between quality, flexibility, and weight/bulk. I also realize that three lenses may be a lot for some—especially while traveling on foot through a cute little European town. Sometimes, too many lenses just gets in the way. (Note that even though I bring a lot of equipment with me, it doesn't mean I enjoy it.)

Next, I cover the various options within each of the zoom ranges.

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Kids Playing in Dirt 1 (b&w)
(Siem Reap, Cambodia)
asia, babies, black and white, cambodia, childrens, dirt, horizontal, people, playing, photograph
Mid-range zooms are used in most common, day-to-day situations snapshots, candid people pictures, landscapes, dogs, or anything else from a normal viewing perspective. Focal ranges span from 28mm to 150mm, which, as you will soon see, overlap with the wide angles at the short end, and the telephoto lenses at the long end. The mid-range lens will be your main workhorse. (If you can only bring one lens, this can be it, especially because mid-ranged lenses can span a great range.) Prices go up along with focal range and lens quality, but if you're only going to have one lens, feel free to splurge!

If you're going to buy multiple lenses, consider at least the practical side of having to change lenses frequently. For this reason, again, a good span in your mid-range zoom should go from at least 28mm to 105mm. Less than that, and your range may be too limited for enough variety of photos, requiring lens changing. And the time and annoyance of changing lenses are not to be underestimated—you can miss a lot of great shots, not to mention burn out on the process, and thereby avoid doing it.)

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Getting the Big Picture
(Piran, Slovenia)
boats, churches, cityscapes, europe, harbor, horizontal, long exposure, moon, nite, pirano, slovenia, photograph
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Wide-Angle Lenses for Great Interior Shots
(Rome, Veneto, Italy)
churches, europe, italy, nature, rome, sky, st peters, sun, sunbeams, vatican, vertical, photograph
For me, my wide angle lenses compete with my mid-range lenses for usefulness because I like to capture the interiors of rooms, or to accentuate sweeping landscapes. In addition to the standard "wider view" capabilities, shorter lenses also allow for wider apertures, which allow more light in. This allows you to shoot in lower light without having to use a tripod or increasing your camera's ISO speed. (The ISO rating on all digital cameras is user-settable—the higher the setting, the more capable the camera is at shooting in low light. The cost to this, however, is the introduction of considerable noise, which diminishes image quality.)

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Fisheye Lens
(Death Valley, California, USA)
badwater, california, death valley, horizontal, national parks, west coast, western usa, photograph
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Boating
(New Zealand)
boating, boats, fisheye lens, new zealand, people, scenics, sun, vertical, photograph
As a specialty lens, I love the fisheye. I use it for everything from landscapes to people to general grab shooting. But it's important to keep in mind its inherent properties. It is not a zoom lens, so it can only shoot its fixed distance. Yes, it bends things out of proportion, but that's exactly what I want. Fisheye appearance is good for humor, or to exaggerate something that's already oddly shaped. But, be aware, it's easy to try to get "too much" into the scene, making it too busy. Rules of composition apply here more than ever: make sure the picture is balanced and has a featured subject or theme. Usually, those new to a fisheye often get pictures that exploit the gimmickry of the lens, rather than being "creative."

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Boats Fisheye
(Milna, Dalmatia, Croatia)
boats, croatia, europe, fisheye, fisheye lens, horizontal, milna, water, photograph
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Bridge Walker Flag (1)
(Chicago, Illinois, USA)
america, bridge, buildings, chicago, cityscapes, fisheye lens, flags, horizontal, illinois, north america, people, sun, united states, walkers, photograph

4dot3 Telephoto Lenses

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400mm Telephoto Lens
(Dubrovnik, Croatia)
cityscapes, croatia, dubrovnik, europe, harbor, horizontal, long exposure, ocean, sunsets, photograph
Telephoto lenses are more versatile than most people think. Yes, they are great for, wildlife and sports, but they can be used for more creative uses as well, such as close-ups of people, or to get good candid shots of people in public places. Telephotos usually start anywhere from 80mm to 100mm, and can go out to 400mm before prices start skyrocketing. The best range for telephotos is 100-400mm for both practical use and preservation of optical performance, but prices for those lenses tend to be on the higher end. Up to 300mm can usually satisfy many people's need for ultra-close zooming without sending your wallet into space.

The biggest concern about telephoto lenses is, the longer the distance, the more likely you'll get motion blur from "hand shake." Hand-holding the camera while shooting long focal ranges makes pictures blurry. There are three ways to deal with this problem: use a very fast shutter speed (which requires a very fast film, which isn't desirable), use a tripod (which may not be practical, especially for moving subjects, or traveling on foot), or by using "image stabilizing" technology. Also known as "IS", stabilization employs a gyroscopic element that counter-balances motion, keeping the lens effectively still. Not only does it help with long distances, one can hand-hold pictures with shutter speeds down to about 1/8 or slower (with some practice). This is good for grab-shooting and candid shots on the move. When you calculate that "IS" saves 30-40% of pictures that would otherwise by ruined by unintended motion blur, its cost is justified by the amount of quality pictures you get.

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600mm f/8 Mirror Lens
f/8, 1/250sec, 8 Miles Away
(Sausalito, California, USA)
boats, bridge, california, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, sausalito, west coast, western usa, photograph
Since it's not always practical to spend (or even use) such a big lens, a fantastic alternative to the long telephoto lenses is to downshift to a mirror lens. These were popular in the 1970s, but fell out of favor due to their reduced image quality. Since then, however, glass has markedly improved, and while you can't improve the physics of how light travels over mirrors (which is considerably worse in mirror lenses), their overall benefits make them fun add-ons for any shooter. For example, a 500mm f/8 mirror lens from Samyang, costs a whopping $114, and weighs in at only 13oz. This tiny thing can be put into any camera bag, but be careful when ordering: you have to buy the version of the lens that's made for your camera body. (There is no "one size fits all" lens mount.) This is perfect for that wildlife safari, or subjects involving whales, moose, or children. (Hopefully, not all in the same shot.)

Slightly more expensive is the 600mm f/8 mirror lens from Sigma, weighing in at 29oz. Costing $350, it's not a bad deal for the length. (Compare with Canon's 600mm traditional lens that costs $11,000.)

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Photographing Wildlife
(Kilimanjaro, Tanzania)
africa, horizontal, kilimanjaro, lauren, people, tanzania, photograph
So, what's the catch? Mirror lenses are fixed at f/8, they do not do autofocus, and the super-long 500mm and 600mm lengths mean that your camera is going to jiggle like Jell-O on a roller coaster during an earthquake every time you push the shutter release. You will need to mount the camera on a tripod, unless it happens to be really bright outside. You need to have a shutter speed of at least 1/350 sec., which is really hard to get when the aperture is fixed at f/8. Any amount of movement will ruin the picture at this length. The photo of Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge shown here required a shutter speed of 1/250 second, and even then it was blurry when I tried to hand-hold it. I had to use a tripod.

The final word on lenses is: work up to it. Most people should buy one lens at a time and get familiar with it before getting the next one. The "collection" you end up with has to interweave nicely, or you'll waste time and money, not to mention be burned by too much "stuff" and, end up failing to get the pictures you really want.

Keeping your lens clean is important, but not something to be obsessed about. Any cotton fabric works fine—I usually use a t-shirt, and rub thoroughly on any areas where there may be smudges (usually, peanut butter). There are special cloths you can buy, but these are a waste of money, unless you tend to walk around shirtless. Some lenses have a special film-like glaze over it, which should be protected, but again, if it gets a finger-print on it, don't sweat it. By all means, don't use any liquids whatsoever to clean a lens. You can certainly use liquid solutions marketed for this purpose, but it's not going to be more effective than rubbing it vigorously with cotton.

It takes a lot of material on the lens glass to interfere with an image. (This is nowhere near as bad as dust on the sensor, which does show up conspicuously in images.) My main advice: keep your lens cap on all the time. When you're about to take a picture, remove the lens cap, keep it in your hand, and immediately replace it when you're not shooting. Make this a habit.

The flash is probably the most misused item on a camera, but for understandable reasons. Because flashes make light, people use it when the camera says there isn't enough of light in a scene. Therefore, the flash is used as the main light source. And that's precisely where the problem lies. Pictures taken this way often results in bursty, flat pictures, with people's faces washed out, and harsh shadows projected into walls.

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No Flash: Natural, Balanced Look
(Mill Valley, California, USA)
california, events, fishkin, hernandez, horizontal, indie wire, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, west coast, western usa, photograph
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Flash: Foreground Bursty, Flat Overall Look
(Mill Valley, California, USA)
california, events, fishkin, flash, hernandez, horizontal, indie wire, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, west coast, western usa, photograph
For comparison, consider these two pictures taken of the same stage scene: one taken with a flash, the other without. The reason for the flash's poor performance is that flashes have a limited range (about ten feet) after which it "falls-off" quickly. Objects closer to the camera get the brunt of the flash burst, whereas the background gets progressively less light. In other words, the flash's power is took weak to light a room as well as the natural light does. It'd be like trying to pull a trailer full of logs with a 1969 VW. The power isn't there. But without the flash, the room may be too dark. Camera makers know that people are unhappy with their pictures when the entire room isn't lit, so they make the default power for flashes overly bright. While this may help light the room a tiny bit better, the end result is pretty bad too. In the days of film, people didn't have much of a choice unless they always used very high-rated ISO film (uncommon and expensive).

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Never use a flash in front of reflective objects like windows.
(Monterey, California, USA)
cal coast, california, jacks, jelly fish, monterey, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
So, if the camera can shoot without a flash, then it's best not to use one. Fortunately, this is more possible today than ever before. But the camera may not do this automatically. Unlike the days of film, digital cameras allow you to adjust the camera's ISO setting (which sets the camera's sensitivity to light) on a shot-by-shot basis. The higher the ISO, the better the camera can capture existing ambient light. This now makes it possible to get really good pictures in dim light without using a flash at all, in most cases, or at least with a minimal amount flash power in others. Many consumer digital cameras have ISO ratings that only go up to 800 or so, which may or may not be enough for some indoor shots. Unfortunately, this isn't something you can test in a store—you actually have to physically shoot several pictures in dim scenes and go print them out on photo paper to see whether you find the noise "acceptable." What you see on the little preview screen will always look good, so don't trust that.)

You may be wondering: why not set the ISO all the way up all the time? Well, this comes at a cost: higher ISO settings also increase the amount of digital noise in the picture, which is similar to film grain. You won't notice this on the camera's preview screen, but you will notice it enlarged on your computer screen and any most prints you make. Some cameras perform better than others in this regard, so take a couple of test pictures to see whether you like your camera's results. You're not always going to get professional-looking results from consumer-grade cameras, but it's your choice on where the dividing line on acceptability between a shot using a flash, or a natural look with grain.

If you're in a low-light situation, and setting the ISO rating still isn't sufficient (or higher ISOs yield undesirable noise), the next option is to combine a ISO setting that's acceptable with the use of a flash. Since the goal is to avoid the bursty punch of the flash, you want to reduce its power output enough to give the light, but not overly so. The combination of a reduced flash burst, and a higher ISO rating means that the combined ambient light and the lower flash burst may provide satisfactory results.

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Digital Point-n-shoot Camera
(California, USA)
goatee, goutee, horizontal, personal, self-portrait, photograph
Ironically, the best time to use a flash is not when it's dark, but when there's a lot of light. In fact, when there's too much light, such as midday sunny pictures of people. Here, the flash will light up the deep, dark shadows under hats or other crevices caused by the over-intense brightness of the sun. When the sun is that bright, the light exceeds the camera's dynamic range at the highlights and the shadows, which is the range of light the sensor is able to see at one time. Your eye sees detail in the bright areas as well as the dark shadows, but the camera can't. It's range is limited, so it compromises on what it sees. In so doing, it usually loses the details on both ends, and captures the light in the middle of the range. This often means that dark areas fall to black, and light areas fall to white—no detail at either end.

When you use a flash, it brings up the light on the darker parts of the picture, thus reducing the range of light between the two end points. Hence, the cameras captures more detail at both end points, and the entire picture gets more life.

So, why only "people" pictures? Obviously, it's not just about people, but it's about subjects that are close to the camera, and that's usually people. Why is proximity important? Because the flash's light has a limited range, usually about ten feet in front of you. Beyond that, the power is too weak to have any appreciable effect. (This is called light falloff.) So, the only shadows you're going to lighten are those falling on subjects that are close enough to the camera's flash.

When the flash is used in this manner, it is said to be a "fill flash." That is, it "fills" the dark areas of the picture. In fact, many cameras have a setting specifically called, "fill flash mode." (For an in-depth discussion on the various uses of the fill flash, see Using Fill Flash.)

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No flash, subjects off center, ISO rating 1250
(Patagonia)
el pilar, horizontal, hotels, latin america, patagonia, pilar, reception, photograph
Unlike film, digital cameras can read and balance light more properly, on a shot-by-shot basis, compensating when necessary. For indoor use, most digital cameras counter-balance the reddish hue from incandescent light bulbs well enough to obviate the need for a flash to perform this function. This is controlled by the camera's "white balance" setting. When set to "auto," camera senses whether there is a predominance of a particular color cast and add a counter-balance hue to compensate.

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Setting the White Balance to "Indoors" to give a blue cast
(San Anselmo, California, USA)
aliens, california, horizontal, long exposure, marin, marin county, nite, north bay, northern california, san anselmo, san francisco bay area, west coast, western usa, photograph
Most cameras let you change the white balance to settings specifically designed for various common shots: interiors (just discussed above), fluorescent lights, daytime, night time, and so on. Normally, the auto setting will do the same thing, but you can use these specific settings to force the camera to those values in the event the "automatic" behavior doesn't yield satisfactory results. If you want to get creative, you can set the white balance to settings to enhance a particular mood. In the photo shown here, I set my camera's white balance to the indoor setting (light bulb icon) which shifts the color hue toward blue. I opened the shutter to begin the exposure, walked behind behind the subject, and then triggered a hand-held flash unit. I then closed the shutter. The technique is simple, but it was the white balance that give it the mood.

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Nite Photo: 30 second exposure
(New York City, New York, USA)
america, avenue, horizontal, motion blur, new york, new york city, north america, stores, united states, warner, photograph
Even though the above photo was done at night, it wasn't a typical nite shot, nor was it a typical use of a flash. The effect was just that: an effect. For more straightforward night photography, one doesn't use a flash. Instead, the best thing to do is mount the camera on a tripod and use a long exposure. How long to expose varies from scene to scene. Just let your camera's light meter do the work as it usually does when you take a picture. Just be sure your camera can do exposures up to at least 30 seconds. It's the tripod that does the magic by keeping the camera still during the exposure. This will give you the "reality" look you're expecting to see. It's impossible to get this kind of look with a standard camera and flash burst.

When using a tripod, you no longer need to worry about a flash, nor should you set your ISO rating higher. The only reason to do that is so you can hand-hold the camera during the picture. When using a tripod, you don't need to hand-hold it, and the challenge for getting enough light is no longer applicable. You can keep the shutter open all you like (so long as you have a cable release). In fact, keep your ISO rating low—a setting of 100 is best.

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13-second exposure.
Who wants to wait?
(Tokyo, Kanto, Japan)
asia, david, dinner, horizontal, japan, leslie, long exposure, tour group, photograph
If you're thinking that you can use a tripod to take pictures during a dinner, you need to think about the fact that no one's going to remain perfectly still during a 10-30 second exposure. Unless you entertain zombies on a regular basis, this technique isn't for real-time situations with groups of non-photographers who don't have the patience for your clever photo tricks. In such cases, you'll have no choice but to use some balance of higher ISO ratings and lower flash power, and hope for the best. As you can imagine, there are going to be many pictures that cannot be taken, or which require techniques beyond your immediate control. As long as you understand your limitations, you'll do better with those conditions you can control.

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Circular Polarizers Intensify Color
(Muir Woods, California, USA)
branches, california, colors, forests, green, horizontal, lush, marin, marin county, mossy, muir woods, nature, north bay, northern california, plants, redwoods, trees, west coast, western usa, photograph
Filters are common with SLR users, whereas it's virtually unheard of to see a point-n-shoot with a filter. The progression of digital photography has also reduced the need for many filters now, especially those that adjust color balance, as was discussed earlier. (See "white balance".) Probably the most common filters of all are also the most useless. These include the ever-popular "skylight" filter (which is nothing but clear glass), which espouses itself as a lens protector; and the "haze" (or "UV") filter, which is used under the premise that it will reduce the haze effect in daytime landscape photography. Again, this is a throw-back from the days of film, where color balance wan't easily controlled. A haze filter reduces the "blueness" from atmospheric haze using faintly tinted the glass to a warmer tone. Again, this is automatically compensated for by digital cameras.

Some people also suggest that the skylight and haze filters will "protect the glass against scratches," but what you're effectively doing is placing a very cheap piece of glass in front of expensive glass (your lens). Worse, when you put on any filter, you're introducing another layer of glass, which introduces more elements for light to reflect bounce around inside the lens, causing more lens flare and sporadic glimmers. As for protecting your lens from "scratches," I've never done that in all the lenses I've ever owned. I've broken lenses completely in half many times, but even then, I've never scratched the glass. Lens glass doesn't scratch easily—it's composition is such that a rather blunt impact with a particularly abrasive object is necessary. The likelihood is very small, and not worth the image degradation you get with such filters. If you're really nervous, us a Circular Polarizer (discussed next), as it will at least help make the picture look better in most circumstances. In general, it also helps to develop a habit of keeping a lens cap over the lens when I'm not shooting. (See section on cleaning your lens.)

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Without Polarizer
Notice Reflection on Skin
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, men, people, salute, south america, vertical, photograph
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With Polarizer
Notice Non-Reflective Skin
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, men, people, salute, south america, vertical, photograph

blue-bullet.gif Circular Polarizer

On the other end of the "useful" spectrum is the circular polarizer, which is the most useful filter of all. Yet, it also takes the prize for being the most misunderstood filter. What people are familiar with is how polarizers make skies bluer, but the reason why it works is what makes it such a great filter for many other uses as well. What polarizers do is block light that reflects off things. This bounced light is "polarized" (so named because it bounces in exactly the opposite direction as the direction it came from). In the process, light goes from a randomly erratic pattern to a very precise pattern, and it is this pattern that polarizers filter out. Reflected light includes glare, reflections, highlights, and so on. This effect is found in more than just "window" reflections, but all kinds, including shiny reflective objects that you can see on just about any surface: skin, fruit, wood, fabrics.

And here's where the real benefit comes in for reducing reflected light. When you have photons bouncing all around, it dilutes the effect of other light. When you remove this unwanted light, what ultimately hits your lens is a higher concentration of the actual colors that you want. Leaves appear greener, roses are redder, and yes, you guessed it, the sky is much bluer. In effect, you get a much richer color palette. Granted, this isn't going to jump out at you in every case, but many pictures often do better with a polarizer than without one.

Understanding how and why a polarizer works will help you make better use of it. Polarizers filter out light in 90-degree angles from the orientation of the filter, and because it's circular, you can rotate the glass to block out the (polarized) light you want. As you rotate the filter on the lens, look through the viewfinder and see how your scene changes. Reflections on the surface of trees' leaves come and go, a pond or lake can appear darker (greener or bluer), as you remove the reflections from the sky, the sparkle of snow can be eliminated or enhanced, and the "blueness" of the sky can be punched up, or taken down. As you can see, you can both add and reduce the contrast of a photo, depending on how you orient the polarizer on the lens. While you "can" get more shadow detail in some pictures by filtering out polarized light, don't expect the kind of results you would get using a fill flash.

The one caveat to polarizers is that they reduce the amount of light to the camera by 1-½ stops, which means that your exposure time will be longer. You don't have to do anything about this—it'll be automated by your camera—but the point is that you may not have enough light in darker conditions to hand-hold a picture if you're using a polarizer. It's easiest to use them in mid-day bright sun, where its effects are more dramatic, and use them at night with a tripod. (I often use a polarizer when doing night photography in city streets to avoid the shimmer of lights off of the streets.) As you gain experience and develop your eye to see the subtler effects on lower contrast pictures, you'll see that it really helps in rain, overcast skies, and other atmospheric conditions that diffuse the natural light your eye sees.

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3-stop Graduated Neutral Density Filter
vertical, tech, grad, tech, grad, photograph

blue-bullet.gif Split ND Filters

Many of those spectacular scenic pictures you see in postcards or in photography books like this one, were probably taken using a "split neutral density filter." Also called a "Split ND," this filter has a neutral tonality (doesn't change color) that graduates from a darkened part of the glass to clear, so you can control scenes with oppositely graduated ranges of bright to dark. A common example is a sunset, or a shadowy foreground say under a tree. The photo here illustrates this: the plant in the foreground would never come out if the darker part of the bright sunrise wasn't "filtered" out to leave a more balanced image.

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Using a "split ND" filter to balance the sun's brightness with the darker foreground
(Marin County, California, USA)
bolinas, california, colorful, fog, foggy, headlands, hills, horizontal, lagoon, marin, marin county, marin headlands, north america, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, sunsets, united states, west coast, western usa, photograph
Split NDs come in square or circular formats, and also vary in their "density" (that is, how much light they filter out). But the circular split ND filters are virtually useless because the "split" is always in the middle of the filter, and you can't move it up or down. The middle is rarely where the light graduates from light to dark, leaving it fairly useless. Therefore, only the square version (the "Cokin 'P'" size) is useful.

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Split ND.
(Ft. Cronkite, California, USA)
beaches, california, coastline, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, pacific ocean, rodeo, rodeo beach, san francisco bay area, scenics, shoreline, sunsets, water, west coast, western usa, photograph
Split ND filters are rated by the number of "stops" of light they filter. I happen to own a 2-stop and a 3-stop filter to accommodate everything from a mild sunrise (where I might only use just the 2-stop filter), to a more dramatic scene where I would sandwich them together to block 5-stops of light. (The photo of the sunrise uses both.)

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Sunset Filter
tech, filter, sunset, horizontal, tech, filter, sunset, photograph
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Sunset Filter on
tech, filter, sunset, horizontal, tech, filter, sunset, photograph

blue-bullet.gif Graduated Sunset Filters

Graduated filters like the split ND don't have to be color-neutral. You can get colors as well, including variations of "sunset" qualities, as shown here. When choosing colored filters in a graduated format, understand that slight colors have dramatic effects on the final image. Sunset filters can assist in reproducing the original colors of the sky that you see, but cannot be captured by film or digital sensor because the light ranges exceed the capabilities of the media.

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Corte Madera Creek Sunset (7)
(Greenbrae, California, USA)
california, clouds, colorful, corte madera, creek, greenbrae, horizontal, marin, marin county, mountains, north bay, northern california, rivers, slow exposure, sunsets, tamalpais, west coast, western usa, photograph
Lastly, it should be noted that some pictures just don't take well to split NDs or sunset filters, simply because the complexity of the colors and the lack of a clear, delineated line between brights and shadows. The sunset photos show here illustrate this. The best way to get these kinds of pictures is by using a double-exposure technique, where you take two pictures of exactly the same scene using two
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Bryce Sunrise (2)
(Bryce Canyon, Utah, USA)
america, bryce, bryce canyon, horizontal, north america, scenics, sunrise, united states, utah, western usa, photograph
exposures: one is metered on the highlights (the sunset), and the other is metered on the shadows. Each picture will have its part of the scene exposed properly, but then you sandwich them together to make for a final image that takes the best part of both images, and creates a new one. Photoshop has a feature called "HDR" (Hight Dynamic Range) that does this automatically. The only thing you need to do is pre-calculate the exposure values for each picture, and have the camera on a tripod to make sure the camera doesn't move between frames. (The alignment of the two pictures is critical.) This technique isn't hard, but it's beyond the scope of this book to discuss further.

How filters work requires a better understanding of how cameras respond to light. To read more about this, see Techniques on Metering Light with your Camera.

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The Importance of Having a Camera Bag
(Peru)
ancient ruins, andes, architectural ruins, cameras, inca trail, incan tribes, latin america, marco, mountains, people, peru, stone ruins, vertical, photograph
For those who truly have photography as a passion, tripods and camera bags are two of the most purchased items that serious photographers go through in their lifetimes. No other camera product falls victim to this more than bags and tripods, mostly because people perceive them as side accessories, when in fact, they turn out to be more important than they appear they should be. Consequently, those accumulated purchases usually total more than all your other camera equipment put together. Granted, if you carry minimal photo gear, or if you travel only occasionally, you may be spared the severity of this expense. But, those who've been bitten by the photo bug, often end up with countless unused camera bags and tripods that they've had to replace with what they should have gotten in the first place. The best way to avoid this is to believe the following two truisms:

1 Lower-priced items are vastly inferior to higher-priced items.
It's because the observable differences between less and more expensive items are so minimal, it's hard to believe the quality justifies the price difference. Hence, you will buy the less-expensive items versions first, only to become increasingly frustrated until you capitulate and lay out the big bucks for the better products later.

2 No single product actually meets all your needs.
Because no one camera bag or tripod is suitable for all uses, you're going to go through Step 1 many times for each type of camera bag and tripod, abandoning each of your previous purchases to your garage or attic, or as gifts to distant relatives.

Now, it's not like the less-expensive products are "cheap." They're usually fine, but have limitations that the more expensive items don't have. Emerging photographers think they need to "grow into" these products, so they buy low first, thinking they'll upgrade later. And this is when the accumulated cache of unused products begins. When you've repeated this cycle several times, you're writing articles like this. Yes, I read a very similar article when I was getting started, and I couldn't believe it either, but sure enough, my in-laws were soon receiving tripods for Christmas.

Now, I'm not suggesting you start with the top-of-line products. Quite the contrary. if it were as easy as simply pointing to a finite set of selected bags and tripods, then I'd do so now and be done with it. The problem is, everyone is not the same size, has the same strength, shoots the same subjects, or carries the same equipment. Darn. Making matters worse, each season, all manufacturers come out with new lines of products to replace last season's line-up, in anticipation of the next round of remorseful buyers. The solution to this problem starts with a recognition that no one product will be enough—you need to pick a bag that serves some of your camera-carrying needs, knowing that you'll later have to get another bag that serves other needs. The moment you attempt to find a bag that serves all your needs, that's when mistakes are made. (Oh yes—same for tripods.)

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Turkish Flag (1)
(Istanbul, Turkey)
blue mosque, europe, flags, horizontal, istanbul, minaret, mosques, religious, turkeys, turkish, photograph
There are two ways to carry gear in travel photography. You are either in transport mode, or in active shooting mode. Unless you're using a point-n-shoot, or an SLR with no extra lenses or anything else, you're most likely going to need at least two separate camera bags. There are three basic camera bag designs to serve these needs: backpacks, hip bags/slings, and fanny packs.

Ok, there's one more, but it's not a bag: it's the "photo vest" or "jacket," with tons of pockets. I have one and I like it under some conditions, but it's never better than other options, so I never use it anymore. The worst part about the photo vest is that it adds too much warmth. Any weather warm enough for snow to melt is, for me, too warm for a photo vest. Lighter-weight vests may be better temperature-wise, but are too flimsy for heavier camera equipment (namely, lenses). So, I don't use vests.

Anyway, back we go to the camera bags. Each type is invaluable in various situations, but what you really need to look for are those that have the durability and ruggedness for larger, heavier equipment as you advance in skill and experience (because you'll buy more—and therefore, heavier—gear). By consequence, you may feel like you're buying a more expensive bag that you don't yet need, but this is an illusion. You do need it. (See how this game goes now?) The devil is in the details, though; it's easy to overdo it, and buy far more than what you need, so we need to examine this further.

Let's start by choosing a camera bag strictly for transport purposes. That is, you're going on a plane, and you need to get your stuff from one country to the next. Of course, you need to see if your stuff fits, which is why some people actually bring their entire cadre of equipment into the photo store to see which bags can actually carry everything they have. Bags used for transport tend to be far more expensive than those for more practical day-to-day shooting needs, where you carry around your equipment as you shoot. (Rarely do you ever carry everything you own on any one shooting foray.)

It's true that you need a good camera bag to transport all your equipment, but this is why "one bag" will never serve as your "only bag." But, it's also easy to over-purchase by getting a bag designed for transport of everything you own, when you rarely need all that for any given trip. If you have an appreciable amount of equipment, expect to get one kind of bag for transport, that's high-end, but not so big that you topple over whenever you lean to one side or another.

Here, you need to look for one important feature: protection. You needn't actually get to your equipment as much as you need to protect it from being banged around in the overhead bin in the airplane, or on a train, or in the trunk of a taxi. Where access becomes important is when you're looking at bags you use while you're actually shooting. And here, protection is a comparatively less-important objective. Access is now king. So again, it's easy to over-purchase if you're getting something with tons of protection that you simply don't need. So, put yourself in a real-life shooting scenario where you don't necessarily want to pack your equipment, you want to get at it. If you can't use the bag easily and effectively in real-life situations, it's not the bag for you. With that intro, let's examine the different bag types.

blue-bullet.gif The backpack

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Prayer Wheels (3)
(Paro, Bhutan)
asia, asian, bhutan, buddhist, horizontal, prayers, religious, rinpung dzong, style, wheels, photograph
Backpacks come in various sizes from the smallest "intro" bags to the "super-trekker" that can hold a small camera store. Backpacks are best for transporting equipment, and given what we just went over, you won't need the "biggest" bag, because you're unlikely to need to carry everything. And you won't need the smallest bag, because that'll be a size reserved for active shooting. This leaves us in the middle ground: a mid-sized bag with lots of good padding.

If you're a casual shooter, with a modest to small equipment list, it's certainly possible that a lightweight backpack can serve both purposes. But, this exception is really for the non-serious shooter, just to save money and minimize the amount of equipment you own. Backpacks are really not the best type for active shooting, because "access" to your equipment is the most difficult of all bag types. Active shooting often requires access to lenses and such while standing up and/or walking, and having stuff on your back where you can't get at it makes things hard. Sure, you can set a backpack on the ground next to you, but that presents all sorts of problems for many conditions, like shooting in the streets, or being in conditions where the ground isn't stable or has other debris that I'd rather not mention. Still, there are some good backpack designs, but if you have to use one while shooting, access becomes important again.

If you're going to get a backpack used for both access and transport, a design characteristic you want to avoid is the "front-loading" model, which is where you open the backpack on its "front side" rather than through the top. Here, to get access to equipment, you have to lay the backpack on its back and open up the front. The intent is to allow access to as much stuff as possible at one time. However, the problem is that the back side is what rests on the ground, and we just covered that problem. It's the same side that rests on your back while you're carrying it, so whatever sticks to it from the ground, will now be attached to your back. This isn't a problem for studio photographers, who can leave their backpacks on a clean floor. But for travel photography, this design doesn't work so well.

Therefore, I like top-loading backpacks for combo transport/shooting, especially those with reinforced bottoms that can sit firmly on the ground. Because most people buy backpacks for transport only, few camera bag makers use this design anymore, with Tamrac being one of the last hold-outs.

blue-bullet.gif The side or "hip" bag, and the "sling".

The hip bag was designed precisely to compensate for the main drawback of the backpack. This design goes over the shoulder and slings to your side, and are almost all universally top-loading. (It can also sling in front or behind you.) Sling bags have a large main compartment for access to lenses and such, clearly designed for the active shooter rather than transport. It's true you can use these for transport, but its placement around your body means that its balance isn't optimal, and its physical bulkiness makes it harder to carry other things at the same time. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to have a smaller sling bag packed in luggage, where you don't actually use it till you're actively shooting. In the meantime, haul your equipment in a backpack. Now you see why you may need two different camera bags.

blue-bullet.gif The Fanny Pack

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Butt Sniff
(Havana, Cuba)
butts, caribbean, cats, cuba, dogs, havana, horizontal, island nation, islands, latin america, sniff, south america, photograph
A third options is the "fanny pack," so-named because it was originally designed to go around the waist; the "storage" compartment sits on your behind (a.k.a., your "butt"). In American English, this is your "fanny." In British English, however, the definition is quite different, so the industry is trying to move to the term, "hip bag," but that's already being taken by the "sling" bag. I'm sure they work it out someday, but we can move forward.

Fanny pack designs are very convenient in how they allow you to "carry just what you need, when you need it." The best of this group are those whose designs include a strap over the shoulder, which makes them more similar to sling bags. This is great for better weight distribution, but it works only so long as you don't over pack the bag with everything you own. It's easy to over-stuff fanny packs, causing them to droop and put pressure in places that you won't want it. (This is especially annoying for small-bladder-ed people, or those who like very large belt buckles.)

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Camera Fannypack (1)
(Santa Barbara, California, USA)
fannypack, tech, horizontal, camera, fannypack, tech, camera, photograph
For me, the best configuration is a hybrid between a fanny pack (for great access and weight distribution) and a sling bag, which carries much more easily, and a backpack. I have never found such a bag from a camera-bag manufacturer, but I did find several options at the outdoor adventure store, REI. Trekkers often have the same carrying needs of photographers, so the item I chose was a combo of all three: a regular backpack that can be configured to be worn as a "sling" (over one shoulder and around the front), that also had the waist support of a fanny pack. It also had modular compartments that can make it "more" of each of these as well. I place my short lenses where the water bottles go, the long telephoto lens in the main compartment, the filters and extra batteries and CF cards in one of the side zipper pockets and miscellaneous stuff goes in the various add-on pockets that come with it. Best of all, the whole thing cost $75, significantly less than what the camera-bag makers charge for something far less useful.

Practicing what I preach, I don't use the fanny pack for transport; that I leave to my top-loading Tamrac backpack, since it has the ruggedness and protection necessary for airports, cities, and other non-shooting (transport) conditions.

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Fog Photographer (1)
(California, USA)
california, fog, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, people, photographers, san francisco bay area, west coast, western usa, photograph
Tripods are the awful, but necessary evil of travel photography. It's a shame because you are already carrying too much, and adding such a heavy, bulky object isn't fun. For this reason, many tourists simply bypass the tripod completely. Worse, many just buy inferior products and suffer the worst of both worlds: they can't shoot easily under many circumstances because of a bad tripod, but they still carry it around with them everywhere they go because it's moderately useful when you abosolutely need it. This is why it's so critical to choose wisely.

First, let me get this out of the way: monopods are not tripods. Monopods are are fine for offloading heavy lenses (like sports photographers use), or if you're standing only in one place, shooting the same thing at shutter speeds that don't require being absolutely still (ie., you have Image Stabilization in your lenses or camera). But, don't assume you can use a monopod as a tripod. If it weren't for the fact that I see so many people using monopods as if they were tripods (usually with remorse), I wouldn't have to warn you about it here.

In short, you need to have a bona fide tripod. The best tripods cost far more than you think they should, because you will eventually learn that carbon fiber has the strength and durability to not "jiggle," plus they're light for easier transport. These alone make the higher price worth every penny.

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Beach and Clouds (1)
(Kalkan, Turkey)
beaches, clouds, europe, kalkan, turkeys, vertical, photograph
The next important aspect to tripods besides weight and bulk is time to set up. That is, how long does it take to extend the legs, lock them into place, make minor adjustments, and then pack up after your shot? You may think this is like complaining about the extra 15 seconds it takes to wait for those annoying voice mail prompts you hear when you call someone's cell phone. When all you want to do is just get to the darn "beep" so you can leave the message, you get to a point where you just want to yell, "come on already!" Yes, dealing with tripod setup and tear down is one of those things that really gets annoying the more you do it. Before you know it, you're sick and tired of having to go through what should be a very straightforward process of moving around.

There are two major leg-extension designs: the twist lock, and the key lock. The "twist" type works by turning the tube to lock the leg into place, which can have various levels of tightness. The problem with this model is that it gets increasingly annoying to do this task for each leg, every time you want to use it. It's also easy to get wrong. if it's not "tight enough," it'll start drifting downward as your long exposure shot gets ruined. Also, when it's cold or rainy, you really don't want to deal with twisting cold metal. This means that the "key" mechanism is your choice for leg-extension design, which is just a latch that takes only a single quarter-turn and you feel the leg locking into place. It's a single switch, not a "level of tightness."

One more thing to consider: if you're going to a cold climate, you might consider buying Styrofoam pipe covering, normally used to cover water pipes outside to keep the water from freezing. You can get this stuff at any hardware store. Just get a short piece, cut it into sections as wide as your hand, and then duct-tape it to the part of the tripod legs where you carry it. Gloves or not, you'll actually survive cold-weather photography.

blue-bullet.gif Tripod Heads

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Shot with a table-top tripod
(La Paz, Bolivia)
bolivia, iglesia, la paz, latin america, san francisco, vertical, photograph
Just because you buy a tripod, doesn't mean you get the head that goes on top to attach to your camera. The cheap tripods have these, but the bigger ones don't. That'll be another chunk of change, but again, it's a one-time expense that's well-worth the added investment to get the right thing. There are two major designs: the three-way panhead, and the ball head. The panhead design involves three different levers, each moving the camera in a different direction. The idea is that you can pan left or right, and up or down, completely independently of each other. For a few rare cases, such as architectural photography, this is nice. For every other use, it's a lot of work to point the camera where you want. Also, it's bulkier than you need, and it adds a lot of weight to your gear. There's a reason these are much less expensive than the ball head design. By contrast, the ball head lets you move the camera in any direction just by pointing it and using a tightening mechanism, which can be one of a button, trigger, knob, or lever. Either of these are equally intuitive. Ball heads are lighter, easier, less bulky, and (you guessed it) more expensive. The smaller and lighter you get, the costlier they get. Sort of like cell phones.

Again, the major consideration is weight, just like with the tripod itself. So, again, carbon fiber is the best bet here. One thing to note, though, is that, unlike with the tripod, the weight of your camera equipment governs the size of what head you use. If you've got a huge 10lb. lens, then you've got other issues to concern yourself with.

blue-bullet.gif Smaller Alternatives

Just like camera bags, it's often the case that one item doesn't satisfy all needs. Fortunately, secondary tripods are not nearly as expensive. I always carry a tiny table-top tripod in my camera bag, just in case I need one, but don't have my main one around. These are great for using inside buildings or on street corners, where you don't have the room, or aren't allowed to use them. A table-top tripod can be hand-held against a wall, on a table, or even on the floor (with you down there too). These aren't really capable of long exposures (many minutes), but they're perfect for pictures that you can't hand-hold because it's too dark. (And remember, flash-free photos generally look better, so the tripod can mean the difference between a great photo and a so-so photo.)

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Thatched Roof Hut and Mountains (2)
(Laos)
asia, huts, laos, mountains, river village, roofs, thatched, vertical, villages, photograph
With all this camera equipment, you'd think your bag is full already. Well, we're almost there. A few more things to consider, and fortunately, they're all small.

blue-bullet.gif Memory Cards

When you take pictures, the camera stores the digital data on a media card. There are many types to choose from, and while only some high-end cameras support multiple types at the same time, your camera will probably support either an SD (secure digital) or CF (compact flash) card. The differences are largely unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and you shouldn't make a buying decision on a camera based only on this. (If such details are important to you, you need a depth of information well beyond the scope of this book.) To give you a hint about the differences is that the speed in which data can be read and written to and from the card is greater with the CF card than the SD card. This affects the speed in which your camera can shoot, and the speed in which you download the images from the card later. But, the camera manufacturers know this, and design the camera to use the type of card that is most appropriate for it. It's unlikely your camera will exceed the read/write capabilities of today's media cards. There are other card types, too, but these are the two most common ones, and besides, the prices between them don't vary much.

Speaking of price, my rule of thumb for this type of product is to buy whatever $50 will get you. That always seems to be the breaking point between the high-end and low-end products. At the time of this writing, $50 buys a 2G (two gigabytes) media card (of any type). Last year, $50 could get a 1G card, and the year before that, it was 256M (¼ of a gigabyte). By the time you read this, chances are that you'll be getting 4G cards for $50. Whether you should get a higher capacity card is dependent on how much you tend to shoot, how long you plan on being away, and how many megapixels your camera is.

Megapixels translates to the size of the file for the image, but this is not an exact mesaurement. Not every picture translates to the same size file, because file data doesn't correlate directly to pixel data. Factors like ISO setting can make file sizes bigger, and other user configurable parameters can change this value dramatically as well. Still, we can roughly guess that an 8-megapixel camera will create files that average in size from four to six megabytes. So, a 2G card will hold roughly 300-400 pictures under typical shooting conditions. If you are used to thinking in terms of rolls of film, that's anywhere from 8 to 12 rolls. When you used to bring your film camera on vacation, how many rolls did you go through? think of that number, but then also consider that with digital cameras, you can preview and delete photos as well.

The next thing to know is your shooting habits. If you're likely to shoot 50-100 photos a day, you could get a 2G card and a 4G card, which may last about two weeks. For the $150, that's not bad. However, if you think you're going to shoot more than that, or you're going to be gone longer, it may be more cost-effective to get an external storage device rather than multiple media cards.

blue-bullet.gif External Storage

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de Young Textured Wall (7)
(San Francisco, California, USA)
black and white, buildings, california, de young, de young museum, golden gate park, horizontal, museums, san francisco, textured, walls, west coast, western usa, photograph
The capacity of these devices usually start around 20G, and prices start around the price of a low-end iPod (currently $200). Yes, for $50 more, you've upgraded from 6G in memory cards, to 20G of external storage. There's a reason for this trade-off, which we'll get into shortly. First, a little primer on storing data.

There are two ways you can store images from your media card. You can put them on your PC, or (if you don't want to lug it around), or you can buy an external storage device. Personally, I shoot anywhere from 300-400 shots a day, so my routine involves shooting with a 4G card on my camera, and downloading images every night to a storage device. The one I use can read my media card, and write it onto a hard drive inside it. (The reason I don't mention the brand is that the last time I mentioned what I used, it was obsolete by the time the book came out, and I had already changed to a new device.) Whatever external storage device you get, it'll have a hard drive no different than the kind you have in a computer. The fact that it's a combo unit that also reads the media card makes it simple, convenient, and small (compared to the alternative, which is to carry around a PC.)

As noted earlier, it's no accident that the price of an external storage device starts at just about the same price as where it's no longer cost-effective to use multiple media cards. But, let's examine that option of bringing your PC along on holiday (hardly unusual these days). It already has a hard drive, so all you need to do is read the card and store it on your PC. Lo and behold, you can buy a simple media card reader that has no storage capacity—it just plugs directly into your PC. These typically cost anywhere from $15 and up, depending on the number of different card types it can read.

If you're paranoid (as I am) about losing your images, you can bring both a PC, and an external hard drive, and back up the images from one to the other, just in case something happens. And you know Murphey's Law.

blue-bullet.gif Cable Release

If you ever do long exposures, you need to have a cable release. Each camera manufacturer has their own proprietary kind, so your options are limited. Just be sure to have one, as you'll need it if you want to do exposures over 30 seconds. (Only a few camera models will do shutter releases longer than 30 seconds without a cable release.) Some advanced models come with programmable settings that allow you to control the exact length of time you want an exposure to last.
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Waterfall
(Palomarin Trail, Bolinas, California, USA)
california, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, palomarin trail, vertical, waterfalls, west coast, western usa, photograph

blue-bullet.gif Miscellaneous Stuff

It's also good to have a tiny flashlight, a padded tri-fold pouch that has the basic filter set (polarizer, and ranges of graduated ND filters), a hot-shoe mounted bubble level (used with the tripod to make sure the camera is level), snacks, some pens (I can't believe how much I actually need those, often for non-photography-related stuff), and the camera manual. (Oh yes—bring that manual!)

Anyway, all that goes in your backpack or whatever you're using to transport. Last word of advice about packing: determine the places where things go and leave them there, even when you're at home. Never remove items from your pack unless you're using them, and this is for one main reason: there are so many things to remember that you simply can't expect to think of them every time and pack them up. You will invariably forget to pack something, especially those important-but-rarely-used items, and you'll curse yourself for having forgotten. So, the best thing to do is populate your camera bag once, and never take things out, except when you use them. When you're done with something, put it back in the same place. You'll get so used to things being in the same place every time, you'll love (and depend on) how quickly you can go directly to the item you're looking for. What makes photography fun is not having to deal with the things that go wrong, and disorganization is the primary reason why they do. If you can have your equipment in a state of readiness that allows you to leave on a moment's notice and shoot most any kind of situation, you'll never suffer from that frustration that plagues even the pros.

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