Traveling light

Well, we’re off on vacation pretty soon. Most of our time will be spent at Yellowstone National Park. I’ve never been. Everybody says it’s a photographer’s paradise, because it’s beautiful everywhere you look, and because it has just about everything you could ask for in the way of natural beauty: mountains, prairies, geysers, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, ponds, forests, not to mention wildlife in the form of bears (two kinds), wolves, wolverines, badgers, beavers, bison, coyotes, eagles, osprey, hawks, falcons, ravens, bluebirds, and on and on. I’ve been doing my homework, reading both of the excellent books about photography at Yellowstone that I could find at Amazon (Lange’s, and Verderber’s), and getting advice from other photographers, mostly online, about where to go and what to look for. You gotta do your homework!

Well, with all this great stuff waiting for me to point a camera at it, you might think that I’d be bringing my best camera and best lenses. But you’d be wrong.

I’ve taken my Pentax gear with me to Rocky Mountain National Park, to the Grand Canyon, to Big Bend, to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and elsewhere. And yes, it does a terrific job. If somebody were paying me to go to Yellowstone and take photos, I guess I’d take my Pentax gear.

But I’ve decided this time to go light. I’m leaving the DSLRs and all the lenses at home, and I’m taking just a couple of Panasonic fixed-lens cameras. I hasten to add, a couple of very good fixed-lens cameras.

For landscapes

For landscapes, I’ll rely on the old Panasonic LX3, which still seems to me the very best digital compact camera ever. With its outstanding ultra-wide (24mm equivalent) Leica lens, it’s a perfect camera for landscapes, like this shot of the spillway at White Rock Lake in Dallas:

The LX3 is terrific for macro (close-up) photography, as well.

I have a circular polarizing filter (for shooting the geysers) and a neutral density filter (possibly for shooting waterfalls) for use with the LX3, so I think I’m in good shape.

In the past, if I was shooting a landscape with a Pentax DSLR, I have relied mainly on the Sigma 10-20 ultrawide zoom, an outstanding lens. It’s the only lens I took with me to the bottom of the Grand Canyon last Christmas. In 35mm equivalence, its range is 15mm to 30mm, so it gives me a considerably wider angle of view than the LX3’s 24mm. But the LX3 has twice the reach at the other end (it goes to 60mm). In short, the LX3 is right in the range where I take most of my photographs. If it were a bit better in low light, I could shoot a wedding with the LX3, something I would never try with the Sigma 10-20! If I weren’t going to use the LX3 at Yellowstone, I’d have to take the Sigma 10-20 AND at least one, probably two of my prime lenses, perhaps the Sigma 28 and the Sigma 40. More likely, for Yellowstone (since it’s not the Grand Canyon), I’d leave the 10-20 at home and take the Pentax 21 and the Pentax 40. Those are both small lenses. Still, that would be three to four times heavier than the LX3 and bulkier by about the same factor.

But if I had a Pentax DSLR body and the 21 and 40mm primes, I would still lack a couple of things the LX3 offers: outstanding macro capability, and the ability to shoot high-def video!

For wildlife

The harder, much harder, part of the problem is what to take to shoot wildlife. I’m a portrait photographer, a wedding photographer, and the fine lenses that I have are all in the wide to normal to weak telephoto range. My only long lens is a Tamron 70-300, which is a decent consumer lens, but, well, not in the league of the stuff I take to a wedding.

The reason I have the Tamron 70-300 is that it’s very affordable. Really high-quality telephoto lenses like the Pentax DA* 300 or the Sigma 150-500 (“Bigma”) are not.

At first, I thought I’d just stick with what I had already, the LX3, and, well, just look at the wildlife through binoculars. But I decided that was crazy. But I didn’t want to bring a DSLR and the 70-300, either. If I am going to go light, I’m going to go light.

So I decided to get a second compact camera with a good telephoto zoom.

I first tried the Pentax X90. I don’t really want to talk about it. Pentax’s DSLRs are terrific, really top notch. Its compact cameras, alas, not so much.

After a little more research, it became clear that Panasonic has ruled the compact camera category, or at least been a major competitor and innovator in that field, for years. So I tried the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7. The image quality was pretty good, and the zoom had a pretty good reach, too (300mm equivalent). Here’s a pic of a coot:

The detail in the coot’s feathers is actually better than it looks in this web-ready image. The ZS7 is compact and has GPS built-in, although I probably would not use the GPS feature in Yellowstone because we’ll be camping and I’m going to be worried about battery use. The ZS7 seems like a really nice camera for a lot of photographers, and I’ve seen some wonderful photos taken with it. But for me, it had a couple serious weaknesses. First, it doesn’t support raw capture. (The LX3 does, by the way.) I am not yet sure whether I’ll shoot raw in Yellowstone or not but I want to have the option. Second, the ZS7’s 300mm (equivalent) reach is just not going to be long enough to photograph a wolf or a baby bison. A final problem with the ZS7, for me personally anyway, is that, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t support add-ons in any way. Mainly that means that I can’t use it with filters.

So the ZS7 went back, too. And now I have a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ35, which is what I’ll be taking with me to Yellowstone. Its zoom range is from 27mm to an awesome 486mm (equivalent). With the Panasonic LT55 telephoto conversion lens attached, the FZ35 can actually reach over 800mm (equivalent)! And did I mention that it cost $300—a small fraction of what I’d have to spend to get a better, longer lens for my Pentax DSLR body.

Unlike the Pentax X90, the Panasonic FZ35 produces photos that I think are really pretty good. And unlike the Panasonic ZS7, the FZ35 also supports raw capture, and it accepts filters. Folks, we have a winner. Well, it’s not as compact as the ZS7. But it is very light.

Zoom zoom

How good is the FZ35’s zoom? Well, consider this. Here’s a shot I took from the east side of White Rock Lake (near my house in Dallas). I’m looking west across the lake toward the old pump house.

Interesting side note: The blur on the left side of the photo was caused by an insect on the lens. You have to keep your lenses clean, even if you have a compact camera!

Now the previous photo is a bit deceptive. The wide-angle view makes even the biker seem farther away than he is. He’s probably about 35-40 ft away. But as you can see, the pump house is a long way away. I just tried to calculate the distance using Google Maps, and it’s about half a mile across the lake at this point. Imagine that there was a wolf or a baby bison standing on the porch of the pump house. I’d be out of luck, right?

Maybe not. Here’s a photo of the pump house taken with the FZ35’s zoom extended all the way (486mm equivalent).

And here’s a shot with the 1.7x teleconverter attached.

OK, if there were a wolf, say, lying on its side on the porch of the pump house, I’m not saying I’d be able to tell if it was a boy or a girl. But I’m pretty sure I could tell it was a wolf and not a coyote, which is a good start.

Of course, test shots of far-away buildings aren’t really very indicative of how the lens will perform if I’m shooting wildlife. Perhaps this is a better example of the FZ35’s zoom range. This was taken from the same spot as the previous pic, and the rowers were in the middle of the lake.

And here’s an uncropped shot of a scissor-tailed flycatcher that was zipping around where I was taking these other photos.

Compare that to this cropped photo of a scissor-tail that I took down in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge a few years ago:

That was taken with the Tamron 70-300.

Proof is in the prints

So is this a good idea—leaving the really good cameras and lenses at home, and taking a couple of inexpensive “point and shoot” cameras? I think so, but to be honest, I won’t really know until I get back and get some images printed. A big weakness of image comparisons on the Internet is that they’re limited by the display medium, your monitor. Sometimes you can’t really tell how much better one image is than another until you send both to a high-quality printer. I’ll back to you at the end of the summer when we’re back and I’ve had a chance to print and review my photos.

And if it does turn out to be a bad idea, I’ll just have to go back to Yellowstone and try again.

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2 comments on “Traveling light

  1. Really enjoyed reading. I use a Panasonic DMC-FZ35, and you’re right: it is an amazing camera! I wanted to ask your opinion of the 1.7x teleconverter lens. Also, did you buy any of the filters for it? If you did, did you think that they were worth the money?
    Thanks!

    • Jeremy,

      Glad you liked the post. Yes, I thought the teleconverter lens was useful. I had done some comparison tests, where I shot a distant subject with the teleconverter on, zoomed in, and without the teleconverter and then cropping that shot. The shot with the TC on was generally superior. It’s not a huge difference, however. And putting the teleconverter on and taking it off is a bit of a pain. So, I remain slightly ambivalent about it.

      As for filters, yes, I took some filters (polarizing, neutral density) and used a little. I hesitate to express an opinion. I don’t use filters much with my DSLRs. I didn’t think the filters were terribly helpful on the smaller camera. But it’s quite possible that I’m not making the best use of them.

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