Traveling light: The post-mortem

Well, I’m back from my excellent vacation adventure, mostly but not exclusively in Yellowstone National Park. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post titled “Traveling Light,” in which I revealed that I had—with some hesitancy—decided to leave my Pentax DSLR bodies and my excellent lenses at home, and instead to entrust my vacation photos completely to a couple of relatively inexpensive compact, fixed-lens cameras.

And that’s what I did. My pro gear stayed home and the compact cameras traveled. Now that I’ve had a chance to review the photos, select my favorites and post them online, what do I think about this experiment? Was it a success or a failure?

Wildlife: Panasonic FZ35

We saw lots of wildlife on this trip, mostly in Yellowstone, but also in Custer State Park in South Dakota and elsewhere. We saw grizzly bears (but no black bears, I think), gray wolves, lots of bison, coyotes, elk, white-tailed deer, pronghorns, marmots, otters, not to mention lots of birds, including an osprey, a couple of bald eagles, a couple of sandhill cranes, what was probably a downy woodpecker, and a very colorful bird that we think was a western tanager. I’m justing rattling off the species I can remember easily.

I’m fairly satisfied with the pics I got with the FZ35, in most cases. This pic of a buffalo lying in the grass was taken in the middle of the FZ35’s zoom range (around 200mm equivalent), which is usually a “sweet spot” for lenses:

There’s a fair bit of detail here, acceptable noise (the shot was taken at ISO 80, the lowest setting), and good color. I’m confident it will print well.

This shot of the engineers building in Mammoth Hot Springs is slightly less satisfactory:

Fortunately I captured this as a raw file. The unprocessed original is somewhat “soft”, but I think the final result turned out okay, after I boosted the blacks, the contrast and especially the “clarity” in Lightroom 3. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that this shot would have been sharper if I’d taken it with my Pentax K20D and, oh, the Pentax 70mm prime.

The FZ35 shined when I was able to get fairly close to my subject, and when the light was good. We were not more than 25ft from these otters as they played near the banks of Trout Lake in Yellowstone:

I’m happy with that shot and don’t think it would have been better if I’d had better equipment. There was a serious photographer there at the same time, shooting with a film SLR. Apparently he’s quite devoted to the otters. I’d like to see some of his photos. But I’m happy enough with this.

The grizzly bears and wolves were far less cooperative than the otters. This shot of a mother grizzly with her three cubs was taken in the early morning, at Alum Creek in the Hayden Valley. I was using the FZ35 with the 1.7x teleconverter attached, and with the camera mounted on a tripod for additional stability. The FZ35’s in-camera image stabilization is actually quite good, but when you are shooting at an effective focal length of over 800mm, well, image stabilization can only do so much.

This grizzly was probably a quarter mile away from us at the time. I tried to remember, when attaching the converter, to switch into the FZ35’s shutter priority mode so I could keep the shutter speed over 1/500th sec. This wasn’t quite as fast as the old rule of thumb requires (that would be 1/800th sec) but I let the camera’s image stabilization do some work and I think the results were okay. At this distance, the limitations of the resolution of the lens become apparent. Teleconverters get you a longer reach but you pay for it in light lost (about a stop) and image clarity. But getting closer wasn’t an option; we were restrained by the ranger, and if the ranger hadn’t been there, I would have been restrained by my wife; and if my wife hadn’t been there, I would have had to rely on my own disinclination to risk being mauled by a grizzly. So this is the shot I got.

Could I have gotten this shot with my DSLR gear? I doubt it but I’m not sure. If I shot with my K20D and the Tamron 70-300 ED Di Macro, and if I was using the Tamron 1.4x teleconverter as well, I’d have an effective focal length available of something over 600mm. Now the difference between 600mm and 800mm in this situation is less than you might think. It’s possible that the DSLR’s much better performance at higher ISOs would become a factor here. The shot above was taken at ISO 200, which on the FZ35 is a fairly noisy sensitivity level. If I had shot this at ISO 400 or even 800 on my K20D, I am pretty sure it would be less noisy and more fine detail would have been preserved. The field of view would have been narrower (that is, the bears would have seemed “smaller” in the frame) but the greater resolution of the DSLR might have permitted me to crop and get something close to what I got with the FZ35. I just don’t know. What I am pretty sure of, however, is that what I could have gotten with my DSLR gear would not have been better.

(I hasten to emphasize that I’m comparing the FZ35’s performance and capabilities with my personal DSLR lens options, not with what a pro photographer could do with a $6000 lens.)

The noisiness of the FZ35 at anything over ISO 100 became an even more serious problem when, on another day, we spent a long time one afternoon watching these bears chew on a bison carcass on the bank of Soda Butte Creek, in the Lamar Valley.

We were a fair bit closer to the bears this time—not more than a couple of hundred yards, I think, if that—but it was a drizzly overcast afternoon, in other words, the light sucked. In order to keep the shutter fast, I had no choice but to boost the ISO to 400, and that meant losing detail. The other problem here was that I wasn’t using the tripod. Instead, for some reason, I grabbed the monopod instead.

But I think the images are quite satisfactory, as vacation photos. I got a gray wolf, too. She (the ranger told us it was a female) was hanging around in the neighborhood, probably hoping to get to the carcass if the bears abandoned it. Didn’t happen.

I’m glad I had that reach.

The bottom line is that the FZ35 basically performed as well as I expected it to, which was pretty well.  These photos aren’t going to end up in National Geographic, but I’ll be happy making prints of them for a vacation album.

I should add a note about the Panasonic 1.7x conversion lens. Dealing with it—putting it on and taking it off—involves a certain amount of hassle, akin to the hassle involved in changing lenses on a DSLR. Except that at no time do the camera’s innards get exposed to the air and its hazards (dust, pollen, moisture, etc.).

Landscapes and people: Panasonic LX3

Going into the vacation, I knew that, within its limited zoom range, the LX3 was a superior camera, indeed, within its limited zoom range and its even more limited range of satisfactory sensitivity (ISO 80-100), the LX3 is a very good camera, compared to just about anything. That Leica f/2.0-2.8 24-60mm (effective) lens is a real winner. And I understand that the LX3 has a slightly larger sensor than the FZ35. Anyway, from a technical perspective, the best shots I took on this vacation were taken with the LX3.

I was a little vague even at the time about which of the falls this was. I think this is a shot of the Lower Falls, as seen from above.

I did the black and white conversion in Adobe Lightroom 3. But the raw file from the LX3 gave me everything I needed to work with to make a decent conversion. I used the LX3’s 16:9 aspect ratio a lot, and usually cropped those photos to my personal favorite 2:1 aspect ratio for web display and printing.

I had a neutral density filter for the LX3 and tried it when shooting a couple of other falls. I didn’t use it here because I did not want to blur the water. I really like the sharp definition in the water at the top of the falls.

This shot of my wife and daughter along the path down from Trout Lake is very different from the waterfall shot:

The LX3 gave me the wide-angle I needed here and the fast aperture; this shot was taken at f/2.4 and ISO 100. Color rendition is good and the shot is nicely detailed.

But my favorite use for the LX3 is landscapes. Here is one of my favorites:

These last two were taken not in Yellowstone but in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we camped for two nights on our way north from Dallas. This is the Moraine after a rain (and hail) storm.

The image’s vibrance was goosed a little in Lightroom 3, but those colors are basically the colors that I saw.

The last picture is perhaps my favorite of the vacation and it illustrates the LX3’s adaptability. I had to make a midnight run to the comfort station one night at Rocky. While I was out of the tent, I noticed that the Moraine—which our campground looked down upon from the north—was full of fog and the moon was shining above it. Everybody else in the campground was sound asleep, so as quietly as I could, I hauled the tripod out of the van, put the LX3 into manual mode, took a couple test exposures, and then captured this:

You can click that image for a larger version. Yes, it’s a tad noisy, but hey, this is a six second exposure on a compact camera! I shot at ISO 400. In retrospect I wish I’d shot at ISO 200 and done a 12 second exposure. Nevertheless, I’m pretty happy with this shot. The Moraine at Rocky Mountain National Park, like the Eiffel Tower and Mount Rushmore, has been photographed millions of times and most of the photos look like all the others. It’s nice to have a chance to take a shot that looks a bit different.


My conclusion is that the experiment was generally a success.

One of my main motives for leaving the DSLR gear at home was that I didn’t want to have to lug a variety of lenses around. That worked out well. Even though I was carrying two cameras with me in the car most of the time, both were small. And although I did have to fiddle with the FZ35’s teleconversion lens occasionally, in general, I was able to grab a camera and go to shoot.

The other main goal was to take photos that were not worse than those I’d have taken with my DSLR kit. That’s not a high standard, of course, but it was a realistic one. And I’d say that standard was fairly well met.

Our next family vacation takes us to another national park, Big Bend, in southwest Texas. I could change my mind in the next few months but right now I expect I’ll be carrying the same two cameras I took with me to Yellowstone.


2 comments on “Traveling light: The post-mortem

  1. […] I usually take a couple vacation trips each year with my wife and daughters and of course I take photos on those trips. For years I took my best cameras (my digital SLRs) with me, on the theory that the best cameras would give me the best pictures. And then last year, I decided to question that theory. When we traveled to Yellowstone in summer 2010, I left my DSLRs at home and instead took a couple of fixed-lens cameras with me, the Panasonic LX3 (for wide and normal shots) and the Panasonic FZ35 “superzoom” (for shooting wildlife). The results were generally pretty satisfying and I blogged about the experiment when I got back (“Traveling Light: The Post-Mortem“). […]

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