Traveling light, revisited one year later

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“).

It’s now August 2011, a year later. When we started planning our recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, I thought I’d “travel light” again, either with the same two cameras I used last year or perhaps with the new Sony Cybershot HX100V, which is similar to the Panasonic FZ35 but, well, a little newer and better. But I changed my mind and took two DSLRs instead (the Sony A550 and Sony A580). To go with the bodies, I took two zoom lenses. One  (Carl Zeiss DT 16-80 f/3.5-4.5) was a wide-to-moderate telephoto like the LX3. The other (Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di USD XLD) was a normal telephoto range of 70-300 or 105-450 in traditional full-frame terms; this replaced the Panasonic FZ35 although the FZ35 goes both wider and farther and so is more versatile. I wasn’t expecting to do much hiking this year, so weight and size weren’t really issues.

So, did it matter? Were my pictures better because I took bigger and “better” cameras?

On the whole, probably not. Most of the time, I was able to shoot outdoors in good to pretty good light, and under those circumstances, at least for the purposes of family vacation photography, I am pretty confident that the fixed lens cameras would have done fine. For example, here’s a shot taken this year with the Sony A550 and Tamron 70-300 USD:

Shot with Sony A550 and Tamron 70-300 USD lens

The shot above of the marmot might be better than the following shot of a couple of otters, but the superior clarity of the more recent shot is not, I think, due to the equipment, but to the lighting.

Taken with Panasonic FZ35

Let me say again that I’m thinking strictly in terms of personal photography. In other words, I’m not worrying about whether I can make a stunning 8×10″ print for a paying customer. I don’t like to stay that my standards are lower when I’m shooting for myself, but I guess I would admit that my purposes are a bit different and of course I’m able to tolerate failure when I’m shooting for myself. Most of my personal photos end up on the Web or in a memory book that I create at Snapfish or Blurb.

Which brings me to the real point. While the compact cameras can do really very well when the light is good, they fail pretty completely when the light stinks, as it did here:

Beaver eating dinner. Taken at ISO 3200.


That photo would simply have been impossible with the FZ35 or the LX3. It was taken at almost 8pm. The sun was going down and I was in a very shady wooded area. To get the picture at all I had to kick the camera’s sensitivity (ISO) up to 3200. The photo you see has not had any noise reduction applied, partly because noise reduction reduces detail and partly because, in this case, noise reduction wasn’t terribly necessary. Had I taken this shot with either the FZ35 or the LX3, well, it might have looked like this:

Beaver at ISO 3200 as it might have looked if shot with compact camera

The grain or pseudo-noise here was added in Lightroom 3. To be honest, I think the photo would have been even noisier if I’d taken it with the FZ35.

So, boys and girls, what have we learned?

First, as I have said many times before and for years: Compact (fixed-lens) cameras can take great pictures and they keep getting better every year. By contrast, DSLRS are more expensive than fixed-lens cameras. They’re heavier. Changing lenses introduces the risk of dust on the sensor which can ruin photographs. Focus with DSLRs can require greater care because depth of field is smaller. And lens quality can be an issue with a DSLR. The best lenses are much better than the lenses on fixed lens cameras; but you can also buy consumer-grade lenses for DSLRs that are worse than the Leica lenses on the Panasonic LX3 and FZ35. In short, for many people, compact cameras make a lot of sense.

But second, DSLRs have their advantages, too. One advantage is that, because DSLRs have larger sensors than compact cameras, other things being equal, DSLRs wil perform significantly better in low light. This is why no pro shoots weddings with a compact camera.


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