Plugged In: Capture the best of summer with good gear

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

As March turns into April and summer vacation plans take form, it’s time to decide what photo gear equipment to take along to capture your personal and family memories. Generally, smaller and lighter is better when traveling, especially with a family.

Should you decide to purchase a new camera, lens or other gear, it’s best to do so now, well prior to your trip. That way, you’ll have time to learn how to use that new gear. There’s a learning curve for all new camera gear, something that I found to be personally true as recently as last weekend while using my recently purchased Pentax K-3.

Before deciding whether it’s appropriate to stand pat with your existing photo gear or upgrade, consider your planned summer activities. If you plan to dive or do other water-related sports, then some sort of waterproof (not merely weather-resistant) camera is needed.

Nikon has recently introduced a waterproof variant of its Nikon 1 system that’s supposedly waterproof to several meters depth. This new waterproof Nikon 1 camera uses Nikon 1 series interchangeable lenses and is something of a reincarnation of Nikon’s famous Nikonos underwater film camera popular among divers in the 1970s and 1980s. Another well-regarded rough-weather camera is Olympus’ TG-2, due to be replaced in June 2014 by the TG-3, which includes enhanced close-up capabilities. The Nikon 1 Series cameras use a significantly larger 1-inch sensor than the Olympus TG cameras, and thus will produce better images under dim light, always a consideration underwater or at twilight.

Two of the best all-in-one travel cameras, the Sony RX10 and Olympus Stylus 1, use larger sensors and better zoom lenses that are not only sharper but also brighter, with wide, f/2.8 maximum apertures. By restricting the zoom range of the attached lenses to rational magnification ranges, the designers of these systems have produced high quality systems with exceptionally good lenses.

As you might imagine, better quality costs more, so neither of these cameras may be the best choice for your needs. However, the Sony RX10, in particular, has received very positive reviews. Its 1-inch sensor is smaller than even Micro Four-Thirds sensors yet produces quality results. The Sony RX10 is a fairly large, expensive camera, something to bear in mind.

Another popular type of vacation camera is often called a “travel zoom,” packaging a wide-zoom-ratio lens in a quite compact body. Of course, something’s got to give, and in this instance, it’s the sensor.

The only way to achieve telephoto magnifications in a quite compact camera body is to use a very small, 1/2.3-inch sensor. Small sensors like that provide high apparent magnifications with physically small zoom lenses but don’t have good overall image quality and low light capability. Still, this sort of camera is great for vacation snapshots in good light.

Some travel-zoom cameras, such as Panasonic’s ZS-25 and ZS-30, as well as Olympus’ SH-1, are well regarded. The SH-1 uses excellent image stabilization hardware and should do better in low-light conditions. The Panasonic ZS-30 is less expensive than the Olympus but with a longer telephoto reach.

Bulkier variations of the all-in-one travel zoom camera are available from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and other makers, often including lenses claiming to magnify up to 50 or 60 times.

This is rather ridiculous. It’s virtually impossible to adequately hand-hold any camera at those extreme magnifications and the optical quality of extreme zoom lenses is almost always mediocre. Still, images made in good light with such cameras are probably good enough for vacation snapshots viewed on your large-screen TV, but I would not plan on making any enlargements from them.

If you are on safari, viewing brown bears, or otherwise need extreme telephoto capability, then you would be better served by a prograde Micro Four-Thirds camera such as the weather-resistant Olympus E-M1 or E-M5 and a high-magnification telephoto zoom lens like the Olympus 75- to 300-mm II zoom or Panasonic’s 100- to 300-mm zoom lens.

Unfortunately, neither of these zoom lenses is weather-resistant, so you’ll need to be quite careful about dust, moisture and other environmental contaminants. I’ve personally had better results optically with the Olympus telephoto zoom than with the competing Panasonic model.

You’ll absolutely need good image stabilization with such a high-magnification lens, so Olympus’ five-axis, in-body image stabilization will probably yield better results at lower shutter speeds. Because the Olympus telephoto zoom does not include in-lens image stabilization, it’s only truly usable on Olympus Micro Four-Thirds cameras.

Inevitably, all current Micro Four-Thirds cameras, which use larger, better sensors, do better than the 1-inch sensor crowd. Despite their larger sensors, some newer Micro Four-Thirds cameras, such as the Panasonic GM1, are so compact that they’re truly pocketable yet versatile, making them excellent travel cameras.

While traveling in Europe last year with the SoHi band, I took only a somewhat larger Olympus E-P3 Micro Four-Thirds camera body, a small, 14- to 42-mm Olympus kit zoom lens for general use, and a Panasonic 20-mm f/1.7 prime lens for dim light situations.

Even though the E-P3 uses an older digital sensor that’s somewhat less sensitive than current models, I did not feel hampered by this barebones, easy-to-carry kit, even when photographing inside dark cathedrals.

Better digital SLR camera systems, such as advanced amateur models made by Canon, Nikon and Pentax, offer weather-sealed prograde bodies and some excellent high-magnification prime lenses. However, if you’re backpacking or taking a family vacation, the weight and bulk of such dSLR systems will prove cumbersome.

Unless you’re taking a photo safari or its equivalent, stick with a more portable Micro Four-Thirds or comparable compact system camera. Don’t forget that you can, if needed, more easily adapt many different lenses to compact system cameras because of their thinner bodies.

Although cellphone camera functions are popular, these remain useful only in good light for close-range photos, like snapshots or self-portraits. Their image quality and versatility are not yet competitive.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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