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1 - Photographic  Equipment

Information: 1 - Equipment | 2 - Taking the pictures | 3 - Basic digital techniques     Pictures: Antarctic gallery | Penguins | Icebergs | South Pole | Greenland | Svalbard

All information and recommendations given here are those of the webmaster. The pictures on this site are my results.

Don't get obsessed with photographic gear, most of my photographs that I have published on this site (those in the Picture Galleries) were taken using a now obsolete mid-range completely manual and mechanical 35mm film camera (a Pentax MX) mainly using a standard 50mm lens for scenery and general shots or a 100mm lens for wildlife.

Photographs are made more by the photographer, less by the equipment and once you get to a certain level of ability (lower than you might think) spending more has little effect. It's always nice to have high quality, highly featured equipment - just don't expect it to compensate for pointing it in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Digital cameras are now the norm. When I first wrote this page in 2001, I said that I wouldn't take a digital to Antarctica as my only camera. Times have moved on however and digital cameras are now of a quality, price and reliability that they can be used as the only camera with confidence.

Digital - Sensor size counts more than pixels

You may have heard that there is more to digital cameras than the number of pixels. For a number of years now camera manufacturers have produced digital cameras with increasing pixel counts, but without the corresponding increase in picture quality, why is this? Shouldn't an 8MP camera be twice as good as 4MP? a 16MP four times as good?

Pixel number alone is misleading, it should be considered in conjunction with sensor size as well.

The rectangles below are the actual sensor sizes for four currently available digital cameras of similar pixel count. As the sensor gets smaller, the pixels are squeezed closer together and quality of image suffers. The advantage of a smaller sensor however is that the camera itself can be significantly smaller. Camera size and weight are also given for a comparison, though no comparison is made of features that the cameras have, each is one of the best rated in its particular class. There are other sensor sizes currently in use, those shown are amongst the most frequently encountered.

Note the huge jump in sensor size in mm2 between the two SLR models and the two point-and-shoot models and the difference in pixels density. This explains why larger SLR cameras deliver far better quality results than smaller models with the same number of pixels - Sensors - size matters! Sensor size is comparable to format with film cameras.

Standard Digital SLR
e.g. Nikon D90 - SLR
Nikon D90
Compact Digital SLR
e.g. Lumix DMC-G1 - SLR
Lumix G1
Larger Point and Shoot
e.g.Canon G10
Canon G10
Compact Point and Shoot
e.g. Olympus Stylus 9000
Olympus Stylus 9000
Sensor size
23.6 x 15.8mm
370mm2
12.3MP = 3.3 MP/cm2
Sensor size
17.3 x 13mm
225mm2
12.1MP = 5 MP/cm2
Sensor size
7.6 x 5.7mm
43mm2
14.7MP = 34 MP/cm2
Sensor size
6.13 x 4.60mm
28mm2
12MP = 43M P/cm2
703 g (24.8 oz) 360 g (12.7 oz) 390 g (13.8 oz) 225g (7.9 oz)
132 x 103 x 77 mm
(5.2 x 4.1 x 3 in)
124 x 84 x 45 mm
(4.9 x 3.3 x 1.8 in)
109 x 78 x 46 mm
(4.3 x 3.1 x 1.8 in)
96 x 60 x 31mm
(3.8 x 2.4 x 1.2 in)

SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex. It means that you look through the taking lens (it only has one), and so see exactly what the sensor sees. Just before the photograph is taken a small mirror that enables you to see flips up and out of the way so the light falls on the sensor (some recent models such as the Lumix G1 above, do not have a mirror to further reduce size and weight, view finding is electronic only via the sensor).

SLR's or Point and Shoot

SLR

Advantages:
Large sensor - high quality images
Interchangeable lenses
Usually solidly built
Often have a full range of manual and automatic settings
Fully featured (more so than point and shoot)
Faster response times, shutter, focusing etc.
More ergonomic functions, buttons and dials rather than long choice button accessed menus

Disadvantages:
Large and bulky
More expensive
Additional lenses can be expensive
Possibility of getting dust on the sensor when changing lenses

Point and Shoot

Advantages:

Small and light
Self-contained often with high ratio zooms
More affordable (because nothing is ever described as "cheaper" any more)
Simple to use, pick up and use straight away

 
Disadvantages
:

Smaller sensor means lower quality images
Limited range of features, particularly manual over-ride
No interchangeable lenses


Lenses

A "standard lens" has a focal length of 35mm on most digital SLR's, this means that the camera sees whatever your eye sees with no magnification and no wide-angle effect. What follows refers to DSLR's rather than digital compacts where focal lengths differ due to the smaller sensor sizes.

Most cameras these days come with a zoom lens which gives a range of focal lengths from wide angle to short telephoto. Anything less than 35mm is wide-angle and any greater is telephoto.

For the majority of shots, you won't need much longer than 200mm. There are many zoom lenses that will cover the range from 50-200 and you will probably use them for the vast majority of your photographs. Something over 200mm is nice to have, but prices soon rise dizzyingly and you are now entering the realms of the very serious photographer and will hardly ever be used by any other than the photography buff or professional (not least because such lenses are heavy and cumbersome to carry around).

Likewise wide-angle lenses down to 25mm are commonplace and affordable, below this prices increase very quickly.

My preference is for two zoom lenses, one of around 25-50mm and one of around 50-200mm.I feel that more extreme wide angles (less than 25mm) are a matter of style rather than necessity. You will find you may develop a liking for other lenses as you progress as a photographer, for instance I also have a 55mm macro lens that enables me to take some very close-up shots and doubles up as a  portrait lens too, the focal length giving a pleasing perspective while keeping just the right distance from the subject.

Fixed lenses are lighter in weight than the zoom equivalent, have a larger maximum aperture (they are brighter to look through) and will always be of better quality than a zoom. Lenses longer than 200mm are essential for much wildlife photography - but not in Antarctica, you can get close enough without them.

 

Memory

In the old days of film, it was the cost of the film that limited how many pictures the non-professional photographer could take. One of the biggest changes with digital is that as long as you have enough memory cards, you can keep going all day long and then when you've downloaded the pictures, you're clear to take another load without any extra cost.

With the cost of memory cards coming down all the time and now being a small amount of the cost of the camera itself, there's no reason to not have enough memory. If you have a DSLR camera with in the region of 12MP, Start with 2 x 8Gb cards fir still pictures, if your camera has a video facility, 2 x 16Gb may be a better start point. As you use your camera more, you'll get an idea of how many you need, as a rule of thumb I try to always have about 50% more memory capacity for a photographic trip/journey than I am likely to get through.

Memory cards


Camera bags

Mountainsmith Focus II, SmallA digital SLR in particular will need it's own case. While it is possible to get a backpack dedicated to camera gear, this will be over the top for most people. My own preference is for a padded case that can be worn around the waist on a belt for quick access without wearing the camera round the neck, more easily accessible than in a back pack and more freedom of movement than a shoulder bag. This case and belt can be put into your backpack along with your other gear for protection and ease of carrying.

 

Camera bags

Filters

You should always have a skylight filter on every lens you have to protect it from damage, a polarizing filter can be useful too to get some good deep blue skies and clouds.

Beyond this - forget it. I've never seen a single good wildlife or landscape shot that has been enhanced by the use of a "creative" filter. To (mis) quote Samuel Johnson they are the "Last refuge of a scoundrel".


Skylight filters

Binoculars

A must if you're a wildlife fanatic and a "nice to have" if you're not.

"Incidentally, I see you recommend avid wildlife watchers should take binoculars - everyone should have them! It is very annoying having to share your binos with someone for that rare glimpse of a distant blue whale or even just getting a better view of scenery!"
- Robert Burton Antarctic tour guide and lecturer.

Binoculars are described by two numbers "10 x 50" for instance. The first number is the magnification and the second is the diameter of the front lens in millimeters. This tells you first of all how much bigger things appear and then how much of it you see at that magnification, (a bit like looking down tubes of different diameters). A front lens diameter of 50mm is fairly common, but the binoculars will be quite bulky, anything less than this is described as "compact", much easier to carry about, but a smaller diameter tube to look down.

A magnification of 10 or 12 is about as much as most people can manage to hand-hold without shaking about all over the place and is generally most useful . Don't go for the "most powerful" binoculars you can get, you won't be able to hold them steady without a tripod or something to brace against.

If your pocket will stretch to it there are now "image stabilizer" binoculars available. These have an electronic method of eliminating shake and reducing curvature of field.

Binoculars   |   Image stabilizer binoculars

Recommended photographic equipment list:

Quality digital camera #

Standard lens, around 25-50mm #

Short telephoto lens, 55-200mm #

Longer telephoto, 300mm +

Skylight filter for each lens #

Camera bag

Polarizing filter for standard lens

Blower brush and lens tissues to keep it all clean and dust-free #

 

# Minimum kit, a zoom lens can be used to cover this range

Photographic pages - 1 - Equipment | 2 - Photography Technique | 3 - Digital Technique

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National Geographic Photography Field Guide: Secrets to Making Great Pictures
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The Basic Book of Photography, Fifth Edition
The Basic Book of Photography
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The Ansel Adams Guide: Book 1: Basic Techniques of Photography
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Ansel Adams prints and posters


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