Friday, January 14, 2011

Jace's Kit Loadout IV: Cameras

When we decided to go travelling we also decided it was time to buy a new camera. Not being big photographers at home, we didn’t know at first whether we wanted a compact point-and-shoot camera or a digital SLR, but we settled on a workhorse of the compact camera set, the Olympus µTough.

As a Christmas present to ourselves, we decided to buy a shiny new Digital SLR camera to travel with as well, and after some deliberation we purchased a Nikon D3100. I thought I’d write a few Pros and Cons for these two cameras in case anyone is considering buying a camera and might benefit from our experiences.

Olympus µTough

So why did we decide to buy the Olympus µTough? Well, there were basically three main variables we were initially considering and those were price, portability and video capability.

The first consideration was price: we wanted to spend the kind of money which would buy us either a very cheap digital SLR camera or quite a top-range compact camera. Secondly, we decided that we wanted a camera that slips easily in your pocket, so it is easily transportable and so you don’t have to look like a tourist (read as: target for thieves) just because you want to take photographs that day. We also knew we wanted to have a camera that shoots video as well as stills for those moments that are better captured with movement and sound.

The µTough satisfies these three criteria nicely, but the thing that differentiates the µTough from other compact cameras is in the name- it is really tough. The casing of the camera is solid stainless steel down to the exposed rivets, which affords it 2m shock proofing, a feature I inadvertently tested at Cascada Los Alerces in Argentina when I accidentally dropped it down a small cliff into the stream. A good thing the camera is also waterproof to 10m.

As keen snorkellers and scuba divers, we liked the idea of taking underwater photos, so this feature had us convinced. The µTough works well for swimming and snorkelling. To use the µTough while scuba diving deeper than 10m, you need a special hard plastic casing. As many underwater photographers will be able to tell you, the fact that the camera itself is also waterproof is worthwhile insurance in case the plastic case springs a leak while you are in the deep blue.

After months of use, sometimes being lazy and failing to even rinse salt water off the camera with fresh, nothing on it has corroded and the stainless steel body has barely a scratch on it. Apparently it is snow-proof as well, so skiers or snowboarders who want to take fun pictures can do so without having to worry about their camera being damaged by extreme cold. It’s the kind of camera where when someone says ‘chuck us your camera, mate’ you literally can throw it to them. The µTough lives up to its name as a rugged camera suited to the most adventurous traveller.

The µTough runs on its own rechargeable battery that will shoot photos all day unless you are shooting a lot of video, in which case it might run down a little early. It has a range of useful auto shooting modes including a 3-shot landscape panorama, which sometimes works to create great panoramic shots.

However, this camera does have its limitations. As digital cameras go, the µTough doesn’t shoot the most beautiful photographs easily. Primarily this is because its responsiveness is slower than other digital point-and-shoot cameras in its price range. The µTough frequently hunts for focus for too long to make it a pleasure to use, and the zoom function moves in and out quite slowly. Most annoying are the shutter speed and the start-up speed of the camera. When the shutter is released the photo seems to be taken up to half a second afterwards, unacceptably slow to shoot action shots. If the camera is in your pocket when you see a spontaneous moment you would like to shoot, forget about it. The camera takes precious seconds to fire up if it has been switched off. Perhaps unexpectedly the video mode on the camera is excellent, it focuses quickly, reproduces action very well, and shoots long videos easily.

If a really compact camera that can go anywhere and suffer any kind of abuse sounds like the ticket, the µTough is probably right for you.

Nikon D3100

So, after 8 months of travelling with the Olympus, we bought a new toy for Christmas, and our pick of the budget Digital SLR range is the Nikon D3100.

Considering some of the limitations of the Olympus, we decided to get a new camera to supplement the point-and-shoot. We were now heading to Africa, both Egypt where there are lots of monuments to shoot and Tanzania where there is lots of wildlife. In these places, photography becomes almost central to the experience of being there, and we wanted a camera that would be simply a pleasure to use. It was time to upgrade to the heavy artillery.

Since we already had a camera now, our choice variables changed quite a bit and we were now firmly placed in the SLR market. To compensate for the weaknesses of the camera we already had, we needed a camera that would fire up instantly when it was switched on, shoot action scenes at really fast shutter speeds, have a good frame advance rate to shoot multi-shot bursts of photos, and generally be a superior camera in every way to the one we already had.

So, a SLR it had to be. I was still concerned about bulk, and wanted to get a small, light SLR if that was possible. I was also looking for a camera with excellent battery life so we could shoot any number of stills all day and not have to worry about losing power, without needing to carry a spare battery around.

Trumping all these considerations though was price. DSLR’s are expensive and unless you are a really keen photographer there is little point breaking the bank to acquire capability that you really don’t need.

The Nikon D3100 fit the bill on all counts. At 455g, it is the lightest DSLR we could find and with an 18-55mm lens it is not a huge object to lug around, though obviously still bigger than a compact camera. The D3100 shoots 550 photographs on the life of one battery which is many more photographs than competitors in its price range. It shoots 3 frames per second when in burst mode, not as many as the Sony SLT-A33, which shoots at a blistering 7 frames per second, but nevertheless fast enough to capture the moment you want when shooting stills of most moving subjects.  The Nikon D3100 is ready to shoot a tenth of a second after the switch flicks it on and can shoot at the ridiculously fast shutter speeds you expect from an SLR camera. It is also one of the cheapest DSLR’s on the market.

Having just acquired the camera we are in the honeymoon period and haven’t got many cons to write about the D3100 to balance out the pros, except to comment on the practical aspects of being an SLR user who is backpacking around the world.

Compared with the µTough, the Nikon D3100 is bulky, fragile, expensive and mighty conspicuous looking. The modest 18-55mm zoom lens doesn’t really provide much zoom capability- using digital zoom, the µTough compact zooms closer to a distant subject than the Nikon D3100 does. The solution may be to buy an 18-200mm lens to get some really good zoom capability, but the trade off is even more bulk to carry around as well as another pretty sizeable chunk of change for the lens upgrade. I wouldn’t really recommend buying a twin lens kit if you are a traveller, both because carrying around an extra lens is a huge hassle and because switching lenses ‘on the go’ is a great way to fill the body of your camera with dust, sand and grit.

So that about wraps it up folks- thanks for reading another instalment of Jace’s kit loadout. I hope this post has helped some folks when they consider buying a new camera. If you enjoyed reading these reviews, be sure to leave us a post and say ‘hi’.

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