Buyers Guide: Overlanding camera kit

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A guide to the basics of photography and what you need in your kitbag to step up your image game when travelling in the wild.

Since the dawn of human civilisation, humans have been creating images to replicate scenes that they see. Photography has progressed from ancient cave drawings to portraiture and the dawn of the digital age. Nowadays, the most commonly used camera is in your pocket at all times, and it’s incredible what one can achieve with a simple mobile phone. However, if you want to capture the beauty of nature in any great detail on your next adventure, you need a dedicated camera and some good glass.

In this guide, we’ll look at some of the basics of photography such as lenses, essential features, camera settings, accessories and types of cameras.

TYPES OF CAMERA

MOBILE PHONES

MOBILE PHONESThey seem to improve by the week, by huge-step gains, making the image collectors on the typical mobile phone the most popular and widely used camera on earth. These have many benefits. Not only is the camera tiny, but most people carry their phone on them at all times, making a phone camera extremely convenient. Thanks to image-sharing platforms like Facebook and Instagram, the quality of phone camera has become of huge importance to manufacturers, and many modern phone cameras can match the image quality of a high-end DSLR from less than 10 years ago. The major drawback of a cell phone is its fixed lens, meaning that one can only zoom digitally, which degrades image quality. Because of their small sensors, phones also suffer from poor performance in low light.

Positives
• Always on you
• Easy to use
• Easy to share photos
• Apps allow for instant editing on the phone
• Relatively affordable
• Big screen

Negatives
• Fixed lens
• Poor low-light performance
• Continuous improvements render older models obsolete within two years

COMPACT CAMERAS

Compact Camera Canon G7 X Point and Shoot

Compact Camera Canon G7 X Point and Shoot

Just like a mobile phone, compacts are small and easy to use and rely mostly on fully automatic settings for things like focus, ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Unfortunately for the Compact, modern mobile phones offer very nearly the same image quality and are far more convenient. One advantage the Compact has over a phone is its retractable zoom lens, which usually folds flush with the camera body and extends for an impressive zoom without losing image quality. Pointand- shoot cameras may appeal to the likes of hikers, or people travelling light, who want good image quality and a wide zoom range but don’t want to carry a bulky DSLR. Some newspaper journalists prefer the compact size of a point-and-shoot for the times when image quality isn’t of primary importance.

Positives
• Cheap
• Easy to operate
• Small size
• Long zoom

Negatives
• No manual functionality
• Poor low-light performance
• Image quality not signifcantly better than good modern cell phones

BRIDGE CAMERAS

Bridge cameras offer a versatile and affrdable alternative to DSLRs and generally offer a decent zoom. They are less than half the size of a pro DSLR, have a fixed, non-removable lens, and generally feature much smaller sensors than DSLRs. Their massive zoom and compact size make bridge cameras a popular choice among amateur photographers. Many lack full manual mode or are designed in such a way that using the camera manually (setting aperture, shutter speed, ISO and focus manually) is rather diffcult.

Positives
• Affordable
• Great zoom
• Versatile
• Compact
• Easy to use for beginners

Negatives
• Poor focusing
• Small sensors
• Diffcult operation of manual controls
• Lens not interchangeable

MIRRORLESS

Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless Cameras

Some say the mirrorless age is upon us as these cameras compete head to head with traditional DSLRs, and since Olympus launched its Pen E-P1 in 2009, the technology has improved and evolved. Mirrorless cameras offer a few distinct advantages. Just like a DSLR, the mirrorless setup uses an interchangeable lens for image focusing; unlike a DSLR, they don’t have a complex and noisy mirror mechanism inside. Instead, the viewfinder is a small, high-definition digital display. The lack of mirror means that the camera can also be more compact than a traditional DSLR, but that doesn’t detract from its quality. Because mirrorless cameras are still fairly new, the range of lenses and accessories is fairly small, though this is expanding all the time. Despite the fact that mirrorless cameras are smaller than DSLRs, the lenses are generally the same size, so the portability advantage is muted. They’re also sometimes more ‘fiddly’ to use, because of the compact body. The mirrorless camera is arguably the future of stills photography.

Positives
• Small size
• Continuous live view
• Higher speed continuous shooting than DSLRs

Negatives
• Small variety of lenses
• Digital viewfinder divides opinion
• Autofocus not on par with DSLR
• Poor battery life of 300-400 shots
• Small body may be difficult to operate for those with large hands.

DSLR

DSLR, or Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras, which are by far the most widely used tool for professionals and enthusiasts, feature a huge range of potential accessories and support. The range price between entry level and top-spec units is also bewildering, with some bodies (no lens included) costing well north of R100000. Most modern DSLRs record highdefinition video and can provide a more affordable alternative to dedicated video cameras. The DSLR is sturdy, good value, has a proven design, and is here to stay.

Positives
• Wide variety of lenses and accessories
• Great video capability
• Even entry-level DSLRs have full manual control
• Long battery life of 600-1000 shots
• More value when buying a cheap DSLR compared to a cheap mirrorless Negatives
• Bulky
• Shooting with live view turned on is cumbersome and slow
• Can be complex to operate
• Lenses are pricey

Negatives
• Bulky
• Shooting with live view turned on is cumbersome and slow
• Can be complex to operate
• Lenses are pricey

PHOTOGRAPHY BASICS

The basics of photography may, at first, not seem that basic at all. Going from a pointand- shoot to a DSLR on full manual mode is like climbing out of an automatic Hyundai into a Mack truck with a 12-speed splitter gearbox. DSLRs (and advanced mirrorless cameras) feature a bewildering array of features and settings. The trick is to balance these settings to create an image that is correctly exposed and is in focus. Sounds simple, right? In fact, the answer is ‘No’. To explain the relationships between all the settings in this article would take about 50 pages, so we’ll stick with the basics.

Once you have these down pat, the rest will amount to practice.

To pare it down to the absolute basics, there are three pillars of photography:

1. Aperture
2. Shutter speed
3. ISO

By balancing these three, you balance the amount of light entering the camera, thereby creating an image that’s representative of what you wanted to create.

MEASURING LIGHT

Remember that, to take a picture, a camera must balance its settings to send the correct amount of light to the sensor. The amount of light entering the camera is controlled by opening or closing the aperture, increasing or decreasing the ISO, and changing your shutter speed.

The amount of light entering the camera is called the Exposure Value or EV, and is measured in f-stops. For instance, changing your aperture from f4.5 to 5.6 will decrease the light entering your camera by 1 f-stop.

APERTURE – The aperture is a diaphragm in the lens which controls the amount of light travelling through it. It works in exactly the same way as an eye does, opening up when it’s dark, or narrowing when it’s light, thus ultimately projecting the image that the lens sees onto the camera’s sensor. The aperture size is measured in f-stops (e.g. f 4.5), and the smaller the f-stop is, the larger the aperture. You’ll find that more expensive lenses generally have a larger maximum aperture, and more versatile lenses with a wide zoom range will have a smaller maximum aperture. The benefit of a larger aperture is twofold: Firstly, more light is able to enter the camera, which is good for low light conditions, and secondly, a large aperture creates a short depth of field. The depth of Field in an image is how far the focal point extends – a shorter depth of Field gives that blurred-background effect.

Shallow depth of field: In this image, only the
crack on the closest rock is in proper focus. Using
a shallow depth of field is often great in portraits
of people, but not so good in landscape images.

By using a very small aperture (f 32 in this case) we can get more of the image in focus. The downside is that less light is let into the camera, resulting in a need for a longer shutter speed and higher ISO.

ISO – ISO was once known as ASA when referring to film. It stands for ‘International Standards Organisation’, and it is a standardised industry scale for measuring sensitivity to light. By adjusting your ISO, you are adjusting how sensitive your sensor is to light. In dark conditions, a higher ISO will be needed; but, unfortunately, as the sensor sensitivity rises, image quality degrades and there is increased ‘noise’. Noise, also known as grain, is a grainy effect you’ll often see on low light photos where a high ISO has been used. As camera tech has progressed, this noise effect has been dramatically reduced, but a rule of thumb is to keep the ISO as low as possible at all times, unless you intend to have grain in your image.

SHUTTER SPEED – Shutter speed is the length of time that the shutter is open, letting light onto the sensor. The longer the shutter is open, the more time light has to burn its image onto the sensor, making a brighter picture. If your aperture is small (large f-stop number such as f 22), then you’ll need to slow down your shutter speed to compensate. If it is dark outside, you’ll also need to open the shutter for longer – some star-trail photography keeps the shutter open for several hours at a time. However, sports or animal photography requires capturing high speed movement which requires a very fast shutter speed, sometimes allowing it to stay open for as little as 8000th of a second. If you’re shooting at fast shutter speeds, you’ll need a ‘fast’ lens, with a very wide aperture opening, to let in the most light in the shortest possible time.

Above Note how the wheels on the Fortuner are kept in focus by using a fast shutter speed of 500th of a second.

 

Below By using a slower shutter speed of 250th of a second, motion blur on the wheels and background is evident in this panning shot, creating a feeling of speed.

 

WHY SHOOT MANUAL?

Just like your phone, almost every modern DSLR or mirrorless camera will feature an automatic or semi-automatic mode; so, why shoot in manual? The answer is control; and by manipulating the ‘exposure triangle’ of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, you can manipulate light as you want it, without surprises.

Some of the affects you may master in manual mode include:

• Creating a shallow, or a deep, depth of field
• Creating silhouettes
• Creating motion blur
• Creating long exposures
• Avoiding unexpected flash in low light

HOW TO SHOOT IN MANUAL MODE

Thanks to the light meter built into your camera, the camera will tell you whether or not what you’re looking at is exposed correctly by displaying something like this: – -2…1… 0…1…2+ in the viewfinder.

There will be a line that moves either way up or down the light meter, and, generally, when it’s at ‘0’ the image will be correctly exposed. The light meter’s reading is measured in f-stops, which can be adjusted by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, aperture or ISO.

To get started…

• Look through the viewfinder and check the light meter
• Pick the ISO you want first
• Pick your aperture
• Pick your shutter speed
• If the light meter reads 0, your shot should be correctly exposed
• Take the shot

SENSOR SIZE – FULL FRAME OR CROP?

The 35mm film gauge was first introduced in 1892 and recognised as the international standard gauge for film in 1909. From then on, most film cameras and stills cameras used a 35mm wide film, making it much easier for the customer to buy film cheaply. Film sizes that were smaller than 35mm would be considered cropped, while those bigger would be either medium- or large format. 35mm would become known as full-frame, and camera and lens manufacturers would design their products around this.

Today, of course, we use digital technology, and in place of film, we use an electronic sensor. Sensor sizes vary dramatically from the fingernail- sized unit in a mobile phone to the large-format units used by some movie cameras.

Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras fall into one of two categories: full frame (24mm x 36mm), or cropped (typically 22mm x 15mm, though dimensions may vary between manufacturers).

The full-frame Nikon D5 is about as big, heavy and expensive as a DSLR can get, costing north of R100000 and weighing 1415g.

Lens manufacturers produce specific lenses for either cropped or uncropped sensors. For instance, a Nikon DX lens is designed for one of their cropped sensor DSLRs, and the FX range is designed for a full-frame, though the lenses are interchangeable. A cropped sensor essentially cuts the edges off the full-frame sensor (in other words ‘cropping’ it), which causes the image to appear more zoomed-in. In this case, a 35mm lens designed for a full frame will be zoomed to the equivalent of 56mm if mounted to a cropped sensor camera.

Full-frame cameras are certainly not necessary for everyone, but they do have a few advantages, including a larger dynamic range in colours, better depth of field control, and better low-light performance. Unfortunately, these all come at a price, and this is why full-frame cameras are mostly used only by professionals.

THE OVERLAND KIT BAG

There are many thousands of combinations of set-ups, and each photographer is different. For this guide, we’ve outlined what most photographers on an overland adventure will use. Because overland travel includes a multitude of landscapes and animal sightings, you’ll need both a long lens and a wide-angle lens to cover the scenery, as well as a decent tripod and a bag. Most of the pricing in this guide comes from Orms Cape Town; a good guide, as Orms is one of the largest photographic shops in South Africa and offers a huge range of products and accessories online. We’ve included both mirrorless and DSLR cameras to offer a wider variation in brands, as almost all DSLRs sold are either Nikon or Canon. For reference, the in-house images captured by SA4x4 are mostly taken with a Nikon D7000. For this guide, we tried to keep the kit price no higher than R50000. One could spend far more, and the greater benefits usually come from improving lens quality. In photography, as in most techbased things, you get what you pay for.

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