A few things have changed since my last comments on a travel camera kit in 2010, so here are my current favorite items for travel with high image quality but in a compact kit:
Panasonic GH-2 Micro Four Thirds camera:
- $A1475 body only or $A1959 with 14-140mm lens
- if you can’t afford this, the now quite cheap Panasonic GH-1 will do an excellent job although AF is not as fast, and HD video quality not quite as good.
- GH-1 is now selling for a very cheap $A699 body only, or $A1199 with 20mm f/1.7 lens
- alternatively, the just announced Panasonic G3 will give you fast AF, touch screen LCD, and a few extras in a smaller, lighter, cheap and simpler body.
Panasonic 14-140mm OIS kit lens:
- this is my main daylight hours, outdoor walkaround lens given it is so versatile with its 10x zoom range covering 28-280mm field of view in 35mm camera terms
- silent AF means HD video with in-built camera mic is very acceptable
- a10xzoom is perfect for exploring a new city when you are really just in snapshot mode, just enjoying the city and not really intent on taking great photographs, although there is nothing stopping you from taking your time or being lucky and getting one.
- personally, I prefer a fixed focal length lens on my camera when I am in photography mode, as it simplifies my thinking and I can pre-visualise potential images much better, furthermore, a wide aperture fixed focal length like those below give you much more control over depth of field and background blurring.
- consider adding a ND gradient filter to help with landscape shots but be aware you get a lot of vignetting at widest focal lengths
Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens:
- a great compact lens for indoors, low light work as well as street photography and also is a great lens for environmental portraits. ~$US499
- I don’t have this one as I already have the much bigger, more expensive Panasonic Leica-D 25mm f/1.4 Four Thirds lens which is an essential lens for me.
Rokinon/Samyang 85mm f/1.4 lens:
- I am in love with this lens – sure it is manual focus, and you change the aperture via the aperture ring, but it is one superb lens which gives beautiful soft out of focus backgrounds with sharp subjects at f/1.4 making it perfect for portraits, still life, low light, paintings in an art gallery, etc
- this gives almost identical imagery and image quality as a Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L lens on my Canon 1D Mark III – a much larger, heavier and far more expensive combination.
- at $US265 on Amazon.com this is amazing value
- they do sell a Four Thirds “Olympus” version but you will need the expensive Four Thirds – Micro Four Thirds adapter
- a cheaper alternative is to get the Nikon version, and a cheap Nikon – Micro Four Thirds adapter as this will also allow use on a Nikon dSLR or a Canon EOS dSLR with AF confirm on the Canon.
- just be aware that TTL flash does not work with legacy lenses on my GH-1 and so it may not work on other Panasonic cameras – use manual flash instead if you really need flash.
- accurate Live View manual focus is MUCH faster and easier on Micro Four Thirds cameras compared to dSLRs as you can quickly go into Live View, although admittedly, if you have an AF-confirm adapter on a dSLR, this may be faster – currently Panasonic do not allow AF-confirm for legacy manual focus lenses.
- see what this amazing lens can do – my photos with this lens on a GH-1
- I generally carry a spare camera battery but rarely have needed it on a day’s shooting unless I have forgotten to use a freshly charged battery or do lots of video capture.
UV protector filters:
- have one on each lens but remove for high-flare situations such as including street lights in night shots
Circular Polarising filters:
- this is essential for the 85mm f/1.4 lens (which uses a 72mm filter) if you wish to use f/1.4 in bright sunlight (alternatively you could use a ND filter) – just make sure you don’t get one of those “thin” designs with no front filter thread otherwise you will not be able to put the lens cap back on!
- you may find one handy for the 14-140mm lens (this uses a 62mm filter) as well for foliage, water, glass, landscape shots
ND gradient filter:
- for landscape images to darken the overly bright sky and emphasise cloud details, particularly at sunset or in stormy conditions – the 0.6ND (2 stops) soft grad is the most versatile
- 62mm adapter is needed for the 14-140mm lens
- you can try the Cokin A adapter and Cokin plastic square filters which have the advantage of being able to move the gradient cutoff up or down as well as rotated, but often are not truly neutral in color.
- consider instead a Tiffen circular soft 0.6ND filter – you can rotate it but not move it up or down – but it is high quality glass, neutral, and easier to use.
Spare memory cards and backup mechanism:
- take spare SD memory cards
- take some type of image backup device (backup of lots of RAW files to internet is not usually practicable) – an Apple iPad or similar does actually do this quite well even if it doesn’t appear to save your RAW files, it will.
Optional extras to consider:
A small, compact tripod:
- as your kit is small and light, you can get away without having to bring a large, heavy tripod as would be the case with dSLRs
An ultra wide angle lens:
- there are a number of options here
- Panasonic 7-14mm Micro Four Thirds lens is very compact and gives the widest field of view but it is expensive (alternatively you can use the much bigger, heavier, more expensive Olympus ZD 7-14mm Four Thirds lens but this will only be manual focus on the GH-1, and will need that expensive FT-MFT adapter)
- Olympus 9-18mm Micro Four Thirds lens is also very compact and much cheaper than the 7-14mm, plus you can use filters such as ND gradient filters which are very handy for landscapes.
- personally, I would like to see a 12mm f/2.0 pancake with a filter thread as another option – hopefully Olympus will make one in the next year.
A macro lens:
- until Olympus releases its MFT version, consider the Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro in Four Thirds version but AF will be slow (or not available on the GH-1)
- the f/2.0 aperture allows better use as a portrait lens than the Panasonic 45mm f/2.8 macro which is another option if you want AF.
- most people probably can get away without taking a macro lens on their travel
A compact but powerful bounce flash:
- if you are shooting friends indoors and want more flattering shots than on-camera direct flash can offer, then a small bounce flash is what you need.
- given that remote TTL is not available on Panasonic cameras, you can consider an Olympus FL36 instead of the more expensive FL36R ($A359)
- if you want more power but don’t mind the extra size, consider the Olympus FL50 or FL50R
Optionally, a weatherproof sports/action dSLR to compliment Micro Four Thirds:
- be aware that adding this in will cause issues with the 7kg maximum cabin baggage limit on most flights!
- you may need to factor in a larger, heavier tripod or monopod as well.
- personally I would not take one unless I was planning on shooting wildlife safaris, the Antarctic, whales, sports events, etc
- Olympus E5 with Olympus ZD 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD:
- this will be quite large and heavy but no where near as large and heavy as a Nikon or Canon equivalent in focal length reach
- this will give you 100-400mm focal length reach with weatherproofing to combat the rainy days
- you can add a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter and still do hand held shots with AF in bright sunlight to give an amazing 800mm telephoto reach at f/7 hand held
- plus it has reasonable macro performance, is great for portraits with lovely out of focus backgrounds
- a nice compliment to the Micro Four Thirds system as you can use the same flash guns, and you can use the 50-200mm on the GH-2 albeit a bit too bulky for the GH-2 – but you may wish to for HD video quality rather than 720p HD video on the E5.
- the Olympus E5 was voted as best expert dSLR in the TIPA 2011 awards recently (note they have a separate category for pro dSLRs)
- Canon dSLR with sports lens:
- the Canon makes a better compliment to the Micro Four Thirds than does Nikon as:
- Canon or Olympus flashes can be used on either system (but only in manual mode on the non-compliant system)
- Canon off-camera TTL cord can be used on both systems without losing TTL functionality (ie. Olympus flash + Canon cord +GH-2 still gives TTL)
- Canon EF lenses can be adapted cheaply to the MFT cameras but now there is a Birger adapter which gives aperture control, optical IS capability (if exists in the Canon lens) and autofocus which is a very exciting possibility but does come at a cost ~$US700!
- eg. Canon 1D Mark III/IV or Canon 1Ds Mark III if you need the highest weatherproofing, although a Canon 7D may be adequate.
- this is getting to be a very heavy kit indeed!
- the Canon makes a better compliment to the Micro Four Thirds than does Nikon as:
Recommended dSLR alternatives to the Panasonic GH2 / GH1:
These dSLRs are a little bigger, have optical viewfinders, possibly faster AF on moving subjects than a GH2, faster burst rates, have remote TTL flash capability, but Live View is much more cumbersome courtesy of the mirror, more noisy shutters, potential for mirror vibrations to cause camera shake even on tripods, HD video not as good, cannot visualise different aspect ratios through the viewfinder, and use larger lenses.
Personally the mirror-based dSLR is an unnecessary old school technology for the travel photographer but if you need faster AF, faster burst rates then this capability is not quite there yet in mirrorless cameras but the GH2 is getting close.
Nikon D7000 dSLR:
- perhaps the twin zoom lens kit rather than the 10x Nikkor zoom – $A1799
- Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 is nice and cheap – $A349
- Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 is also a nice cheap portrait lens $A199
- Rokinon/Samyang 85mm f/1.4 lens in Nikon mount with CPU chip (AE version) – nice and cheap, great image quality but manual focus – $US300 (AF Nikon equivalent is $A2149!)
- consider Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 as an ultrawide (this does not AF on the cheaper Nikon cameras such as the D3100) – $A925
- consider Nikon SB-700 flash $499
Canon 600D or 7D:
- perhaps the twin zoom lens kit rather than the 10x Canon EF-S zoom – 600D + twin lens kit = $A1449
- Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM for low light street photography – $A725
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II – cheap, light and a nice portrait, low light lens – $A149
- Rokinon/Samyang 85mm f/1.4 lens in Nikon mount with AF-confirm adapter Nikon-EOS (or get the Canon mount and glue a Dandelion CPU chip onto it) $US300+$US30 adapter
- Canon 430EX II flash $A399