We have more choices and great equipment available now than ever before, it is such a great time to be a photographer. The cameras are getting smaller, more lightweight and yet more powerful, faster and have so much more resolution and detail than what was available even a few years ago.
I can offer you my personal feelings and recommendations for you equipment but this is perhaps the most personal choice you will make. We all have different needs, requirements and ideas about what we need. The size and feel of the camera shouldn’t be discounted as it’s in your hand all day long and if it doesn’t feel right to you then it doesn’t matter how nice it may be advertised to be. It will beaming an extension of yourself, so proceed with caution about what everyone tells you is perfect for you, do yourself a favor and go to a store to try everything out before you buy.
If you already have your camera that’s great, if you’re in the marker for a new one that’s fine also, as now is a great time to buy. I am an ardent lover of tech and nerd-talks about cameras, so if anyone has any questions I am always happy to help in equipment purchasing. Please keep in mind that you will be traveling to an exotic location and your equipment needs to be up to the task of your journey. No specific camera is required for the tour, but it needs to be good enough to keep up with you, removable lenses are preferred and highly recommended. See my gear recommendations below.
The major brands all have a great offering as I am writing this, there is a great choice for you in all of them. That being said, everyone will have a preference and favorite. The first thing you’ll want to decide is WHAT IS THE BEST CAMERA I CAN AFFORD. That doesn’t mean that the best is also the most expensive, not at all. You certainly don’t need to buy the most expensive, in my opinion the best camera I have ever used falls somewhere in the middle of the price range. If price is no object then there are simply amazing things you can buy, but for the best photos the connection between best and most expensive isn’t always the case.
Full frame of Crop? This is the age old question, and one that brings a lot of debate. There will always be people who are convinced that you NEED a full frame camera, period. I can tell you the is absolutely not true. Yes, bigger sensor means the potential for more detail, more light and therefore more quality in your photos. But full frame also means bigger, heavier and much more expensive which doesn’t always pay off. Also, the advancements in crop sensors in recent history makes the difference so minimal that for me the question is completely arbitrary at this point. The one thing I have found to be unique to the full frame sensor with real work use is for those who need the ultra-razor thing death of field when one eyelash is in focus and the rest is a blur type look, and for this you need a full frame camera. And crop sensors can get really, really close, especially with the new ultra-lenses coming out now, or using older mail focus vintage lenses. But, keep in mind that after that one photograph, you can’t just do that trick over and over again. In fact, in my personal experience, facing yourself to have more in focus causes you to become a better photographer because you have to use your framing, subject and light in a great artistic way to make a great photo, instead of just relying on some fancy lenses to do it for you.
Some will also argue that low light performance can be a factor, and as a ultra-low light shooter like myself there is always going to be a problem with low light, The new sensors are amazing, and you can shoot in almost no light with all of the pro models regardless of sensor. In real world situations I have found very little if any difference between the Full Frame and crop sensors, and less you’re planning on printing really large you’ll never notice anyway.
Ok, so what camera is best for you?
Arguably the most popular cameras today, and a great choice for everyone. They have both full frame bodies and crop sensors allowing them to be a fit for every budget. Great native lenses, and many great bodies to choose from. The 5D is a professional and hobbyist camera for generations, and the new mirrorless line of Canon further expands its abilities. The price will be higher for the more professional Canon gear, and the weight and size as well. I used a Canon 1DX daily and I can tell you that the photos were amazing, but my arms were so tired at the end of the day, and lugging a bunch of huge expensive glass around everywhere became the main reason for my move to mirrorless. But for many, many, shooters the world over Canon is still the best choice. You cannot go wrong with a Canon.
The same can be said for Nikon as Canon, mostly the difference between them is the user. People tend to fall into one of two categories, some just prefer the Nikon feel. I always found the layout of buttons and dials to be backwards for me, so I was never a Nikon user, but many are. The new full frame mirrorless offering from Nikon in their Z line is very tempting for many, bringing untold possibilities in a “slightly” smaller package.
I personally have been using the Fuji mirrorless cameras exclusively for the past two years, in all my travels and it has been the perfect complement to my work. Light, fast enough, amazingly artistic and inspiring cameras, with the (arguably) best line of native lenses made. They have actual dials and controls on them for the cameras settings like shutter speed, ISO and aperture which makes them feel and move like an actual camera, and not a laptop. They use an amazing 1.5 crop sensor, and for my work I have never once needed a larger sensor. They make a ton of lenses that have very fast apertures so they can get the full frame look if desired, plus they’re all metal and lightweight at the same time so they can take a beating. They tend to be about 2/3 the price or less of the bigger cameras too, and less than half the weight and size. My favorite is the X-Pro 2 with its retro vintage styling, and the new X-H1 which is the first Fuji to feature their new extremely impressive Stabilizer and wonderful 4K video. Some of us are Fuji fans, and their so much to love with this system, bringing the gap between Full Frame and crop, they can rest right in the middle.
Until the recent Canon and Nikon full frame mirrorless cameras, Sony was the only contender really offering a full frame mirrorless camera. They make several really great bodies in the A7 series, with the new A7III being the most cost effective and reasonable among them. Price being no object you can get yourself an A9 and a few of their best lenses but I have found that the weight saved over the Canon variety is very slim. Again, for me, I tried the Sony system several times and just never got a real desire to keep shooting with it. They make amazing cameras, a very fast growing lineup of great if not amazing native lenses, and some of the most detail rich high resolution sensors on the market. They have great stabilization build into all their pro bodies as well as great video features. They weren’t for me, I found the bodies weirdly disproportional for my hands, and somehow always felt like I was using a computer more than a camera. That being said, I know that I am in the minority, as Sony cameras a very popular and many are making great stuff with them.
The world of Micro 4/3 has been around a long time, pioneering the smaller more portable and lightweight mirrorless cameras. Several brands including Olympus and Panasonic use the system, they use a much smaller sensor to achieve the lighter weight and much smaller price tag that has become synonymous with 4/3 users around the world. They are very popular, for anyone wanting a smaller option. Because they are so much smaller the lenses can also be much smaller, lighter and made using plastic instead of metal. My first trip to Ladakh I had an old EM-5 with me and it was with me all day long. I find the sensor too small for me now, with a 2x crop it makes it harder to achieve some of the more lust-worthy depth of field and with low light it can also be harder to make the action stop without having to resort to higher than desired ISOs. But there are great shots being made with these cameras all over the world, and for anyone wanting to keep an ultra-lightweight setup, and the ability to carry a bunch of lenses in a small bag, this might be the choice for you. They are also cheaper, and the newest bodies feature some impressive stabilization and weather treatment.
Some of you might be interested in, or even own a Leica, a Hasselblad or something more exotic and expensive. These can be exceptional cameras, hands down. Whoever, in practical use they offer little if no real difference to their Canon, Fuji or similar counterparts. If you own a vintage Leica with amazing glass then of course it’s going to make wonderful photos and offer brilliant details, but not so much more so than the Canon (or similar). They are incredibly expensive, sometimes quite fidgety and not really meant for the road. We want to avoid a situation where your tour comes to a screeching halt because your 15,0000 euro camera stops working. Think of a Ferrari. When you get it opened up on the freeway it’s amazing, thrilling and beyond compare – when its working properly. Now imagine driving that Ferrari on a dirt mountain road, there no room for it to open up, it might just get stuck. Perhaps you’d have been better served with renting a jeep. I am a huge fan of vintage cameras, and Leicas do offer an experience that is unique and can be wonderful. But, it is my opinion that the end result is very rarely anything “better” than another great camera. I’vу seen the RAW files of all, and they don’t differs that much to be totally honest. No need to spend your life savings, your children’s college money or your retirement fund on a Leica – just get a great camera for 1/25th the price and you’ll always be happy.
Having the right lens for the job is very important, almost as important as NOT having too many to choose from. In my experience having a few perfect lenses is always better than having a bag full, and keeping your best, most comfortable lens on the camera all the time is much better than swapping it out every few shots. It keeps your focus on what is happening in front of you, and not missing the best moments while you’re trying to swap a lens out. It also keeps your bag light and keeps you moving with your feet, which always makes better pictures. My recommendations are as follows:
- One NORMAL walkabout lens. I recommend something like a 35mm or 50mm prime lens. Not a zoom, but a fixed lens, this forces you to move with your feet and not just zoom around. They’re also lighter, and potentially cheaper while also having amazing image quality. It’s also possible to get some ultra-fast prime lenses, like 1.4 or 1.8 which also gives that wonderful out of focus background and low light performance. I prefer 35mm but also 50mm is quite popular, anything in this range will be perfect for all day shooting and almost all situations. This will be the lens we would keep on the camera all day long, and only when needed swap to out for something special.
- One Wide lens. This is for landscapes as well as a perfect use for capturing larger spaces, making small places look bigger, exaggerating lines and perspectives or crowds and architecture. For many, 24mm will be wide enough, the most common workplace wide angle found at the low end of many zooms. If you want to exaggerate, something like a 18mm, or a 16-35mm zoom, or even an ultra-wide 14mm can be quite useful here. The most popular for landscapes is 17mm. Of course, the wider you go the harder it is to use and make “pretty” photos as the ultra-wides tend to make everyone and everything stretched out and weird. So be aware that wider isn’t always better. A zoom in this case can also be practical, sometimes having several different mm options can be better than one short wide prime, depending on your usage. There are times when a “normal” lens just isn’t wide enough to capture all that is if front of you, or around you, and a wide lens, when used well can provide spectacular results and images not possible with other lenses.
- One telephoto or zoom. This can be the extra lens you bring, or even for some the stable of their arsenal. Zooms can be extremely useful, giving many different options in one single lens. The trade off is that they are heavier, bigger and come with much smaller aperture (f-stop) possibilities. For many pro shooters a 70-200 mm is their main lens giving you everything from small telephoto to big zoom, all in one package. When you use a zoom you also get nice portraits and blurry backgrounds because of the compression that the lens provides. A portrait zoom also allows you to get closer without having to physically be so close. It’s a great option to have, especially for street photography, and sacred places where you can’t always move to get close. My only suggestion is not to rely entirely on the zoom, especially one that long, because you will miss out on so much action and documentary shots if you don’t have at least one normal length with you. Zooms are great, but they shouldn’t be the only piece of your kit.
Bags are crucial. This is the most important piece of equipment, honestly and truthfully, because it can make or break your trip. The right bag gives accessibility and functionality, while hopefully not screaming “steal me I have expensive gear inside me”. It should be understated if possible, but the most important this is that it holds your gear and whatever else you need, safely, and securely. Most importantly, it’s not too heavy. Nothing ruins your day in the mountains more than when your back goes out because you have way too much stuff and you bag is digging into your shoulder, cutting off the circulations to your arms. (trust me, I’ve experienced this myself) Less is more here. You want something that can hold a water bottle, a jacket, some snacks, extra batteries, and of course your cameras and lenses. You probably want your laptop in there too. Cables, SD cards, extra batteries, the list goes on. People would say that a hiking bag makes great camera bag but not so much, usually the bags doesn’t offer accessibility to your gear, and you don’t want total it off and untie the top, searching through every time you want to make a lens change.
Some people prefer a back pack, others a sling or shoulder bag, your personal preference is the most important thing here. Some like a trading bag for their stuff and they use a waist bag or holster for the camera gear. Bags range in price from $24 to $500, and there are great choices in all price ranges, but as usual, more expensive doesn’t always mean better. It also depends on how you shoot – for a single camera person who does not change lenses much then your bag can be very different to someone who is changing a lot, or using several small cameras. I have tried every bag I could get my hands on, and found a lot of great stuff. Most of the famous brands make a few good bags, there is a great selection here:
Lowepro, Thinktank, Crumpler, Tenba and Manfrotto all make great stuff. The most “pro” bag isn’t necessarily good for a street walker, or a trekker either. So avoid the hype and try out what you can for yourself.
To find the RIGHT bag, you need to decide what you want to bring, go down to the store with your gear, and see how it fits inside. This way you know for sure. Whatever doesn’t work well is only going to be worse after a long day using it, so try and find the most simple, functional bag you can. Military built stuff holds up really well too, and there are many “camera pouch” or “compartment cube” pieces you can buy separately to create the perfect bag from your exiting stuff if you so choose. Again, its personal preference, and what works for you might not work for others and vice versa. After my years of looking and trying everything only one bag seems to fit my shooting style. It’s made by three brothers from the USA, and it combines the best of all I’ve found into one bag, really an amazing feat. It’s called the Prvke 21 by Wandrd, and it’s a backpack with an expandable upper compartment, and a removable camera “cube” inside. It can accommodate two bodies and 5 lenses with me, along with the belt and harness setup I usually use, a laptop, cables etc. and it fits nicely on my shoulders without feeling awkward or bulky. The guys who make it are all experienced trekkers, travelers and they have made new revisions to each new edition of the bag, constantly making it better. It’s on the pricier side, but well worth it and comes with a lifetime guarantee. The right bag just stays with you, it’s a really wonderful tool and I haven’t taken mine off since I bought it. 4 continents, 30 countries, 2 movies and my wedding, still going strong.