The Cameras and Gear I Use to Photograph the World – By Ed Graham, The Polar Route
Travel photography can be intimidating at fist because there's a variety of things to consider when choosing the best equipment. Who better to give advice than Ed from The Polar Route. Not only has he traveled across the world but he enjoys teaching others about the ins and outs of taking the best photographs in the most magical of places. Experience his art and stories in this very special TechTalk guest article.
I'm a travel photographer and I'll stop at almost nothing to take good pictures. I've laid prone on ice in subzero temperatures in Siberia, scaled rocks on the beach in Iceland as powerful waves crashed around me, and I've been chased by a pack of angry dogs in Sri Lanka. While I've remained mostly unscathed, my cameras and gear take a continual beating.
Ice on Lake Baikal
From my misadventures I've learned what works and what doesn't, and I know firsthand that having the right equipment matters. I want to help you make an informed decision so your next camera purchase is right for you.
There are five primary characteristics I look for in a good travel camera:
- Image quality
I'll let you in on a little secret the camera manufactures don't want you to know - image quality is universally high in today's market. Reviews and comparisons are always fun, but the truth is you can't go wrong once you move beyond a certain performance threshold.
What performance threshold? Sensor size! In the photography world, size most definitely matters. The larger the image sensor, the better the image quality. I prefer APS-C (sometimes just called APS) sized sensors and larger. While APS-C sizes vary slightly by manufacturer, sensor dimensions generally start at around 20.7×13.8 mm.
Some mirrorless cameras and most DSLRs have APS-C sized sensors or larger - check the product description to be sure. Sensors smaller than APS-C have less light gathering ability, and they tend to produce overly grainy images especially when shooting in low light.
My Canon 60D's APS-C sensor proved up to the task of shooting this low light scene in Sri Lanka
Cameras are a lot tougher than you might think.
I once dropped my DSLR while travelling and I could only watch in horror as it tumbled down the side of a hill covered in hardened volcanic rocks. To my amazement it was no worse for wear - the camera worked fine and only gained a few minor scratches (I call them souvenirs.) Most cameras are made of hardened plastic which is plenty strong for taking pictures, but look for the words "magnesium alloy" if you expect your camera to take a real beating and you don't mind lugging the extra weight around.
Weather sealing is another issue. I've shot in excessive heat, extreme cold, snow, rain, and on plenty of nice sunny days too. I've used both weather-sealed and non weather-sealed cameras, and I treat each the same way by following one simple rule - try not to get the camera wet. If it rains, I put a bin bag over the camera and don't worry about it.
It was -30°C when I shot this scene last winter in Siberia. My fingers froze before my camera did.
This is where compromises have to be made. Weather-sealed, magnesium alloy cameras that are also light and portable don't exist. The last thing you want to do is spend a bunch of money on a camera that sits in your hotel room all day because it's too heavy to carry around.
Canon's new EOS-M camera weighs just 262g, while their 5D Mark III is far heavier at 860g. Is the 5D's top of the line image quality worth carrying more than 3x the weight? Don't expect your substantially lighter wallet to make up the difference. It all comes down to personal preference.
My Canon 5D Mark III proved too heavy in India's summer heat last year. A lighter camera would have been a better choice for daytime shots like this.
As I've grown as a photographer I've come to realise how underrated this category is. How quickly does your camera turn on? How accessible are the menus? Can you easily switch between shooting modes like shutter and aperture priority? Does the camera feel good in your hands? Each of these is hugely important because moments are fleeting. Your camera should be ready to shoot when you are.
I always leave my lens cap off and keep my camera's power on when I'm out shooting. This ensures that all I have to do is point and shoot when I see something interesting.
A fleeting moment captured in Shanghai, China
It's easy to forget that cameras don't take pictures, photographers do. The best way to take good pictures is to point your camera at things that inspire, motivate, and emotionally connect with your viewers. Spending a lot of money on gear doesn't necessarily have to be part of the equation.
I spent a lot of money on my gear because I place a high value on the ability to blow up a print to ridiculous sizes and still have it look tack sharp. I also do a lot of low light shooting on the road, and I want a camera that can keep up. If I had a less expensive camera, I'd still be able to shoot about 90% of what I do now.
I've always liked this shot from Bangkok, Thailand. It was shot on a Canon 400D, worth only about £140 on today's used market.
My Gear and My Wishlist
I use a Canon 5D Mark III, a Canon 60D, and an assortment of lenses. My favourite lens is the Canon 24-105mm f4L - it excels at travel photography because it can be used to shoot just about anything. I also carry plenty of extra batteries and memory cards.
The new Canon EOS-M camera tops my wishlist because it's lighter, less expensive, less conspicuous, and it offers the same image quality as many DSLRs.
Canon is what I started with and what I've stuck with through the years. If I was starting over today I'd have no problem trying out any of the other manufacturers as long as the gear was up to the task in each of the five categories of image quality, ruggedness, portability, usability, and value.
About the Author: Ed Graham runs the travel photography website The Polar Route. He's photographed his way through 30+ countries over the last 6 years and counting. Ed enjoys simplifying photography so travellers everywhere can take home the beautiful memories they deserve.