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A bewildering array of equipment is available to travel photographers. Cameras, lenses and accessories of every description fill the pages of magazines and compete for attention on dealers' shelves.

However, travel photography is about images - cameras and lenses are merely the tools of the trade. The technical quality and aesthetic value of an image are quite different. Both are desirable, but they should not be confused. Better equipment makes a difference when it overcomes performance limitations, but is unlikely to enhance the aesthetic value of images. It is with this distinction firmly in mind that equipment for travel photography should be chosen.

The process of choosing equipment begins with clarification of objectives. What is it that you intend to do, and how will the images be used? It is important to be honest with yourself at this stage because a wrong decision may ultimately prove expensive. A good initial approach is to ask whether you can manage with cheaper or smaller equipment, and even without each proposed additional item. Everything has not only a cost but also a weight and volume. Read the relevant specifications and consider the type of photographer for whom each item has been designed.

If your principal objective is to record family holiday activities, or create an album of pictures of a once-in-a-lifetime round-the-world trip, then a relatively simple compact camera with a zoom lens may suffice. It will be light and easy to use, and will provide images of a quality suitable for 6"x 4" or 7"x 5" album prints. Camera phones are also improving rapidly. They are compact and lightweight, and currently offer 2 megapixel images good enough to produce 6"x 4" snapshots. It may be significant that a picture agency dedicated to selling images acquired by the general public using mobile camera phones, known as Scoopt, has now been set up.

If you are an enthusiastic amateur photographer and willing to pay more for better quality but bulkier and heavier equipment, a "prosumer" camera may satisfy your requirements. These products are aimed at those who want reasonably sophisticated equipment at a modest price, and have a wider choice of interchangeable lenses and some of the features of professional equipment. Committed travel photographers for whom it is a priority to bring home high-quality images will be able to justify investing in the sophistication and flexibility of a top-end single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. Equipment of this type offers the ultimate in automation, and every professional feature imaginable. Good-quality lenses and camera construction, and endless accessories, makes these models heavier and rather bulkier than cheaper options. However, they are practical when travelling and capable of producing excellent results.

Travel photographers striving to make a living from their activities sometimes find it worthwhile carrying the bulk and weight of medium format equipment. Cameras of this type produce larger, better-quality images which meet the most exacting of requirements. However, when heavy lenses and accessories are added the burden that must be carried may become intolerable. This is a very significant consideration for a travel photographer who may eventually find excess baggage a mental and physical barrier to obtaining the best images.

Public domain image by Andros Virviescas - freeimages.com

Waterproof cameras are clearly designed specifically to allow exploration of the underwater world, but cheaper models can also be useful for sun and sand holidays where water is an ever-present hazard. The two basic options are a tailor-made underwater camera with appropriate rubber seals, and an underwater housing designed specifically to suit a particular camera. Both must be used with care as contamination of seals or careless handling can lead to disastrous flooding.

The choice of a digital or film-based system must be based upon personal objectives and budget. However, for a travel photographer, reliability, flexibility, ruggedness, bulk and weight, power consumption, features and ease of use are major considerations. The decision is important because it sets the future pattern for purchasing lenses and accessories.

Digital systems are developing rapidly and are arguably the future of photography. Compact and "prosumer" models, 35mm-style SLRs and medium format cameras are all available. They store images as electronic data and hence use no film. Images can be uploaded onto a computer or portable storage device and manipulated using software. They are typically viewed on a computer or television screen, and printed using an ink-jet printer or at a commercial digital photo kiosk.

The advantages of digital imaging are that:

  • results can be reviewed almost instantly, and the subject can be photographed again if necessary;
  • airport x-rays are not a problem;
  • the expense of film and processing is eliminated;
  • perfect copies are possible;
  • electronic images require less physical storage space than traditional images;
  • images can be electronically edited and transferred worldwide; and
  • ISO rating can be changed on a shot-by-shot basis to match changing circumstances.

Disadvantages are that:

  • initial costs of digital equipment are relatively high;
  • image quality is limited by resolution although good cameras may be better than their film equivalents;
  • total dependence upon battery power;
  • equipment is arguably less tolerant of rough handling and dust;
  • the learning curve is steep;
  • the scope for error or equipment failure, and consequent loss of large numbers of images, is greater;
  • serious travel photographers must carry more expensive equipment, such as portable computers and hard drives, battery chargers, cables etc; and
  • the quality of images produced by cheaper cameras may be inferior to that obtainable from comparable film-based equipment.

Film-based cameras are also available as compacts and 35mm SLRs, and in Advanced Photographic System (APS), panoramic and medium format. Some excellent manual cameras require no batteries and hence protect the traveller from the hazard of power failure. Film should not be dismissed in the face of the ever increasing sophistication of digital equipment. Both equipment and film are highly developed and extremely capable.

The advantages of film-based equipment are:

  • greater tolerance of rough treatment and dust;
  • many people prefer the permanence and convenient viewing of a film-based or paper-based image;
  • publishers, editors and image libraries increasingly accept digital images, but not all do so;
  • manual cameras are not dependent upon battery power;
  • high-quality second-hand equipment is increasingly becoming available as photographers change to digital;
  • the addition of metadata potentially including details of exposure, date, ISO speed etc, and even location and voice memoranda; and
  • longevity - although it may be technically possible to retain digital images by writing and rewriting them to CDs and DVDs, it may be impracticable. Who can now read the 8" floppy disks of 30 years ago? Transparencies, negatives and prints also have a finite lifespan but those from the same era, if properly stored, should still be quite usable.

The disadvantages of film-based equipment include:

  • the possibility of airport x-ray damage to films;
  • the expense of film and processing;
  • time delay before images are processed and reviewed; and
  • some loss of quality is inevitable when copying original material.
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