When you’re travelling light it’s always a compromise on what photography equipment to take. The irony wasn’t lost on me that almost half my total kit was photographic gear to record my light and fast cycling approach!
Here is what I took and I was super glad with what I had:
Canon 6D DSLR
I took the plunge and went for a full frame Canon DSLR for my cycling east trip. It was a lot of cash, but the improved picture quality was certainly worth it. A full frame has a 35mm sensor which means it receives a lot more light and subsequently the image quality is better than a compact or even a crop DSLR that have sensors so small they will surprise you! Picture quality is fantastic especially in low light or shadows, if you always shoot in RAW then the detail that you can pull out in post production from the full frame sensor will amaze you!
In terms of the fundamental specifications the 20-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor and a powerful DIGIC 5+ image processor are outstanding. You really can’t blame them for poor pictures it is all down to user incompetence I’m afraid to say!
The reason I went for a full frame camera was mainly for taking night shots, I was fed up of noise and unwanted feedback that combine to ruin or require lots of post production. With this camera it was either the lens choice or me who messed up the pictures such was the sensors performance. I could use incredibly high ISOs to capture hand held city night photography and the noise levels were insanely low. It really surpassed my high expectations.
The WIFI function seemed to be a gimmick like the GPS that I never use as it drains the battery. However the WIFI function was incredibly useful for previewing that days photos on a bigger screen and for transferring images onto the web for my blog or Facebook. I stored quite a few of these lower res ones on cloud too. It is a shame that it converts to 1mb JPG files rather than RAW but still a useful function.
Like most high end DSLRs the controls are super useful to use, the aperture, speed, light monitoring and ISO can all be done quickly by touch on the top or back dial. The ISO button is dimpled meaning you can quickly find it and adjust while still shooting through the view finder. You can also reach the aperture preview button without trouble as well. Altogether I can’t fault the controls for what I use anyway.
The autofocus is what does let this camera down a bit, it has a smallish range of 9 selection points compared to high end crop sensors and it can be annoying. In tricky focusing situations I tend to focus on a spot then lock it and move the camera to where I want to frame the picture. This isn’t ideal but it is a bit quicker than manual focusing.
I love using the viewfinder to frame the shot, I had forgotten how much easier it is than a LCD screen that gets so easily affected. By using the viewfinder the battery life is about 5 days of quite high usage, say about 750 shots. Obviously long the WIFI, GPS, night exposures or epic time-lapses drain it quicker but, not as much as you might think. A session of night photography taking say 40 minutes of exposure would knock about 25% off the battery! Overall it impressed me a lot that the battery lasted so long, which is important while cycle touring, I took 3 spares but rarely used more than the second one before I could recharge.
There’s no disguising the fact it is a big camera if you are coming from a compact, a micro 4/3 or even a crop sensor DSLR however the simple fact is – this camera is the lightest, smallest full frame camera from Nikon or Canon, the only two brands that I would personally consider. That combined with a certain amount of dust and weather proofing make it the obvious semi professional choice to take cycle touring. Personally I prefer Canon from way back in my film SLR days so it was no choice.
This link shows the camera spec etc. but expect to find it for about half the price and without the flat 40mm lens if you shop about on Amazon or across the web.
It was certainly a learning curve on the trip as to how I could get the best from the camera but the image quality and ease of use blew me away. Worth every penny that I spent! I insured it well just in case but it held up fine too damp conditions, dusty desert, cold then heat and lots of vibrations on the bike. I was paranoid about taking out such a big camera in poorer areas and maybe missed a few shots that I might have got with a small discrete compact but I eventually just used it more and more.
Canon 17-40mm f4 lens
I wont go into the technical specifications but this lens is the go to lens for most Canon users into landscape photography and I didn’t regret taking it at all. Pictures are sharp, the 17mm wide angle is towards the limit of fish eye distortion creeping in but wide enough to fit vast vistas. It is dust resistant and after all the abuse and desert riding it underwent there’s nothing to show for it, the optics are still working smoothly and clean.
This shot in nepal shows the lens at its best:
Canon 50mm f2.8 prime lens
This lens feels cheap but it is cheap. It is a loose plastic construction but the optics are super clear and sharp. With f2.8 it lets a lot of light in and blurs the background of portraits well. I enjoyed using it and was amazed it survived the trip in one piece. It really feels like it would just shatter if dropped! The only issue in use is that the focal points of the blurred background do take on the pentagon shape of the lens leaves. It means that the subject can be distracted a little but only in certain situations.
Here is a nice portrait in Nepal that shows the clarity of the lens and how the wide aperture blurs.
DSLR Accessories – Programmable timer remote for timelapses, small infra-red timer, smooth pan head tripod, 3 spare batteries, Charger with euro plug, UV and Polarising filters.
The timer was super useful as you can programme and walk away (not too far or the camera might go) and leave it snapping timelapse shots, it is also useful for star trails and HDR photography. A super useful tool that I recommend taking.
Filters were cheap ones that ended up distorting the lens, it kind of defeated the point of taking a great lens if the sun flared on the UV filter! I ended up using the polarising filter a lot but mainly I took both off for shooting.
It seems a tripod was more useful when I was on my own, sadly that was when I no longer had a tripod!! I took a fairly cheap tripod which was a bit heavier than I would have liked, but it did what was needed i.e. hold the camera steady for long exposures! I lost it in Georgia which saved weight but meant I couldn’t take pictures of myself riding very easily. It proved harder than expected to find a replacement in Central Asia that wasn’t $200!
GoPro Hero camera with bar mounts x 2
It’s a GoPro, if you don’t know about these then where have you been 🙂 The plastic bar mounts are rubbish though, you can get fake aluminium ones that I wish I took, both plastic snapped before Turkey!
Rode Video Microphone
To team up with the DSLR and the GoPro I used an external microphone to record voice on my videos. It still caught the wind a lot while riding but certainly better than the GoPro internal microphone and slightly better than the DSLR internal mic. Overall it weighs next to nothing and stashed in a pocket for quick use so it was a useful addition.
The back up plan camera
This Olympus E-PL3 is a great micro 4/3 format camera for travelling due to its compact size and low weight compared to its high performance. It isn’t a DSLR but it produces some fantastic pictures while offering user friendly DSLR style controls. I shoot with mine in manual mode all the time which gives you great flexibility over settings compared to a compact. It also produces great RAW format images that can be edited fairly well afterwards without losing quality. The camera does really struggle in low light conditions with a lot of noise generated.
There are a number of fantastic lenses for the camera being inter changeable with Panasonic’s micro 4/3 lenses too. I might Greg the Polish cyclist in Azerbaijan who was using one for his long cycle tour. He found the articulated screen great for taking portraits, something that I missed with my Canon. He had opted for the Olympus over his DLSR for weight saving and I was very tempted to have done the same, but I didn’t. Why not?
Firstly the Olympus camera is not quite the same build construction as a DSLR and his was showing a fair bit of wear as I suspected. The dust and moisture affects the camera more easily.
My main logic was that I was going on the trip of a lifetime with some unforgettable moments ahead therefore why compromise on the photos by taking an inferior camera. I want my pictures blown up huge on my walls and only the Canon can do this.