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Snap happy: a photographer's perspective

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

This is one for the photography enthusiasts – I make no apologies for the techno geekery which follows!

Several months of planning went into the trip and a large part of my time was spent deliberating over what camera/cameras to take. Jen and I both enjoy photography, and since buying our first DSLR in 2007 (for our first trip to the Himalayas), we have both become converts to the superior image quality, responsiveness and creativity when compared to digital compact cameras. That camera was a Pentax K100D, an entry-level model that we chose over the more common Canikons because it was good value, had in-body image stabilisation and was backed by a line up of compact, inexpensive lenses.

The K100D was a solid warhorse but was beginning to show its age, so I decided we would replace it for this trip. After much umming and arring we finally plumped for another Pentax DSLR, the flagship Pentax K-5. When it arrived, the 400-page user manual and lack of an automatic mode signalled that this was a serious piece of kit. It has headline-grabbing features such as live view and a video mode, but for me the biggest selling point was the weather-sealed body. When paired with Pentax's similarly weather resistant (WR) lenses, we had full protection against dust, sand and rain. In 2007, I had to do some emergency sensor cleaning on the K100D at Annapurna Base Camp after our sunrise photos were spoiled by dust spots, so I was sold on the strength of this feature alone. The K-5 also brought us numerous other improvements: a high-resolution sensor, reduced noise, higher ISO, better autofocus, more user control, a quiet shutter and an impressive viewfinder.

King of the mountains - the Pentax K-5 poses on a Himalayan pass

King of the mountains - the Pentax K-5 poses on a Himalayan pass

It proved to be an excellent package when paired with the WR kit lenses (18-55mm and 50-200mm), and withstood monsoon rains in Nepal, blizzards in India and the dusty roads of Vietnam. It even survived an accidental dunking when Jen, who was carrying it round her neck, decided to audition for Total Wipeout by falling off a rolling log into a lake in Thailand. This wasn't the only pitfall to befall our camera gear. The K-5 had an unscheduled sleepover in a Darjeeling restaurant and one of our SD cards decided to go for a little dip in the sea.

The compromises with a DSLR are weight and bulk, important considerations for us with the amount of trekking and cycling we had planned. We wanted to be able to reach for the camera at all times so the means of carrying it was another issue. I purchased a Lowepro Apex case which comfortably held the K-5, the kit lenses and all the usual paraphernalia (batteries, SD cards, filters etc.) This could be attached to the waist belt of a backpack, carried in the hand or slung over a shoulder, so it was always quick to retrieve on trek. In fact, thanks to the K-5's weather sealing we rarely put the camera in the case. The same was true on the bike ride, which meant we would more readily stop for photos than if the camera had been buried in a rucksack.

Jen photographing the Nam Ou River in Laos

Jen photographing the Nam Ou River in Laos

Reviewing the photos from our previous treks, I discovered that the most commonly used focal length was 18mm (equivalent to 27mm on a full frame camera), the wide end of our kit lens. So a few weeks before we left I treated myself to a little luxury – a 15mm prime lens from Pentax's delicious "Limited" lens collection. This little jewel weighs just over 200g, has a constant maximum aperture of f4.0 and all-metal construction (including a retractable hood). We made good use of it for wide angle landscapes and shots inside buildings too.

A high altitude valley on the Manaslu Circuit - shot with the Pentax DA 15mm and an ND8 filter

A high altitude valley on the Manaslu Circuit - shot with the Pentax DA 15mm and an ND8 filter

The one place we couldn't take the K-5 was underwater (not without a very expensive housing). To enable us to take photos of the Andaman Sea's marine life, we also carried a compact 'rugged' camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT2. This is waterproof to a depth of 10m, perfect for snorkelers. Underwater photography is perhaps the most challenging field to master. You have to contend with a lack of natural light, the changing colour spectrum with depth, strong waves and currents and moving subjects, some of which can kill you with a single bite or sting! Not only that, but snorkelers are also constrained by the time they can hold their breath and their buoyancy, which makes it difficult to control position on a dive. Any compact camera struggles under such conditions, and the FT2 was no exception. Taking good underwater images is more a matter of luck than skill – I probably discarded 80% of my shots instantly. Worse still, the zoom lens utilises folded optics. This means the lens does not extend and can therefore be sealed within the camera body, but there is a trade-off in image quality, especially when zoomed in. Occasionally, however, it did produce a corker.

Colourful clams in the crystal-clear water of Tarutao National Park

Colourful clams in the crystal-clear water of Tarutao National Park

We take it in turns to carry the camera. Jen is great at spotting and snapping the most dramatic landscapes, and she takes great portraits too. My approach is a bit more scattergun – I take more photos, but they tend to be a mixed bag! I also like wildlife, action and architecture as subjects. People are always interesting subjects but capturing the right expression is tricky, especially with a hulking great DSLR. They can react in unwanted ways: reticence, anger, self-consciousness or showing off! Sometimes a little ice-breaker is needed to establish a rapport between photographer and subject, especially when language is a barrier. At Gumba Lundang in Nepal, we wanted to take photos of the Buddhist nuns, but they seemed a little shy. We approached a couple of the younger girls to ask permission, and they agreed. Showing them the images on the camera's LCD screen sparked a sudden change, and within seconds we had a crowd of nuns round the camera, all clamouring for their photograph to be taken. A bicycle is another great icebreaker. We had some very good photographers on the Red Spokes cycle tour, and it was instructive watching them in action. In a group situation you need a camera on you at all times to capture those fleeting moments which will get a good reaction when you share them later. I missed lots, but fortunately others were always on hand!

Sharing our photos with the nuns of Gumba Lundang

Sharing our photos with the nuns of Gumba Lundang

In four months of travel, it's difficult to be 'up' for photography every single day. Even sharing the work between two, there were still a few days when the camera stayed in the case. But we've certainly enjoyed taking all our photos and sharing some of them on this blog. Now we are back home we're enjoying them even more on the TV screen. The K-5 has been a superb tool for the job – yes I still wish for faster, longer lenses (particularly for those damn wildlife shots) but would I have been prepared to carry them? No way! On the other hand, I'm very taken with the new breed of compact system cameras, especially after seeing David, our Red Spokes tour leader, using his Panasonic GF1.

If I were doing a similar trip again (if only), I would seriously consider investing in a rangefinder style body from the Panasonic/Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, which seems to me to have the right balance of size, image quality, product range and value. I would also take a high-end compact camera with a fast, sharp lens and an underwater housing (unless the manufacturers can seriously improve the image quality and performance from their waterproof cameras). Must do some research....

I've been asked by lots of people how many photos we took on our trip. All will be revealed in the next and final blog entry, but to give you some idea, I'll leave you with this thought. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then we have a potential War and Peace on our hands.

Posted by Chris Parsons 15:21 Archived in Malaysia Tagged photography

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Nice post Chris. Always tricky choosing the best travel camera. I like the micro 4/3 and can't see myself changing away from these. The lens lineup is improving all the time as well. But m4/3 does have drawbacks, with a half size sensor long exposures can be noisy as can images blown up too big, then again the same is true of most DSLRs I think. I never take mine off of ISO100. The new Olympus OM-D looks fantastic, weather sealed, but I have a feeling they are going to have to drop the price a tad. Interesting what you say about primes, my 20mm f1.7 (40mm equivalent in full frame) lives on my camera 90% of the time. I have a 45 (90)mm f1.8 which produces fantastic results but I am so used to the 20mm I am always to close to everything. Must try a zoom one day.



by David Walker

David - I've been salivating over the OM-D too. The specs look good on paper and the camera looks good too (I like the retro styling, especially the black and silver version). But £1150? Too much!

The K-5 gave us very nice results up to ISO 1600, but I regret not shooting more in RAW as I reckon I could clean up the high ISO shots even better than the camera does. I suppose this is one sacrifice we'd have to make if switching to m4/3.

I do like using primes but you have to know what focal lengths you like. We have a 40mm pancake lens (60mm equiv) for the K-5 which is superb, but it's a really awkward focal length to use so I'm selling it. If you use primes exclusively you'll probably be disappointed with zooms - unless the forthcoming Panasonic 12-35 proves to be a winner!

by Chris Parsons

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