On Traveling Without The Big DSLR Camera

I own a Nikon D200 with some extra stuff, including a 28-300 telephoto lens that weighs a ton. I have a Panasonic Lumix (that’s what I used to shoot this picture of dusk in the Serengeti), and an iPhone. I have a video camera, too (the only thing on my list of gear that I did not pay for – I got the video camera in a promotional scheme two years ago). I’ve traveled with all of this stuff and used it all, though I’ll confess that I never did fall in love with the video camera.

I have some formal training in photography, some hardcore classroom time combined with some unofficial apprenticeship with an architectural photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am no stranger to the darkroom (oh, I just gave away my age). I used to shoot, develop and print my own work, though I don’t miss the darkroom. Digital photography has made me love the art even more, though I decried the clumsiness of my first 3-megapixel camera – the metering was bad, the battery life atrocious and the optics, second rate. Digital gear has eaten film now; the quality is just as good and the optics in my phone are 97 times better than that of my first digital camera.

And while I’m not sorry I hauled my full kit to Antarctica and the Serengeti, I am dead tired of carrying all that weight around. A day behind that heavy SLR with the telephoto, and my arm aches. I hate the hassle of carrying around a pack full of lenses, batteries, maybe a flash, a tripod, and whatever extras I’ve packed in preparation. Sometimes, a full pack of photo gear is what keeps me from traveling carryon only. And there’s the added concern about the value of all that gear – a need to keep it safe and under my watch.

I’ve been shooting with my iPhone 4s for about six months now, and with a Panasonic Lumix for maybe two years. When I headed overseas last month, I decided to make a leap of faith and leave behind the big guns and travel with gear that I could fit in my pockets or the little Swiss Army shoulder bag I like to carry when I travel.

%Gallery-160397%Did I miss having my DSLR? Not at all. I felt surprisingly light and taking pictures was easy – easier than on any trip I’ve ever taken. I split my use about 50/50 between my new Lumix and my iPhone, and the work I got was as good as on any trip that I took with my DSLR. Here are some of the reasons I loved shooting light:

  • Low light: I don’t own the lenses for my DSLR to shoot in low light without a tripod. Night shots – I could never get them right before. My phone and my pocket camera handle low light much better than my SLR.
  • Point-and-shoot: Good photography is about the eye, not about the gear, and my point-and-shoot lets me do just that, fast. Read a little Cartier-Bresson on the decisive moment, and you’ll see what I mean.
  • Super smart settings: Yes, you can tweak the settings like crazy, but you can also shoot in auto. Go ahead, call me lazy – whatever. I’m using the brain inside the camera to enable my eye. I like being able to do that.
  • Display over viewfinder: With my SLR, I was always stopping, steadying, framing – with a camera stuck to my face. It interrupts the conversation. Shooting from my solar plexus allows me to watch and listen and shoot at the same time.
  • Ease of access and use: My camera was always right there, not zipped away so it was padded and protected, so I simply shot more pictures. It fits in my back pocket; it’s about the same size as my wallet, so it’s easy to take anywhere.
  • Serious zoom: The 20x optical zoom on my Lumix is rated as equivalent to a 35-500 lens. That’s some range for optics that fit in a camera that’s the size of my wallet and weighs about the same.

The downside?

  • Bright light: It’s hard to see the viewfinder in brightly lit settings. At a few locations, I wished for a viewfinder and this camera does not have one.
  • The menus are insane: Sure, I’ll figure them out. But I know all the controls and what they do on my DSLR and I can tweak them fast. The navigation system viewfinder-based pocket cameras are basically a computer and you navigate through it as such. This is a learning curve issue that I’m sure I’ll master.

Lots of companies are making higher-end pocket cameras – my favorite is Lumix by Panasonic, but Olympus makes them, and Nikon and Canon too, as well as a number of other electronics brands. We’ve upgraded the Lumix three times at our house – not because it was broken, but because we wanted the improvements. I can’t speak to the other brands, I simply don’t know them, but I can say that yes, it is possible to get thoroughly satisfying shots with only a pocket camera. I loved traveling that much lighter, and what did I sacrifice? Not much. Not much at all.

Samsung HZ35W digital camera with GPS – first look

This really is a great summer for people in the market for a new digital camera. The new Samsung HZ35W is no exception. In this quick look, I’ll introduce you to this newest product from the Samsung lineup, with some extra focus on its travel friendly features.

Inside the HZ35W is a 14.2 megapixel sensor, a 24mm wide angle 15x optical zoom and HD movie mode. What sets the HZ35W apart from the competition is its GPS receiver. Even though the camera is not the first to come with a GPS receiver for geo-tagging, it is the first (that I know of) with a built in street-level map database, powered by Navteq (the same company that provides maps for many popular GPS navigation units).

Because of the 15x optical zoom, the camera is by no means compact – it stops short of being bulky, but this isn’t a camera for your back pocket. Controls are simple and well laid out – you get a selector knob on top, along with a switch for the GPS receiver, power button, zoom lever and shutter control. On the rear is a D-Pad and buttons for quick movie mode, menu, play and erase.

On the side of the camera is a metal door to protect the USB and HDMI connectors. And these connectors bring me to the biggest disappointment of the Samsung HZ35W – the camera once again uses a proprietary connector for all its functions. The power/usb cable is short and bulky, and no HDMI or AV cable is included.

Worst of all – even though the HD video port is labeled “HDMI”, you still need to invest extra in a special HDMI Mini-Type D cable. To make matters even worse – nobody seems to sell these cables (yet). Honestly, I absolutely hate the proprietary connectors and I wish they’d just settle for Mini or MicroUSB and the same MiniHDMI connectors used by almost every other brand.

Thankfully, the connector issue is pretty much the only downside I’ve been able to find so far. The camera speed is excellent, and despite the long lens, it starts up very fast. The display is stunning, thanks to Samsungs own AMOLED display technology.

As I mentioned earlier – the Samsung HZ35W is the first I know of with a full map database loaded on the device. It makes tagging and referencing photos quite a lot of fun. Loading maps on the camera takes about 20 minutes, and the ability to carefully read instructions (an ability I lack).

And finally in this quick look, I’ll leave you with two photos that show the zoom lens at work:

I’ll post a full review next week, after I’ve been able to take the camera for a real test over the next couple of days.

Panasonic Lumix GF1 Micro Four Thirds camera review

In this review, we’ll introduce the fourth Micro Four Thirds camera to earn some coverage here on Gadling. As a quick reminder – Micro Four Thirds digital cameras offer the same image sensor quality found on large(r) digital SLR cameras, but in a much smaller body. This size and weight reduction obviously makes these cameras perfect for travel, especially if you want to lighten your load, without sacrificing image quality or features.

The basics inside the Panasonic Lumix GF1 are what you’d expect from a camera in this (price) range. 12.1 megapixels, 1280 x 720 HD video, live view and a built in flash.
In the version being reviewed here today, we used the GF1 with the Panasonic H-H020 20mm F1.7 pancake lens. The design of the GF1 is very much in line with all other Panasonic cameras – and I’ve been a longtime fan of their Lumix lineup, so I was instantly attracted to the GF1. Controls are fairly basic – the usual mode selector dial is on top, along with a very handy shoot mode switch (for single, continuous and timed photos). Many other cameras hide those options under the menu, so quick access like this is quite welcome.

On the rear is the D-Pad menu/option selector, buttons for the display, delete, play, Autofocus lock, quick menu and a fast auto/manual focus selector.

Startup time of the camera is very quick – in part because of a “real” power slider switch. From power on till first photo can be just under 2 seconds making the camera perfect for those spur of the moment things you’d like to photograph.

Because this is a Micro Four Thirds camera, the GF1 can be used with some other Micro Four Thirds lenses, though Panasonic did inform me that not all lenses will work – in some cases, the lens may not auto focus. In my test, I used the 14-42 lens from an Olympus E-P1 which worked perfectly – in fact, it performed better on the GF1 than on the E-P1, mainly because the E-P1 has a notoriously slow focus, something the GF1 does not suffer from.

The GF1 features a built in pop-up flash. The flash is manually operated (so no auto pop-up). Think of this flash as handy to have around, just don’t expect it to light up a large room as it is pretty weak. Still, it beats having to carry around a separate flash. Of course, there is a flash shoe on top of the camera.

The flash shoe can also be used for an optional ($155) viewfinder, which uses a small connector port just under the shoe.

Image quality from the GF1 is very, very good – the camera is fast, and the 20mm lens was much more fun to work with than I had expected. There are a few things lacking though – there is no in-camera image stabilization, and movies are recorded in mono.

On the side of the camera is a miniHDMI port (for HD video and images), a dual USB/AV port and a remote control jack. The camera can not be charged over USB, so you’ll need to carry the included charger along with you. Battery life is quite excellent – rated for up to 380 photos per charge.

All in all, I found the GF1 to be a worthy competitor to the Olympus E-P1 and E-P2. The pop-up flash is a handy feature to have, and the auto focus performance is certainly better. But the lack of image stabilization and stereo audio puts it a few steps behind.

PROS: Fast focus, easy to use menu structure, good battery life, excellent photo quality
CONS: No image stabilization, mono video audio

As reviewed, the Panasonic Lumix GF1 retails for $899 – with the 20mm lens. This is exactly the same price as the Olympus E-P2 with a similar pancake lens (the E-P2 lacks a pop-up flash).

Five new digital cameras from Samsung

As we pointed out in our TL225 DualView review last week, Samsung makes some pretty innovative digital cameras. Last night,, the company unveiled five new shooters for their Q1 2010 lineup. The new products include the HZ30W and HZ35W superzoom compacts, the effect-rich TL110 and TL105 cameras and a new budget camera – the SL630.

For travelers, the new HZ35W will be a real treat, offering HD video recording, integrated GPS with location data and get this – a 15x optical zoom, all in a package just 28mm deep.


The TL105 is a 12.2 megapixel camera with a 4x optical zoom. It features face recognition, blink detection and “smile shot” which ensures you only take photos of happy looking people. The TL105 shoots video in 720p HD with an optional HDMI cable. Available in February.


The new TL110 features a 5x optical zoom and a 14.2 megapixel sensor, in a compact form factor. It has the same scene and face detection features as the TL105, along with its HD video mode. Available in February.


The new HZ30W packs a 3″ LCD and a 15x optical zoom in its interior. It shoots in 12.2 megapixels and can record video in 720p. Available in March.


The new HZ35W offers the same 15x zoom lens found on the HZ30W, but adds a 3″ AMOLED screen and a GPS receiver. The receiver tags your photos with the location it was made, plus the camera can display your location on a visual map. Available in March.


The final newbie in the Q1 2010 Samsung lineup is the budget friendly SL630. Despite its low budget classification, it packs a 12.2 megapixel sensor and 5x optical zoom in its silver, black or red exterior. It does not feature HD video, but does do optical image stabilization and a variety of effects. Available in March.

Gadling gear review – Manfrotto Modo Pocket mini folding camera stand

In this Gadling gear review, I’ll introduce you to the Manfrotto Modo Pocket 797 mini camera stand. This 50 gram (about 1.7 ounces) folding stand screws to the tripod mount found on the bottom of most cameras. When folded, it is only about 6 millimeters thick. The Modo Pocket is a master of simplicity – it really only consists of three parts, two of which fold open to help angle your camera on a surface.

Once opened, a small cord prevents the 2 legs from folding open too far, and helps keep them angled. Sturdy rubber feet are injection molded to the legs, so there is no chance of them falling off.

An attached camera can be angled in a variety of ways – you can keep it straight, or angle it up/down about 45 degrees. This opens up a whole world of creative options, including shots from the ground up.
One clever addition is a threaded hole on the bottom of the Modo Pocket, which allows you to mount it, along with your camera on a second tripod, without having to remove it.

Despite its small size, I found that it had no problems whatsoever with heavier cameras like the Olympus Pen E-P1. Of course, it is very much in its element with a P&S camera. The manufacturer rated maximum camera weight is 500g/1lb.

There are other pocket camera stands/tripods on the market, but the Modo Pocket is the smallest you’ll find, plus its small size means it can stay attached to your camera at all times, ready for when you need it.

At $19.95 (MSRP) it is not a cheap little accessory, but Manfrotto are known in the camera world for their fantastic quality, and the Modo Pocket is no exception. This does not look or feel like some cheap little gizmo. The Modo Pocket is available from most camera equipment vendors.

I’ve quickly learned to love the quirky little Modo Pocket – it is great for timed family photos, or if you don’t want to put your camera down on a dirty muddy surface. It is ready for use in a matter of seconds whenever you need it.

PRO’S: Great quality, can stay on your camera, very lightweight and thin.
CON’S: Price feels a tad on the high side.