The Ideal Cruiser Camera, What Really Matters

Morning beach scene, Green Turtle Cay, Abacos. We will miss the place.This is the second in my series on photography gear, but with a twist: rather than recommending a camera and then justifying my opinion, I’m going to try and define my absolute ideal cruising camera, based on fifteen years of taking photographs seriously while voyaging; not to speak of some really bad and expensive gear purchase decisions.

My goal is to give you a check list to pick your best cruiser camera rather than trying to convince you to like my choice. Don’t worry, I will make a couple of suggestions for cameras to look at later.

Let’s get started on my list in order of importance:

Image Quality

One of the most frustrating things that can happen to you as a photographer is to get that once in a lifetime shot and then find that the image quality is so poor that you can’t make a decent sized print of it; hell you can’t even look at it!

I really did not place these flip flops, honest. Coco Bay, Green Turtle Cay.I really did not place these flip flops, honest. Coco Bay, Green Turtle Cay.Double click on the shot just above—not that it’s a once in a lifetime—which is an enlargement of the flip-flop shot, and you will see what I mean. Look at the trees, they look like, well, mud. That’s just one example of what the small sensors in most point and shoot cameras can do to you, not all the time, but often enough to make you nuts. (By the way, I did not put the flip flops there, I found them just like that, really!)

So how can you avoid poor image quality? The single most important thing you can do (assuming a half way decent lens) is buy the least number of pixels on the largest sensor for the class of camera you are looking at.

“What!” I can hear many of you scream, “The more pixels the better, everyone knows that”. Not true. What matters to image quality is how big each pixel site is, not how many there are. All more pixels give you is the ability to make a bigger print, that’s it.

This is one of the reasons I like the Olympus XZ-1: it only has 10 Mpx, less than most cameras in its class, but its sensor is larger than most.

So my ideal cruiser camera would have the biggest 12 Mpx sensor that my back will stand. Wait, I hear you scream again, “sensors don’t weigh anything at all, what are you babbling about”? We will get to that later.

So Why 12 Mpx?

A photograph with 12 good quality Mpxs will run double-truck (two page spread) in a magazine—should you be crazy enough to want to get into that business—or produce a really nice 13 x 19 inch (super B) print, which is about as big as I’m going to need.

And I actually do make prints from my stuff. Well, occasionally. But let’s face it, 99.9% of the shots taken by cruisers are going to be viewed on a screen, and a 12 Mpx image will fill a large computer screen twice over, and then some.

Good Glass

I want good quality zoom lenses ranging from 14 mm (ultra-wide) to 400 mm (super telephoto) (35 mm equivalents), and  a couple of fast prime lenses (non-zoom) would be nice to.

JHH5II-10885JHHGH1_1020184Dale Haley, model release available, caulks the bottom of a restored wooden sloop at Billings Diesel and MarineCruising photography is about capturing a place in a lot of different ways, from a wide angle scenery shot, to the inside of a restaurant, to a craftsman working on a boat. As a cruising photographer, I’m a generalist, and as such, I need a wide selection of focal lengths and lens types.

But don’t panic, you don’t have to buy a bag full of expensive glass to be a good cruising photographer. Of the three shots above, only one required a special lens and absolutely could not have been made with a good point and shoot. Can you guess which?

My lenses, at least the mid to longer ones (50-400 mm), also need to be image stabilized so that I can take sharp photographs hand held. Yes, I own a tripod, but it does me no good on a pitching deck. Also, I don’t like to carry it, and I find that once I have a tripod set up, I tend to stop moving around as I shoot, which in turn tends to stifle my creativity.

A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

I want a camera that makes me look like a happy-snappy tourist.

JHHGH1-1050340See the guy in the shot above. What do you think he would have said or done if I had shoved my big Canon rig with a humongous zoom in his face? At the very least, he would have asked a whole bunch of questions about my intentions, while he got more and more stiff and up-tight. Add his girlfriend to the mix, and I would have been risking a knuckle sandwich.

As it was, all he saw was some dorky old guy—I was wearing a Tilley Hat to further enhance that image over and above the already high level of dorkdom that comes naturally to me—with a little tourist camera. So after I asked if I could take a photo of him, he quickly lost interest and I got this nice relaxed natural looking shot.

Easy To Carry

It’s an old joke, but it bears repeating.

Question: How do you take great photographs?
Answer: F8 and be there.

I would add to that, be there with your camera.

Some of my favourites of my photographs I took when I was out and about doing something other than looking for photographs.

In fact, let’s face it, voyaging is often all about trying to get a million errands and tasks done in a strange place, with no car and often in a foreign language, which all takes a lot of time and often leaves me with little time for dedicated photography outings.

A young Greenlandic man standing outside the store, which is selling imported Christmas trees, an incongruity we thought in this treeless land. We chatted a bit as he tried out his very good English, learned from movies and computer games.I need a camera that is so light and portable that I can and will take it everywhere so that I can make a shoot that captures a sense of the place as part of my normal day. The shot above, one of my favourites from our winter trip to Greenland, typifies that for me. Christmas trees in the Arctic, I ask you? It was taken on a grocery shopping trip.

Low Light Capability

My ideal camera will be able to take decent quality shots in low light and that translates into good quality images at ISO 800, minimum.

Did someone say, “But what about using the pop-up flash that most cameras come with”? Wash your mouth out with lens cleaning fluid. On-camera flash is the single greatest enemy of good photographs. Think the deer in the headlights look. (I don’t have any shots to illustrate that look, and I wouldn’t admit it if I did.)

A dancer at the New Years Day Junkanoo festival.The only thing an on-camera flash should ever be used for is to provide fill lighting when the primary light, usually the sun, is harsh and direct like in the above shot.

Actually, even here I’m fudging a bit because I was holding the flash gun in my left hand as far away from the camera as I could, which is how I got the nice shaping shadows on the young woman’s face and the highlight on her camera-left cheek. So in fact, I was using the cloudy-sun as the fill light and the flash as the main light. (And if all that was double-Dutch to you, there is another reason you don’t want to use flash.)

Christmas Day.Yes, I do take flash only photographs (like the one above), but doing it even half way decently usually takes at least two off-camera flashes, a lot of set up, and a lot of practice. (We are probably looking so stiff because we are bored witless with all my messing with the flashes!) Back in the film days we had to do that, but now I find my willingness to go through all that agro is diminishing with each year that goes by.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAParticularly when I can get something like this with a good pocket sized camera and no flash.

View Finder

I simply can’t take good photographs without a viewfinder, or at least, not consistently. Also, to use the back screen for composition, I, like many aging cruisers, must first get out my reading glasses. And since I can never remember which pocket they are in, by the time I fumble them out and onto my face, the great shot is long gone. And if there’s bright sunlight, I can’t see the screen anyway.

Finally, the “stinky-baby-with-full-diaper” (using the back-screen to compose) camera hold, as one of my favourite photo bloggers calls it, almost guarantees camera shake and soft photographs.

Cost

Now we come to the thorny question of cost…I’m simply not going to go there. Rather, my goal with this post is to give you the knowledge to buy your best cruiser camera at your budget point.

Summary

John’s ideal cruiser camera will:

  • Have a 12 MPx sensor that will produce good image quality up to 800 ISO, minimum.
  • Be part of a system with a nice selection of good image stabilized zoom lenses covering the range from 14-400 mm (35 mm equivalent) and a couple of good primes, say 40 and 90 mm.
  • Look like a tourist happy-snappy camera.
  • Be small enough and light enough to fit in my coat pocket with one lens. And the whole system should fit in a waist (fanny) pack that my aging back can carry all day.
  • Have a viewfinder.

Just three years ago, this would have been an impossible mission. But today there are several systems available that will fit the bill, which I will write about in the next chapter.

I tried to keep the jargon down to manageable levels in this post, but if you are new to photography and did not understand something I wrote, please leave a comment, and I will try to define the term.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

13 comments… add one
  • Carolyn Shearlock Dec 15, 2011, 11:57 am

    I found two more things to be really important while cruising . . . in fact, so important that I gave up a little on some of the other criteria. Both fall into the category of making it so that I could “be there with my camera WORKING.”

    First was one that would use AA batteries. In some of the places even they can be hard to find that aren’t half dead, but other special batteries were totally impossible. And while I do use rechargeable, I’ve discovered that sometimes that doesn’t work. If it will run on AA batteries, I always had a backup.

    Second was a waterproof housing. Not for underwater shots (although those are fun) but if your camera isn’t waterproof, you won’t keep it in the cockpit, looped around the binnacle and ready grab when you see whales in the distance . . . and you sure won’t get pictures if there’s any spray or rain around (and those are some of the best photos).

    My camera is a point and shoot Canon with a waterproof case. And that waterproof case has also protected it against dust and sand (on a trip to Mali, not cruising, by the end of two weeks my camera was the only one in our group that was still working reliably — the others were failing due to sand in the gears) AND — while not marketed as such and shouldn’t be relied on — it protects it as I’m hiking and climbing. The case has lots of scratches and dings, but the camera is fine.

    BTW, several friends who have bought the “waterproof” point and shoot cameras have had really bad luck with them failing, which is another reason I want a case — and now that manufacturers make ones that aren’t huge, they’re not bad to carry around. My digital with its case is still smaller than my old “film” SLR without a case.

    Would I like a fancier camera? Sure, I’ve got my eye on several. I’m really interested to see your next post and see which ones you recommend. But those are two absolute criteria for any that I buy.

  • John Dec 15, 2011, 12:34 pm

    Hi Carolyn,

    All good points, thank you.

    In my case, despite treating my cameras roughly and exposing them to a lot of weather, I have had no weather related failures. I think that may be because I have always used higher end systems that tend to have better weather sealing than point and shoots. Also, the problem with water proof cases for me is that they make it more difficult to access the controls and since I tend to set a lot of them manually I have found that the problems of waterproof cases and splash shields outweigh the benefits.

    By the way, the XZ-1 that we recommend has a water proof case available.

    On the AA battery requirement, I don’t really understand that at all, but I may be missing something here? All of the cameras I use, or that I will recommend, use proprietary rechargeable batteries that provide anywhere from 250 to over 700 shots between recharges. And each comes with a charger that will recharge these batteries in one to two hours. I do have at least two batteries for each of my cameras, so that I can keep shooting while the other recharges.

    • Carolyn Shearlock Dec 15, 2011, 5:56 pm

      Hi John!

      The battery problem has been more when traveling inland and discovering that the charger, converter and adapters, etc. that I THOUGHT would work with the local system didn’t. Once I even fried the charger. And I had problems with the rechargable packs just not having as long a life (that is, total number of recharge cycles) as I expected and being left with a battery that really didn’t hold a charge well. That camera was close to $1000 . . . not top of the line, but not a cheapie!

      Newer systems may do a lot better — after my experience with that one, I swore off proprietary batteries!

      • John Dec 15, 2011, 6:16 pm

        Hi Carolyn,

        Ah, now I get it. I think you will find that the newer batteries, are, as you say, a lot better. In fact, I have not missed a shot due to a flat battery in 10 years.

        Also, they last so long that unless you are a really prolific shooter, or shooting movies, a couple or three of the proprietary batteries will last for the typical cruiser’s inland jaunt. So, if it were me, I think I would drop the AA battery requirement because it will restrict you from considering so many of the great cameras out there now.

  • Evan Dec 15, 2011, 4:28 pm

    John,
    Good point about the batteries. It always seems that they run out of power at the worst time. Also, carrying a backup camera is a good idea. Last thing you want to do is lose your best camera overboard and miss that once in a lifetime shot. I grew up in the photofinishing business and I have experienced the growth and power of photography first hand. I have looked at many of your photos and I am very impressed by your skill and photo taking abilities. I know that anyone can take pictures, but it takes skill to be a photographer. Well done!

    • John Dec 17, 2011, 11:17 am

      Hi Evan,

      Thanks for the kind comment and good point about having a backup.

  • chris Dec 15, 2011, 5:30 pm

    John,
    Great series of articles, I am really enjoying them. If you do another article on photo gear could you give your thoughts on the Fuji X10? It seems like a direct competitor to the XZ-1.

    Thanks.

    • John Dec 15, 2011, 6:26 pm

      Hi Chris,

      The X10 is a very interesting camera that I was initially very excited about. However, for me, the 85% coverage of the optical viewfinder and the problem of not being able to check where the focus point is, disqualifies it. I tried one of these optical viewfinder compact camera some years ago (Canon G9) and just hated it. Admittedly the X10 has a better viewfinder, but the fundamental problems remain. To me, the bottom line is that optical viewfinders, that are not through-the-lens, only really work if you limit yourself to a single focal length (prime) lens and don’t use zooms, i.e. a Leica range finder.

      Having said that, this is an area where personal taste is king, so just because I don’t think (I have not handled one) that the X-10 will work for me does not stop it from being your ideal cruiser camera. It certainly satisfies most of my criteria.

  • Matt Marsh Dec 15, 2011, 11:52 pm

    “12 MPix sensor… up to 800 ISO…”
    Agreed. I’ve been shooting at 4 MP for at least eight years, and only on a small handful of shots have I felt more pixels would be useful. (I could rant about this for ages…). Low noise at high ISO, now that really is useful; half the shots I’ve taken on my D7000 have been at ISO 800 to 6400.

    “Be part of a system…”
    One that actually works as a system. If I have to carry four sizes of filters and caps to fit five lenses, it’s not working as a system.

    “14-400 mm (35 mm equivalent) and a couple of good primes, say 40 and 90 mm”
    And avoid overlap between lenses, or you’ll miss shots while debating whether to use the 18-55/5.6 or the 35/1.8. (I might mention that as appealing as 18-200 and 24-300 super zooms are, they’re always optically slow, often too slow to get the depth of field you want.)

    “Have a viewfinder.”
    Darned right it had better have a real viewfinder. Not much small stuff does anymore. EVFs are tolerable but I do prefer a real reflex mirror…

    “On-camera flash….”
    Sucks. And making it not suck costs $700 in external flashes, sync gizmos, brackets, lighting gels and spare batteries. Instead, give me crazy-high ISO without noise so I can shoot in whatever light happens to catch my eye.

    • John Dec 17, 2011, 11:16 am

      Hi Matt,

      Looks like we are on the same page. I really like your point about having the same filter thread size on all your lenses. It is one of the things I like about my Canon L glass: three zooms covering 14-400mm (35mm equivalent) all with the same filter thread. On the other hand, stick that lot in a bag and walk a few miles and who needs the gym!

  • richard Dec 16, 2011, 10:05 am

    want to keep using my minolta stsi maxum slr filmer until it croaks…the only problem it has ever given me is on occasion a shot turns out blurred for reasons i cannot fathom…it runs fully automatic or i can run it full or partial manual mode with just the press of a button…the lens zooms a versatile (sp?) 28-90 mm…lastly i don’t stresss over what to print as they all print even with the few inevitable discards per roll…the pop up flash is one of its best features (can overide as needed)…i dread the impending transition to digital as this minolta is overdue for croaking…richard in tampa bay (m/v cavu’s skipper, formerly s/v sidra’s skipper)

    • John Dec 17, 2011, 11:19 am

      Hi Richard,

      Good point that film is not dead. My favorite camera ever was my old Canon EOS 3 film SLR. I have yet to see anything digital that handles, at least for me, as well.

  • Giancarlo Dec 18, 2011, 11:20 am

    Ciao,
    i allways had a ”love and hate,, feeling with photography,so i m not qualify for any suggestion, but looking for a new camera i found this Panasonic LUMIX® TS3 12.1 Megapixel Digital Camera to be a good compromise for my cruising.
    John, i m looking forward to read part 2 before my final choice .
    Thanks again for your interesting blog
    Giancarlo

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