The Ultimate Cruiser Camera

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Inspired by overwhelming popular demand…Oh, OK, because five people asked, and mostly because I love writing about cameras, which I haven’t done in over a year, here is my latest thinking on the very best, the ultimate, camera for voyagers. (And, for those not interested in the ultimate with the price to match, I have some thoughts about alternatives.)

But before we open the envelope, with appropriate music ending in a crescendo of cymbals, and send you off to do a serious mischief to your credit card balances, a little build up.

Telling The Story

To me, one of the greatest pleasures of voyaging is striving to tell the story of our cruises, the places we go and the people we meet, through photographs. I have written at length about that process here, but the key tip I can give you and the most important thing you can do to be a successful voyaging photographer is to carry a camera with you at all times.

That one criteria transcends all others. Truly, the best camera is the one you have in your hand when life happens, whether it be a huge professional DSLR with a backpack full of great lenses or the camera in your phone.

But I can also tell you, from bitter experience, that unless you are a professional photographer, with nothing else to do, it is unlikely you will be carrying your big camera when really great shots happen. Why? Because big DSLRs are just too darn heavy and cumbersome to carry when you are doing anything else and most of the time when you are voyaging, you will be doing other things—it’s an amazingly busy lifestyle.

Big iron in use. How often are you going to carry a camera like this…come on, really? It’s the size and weight of two bricks, and that’s without the lenses.

What If?

But what if you could have a professional level camera body with the two classic professional’s fast F2.8 zooms (24-70mm and 70-200)* in a small shoulder bag that was light enough to carry all day (photo at start of post)? And what if that system was actually more responsive, faster, more flexible, and just all round better and more fun to use than the big iron that the pros carry?

What if that body felt just perfect in the hand, with buttons that have just the perfect resistance and dials that turn when you want them to and not when you don’t? And what if the snick of the shutter was just, well, sublime?

What if that camera had the best image stabilization in the business; so good that it renders the tripod just about obsolete? And what if that image stabilization was in-body, rather than in-lens, so that every lens you own is stabilized? And what if that, coupled with the fast lenses and great low light sensor, gave you a camera that can near see in the dark?

And what if that image stabilization was so good that you could shoot video on a  moving train (check the last clip, I was getting better with practice) or boat, and get a result near as steady as that provided by a professional level gyro stabilizer costing thousands?

And what if that camera had all the buttons you need, that can all be programmed to do whatever you want them to do, in the way you want them to do it, to the point you can shoot everything from fast action to HDR (high dynamic range) to thoughtful portraits to street photography, without ever opening a menu or even taking your eye from the viewfinder?

And what if that camera had a viewfinder so clear that you forget it’s electronic and a field of view that matches the biggest pro rigs from Nikon and Canon, but does things they can’t do, like warning you in real time, before you press the shutter, that you are about to clip the highlights or block the shadows and exactly where in the shot that will happen?

What if, when you want a change from shooting with those pro zooms, you could put on a 40mm*, for street, or a 90mm*, for portrait, fast prime lens and have a rig that gives you the same feel and gestalt as the finest viewfinder cameras?

One of my favorite “street” photos from this year. Actually taken with the immediate predecessor to the camera I’m writing about, but the point is the same.
I love the contrast of the brightly dressed children walking by the, I suspect, exclusive confines of the Halifax Club. We were just running errands in Halifax when I saw this shot setting up about 30 seconds before it came together.
There is not a chance that I would have been carrying my big DSLR on that rainy day and, in that case, this shot would have been lost and gone forever.

What if the image quality was just, well, awesome, with Jpegs out of the camera that need little or no tweaking and deep RAW files that can take, and respond to, all the massaging and optimizing you want?

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oh yeah, and what if that camera and those zoom lenses were weather proofed and splash proofed to pro standards, so you can get those great action shots on the boat without worrying?

And what if all this goodness was approximately half the price of the kind of full frame camera and pro-level glass I used to shoot with?

The Envelope, Please

Well, now you can have all that. That camera, which I have been shooting with for six weeks, is the Olympus O-MD E-M1, and it is quite simply the best and most fun camera I have ever used.

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The E-M1 with the simply stunning Olympus 24-80* F2.8 fast zoom attached.

Not the best small camera. Not the best digital camera. Not the best mirrorless camera. The best damned camera I have ever used…period…full stop…end of story. As soon as we get back to Base Camp, all my pro-level Canon gear goes on eBay. Goodbye…my aging back won’t miss you.

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The E-M1 masquerading as a street shooter’s fine viewfinder with the Panasonic 40mm F1.7 prime attached. In this configuration, with the rubber lens hood collapsed, the whole rig will fit in a winter coat pocket.

Trade Offs

So, what are the tradeoffs for leaving the full frame world, I hear you ask? There have to be some, right? Yes, there is, but just one: If you want to make top quality fine art prints that are larger than about 30″ on the long side, you need to stay with full frame because you need that big sensor. For the rest of us, small cameras have arrived and are now better than their big brothers.

Oh, one other thing. The E-M1 is supremely configurable but that makes the process of getting it to behave the way you want it to complicated and time consuming. I spent three full evenings with the manual and the camera, figuring it all out. The good news is that once you have the camera set up, the only time you need to go into the menus is to format a card. But if you’re the kind of person that does not like reading manuals and messing with technology, you might be happier with the fine mirrorless offerings from Fuji. Not as feature rich and fast as the E-M1, and without the in-body image stabilization, but still really nice cameras.

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My full lens and flash kit, less the 40mm, which was what I took the shot with. Everything, the whole works, including filters, cleaning kit, chargers (2) and flash modifiers, fits in two small bags like the one at the top of the post, instead of filling most of a quarter-berth, like my old full frame kit did.

Not Cheap

I should also say that this is a pro level camera with lenses and prices to match. Yes, it’s half the cost of the equivalent full frame gear and lenses, but that doesn’t alter the fact that you could buy a new mainsail for a 40-foot boat for what a full kit like mine cost.

Alternatives

In short, there is not a lot of point in spending this kind of money unless you are really serious about your photography, particularly with the fine quality point and shoots that are around. Heck, you could do a good job telling the story of your voyage with the camera in most phones these days. I’m blown away by what I get out of our iPhone 4s, and that’s by no means the top of the phone camera heap. In fact, the two shots of the E-M1 were taken with our iPhone.

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This shot was taken with our iPhone 4s by a passing skier. It has had a little help from me and Lightroom, but even so, I’m blown away by the quality.
And yes, we know that being dressed exactly alike is really dorky—you should hear my daughter on the subject. But, you see, we both hate to shop, so when we find something that works, like this Gortex gear from MEC, we simply buy two.
We prefer to think of it as efficient, rather than dorky…OK, efficient and dorky. And anyway, we are wearing different underwear, you will, I’m sure, be glad to hear.

Also, for those of you that want to go up a notch from a point and shoot, but don’t want to blow a wad on the EM-1, the two cameras I mentioned in this post can now be had on clearance, or second-hand on eBay, for a song, and will do a great job for you.

My Lenses

A great camera is nothing with out great lenses, these are the lenses I have settled on:

As you can see, I love great glass and the faster the better. And these lenses are as good or better than Canon’s finest L series glass.

The kit above covers 95% of my needs. I will probably add an ultra-wide zoom, mainly for boat interiors, and a much longer telephoto for wildlife, before we head north again, but that’s it. And I fully expect to be shooting with this kit for years to come, which, after all, is the ultimate economy.

Having said that, on lenses you can save a bundle too, as well as quite a bit of weight and size, by going with slower zooms like this one that I owned for a while and found surprisingly good.

What About APS-C?

Those of you who are into cameras will have noticed a glaring omission in this piece: not a word about single lens reflex cameras that use reduced size sensors (APS-C)—by far the majority of enthusiast cameras sold today, at least in Europe and North America, though mirrorless is king in Japan.

That omission is no accident. For me, APS-C cameras are no longer of interest and, in fact, have not been for some years because, although an APS-C based system is at least twice the weight and size of a mirrorless system, it does not provide any practical increase in image quality. If I’m going to carry a big system I want a big jump in sensor size, otherwise it’s just not worth it. So to me it’s either full-frame or mirrorless; and now, with the E-M1, it’s mirrorless all the way.

I do realize that I just wrote off most of the bigger cameras that you, our readers, own. But before you get mad, please keep in mind that cameras are very individual pieces of kit, so if you like APS-C, that’s fine, each to their own. Also, if your present camera is working for you, there is absolutely no reason to change, as Matt Marsh, AAC Technical Correspondent, who is an APS user, explains here, unless getting a smaller and lighter system is important to you.

More Reading

If you want to learn more about the whole mirrorless thing, and why I think that small cameras are just better than big cameras for travel photography, this post will help.

Comments

Do you have a camera that works well for you while cruising? Please share your experience in the comments.

 * Focal lengths in the text so annotated are 35mm equivalent, double that of these micro 4/3 lenses.

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Meet the Author

John Harries

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.

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