Secrets of Digital Photography
Travel Camera Shootout!    6 / 6 / 2004



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All photos by the author.

The China Syndrome

Or, The dSLR Has Landed.

The Third Annual Road Trip and Vacation Travel Digital Camera Shootout is finished. Here's the report:

This is a test. With cameras arriving at ever more affordable prices, do digital Single Lens Reflexes offer enough to make them your best travel camera choice? They're not small, after all, and the world is filled with small cameras, right?

We packed two complete dSLR systems plus a selection of compact digital cameras along for a multifaceted trip to China just to test the idea.

Test grounds included Beijing with the Great Wall, Tien An Men Square, the Forbidden City and Tian Tan Park. Then the city of Chongqing at the head of an all-weather trip down the Yangtze River through the infamous Three Gorges and onward to the world's biggest dang dam construction site. Eventually to Shanghai where east meets west, hustle meets bustle and the city of the future meets today.

Travel Overview Page 1 of 4     Page 2     Page 3     Page 4

The cameras:


 Digital Rebel.
6 megapixels. Canon 18-55mm Kit zoom. Sigma 28-200mm zoom. Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime. Prosumer dSLR with basic plus some advanced features.
 Power Shot Pro1.
8 megapixels. 28-200mm f/2.4-4.5 zoom (equivalent). Fast reacting consumer compact with advanced image quality and numerous features.


Professional Four Thirds system dSLR. 5 megapixels. Zuiko 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 zoom. Olympus Zuiko 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 tele zoom. System TTL Olympus FL-50 external flash unit.


5 megapixel compact. Wide native zoom. Quality images. Top rated from last year's compact camera shootout.

Originally the trip was to include the Nikon D70 but delivery of that system was delayed. A separate report on it will follow, but that didn't stop us from returning with just over 5,500 exposures.

The images seen here were things that happened around us. Nothing was posed that didn't pose itself. No animals were harmed. But a billion people smiled.

Quantity doesn't assure quality, but it helps. If one shoots constantly and consistently, things cross in front of one's lens with unpredictable regularity. Being ready for the unexpected is often the most important thing one can do when traveling.

Preparation will only get you so far, though. After that, reaction timing and the abilities of your equipment make or break the shot kicks in. DSLR cameras typically focus quicker and respond to shutter stabs faster than live-viewing compact digital cameras. No doubt of it, dSLRs are your choice for candids.

Cloisonne kiln specialist removes three red hot vases. --Olympus E-1.
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The dSLR experience has improved immensely in the last year. Canon's EOS-branded Digital Rebel (300D in Europe and Kiss Digital in Japan) broke the $999.99 price barrier in the USA by incorporating a basic set of features along with an inexpensively-produced, but capable wide to slightly tele kit lens.

Pictured here is a novel sight for Western eyes. It's the black body Kiss Digital we played with in Japan on our way to Beijing (open the image of the camera on a new browser page for a much larger view). Basically the same camera body minus the exterior silver finish, it has a Kit Lens with the USM focus motor--a tad more pricey than the US and European models.

Image quality with the Kit Lens optic has been shown to be extremely good, demonstrating that it's the glass, not the material the lens mount is made out of, that determines what the picture looks like. We knew that, but to hear some people talk, a plastic camera body or lens mount will utterly ruin your pictures. Not so. And the Digital Rebel makes a lightweight body and lens combo compared to the E-1 along on this trip.

Like most dSLRs these days, the EOS 300D delivers 2:3 aspect shots--the same as 35mm--but the image chip is smaller than a frame of film, so lenses behave as if they were magnified by 1.6X. The 18-55mm lens thus captures fields of view equal to a 35mm camera with a 28 to 88mm zoom. A very useful range, indeed; a 3:1 zoom in a small package.

Photo of photographer photographing her friend who will eventually photograph her.
--Canon 300D.

Olympus has embraced the new "Four Thirds" format with their E-1 Professional System. This is a dSLR created from the ground up to wrap around an image chip exactly twice as large as the ones in 2/3-inch cameras (Sony 7x7, Nikon 5700/8700 etc.) offering a presumably more useful 3:4 aspect image with an image field of view adjustment of exactly 2:1. Meaning that a 50mm lens feels exactly like a 100mm lens on a 35mm film camera.

The primary optic used with this camera was the 14-50mm f/2.8-3.5 Zuiko zoom lens made by Olympus. A 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 Zuiko extended the range into longer tele range. Both performed perfectly throughout the trip.

Representing the recent crop of 8-megapixel compact digital cameras was the Canon PowerShot Pro1 introduced at PMA this past February. It uses the same image chip found in Nikon, Olympus and Minolta 8-meg cameras with optics and support electronics by Canon.

(The Sony 828 uses a novel variation of this chip with red, green, blue and "emerald" sensor filters.)

The Pro1's winning features include zoom-by-wire and manual focus-by-wire operations, ergonomic menus, wide to long tele zoom, decent lens speed of f/2.4, big, super detailed images, compact size (being the smallest of all the 8-meggers) and daylight-useful flip out monitor plus very high quality internal viewing screen.

For sheer power to size ratio, the Nikon Coolpix 5400 came along for the trip. It's the camera you want in difficult light where the Best Shot Selector (BSS) is needed and its 4:1 zoom from 28 to 112mm (equivalent) will give you access to a large number of situations. It also gets you shots where a seemingly personal camera is less intrusive than a professional looking rig.

The 5400 camera edged out last summer's shootout group winning the most total points for portability, range, often-used specialty features and image quality. While the camera shoulder bag typically held the dSLR system du jour, the end pocket of the bag most often held the diminutive 5400 as a backup and unusual situation camera.

Silk sales lady. Nikon Coolpix 5400.

Continue to Page 2 of Overview-->

Canon Digital Rebel Gallery.

Olympus E-1 Gallery.

Canon Pro1 Gallery.

Nikon CP5400 Gallery.

Winner's Circle.

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