Archive for Sunday, July 19, 2009

Behind the Lens: J-W chief photographer describes how he’d choose a ‘deserted island’ camera

Too many cameras, too many choices. To help narrow a deserted island pick, I would require my camera to have a 28mm wide-angle lens, an optical viewfinder and be portable enough to carry with me at all times.

Too many cameras, too many choices. To help narrow a deserted island pick, I would require my camera to have a 28mm wide-angle lens, an optical viewfinder and be portable enough to carry with me at all times.

July 19, 2009


People often ask for advice on buying a camera. Most are looking for something between the simplest point-and-shoot and a professional camera. I usually recommend an entry-level, single-lens reflex with interchangeable lenses or a quality point-and-shoot with some manual controls. It makes me consider what one camera I would pack for that deserted island conundrum that list-makers love to ponder. So, in addition to The Band’s “Rock of Ages” album as my deserted island music choice, here’s how I would narrow my camera pick.

• A 28mm wide-angle lens. This is a must-have lens and is my most used focal length. It works well with landscapes, interiors, group shots and environmental portraits. Ideally, the camera would have a zoom lens to at least 100mm and macro capability. A 100mm lens can fill a frame with a portrait from 4 to 5 feet away and pull in distant objects.

• Manual controls. Shutter and aperture priority are standard and nice, but manual allows more creative control over exposures.

• Portability. I want something that’s easy to carry with me at all times. Whether I’m hiking in the Flint Hills, cycling across the state or on a cruise to Antarctica, I want my camera to be light on my shoulder or in my pocket. My Journal-World gear is too big and heavy for my all-purpose pick.

• Optical viewfinder. A lot of people don’t remember when all cameras had viewfinders. For me, they are an essential part of a photographer’s engagement with a subject. Also, with the camera to your eye you have a steadier hold. LCDs are OK, but they drain batteries quicker, and they don’t work well in bright light.

• RAW capture. Most cameras capture digital files in a compressed JPEG format. In JPEG, there is compression, and if you underexpose a shot or have a wrong white balance you can’t do much to correct the image. An option of RAW (the acronym doesn’t stand for anything other than “raw”) saves data off the image sensor without internal camera processing and no compression. In RAW, many “in camera” settings such as white balance, contrast, etc., are not applied permanently. RAW files allow you to change many of the shooting parameters after exposure and in post-processing.

Several cameras meet the above requirements. Personally, I would probably go with Canon’s G10. But cameras are a personal choice and vary in cost and the way they handle. You should find one that matches your personality and lifestyle. Feel free to e-mail me with questions or with your deserted island choice.

After writing this column, I found two articles online about deserted island cameras. One had readers submitting their choices of mechanical film cameras. The other deals with choosing a camera body and several lenses followed by reader submissions.


Janet Lowther 8 years, 9 months ago

As a long time advocate of available-light (or sometimes available darkness) photography, the lens speed is critical for me. In a zoom F:2.8 is the slowest acceptable, and that's hard to find, and extremely rare in a compact.

To get a digital without going to a way out-of-budget full-frame DSLR, I wound up compromising on the viewfinder (an eye-level electronic view finder instead of optical) and short end of the zoom range(35 instead of 28mm) and letting the aperture at the long end go, 'cause F:4 at a 400mm field of view is still pretty decent.

Still, I wish I could get something that my old F:1.4 lenses would work with for less than the price of a good used car. . . But you still can't beat film in a Leica for available darkness. . .

David Klamet 8 years, 9 months ago

It took me a while to figure out that I needed a wide angle more than I needed a telephoto. The 28-70mm I got with my D80 just wasn't wide enough so got another so I got an 18-55mm which is what I use 90% of the time.

However it was a bit confusing until I realized that a 35mm is a "normal" lens instead of the 50mm for my old 35mm SLR.

Matt Needham 8 years, 9 months ago

"But you still can't beat film in a Leica for available darkness..."

If you are comparing compact digital cameras to 35mm film this may be true, but APS-C and 35mm DSLRs shooting raw have beat the pants off 35mm at ISO 800+ for several years now. I tried every high speed film available pre-2004, and eventually just gave up on 35mm for very low light shooting. Enlargement quality was horrible. I ended up getting the best high ISO results from medium format Tri-X shot at ISO 1600 and developed in Diafine compensating developer. I never found a suitable color film choice.

Now I use a Canon 5D 35mm DSLR. At ISO 3200 the prints (color and BW) look better in quality than what I would expect to get from ISO 400, 35mm print film. I'll take 35mm DSLR raw over medium format film for high ISO shooting any day (or night). You can see what kind of lighting conditions I'm talking about in my live music gallery at

Matt Needham 8 years, 9 months ago

If you have a Canon Powershot compact digital camera there is CHDK: the Canon Hackers Development Kit.

CHDK is free software that gives almost any Powershot features usually only found in more expensive cameras, and even some features hardly found in any camera. A big one is access to the raw files for cameras that normally don't allow that. It offers a bunch of histogram display options. I love the depth of field calculator.

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