Advice & Tips
Choosing a Road Trip Camera
In this last part of our three part series on choosing the right road trip camera we look at the most expensive options to take along with you on your epic cross country gallivant. We have experience with both DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, and we quite like the quality of the photographs they output. Read on to learn more.
In Part One of this series I talked about the iPhone as a stand alone camera and then pairing the iPhone with the Moment Lens and Case. That setup is great because so many folks already have an iPhone and adding the Moment accessories is a simple way to get even more out of a camera that is already quite good. In Part Two I talked a little bit about the GoPro and found that while it isn’t as good at photography as the iPhone I do think that it has some benefits and the GoPro’s versatility makes it a great option if you plan on taking underwater shots or want something you can attach to the outside of your vehicle. I concluded there that if you have the budget, carry a GoPro in addition to your iPhone. Both systems have their strengths and compliment each other well for road trip style photography.
The options in Parts 1 and 2 are relatively cost effective when compared to what we will be discussing in Part 3: DLSRs and Mirrorless cameras. There has been an inordinate amount of ink spilled over which is better, DSLR or Mirrorless, and over what the best, most cost effective set up is. I’m not going to rehash any of those debates. What I want to talk about here is my experience with my DSLR and my Mirrorless cameras. Hopefully some of what I write here will help you in your decision making.
The Canon 5D MKIII
I shot on a Canon 5DMK3 for about 3 years and for the most part I absolutely loved that camera. While I am a fan of the iPhone and Moment combo, they don’t, in my opinion, hold a candle to what I can get with my Canon paired with my EF 24-70mm 2.8 lens. The sharpness and level of detail that are in each photo is truly incredible. The 5D3 is also a full frame camera meaning it can capture more information in each photo than the sensor in an iPhone, and it’s lowlight performance is pretty awesome allowing me to capture stunning shots of the Milky Way and other night scenes that simply aren’t possible with the other cameras we’ve discussed so far. It also shoots in raw format giving me maximum control over my edits. Most of the images on our Instagram were shot shot on my Canon because I just like the details, the sharpness and the file output better.
1. It’s big and kind of heavy.
Yeah, it’s a full size DSLR.
And it weighs quite a bit. After a while of toting it around a city or on a hike you really start to notice the weight and size of the camera. In fact, there have been some ad campaigns run showing how one benefit of DSLR’s primary competitors, the Mirrorless cameras, is the reduction in weight and size. The size of the camera is also a bit of a hassle. Not gonna lie, this wasn’t something I thought about much until Sony introduced its Mirrorless A7S and R series cameras (more on Sony later). With good glass attached to the Canon, it gets even heavier.
2. It’s kind of complicated.
I’m not a professional photographer. I’ve not yet received a dime for any photographic or film work I’ve done. I bought this camera for certain features I wanted (depth of field, full frame, video capabilities) and so, I couldn’t tell you what a lot of the features and functions the camera has do. I think it can trigger multiple flash devices? It has a 61 point high density reticular AF. No clue why I should care about that really. Oh, and it has a 63-Zone Dual Layer Metering Sensor! No clue what that is either. I just know that it does the things I want it to do very well. If you want something as simple as a point-and-shoot or an iPhone/Android, then most DSLRs are probably going to be too complex and you’ll be paying for a lot of features that may not mean anything to you.
3. Run and gun filming is pretty much a non-starter.
Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration but the point here is if you want to do run-and-gun filming with this camera, you need to get very good at pulling focus manually. Unlike a lot of consumer grade cameras that auto focus while you’re filming, most Canon DSLRs except, I believe, the 70D and 80D, do not have an auto focus feature when you are actively filming. That means when you’re hand holding the camera and moving around filming, you have to have one hand on the focus ring at all times and your face buried in the screen to ensure you are maintaining focus. Some people are really good at this. I am not one of them. I have purchased additional gear and installed software to help me with this and I still suck at it.
4. The camera does not come with built in time-lapse capabilities.
When it first came out, the 5D MKIII cost north of $3,000. Other similarly priced cameras from Nikon have built in time-lapse capabilities. Not so with this one. For whatever reason, Canon decided not to make this feature available even though the camera can do it via Magic Lantern (more on that below).
5. The learning curve can be steep.
I was fortunate that when I picked up my first DSLR I had a good friend with me who, over the course of a couple of days, showed me what all the settings and dials and buttons were for and when and what situations to use different settings in. I had always just taken pictures on a shitty Kodak digital point-and-shoot or on my iPhone 4 and so I had no clue about setting ISO, shutter speed and F-stop and how all of those interact together. I also didn’t know anything about the camera raw file type and why it’s better than JPGs. It took a few years of owning that DSLR, using it regularly, reading about its different capabilities and so on before I was comfortable enough to upgrade to the 5D3. Jessica, the other half of Live Work Wander, is still trying to understand how to use the camera better after being around it and using it off and on for 3 years. Hell, I use it all the time and I still have to remember what my settings should be for shooting sports or waves or astro photography. It’s complicated and you’ll need to work at it if you decide on this route, but it’s also rewarding. Also, you may pick up on it much faster than I did because you’re smart and capable. 😉
6. They are not waterproof.
This is pretty obvious. DSLRs are not waterproof so don’t go jumping into a swimming hole with them thinking everything will be just fine. It won’t. You can get different waterproof housings or coverings for DSLRs to make them waterproof but they are pretty pricey. The one I used in the past is from Outex and it works pretty well although it’s a bitch to get on the camera and I will probably not be using it anymore since I think a GoPro with the Peau Productions lens may yield me similar results.
Five negatives. I know, seems like a lot. But they aren’t huge deals when you look at the plus sides.
1. There are an array of lenses that really do make a difference
When I first got into shooting with a DSLR I couldn’t tell the difference in output between the lenses that I used. I had a few cheap lenses that I thought were just fine and went with it. But the more I shot the more I began to notice subtle differences in sharpness, contrast, details and distortion in the photos I was taking with different lenses. Then I rented a few high-end lenses just to see if my suspicions were correct and my mind was blown.
As with any creative endeavor, the more you do it, the more you begin to notice little things and then you see things that you can improve. With photography it took me a long time before I realized how much of a difference good glass (lenses) makes. Most people looking at your photos won’t notice these things and you may not when you’re starting out but eventually you will. This is why I have moved away from doing most of my photography on the iPhone and other platforms and have stuck with my DSLR (and now my Mirrorless). If you think this is something that will make a difference to you, then get a DSLR and good lenses.
2. The 5D MKIII is weather resistant.
Here’s the rule of thumb on this, if the rain is too heavy for you to be out in it comfortably, maybe your camera shouldn’t be either. Also, the more expensive Canon DSLRs are better sealed to protect against inclement weather. I’ve shot my 5D MKIII in blizzard conditions and I didn’t have any problems. Maybe I was just lucky. However, my view on this is that there are little plastic covers you can get for your DSLR that cost around $10 and will protect your camera in heavy downpours. I’d rather use that than count on the camera itself living up to its claims just because this is not a cheap piece of gear and $10 for a rain cover is peace of mind for a low price. In addition, the 5D MKIII is very good at keeping out sand, dust and mud. So, happy shooting in crappy environments if that’s where your road trip takes you, but take precautions for your camera, please!
3. The images are fantastic.
A good camera simply won’t to take good pictures for you. Composition, lighting, depth of field, focus, all those things are up to you to get right. Don’t think because you’re lugging a $3,000 camera around that suddenly your photos are ready for National Geographic. They aren’t. But when you do get good at composition and lighting etc, the 5D MKIII is stellar. The file size and output is big enough for extremely high quality prints, the images are sharp and the amount of detail in each photograph is stunning. Shooting at ISOs between 1000-3200 have some noise but nothing you can’t fix in post, and the dynamic range of the camera is incredible. This last feature is one of my favorites. Because the camera outputs raw files, you can push highlights and shadows around quite a bit in post without creating garish halos or noise in the shadows. It’s remarkable. Few other lower end cameras come close.
DYNAMIC RANGE OUT OF THE CAMERA AND AFTER EDIT:
4. Low light performance is much better than the iPhone, GoPro and lower end Canon cameras.
One big selling point for me on my Canon was it’s ability to capture the night sky with minimal noise. I typically shoot the night sky at F2.8, 25sec exposure and 3200ISO. Those settings yield clean enough images that with a little bit of noise reduction in post processing, the results are stellar (see what I did there?). Shooting video at 3200ISO also yields fairly clean results though I do find myself having to use the Neat Video plugin in After Effects to remedy some of the noise. I want to point out here that Mirrorless cameras own the night. More on that later.
5. Video is pretty incredible especially when paired with Magic Lantern.
Out of the box the Canon 5D MKIII takes some pretty great video. In fact, it has been used on feature film shoots with regularity and as a camera for aspiring film makers it really is a step above most other options out there at a price point that is remarkable for what you’re getting. But when combined with Magic Lantern, the 5D MKIII becomes a monster of a film camera.
What is Magic Lantern?
“Magic Lantern is a free software add-on that runs from the SD/CF card and adds a host of new features to Canon EOS cameras that weren’t included from the factory by Canon.”
Those features include the ability to see what parts of your image are in focus thus making run-and-gun shooting much easier, it shows you areas of your image that are peaking from highlights thus allowing you to adjust your exposure settings, it let’s you shoot timelapses in camera, and it lets you set rack focus points that automatically focus your camera on different points in a scene when activated. Those are just a few features of Magic Lantern but the most epic, rad, amazing one is that it lets you capture full HD video in a raw format! That means that instead of dealing with regular video files that have a lot of compression and lost details, you can shoot up to 14 second clips (with no audio regretfully) in full raw which gives you maximum color editing control over your footage. I have shot in this mode a number of times and the results are stunning. I’m blown away. But it is a difficult work flow and requires a ton of hard drive space so keep that in mind. Here is a great intro to using Magic Lantern. Check out this video that was shot in full raw on a Canon 5D MKIII.
I know this an expensive option but if you’re thinking about taking your photography game to another level and trying your hand at more professional style of photography, then getting a good DSLR may be the way to go. I wrote about the Canon here because it was indispensable to me in our time on the road. I love the images it puts out and I love the control I have over them in post. Footage is also great though it doesn’t have all the frame rates that are available on the iPhone or GoPro. It’s great as a documentary camera and with the various lenses that are available for it, it can do almost anything you ask of it. It’s lowlight sensitivity and performance is good as are its ergonomics except for the weight. All around it’s a great camera system that I used almost exclusively for 3 years for photography and footage. But I want to confess something, I have since switched to a Mirrorless camera: the Sony A7RII.
This post is long enough so I want to cover this briefly. Mirrorless cameras are the latest and greatest cameras available. In my opinion, the images are sharper, have better dynamic range, and their low light capabilities are far superior to comparable DSLRs. Their form factor and ergonomics are spectacular in that they are very small and lightweight. Where they absolutely dominate though is in lowlight performance. Nothing out there beats them. It’s truly incredible how well they work in environments with almost no light at all (the A7SII).
Even more amazing is that the images they produce have very little noise, if any, at higher ISOs. The Sony cameras in this line are especially savage. They shoot 4K footage which the Canon 5D3 doesn’t do, they have multiple frame rates up to 120fps at 720p (Sony A7RII) and 60fps at 1080p which even the new Canon 5D MKIV doesn’t have. The A7RII also shoots 42 megapixel photos with even more detail than the Canon. They are cameras that have really taken a chunk out of Canon’s marketshare. Sony’s new cameras show me that once again, open, free and competitive markets deliver amazing products that contain what consumers have been wanting at price points that are comparable to what consumers have already been spending. Kudos Sony.
A few brief observations about cost. I mentioned the A7RII from Sony which comes in at $2,700. That’s not a little bit of money. But Sony has released the A6300 which is no slouch and in many ways is better than the 5D3 especially at low light sensitivity. While not a full frame camera like the A7RII or Canon 5D3, the A6300 still captures images with remarkable sharpness and detail and it can shoot at 4K all for $1,000. That’s a steal for what this camera can do. Maybe an option worth considering? We own both the A7RII and the A6300 and couldn’t be happier.