How to Pick the Best Camera

Courtesy Canon

From the Serengeti Plain to the Great Wall of China, pros pick the best camera—and lenses, computer, tripod, and other gadgets—for the job.

Can’t figure out what camera gear to take on a trip? Join the club. Even the pros struggle. “I confess, I always take more than I need,” says photographer Peter Turnley, who has shot for Newsweek and National Geographic and documented Barack Obama’s inauguration for CNN. “Less is really more,” he says.

Indeed. But photographing tigers in India, grizzlies in Yellowstone, or even just the crowded streets of New York requires a certain amount of gear: cameras with fast motor drives, telephoto lenses, tripods. Professional photographers need to know which pieces are essential—and what they can leave at home. Whom better to ask for a little advice?


First a little primer on photography jargon. DSLR stands for “digital single-lens reflex,” the name for the digital version of the traditional film camera. ISO refers to the light sensitivity of the digital sensor—the higher the number, the less light needed. Most film ranges from ISO 50 to 800, maybe 1600 at the high end, but today’s top DSLRs can shoot up to ISO 25000, meaning they’ll work even in candlelight. When it comes to lenses, “fast” ones with an aperture of 2.8 or greater are best. They let more light into the camera, allowing for faster shutter speeds, which are key for capturing moving images clearly. As for megapixels, the idea that more is better is just hype. A higher number of megapixels does allow for bigger prints, but today any camera with more than ten megapixels can produce gorgeous 13-by-19-inch images.

For urban settings, “bring one camera and one relatively wide-angle lens,” advises Turnley, who teaches workshops on street photography in Paris. “In a city you want a camera that’s smooth, discreet, and lighthearted, as well as lightweight,” he says. The lightest, most discreet option is the Leica M8.2 ($6,295;, the pricey digital version of the famed range finder used by Henri Cartier-Bresson and scores of other famous 20th-century photographers. It’s much smaller than a DSLR and has a quiet shutter, making it an excellent choice for street photography.

Point-and-shoot cameras are another possibility. In fact, more and more pros are using them these days—but only the models that can capture images as RAW files, a format that stores more information and produces prints with better detail than JPEG files. Photographer Michael Yamashita has been working for National Geographic for more than 30 years, shooting subjects like the Great Wall of China and the DMZ between North and South Korea. He uses the Canon PowerShot G10 ($500; “because sometimes there are situations where you don’t want to pull out the big camera and look like a pro,” he says. “I can shoot with this little Canon and no one cares.” The G10 captures a 14.7-megapixel RAW file, has a wide 28mm lens that can zoom to 140mm, and shoots video. Two other point-and-shoots, the 10.1-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 ($450; and the 13.5-megapixel Nikon Coolpix P6000 ($500;, also take RAW images.

But neither the Leica M8.2—a cult camera with manual focusing, not to mention fabulously expensive lenses—nor the point-and-shoots, which are slow to focus, are appropriate for photographing wildlife or sports, or in any situation where there is little light. For those tasks, typical DSLRs, such as those offered by Nikon and Canon, work much better. Sony made a big splash recently with its 24.6-megapixel sensor Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 ($3,000; “It’s fast and robust and feels great in my hand,” says Yamashita, who now uses the A900 exclusively.

The camera generating the biggest buzz, however, is the new 21-megapixel Canon EOS 5D Mark II ($2,700), which shoots beautifully up to ISO 6400—above that, so-called digital noise can make pictures look grainy—meaning it works well indoors, even in a dimly lit room. Also, it’s a steal when you consider that Canon’s EOS-1Ds Mark III has the same number of pixels and costs $8,000. The 5D Mark II’s real gee-whiz feature is its ability to shoot high-definition video. Photographer Vincent Laforet, who has done work for The New York Times and Newsweek, raves about the 5D Mark II on his blog at, where he’s posted an amazing little film he made with it. “In the future I think DSLRs will be judged more on their video abilities than on their still images,” says Laforet.

Nikon, which makes the expensive 24.5-megapixel Nikon D3X ($8,000), also has a model in the 5D Mark II price range, called the Nikon D700 ($3,000). Though it does not shoot video and has only a 12.1-megapixel sensor, the D700 does outperform the 5D Mark II in shutter speed: five frames per second (fps) to the Canon’s 3.9. With the optional MB-D10 multipower battery pack ($300), the fps can be increased to eight—the shutter speed needed to capture moving animals on safari or kids playing soccer.

Another option has only recently come on the scene: Late last year Panasonic released the first camera to use the Micro Four Thirds system, which eliminates the need for a mirror and optical viewfinder and allows for a much smaller camera body than that of a traditional DSLR. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 ($800) and DMC-GH1 with HD camcorder ($1,500) are the first on the market, but Olympus plans to bring out its Micro Four Thirds camera in the very near future.

When it comes to lenses, there are dozens to choose from, but one can generally get by with two or three. A good zoom lens should adjust from 24 millimeters to 70 and then from 70 to 200. For safaris, a super telephoto lens is a must. But instead of spending upwards of $12,000 for something like the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM, veteran wildlife photographer Moose Peterson recommends renting one. Peterson has advice on memory cards as well: “I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people lose images because of cheap cards,” he says, adding that he uses Lexar Professional UDMA 300x CF memory cards (from $60;


Traveling with a computer to edit images is a must, and either a Mac or a PC will get the job done. Choosing the right Mac is simple: Buy the fastest one with the most RAM. On the PC side, there are two interesting options for photographers. The Lenovo ThinkPad 4700ds (from $3,665; has a second 10.6-inch screen that slides out of the unit’s main 17-inch screen, a great feature for Photoshop users who like to place their tools on one screen and edit on another. But the Lenovo is a beast, weighing in at 11 pounds, and it has a battery life of just two hours. Instead, National Geographic Traveler photographer Bob Krist uses his 2.17-pound Acer Aspire One ($350;, which has a built-in multi-card reader and can be configured with Windows or Linux. (The latest version is slightly heavier, at 2.95 pounds, but it has a bigger, 10.1-inch screen.) “The battery life is amazing,” says Krist. “I can fly overseas on one charge.”

Bags and packing

All the pros we spoke to agree that it is key to put all essential gear, like camera bodies, memory cards, and a few lenses, in carry-ons and use discreet bags that don’t scream “camera equipment.” “I carry two camera bodies, two lenses, and my computer with me,” says Yamashita, who is on the road six months a year. He puts everything else into two Lowepro Orion AW backpacks ($180 each; and carries those in two Orvis Battenkill Duffles ($200–$225 each; “I use my clothes as a cushion,” he says. Krist, who also travels six months a year, fits what he needs into a small Think Tank Photo Airport AirStream suitcase ($290; and a Tamrac 9x or 10x Pro Sling Pack ($110–130; And if he gets stopped for having two carry-ons, he stuffs the contents of one bag into an old photo vest he designed for L. L. Bean (unfortunately discontinued) and literally wears the gear onto the plane. Laforet likes the Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter ($250), a backpack that compresses to a slim three inches when empty. “It holds everything but the kitchen sink,” he says.

When dealing with a pesky agent at the airport, having a copy of the Transportation Security Administration rules and regulations ( on hand can be helpful. “I often place copies in the bags we check so that they know we know what the rules are,” says commercial photographer Chase Jarvis, who is based in Seattle and Paris and shoots for companies like Subaru, Nike, and Apple. Photographers who use film, for example, have the right to have it hand-inspected instead of X-rayed.

Jarvis, who travels with a huge amount of gear, packs his equipment into Lowepro bags, which he then stuffs into large Pelican 1630 Transport Cases ($425 each; He uses an expediter, like Bellair (, to ship the cases to his next shoot location. As a precaution Jarvis always applies for and obtains an ATA Carnet (, an official document recognized by more than 70 countries that confirms that his equipment is for use, not for sale, and therefore duty-free. This is worth doing: Customs agents sometimes confiscate gear they suspect the owner plans to sell during a trip.

But in the end, none of this advice will ensure amazing pictures. “You need to cultivate your creativity,” says Jarvis. To this purpose, he takes a photo a day using just his iPhone and then posts it to his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Ultimately, he says, “if you want to take better pictures, just keep pressing that shutter.”

The Extras

Powering all these electronic gadgets in foreign locales can be tricky. The six-outlet WonPro WE-4A Universal Power Strip ($45; is rated at 250V, so it won’t blow fuses, and can swap in plugs for most countries. For travel in the wilderness, the SunWize Portable Energy System ($360; uses sunlight to power laptops and other devices. As for hard drives, Bob Krist uses the small Apricorn Aegis Mini USB 2.0 ($190; because it can run on low power.

These days photographers can record the exact location of an image with a “geotag,” a gadget that uses GPS technology. Nikon’s GP-1 ($240) attaches to the flash hot shoe; for cameras that don’t have such a dedicated unit, there is the Amod AGL3080 ($70;

When filled with dirt, rice, or beans, a Kinesis Photo Gear SafariSack (from $30; can be placed over the edge of a moving car’s window to serve as a sturdy platform for the camera. But some safari vehicles—especially those in southern Africa—are open with no sides at all. In this situation a solid tripod head, like the Really Right Stuff BH-55 PCL ($575;, is best. Gitzo’s newest model, the Gitzo GT3541 ($840;, can support nearly 40 pounds of weight. And adding a gimballed Wimberley Head Version II ($595; will allow large telephoto lenses to move smoothly.

With Photoshop, photographers can now turn a series of images into a panorama. For best results, use a tripod, a leveled panning head, and a sliding rail such as the Really Right Stuff MPR-CL II ($140). Pulling the camera back along the rail and centering the lens over the tripod’s pivot point ensures that objects at varying distances remain properly aligned as the camera moves.

Quick Study

Since I began shooting seriously several years ago, I’ve learned everything from a handful of excellent Web sites. There are no better resources. The place to buy everything. Videos and blog entries, with advice on technique and the photo business. A multimedia magazine about photojournalism. Camera reviews and specs. An excellent blog on contemporary fine-art photography. Pros teaching everything from camera technique to Photoshop, via video. Landscape photography, in-depth gear reviews, videos on fine-art printing, tips for Adobe Lightroom. From the agency cofounded in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, images, interviews, and video from the top photojournalists in the world. Photography industry news. A blog by the editors of American Photo magazine. Best for learning flash photography. Like Magnum, an agency representing top photojournalists.

The Goods

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 $450

Canon EOS 5D Mark II $2,700

Canon PowerShot G10 $500

Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 $3,000

Nikon Coolpix P6000 $500