Tag Archives: Bridge

So bridge cameras now have 80x optical zooms, but what does an equivalent DSLR setup look like?

In late 2014, Nikon pulled off a coup in the digital bridge camera market, by announcing the Nikon Coolpix P900 – a fixed lens camera with an astonishing 83X optical zoom range (4.3-357 mm –  which is equivalent to that of 24-2000mm on a 35 mm camera).

Nikon Coolpix P900 (Nikon stock product shot)
Nikon Coolpix P900 (Nikon stock product shot)

For several years, people had assumed bridge cameras were on their way out because they would not be able to compete with cheaper Digital SLRs and Compact System Cameras; but with the new generation of superzoom ranges, the bridge camera has come of age.  For convenience when travelling, it is easy to see the appeal of such a versatile zoom range accompanied by many DSLR type controls and features. This is doubly true when you consider the cost of such a camera may be less than the cost of a single lens of equivalent maximum focal length for a DSLR.  So can a DSLR still, really compete?

Can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?

There have been several excellent reviews of the Nikon and I would recommend Photography Life as the one with the nicest test shots. There is also a youtube video by Lothar Lenz (below) which demonstrates the full range of the zoom.


Given these reviews are already out there – I thought it would be useful to ask, can and how would you achieve a similar zoom range in a DSLR? Can you beat it? What would it look like, and how much would it cost?

As you know, this website is called Shooting on a Shoestring and generally the focus of the blog is budget photography. I should therefore say straight up, that you will almost certainly not be able to achieve such a huge range of focal lengths in a DSLR with equivalent features (autofocus, image stabilization etc.) for the same cost as the Nikon (less than £500 as of August 2015).  I do, however, want to focus on the cheapest way of achieving top quality results.

Can you achieve an 83x optical range in a DSLR?

Well… Obviously yes.  Though not with a single lens.  You will not, therefore, be able to smoothly zoom from the widest angle to the longest tele-focal distance.  Indeed, the expense of very wide angle zoom lenses and very long telephoto zoom lenses is such that you may want to consider fixed focal length lenses at the extreme. For some examples, you can check out some older and cheaper ideas here.  However it is important to have a decent range of zoom to be practical.  So, having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range of lenses for a DSLR setup, giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.

Having considered the challenge, I have come up with a realistic 100x focal length range DSLR setup giving excellent image quality for less than £1,000.

Let’s start at the wide end: Opteka / Kelda 6.5mm fisheye.  I love fisheye lenses and I was really keen to include one in this challenge because the Nikon bridge camera cannot achieve true optical fisheye effects.  On my Cannon DSLR (with a 1.6x crop factor), this lens gives an equivalent focal length of 10.5mm, much wider than the 24mm offered by Nikon.  True, this lens is manual focus only, but fisheyes offer such a massive depth of field, even at wide apertures, it really causes no problem at all.  I picked mine up on ebay back in January (2015) for £120.

Kelda 6.5mm Confirmation
Kelda 6.5mm Confirmation for £120

This lens is a favourite of mine for wide star-field shots and creating odd viewpoints:

Hesperia Hotel under the stars, single exposure, Lanzarote
Hesperia Hotel under the stars, single exposure, Lanzarote

Stepping things up a bit, to really compete with a bridge camera, it’s important to have a versatile lens with a wide zoom range – so a budget super-zoom seems appropriate.  In this case, I have plumped for the Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM. Note – this is the older version dating back to 2009 (not marked macro) for budget constraint reasons.  This lens is an image-stabilized, autofocus lens, which feels sturdy in the hand. It has a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 27-375mm, so is a reasonable wide-angle at the short end and still a good everyday telephoto at the long end.  Second hand, you can pick them up for around £150. I bought mine in London Camera Exchange on the Strand for that price, but to demonstrate the point, here is one on ebay today (for £174 including delivery).

Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM on ebay - 25th August 2015
Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM on ebay – 25th August 2015

This lens is one which I carry with me nearly all the time, as, while image quality is not as good as a prime lens, or even some smaller range zooms, it is still very respectable and it covers a vast array of different situations.  Alternatives would include the more expensive Tamron 16-300mm or the similarly priced Tamron 18-270mm lens.

You can then couple this with the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD, which is now readily available on ebay for less than £600. This gives a zoom range equivalent 240-960mm on a full-frame camera.

Tamron 150-600mm, now available for less than £600 easily.
Tamron 150-600mm, now available for less than £600 easily.

Alternatives here, include the cheaper Sigma 150-500mm, which frankly, is not such a good lens, and the Sigma 150-600mm, which is nearly identical to the Tamron in spec and handling, but as it is a slightly newer model, it still tends to be a tad more expensive.

So what results can you get with these two in combination?

Knole dear park, on a miserable rainy day, shot handheld at 18mm...
Knole deer park, on a miserable rainy day, shot using the Sigma lens, handheld at 18mm (equivalent to 27mm for a full frame camera)…
And the highlighted red section, zoomed at 600mm (also handheld) using the Tamron.
And the highlighted red section, zoomed at 600mm (also handheld) using the Tamron. This is equivalent to 960mm on a full frame camera.

These photos were taken in far from ideal conditions, but they clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of the Tamron’s image stabilization and sharpness at a wide aperture, as well as the fact it can definitely be used handheld.

“The full range of lenses on cameras? You’d better buy a bigger bag.”

So – having come up with a 100x zoom range for less than £1000 – can you beat even that?  Well, yes. Quite easily actually. You might be surprised that the Tamron lens can quite easily be paired with a simple 2x teleconverter (around £100 if you look hard) and still be very effective.  True – it won’t allow you to autofocus any more but the manual focus on the Tamron lens is very smooth and easy to use with practice.

The absolute full range of this setup at 6.5mm on the wide end to 1200mm on the long end (nearly a 200x zoom range!) is best shown again, with some photos of the night sky…

Tudeley Church under the stars (shot at 6.5mm)
Tudeley Church under the stars (shot at 6.5mm)
The moon shot with the Tamron 150-600mm at full zoom with a 2x teleconverter
The moon shot with the Tamron 150-600mm at full zoom with a 2x teleconverter

So – quite a wide range of focal lengths there.

But what does this all look like?

The full range of lenses on cameras... You'd better buy a bigger bag.
The full range of lenses on cameras?  You’d better buy a bigger bag.

Conclusion: At the end of the day – there is no denying that a superzoom bridge camera is a pretty nifty bit of kit, and an 83x zoom is still pretty incredible.  Would I buy one?  Perhaps, if I had the cash… But so far I haven’t and I don’t seem to mind one bit.

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Set yourself a challenge… (because the best things in life are free)

Practice makes perfect, or at least doing something over and over again statistically increases your chances of getting it right.  This is a key theme for me in photography – and I think a helpful tip for anyone trying to take good photos on a tight budget.

It’s very easy to get blown away or intimidated by some of the truly awesome photos out there taken by professionals, or occasionally by a lucky amateur in the right place at the right time.  A key thing that can be learned from all of these photos, though, is to put yourself in the right place, at the right time.  Also, know what to do when you find yourself there.

…a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.

I thought today, it might be fun to think about wildlife photography.  This is a real passion of mine, and I try to take photos of the animals I find around me all the time.   Many of mine lack the finesse and perfection of the work of the experts, but I think I have managed to get some nice images over time and this is almost certainly because I repeatedly set myself challenges and will carry on trying until I’m pleased with the result (and will carry on trying to get better even after that).

Friendly sheep
A friendly sheep in the field behind my office, shot with my mobile phone. (He wanted me to feed him fresh grass so trotted over).
Common Grey Squirrel
A common grey squirrel on the miniature train tracks in a local park.

To make an obvious statement; you can categorize wildlife photos into two sorts: Photos of exotic animals where the simple inclusion of the animal itself makes the subject interesting and photos of everyday animals where you need to capture something more to keep the viewer interested.

If we examine this statement closely, though, how true is it really?  After all, the animals which are exotic to you will seem everyday to someone else.  The locals in Thailand (or even the South of France!) always laugh at me for spending my time taking photos of lizards, of which we see very few in England but are literally everywhere, there.  Similarly, a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.

Swanning around - a different take on a swan, as it comes into land.
Swanning around – a different take on a swan, as it comes into land.
Gulls fighting
Gulls fighting at the lake behind my house.

On this basis – I would recommend you set yourself a challenge and get out near where you live regularly and try and shoot the animals that you find.   There’s no need to worry too much about what equipment your using.  True – to shoot distant subjects you will need a long lens and to shoot really close-up you will need some sort of macro kit.  This can be a lot of fun (and I’d encourage you to try it) but most animals can be shot with just a compact camera or a smart phone and a bit of patience.  Just try to get yourself into the right place and learn how to get close to the animals, whether domestic or wild.  After all, taking a photo of an animal is free!

…the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you.  You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary.

If you get the chance, also try taking photos of animals at the zoo, or somewhere like Longleat safari park, or just at a farm.

A giraffe in Longleat Safari Park
A giraffe in Longleat Safari Park – shot with a Canon 75-300mm zoom lens (second hand for £50).

In some cases, its a question of quietly “stalking” and not startling an animal. In other cases, it might be a case of attracting it over. Remember, a lot of animals have very sharp hearing and eyesight, so even if you’re shooting from a distance, sudden movements could scare them off.  A hint, for example, is never make eye contact with a wild deer…

Deer in Knole Park
Deer in Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent. Shot with an Optomax 500mm f/8 telephoto lens bought for £25

The great thing about doing this near your home and with your local wildlife is that you will learn skills which will stand you in good stead when you’re face-to-face with a more exotic animal, on holiday, or in those great chance encounters, like a barn owl sitting in your garden fence.  So the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you.  You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary.  (Check out the British Wildlife Photography Awards website for some great examples).

The £200 challenge… A full DSLR kit for a range of situations, for the same cost as a bridge camera?

A friend of mine recently asked me the simple question: “What sort of camera should I buy?

I looked at him a blankly and was initially very unhelpful.  Not deliberately, mind you.  It’s just that there are so many different types of camera out there, with different advantages and disadvantages, prices and sizes.  After a few minutes I managed to ask him what sort of photos he wanted to take, and what he wanted his camera for.

Everything.” He said.

Now, I love a challenge, and I got to thinking about what sort of cameras you can use for everything – or at least what sort of camera you can use in the majority of situations.  Obviously, budget has to be a consideration, so I asked him how much money he had to spend, and he decided that about £200 was a good figure to settle on.

To a lot of people (me included!) £200 is a lot of money to lay out in one go, and a lot of people would never dream of spending so much on a camera (me not included). But as high-end professional cameras can be in the tens of thousands of pounds, clearly some compromises need to be made somewhere when coming up with our solution to “everything” for £200.

My first suggestion was therefore a bridge camera which tend to be “good all-rounders”. There are some very powerful options available for around £200 either used or new, with zooms in the 30x to 50x range.  (Particular favorites of mine would be the Fuji Finepix HS range, with manual focus and zoom rings, like a DSLR, but there are great options out there from all of the major camera manufacturers).

Nearly all of these new superzoom bridge cameras have DSLR-like controls for Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO etc., and will come with an electronic viewfinder.  However, they tend to have smaller maximum apertures and smaller sensors, so they are not as good for beautiful soft, out-of-focus backgrounds and their lenses tend to struggle at long focal lengths in difficult lighting conditions.

But is there another option?  Is it even possible to get a DSLR, with a set of additional lenses, to give you the versatility of a bridge camera for the same price?

The challenge

I should set some rules out for this challenge before I get it underway, because there are clearly going to be differences in the overall specifications and results achievable between  Bridge Cameras and second hand DSLRs, the point is, though, that the ultimate quality of the end image must be acceptable.  Here are my ground rules for the challenge:

  • The equipment bought/identified does not have to be new (since the cheapest DSLRs are commonly more than £200 with a kit lens new).
  • The equipment does have to be in fully working condition (cosmetic ware is fine, but no scratched lenses, or broken screens etc.)
  • The final kit does not have to take up as little space as a bridge camera – but it does have to be portable, and transportable in a single bag.
  • The final kit must be capable of taking photos of at least 10.1MP (considered the minimum for proper “photo quality” A4 / 8″ x 12″ photographic prints).
  • The final kit must be capable of at least ISO 6400 (which is at least faster than traditional film, though not much to shout about compared to some modern Bridge cameras).
  • The final kit must be capable of a wide-angle to super-telephoto zoom (ideally of over 30X).
  • Evidence of the availability of the item at that price (as at September / October 2014) should be shown – no open ebay bids!
  • The kit must be capable of macro.

So here goes…

Apologies to any Nikon fanatics out there – but I have plumped for Canon in this test for two reasons.  Second hand Canon gear tends to be a bit cheaper, and because I am a Canon user myself, I can vouch for how well the items mentioned here work.

The Camera: Either a Canon EOS 400D or Canon EOS 1000D.  Both available for around £100 – £120, including a 18-55mm kit lens:

Canon EOS 400D
Canon EOS 400D – The evidence, listed on Gum Tree for £100 with a Mk II 18-55mm kit lens (the type with no image stabilization, but one I own and have used a lot).
Canon EOS 1000D
Canon EOS 1000D also with an 18-55mm kit lens (the first DSLR I ever owned!) – this one is £120, though I have seen them on sale for less occasionally.  They are available for around £80 without the lens on gumtree today.

The Lenses and adapters:

  • Canon 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens (free with body) – a wide angle to portrait length zoom lens – which can be found from as little as £25 without Image Stabilization, if you buy the camera body separately, such as the 1000D, available for £80.
    Canon 18-55mm
  • Canon 75-300mm F/4.5-5.6 Lens, £45 (inc P&P):

    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6
    Canon 75-300 F/4.5-5.6 Lens – available for around £45 (or less if you have patience bidding on ebay).  Also look out for the excellent Tamron 70-300mm lens.
  • Jessops 2x teleconverter (Canon Fit) – £40 (also available from Kenko and similar brands).  WARNING!! These can be very variable in price, so you will need to do a lot of searching to find a bargain!  Also do not buy a screw fit, filter ring type. They do not do the same thing, and they do not work anything like as well! They’re frankly rubbish.

    2x teleconverter
    Jessops 2x teleconverter
  • Set of 4 macro / close-up lenses – £7.50.  In this case, for a 58mm filter ring size – which will therefore work with both the 18-55mm and 75-300mm Canon lenses.  If you were to, instead, buy something like the Tamron 70-300mm lens, you would want a 62mm thread size and a step-up ring for the 18-55mm lens.

    Diopter lenses
    Set of four Diopter lenses (+1, +2, +4, +10)
  • 0.45x fisheye / wide angle conversion lens – £8.75, (also 58mm thread size)

    0.45x Wide Angle lens
    0.45x Wide Angle lens for use with the 18-55mm lens.

So, that gives us:

  • Camera and 18-55mm kit lens – £100
  • 75-300mm lens – £39.50
  • 2x teleconverter – £40
  • Macro lenses – £7.29
  • Wide Angle lens – £8.75

Total Cost: £195.54

The kit has a focal range of 8.1mm to 600mm (technically a 74X magnification from widest angle to longest focal length) – and a 35mm equivalent range of 13mm to 960mm focal lengths.

But how much space does it take up? Does it fit in a bag?

Yes it does (just!):

The full kit - for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).
The full kit – for £195, all fits in a bag (which I got for 50p in a local charity shop).

But is it any good?

Well – I think it is!  A lot of this is equipment which I use pretty regularly in the tests throughout this site.  There are a number of macro images already online, so I won’t dwell on these – but the full extent of the 600mm zoom hasn’t been demonstrated before.  Sure, there is some chromatic aberration, but it would be much worse on a bridge camera:

Red Robin
Shot with at 600mm on a Canon EOS APS-C sensor camera, which gives a 35mm equivalent focal of a whopping 960mm. This was achieved with a cheap 75-300mm tele zoom and a 2x teleconverter

Then at the extreme wide angle end things look like this – which is wider than can be achieved on a bridge camera without a similar converter:

Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
Basilique Saint-Sernin, Toulouse – which is too big and surrounded by trees to be conveniently shot without a fisheye – in this case a cheap 58mm screw-fit adapter on an 18-55mm kit lens.

Great shots of cities at night? You need to learn to let go!

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been on holiday to some amazing places, but come back disappointed that you didn’t get enough (or any) good photos.  This might be because you were too busy having a good time, in which case great, but it might also be because you didn’t feel you had the right kit, you didn’t want to carry around a tripod or you didn’t feel you had time to make the effort.  But it needn’t be so!

For today, I’m going to focus on night time shots, because I think this is often when cities look best.  The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti. All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.  In general, though, I think that a little bit of thought can help with your photographs at any time of day.

Again – let’s break it down to some simple “rules”.  The camera you use is pretty irrelevant here – an expensive DSLR, a bridge camera or compact can all take pretty nice shots.  For a couple of reasons that will become clear, though, mobile phones can struggle in this area.

“The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti.  All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.”

Rule 1: Learn to let go!

Shooting shots at night means slow shutter speeds if you’re going to get a reasonable looking shot.  Shooting handheld is a lost cause (you are never as still as you think you are).  Find something to put your camera on and let go of it completely.  This will normally mean not even pressing the shutter button yourself – try using your cameras self timer (just a 2 or 3 second delay is fine) so that you don’t nudge the camera when taking the shot.  You don’t need to walk away from your camera and leave it unattended in a strange city, just make sure you’re not touching it!  (One of the problems with trying this with mobile phones is that they’re now so thin, they tend to fall over!)

Bordeaux by night - sometimes, if you just find a place to rest your camera, you get some odd angles.  Often you can correct this using software, but sometimes it can create an interesting effect!
Bordeaux by night – sometimes, if you just find a place to rest your camera, you get some odd angles. Often you can correct this using software, but sometimes it can create an interesting effect! (Shot with a Fuji s8000fd bridge camera) 

Rule 2: Turn your ISO down and turn your flash off!

Okay, so rule 2 will only work if you’re already following Rule 1 (or if you’re using a tripod).  Otherwise you’ll end up with some really blurry photos! But as a general rule, flash will not be helpful when shooting night time urban landscapes, where everything is too far away to be usefully lit.  Instead, manually set your ISO low (if your camera allows you to do so) to keep image noise to a minimum and let the exposure be nice and long.  Some simple point-and-shoot cameras don’t allow these to be manually adjusted, but generally if you select flash off and night mode, it will do the rest for you quite successfully.

Budapest from above - shot with a Fuji A800 point and shoot camera (back in 2007).  Modern cameras will give better definition, but the image was nicely exposed.  A flash would have simply picked up the plant growth in the foreground.
Budapest from above – shot with a Fuji A800 point and shoot compact camera (back in 2007). Modern cameras would give better definition, but the image was nicely exposed. A flash would have simply picked up the plant growth in the foreground.

Rule 3 – Head for the high ground!

This isn’t really a rule, but I think a good piece of advice (particularly for high rise cities).  I would summarise it like this – Everything looks better from above (except for the stuff that doesn’t).  In New York, head to the top of the Rockefeller or Empire State buildings, (actually do both – Empire State at night, and Rockefeller in the day).  In Tokyo, there are lots of choices, but the Tokyo Tower seems an obvious choice.  In London, head to the top of the shard…

New York from the top of the empire state building. (Shot with a Canon 1000D)
New York from the top of the empire state building. (Shot with a Canon 1000D)
Tokyo
Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Tower (shot with a Fuji Finepix s8000fd)
London
London – from the top of the shard (shot with a Canon EOS 1000D)

All of these were shot without a tripod, but a few words of warning regarding the Shard.  Firstly, it is really expensive to go up.  Secondly, they won’t allow you to take a tripod, even if you want to!  Which leads to the third point, there are no flat surfaces in the Shard. My earlier advice was to find something to rest your camera on, that simply won’t work at the top of this building.  Therefore, you either need to get very good at bracing yourself against the wall, or take a bean bag and balance your camera carefully, or sneak in some kind of miniature clamp-on or flexible tripod.  Lastly, the shard is in glass all the way around and it’s very difficult to deal with the reflections.  Get as close to the glass as possible and be prepared to remove reflections by selectively adjusting the levels using software later.

Do big numbers mean big cash? Shooting super-telephoto images

Today, I thought I would turn away from macro and taking photos from really close-up, to taking photos of things from really far away…

Like macro, taking shots with “super-telephoto” lenses can very easily be written off as a rich man’s game – and there are definitely plenty of rich boys’ toys out there if you have bottomless pockets.  For example, a story recently surfaced of a £99,000 telephoto lens going on sale!

If you’re anything like me, though, you’re probably looking for a solution for under £100.  Okay, so that’s hardly free, but this is a specialist area.

But what are your choices? Well, actually – there are quite a few.

In the case of the (slightly daft) £99,000 lens, the focal length on offer was an enormous 1,200mm – and the lens (as a result) was totally impractical for most purposes.  However, there are times when you’re shooting wildlife, sporting events or some specific scenery when you may want something which is pretty far reaching.  In these cases, it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens, relative to a 35mm SLR or full frame DSLR.  This basically means that you get more magnification in your final shot from the same lens.  In the case of most Canon EOS cameras, you get a magnification (known as a “crop factor”) of 1.6X.  For a Nikon you get 1.5X.  For some bridge cameras, the crop factor may be as high as 5X to 6X!!

“it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens…”

But what does it really mean?  Well – I’m going to look at focal lengths of between 500 and 800mm (equivalent for a 35mm camera).  This is because there are lots of ways of getting lenses of around 500mm of an APS-C DSLR which, because of the crop factor, will give the same level of overall magnification in your final shot as an 800mm lens on an old film SLR.

I’ll mention five options, and test four:

  1. Supplementary telephoto lenses
  2. Teleconverters
  3. Manual focus mirror lenses (often t-mount)
  4. Manual focus multi-element telephoto lenses (often M42 mount)
  5. Superzoom bridge cameras

1. Supplementary telephoto lenses – from as little as £10 on ebay 

I said I’d mention but not test one option – and this is it.  Supplementary telephoto lenses screw in front of the lens of your camera (like the diopters I tested for macro), or many wide angle or fisheye adapters.  I have already tested diopters on this website, and I will return to supplementary fisheyes in the future – but I’m not going to test the telephoto version because they are simply too rubbish.  My three pieces of advice would be avoid, avoid, avoid.  The real issue is that, unless you have a tiny aperture (and therefore have to push up the ISO and exposure time up beyond a practical level), you get terrible focus problems anywhere outside dead-centre of the frame.  If you would like to see some tests demonstrating this – I would point you to Keith Cooper’s article here.  (Seriously, though, even for £10, don’t bother.)

2. Teleconverters – Prices vary a lot, though if you shop around you can start from around £25 second hand.

In terms of intended outcome, teleconverters do the same thing as supplementary lenses – in so far as they work with an existing lens and increase its effective focal length.  The mechanism by which they do this is far more effective, though.  Rather than acting as a “magnifying glass” at the front of the lens, they work as an additional lens element stage between the sensor and the lens.  While it is obviously not as good as an expensive, dedicated telephoto lens, it is still pretty effective and a lot cheaper!

Now – one clear challenge here, is that in order to use a teleconverter to reach super-telephoto length, you will already need to have a telephoto lens with a focal length of around 250mm to start with.  These can also be expensive, but there are some cheap second hand options out there.  A few examples are:

  • Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6, Nikon / Canon and other fits available.  Second hand for £50 – £100.
  • Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6, Canon fit only. New from around £70 (this is the lens tested below).
  • Nikon AF-S 55-200mm f/4-5.6, Nikon fit only. New from around £70
  • Nikon AF 70-300 mm f/4.0-5.6, Nikon fit only. Second hand from around £80

In my test case, I have coupled a second hand Jessops (Kenko) teleconverter (bought for £25) with a Canon EF 75-300mm lens, bought second hand for £50, so £75 in total.  I also have the Tamron lens, which works equally well (perhaps a little better).  The photos used in this test aren’t terribly exciting, but they were all taken at the same time, in the same light so give a fair representation of capabilities:

x Teleconverter with 75-300mm Canon telezoom
Test – 2x Teleconverter with 75-300mm Canon telezoom.
Shot at around 500mm on an APS-C camera (800mm equivalent on a full frame camera). At this focal length the auto-focus stops working.

The focus achieved, given the long focal length is acceptably sharp, and chromatic aberration is not too noticeable (though from experience, this gets a log worse as contrast in your image increases).

Pros:

  • Pairing a tele-converter with a zoom means you can have an enormous range of zoom available to you by simply adding / removing the converter.  In this case, all the way from 75mm – 600mm.
  • Very space efficient, and can be paired with several different lenses.  It can simply be kept in your kit bag alongside your main lenses.
  • Reasonable quality results, retaining aperture control for depth of field control.

Cons:

  • While auto-focus works at shorter focal length, once you have gone up to super-telephoto lengths it gives up, so manual focus only.  Focus confirm should still work, though.
  • Adding a teleconverter reduces the light which reaches the sensor, so you will need to up the ISO, or lengthen exposure time unless it’s very bright.  At long focal lengths, this can be tricky.  You will probably want a tripod! (Though I would recommend it for all of these solutions really…)

3. Manual focus mirror lenses (often t-mount) – cheap 500mm lenses from around £70

Until recently, I had never tried a mirror lens, and I had always been fascinated by the idea of them.  If you look at a mirror lens from the “front” they really mess with your mind.  How can you get a full image from a lens which looks like it still has a small lens cap stuck in the middle of it?  (I’ll let you ponder that on your own).

Mirror lenses used to be very popular as a cheap way of getting up to super-telephoto focal lengths, without enormous costs.  Their relatively simple construction, basically consisting of two carefully aligned mirrors, means that there is far less complicated and heavy glasswork to create the image.  The lenses are also much, much shorter than multi-element telephoto zooms.  High grade mirror lenses remain very popular with astro-photographers, because they are virtually free from chromatic aberration and some of their weirder properties (donut shaped bokeh and “double vision” either side of the optimum depth of field) disappear at infinity focus.

But can they be used for day-to-day use? – On this occasion, I can’t exactly say that I’m convinced.  I should say that I have only ever used one (so not a statistically brilliant sample), but it is a very common one – the Opteka 500m f/8, t-mount (don’t forget to buy the right adapter!) I bought mine new and I believe it to be in “perfect” working order – but there are some serious limitations to optics of this type.

The major problem is low contrast (caused by the shadow of the front mirror), but this in turn makes it very difficult to find focus and, to be honest, I am not convinced that the sharpness of this sort of lens is ever really up-to-scratch.  That said, I have managed to get a few nice shots, and the low contrast can be corrected in post-processing.  For a fair comparison, below is an unprocessed shot, straight from the camera:

Opteka 500mm f/8 lens test
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror lens. The shot shows the low contrast caused by the mirror’s shadow, which can be corrected in post-processing, and the “double vision” background, which cannot.

Pros:

  • Virtually no chromatic aberration (so good for astro-photography).
  • Very small for a dedicated super-telephoto lens.
  • Cheaper than buying a standard tele-photo lens plus a converter

Cons:

  • Donut bokeh and double-vision backdrops
  • Low contrast and can be hard to focus
  • Can seem a bit soft generally (though that could just be me!)
  • Normally fixed f/8 aperture, so no control over depth of field.

Before moving on, though, it would be wrong of me not to show an image of something I believe that they are good at!

The moon with a mirror lens.
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame). The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.

4. Manual focus multi-element telephoto lenses (often M42 mount) – new from around £80

I should start this section by saying I think I got an absolute bargain, having picked up an Optomax Telephoto 500mm f/8-f/32 lens for just £25.  In my case the rear element (closest to the camera) has gone a little bit milky, but even with this problem it seems optically very good (so I would love to try a mint one!) Keep your eyes peeled for a second-hand bargain.

The costs of this sort of lens (often M42 to t-mount, so again, don’t forget the right adapter) vary quite a lot – but these generic lenses are much, much cheaper than branded auto-focus lenses.  Rokinon are the modern makers of a basically identical lens, and you can buy them new from around £80 if you shop around.  They are manual focus, and have manual aperture control (but this is important, as they aren’t fixed at f/8).  They also make a super-tele zoom (Rokinon 650-1300mm, normally sold with a 2x tele-converter), which you can pick up from around £150 new. You will need to shop around for this.

The construction is pretty simple, and they can be taken apart almost completely, simply by twisting and unscrewing (which can be handy if you want to pack them away somewhere not at full length).   They are pretty long and unwieldy and normally come with their own tripod mount.

The image quality from these is pretty good if you are patient enough and good at manual focus.  Shooting handheld can be very tough though because of their length – so if you are trying to catch fast-flying birds, it may be a bit difficult.

Optomax 500mm f/8-32 test
Optomax 500mm f/8-32 tele-photo, showing acceptably sharp results and bright colours.

Pros:

  • Good optical quality at a very reasonable price
  • (Manual) aperture control
  • Can be paired with a 2x teleconverter to make enormous focal lengths

Cons:

  • Big and unwieldy – difficult to use handheld
  • Fixed focal length
  • Manual focus only

5. Superzoom bridge cameras – used from around £50

All of the other options I have looked at today assume that you already have a camera to attach a lens to.  This is a one-stop-shop solution and is therefore very convenient for travelling light.  I am a big fan of bridge cameras as “good all rounders” and the modern superzooms are truly impressive in their equivalent focal-length range.

You will see in the photo below, that the equivalent focal length is not quite as large as I was able to achieve in the tests above, but I was using my old fuji Bridge camera (with an 18x optical zoom) and some newer bridge cameras can come with up to 50X optical zoom.  In this case, my Fuji S8000fd has a focal length of 4.7 – 84.2mm which doesn’t sound much, but with a 5.6X crop factor, it gives a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24-486mm, which is pretty impressive.  You can buy newer version for under £100 with 30X zooms which is equivalent to 24-720mm so the numbers are getting pretty big!

Of course, the downside is that the sensor is small and therefore the ultimate clarity and light sensitivity of the camera will suffer, and if autofocus doesn’t lock on, manual focus can be a dead-loss, but in good conditions, things are pretty good.

Fuji FinePix S8000fd test
Fuji FinePix S8000fd at full zoom (84.2mm, equivalent to 486mm full frame). Newer bridge cameras can zoom in even closer.

Recommendation?

As ever, your final choice is up to you – there are advantages and disadvantages to each solution. Here are my thoughts in summary though:

  • Never buy a supplementary lens for your filter ring.  You may as well burn a £10 note.
  • Personally, I would never build a DSLR camera bag and not include a 2x teleconverter.  Sure, they may not be as good as a massive, expensive lens, but they’re cheap and portable, so you can take them with you everywhere.
  • Unless you’re into astro photography – don’t bother with a mirror lens. They’ll only frustrate and annoy you.
  • If you don’t mind the length, the fixed focal length M42 mount lenses from Rokinon and Optomax etc. are really good for the price.
  • Bridge cameras remain great all-rounders provided you aren’t too fussed about retaining total control (or taking portraits with lovely narrow depth of field at shorter focal lengths).  Plus, the lens and the camera come together, so if you don’t mind an old 8 megapixel one they’re an absolute bargain.

As ever – happy shooting!

The lenses tested:

Lenses tested here
Tested… Top to bottom: A 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens

Cameras… What cameras?

…use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.

As this blog is about photography, I guess it’s only right that my first proper post should be about cameras.  With all the thousands of different types of cameras out there, what on earth should you use?

The shortest and best answer I can give is – use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.

I’m not saying that to be frivolous or to avoid answering the question – but after all, this blog is about doing things on a shoestring and frankly, I don’t know how long your shoestrings are.  Of course, I could recommend you a particular make or model of camera, but if I did, for some it would be too expensive, for some too complex, for others it may be too basic, or not powerful enough, or not carry the right features.  If there are any camera snobs reading this, my recommendations could even seem too “cheap” – but if you fall into that category, this blog probably isn’t for you.

Instead, I think it’s important to work our what sort of photographer you are, what sort you want to be and what sorts of cameras will best meet your needs. Note my use of plural here, as some of you may well want to use more than one type of camera depending on circumstances.- and this doesn’t need to be expensive…

A few tips on different types of camera:

Compact / Point & Click cameras:

  • Don’t write these cameras off as no good simply because they are (normally) at the cheaper end of the market – there are some excellent cameras out there.
  • Don’t get sucked in, looking for the highest number of megapixels. It is far more important to get a camera which is optically good (with a good lens) and decent response to different light conditions, than getting a high resolution JPG of an image which looks bad.
  • If you don’t mind buying second hand, you can pick older ones up really cheap. (I recently bought a 7mp camera for £6 and use it a lot).
  • Obviously, they fit in your pocket.  This is great as it means you can always have one with you; you never know when you’ll find the “perfect” photo opportunity, and kick yourself for not having a camera.
  • If you get a cheap second hand one, you can try things and take it to places you may be unwilling to take more expensive gear (out sailing, diving in a cheap plastic cover, up a mountain etc.) 
  • They normally run on AA or AAA batteries that you can replace anywhere in the world.
  • They tend not to have powerful zooms.

Look out for: Optical zoom. A decent ground glass lens. A view finder or electronic viewfinder (EVF) if you can find one. At least some level of manual control. A tripod mount. 

Avoid: Digital zoom only. Small or poorly manufactured lenses. Cameras overladen with “gimmick” features but little manual control.

Always try before you buy – and zoom in on a test photo all the way to see the sharpness of the image captured.  If you can, try the same in low light.  Often the big names, like Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji etc are good bets, but they have also made some dogs!

Casio Exilim 7mp
A second hand camera bought for £6 before my last trip to Greece – it was intended for use diving in a simple plastic case (and lives to tell the tale!)

Mobile Phones / Camera Phones

  • Some purists amongst you may object to their inclusion here, but let’s be honest, we nearly all have mobile phones, and nearly all of them have cameras these days. A lot of them are really very good.  In fact, the cameras in phones have come on so far that these days, that sometimes the design is clearly more camera than phone.  (Check out the Samsung Galaxy S4 or Nokia Lumia 1020 to see what I mean).
  • Of course, top end phones and/or camera phones don’t come cheap, but a lot of you will have access to them anyway because of your mobile phone contracts – so don’t be shy about using their cameras to their full capabilities, because it’s almost a camera for free.
  • Even older phones with less high quality cameras can still be very good, especially in good light.
  • One key benefit is that you will nearly always have your mobile phone on you, so you never need to miss that golden opportunity for a shot.
  • New phones can be loaded with loads of cool (and free!) photo apps for editing and sharing on the internet.
  • Because they tend to have small sensors, they can actually be really, really good for close-up work which dedicated cameras can’t achieve without spending quite a bit of money.
  • They often only offer digital zooms, which can be a pain (though some newer models buck this trend).

Look out for: Decent low light sensitivity. A powerful flash. Macro focus mode. A reasonably wide field of view.

Avoid: Poor low light response (like the plague!!). Poor field of view. Poor autofocus.

St Paul's shot on my current phone (a Nokia Lumia 800). It was a beautiful day, when I was walking to the office, and I had my phone on me at the time.
St Paul’s shot on my current phone (a Nokia Lumia 800). It was a beautiful day, when I was walking to the office, and I had my phone on me at the time.

Bridge Cameras

  • Bridge Cameras are called this because they bridge the gap between Point & Click cameras and interchangeable lens cameras (DSLRs and CSCs).  They offer far greater manual control than most simple compact cameras, normally offering independent shutter and aperture controls and quite often they offer “manual” focus (thought this will be achieved digitally).
  • They normally have significantly better zooms than compact cameras, starting from around 15x from a few years ago right the way up to a whopping 50x available today.,
  • They have large ground glass lenses so their optical quality is normally much better than compact cameras (even on older models with lower pixel counts).
  • They are incredibly versatile, offering a wide range of shooting options in a single camera and lens.
  • They are therefore great travel cameras covering a wide range of situations.
  • Like compact cameras, old ones are now getting really quite cheap (though I’ve not seen one for £7 yet).  If you shop around you can start finding pretty decent ones from about £50.
  •  As you start pushing the boundaries of their capabilities, you are likely to start wanting to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera.

Look out for: A decent zoom range (anything from about 18x is pretty good for older models). Full manual controls including manual focus. RAW image capture if available. A threaded filter ring (or one capable of having a filter ring adapter added). A snug fitting lens cap. Optical Image Stabilisation. 

Avoid: Anything with a scratched lens (if buying second hand).  This is common in cameras of this type. Any versions that don’t have an EVF.

Fuji Finepix S8000fd
One of my favourite travelling companions, which has travelled pretty much everywhere with me since 2008. This little bridge camera is only 8MP and would be dirt cheap today, but it’s still got a great lens and is a real workhorse.

Interchangeable lens cameras

There’s so much to say about these, that they will need another blog entry, but they fall broadly into two types – DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and CSC (Compact System Cameras).  Both types vary greatly, and the modern high spec versions can be pretty pricey.  At the lower end, it’s much easier to find second hand DSLRs, as they have been around for a lot longer (basically since the early days of digital photography) where as CSCs are only really becoming mainstream now.  It is therefore also much easier to buy second hand lenses for DSLRs today…  

Looking at ebay today – you can buy a 6.3MP DSLR for under £50 but you would be lucky to get a decent lens with it, and the light sensitivity will not be as good as a more modern camera.

If you are really, really serious about photography, it’s likely that you will want to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera at some point because the range of different lenses you can use ultimately gives a greater range of shooting capabilities than even those offered by a Bridge camera – but it can therefore be an expensive journey to set out on.  If you’re total budget is £100, you are much better off sticking with a Bridge camera.

 

Conclusion?

I can’t tell you what to buy – I own variants of all of these, but I would suggest to anyone that a few quid on a compact camera with a decent lens can never be a waste of money… If you learn how to make the most of it, you’ll be able to get some great pictures.  If you’re a little more serious but still just getting going – an upgrade to a bridge is a massive step up in terms of the capabilities of the camera.