I entered the digital camera world in 2002 with a mediocre, in hindsight, but then still OK Olympus model; image quality at 2.3 or so MP was just about alright, but operationally the camera soon proved painfully too slow. When that camera got stolen in Beijing, China
, I bought my next camera right there and then in 2005, a Sony T7, then an award-winning super-slim design, and still the smallest camera I've ever owned. At 5.1 MP its image quality was brilliant in good light, and in terms of responsiveness it was fine too. But I knackered the little thing, and it had its limitations anyway in low light/indoor conditions. So I added a slightly chunkier Canon compact model to my arsenal in 2006, a Powershot A700 with exactly 6MP, 6x optical zoom and a rudimentary optical viewfinder. A very good compromise, it is still in use today, mainly with my wife, but I, too, still sometimes use it when I don't want to carry anything bigger around. It allows for manual control and when set right it can perform superbly, even though I find it lacks a bit of colour depth (requiring extra saturation on the PC). In essence, all these cameras were still so-called "point-and-shoot" designs (though the Canon has potential much beyond that).
Having become more interested in photography, I eventually acquired, in early 2007, my most trusted workhorse of a camera ever, a Fuji S6500sf bridge camera. It was as perfect a compromise as it was ever possible to get. It had the dimensions and feel of a full SLR but came with a fixed 10.7x manual (!!) zoom lens (28-300 mm equivalent) of very good quality. Coupled with a larger than average 6.1MP sensor it was capable of an image quality that you can no longer get with anything other than an SLR these days. Its electronic viewfinder was also of very good quality. OK, it had its limitations too, especially in that it lacked any image stabilization, which meant you needed to fix the camera in low-light situations. Where that was not possible, e.g. when on a boat moving through the Venezuelan jungle, it showed its limitations too clearly, as I had to crank up sensitivity, but then image noise soon became intolerable. It was also a bit unwieldy in some more advanced operations. But wherever it was possible to stay at ISO100/200 and there was enough time, it produced photos so crisp and sharp and with vivid natural colours that they still outshine many an SLR's image quality. For three and a half years, this Fuji was my trusted Number One camera in almost all situations that mattered, and a large proportion of the images reproduced on this website were taken with it. Especially, for landscape photography I have yet to come across a consumer camera that can match it.
After it had seen extensive use over the years it began showing signs of ageing … the labelling had come off most of the controls, the rubber grip came off (and had to be fixed with tape) and on empty batteries it would reset itself, requiring lengthy repeated processes of customizing (from turning the peeps off to setting the date). So I started looking for a possible replacement. By that time no other manufacturer would build bridge cameras with manual zoom lenses any more, so Fuji was the only option. However, the follow-up models didn't quite convince (and reportedly had problems with image flaws such as excessive chromatic aberrations – purple fringes on hard contrast lines). Still, the versatility of a bridge camera with a long zoom remained an asset.
So eventually I decided in September 2010 to follow a two-way path: for image quality I finally upgraded to an SLR (a Pentax K-x), but instead of equipping that with an expensive set of interchangeable lenses (I only upgraded to a 16-45 mm wide-angle zoom, with macro capability, as the standard lens that's always attached), I complemented it with the then latest Fuji bridge camera, the HS10, which features a 30x zoom for those situations where such a reach was necessary.
This tandem has proved a good solution. The Fuji provided enormous zoom reach and sometimes this can be incredibly useful, but in terms of image quality, due to its minuscule 10MP sensor, it is a massive step backwards compared to the older predecessor. So I found myself relying mostly on the Pentax, which has particular strengths in low light (ideal indoors). With its current standard lens that I have on practically all the time when travelling (a 16-45mm, f4), it just lacks reach. I've also encountered the nasty problem of dust on the sensor, which required professional cleaning, so there are follow-on costs.
As I also wanted to have the option of a small, pocket-sized camera to carry around more easily, I initially added a Panasonic TZ7 travel-zoom camera (12x) to my arsenal. This also offered very good video capability. At 10MP, however, its image quality also showed the typical flaws of too many megapixels: washed-out details, and chroma noise. Still, at ISO80 and long exposure times it was nevertheless capable of producing decent pictures – and it was certainly very practical. Unfortunately, however, I almost immediately knackered it as I got volcanic ash in it on Montserrat
in 2009/2010. The lens was clearly not sealed enough. Ever since, shooting against the light produced artefacts and refractions caused by ash particles which were impossible to remove. Then its zoom seized up and eventually also its autofocus. So when it came to replacing this pocket camera too, I looked long and hard, testing and discarding the Sony HX9VB (crazy 16MP!) and finally ending up with the Canon SX230HS (12 MP, and 14x zoom). It has meanwhile proved nice and versatile, though the image quality is often a bit behind that of the previous Panasonic. Autofocus at the long end of the lens is a bit hit-and-miss … and so is the GPS module. At home in Vienna
I haven't once been able to pick up a signal with it yet, and in other cities it also proved quite erratic. However, out in the open expanse of the Atacama in Chile
and the Andean Altiplano in Bolivia
it worked a treat. And the GPS-logs and route displays on a map back home on the computer are really cool. The positioning is not always spot-on accurate, but mostly you do get a good record of where you took which picture.
On my trip to the Falklands
I also knackered the little Canon SX230, this time around simply by dropping it (from icy cold hands) onto hard rock ... and it fell awkwardly right onto the menu button, which broke. So after that most functions (including GPS) were no longer accessible. I've now replaced it with a Nikon AW110, also a GPS compact, but a rugged "outdoors" design (you see, I've learned my lesson!). Real-life use proved that the GPS is faster than the Canon's was but image quality even lower. Never mind, I need it for GPS logging primarily and otherwise only for not so important situations when I simply want a pocketable compact I can take anywhere, even under water.
But my main camera in most situations will remain an SLR. Had there been bridge cameras of sufficient quality on the market I would have stayed with one of them for travel photography. But a) none other than Fuji's feature a manual zoom (and once you've got used to manual zooming you simply cannot go back to those awful motor-zooms that almost all other compact and bridge cameras rely on) and b) the megapixel craze left none with acceptable enough image quality. So my upgrade to the world of SLRs was kind-of enforced by the industry's failures. But now I no longer regret this, as I have come to value the other advantages of an SLR – in particular the much greater responsiveness and versatility.
In late 2013 I upgraded further to a new Pentax model, namely the K-50, a weather-sealed SLR, in a bundle with a 18-135mm zoom lens (also weather-sealed). I hope it will put an end to the dust-on-the-sensor problem. (Update: it hasn't, at least not completely: I still get the occasional speck in so that the sensor needs cleaning about once a year).
And the K-50's all-weather design was immensely useful in the unpredictable, and often very wet weather in the Falklands
and Patagonia (Argentina
), where photography with an unsealed camera would often have been downright impossible (or would have meant the end of the non-sealed camera). At times the K-50 was completely covered in icy cold water. But it carried on working just fine. Baptism by water, as it were. It adds a great deal of extra versatility. It's also super fast and its user interface nice and intuitive with useful customizability. (For instance I programmed one button for selecting RAW format - after the shot! That way I can only record the large RAW files when I get the imression that will be useful later because e.g. auto-whitebalance was a bit off, but leave it at jpg only when that is already good enough.)
At the same time I also upgraded my bridge camera to a new Fuji HS-50 (42x zoom, articulated LCD screen, but small sensor). I contemplated the high-end model XS-1 (superb built-quality and large sensor, though less zoom, 27x, and no articulated screen) but in the end I didn't go through with this, because the XS-1 just didn't feel right in my hands; the grip was just too small, it made my hands cramp after just a minute of test-holding it in a shop. The HS-50 meanwhile proved a decent enough compromise image-quality-wise and in practical terms it is just a joy to use (and that zoom makes it a veritable "paparazzi camera" as well!). It would be cool if Fuji were to come up with a model that combines the advantages of the two and eliminates the respective downsides. We'll see if that ever happens.
Update: 2016: the latest addition to my gear is a Sony RX100 III. This is by far the best compact camera I've ever held in my hands (and the highest rated ever on dpreview). It wasn't cheap, but the investment quickly paid off. The image quality is often close to that of an SLR. Even in low light its performance can be superb. It has plenty of helpful modes (including quite workable auto-HDR) that can be set to activate automatically in difficult light situations, but also allows full manual control, just like a big dSLR. But unlike an SLR it comes in a tiny body (though it's comparatively heavy). It's not without flaws (it tends to overexpose, autofocus is sometimes unreliable ... and I miss a GPS function). Its large sensor, moreover, means that zoom is limited to x3. But the image quality is so good that you can just crop afterwards. So overall it really is very good compromise. Now I often find myself leaving the heavy K-50 behind when it's not essential and taking only the much more portable Sony.
Update 2018: meanwhile I've upgraded to a full-frame dSLR camera. Again staying loyal to Pentax, I picked their flagship model the K1 (making sure to get the Mark I, not the successor Mark II, which has less excellent image quality), in the silver limited edition version, which at that time was on special offer by Pentax. This too is weather-sealed. As my standard lens I picked a versatile 28-115mm lens, but later also added a top-level wide-angle lens, especially for indoor, architecture and landscape photography, all of which are required more often in dark tourism than, say, macro or portrait photography. The camera is capable of excellent image quality with these lenses, but it is also more demanding. I tend to have to tweak files in a RAW converter more often afterwards, and this is also more demanding on the computer's processor, RAM and general requirements for memory, given that 36 MP RAW files are huge. When I had to upgrade to a new computer in 2020 I made sure to get an extra-large HDD (6TB) for storage and a 1TB SSD for processing and 32 GB RAM. Another investment I made was in a top-quality tripod capable of stabilizing such heavy camera gear (I went for a carbon model by Sirui). To carry all that gear around I also needed a proper camera backpack. So I now look more like a pro photographer when I do carry all that stuff around, but I actually only did that on my trip to St Helena
; on later trips I mostly made the compromise of just taking the K1 and maybe also the Fuji for extra long shots and sometimes, when I didn't want to carry anything big, only the Sony.