Photographing the Camino by Ralph LaForge

Photographer Ralph LaForge from North Carolina has walked many Camino de Santiago routes and today he shares his tips to help you capture your Camino memories. These are his photographing the Camino top tips:

The Camino de Santiago experience for many will necessitate a means to capture the moment with a camera. While no camera sensor can match the mind’s eye and imagination for color, contrast and composition for most pilgrims a camera (or two) is essential for a pilgrim’s personal visual documentation. As a photographer and one who has walked and cycled the Camino multiple times and who has used smartphones, mid-level and high-end cameras and lenses to capture the Camino’s spiritual, emotional, architectural and geographic character I will offer a few practical suggestions.  These recommendations are primarily for those either new to the Camino and/or who have little to modest experience in photography as most dedicated serious photographers know their craft sufficiently well and what equipment to use.

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Most importantly you must consider your photographic intention – do you just want to “point-and-shoot” and let the camera’s automatic exposure function do the rest or do you want to ultimately edit and enhance your pictures after your trip, ie. post-processing?  Most digital cameras today have an automatic exposure function and are perfectly capable of recording good to excellent photographs right out of the camera.

On the other hand if you want to edit the lighting, color saturation, clarity etc. of your photographs after you download your pictures when you get home it makes sense to purchase at least a mid-price range camera that has the capability of shooting both in regular JPEG mode (most common recording format) and RAW (minimally processed digital negatives) and the camera has the ability to capture at least 12-16 megapixel images. Editing RAW images gives you much more versatility with colors, contrasts, and hues.  That said most digital cameras today, at least the ones priced $250-1000 can give you excellent color and black & white photographs right out of the camera but can also shoot in RAW format to be edited later.

Another important consideration is whether to use a DSLR (digital single mirror reflex) or mirrorless camera. Either one will be perfectly suitable for photographic quality but the growing utility and popularity of mirrorless cameras have the advantage of being smaller and lighter weight many of which with photo sensors that rival in light capture and resolution of larger sensors in higher-end DSLRs.

Three suggestions I will share with those relatively new to the Camino and/or travel photography:

PERSPECTIVE

There are two fundamental perspectives in travel photography particularly for the Camino:

Personal perspective – photographing exactly the way you see the image (eg. the personal and/or spiritual meaning of the subject matter, color, shadows, field of view) and your audience’s perspective – i.e., how you want your viewers to see the picture.  The first perspective involves “shooting from the hip” without any advanced camera settings (for example removal of shadows) other than having the camera in a reasonably basic auto or programmed mode.  Most respectable point-and-shoot compact digital cameras with a fixed lens perform acceptably for this perspective.  The second perspective (your audience) includes manipulating special camera settings during the shoot but especially in “post-processing” (after you download all of your photos) via one of the many digital processing software programs e.g., Lightroom or Capture One.

Which perspective you choose is a matter of personal preference and intent and often times can certainly be an amalgam of both.  That said and most importantly – do not undervalue capturing your personal vision on what is artfully and spiritually meaning to you. Photographs that capture special poignant memories cannot replace the sharpest photograph in a photo contest.

VARIETY OF LENS FOCAL LENGTHS

You should be prepared to take wide angle shots for the broad Spanish/Portuguese/French landscape, agrarian, and architectural views particularly for countrysides, lagoons and in cathedrals and small chapels (a 28mm lens or smaller, 12-24mm ideal). Be prepared to use longer focal lengths, e.g., 150-300 mm, to isolate distant and special subject compositions.  Of course single multipurpose zoom lenses can do both – e.g. a 24-120mm lens or even a 28-300mm lens but there are many more.

MID PRICE MIRRORLES DIGITAL CAMERAS

Smaller mid-price-range mirrorless digital cameras with either a fixed multi-purpose digital zoom lens or interchangeable lens option (e.g. Fujifilm XT-2 or XT-3, Lumix ZS200, Lumix GX8 or 9, OlympusOM-D E-M5 Mark II, Sony RX100 V or VI) are among the best all-around cameras because of their smaller size and versatility. But know there are scores of other excellent camera options within this class of small to intermediate-size digital mirrorless cameras. If you have a choice to purchase a “weather sealed” camera, nearly all camera manufacturers have such models, this would be very helpful as anyone who has walked or cycle the Camino knows there will be times where wind, rain, fog, and even snow will prevail depending on the season. Ensure you look for the spec “weather sealed” on the feature list of a prospective camera to purchase. The first camera I used on the Leon to Santiago Camino trek was a $300 panasonic GX7 16 megapixel camera with a 14-45 mm lens and I have to say many of the photographs I shot with this intermediate size digital camera match up as well as those I have since taken with considerably higher-end Leica, fujifilm and Nikon cameras.

But know – If you can only use a fixed lens camera particularly one with a multi-focal length zoom lens ensure that it has at least a 24mm wide angle field of view – you will need it to capture the beautiful Spanish landscapes and towns.

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SMART PHONE CAMERAS

Specifically newer iphone or Android cell phone cameras. In the last several years cell phone camera image sensors have improved markedly in both image resolution, dynamic range, and light sensitivity some even rivaling many of the mid-range and higher-end digital cameras. The vast majority of modern cell phones use Sony image sensors which are quite formidable for photographic quality. For still photography – newer cell phones, e.g. Google Pixel II or III,  Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, iPhone XS can take remarkable photographs. The main downside of smart phone cameras is that they often are restricted to narrow fields of view, e.g., insufficient wide angle options, likely to have a more cumbersome lens zooming mechanism, and not impervious to damp or rainy weather.

Price ranges for select digital, DSLR and mirrorless travel cameras

Mostly priced by the camera’s number of functions, sensor and autofocus capability, capture rate, and video function.  Note that some of these prices include the camera body plus lens:

$250- 500

Canon EOS M100, Canon G9X, Canon EOS Rebel T6, Fujifilm X-A5, Fujifilm XF10, Fujifilm X-A5, Nikon Coolpix P900 & A900, Nikon D3500, Olympus PEN E-PL8, Olympus TG-4, 5 or 6, Sony a6000, Sony RX100

$500-1000 (most economical for quality and price)

Canon EOS M6, Canon EOS Rebel T6i, Canon EOS Rebel T7i (EOS 800D), Fujifilm X-T20, Fujifilm XT100, Panasonic Lumix GX8 or GX9, Nikon D7500, Nikon D5600, Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III, Olympus OM-D E-M5 II, Sony a6400, Sony a7 or a7ii

$1000-1500

Canon EOS 7D II, Canon EOS 80D, Canon EOS M5, Fujifilm X-E3, Fujifilm X100F, Olympus PEN-F, OM-D E-M1 Mark II, Sony RX100 M6, Sony a6400

>$1500

Nikon D750, Nikon Z6 or Z7, Nikon D850, Canon EOS 6D II, Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EOS 5DS,  5DS R, Fujifilm X-Pro2, Fujifilm  X-T3, Leica TL2, Leica Q or Q2, Lumix DC-S1, Olympus OM-D E-M1X, Sony a9, Sony a7iii

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PHOTOGRAPHIC LAW IN SPAIN

There are certain restrictions when photographing people in public in Spain and this includes people on the Camino.  Spanish photographic law requires consent for action related to a picture of a person in a public place, i.e. you are required to get the subject’s permission to take their picture unless they are part of your family or immediate group.  This in no way should deter you from capturing the bucolic Spanish landscapes and the plethora of iconic architectural sites which saturate the country. For more information see: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Country_specific_consent_requirements

MEMORY CARDS

There are a lot of options, not only differing in speed and capacity, but also brands and cost. And even though the SD format is the most popular there are other formats too, including Compact Flash, microSD, XQD and CFast.  Depending on your camera’s sensor size and megapixel count (i.e., it’s ability to capture special detail in an image) you will need to consider the size of the memory card you use.  If you are spending 3-4 weeks walking or cycling the Camino I would suggest at least several 32 gigabyte memory cards or at least one 64 or even 128 gb card.  Above all, back up all of your photos as soon as you return home.  Rule of thumb: a 16 mp camera with a 32 gb card can shoot ~5000 regular JPEG images whereas if you are shooting in Raw it’s ~570 images. A 24mp camera (fairly standard with higher end cameras) with a 32gb card – ~4000 jpegs or ~400 Raw images.

Printing your photographs and Image detail

Do you want to print your photos?  If so, what size, e.g. 3”X5”, 8”X10”? In general, the larger the size of the intended print the more megapixel resolution your camera will require for quality prints.  On the printer side, 300 printer dots per inch (DPI) is standard, sometimes 150 is acceptable but rarely lower. The general rule for high quality sharp prints is 200-300 pixels per inch. So an 8×10 inch print needs 8x300x10x300 = 7.2 megapixels. One can still make very nice 8×10 inch prints with less megapixels, but the lower the megapixel count, the softer the image.  All of the digital cameras exemplified in this article except cell-phone cameras have at least 16 mp sensors (i.e., 16 mp per saved image).

A point that probably needs mentioning here is photo editing, i.e., post-processing.  Many cameras produce very nice jpegs right out of the camera but if you are like me I like to “fine tune” light, clarity, and sometimes color hues of RAW images. Most camera manufacturers have their own fairly simple editing software that is included with the camera via a disk or download link. If you are more serious about ultra fine-tuning your photos three of the most professional grade editing software programs are Lightroom, Capture One, and On1 Photo RAW – all of which are competitively priced.

 A FINAL SUGGESTION

I would recommend having at least two means of capturing the Camino -aside from your eye and brain of course:  a smart phone and at least a mid-range digital camera that can capture at least 16 megapixels per photograph.  Here, your smart phone can be a reliable back-up to your primary camera.

In any event for many of you this will be a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage experience and one that deserves many exceptional photographic and spiritual impressions to savor.

About Ralph La Forge, MSc, FNLA, CLS

Ralph is a physiologist and Diplomate of the Accreditation Council for Clinical Lipidology. He is on faculty in the program of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine at the University of north Carolina Chapel Hill. He is a consultant to many health care and accountable care organizations in preventive endocrinology and preventive cardiology. He is associate editor of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal and the Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He is also a professional photographer utilizing Nikon and Fuji photographic systems.

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