A couple of things have made me think about lightweight and professional quality gear. This goes beyond simply traveling light and may affect how you think about megapixels and little cameras. I thought it was interesting and useful enough to include this on both my blog, www.photodigitary.com, and here.
First, I was at the Nik Software Summit this past weekend -- a great event. I went out with the field trips (lots of people at some terrific locations in the San Diego area). On the first day to the Cabrillo National Monument, I wanted to travel light so I could move around quickly and easily between groups so I just had my Canon PowerShot G11. I showed some of those images I did on a presentation about workflow for Lightroom and Photoshop (my Lightroom Workflow for Nature Photographers are available from my website, www.robsheppardphoto.com) and used those images. They looked great and one person even commented how they looked as good as anything shot with higher megapixel cameras (to be fair, the projectors weren't showing everything that would be possible, but still, the comment is relavent). The Lighthouse photo above is from that field trip and the G11.
Second, I had a discussion with an aging photographer who is struggling with carrying the weight of a lot of gear and tripod and wanted some ideas on what to use to keep this to a minimum. Is it possible to have quality images with minimal and small equipment? Absolutely. Here's what I recommend:
As to lightweight, get the G11. I have a G11, plus a Canon EOS 7D and a couple of Olympus E-series cameras. None can compare even remotely with the compact size of the G11. .The G11 does a wonderful job of photography and is extremely light and compact. The other cameras are more versatile, but they are far larger and heavier and you need many lenses. Whenever I have to go really light, it is the G11 and with no reservations. There is also a very fine wide-angle adapter lens for the G11 (which also requires an adapter for the camera) which will add little weight to your package.
The G11 is also definitely superior to the G9 and G10. Those two cameras use older technology in their sensors and have too many megapixels in those sensors for the technology available at the time. The G11 has a far superior sensor and gives better images. It is interesting that Canon has had a drop in sales with the G11 compared to the G10 and this is largely attributed to the mistaken idea that more megapixels are better. (The G10 has almost 50% more pixels -- sounds great, right? Except that the sensor is not as good as the G10's and there are too many pixels so that the camera has to do a lot of image processing to remove noise. This makes the images look mushy when enlarged because noise reduction affects fine detail as well as noise.)
Can the G11 do professional level photography? Absolutely. It will not do as well with high ISO settings (no small sensors do), but this is no point-and-shoot. The lens is of excellent quality and the camera can be set like any DSLR -- you just can't change lenses. The next two photos show the whole lighthouse image again, but with a small area outlined. That small area is then shown blown up and is roughly equivalent to printing a 16x20-inch print from this image file. This camera is capable of some very high quality images. I did use Nik Dfine (which I consider to be a necessity for digital photography -- it is, in my experience, the best and most versatile noise reduction software on the market) to clean up the sky a little for this size of image from such a physically small sensor.
Plus, the tilting LCD is wonderful for the G11. This helps in so very many ways, from being able to easily take low angle shots to being able to handhold the camera more steadily (the trick is to hold it at about chest level so you can keep your elbows tight to your chest -- you look down at the LCD).
If you can afford it, I would highly recommend one of the Gitzo Traveler tripods. They weigh less than 2 pounds total (including the head) -- I have one and it is great for lightweight travel. The Traveler tripods are extremely lightweight but also strong and rigid. They are no cheap metal tripod that flops around in the wind or when you press onto your camera. The Traveler tripods are solid and extremely well made. They will have trouble with a big camera and a big telephoto lens, but for standard size cameras such as a Canon 7D or a Nikon D300 or an Olympus E-3 with smaller lenses, they work great, and for a G11, they could not be better. A G11 and a Traveler will weigh less than 3 pounds.
Another lightweight camera support option is a beanbag. When I want to travel really light, it is with the G11 and a small beanbag. Years ago I did a whole series of photos in New York City at night done with an older G6 and a beanbag and they were great (they are in many of my books and I would guess that no one would think they were shot with a little camera and a beanbag). There is a handy beanbag imported by Bogen Imaging called T.H.E. Pod that has a tripod screw in it that really helps when using a beanbag in odd positions.
-- Rob Sheppard