If you’re planning to visit Egypt and you want to take really good photographs of the ancient sites, you may be wondering what type of camera to take with you. I’ll give you some general guidance in this article, and also tell you what I personally ended up buying (which may be different to what you choose to buy, of course!).
First and most important of all, get a camera which has a proper viewfinder rather than just an LCD screen on the back. It’s an obvious thing to say, but easily overlooked. Egypt is a hot country with very strong sunlight, even during the winter, and it can be difficult or even impossible to see an LCD screen in the very bright sunlight you’re likely to encounter there. If you’re thinking of relying on your phone to take pictures, you may well experience difficulty doing so for that reason. A proper viewfinder (whether optical or electronic) eliminates the problem of bright light.
The second most important point is to get a camera which is weather sealed. Egypt is 95% desert, and when it’s even moderately windy, the air is frequently filled with very fine dust which will get everywhere, including inside your camera if it’s not adequately sealed. I’ve been on a number of group trips to Egypt on which other members of the group have had their cameras die because dust has got inside and shorted out the lens motor, or something similar. Likewise, if you use a DSLR, if it’s not weather sealed you’ll probably have significant issues with dust getting on the sensor and showing up in your images. This is an issue I had myself until I realised the root cause. Very few consumer-grade cameras will be specifically advertised as weather sealed, but one which is described as “water resistant” should also be dust resistant.
The same point applies to your camera bag. Make sure your bag has a decent zip fastener which completely seals it and doesn’t leave any gaps anywhere, or else you’ll find that everything in your bag will be covered in fine dust after carrying it around for a day or two.
Your camera is going to get very dusty no matter what you do: all you can do is ensure that the dust stays on the outside rather than getting into the camera. Make sure you have a good air-blower and a soft brush in your camera bag, and whenever you return to your vehicle, first blow off the dust, and then use the brush to remove any that remains.
If your primary purpose will be taking outdoor pictures in Egypt, these two points are the main ones to consider. There are so many good and reasonably-priced consumer cameras available these days that I’m not going to make any specific recommendations in this area. Any of them should give good results.
Where the situation gets more problematic is taking pictures in temples and tombs. This is where much of the most interesting and visually appealing Egyptian art is to be found, so if you’re a keen photographer you’ll certainly want to take pictures in these locations. The problems basically lie in two areas, which I’ll consider in turn: poor light, and confined spaces.
Firstly, let’s consider the issue of light. A few – a very few! – of the most popular tombs in the Valley of the Kings have recently been fitted with modern LCD lighting which gives good white light, and is excellent for photography. The less-visited tombs in the Valley and, alas, pretty much all other tombs and temples, are not so fortunate. They’re lit by ancient fluorescent strip lights at floor level, a sizeable proportion of which have failed (because they’re prone to being stood on by careless visitors), and many of the remainder of which are caked in what appears to be decades of accumulated grime which severely limits their light output. Finally, some sites, even in Luxor, let alone more remote regions, have no lighting at all, and interior rooms are pitch black, or at best are lit by tiny slit windows high up near the ceiling which serve to dazzle rather than illuminate.
The result of all this is that you need to be prepared to take pictures without a tripod (they aren’t allowed at many sites), and without flash (it’s not allowed anywhere) in lighting conditions that could charitably be described as “challenging”. The situation can be alleviated to a certain extent by taking along your own light (I give a recommendation in my blog article Camera equipment I take to Egypt, but even with a light you’re going to be facing tough lighting conditions. To give yourself the best chance of getting good pictures, you should aim to get a camera with two characteristics:
- Good image stabilisation.
- A sensor with low noise.
The first of these will allow you to take sharp hand-held pictures with the relatively long exposure times that the poor light will necessitate. The second will ensure that these pictures will have as little noise as possible.
Image stabilisation comes in two basic forms. Either the camera’s sensor can be mounted on a gimbal which stabilises the image, or the camera’s lens can incorporate image stabilisation technology. Typically, modern mirrorless cameras have sensor image stabilisation, while DSLRs have lens image stabilisation. One of the reasons I chose to go with Olympus cameras is that the Olympus OMD range of Micro Four Thirds cameras has excellent sensor-based image stabilisation which can be combined with lens-based image stabilisation in certain of their “Pro” lenses. The result is an ability to take pictures with exposures as long as 1 second hand-held, with pin-sharp results. This would have been unthinkable a few years, and gives the ability to take sharp pictures in close to total darkness.
The second requirement, for images with low noise, is best achieved either with a large sensor, or a sensor with physically large pixels. The larger the physical pixels, the higher the signal to noise ratio, and the less electronic noise visible in the image. My personal choice of a Micro Four Thirds format sensor is not ideal in that regard (it’s physically smaller than either APS-C or full-frame sensors), but still the level of noise present in the length of exposure I typically use is perfectly acceptable. What should be avoided for taking pictures in low light is a camera with an extremely high pixel resolution. High resolution means small pixels, and small pixels mean more noise. If there are camera models available, for example, with 30 MPixel and 50 MPixel resolutions in the same physical size sensor, the 30 MP camera would almost certainly produce better pictures in low light.
The recent full-frame mirrorless cameras released by a number of manufacturers admirably fulfil the twin goals of excellent image stabilisation combined with a physically large sensor, but for me the lighter weight and ease of carrying a Micro Four Thirds camera still wins out.
Let’s move on now to discuss the second challenge faced by the photographer wanting to take pictures in tombs and temples (and this one applies particularly to tombs), which is the problem of photographing large wall scenes in very narrow spaces. Many tombs have narrow corridors with high ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling relief carvings on the walls.
There’s no problem if you want to photograph a small portion of a wall scene, such as this example from the tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings:
The challenge occurs when you want to photograph the entire scene to see the “big picture”:
In order to take this second picture I had to use an ultra wide-angle (UWA) lens and shoot with a 9mm focal length (the equivalent of 18mm in a full-frame camera), and that brings me to the point I want to make, which is that if you want to shoot scenes in tombs, you really do need to invest in a good UWA lens – preferably a fast one so it handles poor light well. I use an Olympus f/2.8 7-14mm Pro UWA lens which gives excellent results, but there are much more inexpensive UWA lenses available which also give good results.
At the beginning of this article I talked about the problem of dust in Egypt, and that’s something to bear in mind when considering photographic strategies for tombs, where you’re likely to want to take both wide-angle and narrow-angle shots. You should always aim to minimise the number of lens changes in the field to reduce the risk of getting dust inside the camera.
My personal solution is to carry two cameras. I keep my 12-100 Pro lens on my main camera (that’s the lens which gives the superb image stabilisation), and have my 7-14 Pro on my backup camera. That lets me take both narrow and wide-angle shots without changing lenses. If this wasn’t practical, what I’d do myself is to start off by taking wide-angle shots of the entire tomb, then change the lens for a narrow-angle one and go back to take close-up shots of the scenes which interested me. That at least reduces lens changes to once per tomb.
These are the cameras I use myself:
On the left is my main camera, which is an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II with 12-100mm Pro lens, and this is probably used for 90% of my shots. On the right is my backup camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with the 7-14mm Pro UWA lens attached. Both cameras and lenses are fully weather-sealed. The lenses are of course interchangeable between the two cameras if required. With these two cameras I’ve successfully taken tens of thousands of photographs in Egypt with no mechanical or electronic problems at all. They are tough and reliable workhorses for the serious photographer.
In case you’re interested in these cameras and lenses yourself, I’ve included links to Amazon UK below. These are affiliate links, which means that should you happen to use one of these links to buy something yourself, you won’t pay any more, but I’ll get a small commission which will really help me in running this site. Thanks for your support!
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Compact System Camera – Black
- Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II Camera Body – Black
- Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100 mm 1:4.0 IS Pro Lens for Camera – Black
- Olympus 7-14 mm M.ZUIKO Digital ED 1:2.8 Pro Lens – Black
I hope this article has given you some useful information about what to think about deciding what camera to take on a trip to Egypt. As always, I’d love to hear your comments.