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What you need to photograph once-in-a-lifetime moments

I admire Team USA for their dedicatifor their passifor their drive. But taking photos an important event with your phone?

I admire Team USA for their dedication, for their passion, and for their drive. But taking photos of an important event with your phone? Oh, dear.

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Updated: September 21, 2012 6:10AM

During the Olympics, there’s always some event that will grab and hold your attention. For me, it was the parade of nations during the opening and closing ceremonies. Hundreds of athletes beaming with joy and holding up phones and cameras to capture this (possibly) once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Yes, I’m a technology nerd. I absolutely needed to know what kinds of devices they were using and how they were using them. I didn’t like a lot of what I saw. I was no different than any basketball fan who keeps shouting “Just HIT THE OPEN MAN!”

It’s a common problem: You want to get photos while you’re out and about, but you don’t want the photo-taking to get in your way. I just wish Team USA had consulted me before heading off to London. I had no end of coaching tips.

First tip: Don’t use your phone. The greatest phone camera I’ve ever used (the one on the iPhone 4S) is still only as good as a low-ranking conventional camera. The lens and the image sensor need to be packed into a space less than a centimeter thick, the software that makes your focus and exposure decisions is easily tricked, and overall the setup is about as sophisticated as a mediocre camera from 2005.

You’re also dealing with the fact that this device doesn’t have a decent flash, and it has none of the basic ergonomics that make a conventional camera easy to hold and operate.

If I can’t talk you out of using your phone as your sole camera, then can I persuade you to at least make some improvements to it?

You MUST buy a battery extender. And yes, I yelled this at the screen when I saw an athlete shooting video with the phone’s LED illuminator lit. Shooting video is a battery-sucking activity even without the LED.

Next, you’ll want to put your phone in a case. The iPhone doesn’t handle as well as a real camera. There’s no handgrip, no shutter button, and no wrist strap. You’re forced to hold it by its dainty edges.

I must make another plea for sanity, however. Get a real camera! Any consumer camera will take better photos than a phone. And there’s been an almost magical revolution in compact cameras over the past two years.

My favorite premium consumer compact camera, if money is no object, is Sony’s NEX-7, which retails for $1,349 with a kit zoom. If your budget is tighter, go for Panasonic’s LUMIX GX1, which is available online for just $499.

Both cameras are interchangeable lens systems with large image sensors and a boatload of consumer-friendly features. They take fantastic photos when you trust them to make all of your decisions for you.

I saw plenty of Olympic marchers with big Canons and Nikon SLRs slung around their necks. But a conventional SLR is overkill. They’ve truly been marginalized by these new compacts. A Canon EOS 5D Mark III ($3,500) will, yes, definitely take better photos than a $500 compact system camera. But that’s not an absolute given in every shooting situation. The value of a pro SLR is that it allows the best photographers to take the best photographs possible, in any given situation — especially those in which speed is an issue. Put a good SLR in the hands of an amateur, however, and the math changes. A modern compact takes phenomenally good photos.

Think about getting the most bang for your buck, too. If I had a $3500 camera budget, I’d buy an NEX-7 plus a great assortment of lenses and accessories, or a pair of GX1s and the highest-quality lenses I could buy for them. A single super-premium SLR with one zoom lens and its onboard flash would actually be an inferior choice.

Participating in the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies is truly an event where lots of things will be happening and you won’t want to miss anything. That phrase can mean “I want to document every moment” as well as “I don’t want to be so distracted by taking pictures and shooting video that I don’t actually experience this event firsthand.”

GoPro’s Hero2 HD camera ( is a fab solution to both problems. You’ve seen them on reality shows, usually strapped to the forehead of Mike Rowe or Adam Savage as they’re about to something spectacularly dangerous, and/or wet and dirty. They’re fantastically flexible little super-wide-angle cameras in housings that are waterproof and nearly indestructible. They can shoot full HD video nonstop for as long as their batteries or their memory cards hold out. If you use them shrewdly, that can be hours. They also have a 10 megapixel still photo mode that can take snapshots at timed intervals ranging from seconds to minutes. In this timed still mode, the battery can last practically all day.

The GoPro camera has a big library of wearable accessory mounts. Wearing it on a headband yields a satisfying “You Are There”-style record of the event, but it’s a bit overt. Instead, an arm band, or a chest harness, will capture an uninterrupted stream throughout the day, with a modicum of discretion. It makes a valuable contribution if you never actually aim it at anything. You get home, you pop the memory card, you spend 10 minutes scrolling through a thousand photos, and you’ll spot the 20 “right there in the moment” shots that justified the purchase.

GoPro cameras are not terribly expensive, either — $299 gets you a Hero2 in a variety of mounting packages.

There you have it. We may never march in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, but every summer we take part in lots of events where we want to get photos but we don’t want the photography to dominate our experience. With a little planning and the right gear, you can have real memories of a once-in-a-lifetime event, plus a nice collection of photos for your walls (both Living Room and Facebook).

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