Hello, my name is Martin Berry and the last time I owned a camera, “digital” was something to be found in your flash mate at school’s watch and pretty much nowhere else. So when I announced that my girlfriend Claire and I were embarking on a hitchhike to Morocco for charity, could I please borrow a camera, I was quite surprised that the answer was yes!
I’d like to point out that I am no more Michael Palin than I am David Bailey, and that my idea of a good way to spend a couple of weeks off work used involving beer, my Xbox 360 and Star Wars (yes, all at the same time). Hitchhiking was Claire’s idea. It is for a good cause, though, the hitch to Morocco being a yearly event organised by Link Community Development – we’re still raising money for them now (hint, hint).
Having fielded a plethora of questions relating to my mental well-being, I managed to get my hands on a brand-spanking new Canon PowerShot SX 200 IS. It probably says a lot about my knowledge of cameras prior to this trip that when it arrived my first thought was “Ooh, it’s black. That’s nice”. I was keen to point out that this would be a very basic review; little said of ISO, shutter speed, exposure, all that jazz. Luckily the response was, “That’s fine, we want to see how easy this camera is to use by a novice”. That’d be me then.
After much preparation and a few arguments, which I’m still apologising for now, Claire and I set off at around 8.30am on Sunday 19th April, the laughter of Radio 1’s Chappers & Dave still ringing in our ears. At this point the idea of hitching 1600 miles through France and Spain to a continent I’d never visited had yet to work its charms on me, and having my text request for a good luck shout-out translated as “Good luck to Martin & Claire, hitchhiking to Morocco – they’ve made it as far as Norwich” for the amusement of several million listeners was not helping. However, about three hours and two lifts later we were in Worthing on the south coast, imbued with a new-found optimism and all kinds of positivity regarding the generosity of strangers, and I thought I’d better get the camera out.
If I learnt one thing on this trip, other than the aforementioned life lesson about how nice people can be to nutters stood at the side of the road waving signs, it’s that France and Spain are much, much prettier than England, or at least the parts of England I took photographs of. Both we and our cousins across La Manche boast a population of about 60 million, but they have twice as much land to play with, so there’s an awful lot more natural scenery to get yer auto-focus around. Besides, it wasn’t until we got to the very pretty overgrown dockyard that is Portsmouth that I got to grips with the camera’s various features.
Now, I did warn you that this was going to be a beginner’s review, but the first thing that struck me was the clarity of the screen. I remember turning it on and thinking “blimey, this is sharp.” More useful to know is that it fires up with remarkable speed; none of this whirring, clicking, thinking about it and turning on just after the shot you wanted has vanished. Literally a click of the power button and it’s ready to go. Very useful when your girlfriend has run the battery down trying to photograph the entirety of the Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech and you’re trying to conserve power by keeping it turned off…
We got an overnight ferry (I know this is cheating, but if you want to try hitchhiking across the English Channel, be my guest) into the disappointingly misty French town of Le Havre. Not much in the way of photographic opportunities, I’m afraid. We didn’t have much luck on our first day, taking 8 hitches – half as many as the average to get all the way to Morocco in 2008, according to Link – just to get to Le Mans, about quarter of the way to the Spanish border. The next day we were more fortunate, making it to Poitiers by early afternoon, where we erred in spectacular fashion by hiking up the road to find a good hitch spot… for about 10 miles. On the upside, the stretch of Autoroute we walked along (if you’re a French law enforcement officer, we absolutely did not do this) was surrounded by some very pretty chances to practice with this fabulous bit of kit.
The one feature that really stood out about the Canon PowerShot SX 200 is the zoom. Absolutely phenomenal images at the maximum focal length, it really is amazing just how much detail you can get of distant objects. This does lead to a great number of pictures which are clearly not interesting enough to have warranted the use of this zoom turning up on your memory card at the end of the holiday. More useful, if I’m honest, is the much less obtrusive Image Stabilisation. This much-vaunted feature helped me return some amazingly clear pictures, and I can assure you it wasn’t down to individual skill. The auto-focus is also extremely sharp and quick, and only when I tried fiddling about with the Macro function did I lose the excellent clarity of image.
We compounded our error with the 10-mile hike by camping overnight in a truck stop in an attempt to get a lift from a long-distance lorry driver going south, ideally all the way to Spain. Eventually a very nice Portuguese couple offered us a sandwich, coffee and a lift to Bordeaux. We know now that they were very nice, but at the time we just had to hope they were, as there wasn’t enough room in their cab for us as well as them, so we were locked in the back of the lorry with thousands of potatoes. You know that phrase “you couldn’t make it up”? I understand that now. We spent the journey consoling ourselves that we wouldn’t go hungry, and considering the driver’s suggestion that Claire’s blonde hair would allow me to fetch a very high price for her in Morocco; as much as four camels even.
The next real opportunity for testing the camera came when we were in the foothills of the Pyrenees, some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever been fortunate enough to encounter. It was also at this point that I encountered the hitchhiking photographer’s curse: your shots are only as good as the windscreen you’re looking through. And unfortunately, Spain has a disproportionately high number of two things; windfarms (hardly relevant) and midges. Not that it stopped me from trying to photograph every last bit of stunning topography we passed, but whilst the Image Stabilisation can compensate impressively for speeds of over 140kmph, there’s not much it can do to create a patch of windscreen free of the remnants of several unlucky insects.
Consequently it was in Zaragoza, Toledo, Sevilla and eventually Marrakech that I got to grips with some of the other very easy-to-use features of the Canon PowerShot SX 200 compact digital camera. The three Spanish cities are all absolutely stunning and offered plenty of chances to create some spectacularly vivid memories in 12.1 mega pixels. The interface on the camera is thankfully very user-friendly, the dial allowing easy access to the use of flash, self-timer, manual focus and aperture, which previously I only knew about in theory. Allowing more or less light through the lens is presumably very useful for professionals; for me it was more of a “ooh, look at the difference!” feature, but nonetheless a fun one. The amount of detail in the images I took is fantastic, and the aperture was useful for highlighting this while stood in the shadow of Sevilla’s magnificent cathedral.
Morocco came as something of a culture shock, to put it mildly. To give you an example, I’m one of those drivers who treat the white lines in the middle of the road as a rule, rather than a guideline. In Spain, they’ve moved on to treating them as decoration. In Marrakech, the lines have mostly been done away with, presumably because drivers began seeing them as a challenge; a game of “lets see how many of these we can collect”. There’s never a dull moment in crossing the road. If you can cope with that, the labyrinth of narrow streets that would make the most dauntless cartographer blanche, the baking heat, the scooters and bikes that come racing past you in the winding lanes barely wide enough for three people to walk abreast, the fact that being European means that everyone is trying to sell you something, and the smell persistently reminding you that the city’s horses have a lack of adequate toilet facilities, there’s some great opportunities to whip out your Canon and snap away.
Marrakech comes alive as the sun sets, so it would have been remiss of me not to make use of the appropriate feature. If I’m honest, the difference between Portrait, Landscape, Kids & Pets was somewhat lost on me. I imagine that if you invested your hard-earned cash in the camera and determined to get your money’s worth by spending months photographing a wide variety of subjects it’d be more apparent, but to a novice like me spending twelve days taking mostly pictures of countryside, it wasn’t anything to write home about. The sunset and night settings on the other hand were fantastic, allowing me to capture the vibrant Jemaa El-Fna square as the snake-charmers packed up for fear of losing their charges in the gloom (which is obviously not a terrifying prospect at all), and made way for the food stalls and musicians. The way in which the camera enriched the beautiful shades of dusk in Morocco made for some of my favourite images of the trip.
However, the mode which saw the most use was the Macro feature, in our aforementioned trip to the Majorelle Gardens. At this point Claire was getting her artistic eye in, so I just handed her the camera and let her run wild (metaphorically), taking in some of the remarkable textures of the cacti we saw. The gardens are named after their designer, expatriate French artist Jacques Majorelle, and boast a shade of blue also named after him in abundant display. Once again the PowerShot SX200 impressed me with its ability to capture colours. There was a lot to see but it rose to the challenge admirably, the Macro shots being especially vivid. This was also the only time during our expedition that the battery ran low, which is no criticism as Claire was really putting it through its paces. We didn’t charge it more than once every three or four nights – power points are surprisingly hard to come by when you’re camped in a truck stop – so I can recommend that the battery will last about a day of consistent shooting, or several days of infrequent use.
While I was struggling to think of a conclusion for this review, we were reviewing the 500+ pictures from our trip and our housemate Bethan inferred that this camera takes all the skill out of getting decent photographs. As it happens, I agree entirely, because I’ve got some gorgeous pictures despite a complete lack of photographic expertise. The best thing I can say about the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS is that you can expect amazing results with little or no experience of cameras. And when you’re planning a trip down through Europe to Africa with no timescales other than those presented to you by lady luck, you can’t say fairer than that.
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