8 March 2019
The value of simplicity in travel photography
Richard Johnston’s December 2018 PetaPixel piece about travel photography and gear was a bit jarring to me. It wasn’t so much because I disagreed with him in a general sense (on a few points, I didn't), but because I believe he sent the wrong message to people who may be new to travel and/or new to travel photography. I would still encourage you to have a look at the article because there is some useful info in there, but Johnston’s strongest message seemed to be that one must travel with a metric ton of equipment to be a “good photographer”. I think that’s unfortunate because it’s misleading and will ultimately create headaches for people who want their travels to return both great experiences and great photos. I’m not talking about people traveling as professional photographers because that’s a different animal. Rather, I’m referring to people who are traveling for exploration and enjoyment who are also photographers.
Many readers offered up valid criticisms of the article’s shortcomings immediately after Johnston’s piece was posted. To me, above all, the article fails to even begin to acknowledge the value of simplicity in travel and travel photography. It’s as though Johnston couldn’t see how one could travel with less and still be a photographer. Surprisingly few comments pointed out that Johnston’s approach was just too complicated and cumbersome for many people.
The image Johnston included of his collection of travel-associated photographic gear made my back hurt (Fig 1). I found myself thinking about just how much weight and bulk was presented in that image and started systematically checking off what I was looking at.
Fig. 1. The backache (aka, Richard Johnston’s travel kit). Complete with paper manuals!
My analysis of Johnston’s kit produced a strong polarization of go/no-go items. Some are absolutes (drone, I'm talking about you) and some are sort of stand-by (like the full-size tripod). Items marked "No" with an asterisk are “special needs only” items, in my opinion; they are situational and would be left off of my travel list 90% of the time (Fig 1).
First off, I don’t currently do any drone photography/videography, so I cannot (should not) try to wade too far in on that subject. However, I can honestly say that if my purpose was travel for my own enjoyment and not to make a set of drone videos under contract, I am pretty sure I would not take a full-size drone on most trips. I might take a small drone, like a Parrot, but nothing bigger. Of course, if my travels were 100% by car and I didn’t have to carry the drone too far from said car, a big drone would be fine. It just depends on the situation.
Moving on from drones, I will speak to photography and videography of other sorts. There is still a lot to consider here.
Quality is not necessarily sacrificed by simplicity. I’ve now said it and I want to emphasize this first and foremost. A decade (or more, now) ago, that might not have been true with much of the digital equipment available. However, today, there are ample choices of compact photography tools that can deliver incredible results. In my travel lineup, I’m typically going APS-C, but on several occasions I have slimmed down to just a single high-end compact and my phone and have not regretted the decision (there are exceptions – please read on). If one needs the light gathering ability of the 135 format sensor (or something even bigger), by all means go for it, but for many travelers, APS-C, m4/3 and even 1” sensor-based cameras will be more than adequate. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’m going down the middle here. Yes, there is a tradeoff between versatility and quality in a limited selection of tools one takes on the road, but it may not be as severe as some would like you to believe.
So what does my typical travel photography gear lineup look like? I have to say that it is extremely variable depending upon where I’m traveling to, what things I want to capture and how I will be transported to the location and around the location once I get there. And, of course, it also depends on what I’m going to do with the photos later on.
Here are three versions of my travel photography packing list:
APS-C DSLR with:
18-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom, 35 mm f/2.4 prime, 24 mm f/2.8 prime, 1x spare camera battery, Small manual strobe (mostly for fill), Optical slave trigger, Memory cards (4x), Mini-tripod Magnesium alloy tripod with ball head, Circular polarizer, ND Grads (3x), Filter holder, Compact camera, 13” Notebook PC, Charger(s), Cords and cables, Rocket blower.
Total weight: ~20 lbs
APS-C MILC with:
18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS “kit” lens, 10-17 mm f/3.5-4.5 fisheye zoom, 70-210 mm f/4-5.8 zoom, PKA-E-mount adapter, MD-E-mount adapter, Circular polarizer, Achromatic close-up lens, 2x spare batteries, Mini-tripod, Memory cards (4x), Mobile phone, 13” Notebook PC, Li Ion USB charger pack, Cables, Charger(s).
Total weight: ~ 12 lbs
Compact Camera with:
Li Ion USB charger pack, Mini-tripod, Chargers (one with USB output to phone, Li ion pack or camera), Memory cards (2x), Mobile phone, 13” Notebook PC.
Total Weight: ~ 6 lbs
Fig. 2. Three versions of my travel photography kit. Leaner. Lighter. Happier.
Here are some examples of my own real-world, travel-with-photography experiences.
A week on the road in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota found me in cities very little and on hiking trails very little; I was pretty much in or near the car for most it. For that trip, I packed just about the most I ever travel with when I fly to a destination (Fig 2, left panel). This level of equipment carry (yes, sans drone) is second only to a trip without the need for flight. What I mean is, if I were doing the same trip without getting on an airplane, the 18-300 would be replaced with three zooms covering the 10 mm to 300 mm range, three primes, a dedicated macro lens, two strobes, etc. Hell, I might even be tempted to take a drone (if I had one).
Recently, I spent a week in the mountains of Andalusia. That trip was a mix of urban, architecture and extensive backcountry hiking with a desire to photograph landscapes and some macro subjects. I needed to fit everything into a 20 liter day pack (with other items, like clothing, food and water). All of the photography items I used on this trip to Spain are in Fig 2, middle panel, and I can honestly say the collection was exactly what I needed for the trip.
Alternatively, for a recent work-related trip to Helsinki, I had limited space and no easy way to secure my camera while working. For that trip, I had to go ultra-light and only carried my compact camera and my phone with a few accessory items (Fig 2, right panel). Yes, it was a stretch to only have the compact and the phone. If I had wanted to do very much low light photography, the choice of a compact would not have been so good and it was the space where I really felt the biggest challenge when I was using the compact. But the truth is, I didn’t have too many regrets as long as I remembered to work within the confines of the instruments I had with me. I am happy with the majority of the images (Fig. 3). I have no regrets about the decision to travel so light.
Fig. 3. A bit of Helsinki captured by Lumix LF1.
My point to all of this is simply that, while it is true that the needs of each photographer may be different, all but the most specific photography often requires much less gear than what Johnston and a lot of others suggest. Sometimes, it will require more, in fact. But, there are few things more miserable than letting your gear dictate your travel options and comfort.
I strongly urge you to really weigh out your choices before and after you travel. And, when you get home, have a look at all of the gear you brought and ask yourself it was worth the effort to take each and every piece. If the answer is “no” for any item of gear, then consider removing it from the lineup. The same goes with the items you didn’t take and actually wished you had brought. Think about including them next time or working on alternative strategies which may give similar results (e.g. a table top tripod vs a full-size tripod).
Make a list of useful items and keep it on standby for easy packing.
Thank you for reading and Happy Travels!
1 March 2019
In Focus Returns! -and- Another encounter with a strange beast
Finally, I have resolved to simply create a new page for 2019 entries and archive the previous pages individually. We'll see how this works. Thank you to all of those who've checked in regularly to see if In-Focus would continue or fade into the distance.
On to the new stuff!
If one has a casual look on Ebay, one will find hundreds of examples of 35mm f/1.7 CCTV lenses for sale. The majority of these have been manufactured in China and carry names like Fujian, Fotasy, or SainSonic. There are countless examples of images and videos reviewing the use of these lenses online. While I have seen some interesting images produced using lenses of this sort, I have never been moved to buy anything of the “CCTV” persuasion simply because I thought it was kind of silly.
Shortly before Christmas I found a Fujinon (not to be confused with Fujian) HF35A-2M1, 35mm, f/1.7 CCTV lens for sale locally for just €10. Made in Japan and without so much as a scratch anywhere on it, how could I possibly refuse?
The Fujinon HF35A-2M1, f/1.7 CCTV lens in situ on a NEX-6
I had no idea if the lens I bought could 1) reach infinity focus on a mirrorless camera (i.e., was it C-mount or CS-mount?), 2) cover an APS-C image sensor, and 3) return anything worthy of the 10 quid I just dropped on it. Worse yet, I still had to buy a C-mount to E-mount adapter which ended up setting me back another 10 quid.
Cutting to the chase; 1) yes, the lens will focus to infinity on an E-mount camera provided one uses an adapter which allows the chubby lens body to actually enter the throat of the lens mount, 2) no, it will not completely cover the image sensor (worse at some focus distances and f-stops than others) and it does create massive vignetting and significant out-of-focus areas at the edge of the image, and 3) yes, it is absolutely worth the €20 investment I made!
The fit and finish of the Fujinon HF35A is very good. Even if I didn’t know it was specifically made for a CCTV application, I would still find this lens’ silky focus action and precise aperture control feel about as appealing as many of the manual focus consumer SLR and rangefinder primes I’ve used. This little lens, which has C-mount flange-to-sensor spacing, has a general look and feel of quality.
I can sum up my initial feelings like this: I got a quirky, sometimes sharp, and undeniably “motivational” performer for my cash outlay. So far, I cannot possibly deny that I enjoy using the Fujinon 35mm f/1.7 lens, but I cannot, of course, recommend it for more than truly experimental photography since it is so quirky.
Here are some examples of what this little beast can do.
Fujinon 35 mm f/1.7 @ ~f/5.6 on a NEX-6
Curiously, the degree of sensor cover varies by the focus distance set. This is due to the rear element's position shift. The degree of blur at the edges of the frame can be either distracting or enhancing to the subject. Your mileage may vary.
The central detail of this lens can be incredibly sharp, but the focus plane is decidedly spherical which creates some interesting and sometimes frustrating challenges at large aperture settings. At f1.7-f/2.8, the image has a very strong vignette on top of the masked-corners caused by the incomplete sensor coverage.