The Ideal Travel Kit

— PART 1 —-

THE IDEAL CAMERA DEFINED

Just what is the ‘ideal camera’?

The very un-sensational answer is… that “it depends“.

Primarily, it depends upon the intended use.

The camera is, after all, a tool.  And that old adage ‘the right tool for the right job’ applies to the craft of photography just as it does to carpentry.

Have you ever tried to hammer a nail into the wall using (the handle of) a saw?  Have you tried cutting wood using a hammer??  I have.

MACGYVERISM

I’ve ‘improvised’ in many such situations – sometimes because I’ve had to, other times because I was too lazy to go get the proper tool, and yes, sometimes because I was inspired by a sense of ‘MacGyverism’.

It’s fun to think that a piece of chewing gum can fix that broken faucet, or that you can repair an electrical short with nothing more than aluminum foil, and a rubber band… or that you can disarm a bomb using a paper clip and iPhone ear buds… but, generally speaking, such things work much, much better in TV-land (perhaps bubble gum isn’t regulated by the FDA there).

macgyver-oil-spill-e1277726298939

Don’t get my wrong – the ability to improvise is a great (and sometimes necessary) thing!  But I think many would agree that experience has taught us that using the right tool, in the right way, typically increases your chances of success for any given undertaking, while also decreasing the level of frustration associated with ‘carrying out your mission’.  In fact, the right tools and the know-how can often mean the difference between ‘work’ and ‘fun’ or even ‘passion’.

With this fundamental principal in mind, and an upcoming vacation close at hand, I set about thinking what my ‘ideal travel camera’ would be.

THE CRITERIA LIST

This is the list of criteria that I came up with:

1) The kit must be small and light – I tend to do a *lot* of walking/hiking on vacation and a small, light kit is essential!

2) The camera must provide good IQ – ‘good IQ’ is certainly subjective. For me, most of my travel photos are for personal use only and never seen by anyone but close family and friends, but I must be able to make 16×20 prints at a minimum. Also, I’d like to have the ability to sell an image to a stock or other agency if I so choose. I’d also like some ‘crop-ability’.  Here I feel 14MP is about as low as I could go, with 24MP or 36MP being preferred.

3) The kit must have ‘travel lenses’ – I may consider an all-in-one Travel Zoom some day (ie. 24-180mm) but I haven’t found one I’m quite happy with yet.  For this reason my preference is a 3-lens travel kit consisting of a) a wide angle 18-35mm, b) a 70-200mm telephoto zoom  and c) a good, fast 35 or 50mm prime.

4) The camera must be good in low light – this requirement may be somewhat unique based on my style/preference of shooting.  As someone who enjoy low-light and night photography this is important to me.

Vancouver at night
Vancouver at night

THE AGE-OLD DILEMMA

Already I can see some ‘challenges’ with this list.

For example, “good in low light” would ideally mean a large-ish full-frame camera… yet “small and light” is a key requirement.

I’d like a 70-200mm lens… yet again, many of those lenses are large and heavy (and not something I’d want to carry on an 8 hour hike!)

How to cope with this dilemma, this size/IQ trade-off, is the crux of an age-old problem that has plagued travelers for centuries. Surely Magellan debated whether to take the small quadrant, or the large one? The mini compasses or the big, heavy ones? Whether 10 compass needles would be enough or whether he should take 15?  or 20??

retro-nautical-compass-6321161

THE SOLUTION

In the end I can’t say that the kit I took was the ideal one, only that it worked for me.  And that there’s lots of room for improvement, which I’m already thinking about.

I’ve used up my word count for today (I’m trying not to make the posts too long!) but if you’re interested in knowing what gear I ended up taking, as well as some of the experiences I had with it (what performed well and what didn’t) please check out the next post (The Ideal Travel Kit – Part 2) which should be out within the next week.

Thanks for dropping by. Enjoy your summer and if you’re travelling, I wish you all the best on your journeys – travel well, travel light!

Tic Tac Toe - 3 Red Umbrellas In A Row
Tic Tac Toe – 3 Red Umbrellas In A Row
My What A Big Head You Have!
My What A Big Head You Have!

DSC09736

Thank You For Perching In Front Of A Backdrop
Thank You For Perching In Front Of A Backdrop

DSC09915

— PART 2 —–

As a nation subjected to 7 months of cold, grey, wet, ‘character building’ winter, Canadians pine for the Sun’s caress… and to feel the soft, gentle breeze of summer on (for those like me) our luminescent, paste-white skin (fact: post-winter Canadian skin was the inspiration for Onionskin paper)

The final ring of the school dismissal bell (with Alice Cooper blasting in the background) signals the beginning… and soon the quintessential sounds of summer can be heard in households across the nation: Mario Karts roaring from gaming systems; Boy Bands blaring from iPod docks; and repeat episode kid’s TV shows, which sadly you can recite the dialogue to, playing through the surround sound.

It’s a philosophical time where, upon reflection, most parents conclude that it is, in fact, Autumn that is the most beautiful time of year. It’s then that Canadians pine for the cool nights and vibrant colours of Fall…

After the start of summer and before the Autumn however comes… Vacation!

Note: for those unfamiliar with the family vacation ritual I highly recommend the documentary: ‘Vacation’ by National Lampoon.

And that brings us to the point of this post – the ideal Travel / Vacation (photo) Kit… Part 2!

RE-CAP

Last time I was going over my selection process for finding the ‘ideal travel kit’, highlighting my requirement for a system with amazing low light capability… that can shoot fast action… offers top-notch IQ, and has a good selection of lenses including a wide angle, fast prime, and 70-200 (or better yet, 300mm) zoom.  Oh, and did I mention – I don’t want to carry this system in a backpack or shoulder bag… or even a large waist pack. Instead, I’ll just carry it all in this tiny little lens pouch please and thank-you.

In trying to make the blog more ‘photocentric’ and less ‘wordy’ I split the post into two-part. The story continues…

THE SOLUTION

As it turns out, no one kit was able to ‘check all the boxes’. Quelle surprise! Who woulda thought, right?

So – I took two kits:

1) the (relatively) small/light Sony A7 with 28-70mm, Raynox .66 conversion lens, 35mm f2.8, and 55mm f1.8

2) the diminutive Nikon1 V2 with 18-35mm, 50mm, and 70-300mm (full frame equivalent focal lengths)

Each day/outing I would choose which one of the two kits to take depending on the days’ activities, and the other would remain behind in the hotel room.

The complete Nikon1 kit fit entirely in my small Skin50 pouch (which is actually intended to be a lens pouch!)

The Sony I would carry around my neck (it’s weather sealed) with the lenses fitting comfortably in the pouch.

COMMENTS ON THE GEAR

THE THINK TANK SKIN50 POUCH

Skin-50-V20--1

The Think Tank Skin 50 is really a lens pouch.  It’ll hold two medium-to-large sized lenses (ie. a wide and standard zoom with hoods)… or in the case of smaller, mirrlorless system – much more! It also has sections to store the lens cap, spare battery, memory cards, etc.  The small zippered compartment on the bottom holds a rain cover (which comes included – nice!)

The pouch is part of Think Tank’s ‘modular system’ and can be used with the Think Tank belt and with other accessories. However, I just use it with a regular belt (usually the wide, soft fabric belt that comes with my cargo shorts).  It has a nice, wide, rigid, Velcro flap that allows it to quickly and easily attach/detach to the belt. It retails for about $40.

The Skin50 holds my Nikon V2… with long 70-300mm (equiv.) lens attached… 50mm… and 18-35mm (and I can even squeeze in the 80mm if I like!) It holds the entire kit. Nothing in my hands. Nothing strung around my neck. Everything in the bag.

It will even hold my 3-lens Sony ‘walk-about’ kit: the A7, 28-70mm, 35mm, and 55mm… though that would be a little crowded.  So I typically sling the Sony camera around my neck and use the pouch for everything else.

It’s a great pouch and I love it!

Did I mention that I love this pouch?

THE SONY A7 KIT

A7 with 55mm f1.8
A7 with 55mm f1.8

The A7 is my ‘go-to’ camera for low light and night photography.  The A7S looks pretty sweet – but I can’t afford to purchase it as a 2nd (3rd if you count the D700) full frame body – and I like to have some ‘crop-ability’ so the A7’s 24MPs positions it nicely between the A7S (12MP) and A7R (36MP) for my use.

I’m anxiously awaiting Sony’s release of the wide-angle lens for this camera and will likely add that to my travel kit. I’m happy with the 28-70mm (a very under-rated lens!) so haven’t decided if it’s worth the money to me to upgrade to the Zeiss 24-70mm.

The Sony 70-200mm G series lens is a very nice lens – but too big and heavy for many of my travels.  In fact, on long hikes I’d even be willing to try something like a 24-135mm as the work-horse lens (if it can be made small)

How could I get-by with only 135mm at the long end?  Because I have no fear of using (when needed) Sony’s ‘Clear Zoom’ feature which effectively doubles the focal length (in this example to 270mm).

Shoot jpeg?? Digital zoom?! ‘Sacrilege’ you say!

Really, this ‘isn’t your Grandfather’s digital zoom’ – it’s different. Clear zoom does interpolating, and a surprisingly OK job of it IMHO – give it a try and you might be surprised. If I shot a lot at 300mm I’d use a (300mm) lens but for occasional/vacation use I think I’d be OK sacrificing RAW+optical for JPEG+clear zoom to reduce the size of the kit, leaving the long lens at home.

The Raynox .66x conversion lens was a bust – it fits the 28-70mm with only a little vignetting at the wide end but is far too soft along the edges.

No complaints about the (35mm & 55mm) primes.  There’s really nothing to say about them other then that they are excellent (especially the 55mm).

WHERE IT SHINES

When shooting low-light or night (such as at the Vancouver Look-Out tower at night) I noticed a lot of other travel photographers with their large DSLR and large travel zoom lenses attached. They were shooting hand-held.  That’s understandable – I wouldn’t want to bring a tripod on vacation either, and some places simply don’t allow them. But as I heard the click… pause… pause… pause… click of their shutter/mirror slap I could’t help but wonder how those long-ish hand-held exposures would turn out.  My guess is, that unfortunately, those shooters might be disappointed with the results.

By contrast, the A7’s small size, light weight, and tilt LCD allowed me to place it on a small rail, or wedge it between the window and the ledge, essentially creating an ‘improvised tripod’ in places and in ways that others simply couldn’t with their larger and heavier DSLRs. I also used the in-camera multi-frame noise reduction modes when shooting handheld – it does a decent job in low-light in the right conditions.

Vancouver's 'Canada Place' (with the white sails roof) at night
Vancouver’s ‘Canada Place’ (with the white sails roof) at night (Sony A7)

THE NIKON1 V2 KIT

nikon_1_v2_12

As mentioned, not only can I fit an entire Nikon1 kit in a small lens pouch, but it’s a pretty damn ‘complete’ kit at that. A wide-angle, a fast prime or two, and a long telephoto.  My focal lengths are nicely covered! An entire kit in a lens pouch… it still sounds so weird when I say it out loud.

Yes, I know, I know… ‘1″ sensor’.

It has its drawbacks (low light) but… it also has its advantages. After-all, it’s the 1″ sensor that allows the design of a telephoto zoom that is both physically small, yet optically long.

But size isn’t its only advantage.

It’s also fast. Very Fast! I mean F-A-S-T, all in upper-case, followed by 3 exclamation marks fast!!!

WHERE IT SHINES

When shooting action (such as the ‘Raptor’ bird show at Grouse Mountain, BC… or the Dolphin Show at the Vancouver Aquarium) I noticed a lot of photographers using their DSLR with 70-200mm f2.8 who where, at times, struggling a little to get the shot.

It was the focus and the timing that they were having trouble with in those scenarios. I saw several trying to grab focus on the Golden Eagle or Great Horned Owl in flight, or the Dolphins mid-jump – trying (hoping?) to catch that one perfect moment – that frame where these awe-inspiring noble creatures are at the peak of motion demonstrating their natural athletic prowess. The Dolphin Show was especially challenging as their motion and actions were particularly un-predictable. And they swim surprisingly fast! Most of the photographers where using single shot. A couple were shooting continuous… what sounded to be about 5 or 6 frames per second maybe.

Many looked to see what camera I was using, as they saw (heard) me there, tracking the action and shooting with a machine-gun like tat-tat-tat-tat-tat -tat-tat-tat-tat 15 fps. The focus acquisition is fast. The frame rate is fast. Combined, this makes the little Nikon1 a real speed demon!!

I have very little experience shooting action, and I need to be much better in my technique and in choosing the correct shutter speeds. But here I feel confident that with action photography the limitation is me – not the camera (*at least outdoors in good light – the Nikon1 does of course struggle in low light).

Proof that dolphins are smarter than humans - they do backflops instead of bellyflops.
Proof that dolphins are smarter than humans – they do backflops instead of bellyflops (Nikon1 V2)

THE DUAL SYSTEM IS BEST FOR ME

DSLR – A DSLR (and associated lenses) would of course be too big/heavy for what I’m looking for (plus I’m sold on the benefits of mirrorless).

APS-C, ETC  – Anything smaller than a full-frame sensor (APS-C, m4/3, 1″) and I’d be giving up some much beloved low light capability.

FF + 1″ – So ultimately the 2-kit system (Full Frame A7 + 1″ Nikon1) gave me the ‘best of both worlds’ and worked well for me this time!

WHAT IF I HAD TO PICK JUST ONE (FOR TRAVEL)?

My goal is to ultimately travel lighter. Eventually, I plan to settle on one travel system (not one system only, just one system for travel)

In theory, and given time, if Sony were to bring their super-fast AF to the next iteration of the A7 (Sony A8?), release the wide-angle lens which is on their roadmap, and offer a smaller (collapsible?) telephoto zoom it would be an almost perfect travel set-up.

If I had to choose today… some compromises would need to be made.

NIKON1 or A7?

Thinking about what the Nikon1 offers (speed, telephoto) and does best – Birds In Flight, Wildlife, and Action photography – these all look fun, and are things I’d like to explore more!

But none of these are really my preferred genre or style. The fact that these are interesting and very popular areas of photography, combined with the Nikon1’s small size, may make the One System the ideal travel companion for many people. It’s just not the ideal one for me.

What the A7 offers is very different – great low-light capability and overall image IQ. Moody land or city-scapes, atmospheric shots, twilight shots, night photography… these are the genres that appeal most to me personally. And that’s why I’d choose the A7 over the Nikon1.

*Update: I forgot to mention that, with its discreet nature, small size, speed, and lens offerings that the Nikon1 also excels at documentary/photojournalist type work (a genre also of interest to me). If I were anticipating doing this type of shooting, I’d choose the Nikon1.

Travel + Low Light = Sony A7

Travel + Documentary = Nikon 1

WHAT IF I HAD TO PICK JUST ONE… FOR EVERYTHING!

Luckily, I don’t! I like shooting with the A7 and Nikon1 because both are pretty good at what they do. Want a camera that is small and fast? The Nikon1 in your man! Want a camera that is small and offers the benefits of full frame (with interchangeable lenses) – the Sony A7 it is! The two cameras compliment each other nicely.

But if I had to choose one system… not just one system for travel but one system for everything,  then common sense dictates that a less extreme, and a more well-rounded solution would be the best choice.

I’d likely end-up with an APS-C based camera (I don’t want to give up too much low light performance)… or possibly a m 4/3.  Ideally with both good low light performance (that being the prime consideration) and fast(rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat) AF (being a secondary consideration). A small size and good lens selection is the base ‘price of entry’ for consideration here – with most APS-C system being somewhat mature.

Good low light and fast AF?  That sounds like the ‘love child’ of the A7 and Nikon1 so-to-speak!

The Sony A6000 is likely that camera.

Or… if video isn’t too important, possibly a Fuji X with its great lens line-up.

As it is though, I’m happy with the dual kit system (Full Frame + 1″) for now, and with at least a full year before my next vacation I’m excited to see what the future brings!

Vancouver Nights
Vancouver Nights (Sony A7)
Mom and baby seal in Vancouver harbour (Nikon 1)
Mom and baby seal in Vancouver harbour (Nikon 1)
A Big Grizzly (glad to have 300mm reach here) Nikon1 V2
A Big Grizzly (glad to have 300mm reach here) Nikon1 V2
NOT Seattle
NOT Seattle
Sony A7
Sony A7
Nikon1 V2
Nikon1 V2
I tend to prefer colour night images (but occasionally do B&W)
I tend to prefer colour night images (but occasionally do B&W)
Landing Gear Down (Nikon 1 V2)
Landing Gear Down (Nikon 1 V2)
Nikon1 V2
Nikon1 V2
Sony A7
Sony A7
Sony A7
Sony A7

3 thoughts on “The Ideal Travel Kit

  1. Jan

    Very cool. Nice photos and sane philosophy. And as always, in a world of Nikon1-haters: I find a bit of sanity refreshing.

    That said, I am slowly losing patience waiting for the 1-system to become usable for low light. And I think I might want that capability sooner rather than later.

    So, I guess I’m curious about the replacement for the rx-1. I can’t help thinking that it will be a pretty special camera when it comes to market (very soon, methinks). Curved sensor and all, and supposedly with a very small and compact lens.

    Any thoughts? Will it give the A7 + 35mm (and perhaps even the 55mm) a run for its money?

    Jan

  2. Thanks Jan – yes, I’ve been looking forward the the RX-2 as well!

    One of my first cameras growing up was the Minolta Hi-Matic E – a rangefinder with a fixed, 40mm f1.7 lens. It was a great camera and lots of fun! In a way, the RX-1 feels like the successor to the Hi-Matic E.

    My bet is that the IQ will be stellar, just like the RX1 (with high IQ being the ‘hallmark’ of this series) and some say it *might* even be small enough to fit into pants pockets. If that’s the case, it will be very special indeed!

    I expect it’ll beat the A7 + 35mm f2.8 easily… though not sure it’ll surpass the A7 +55mm (I just think it’s the general nature for 50mm optics to out-perform 35mm optics) but it does make me wonder if they’ll also offer a 50mm RX2 in future…

    My ‘ideal’ would be a 40mm (just like the Hi-Matic) – but I realize that 35mm and 50mm are the much more popular / marketable lenses today. 🙂

    It’s going to be an exciting fall / Photokina!

  3. Pingback: Wildlife Photography Tips INayan Hazra Photography -Flashbacks of a Fool

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