— 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.
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).
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.
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??
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!
— 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!
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…
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
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
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.
THE NIKON1 V2 KIT
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).
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!