6.28.2010

My friends are packing. Not heat. Cameras.

Summer vacation at Barton Springs Pool. Austin, Texas  (Sony R1 camera).

I'm the last person to tell someone not to buy gear.  I'm like the guy at the buffet table who likes everything and I'm always trying to slide it on my plate.  But even though I'm well stocked and hitting buffet table over and over again I'm not trying to slide the table thru the door and onto a plane.  Because I've been there and it's not pretty.  At some point in the parabola of passion that is photography we get the notion that we've got to have everything "covered".    Simple but insidious concept.  Like mold in that air conditioning evaporator pipe.  "Covered" means the inventory grows as you discover new stuff that fills in gaps you didn't even know you had before.  "Covered", when it comes to lenses means you've got zoom lenses and prime lenses that stretch to supply a focal length at every degree from 5 to 180.   If you are truly "covered" in the brainwash sense of the word then you've got the widest and longest lenses offered by your camera company of choice and no unavoidable gaps in the focal length continuum.

I know that no one intends to take every lens they own when they go on vacation but even to be "covered" from 14-200 means some hefty poundage.  Especially if you are partial to the f2.8 constant aperture zooms from Nikon and Canon or the f2.0 constant aperture zooms from Olympus.  I maintain that thru practice you could generally find three individual focal lengths that will do everything you really want and provide other benefits as well.  I am reminded that, for decades, the holy trinity of primes was something like: 28mm, 50mm and 105mm.  If you were a minimalist Leica shooter it was probably either 28mm and 50mm or the 35mm and the 90mm.  The zoom (r)evolution gives use more flexibility but at the cost of having to become a porter for the gear.

But as bad as the lens choice dilemma is the body conundrum may be worse.  And it's more insidious because in so many ways it's an intersection of conflicting benefits and detractions.  To that point, I have a friend who is a Nikon shooter.  He's going on vacation.  And he'll be doing a fair bit of traveling and hiking in another country.  He's lucky enough to have both a D3s and a D3X but his good fortune is also part of his travail.  He knows it would be crazy to take both.  Especially since the 24-70 2.8 and the new 70-200 2.8 are a foregone conclusion.  But how to choose?  The D3x, used at lower ISO's is perhaps the best imaging DSLR ever created and easily the most detailed.  But the D3s is very, very close in quality, has a couple stops advantage in low light and brings a smaller file size bonus to the table.  They weigh about the same.  Which one do you put in the camera bag and which one do you leave at home?    Then there is always the argument that you need a "back-up".

The back up craze is a wonderful boon for camera companies because it implies that cameras are inherently unreliable.  Most of us have racked up tens of thousands of exposures with lots of different cameras and I rarely hear of a failure these days.  Doesn't matter.  Every pro that's survived from the film days wouldn't be caught dead without a back up camera on a job and that seems to trickle down into the thinking of advanced amateurs who channel the pro vibes.  So, do you bring two D3s's or do you default  to the idea of a small, agile camera that's cheap and nearly expendable as your back up?  Something like a D5000.  If you were a Canon shooter you could default to a Rebel T2i as the back up for your 1DS Mk III.  If you go the first route, two D3s's then you have the weight to consider.  If you back up with a D5000 you have the additional second battery type and additional charger to think about.

Then there's the question of backing up the files.  Do you bring a laptop and back up to the hard drive and perhaps also to a DVD?  Certainly will make your evenings thrilling.....(Yawn).  The missus or mr. will be so excited.  "Oh boy, honey.  We can watch Baywatch in German, like God intended, while I burn these disks...."  Or do you buy one of those gold plated Epson back up appliances?  ( I find the price of CF cards at places like Costco are soooo cheap that it makes a lot more sense to buy ten or so cards and use them like old style film.  Use em up and put them aside and pull the next one out.)

Here's another interesting avenue to pursue:  Do you lean on the VR/IS in your camera or do you schlepp around a tripod.  And if you take a tripod, just how big and competent should it be?  If it's too small it ends up being a useless burden.  Too large and it becomes a heavy, but more useful, burden.  Maybe that's why the people at Leica invented the ultimate table top tripod...

And then there's the luggage.  Unless you're planning on buying your vacation wardrobe abroad you'll be bringing a checked bag and then a bag full of camera gear.  Will it be a Think Tank airport Psycho with all the trim?  It's got to have rollers or you wear yourself down.  But the cases themselves are heavy.  Maybe that has you considering a Gura bag.

So why have I started on all this?  Well, I have a friend who loves photography and he and his wife are going to Prague and points east.  He's a doctor in Austin with a very successful practice so this is hardly a once in a lifetime trip for him.  He wants to take great photos but he also wants the trip to be enjoyable for his wife.  He's been worrying the travel inventory for a good while.  He called me over the weekend to pick my brain (or what was left of it after nearly a week without an air conditioner in my car......).

We did the logic thing.  One body, one lens.  In his case an Olympus e3 and a 12-60mm lens.  No flash. We talked about a tripod but I reminded him that everywhere he would want a tripod it was probably forbidden to use a tripod.  In the end we decided that the imperative was to enjoy the romance and not let a camera get in between.  That was the deciding factor.  That's something people don't think about.  Enough.

I've been doing this for a long while and have made many trips to shoot professionally and for fun.  And I've made trips with the family where I've taken only a point and shoot.  Here's my general advice:  If you are doing the job professionally take everything you know you will need.  Don't assume you can rent great gear in Lisbon or Tanzania.  If you are going on vacation with your family take a good snapshot camera with a wide ranging zoom lens and pass it around to everyone in the family.  Make sure to take a lot of group shots.

If you want to do art do what the big boys do:  Buy one plane ticket.  Choose your favorite (most productive camera).  Choose three of your absolute favorite primes or one zoom.  If you can do it with one prime--more power to you.  Then clear your mind and shoot without a schedule and without compromise.  You can't serve multiple masters.  You need to be clear about why you're traveling and why you have people with you or why you don't.

It's not hard to figure out but the desire to have it all is crippling.  Don't delude yourself, you can't do art on a schedule.  You can rarely do art with an audience and you'll rarely have fun running to catch up with the rest of the group.

It was interesting for me to have my behavior reflected back to me by another parent at a swim meet recently.  I was diligently shooting all the kids diving and racing during the swim meet.  Deborah, a parent of one of Ben's peers (my 14 year old son) came up to me somewhere near the end of the meet and she said,  "It's so fun to watch you.  You concentrate on getting pictures of all the kids.  And then when Ben gets up to swim you put the camera down and watch every second of the race.  You never shoot his races.  It's weird."

I know why.  I want the pure experience.  In the moment.  Not filtered by the camera and the process.

Have a nice vacation.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, as usual. A lot of common sense stuff, but reminders are always good to have! I just took a long vacation with a very cheap, refurbished D3000 and a kit lens - and took it places I'd never have taken more expensive gear (like kayaking). And because it is lightweight, it just made it so much easier to carry around. And the vacation was so much more fun without carrying heavy gear and worrying about trying to create perfect images (as on vacations past).
Ken

Bill Beebe said...

When traveling for myself, I put what equipment will fit comfortably in a Domke F6 Little Bit Smaller bag. That means the bag is not crammed so full that it looks like it might explode.

If I want to shoot in wet or harsh environments, I take the E-3 and the 12-60mm zoom. There's room left in the bag for extra batteries, chargers, and micro-fiber lens cleaners. The camera manual fits in the front pocket, and I'll put a Moleskin diary and several pens in the top.

If I want more variety I put the E-P2 with kit lens, the 9-18mm, the 40-150Mk 2, and the 50mm macro. The E-P2 with kit zoom fits in the side pocket, while the other three lenses easily fit into three of the four central pockets. I still have plenty of room for extra batteries and the charger, the camera manual, and my diary.

In both scenarios I have plenty of creative capabilities; it just depends on what kind of mood I'm in. But the key to both is the small, light kit that stows just about anywhere with a minimum of fuss and muss.

Keith Kesler, DO said...

Damn, sounds like this post was meant for me... I decided to hire a Sherpa and bring the entire precision camera catalogue summer collection. And while I am at it, I am bringing my juicer to have a morning smoothie and, now that I am writing I almost forgot my coffee maker- you can't be over prepared nor equipped!

kirk tuck said...

Naw. Keith. No matter what I write you'll make up your own mind and you won't be any more right or wrong than I usually am. It took me how many trips with cameras to be as opinionated as I am now......? But don't forget the extra bag to fill up with souvenirs for your favorite curmudgeon photographer.........My shirt size is medium. Hat= 7 & 3/8's. I prefer dark chocolate. This week's camera system is Canon. And all I want for Christmas is more air conditioning....

John Krumm said...

Well, I haven't bought the Olympus 300mm 2.8, but at $6000 I can live without that focal length. Otherwise, I'm "covered." : ) My wife and I just had our first vacation alone in 13 years, San Fransisco (daughter at camp) and I only used two non-huge lenses, somewhat sparingly. I know, I probably should have just used my daughter's pink Elph, but hey we had a couple "go our own way" days.

Jallu said...

Great post and excellent recommendation! I wish Olympus will make a 12-60 equivalent for m43 soon enough. I am excited about the upcoming Olympus wide angle prime and the macro lens. Together with the diminutive, 20mm, they will complete my kit wonderfully.

Anonymous said...

Love to read your posts Kirk. Have also had the experience on chosing between real life enjoyment of the kids or trying to get everything framed through a lens. Standing in à pile of camera gear, picking the absolute musts for à trip is also a wellknown situation. Ended up with a Lumix LX3 and an anti stray light hood this time. Together with à leather case it's stuffable(oh forbid) without to much concerns. Travel light also has its upsides, with a hammer in hand, plenty of nails comes in your way. May the clear blue sky shine over your objects & subjects. Peter Alex

Peter Frailey said...

Love it, Kirk. When vacationing I find I shot the Canon S90 during the day, and generally only use the E520 with 14-54 during the golden hours.

FWIW, those of us who are shy about street shots where we might be spotted by strangers are well served by a pocket camera, set to be soundless, and easily slipped into a front pants pocket. I can usually get a shot off and slip the camera back in my pocket before anyone notices.

Bold Photography said...

Kirk,

there's another factor - the non-photographer spouse. You're extremely lucky when she lets you go off and play (work doesn't count in this context..). We have been planning an Italy trip, and when it comes to camera stuff, I've been strictly warned - one camera, at most, two lenses, and that's it. We're planning on scheduling in a few non-tourist days to just relax and take it in.

I won't capture anything in Rome that hasn't been photographed a million times by better photographers. I am looking forward, though, to having my breath taken away by the beauty of the mountains and the mountain lakes in north Italy. I'm envisioning my daughter playing in the water with the Alps as the background shot with the 35L... as much as I want to take it along, I doubt I'll bring my tripod.

Of the three photo bags I have, I'll aim to put everything in my smallest bag. One body, two batteries, a charger, lots of CF cards, two lenses (35L+135L) and a lens cleaning cloth.

Anonymous said...

I just got back from two weeks in Europe and decided to go uber minimalist...Nikon D300 + 18 - 200mm lens + polarizing filter + spare battery. Overall, the resulting pics were VERY acceptable and the only thing I *really* missed was my SB-800 flash.

kirk tuck said...

Bernard and Anonymous, Sounds just right to me....

John F. Opie said...

Hi -

I'm leaving for a 24 day road trip to the US on Saturday, so this is real close to home. :-)

I just bought an EP-1 with the kit lens on eBay (from the German distributor, refurbished with guarantee) for a great price and just hope it arrives by Friday.

But other than that: I have a Tamrac Cyberpack 8 that carries everything and fits under the seat (if you're on the aisle...). Into goes: E30 with 12-60/70-300/50, E510 with the 40-150 kit lens on a gigapan panorama head, the EP-1 with the kit lens + Zuiko 50 1.4 with adapter, a slew of NiMH batteries (48 at last count) for the gigapan head with a 12 battery charger, 4 8GB CF cards, Vista notebook (LR 2.7 on it) with 500GB 2.5" external drive for backups, 58/72mm circ pol & IR filters, 6 BM-1 batteries for the E30/E510, and assorted sundries. That goes into the car: the E30 with the 12-60 will do around 80% of the work, but the other two will see usage as well. The E510 on the gigapan is strictly for panoramas (Top of the Rock this year, rather than Empire State Building)...oh, and a Gitzo tripod with 3-way Manfrotto head that flies with the luggage but attaches nicely to the Cyberpack 8 when walking around.

Going that far away from home (I live in Germany) and seeing so many things on a road trip, that is my travel kit to the US. I'm leaving virtually all my legacy lenses (Leica, Nikon, Olympus) that have their specialty uses.

While I'd love to travel more lightly, the gigapan needs batteries and the tripod, and I always, always regret not taking it. I have a waist pack for walking around and don't schlepp everything all the time, but I've always found that this kit is pretty much perfect for me.

+1 on the spouse who is not a photographer. My wife is extraordinarily patient, as doing a gigapan takes at least 30 minutes, if not longer for a very large one...

John

Broch said...

We took a trip of a lifetime (for us) to Alaska last summer, and among all of my gear, I took only my Canon G10. Your post reminded me that on our day in Glacier Bay, I took very few pictures. I wanted to take in all of the beauty and glory with my wife, for us to remember in our minds.

Anonymous said...

Excellent written, My fav second camera at the moment is LX3, very capable one.

kirk tuck said...

Best experience I've had shooting in the streets for myself (described with a certain amount of Hubris as "doing art.") was in Lisbon back in 1999. I took a bunch of work camera and a Leica M6. When the job was done all the work cameras went back with the production company that supplied the event and I spent four days wandering the streets with an M6 and a 50 Summilux. Carefully shepherding 25 rolls of 36 exposure tri-X.

Dave Jenkins said...

Anonymous said "...with a hammer in hand, plenty of nails come your way."

That is so true. I've learned the hard way that when I try to tote enough equipment to shoot everything, I seldom do a good job of shooting anything. I've been going back to my roots lately, shooting with a twin-lens reflex, and it's amazing how many pictures I see this way that I would have missed with my do-everything outfit. As Picasso said: “Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention. It obliges you to make a kind of progress that you can’t even imagine in advance.”

Here's another great quote, this one by from Orson Welles: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

My wife and I went to Israel in April, and although I took only a 5D, a 20D, and three zoom lenses, I soon found myself thoroughly tired of carrying the load.

In Petra, of all places, in the middle of a very long day of walking, which for some unexplainable reason seemed to be all uphill, I met a man who was carrying only an Oly EP2 with an EVF and kit lens. I asked him if I could hold it and look through it.

It was total love at first sight. I had to sell a few lenses I don't use much to do it, but I now have an E-PL1 on order. And when I get it, I'm going to set it up to shoot in square format.

kirk tuck said...

Dave Jenkins, That's been my advice to everyone. The epl-1 set up as you describe is amazing and weightless. Bravo.

CHUN CHUNG LEE said...

Just came back from a trip to a beautiful tropical island with my family. I decided to just bring my nikon d700 and nikon FE with three primes. 24,50 and 90. No flash coz the d700 pop up will do. All fit in nicely into my small crumpler shoulder bag with room for filters. I also brought a light medium size tripod which i will defintely need. My main goal for this trip to make photographs of landscapes and some family photos. This trip was much more enjoyable compare to the time I lugged around a backpack full of equipments. I've learnt my lesson. Less is more.

Dennis Elam said...

Gee lugging around a great big E 3 and a 12-60, I would think a Pen and a 14-42 after all you have said about Pen, a lot smaller camera, isn't that the point?

kirk tuck said...

Doug, I personally would take an EP2 or an EPL but some people want to choose from what they already have.....

Brad C said...

I really used to struggle with this question for work trips (I'm not a photographer), and since getting a Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm pancake I've been liberated. I threw in an old 50mm f/2 Pentax with an adapater on a recent trip and never pulled it out. Amazing how you can adapt quickly to a single focal length after using zooms...

Anonymous said...

People only come to sensible inventory choices over time. You can't decide for them. And everyone is so different. Try not to be so judgemental.

Dave said...

Yeah, I learned the hard way on a trip with family. Either you're on the trip with family (take the P&S) or you're not with people you love being a photographer.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Just returned from my 4th trip to Malaysia (my wife is from there, so it was more or less visiting the family, and living in the kampungs (villages) with them).

We carried: my E-520 DZ kit plus an additional OM 1.8 50mm for low light situations, external flash with radio remotes (the locals were quite interested in those), tripod in one of the big bags (never got out), and my wife's TZ-7 compact P&S.

I used everything, was especially glad that I took the flash with me, tho for larger homes in the evenings a second one would have been helpful. But when I saw a guy handling another TZ-7 or LX-3 while standing in a moving bus bringing us in from the airfield in Dubai to the terminals, I also thought "smaller is better".

My wife wants an E-PL1 because of the better IQ compared to her compact, and I'll soon get her one, seriously considering one for myself. And since I love primes, I think for me it has to be the PL 1.7 20mm, and maybe one or two of those nice Voigtlander manual lenses. That should do just fine for almost everything I did with my E-520, with even better IQ (at higher ISOs).

Otherwise, I was just glad with what I took and used.