Swimming against the conventional stream with a small backpack filled with mirrorless cameras and their tidy lenses.

the "Jenga" building in Austin nears completion. 

Hmmm. Ten years ago arriving at a photo assignment with a small and nimble camera might have raised eyebrows. Seems that in 2008 everyone of a certain age defined themselves as a photo-enthusiast and had done a deep dive into the jungle of photographic lore and "knowledge" about all things digital photography. Companies were asking their employees who loved photography to step up and shoot corporate events and even portraits for the company (and usually with no additional compensation). Companies were so happy to get free stuff that they used anything a willing employee volunteer might toss over the transom to them... it was all red meat to people who wanted stuff for free.

And then a funny thing happened over the ensuing decade, corporations found out that they were diverting parts of their workforces to tasks that could be acquired from vendors with better production quality and at no real additional cost since by asking valuable and highly trained employees to do these tasks took the employees away from more productive and profitable work that was mission critical for the enterprise. Yes, trained engineers develop more value for their companies working on new products, inventing new stuff and making software salable than they do taking team building photos for Chip down in H.R. 

During the same time frame the same ardent volunteers became collectively bored with photography and moved on to things like piloting drones or diddling with ever better cellphones to binge watching crap presented by the on demand video purveyors. Seems that tiny, incremental improvements in still cameras, or any improvements in the video sections of their still cameras held very little interest for people mostly bent on mastering technical things.

I used to hear, a lot, that clients really, really cared about what kind of camera you showed up with to an assignment. The mantra ten years ago was that showing up with anything less than a full frame, 35mm style, DSLR would cause clients to question your judgement, your abilities and even your fitness to be their photographer. If you didn't show up with a D3 or a Canon 1DSxx some photo-enthusiast clients (the story went) might be tempted to fire you, pick up their own superior camera and just shoot the damn project themselves.

I'll admit that during the lean years of 2008-2009 I felt like hedging my bets by showing up with what people thought of as "a fully professional" camera even though I knew through my experience and testing that we'd reached the point, even back then, at which most cameras on the market were vastly and completely capable of giving clients what they needed for ads, websites, and even posters. And by "most cameras" I mean anything 12 megapixels or over that could be used in a fully manual mode and which came complete with a tripod mount. A way to trigger a flash was also mostly a requirement....

But "group think" makes us do stupid stuff sometimes and can also deprive us of both the potential to have maximum fun and also to stand out from the crowd with images that look different. So, with some clients it was okay to show up with an Olympus EP-2 and a little bag of lenses but there were other clients you thought might be more disposed to seeing you crank up and use "the big guns."

Well. Here I am ten years later. I'm still a photographer and I still have to please clients but the interesting thing is that all those amateurs that used to siddle up me and ask me about camera gear have gone the way of the dodo. The people who do question me are much, much more likely to ask me why I'm still using an iPhone 5S than to ask about a camera or a lens. If the camera you are using can take different lenses then you've pretty much passed the test; the bar, that most clients have set.

This past week I worked for a very large construction and building services client on the eastern part of the U.S. I'd worked with their V.P. of advertising and marketing for years in Austin before she moved away and ended up in this new position. She remembered my work not because of what cameras I used back in our Austin work days together but because she liked the way I handled people and, secondarily, the way I handled lighting. She reached out not knowing (or particularly caring) whether I showed up with a micro four thirds sensor camera, a Sony RX10 series camera or a husky Nikon or Canon full frame camera. She just wanted to make sure I'd show up with the kind of light that would clients look good in just about any environment. Lighting that solves visual problems. And she likes the fact that I get along with all kinds of people. I generally give out a "no prima donna" guarantee to most clients...

I spent a lot of time vacillating between camera and lens choices before I left on this assignment. I weighed (literally and figuratively) the advantages and disadvantage of different formats and different lens choices, and also how much time we'd have on each location to set up and deliver good results. Finally, I also considered the portability of each choice. I would, by the end of the week, be on and off about ten flights and would need (and want) to carry all the cameras and lenses onboard each flight with me. That alone is a lot of portage with gear. But the flights are the tip of the gear moving logistics.

Since many of our locations were remote, at the end of dirt roads, up hills with no roads, and some involved walking half a mile or so to various locations, weight became part of the calculus. Would I be able to arrive ready to shoot or would my pulse be pounding? Would the cameras float along with me or be like an anchor?

I decided to leave the small selection of Nikon full frame cameras and lenses at home and to focus on building the perfect travel kit around micro four thirds cameras. I ended up packing two of the Panasonic G9s. They are light and agile but deliver a good and sharp 20 megapixels of detail and do so with good dynamic range and color. Used in the raw+Jpeg format they delivered both files to send quickly and files to keep safe for processing back here at the ranch.

I have ample batteries for the G9s because my GH5s and my GH5S all take the same battery. I'm familiar now with the menus and that's half the battle in being able to use a camera system for lots and lots of set ups with efficiency. The instant feedback of the finder image also makes the entire process of creating an image quicker and more fluid.

When I came across a landscape or industrial-scape that might make a great, large image I had no hesitation in using the high resolution mode to generate files that measure more than 10,000 pixels on the long side of the frame. If I came upon contrasty light I had no resistance to using the custom shadow/highlight curve control in the camera. Hell, if push comes to shove I don't even flinch at using the in-camera HDR feature (but sparingly, sparingly).

In anticipation of this trip I researched camera cases, bags and backpacks that could ride along with me in any kind of commercial airplane, from small jets to the ubiquitous 737s. What I've come to realize is that it's not enough to plan around a bag that might fit in the overhead compartment of a standard aircraft, like a 737, because if you are running late, made a reservation late, etc. you might not get that option. I've noticed that no one likes to check bags anymore and American Airlines was aggressively proactive about making people gate check bags after they assessed that the overheads were filled to the brim. Gate checking. Spawn process of the Devil.

I never want to gate check my camera bag, case or backpack because I also use said luggage to carry my passport, my phone, my receipts and my lovely laptop. Murphy's Law is always in force and engaged whenever you check, or gate check, the things you absolutely need to have, and in perfect condition, to do your job at the next location.

Your failure proof strategy then becomes finding a carrying solution that ...... "fits under the seat in front of you." That's the only safe recourse when flying on commercial airlines. If you are flying on private jets you probably aren't reading this anyway. It is meaningless to you......

I did my diligent research. I found the Think Tank Airport Essentials backpack. It is well padded but still holds a lot. It will hold a 13 inch laptop but not a 15 inch laptop. It's comfortable to carry for long distances and.....with even the smallest regional jet on which I flew....it always fits under the seat in front of me.

So, what all can I fit into the TT backpack? Two G9 camera bodies. One 12-100mm f4.0 Olympus Pro lens. One 12-60mm f2.8-4.0 Panasonic/Leica lens. One Sigma 60mm f2.8 DN lens. One 40-150mm f2.8 Olympus lens. One Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm lens. One extra pair of bifocal eyeglasses. Four extra camera batteries. One small USB phone charger. One iPhone 5S. One set of Samsung Level noise cancelling earbuds. Two pens. One reporter's notebook. One 13 inch MacBook Pro laptop computer. One computer power supply. One dongle which provides two USB 3 ports and one SD card reader. Three 256 GB memory sticks. And one pack of gum.

By the end of the trip the backpack also contained receipts for $1200 of hotel charges, $350 of baggage charges and $250 of food and miscellaneous expenses (coffee?).

The bag worked perfectly and not a single flight attendant so much as gave me the "stink eye" for carrying it aboard. I could not have used this backpack in the same way with bigger cameras; something would have to give. Things would be left out. And, again under Murphy's Law, those would be the very things I would find mission critical. 

The Think Tank product is priced high at $200 but it's the best portable solution I have found yet and will relegate my Amazon Large Photo backpack to very secondary status. That's okay, I paid about a third as much for the Amazon product and it has been very useful.

Now, the lighting case is a whole different ball of wax. There's only so much one can do to lighten one's load and still deliver professional results but I'm working hard to shave that down too and, since I leave early Tues. morning for three more days on the road before the trip to Iceland, I have another opportunity to peel off ten more pounds from that case. The lighter the load the further I can go and the better I can deliver.

Camera formats are way low on my list of concerns for these kinds of trips. While a fashion photographer might find it essential to get a tiny sliver of sharp focus in a shot most of my work for corporations is predicated on production value instead of visual gimmicks. If a narrow depth of field is called for I go long and wide open with the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8. Or I pulled the Contax/Zeiss 50mm out and shoot it wide open (I packed that one in the lighting case when I decided I'd reached my personal carry limit).

Other than the mild considerations of small depth of field I find very few quality differences between formats for most intended marketing targets. I do find showing up with enough strength and energy to do the job is a much more vital consideration and is, in many cases, tied directly to the size and weight of the gear I am bringing.

In Iceland I'll continue on with the Think Tank backpack and the twin G9s plan. I know I'll want to bring along the Panasonic/Leica 8-18mm and the 12-60mm but I'm hemming and hawing over whether or not to include the 40-150mm f2.8. Any thoughts on that?

You'll still read tons of internet fodder about the need for full frame or the need for insane levels of resolution but the reality is that almost everything goes to the web these days and even an entry level Olympus OMD 10iii  camera is sufficient to provide enough resolution, sharpness and color depth to handle a two page magazine spread. Believe me, people were doing it with 4,6,8,10 and 12 megapixel sensors well over a decade ago and the magazines looked great.

Choose the system that works well for your "real use" parameters not for pie in the sky stuff. If you get hired to shoot a super model for the cover of Vogue you'll have the budget to rent whatever camera you think you might need.  And an assistant to help you operate it. Really. For everything else? Choose what you like.

If you took the advice of certain old pros you'd still be adjusting your carburetor and dialing up stuff on your modem. It's a new tech paradigm. Now you get to have more fun.


Fred said...

Kirk, if you might be taking photos of wildlife (as apposed to nightlife) you might want the extra reach. It sounds like you might be leaving the 12-100 at home? I have the 12-60 kit lens for my G85 and found that it was a little short to get a good grab shot of a bluebird that appeared in my backyard about 30 ft away.
On the other hand, when I went off to the Peace Corps 40 some years ago with a 35 and 135 for my Canon Ftb I thought that the 135 was too long. So I am guessing that my advice is worth almost what you payed for it. :-)

ODL Designs said...

Hey Kirk, my personal travel kit is the 9-18 and 40-150 variable zoom, then I bring the 17.5mm f1.2 and 25mm f1.8 and 45mm f1.8. that set is all small but the 17mm and very light.

You mentioned the 15mm f1.7, that is a great lens I used before I went all Olympus (I have a niggle the camera makers optimize best for their own lenses)...

Anyways, I think a longer lens for some compression is always a good thing and the little 40-150 is not slouch and cheap as chips.

Gunnlaugur Gudmundsson said...

Wonderful article. Thank you. Again. Iceland? - I live in Iceland being a native of this rock in the Atlantic Ocean. ;-) Just one thing to keep in mind. Light. It's very dark in Iceland during late Ocotober, early November, from 5 pm until 10 am, and if the sky is overcast (likely) it will be dark during the daytime. So, very unlike Texas. And as you will be tavelling and staying lots and lots of time outdoors in windy conditions, it will be hard to use artificial light ... conclusion? In Iceland we need bright lenses, so bring your f/2.8 lens, and the Panasonic f/1.7 ... you'll understand what I'm saying when you arrive ...

Nigel said...

" I'm hemming and hawing over whether or not to include the 40-150mm f2.8 "

Up to you. If I'd been able to go this year, I might well have bought this lens just for the trip...

Mike said...

Thanks for the tip on the TT backpack. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say about the G9, it's a great shooters camera. And M4/3 in general is too overlooked by the herd chasers out there. As a working photographer like yourself, there's what you need to do the job. And for the last five years, I've never had a situation that M4/3 couldn't handle.

Iceland lenses? 8-18, 12-60, and get the 50-200. It's so much nicer to use. It's over a pound lighter, and it handles on the camera in a way that is far less fatiguing due to it's better balance. Also the dual IS is a thing to behold. Don't forget your 15, 25, and get the 42.5 1.7 for low light. If you want to lighten your load a bit, you can leave the 8-18 at home and get a Laowa 7.5mm f2 which is a tiny gem of a lens that is breathtakingly good. The extra speed makes it interesting to use in low light and for shallow DOF uses.

Kirk Tuck said...

Please don't hesitate or stop giving me good advice vis-a-vis shooting in Iceland and also shooting at higher northern latitudes than I am used to. It's great to hear from knowledgeable sources. Gunnlaugur, here's how I interpreted your comment to my wife: "I have to go to Precision Camera and buy an Olympus 45mm f1.2 Pro lens, dear. It's mandatory for the light in Iceland!" Thank you!

Bill H said...

I agree about checked bags and carry-ons. Everything essential for a trip should on with me (or my wife.)

I use an Amazon small Photo backpack for trips involving sit travel. It fits nicely under seats and can be carried on most small planes.

On a recent Alaska trip, it carried 2 Panasonic mft bodies, two long zooms, one macro lens and a Panasonic FZ1000 bridge camera. My wife's carry-on is a conventional rolling hard sided case. It can accommodate a tripod, a monopod and a laptop and a change of clothing for us.

Chuck Albertson said...

I have the predecessor model of the TT Essentials, the Ultralight, and it was designed to fit inside a Pelican 1510 rolling hard case. If the gate gods insist on your checking the case, you can lift the backpack out of it, gate-check the empty hard case, and take the backpack on board.

Anonymous said...

Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but
after I clicked submit my comment didn't show up.

Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say superb blog!

Dano said...

When I went to Iceland I was going to take my full frame Sony, but instead took my Olympus OMD Mark II. Two weeks of solid rain made my Olympus the right choice. When I returned I had to immediately had to go to a Canada which I did take my Sony. My editor felt my images from Iceland with the Olympus were better. At least for publication, format no longer matters.