You're finished with the commercial/heavy lifting of photography and you just want to grab a small system to toss in the car and go someplace to make indulgent photos for yourself. What do you take?

The "Sail" building. Also known as Google's new office in Austin's downtown. 
Photographed with an SL2 and the Nikon 20mm lens.

I have to confess that I like big, heavy cameras and no compromise lenses when I'm working for clients. There is something reassuring about working with a 45+ megapixel, full frame camera that's blessed with great color and a wide dynamic range. And, if I'm photographing products or big buildings that don't move around much it also nice to know I can put the camera on top of a tripod, select a menu item and then shoot images that are 180+ megapixels via the magic of a high resolution mode. But this mostly presupposes that I'm getting paid, I have a cart to drag stuff around with, I'm not putting much mileage on the soles of my shoes and that I might even have an assistant in tow to help carry the heavy stuff. 

And sure, if I'm just tooling around downtown making my ultra-famous mannequin photographs for a couple of hours I can easily handle one big camera and even one big lens. But if I'm headed to Enchanted Rock, about 20 miles outside of Fredericksburg, Texas, and getting ready to scramble up to the top of the granite dome, and then spend the rest of the day walking the trails and shooting landscape images, I usually have a different set of equipment preferences. Especially in the Summer when heavy cameras and even heavier lenses compete with the necessity of carrying around several quart bottles of drinking water in my backpack. 

In those times I make different decisions about gear. I want stuff that's small and relatively light. Since I'm generally out in good light I don't need super fast glass but and I don't need image stabilization. I want small, light cameras, and a handful of equally small and light camera batteries. But I still want to cover wide, normal and short telephoto lens ranges. And I'd like a small, small zoom for the late afternoons when I am too hot and tired to keep changing out prime lenses every time the scenery changes. 

If that's the agenda then I reach for a small Domke shoulder bag filled with some of my absolute favorite gear. It's the Leica CL camera + Sigma Contemporary lens package. The CL is the smallest Leica camera I own and most of that is down to the camera being built as an APS-C instead of full frame. Everything gets smaller and lighter when the format gets downsized. But in good light with reasonable ISO settings the quality of the photographs suffers minimally. If at all. 

I pack two identical Leica CL (digital, not film) cameras for two reasons. First, I want to make sure that if I huff and puff and sweat and swear but am somehow able to reach the top of the rock and want to make photographs I would be frustrated and pissed off if I'd only brought along one camera and that camera crapped out of the game. It hasn't happened to me in a long time but an only camera failing just takes the wind out of one's sails. You've invested two hours to get to the Rock, half an hour to climb the big part and you'll fritter away two hours getting back home; and one of your reasons to go in the first place gets....cancelled.  Psychologically I just feel better with a back-up camera in the pack. 

The second reason to pack two cameras is for the times you want to more or less permanently put a cool wide angle lens on one body and a short telephoto on the other body and use them interchangeably throughout the day. If you never have to change lenses on a windy, dusty day you go a long way toward insuring that you won't have dust spots on your files when you get home. 

I love having two bodies that are identical models, identically upgraded to the same firmware, and set to the same menu items. What I'm looking for is that transparent interchangeability between cameras. They should feel the same, shoot the same and make color files in exactly the same way. 

Over the last five years, in a variety of APS-C format cameras, I have had nothing but good luck with a trio of Sigma's Contemporary lenses, which are designed for the APS-C formats. I've used them on Sonys and on the smaller format Panasonic m4:3 cameras and found three well spaced lenses that are sharp and have really nice rendering. When I switched to L mount cameras and picked up a couple of CLs I was delighted to find the same lenses available for that system as well. 

I considered sticking with Leica lenses for the CL cameras but each time I compared them with the Sigmas the value proposition of the Sigmas won. I think the 18mm f2.8 Leica for the CL is cool because it's so small but I liked the Sigma 16mm's wider angle of view and I especially like the much faster maximum aperture of f1.4. I'm sure the Leica 35mm f1.4 for the CL is a remarkable lens and a very, very high performer but it's big and heavy and is in the nose bleed niche when it comes to price. Since I love "normal" focal lengths I'm pretty sure I would have snapped up the 35mm Summilux if the CLs were my only system or my primary system but the 30mm Sigma f1.4 is a really great lens at about 1/10th of the price (new to new). This is the third different camera mount I've owned the Sigma 30mm in and in each system I have nothing but praise for the way this lens renders images. Sharp but not offensively sharp, and contrasty enough to give you the "bite" that's missing from lesser lenses. Not a top of the line Leica lens but a very competent and useful tool for fun, everyday photography. 

The third prime I carry around with in pixie pack of cameras is the Sigma 56mm f1.4. Just shy of the equivalent 85mm in 35mm-speak, this lens is a phenomenal performer. Tack sharp wide open, the smallest of the Sigma f1.4 APS-C trio and the snappiest focusing performance of the three. There was nothing in the Leica CL system of lenses to match it. Makes the Sigma 56mm an easy choice to round out the trio.

There is a fourth lens that I also pack in the bag and if I get to the rock and feel younger than my driver's license admits to I might want to scramble up boulders but without carrying the full load out of CLs and lenses. The all terrain, lightest carrying package is the combination of the Leica CL camera combined with the Sigma 18-50mm f2.8. Two stops faster than the Leica version it's a fairly new product and is universally lauded for its image quality. It's very small and light. With that lens, one body and an extra battery in my pocket I'm set to at least try some vertical theatrics. I almost slipped off an 18 foot rock face the last time I was at the park (watch out for loose gravel) and I would have been very upset to have destroyed multiple cameras and lenses instead of just one camera, one lens and one over-reaching photographer. As it was the adrenaline hit was enough to require a mid-afternoon nap after my much slower descent.

So, with a medium budget, a small footprint and a light load, I tend to travel for fun with the two CLs, the 16mm, 30mm, 56mm and 18-50mm lenses. All from Sigma's APS-C Contemporary line. This gives me a 35mm equiv. selection that is equal to: 24mm, 45mm, 84mm and the back-up zoom range of 27-75mms. 

When I need to add flash to the equation I drop a Godox Lux Senior into the bag. It doesn't take up much space, works in the "A" automatic mode (with all cameras!) and it's cheap enough not to provoke tears if inadvertently smashed on hard granite while out climbing and exploring. 

I've spent a lot of the last quarter of the 2022 writing about bigger, more expensive cameras and I feel like I've given short shrift to the smaller format cameras. But that doesn't mean my use is proportionate with my writing. I actually find the CL system to be a wonderful wandering companion for all the reasons I've laid out above. And the image quality isn't lesser, It's just different. And it's a look I like. 

Since the CL has been discontinued by Leica the market has snapped up most of the cameras that were, just months before, languishing on dealer's shelves. I'm keeping my eyes peeled for one more. Just to have to ensure the overall system's longevity for me. I'm hoping people get bored with them quickly or move onto to shiny, faster focusing, full frame cameras. I'd love it if the prices stabilized around $1500. Or less.

On my next trip out of town the CLs are coming with me. They're perfect travel cameras and I found myself wishing I'd taken that kit to Vancouver with me in early November instead of the full frame camera and lens. I'm thinking of heading up to Santa Fe again after Christmas and when the weather clears. There's writer who lives there who is fun to talk with over coffee. I'd love to hear some more of his stories. But I'm also anxious to go back to NYC and Montreal. Just playing it all by ear. 

I like the Leica Q2. It's the minimalist cure for carrying too much stuff. But the engineer in my brain loves the CL stuff because it represents the potential of a full system while being sized just right. 

One last thing. If you have a cropped frame L mount camera and you decide you might want to go really long it's fun to toss the Panasonic 70-200mm S-Pro onto the front of the camera and get super sharp 300mm equivalent frames. Makes the system a bit of a chameleon. Nice. 

The four lens travel pack.