I spent a long time considering what was best to take with me, but there is no getting around it- the best set up is one with two cameras, with different lenses. One taking care of wide, perhaps with a zoom to cover ‘the whole scene’ and the other focusing on details/portraits/ high quality captures. Now, that’s a lot of camera, even with smaller DSLRs and we aren’t always happy to rely on one being a compact. Hence, the advent of mirrorless and large-sensor (1 inch and up) compacts and in my case, my M4/3 babies.
Here was my trip kit-
35mm f/1.8G DX
18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 DX
25mm f/1.4 Pana-Leica
0.75x Lumix Wide-Angle Adapter
Close-Up lens (for butterflies/flowers)
Gorillapod (for night scenes)
Underwater Case for LX5 (for snorkeling)
It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? In reality, it’s more notable for what I left out than what I took. The Gorillapod is a lot smaller than a true tripod and more stable than a mini-tripod. The Nikon zoom took care of reach, enough for me, anyway, in a way a shorter zoom wouldn’t (goodbye 17-50 with 70-300 set). The primes are light enough to carry along and switch to and the configuration meant I could always have a prime on one camera and a zoom on the other. I could just use one camera this way and scale it right down to the LX5, which itself is pretty flexible, or scale up to the DSLR and zoom. Or just head out with a nice prime and see what happens. Just having all that variety was good to have, as I find using the same lens all the time pretty boring.
Just before the trip, I picked up my Panasonic Lumix GF-1, with it’s excellent 14-45 zoom lens, held up as one of the best kit lenses ever made and much better than the newer m4/3 options. This, paired with the incredible Pana-Leica 25mm f/1.4 made my back-up, though with M 4/3 you get a good enough image for it to be pretty much interchangeable with a DSLR, except when it comes to editing, where the added richness of the larger APS-C sensors have a definite advantage. Also thanks to the GF1, I didn’t have to bring a compact around for snaps over dinner, etc. I really don’t like to bring a DSLR absolutely everywhere I go, when something smaller and more discrete will suffice. Alongside this, I had my nifty and reasonably light D5100, paired with either my 18-105mm ‘travel zoom’, or the 35mm f/1.8 DX. Thanks to the ability to have a good zoom in my pocket, so to speak, I felt freed to use the prime option far more than ever before and not just at night, it accounting for more than half of my shots. Meanwhile, I find the 18-105 to be a great travel lens. Not too heavy, it opens up a lot of focal lengths. You are losing a bit of quality, as with any wide-ranging zoom, but having some reach is very liberating.
I also brought one more lens, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. It’s a bit long on DX, so I used it for details and portraits, especially at night markets. It’s certainly a bright lens and with the clean high-ISOs we are getting now, very usable. I’ll have to review my results, but I am having my doubts about it, in terms of bokeh and microcontrast, at least in comparison to my other 50mm lenses and bright primes in general. Whilst it did let me reduce the depth of field a bit, there is something (comparatively) flat and lifeless about the images I’m getting from it and may try out the 50mm f/1.4G instead. Despite complaints of slow focusing, it would be worth it for me if I got a rendering closer to the quality of my excellent 50mm f/1.4 Sigma (which is too heavy for this kind of travel), or even my older Nikon f/1.4D (which can’t AF on the D5100 and in terms of sharpness, at least, is looking pretty dated). As some say, the 1.8’s are prose and the 1.4’s poetry and I think I’m inclined to agree, but this is a new lens with a more complex construction, so I’ll have to wait and see.
The other camera I brought, aside from my iPhone, was my LX5, for super-lite travel and some exotic uses. One is in a waterproof housing, really just a glorified bag that is good up to 5m or so, which was especially for snorkeling trips. Here the relatively bright lens and fast AF of this camera (as compacts go) really helped. The other use for the LX5 was with its excellent wide-angle attachment, that gives you a sharp, stablised 18mm equivalent, great for interiors or long panoramas without the stitching. I even tried this attachment out on my other cameras and at least in the center it was sharp enough. I like this camera, but I’m not crazy about it, as the small sensor and often dull colours leave me dissatisfied, but it is fast and handy and at the end of the day, pretty good. I can see the newer 1-inch compacts like the Sony RX100 displacing it pretty soon.
Whilst medium format and full-frame offer the ultimate (for now) when it comes to image quality, I’m very interested to see how APS-C cameras like the new Fuji ‘X’ line, or Sony Nex develop, as given the right lenses they will be more than good enough for travel photography and with their small size, go well with small primes. As I’ve said before, I hope Nikon makes something in that realm, as it would be great to use my lenses on it, but as they are (seemingly) still deeply involved with the Nikon 1 mirrorless series, I won’t hold my breath too long. I am happy with my D5100, which I find to be a good compromise and very usable with its tilt-able LCD. Would a discrete mirrorless solution be better? I think yes, but only when the technology is there and it seems to be in flux at the moment, making a DSLR overall more convenient, especially when it comes to sports, low-light or the need for varied lenses. This DOESN’T mean it is better, as when it comes to picture quality or the sheer joy of photography, a small bright prime will beat even the best zoom every day of the year.
m4/3 for me is more of a back-up solution, though increasingly a more serious one and who knows, with technology improving it may well make progress we can scarcely dream of… in fact with the likes of the Olympus OMD-EM5, some would say it already has, though the richer image you get from APS-C and above wins out for me right now. It’s certainly a great time for photographers, let’s just hope that alongside resolution and sharpness, characteristic rendering is kept a part of modern lens design. A world in which all images are ‘perfectly’ the same is definitely not a perfect one.