Travelling Light…Again

I keep coming back to this topic every time I do a job with the Nikons.

Back when I was a kid (20 something) it was nothing to carry two Nikons (F2 and FM2) with a bag of lenses and a Metz 403 potato-masher flash with wet-cell over-the-shoulder battery pack. I could do this for days on end. Somedays I also packed a 35mm rangefinder camera and lenses as well.

Now, over 40 years later…not so much.

It seems I’m not alone. One of the sites I have subscribed to in my Google Reader (250 sites and growing) is Tewfic El-Sawy’s amazing The Travel Photographer. Based in New York City Tewfic mixes travel and documentary photography and you should spend some time looking at his images. It will make you a better photographer.

Of course so will attending a photographic workshop where we will find Tewfic at the 2012 Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Thailand from July 29-Aug. 4. If I was really serious about becoming a world-class photojournalist this would be on my list if I was a younger person. (As it was I just went out and did it and while I may never have worked overseas I had a great time working here in Ontario and don’t regret a moment of it.)

But back to travelling light. Tewfic in his blog post here (and this is the accompanying photo to the right) decided to travel light so he’s taking a Leica M9 with an Elmarit f2.4 28 mm and Voitlander f1.4 40 mm lenses plus a FujiFilm X Pro-1 with a Fujinon 18mm and a Tascam DR-40 digital recorder all in a Domke F3X bag.

(Here’s the image he used of the equipment.)

Now let’s get over the fact that the Leica M9 is a $7,000 rangefinder camera and the Elmarit sells used for $1400 or so and the Voitlander goes for around $700. It’s nice stuff if you can afford it and yes there is something special about Leica cameras. (I once owned an M4 with a 28, 35, 50 and 90mm lenses. I have always regretted selling the kit for mere cash. Dumb.)

But in the right hands any hand-held camera with a fast lens can at least approach the quality of the images that pros take with their high-end stuff.

Honestly I love my Nikons and the f2.8 105 Nikon macro lens plus the lesser but equally capable f1.8 35 mm lenses make for a pretty good street photography kit. Of course I can’t keep to that minimal kit. I load up the bag with a 12-24mm super wide and a f1.8 85 mm lens and maybe even the lowly f1.8 50mm lens plus a flash and maybe a monopod and I’m ready for the next jazz festival (like the one coming to the Beaches area of Toronto on the weekend). I’ll likely pack the superheavy f2.8 17-55mm as well.

But dress me in black (This is a trick I learned from Jay Masel who is my age and is one of the best street photographers in the world (There’s hope yet!). He also holds classes and this is on my list of things to do.) and it’s true you do blend into the background visual noise and as far as the crowd is concerned you’re just not there and on a hot day carrying all that equipment I’m beat in an hour.

If I take my Olympus Pens with me I can carry the EP-1 I got at a sell-off price and the EPL-2 which my wife loves plus a bag of fast lenses and maybe a flash and I’m done.

So why not take the Pens? For street photography they’re terrific. This is the system I take on vacation and I’ve used it for shooting parties and some special events. Everything fits into the one bag and I can carry it all day through airports and city streets. But…

But and it’s a big but, the Pens can’t keep up with the Nikons when push comes to shove.

At last week’s Midnite Madness I only carried the D-90 with the f1.8 35mm lens and I had a ball. Plus I wasn’t banging into everybody in the crowd of 50,000 with the camera bag.

So what am I taking to shoot the Beaches Jazz Festival this coming weekend in Toronto? My body says Olympus but my head says Nikon. I think I’ll pack both in the car.

If a jazz festival was just a shot here and a shot there, then it would be the Olympus Pens for sure. The image quality is amazingly good and rivals the Nikons despite the bigger sensors in the Nikons but a jazz festival is all about the feeling of the night. It’s about capturing facial expressions in fading dusk or stage lights. It’s about pushing the shutter button and hearing the camera firing 5+ frame a second in short bursts or one shot at a time instantly recording what you’re seeing. The Pens aren’t quite so quick (although the new OM-5D looks amazing but this isn’t about equipment and if I bought it my wife would kill me.)

So if you wanted a purchase a reasonably priced camera that could shoot like the pros what would I suggest?

First stay away from most point-and-shoots as the sensors are too tiny plus their built-in zoom lenses are too slow (in other words they can’t create shots with really shallow depth of field. Yes the higher priced ones take great shots but they don’t shoot fast enough and the lenses are usually too slow.

Second look at the Sony NEX-3 or 5 series of cameras. A lot of folks like them a lot and they take interchangeable lenses including some fast primes.

Consider just about anything in the micro 4/5ths format such as the Pens or Panasonic G5 or the new Canon EOS-M.

BTW you can find the EP-1 discounted to as little as $200. Add a f2.8 17mm pancake lens for $300 and you’d be set to shoot street photography IMHO.

FujiFilm is offering some amazing new rangefinder cameras with the X100 with a non-interchangeable but very fast f2 35mm lens or X-Pro 1 which isn’t cheap at $1,700 and that’s just for the body but cheaper than a $7K Leica.

If I can only carry one camera with a fast lens which one would it be?

I’d want to pick a camera that would take interchangeable lenses. Who knows, perhaps I’ll attract more cash and a second lens would then be viable. And as much as I’d love it, I’m not paying $7K for a Leica. I’d be scared to carry it on the street.

So that leaves me with two choices: I’d keep my Olympus Pen (either one would do the job) with the f2.8 17mm pancake lens (I love this lens. It’s contrasty and focusing speed is pretty much instant.) or I’d be really tempted to look at the FujiFilm X-pro 1 with either the f2 18mm or preferably the f1.4 35mm lenses (or maybe both!).

But before I bought any new camera I’d want to go to the camera store and see if it fits in my hands. If it doesn’t feel right, then I won’t buy it.

And one last point, Tewfic uses a digital audio recorder and you should too. More on that later.

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