I recently returned from a three-week family trip to Japan. Our approach to travel is to cover a fair bit of ground, spend most time out of big cities and try to stay a least a couple of nights in most places. On this trip (check out my travelog if you're interested) we combined a lot of walking in Tokyo with Shinkansen (bullet train) and local train travelling, car hire and even a couple of days of cycling.
I could write at length about the trip and the enjoyment of travel in Japan but that's not the job of this blog. What I will do is use this recent trip as a prompt to write in this and future posts about how I go about my travel photography.
For me, travel and photography are inseparable. I see the world through my lens and make no apology for having a camera with me almost all the time. My family are well used to this and I have strategies for avoiding being too much of a pain about it (for a future post).
And yes, I get the whole 'put down your camera and experience the world' thing. But, as I say, the way I experience the world is by looking it at it with a photographic eye, whether I have a camera with me or not. That's a very different thing from simply having a camera glued to my eye at all times. (More to come on that too.)
In this post I want to talk gear* and discuss the one big change I made to my photography on this trip. I went small.
For many years my photographic travel kit has been an interchangeable-lens digital SLR plus two or three lenses. I've never been one of those people who takes their whole arsenal with them, and I prefer lighter lenses over better lenses, but I had enough variety to go from wide-angle landscapes to telephoto close-ups.
Like many keen photographers, I've avoided 'point-and-shoot' compact cameras because of their dubious image quality and lack of manual controls. There were budget constraints too, of course, and the new generation of 'mirrorless' or 'compact system' cameras, while excellent, weren't enough to justify pulling the kids out of school for.
However, things have changed in the last few years (and not just because the kids have finished school).
There is now a good range of photographer friendly, high-quality compact cameras. In return for the simplicity of a fixed (non-interchangeable) lens with a limited zoom range, they offer excellent image quality in a small, light body. They have larger sensors providing better performance in low light along with other benefits to quality and creativity. And, of great importance to the creative photographer, they offer plenty of control, including the ability to vary each of sensitivity, shutter speed and aperture precisely and easily.
The camera I chose was the Panasonic LX100. Released in 2015 it's not Panasonic's latest release, but it has everything I was looking for. It has a larger than average sensor, lots of manual control easily accessible with physical knobs and buttons (as opposed to buried in the menu system) and an excellent Leica lens. In essence it is a compact camera with virtually all the creative features I am used to on my DSLR kit.
The revelation of taking this camera on holiday was the sense of freedom it gave me. Often we would go out for the day and I would leave the backpack behind. I had my lots-of-pockets SCOTTeVEST jacket with a pocket large enough for the camera, and that was all I needed. I felt unencumbered, which meant the energy lasted longer each day.
I may have missed a few shots because I didn't have a 300mm lens on hand, but on the other hand I got more shots because I had the camera with me (rather than leaving it behind for a rest), I wasn't spending time changing lenses and, being less obtrusive, I was more comfortable taking pictures on the street. This was amply demonstrated on a two-day bike ride we did carrying only a small backpack each.
I didn't have as many pixels to play with (the Panasonic is a 12MP camera as opposed to my 24MP DSLR) but the smaller files made pictures easier to share on the road, and I still have plenty of resolution to make large prints or for a photo book.
All in all I'm sold on the benefits of going small for travel. I'll still use my big kit, of course, for 'higher end' client work or product work such as my calendar and greeting cards. But what I lose with the small camera is definitely not outweighed by the benefits of travelling light.
*To any readers who find my gear-talk is going over their heads, please feel free to ask me to slow down. I'm still finding my audience on this blog and happy to go back and pull apart terminology in more detail in future posts if you're interested. I will, as much as practicable, also provide links to others' articles that explain some of these terms as well as I ever would.