Traveling Light, Working Heavy

July 24, 2014

My last blog post came at the beginning of the most hectic month of photography I've yet experienced.  Two nights of Pops Concerts, a quick editorial/architectural shoot, two dance studio shoots on four weekends, followed by five days of intensive rehearsal and performance shoots, altogether around 9,000 images to sort through, rate and save the best, fulfill print orders, etc., etc., etc.  The day after the final dance performance shoot, I left for ten days in Europe to accompany an incredible choir from the Bay Area on a performance tour in London, Paris, a chateau in the French countryside, Rome, and the Vatican.  I returned from Europe with just under 3,000 additional images.  (I also returned with $15,000 in fraudulent charges against my business account that hit while I was gone, but that's another story altogether.)

I've now culled my 3,000 Europe photos down to a more manageable 500 to share with the participants.  For most professional photographers that's an absurd number.  Professional travel photographers, or portrait photographers, or landscape photographers will all tell you that if you post more than a dozen or so photos to your portfolio, you're wasting your time, talent, and marketability.  But when you're an event shooter, or trying to capture meaningful images of a tour with over 200 participants, a dozen photos just don't cut it.  Welcome to my world.

Am I complaining? About the sheer volume of photos from this amazing tour?  Absolutely not.  About the equipment needed to adequately document it?  Well… yes.  It's often said that nobody travels to Europe, or any other destination, and wishes they packed more stuff.  Traveling daily means carrying luggage and photo gear in and out of hotels, around town, onto and off trains and buses.  Traveling light is a real plus.  And don't get me started on the increasingly restrictive airline policies governing carry-ons.  

So I travel with only those pieces of gear that I know I will use.  For now, here's the packing list: one Canon 5D MarkIII with the "trinity" of fast glass - 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm, all capable of f/2.8 across the range, plus one Fuji X100S, one speed light with sync cord, batteries, chargers, and memory cards.  I recently purchased a small MeFoto travel tripod, which I really don't need (as a tripod), but it handily converts to a monopod which also fits nicely in the ThinkTank Airport Airstream below (minus the monopod, not shown):

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The Airport Airstream is a roller, which is a godsend, as it tips the scale at 25 pounds, loaded as shown.  It fits easily in all airline overhead compartments (and you stroll quickly and confidently past the gate attendants because it's likely to be overweight).  It's great for rolling through airports, along well-paved streets, church floors, and other smooth surfaces.  On cobblestones, gravel, dirt, grass, or other uneven surfaces, not so much.  On one particular event, following a performance at the beautiful Chateau Vaux Le Vicomte in Maincy, France, I had to hand carry this beast around from location to location, as there were no smooth surfaces on the entire grounds, except inside the chateau itself.  Ditto in crowded venues such as Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, where I rolled over way too many toes dragging this equipment around.  The Airstream is not a backpack, so lugging 25 pounds by one hand is no walk in the park (even when it is a walk in the park).

For daily review and editing I bring my 13" MacBook Air, 500GB external drive for backups, a small Wacom tablet (an absolute must for any meaningful editing), and associated power cords, extension cords, international plug adapters, card readers, etc, etc.  All of these fit nicely into a ThinkTank 15" Artificial Intelligence laptop bag.  This 15" bag is made to fit a 15" laptop, but the dedicated and well-padded laptop compartment also accommodates the smaller 13" MacBook Air and the Wacom tablet.  I also carry my iPad mini and Bose noise-cancelling earbuds in it, for in-flight entertainment.

So in the cabin, the Airport Airstream is my carry-on, and the laptop bag is my "personal item".  The laptop stays in the hotel room, locked in my suitcase, which is typically locked to an immovable object.

On sightseeing or travel-only days, the Canon gear stays in the Airstream, and all of my "travel" photos are made with the Fuji X100S.  I lose absolutely no image quality with this camera in comparison to the 5D MarkIII.  The one downside is that it's a fixed focal length camera, so the only zoom capability is my feet.  But it's a joy to use, and absolutely never a problem to access it.  It's either around my neck when I'm using it alone, or in a small belt pouch when I'm carrying the Canon gear in the Airstream.  

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Which brings me to the main point: there's a significant migration going on in the professional (and advanced prosumer) ranks toward mirrorless cameras like the Fuji lineup.  Fuji is a current leader in this market, but Sony, Olympus and Pentax are also strong in the marketplace.  In fact, at the temple of high volume photography sales, B&H Photo in New York, there are 320 DSLR's offered, and 263 mirrorless models.  Although Nikon is in this marketplace, Nikon DSLR sales are lagging, and Nikon is frantically looking for additional options to boost sales.  

Why is this?  There are two main reasons.  First, the advancement of mirrorless technology is incredibly rapid, with new models coming out seemingly every month.  Image quality for most photographers and most purposes is practically indistinguishable from that which can be obtained from prosumer and advanced DSLRs, particularly those with crop sensors. (Landscape photographers will vehemently argue this point, and for that specialty, they're probably right.)

But the main advantage is size and weight.  For example, if I were to replace my Canon gear with the same focal length range in Fuji gear, I would buy a Fuji XT1, along with a 10-24, and the eagerly awaited 18-135 zoom lens, and be done with it.  That would cut my size and weight budget by 80%.  80%!  I would kill for that, especially after nearly stroking out at the chateau.  No more rolling luggage, no risk of hernia, and no more monopod; just a small shoulder bag that weighs maybe five pounds.

So why the heck not?  Why do I not have this rig right now??  If it's good enough for David Hobby, Zack Arias, Bill Fortney and a host of photographers infinitely more talented than me, what's holding me back?

In short, I need the reach and the speed of the Canon glass, which no mirrorless system currently offers.  As a performing arts photographer, I live in low light.  I rarely have the luxury of shooting below 1600 ISO, and often need to get upwards of 6400 ISO.  Even at these elevated ranges, I still need fast glass (e.g. f/2.8) to get exposures as fast as 1/125, which is the minimum needed to freeze singing faces, or 1/320 for dancers in motion.  Mirrorless systems like the Fuji can give me that.  But in a performance venue other than a rock concert or jazz festival, I cannot approach the stage; I need to stand off and use a 200mm lens to get the faces I need.  And that's the killer right there.

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So there are four elements that combine to give me the shots I need: high ISO, fast lenses, telephoto reach, and reasonably fast shutter speeds.  With my Canon gear, I have all four.  With the current state of mirrorless systems, I can pick any two, sometimes three.  But I can't get all four.  So guys like me crave a fast  telephoto lens in a mirrorless form factor.  But will it ever be available?  It may be that the physics of lens design make it impossible to fit all of the optics required to achieve a fast telephoto in a form factor that fits with the mirrorless aesthetic; I don't know.  

I do know that I love my Canon gear.  I'll probably never replace it for most of the performing arts assignments I have.  But for performance photography that involves travel, I'm hoping that someday, I'll be able to truly travel light. As it is, that Fuji kit I mentioned above is burning a hole in my psyche. 

THIS JUST IN!  On the day I posted this blog entry (tonight) Fuji has just announced a 50-140mm f/2.8 lens, to be released toward the end of this year.  Must have….