Monday, June 8, 2015

The Perfect Travel Photography Gear

If there's one thing in life that spins my wife's wheels it's traveling to Europe and visiting cathedrals, museums, and castles. When we've traveled abroad, I've always packed camera gear and I spend my time shooting street scenes, people, and travel images as we tromp around from place to place. My biggest challenges have always been: 1) taking a versatile array of equipment that can be transported in overhead bins; and 2) comfortably and safely carrying my camera gear around with me while I shoot. I think I've finally solved both problems.

Camera Gear For Travel

For years, when packing for trips abroad, I would grab two full size pro camera bodies, i.e. Nikon D2H, D2X, D3, D3S, D600 with battery grip, or D800E with battery grip, with newer models taking the place of older ones as they found their way into my equipment cache. These were complimented with an assortment of lenses including an f2.8 fisheye, wide angle f2.8 zooms, and f2.8 telephoto zooms. My long sports lenses, e.g., my 300mm f2.8, 400mm f2.8, and 200mm-400mm f4 lenses were never an option due to size, weight, and bulk. Even though I left the big boys at home, the travel photo gear I typically packed was still heavy and bulky, requiring its own overhead compartment-friendly case. While out and about shooting, carrying even a limited amount of this gear was tiring.

A little perspective - Nikon D800E and 15mm f2.8 fisheye (L); Nikon1 V2 and Nikon 1 10mm f2.8 lens (R)
During our most recent trip to Spain a couple of weeks ago, I proved to myself that I could shoot everything I wanted to shoot, but often couldn't because of focal length limitations, and still get quality images with much more compact equipment. On this trip, I grabbed a Nikon1 V2 camera body that I had picked up a few months ago in the hopes that it would perform capably for vacation/travel use. I also packed a D800E just in case the V2 did not hold its own. I then handpicked a limited number of select, smaller lenses that gave me the versatility I wanted with the V2 and its 2.7X crop factor. The final list included an 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 VR lens, my workhorse with its effective focal range of 48-540mm; a 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR lens with an effective, jaw dropping 189-810mm focal range; and the Nikon1 10mm f2.8 lens with a wide angle effective focal length of 27mm. I had room for my 15mm f2.8 fisheye so I threw it in the case as a wide angle alternative for the D800E.

On our first day in Madrid, I grabbed the Nikon1 and its 10mm f2.8 lens and put it through its paces as a test to see if it was all that and a bag of chips. After downloading images shot in the afternoon and evening, I was sold. The camera blew me away in terms of how it performed no matter what I threw at it. Low light, long exposures, candid shots, you name it, the images surpassed the quality I expected in terms of sharpness and noise levels. For the rest of the two weeks of shooting, the D800E never saw the light of day.
My first image with the Nikon1 V2, 1 Nikkor 10mm f2.8 lens
ISO 200, f2.8, 1/80th second
Second image with the Nikon1 V2, 1 Nikkor 10mm Nikon1 f2.8 lens
ISO 200, f2.8, 1/30th second 
Low light test - Nikon1 V2, 1 Nikkor 10mm f2.8 lens
ISO 20, f2.8, 1/8 second handheld
Needless to say, I will no longer be carrying monster camera bodies or big, heavy lenses when I travel abroad. I don't need to because of the 2.7X crop factor and image quality that far exceeded my expectations. You be the judge after looking at some of the images I managed to get, more of which I'll post below.

The Perfect Camera Bag That Isn't A Camera Bag

But let's talk about carrying stuff around. I hesitate to carry a conventional camera bag when I hit the streets in Europe as we do a lot of our getting around riding the Metros. Metro stations are a magnet for thieves who prey on unsuspecting, careless tourists. So are touristy venues with crowds, the kinds of places we often frequent. A Think Tank, Lowepro, Tamarac, or Fill-In-The-Blank camera bag screams "TOURIST ALERT - THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS IN STUFF RIPE FOR THE STEALING RIGHT HERE" and I'd just as soon not give potential thieves any more reason than necessary to target me as a mark. 

Until now, I've tried to make do with an assortment of unconventional bags in which to tote my stuff around, none designed for camera gear and none that were particularly functional. Some were a pain in the rear when trying to fit stuff in; some were borderline impossible in terms of easy access to the stuff inside; and some were very uncomfortable to carry after a long day of walking. In short, nothing worked to my satisfaction.

The good news is that I've stumbled upon the answer to my prayers - an ultra-functional, bomb proof, stealthy, oh-so-comfortable to wear, get-out-there-and-shoot bag - the Mountainsmith Day TLS Lumbar Pack. I found  it on Amazon for a very reasonable $65 and it arrived this week. 

Kit Cube Travel Case (L)
Mountainsmith is not an unfamiliar brand name to me as back in the day my Mountainsmith backpack served me well on several Appalachian Trail backpacking trips. At that time, Mountainsmith gear was considered  well made, very functional, durable, and comfortable as load haulers for the trail. So after I inadvertently saw this lumbar pack on Amazon and did a little research, I not only discovered that it was the perfect size, but Mountainsmith offered some camera specific accessories that turns this hiking hip pack into travel photo bag nirvana.

The Kit Cube Travel Case inside the Pack
The Mountainsmith add-on I found is the Mountainsmith Kit Cube Traveler Case which fits inside the main compartment of the Day TLS lumbar pack. It also arrived this week from Amazon - $35.

While it may not seem like it given its size, the cube will store loads of gear. As shown below, I am able to fit the following gear into the bag: Nikon1 V2 14.2 MP body with Nikkor lens adapter and a 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR lens; a new Nikon1 V3 18.4 MP body with Nikkor lens adapter (that I picked up after returning from Spain) and an 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 VR lens; 50mm f1.4 Nikkor lens; 85mm f1.8 Nikkor lens; 8mm Sigma f4 fisheye; 10mm Nikon1 f2.8 lens; and 10-30mm Nikon1 f3.5-5.6 VR lens.

Kit Cube unpacked
With this setup, I can shoot anything while traveling on vacation, maybe not quite as well as with my D800E and my usual compliment of pro level lenses, but certainly capably enough to generate quality images. The compact size, minimal weight, and technology of the Nikon1 bodies makes the setup more versatile than anything I've ever used. It's all complimented by a camera bag that does not look like a camera bag with a shoulder strap and a hip belt. Nobody is going to snatch it and run off with my gear when I least expect it or when trying to compose a shot and I'm in my own little world.
Above gear packed into Kit Cube

I can't imagine that I will actually take all these lenses with me the next time we head overseas. Most likely, the 50mm lens will not go but it's nice to know that an f1.4 prime lens with an effective focal length of 135mm (the ideal portrait focal length) will fit if I want to include a great low light, mild telephoto prime lens. Same goes for the 85mm, if I decide that I want to keep gear to a minimum, though a low light (f1.8) prime lens with an effective focal length of 230mm sure is nice when you need it.

Even if either or both of those lenses don't make the cut, I still won't throw everything into the bag for a day of shooting. At most I would take the 2 camera bodies, the 18-200mm, the 10mm, and the 8mm lenses on a typical day unless I know I will need to reach out and touch someone or something which would create a need to carry the 70-300mm. If I want to go light, I'll just grab the V3 body, the 18-200mm and/or the 10mm.

If I choose to pack my camera gear into the Day TLS Pack and carry it on to planes, I can certainly do that. Getting around airports while using the hip belt and shoulder strap will make carrying the gear easy as pie. But I'll probably use the Day TLS as a typical carry on/man purse with personal items, holding my iPad, passport, airline tickets, snacks, cell phone, paperback, glasses, yadda yadda. I will probably pack the Kit Cube with the camera gear into a second, larger carry on bag along with my laptop and all the other stuff that I don't want to go in checked baggage.

Tenba Toolbox 8 packed with spare batteries, chargers, card wallet, etc.
All of the other photography paraphernalia that I take will go easily into another little gem that I found on Amazon's web site, a Tenba Toolbox 8. It's a small, self contained padded case with velcro dividers with a clear zippered top.  The Toolbox series comes in three sizes, the Toolbox 4, 6, and 8. I picked up the Toolbox 8 for $37 and it's just the ticket for items like battery chargers, lens caps, spare batteries, cards, cables, and other miscellaneous accessories. Smaller than the Mountainsmith Kit Cube, it will easily pack into the carry on bag. If I want, on any given day when I hit the streets with one camera body and a couple of lenses, I can use this inside the Day TLS hip bag in lieu of the Kit Cube, freeing up space inside the bag for lunch or other items.

Show Me The Money - Images

When we traveled to Spain, I hoped I would have the chance to shoot a bullfight. I had been to a bullfight in Mexico City some forty years ago but sat in the nosebleed section, drinking my share of Carta Blanca and not paying a whole lot of attention to what was going on in the ring. As a sports photographer, the notion of capturing the action and pageantry of something so traditionally Spanish overrode my distaste for needless animal cruelty; and, shooting a bullfight would give me chance to see what a Nikon1 camera body would do with a long lens under challenging, action conditions. 

I wanted to get some tight action shots of the matadors mixed in with some wide angle images so I took two lenses to the arena, the 70-300mm and the 10mm. At the time I did not yet have the Nikon1 V3 with its 20 frames/second continuous autofocus capability but I made do with the Nikon1 V2's 15 frames/second setting and no continuous autofocus. Sitting in the stands 25 rows or so above ringside I fired away.

Below is a sampling of shots from that evening. The wide angle arena shot (first image) was taken with the 10mm f2.8 lens. It will give you some perspective as to my view from the stands and just how far away the matadors did their thing.  All of the other images were taken with the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 Nikkor lens that is not much bigger than the 17-35mm f2.8 lens I used to regularly pack. I varied the zoom focal length depending upon the composition I was striving for.

The Nikon1'x 2.7X crop factor made the 70-300mm lens the equivalent of a 189-810mm zoom with no change in lens aperture. With remarkably fast focus, action images were sharp with shutter speeds no slower than 1/640th second at f5.6 even at a handheld 810mm. Equally impressive, images were relatively noiseless at ISO 400 and ISO 800. With that monster of a focal range, this one lens gives me much longer range capability at a fraction of the size and weight of anything I have carried in the past. When traveling, that's worth its weight in gold.

For every day tromping around, I used the 18-200mm f3.5-5.6 lens. It's smaller and lighter than my 17-35mm f2.8 lens but gives me an effective focal range of 50-540mm. With this range, it was my go-to lens while walking around. Regardless of whether I was indoors shooting a cathedral in low light without a tripod or shooting candid shots of locals from a distance, I was dazzled by the performance. If I needed to go wide, I simply popped on the 10mm or just shot a vertical series of overlapping images and used Photoshop's Photomerge feature to stitch the images together.

The 10mm was put into heavy use, especially at night when we headed out to dinner and I didn't want to carry a bunch of gear with me. Fitted onto the V2 body, the combo was literally small enough to fit into a shirt pocket while still giving me what I consider to be great low light, handheld images even with long exposure times.

Final Thoughts...

The moral of my story is that with technological advances in mirrorless cameras like the Nikon1 system, traveling to distant places on vacation no longer has to be as much of a compromise as it used to be. No longer do I have to balance size, bulk, and weight with ease of portability. Small and light with a good dose of versatility is now possible while still maintaining good image quality. If someone had told me five years ago that I could stash a small bag in a plane's overhead compartment with gear that would let me shoot 20 frames/second in continuous autofocus and a focal length of 810mm I would have asked them what they were smoking.

Toss in what I consider to be the ideal bag in which to carry gear and travel/vacation photography has taken a giant leap forward for me. I can't wait to take the V3 for a spin on our next trip.

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