Plugged In: Travel light, don’t slight photos with wrong gear

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Over the past 30 years, I’ve developed a strong preference for traveling well prepared but as light as possible, a lesson learned on winter hunting trips flown in a two-seat Taylorcraft.

When traveling to more hospitable locales, I’ll pack only a single carry-on bag, even on extended trips. That preference for traveling light carries over to photo gear. We’ve just returned from a fast-paced trip to five European countries in eight days, where my wife, Teri, and I helped chaperone a high school band tour. Before leaving, I gave a lot of thought to the right camera gear for the trip, small enough to be stowed along with my clothes in my carry-on bag, but sufficiently versatile to handle any probable situation.

Here’s what I ultimately packed: an Olympus E-P3 and its slide-on, eye-level electronic viewfinder, an Olympus 14- to 42-mm kit zoom lens, very compact Panasonic 20-mm f/1.7 and Sigma 30-mm f/2.8 fast prime lenses, and Olympus’ small, light 40- to 150-mm telephoto zoom. These lenses fit in a very small and light bag, one of the principal benefits of using a Micro Four-Thirds compact-system camera. I also took a pocketable Canon S100 premium compact camera.

That choice of camera gear worked reasonably well, but in retrospect, I could have done better. So, here are my own travel photography lessons learned:

  • Protecting your gear is particularly important when traveling, so I carried the Olympus E-P3 on a neck strap in a sturdy leather case. Unfortunately, that leather case fit the E-P3 only when the 20-mm Panasonic lens was mounted. The other lenses sat in the camera bag most of the time, protected by individual small leather Pentax lens bags, which provide good shielding at a very affordable price. In the future, though, rather than a regular camera bag, I’ll most likely use a small, flat “messenger” style shoulder bag with room to pack a few other items on day trips, preferably a bag that does not blatantly shout “tourist,” nor advertise that there are expensive cameras and lenses inside.
  • The fast Panasonic 20-mm lens was a good choice. It’s very small, light and sharp, even at the very wide apertures needed for low-light conditions. On a Micro Four-Thirds camera like the Olympus E-P3, that 20-mm lens has a slightly wide-angle field of view that’s quite versatile, especially in dim light, tight quarters and social situations. It worked particularly well in dark churches, allowing a shutter speed sufficiently fast to avoid camera shake. I’ll definitely take a fast prime lens like this on future trips.

The Olympus M. Zuiko II 14- to 42-mm kit zoom lens is surprisingly sharp for a kit lens and very compact. Unfortunately, strange as it may seem, I was not always in a position to safely change from the Panasonic 20-mm lens to the Olympus kit zoom lens, mostly due to the fast walking pace when our group toured some areas.

Because of this and the size constraints of that leather camera case, I had to use the 20-mm Panasonic lens as my default lens, rather than the more versatile, albeit slower, 14- to 42-mm Olympus kit zoom. In the future, I’ll leave that leather case home and protect any camera with an Op/Tech neoprene case. It’s a loose, rather sloppy fit compared to the leather case, but does protect the camera from rain and shock while allowing me to mount the slightly larger but more versatile kit zoom lens.

To my surprise, I did not use the 40- to 150-mm telephoto zoom at all. That may be partly due the relatively confined nature of the European streets and buildings that we visited, where higher telephoto magnifications are not really needed.

On a trip to wide-open spaces, such as the American West, a telephoto zoom lens like this would be very useful. The 30-mm Sigma lens was a last-minute addition that stayed in my camera bag, as did the supplemental VF-2 eye-level viewfinder, because I didn’t need really need either.

  • In retrospect, I would also have taken a different camera body. The Olympus E-P3 is ruggedly built of magnesium metal alloy and works well in good light up to ISO 800, with its ISO 1600 sensitivity setting usable with careful technique. The E-P3, though, uses a somewhat older sensor that’s not quite as good in very dim light at high ISO settings like ISO 3200. Perhaps more importantly, like nearly all consumer-level cameras, the E-P3 is not weather-sealed and we ran into a fair amount of wet weather.

I did have a much more suitable camera available, an Olympus OM-D, but left it home due to concerns about possible theft or other loss. The OM-D is a prograde camera that’s weather-sealed and that works well at ISO 3200 in dim light. Just as important, the OM-D’s 12- to 50-mm kit zoom lens is also weather-sealed and has a more versatile magnification range from ultra wide-angle to short-telephoto settings equivalent to 24 mm through 100 mm. This camera and lens combination, supplemented by the fast 20-mm f/1.7 Panasonic prime lens, would have been decidedly more suitable to the conditions that we encountered. A midrange compact-system camera, like the Olympus E-PL5, would have done just as well in dim light but is not weather-sealed.

  • I took a backup camera with me, a Canon S100 premium compact, and a small weatherproof case that snugly fit the Canon while remaining easily pocketable. This turned out to be a very good decision.

There were times when even the compact Olympus E-P3 was less convenient or out of place, such as rainy weather and during the tour of the Dachau concentration camp. I simply put the S100 in my pocket and pulled it out when appropriate.

The S100 does reasonably well in dim light and has a very versatile magnification range equivalent to 24-mm ultrawide-angle through 120-mm telephoto. A premium compact camera like this would work well even as a primary camera. Among the most suitable premium compact cameras are the current Canon S110 and G15, the Olympus XZ-2, the Panasonic LX-7, the Sony RX100 and the large-sensor Canon G1X.

  • Several accessories proved very useful. Because I was recording band concerts, audio quality was very important, necessitating a decent external microphone. Olympus makes a nice stereo microphone that plugs into the viewfinder slot found on all Olympus Micro Four-Thirds cameras and that provides much better sound quality than the tiny microphones built into most camera bodies. Yet that stereo microphone and adapter are so tiny that they fit into a small side pocket of the camera bag.

Taking a standard tripod, or even a monopod, was out of the question. Not only would these raise eyebrows at airport security checkpoints, but even the monopod was too long to fit into an airline-approved carry-on bag. Yet, there were clearly times when a stable platform was needed, particularly when filming 20-minute-long concerts.

Although I’m sure that some people can hold a camera still that long, I’m not among those gifted few. Instead, I brought along a Manfrotto pocket camera support, a high-precision adjustable metal device weighing about 2 ounces and, when folded, is only one-quarter inch thick and less than half the size of a credit card. When unfolded and set at the desired angle, it’s strong and stable enough to support a compact-system camera, like the Olympus.

Manfrotto’s “pocket supports” are available online for under $30 from reputable vendors like http://www.bhphotovideo.com. A Gorillapod or very small tabletop tripod would also work but the Manfrotto devices are both smaller and lighter yet inspire more confidence.

  • I took along several 16-gigabyte Class 10 SDHC memory cards. These are now quite inexpensive and more practical than a bag full of smaller, slower memory cards waiting to become lost. Besides, video recording each concert as an uninterrupted 20- to 30-minute, high-definition video clip requires a lot of fast storage.
  • Recharging camera batteries concerned me until I recalled that most chargers are dual-voltage, accepting both U.S. 120-volt and European 240-volt current. All that you really need, then, is a means of adapting your U.S.-style battery chargers to various wall plugs, not an expensive and heavy step-down transformer. I bought some standard French-to-U.S. adapters locally for under $10, and some multicountry German pattern to U.S. three-conductor grounded adapters from Amazon for even less, along with Wasabi Power-branded spare batteries and chargers with folding U.S.-style wall plugs. Just plug the correct wall outlet adapter into the wall and then plug the battery charger directly into the wall adapter. It’s simple, cheap and very workable.
  • Finally, store your spare memory cards, charged batteries and lens cleaning cloth in a small, flat pouch that fits in your pocket.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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Filed under photography, Plugged in, travel

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