Plugged In: Don’t get weighed down by not traveling light

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Travel is good for everyone — broadening horizons, suggesting new ideas and approaches to common concerns. Traveling light is even better, allowing for more fun and flexibility.

Everyone wants to take vacation photos, preferably good ones, and I’m no exception. However, I also like to travel as light as possible, an attitude honed on winter hunting trips in the Interior, flying in aircraft with barely enough room to seat two people, let alone deep winter survival gear.

Over a period of 10 days recently, I had the opportunity to visit and photograph Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, the historic arts-centered town of Mendocino on the California coast, as well as the nearby Anderson Valley wine country. That trip concluded with three days walking about the arts and downtown districts of Portland, while my spouse, Terese, attended a neuropsychology conference there.

Although not intended as a photography excursion, that road trip resulted in varied and challenging photographic opportunities, ranging from gritty cityscapes through deeply quiet redwood forests, seaside villages and geologically active countryside. Some of those vacation photos inevitably would be typical photo memories, but I wanted to be prepared to properly capture anything that came my way.

Which camera gear to take along so that I was traveling not only light but also prepared? Further complicating that decision was the rain and forest-fire smoke predicted for at least part of the trip, suggesting weather-sealed gear.

In the end, I packed and carried an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Micro Four-Thirds camera with Olympus’ superb new 12- to 40-mm f/2.8 PRO zoom lens and a Sigma 60-mm f/2.8 medium telephoto lens. Several of the OM-D series cameras are weather-resistant, with excellent image stabilization and good low-light image quality, yet smaller and lighter than equivalent APS-C cameras. The Sigma telephoto prime lens is small, sharp and inexpensive, a nice combination. Between these two lenses on a Micro Four-Thirds camera, I could range between the 35-mm film equivalent of a 24-mm ultrawide-angle view and a 120-mm medium telephoto magnification.

As with so many plans, this sounded good in theory but was not optimal in practice. The OM-D E-M5 with that prograde zoom lens seemed pretty heavy after hanging from my neck for several days. The Sigma 60-mm telephoto just didn’t have the magnification and reach that I needed for shots across the big countryside through which we traveled. And the weather was clear and dry every day, so a weather-sealed camera and lens were not necessary.

Although a few “arty” shots on that trip required the good low-light capability of the OM-D and fast zoom lens, most photos were taken in bright daylight at low base ISO sensitivities. Under these circumstances, most upper-tier cameras produce photos quite adequate for online posting or viewing on a computer or TV screen. They’re usually suitable for 13-by-19-inch prints, the largest size made by affordable digital photo printers.

With that recent experience in mind, I re-evaluated what I would take along on my next trip to optimize the balance between broad capability and easy traveling.

Photo Illustration 1

Photo Illustration 1

Figure 1 shows a range of six cameras, increasing in size, weight, cost and capability from left to right. These are illustrative rather than specific recommendations. Our illustration is courtesy of http://www.camerasize.com.

On the left is Canon’s S120, one of the few truly pocketable cameras capable of high-quality results in good light. The S120’s sharp lens has a magnification range equivalent to 24 mm through 120 mm. Its 1/1.7-inch sensor is the smallest size capable of good photos under a variety of conditions. At 217 grams (about 8 ounces), it’s light enough to carry and use day in and day out. The S120’s $449 price won’t break the bank for a camera of this quality.

Second from the left is Sony’s RX100 Mark III, using a 1-inch class sensor and a bright, 24- to 70-mm equivalent zoom lens. Although somewhat thicker than the S120, and thus requiring a larger pocket, the Sony RX100 Mark III is still quite light at 240 grams (8.5 ounces) but rather heavy on the wallet at $798.

It’s an innovative camera in many ways, receiving good reviews, but the image quality of the test shots that I made last week with the newest Mark III version did not particularly impress me, given the camera’s high cost.

Third from the left is Olympus’ E-PL5 with that company’s compact new 14- to 42-mm “EZ” electric zoom lens, equivalent to a magnification range of 28- to 84-mm. I was sufficiently impressed with the small size and good image quality of this lens that I bought one after making and analyzing some test shots.

The E-PL5 usually sells for about $449 with Olympus’ older, physically larger 14- to 42-mm II R kit lens, a decent optic but one not quite up to the newer “EZ” zoom’s image quality. The E-PL5 and EZ zoom lens are light at 416 grams (about 15 ounces) and use the same large Micro Four-Thirds sensor as the company’s top-end OM-D cameras. However, the body’s not weather-sealed, nor does it include the more effective, five-axis, in-body image-stabilization system found in the upper-tier Olympus OM-D and E-P5 cameras. The slightly heavier E-P5 is a more sophisticated version of the E-PL5, featuring better construction.

Not shown due to space limitations but worth evaluating is Panasonic’s tiny GM-1 Micro Four-Thirds camera and 12- to 32-mm zoom lens (270 grams, about $650 to $750). Many reviewers seem to like the GM-1, but the camera’s almost-too-small size and the zoom lens’ ho-hum image quality did not make a strongly positive impression when I tested one.

Fourth from left is the Olympus Micro Four-Thirds OM-D E-M5 and 12- to 40-mm PRO lens that I actually carried on our trip. This is a weather-sealed prograde combination, with excellent capabilities, construction and image quality, as it should be for $1,600. It weighs 782 grams, about 28 ounces.

Second from the right is Pentax’s K-5 II, one of the most compact prograde digital SLR cameras using the even-larger APS-C sensor. To maintain magnification consistency, we’ve teamed it with Pentax’s 16- to 50-mm f/2.8 zoom lens, again equivalent to a 24- to 75-mm zoom lens on a full-frame camera. It weighs 1,295 grams, about 46 ounces, and costs $1,700. Although the majority of cameras I saw while traveling were APS-C models, I believe that they’re too big and heavy to be an ideal vacation camera, even though image quality is usually very good.

Finally, there’s Canon’s 5D Mark III, with a full-frame sensor and mounting Canon’s 24- to 70-mm II L lens. This professional camera is shown here mostly for size comparison. At 1,550 grams and $5,800, it’s an unlikely choice for a vacation.

So, what would I carry next trip? I’d use a Canon S120 as a pocket camera while walking the city streets. I’d also take a smaller Olympus compact-system camera, such as the E-P5 or E-PL5 with the new EZ electric zoom lens, a small, bright, wide-angle prime lens, such as Olympus’ 17-mm f/1.8 or Panasonic’s 20-mm f/1.7 lens for those dim indoor photos, and a light telephoto zoom lens, like Olympus’ 40- to 150-mm model for those long bright-daylight shots in big country.

We’ll take a closer look at the wide range of good Micro Four-Thirds optics in a future article.

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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