This guest post is the second of three in a photography series that was kindly contributed by Brad and Margus. The first article can be found here.
In the first part of this short series we covered some basic photography concepts—manual exposure, digital sensors, etc. This second part focuses more on the camera equipment carried by a couple of ADVers, and why they made certain equipment choices.
Margus: I will offer two options here, both still photography only (no video).
Option 1: For “documentary” type of travel photography, equipment that I’d recommend 95% of the time, it’s simple: a Sigma DP2 Quattro (or DP1 if you’re a wide angle person) with two additional batteries and be done with it.
I do tend to be a bit over-equipped, but there’s a funny irony that I’ve found through extensive practice: on a motorcycle, “less is more” is a good rule to follow—it not only reduces the bulk you carry and makes life easier, but it can do wonders for photographic creativity. I’d go with a single fixed-lens camera, and just use my mobile phone camera, which you have with you anyway, as a backup.
But a single fixed-lens camera? It sounds limiting, but a fixed lens camera makes me really think about how I’ll approach a photo. My mind becomes the scene planner or “painter” and my legs (or my motorcycle wheels) are my zoom. For me, with very few exceptions, the zoom lenses almost always are an optical compromise that lacks the artistic look and depth of a high-quality fixed lens. Working with a single camera and a single fixed lens you’ll soon learn all its secrets, how it behaves in every situation, through different conditions of timing, shooting angle, and light. You’ll never do that if you have multiple cameras and lenses and keep switching them. It’s magic: an apparent “limiting” setup brings out your best photography. I’ve proven it many times over: the learning curve is steep with any setup, but with a simple setup you’ll learn to take good and even excellent photos. It’s in your tank bag and you need around five seconds to have it ready to capture a sudden scene in a very short window of time. While the other guy with bulky interchangeable lenses is setting up his gear you’ve already got the shot. You knew the right distance, the right setting, and the right angle from your first approach, while the other guy with multiple cameras and lenses spent so much time thinking and trying out different things that the window closed before he took the shot.
- Sigma DP2 Quattro with two additional batteries
- Add a circular polarizer filter and/or graduated neutral density (ND) if you’re into landscapes
- A tiny pocket tripod for night shots or long exposures
Option 2: For “fine-art” travel photography, a film camera. Yes, film. It’s only for the truly adventurous photographers but it comes with an advantage on the road: you do not need to edit the photos (I hate editing while on the road; it takes too much time when I just want to enjoy the trip and photograph to the best of my ability and worry about results later).
I am being realistic, so this is recommended less than 5% of the time, and it’s really only for those nerdy-types, like the other artist-part of me who wants photos that look and “feel” unique in ways that no digital camera can replicate no matter how skillful you are in Photoshop with film simulations. Any film camera that works for you can do the trick, but it would probably be a 35 mm film SLR, which you can get for a song these days, or a rangefinder for best-size compromise. Fixed top-of-the-line lenses that used to cost a fortune (and still give fits to many modern lenses) are now cheaply and readily available secondhand via eBay, etc. If you’re really adventurous, a medium format can work too, as it does for me:
- Pentax 67 (that is closing in on 40 years old, has been in six continents and over 100 countries, ridden around 300,000 km on the bike, and still works reliably
- 45 mm wide angle, 105 mm f2.4 normal, and 200 mm tele
- Lee filters with single holder that fits all lenses: CPL, two GNDs and one strong ND, IR (my “Photoshop” is already done in the optical domain)
- Compact but sturdy carbon fiber tripod
- Dozen film rolls packed into ADOX containers (never had a heat problem even in +45°C Africa)
Brad: For me, there are some basic parameters regarding camera systems that I’ve come to understand through the school of hard knocks. I remember clearly watching as my wife’s Canon 60D DSLR went bouncing down the path and nearly over the edge of Ophir Pass outside of Telluride, Colorado. The camera made it back home, a little worse for wear.
If you read the first article, you know that while I like full frame digital cameras, everything about a full-frame digital makes the system larger and heavier. Canon and Nikon have just recently came out with their mirrorless lineups, which include cameras with full frame sensors and dedicated mirrorless lenses. These may be options in the future. For now, I’m happy where I am and have no plans of jumping ship.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless
As to overall types of systems, I have very strong opinions. DSLRs are antiquated; the future—if not the present—is mirrorless.
The design of the DSLR comes directly from the Single Lens Reflex concept that took over the camera market in the early ’60s. The concept is simple—put a mirror box in front of the film that lets the user see through the lens. This provided a big advantage over the predecessor rangefinder cameras, which had a large share of the market up to that time but offered the user no way of looking through the lens to get a sense of how the scene would be recorded. SLRs added complexity in some ways, but they also improved the shooting experience.
DSLRs generally use the exact same SLR concepts and just put a “D” in front of it. The mirror boxes are the same; the pentaprism on top of the mirror box is the same. But while this SLR concept lets the user look through the lens, it doesn’t give you a really good sense of how the sensor is going to record the scene.
Then along came mirrorless cameras. A “mirrorless” camera is one that doesn’t have the mirror box in front of the sensor. Rather than letting the user “look through the lens,” a mirrorless camera simply provides the user with a real-time representation of what the sensor is seeing by reading the sensor data and then presenting this to the user either via a screen on the back of the camera or in an electronic viewfinder. Doing away with the mirror box and pentaprism and moving the lens closer to the sensor greatly reduces overall size and weight of the mirrorless camera. In addition, looking at a live view of the sensor data allows the user to better estimate how the camera is going to record the scene. Lastly, using an electronic viewfinder as opposed to an SLR “through the lens” view gives camera manufacturers the ability to overlay various camera information in the electronic viewfinder, superimposed right there on the image data regarding the scene based on user preferences.
The first mirrorless cameras were admittedly clunky and slow. My old Coolpix 900 is a good example of that. The camera was functional at a very low level and very slow in its operation. With many early mirrorless cameras, there was a lag between the time you pushed the button and the time the camera actually took the shot. Today, advances in sensor and processor technology allow mirrorless designs to operate very quickly and in many ways outpace their DSLR cousins. Now, it’s true that most if not all DSLRs provide the user the option to go into some form of “live view” mode, which provides some version of the mirrorless functionality. But at that point you have to ask yourself what’s the point of carrying around a mirror box and pentaprism and extra weight and bulk of a DSLR if you don’t need it and are better off without it.
When I was looking for a digital system to buy into, I definitely had motorcycle travel in mind. I wanted something that was light, small, simple, and durable. The system also had to do all of the basic types of photography I was interested in (action, landscape, astrophotography), and it needed to be reasonably priced. And while I came from an SLR background, I really wanted mirrorless.
As a photojournalist, I was concerned with the weight of professional camera equipment from the get-go. It was a heck of a task at times just to tote the gear around. If you recall, the encounter I had with the Black Star photographer who shot a simple Leica camera really made me think, and it drives my thinking about gear even today.
If you look back at many of the famous photojournalists, they often traveled very light. Robert Capa—probably the best war photographer in history—covered multiple wars with nothing but a Contax II rangefinder camera and a 50 mm lens. One of his comments still sticks with me today: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” It’s also good to know that Capa died by stepping on a landmine, so his advice has to be taken . . . carefully.
So, when I think about travel photography, I harken back to that lesson I learned years ago. If you are traveling, go light. This alone drove me away from full-frame camera systems and DSLRs. I considered the Olympus OMD system, which is based around a micro four thirds sensor. However, numerous users at the time reported image quality concerns in dark settings. That made sense to me because high pixel resolutions on small sensors equates to small pixels and poor performance in the dark. To me, APS-C sensors seemed to make the most sense, and I narrowed my choices to that sensor size.
When you’re traveling by bike, space is precious and not to be wasted. I travel on a modified KTM 690 with only soft panniers and a roll bag on top. That makes space very much at a premium. So, cameras and lenses need to be small.
At the time I was first looking for a digital, the two system that were APS-C sized and widely available were Sony and Fuji. Sony had both full frame and APS-C cameras, whereas Fuji stuck with making just the smaller sensored cameras. I considered and quickly rejected the idea of one of the all-in-one cameras, as those all seemed to have sensors smaller than APS-C. There also is no ability to expand the field of view to do astrophotography with the all-in-ones, and most of the cameras at the time didn’t have very good wide apertures with many just opening up to f3.5. I wanted better than that. So for me, it was down to Sony and Fuji APS-Cs.
It’s fine to own a camera that has all sorts of bells and whistles, but you have to make sure that those don’t get in the way of your shooting. It’s highly frustrating to up a camera for the perfect action shot and missing it because some setting has gotten knocked out of place in your tank bag. I have one particular digital camera that I think is great—the X-T1. It has eight separate dedicated dials on it (not counting the buttons) that do various things. This means that you can change all sorts of settings without digging into menus to get the camera set like you want. The problem is . . . all of those dials. Every time I carried that camera on a motorcycle ride, I would pick it up and find that one or more of those dials had rattled into some goofy position, and I missed shots trying to figure out what was wrong. A camera is a tool, and the tool should not get in your way. They must be simple to use. The perfect camera for you will almost disappear in your hands. Look, no one wants to ride a bike that has a wonky, grabby clutch or that makes riding off-road difficult. The same applies to cameras. Well, I’m hoping not the grabby clutch bit, but you know what I mean.
Lastly, cameras have to be durable to survive motorcycle trips. Your cameras are going to be out in the elements, maybe in and around mud, dirt, dust, heat, rain, and morning dew if you are camping. Vibration alone does weird things to camera bits. They have to hold up to the abuse.
Sony and Fuji were early adopters of the mirrorless design; Nikon and Canon have really lagged behind. Sony developed cameras with their own style. The Sony design aesthetic is uniquely . . . Sony. One of the Sony designers, Yoshinori Yamada, once said, “Following in someone else’s footsteps is not our style.” So true. Sony’s design concepts are more forward looking and driving innovation as opposed to being reliant on historical references. Their designs are angular, sharp, modern. But Sony just doesn’t work for me. The cameras have a certain feel to them. Modern, is the only way I can describe it. “Ew,” would be my expression. Basically, it just doesn’t feel right. It has everything there that you need, but to me it feels overly stripped down, with most of its control knobs and buttons “assignable” but not dedicated to a given task. In the end, the camera line is just not for me.
Fuji takes design cues directly from the past. When I look at the Fuji V100, I see something like the Canon Canonette—a small rangefinder design from the ’60s. When I look at the Fuji X-T4, I see a Nikon FM2. When I look at the X-Pro2, I see an early rangefinder like a Canon 7s or a Leica M5. Yes, it has some dials and buttons that are capable of being programmed, so it’s not entirely unlike the Sony cameras in this respect. But the Fuji cameras also have dedicated dials for ISO, shutter speed, and aperture controls on lenses. For someone who grew up shooting film, the Fuji just feels like coming home again. You can make sense of it without reading a manual. This also means that the Fuji cameras can generally be set up and ready to shoot a scene without digging into any menus, which is awesome.
My choice was simple to make. I went Fuji.
I never buy new camera equipment, so I’m always a generation or two behind. The current Fuji lineup is really good. The X-T4 (styled after an old SLR) shoots just over 26 megapixels and 15 frames per second with mechanical shutter. The X-Pro3 (styled after an old rangefinder camera body) shoots 11 frames per second with mechanical shutter. These are crazy good numbers for someone wanting to shoot action.
I currently shoot the older X-Pro2, which I bought used on eBay earlier this year. I bought the body for about $1,000 less than the newly released X-Pro3. I still have my older bodies as well and continue to use them. Both my X-Pro1 and X-T1 are perfectly good cameras, but they are nowhere as capable as the X-Pro2.
I sometimes carry one or the other as a backup when traveling, but I have to say that I generally rely on one body most of the time. The X-Pro2 is weather sealed, so it is much more likely to survive inclement weather than the predecessor cameras.
I also really like the form factor of the X-Pro2. It has a unique viewfinder that can either be an electronic viewfinder or can display a modified version of a rangefinder view with digital overlays. It’s very interesting to use. The X-Pro2 also doesn’t have as many dials as the X-T1, so it is less likely to vibrate into the wrong dial position while riding. The X-Pro2 has a continuous frame rate of about 8 frames per second, which is plenty good for me. It has full manual control over all exposure settings, and those settings can be set generally without going into the menus, which I love. It also can set up a wireless network that will allow me to connect your cell phone to it and transfer images over to the phone for editing and posting. The system is nowhere near as seamless as the Sony system, but it is at least functional.
What I carry now
- Fuji X-Pro2
- Fuji 16–55 mm f2.8 lens (the lens is heavy, but it’s nice and fast at f2.8. When you need it, there’s nothing like having an extra f-stop or two)
- Fuji 55–200 mm zoom (covers everything from 24 mm up to 300 mm in full frame, so a very versatile lens)
- Samyang 12 mm f2.0 (equivalent to an 18 mm in full frame, so a fairly wide view without it being a “fisheye” view of the world. Nice for shooting stars because it is f2.0)
- 3 batteries (digital cameras eat batteries, so it’s critical to have spares)
- Battery charger
- Small travel tripod (16 years old)
- Satechi wireless remote release (my camera takes the Canon remote release, which will trigger the camera from up to 50 feet away)
- PNY 480Gb SSD for backup/storage
- Ravtech Filehub Plus wireless transfer device
- Spare SD card
- iPhone 7S
- iClever keyboard
- GoPro Hero4
- GoPro waterproof case
- spare GoPro battery
- Battery charger for GoPro
- ProShot helmet mount
- Yongnuo speedlight & transmitter (for campsite shots)
As to the GoPro, I own one and use it, mostly for still shots as opposed to video; I’m just not that much into video.
The GoPro frustrates me. Mine is a Hero4, which is quite old by now. What drives me crazy about the device is that there is no real manual control over the image. There are some hidden bits of functionality that open up if you are willing to go into the menus and dig into ProTune, but who wants to spend valuable time digging into menu settings? Mine will only record JPEG, whereas the newer models can apparently record in RAW.
What really frustrates me about the GoPro is that out of the box, the Hero4 locked up regularly. It has a design flaw that prevents me from using the thing as a still camera the way I want to. When I lock it up, the only solution is to remove the battery for a hard reset. Frustrating.
But, every now and again, you can get a decent shot out of a GoPro if you are lucky and you understand what it is doing. Because I can’t control the f-stop, the GoPro generally shoots pictures at fairly fast shutter speeds. But every now and again you find yourself in a relatively dark setting, and the GoPro will opt for a low enough shutter speed, and that can make things interesting.
The GoPro is much like the iPhone’s camera system. It has a set f-stop of f2.8, so that’s not adjustable at all. However, the sensor on the device is so small that the depth of field even at f2.8 is pretty deep. Color is generally difficult to deal with in GoPro JPEGs. My Hero4 renders scenes somewhat greyish, with skin tones often showing up in an ashen shade and with highlights in the sky scenes that are often blown out and unsavable. Frustrating.
At the end of the day, my GoPro gets in the way of what I want to do, which makes it a poor photography tool for me. There are instances in which it can render good art, but for the most part it just frustrates me. If someone from GoPro reads this, make a future version of this device that gives the user full control over exposure as well as a slightly larger sensor. Take a couple of cues from Fuji and make the controls easy to get to. I’d buy that even if it were double the price of the current model.
iPhone or comparable
As the old adage goes, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” That’s certainly true, as any camera is better than none. That makes the iPhone or comparable Android phone camera far better than nothing. But I have the same problems with the iPhone as with the GoPro. There is a definite lack of control. But, sometimes the iPhone is just what you need. Say, if you are north of Ouray, Colorado, in the Uncompahgre National Forest, where I think it would be impossible to take a bad picture.
Or maybe when your overloaded bike is lying on the pannier where all of your other camera gear is. At that point, you’re glad you have an iPhone.
The camera on my iPhone 7S rattled itself to death a long time ago. I use it as part of my nav system, so it takes a beating. Today I use my iPhone for transferring images to Flickr or discussion boards while traveling, and it’s a great tool for that. I use it in conjunction with an iClever Bluetooth keyboard I found on eBay. I’ve been using the keyboard for over a year at work, and it works perfectly both as a replacement laptop/desktop keyboard and as a Bluetooth keyboard for iOS. And they cost less than $30 on eBay, so when it bites the dust, I won’t feel too bad about it.
Editing on the Road
I use a pretty simplistic approach for editing pictures on the road. I always travel with my iPhone, as it is part of my navigation gear and is the speedometer on my 690. First, I edit pictures in the camera using the camera’s RAW converter to create a JPEG that is somewhat to my liking. This lets me do basic edits like set color balance, pick a film simulation, open up shadows if necessary. I can then connect the camera and iPhone wirelessly and transfer over the JPEGs. Some additional editing is done on the phone before uploading either to Flickr or directly to discussion boards like Adventure Rider.
Are my choices perfect? No, not by any means. Sony has a beautiful system for transferring shots from the camera over to your phone. You take a picture and “ding,” it’s on your phone. Fuji has always lagged behind in wireless communication and phone apps. I’ve gotten used to this limitation of the Fuji equipment, but I look longingly at Sony. Also, the latest APS-C offerings from Sony would just as easily check most if not all of my “must have” boxes.
Unlike Margus, I’ve not historically traveled with film cameras. I have film cameras . . . a LOT of film cameras, but I have never felt that any of them would be good candidates for the type of travel I like because of their size and weight. And then you have issues with protecting the film. Film is sensitive to heat. Then again, so am I. The hottest I’ve ever ridden was 108°F in Moab, and I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.
So, my thoughts about carrying a film camera are changing. I recently picked up a Canon rangefinder camera. Again, this type of camera gets back to my core themes related to travel photography—light, small, simple approach. The Canon P is the perfect example of light, small, simple, and durable. It’s a rangefinder, so the body is small as compared to an SLR, and rangefinder lenses are much smaller than SLR lenses. Finally, the camera is extremely simple. It has no electronics whatsoever, so no batteries to crap out on you. The only thing that is missing is a light meter. There are free apps for your phone that will show you exposure, so this is really not a problem as long as you have your phone with you. So yeah, I think my motophotography will be moving in the direction of film in the near future. More to come on that front.