On The Road: Two For The Road: Two Words, That Is

Every traveler with a camera will welcome the words “smaller” and “lighter.” Because I travel and photograph for a living, I not only welcome them, I search for them. I want to see those adjectives accompanying nouns like camera, lens, laptop, and drive (the portable kind).

A solemn religious observance was taking place in the Longshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan, and because of the big camera I was carrying I had to slow my approach so as not to draw attention.
All Photos © Maynard Switzer

As I write this column I’m in the midst of planning and preparing for a three-week trip to Ethiopia early in 2013 that will take me to some of the more remote areas of that country, and believe me, “smaller” and “lighter” are on my mind. Fortunately, technology is on my side: gear is getting smaller and lighter all the time, and higher in quality as well.

Let me start with cameras. The truth is I’ll always be taking my big gun D-SLRs because there are just so many things they can do better than any other system, but just yesterday I bought a new camera, a Fuji X-E1. A rangefinder-style camera with a mirrorless viewing system and interchangeable lenses, it’s very much smaller and lighter than my D800, though bigger than Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds cameras. It’s also unobtrusive, and that’s a very important point. When I’m carrying it, chances are no one’s going to really take note of me. I’ll look like an ordinary tourist with a point-and-shoot. Finally, its very quiet shutter release helps me remain relatively unnoticed when I’m taking pictures. So I’ll be shooting with the X-E1 when I really need to blend in, when I don’t want to carry the extra weight of my big cameras and lenses, and when I want image quality and low-light ISO sensitivity that are way beyond merely acceptable.

I know a smaller, quieter camera with high ISO sensitivity would have helped out in the Thiksey Monastery in Ladakh, India. I needed to brace myself against a wall and use a tabletop tripod resting against my chest to make the 1/15-second exposure.

This may have been the picture that caused me to get really serious about thinking “lighter and smaller” for certain situations. I had to climb with a camera-and-lens-heavy pack almost 1000 feet to get to this Dogon village, built into the sandstone cliffs at the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali.

I saw these people gathering to sing religious songs in the town of Kolayat in Rajasthan, India. With the big camera, I had to stand there quite awhile until they finally ignored me.

I’ve also been able to lighten up the lens load when I use my D800. Not long ago Nikon introduced three prime f/1.8 Nikkor lenses—a 28mm, a 50mm, and an 85mm. They’re slightly slower than their f/1.4 counterparts, but there’s a big difference in weight, and on the trip to Ethiopia I’ll be taking the f/1.8 versions of the 28mm and 85mm Nikkors.

Smaller and lighter also apply to workflow on the road, so for viewing, editing, and backing up images, whenever possible I’ve gone to solid state (flash drive, no moving parts) technology for my travels. That technology is in my MacBook Air laptop, which is about half the weight of a MacBook Pro, and in my OWC (Other World Computing) Mercury Extreme SSD backup drive. I also have two USB 3.0 card readers, a Hoodman and a Lexar, which provide faster download to the MacBook Air and, when using Lightroom, simultaneous download to the OWC backup drive. What’s really nice about this roadworthy setup is that smaller and lighter go hand in hand with the need for speed. Next time around, I expect to have some Fuji X-E1 images to share with you.

That’s me in the yellow shirt. This was back in the film days, and I had a motor drive SLR fixed to the wing of the ultralite and the pilot let me know that he could feel the weight’s effect on the aircraft. An extreme example, I know, but you can never tell when a smaller, lighter camera and lens will come in handy.

Maynard Switzer’s website, www.maynardswitzer.com, features several portfolios of his travel images.