The Past Year: Traveling Light

The Past Year: Traveling Light

Nearly two years ago The New Yorker published a piece entitled "Goodbye, Cameras", about the evolution of photography equipment. The article struck a chord with me. Traveling with my large, heavy Nikon D800 was not always an ideal experience. Such a sizable piece of equipment can be intimidating to subjects in front of the lens, and carrying so much weight was sometimes more of a chore than a pleasure, particularly on long walks and hikes. Nonetheless, the D800 provides incredible image quality, and so I continued to lug it around with me nearly everywhere I traveled. About a year ago I decided to embark on a bit of an experiment and give the smaller Sony E-mount a chance and purchased an A6000 (review here). This post is a follow-up to that review, and a bit of a showcase for my photography over the past year.

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Aerial Photography: Aerobatics Over the Pacific

Unusual Attitude

When given the opportunity to do something rare and extraordinary, seize it!

The photo above was taken in a friend's Nanchang CJ-6A aircraft while doing aerobatics over the Los Angeles coastline. How did I get this shot? First, I was lucky enough to have a friend who does this sort of thing as a hobby, and who kindly offered to take me up for a flight. Second, I planned very carefully for it. I visualized the sort of photos that I wanted to capture, and planned out the equipment and techniques that I'd need to capture each shot.

In a situation like this, my preference is to shoot wide - very wide. There's a lot going on up-close which gives context to the situation further away; it's important to capture both in order to get the feeling of adventure and excitement that you typically want in a photo like this. This applies equally to rain-forest zip-lining and racecars as it does to the cockpit of an aerobatic airplane. When you want the viewer to feel like they're part of the excitement in the photo, shoot wide!

In this case I used an Olympus E-PL2 m4/3 camera with a 9-18mm wide-angle lens. The pilot was more comfortable with the smaller and lighter Micro Four Thirds camera than he was with my large and heavy DSLR. If I were to lose hold of the camera while maneuvering, the DSLR could do much more damage to the canopy than the little Olympus. Since the light was good, there wasn't too much compromise in image quality due to the little camera's smaller sensor. In fact, the smaller sensor also gave me a bit more depth-of-field, which was important to get both the cockpit interior and the exterior ground in-focus. That 9-18mm lens offered a 90-degree horizontal field-of-view (equivalent to an 18mm lens on a 35mm full-frame sensor) - a rather wide lens indeed. The 18mm long-end of the lens was plenty enough to be able to zoom-in on the other Nanchang on our wing.

Nanchang Formation

I set the camera up with a fairly narrow aperture to give good depth-of-field (f/8) and ensured fast shutter speeds by setting auto-ISO to adjust exposure for nothing less than 1/320. I set the AF system to use the center point, and used continuous shooting mode. It's difficult to carefully compose photos when pulling Gs in the back of an aerobatic aircraft, so I just did the best I could and clicked away several shots in burst mode during each maneuver. I think the results came out rather well.

White-Knuckle Ride

Here's video footage from the flight, taken using several Go Pro HD Hero cameras:

Mountaineering: Gearing Up for the Hike

Mountaineering, Mt. Washington

The photo above was taken in February near the summit of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. My friend (pictured above) and I hiked on an unseasonably warm winter day, when summit temperatures were around 10 F (-12 C) and winds were less than 20 mph (32 km/h). It's not unusual for temperatures on Mt. Washington to drop well below -20 F (-29 C), with high winds causing wind chills well below -40 F/C. For many years the observatory held the record for the highest wind speed measured on the surface of the earth: 231 mph (372 km/h). Because of the extreme temperatures and winds, Mt. Washington is often referred to as having "the world's worst weather".

The round-trip summit hike takes between 6 and 10 hours depending on hiker fitness, route selection, weather, preparedness, and other factors. Crampons are a must at higher elevations during the winter. An ice-axe is recommended for certain routes. Emergency gear (shelter, extra layers, extra food, extra water, etc) is a must since the weather can turn quickly and rescue services aren't as rapid during the winter. All of the extra winter gear required for a winter hike of this caliber can weigh significantly more than the equipment for the same hike during the summer.

What's a photographer to do? Any hike or climb longer than a few hours is taxing enough on the body, without the extra complication and weight of carrying camera equipment along with you.

My advice: less is more when planning a photography-oriented hike. I carefully evaluate each piece of potential equipment to bring, and ask myself two important questions about it:

  1. Am I very likely to use it?
  2. Is the extra weight that it adds to my pack really worth it?

Only when the answer to both questions is a resounding YES, do I end up taking the peice of gear. That 8mm fisheye might make for some cool photos, but if I'm unlikely to ever mount it up then why bring it along? The same goes for that 300mm f/4. Sure, I could get some great wildlife photos with it, but maybe I can get some photos that are almost as good using a much lighter lens? Using this method, I took a very minimalistic set of equipment with me on the Mt. Washington hike:

That's it! If I thought I might have encountered some wildlife as well, I'd also have brought a fairly light telephoto with me (like the Nikon 55-300mm VR).

Remember: packing light doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to miss the shot. Plan and evaluate your needs carefully, and you should be able to maximize both your hiking enjoyment and the quality of your resulting photos.