Travel minimalism: one lens to go

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Canterbury in autumn. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

Every time I travel for personal purposes, I’m always torn between experiencing the place, and photographing the place. Photography is such a part of me that sometimes I feel that I experience and understand things more through trying to capture the essence of them. Or perhaps it’s because doing so forces you into conscientious observer mode, and this in turn makes one’s mind more receptive to things, and more willing to question what you see and find juxtapositions or contrasts.

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Canterbury Cathedral crypt. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

That aside one of the things which inevitably keeps me up the night before departure is trying to figure out what to bring equipment-wise. If it’s on assignment, then I bring everything I might possibly need, plus spares – to hell with overweight baggage, if you don’t have it, it could mean a lost job – on the other hand, if I’m traveling for myself, I’d rather carry as little gear as possible. Well, little enough that I don’t notice it after walking around for hours on end, but with sufficient coverage that I don’t get frustrated and feel like I missed a rare photographic opportunity because I didn’t bring along a wide angle. Or something along those lines.

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A Parisian in her natural habitat. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

My last personal vacation saw me bringing an Olympus Pen Mini, the 14-42 kit lens and a Panasonic 20/1.7 pancake. We went to the beach. Frankly this made the choice easy as I didn’t really want to expose any of the more expensive gear to moisture, salt and sand; the M9-P definitely would not have been suitable, and the D800 might have produced great landscapes, but it would also have worked fine as a boat anchor.

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Three conversations, Paris. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

I’ve been trying to fine-tune this over the years. I’ve been on trips where I did carry coverage from 14-450mm and a spare body; whilst I got some great images, I also had a sore back, and landed up leaving everything but one body and the 24-70 zoom in the hotel room for the last week. More crucially, I felt the images produced from that trip lacked focus; I brought everything, so subconsciously I was actually trying to capture everything. The upshot is a set of images that isn’t as strong as it could have been, and worse still, experiencing that slightly chaotic panicky feeling that you just might have missed a shot opportunity somewhere.

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Tate Modern yard, London. Ricoh GR Digital III

My preferred travel kit is a moderate wide, and a moderate telephoto – both fast – and one body. I might carry a spare compact or something similar as a backup, just in case. I’ve gone with the D700, 24/1.4 and 85/1.4 – this is an absolutely fantastic and hugely flexible combination – plus a spare compact, either the Fuji X100, Leica D-Lux 5, or my favorite, the Ricoh GR-Digital III. Most recently, I spent two weeks in Europe with an M9-P, 28 and 50mm lenses, plus the Pen Mini and 45/1.8 (giving me 90mm in a pocket). This was also an excellent combination, and in some ways better than the Nikon based setup due to weight and instant availability of the telephoto. However, it lagged hugely in low light performance. I think the next trip I take will probably be Micro 4/3 based; an OM-D and Pen Mini with 12, 20 and 45mm lenses will cover the vast majority of situations handily. And not weigh very much, either.

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Piccadilly Circus, London. Ricoh GR Digital III

So what’s all of this talk about a single lens?** Or single camera? There are advantages to this approach: firstly, you’re unencumbered and free to enjoy the atmosphere, people and culture without feeling like a packhorse; a small camera around your neck is probably much easier to manage than an entire backpack full of lenses. Also, you don’t have to worry as much about security – frankly, carrying several Leica f1.4 Summiluxes and a Noctilux around even safe Singapore made me pretty nervous.

**Let me clarify: I don’t mean going with a 28-300, though I suppose this might be a viable option for some situations. That lens has more compromises than strengths, and if you don’t know how to manage your perspectives properly, then you’ll land up with weak images too, because you’ll always be trying to ‘zoom in’.

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The Shard, under construction. Ricoh GR Digital III

The main advantage, however, is that it frees up your mind from having to think about what perspective to take for a scene. Do you find the essence in the details, or do you go for something wider and more encompassing, with context? Trouble is, there is often no right answer – and from experience, I know that inevitably you’ll land up trying to make both work and being satisfied with neither. On the other hand, if you’ve got just one focal length, then you can pre visualize what your frame will look like; with sufficient experience, your eye naturally looks for compositions that fit within the perspective and angle of view of the lens you’ve got. Thus: instead of wondering what perspective to use, you’re free to spent that mental capacity on fine-tuning the elements inside the frame of the only perspective you have. It can be liberating – providing you’re thinking about the photograph, and not about the equipment you left at home. There’s also the side benefit of not having to change lenses, and thus always being ready.

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The doorway, Hanoi. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

I actually did this on several occasions. At the end of 2009, I made short trips to Oxford, Canterbury and Paris; for these I brought two lenses (21 and 50mm for the M8) but only used the 21. I did it again in 2010; the first trip saw me bringing a D700 and several lenses, plus the Ricoh GR-Digital III; I only used the Ricoh and its fixed 28mm because it was both much more convenient, as well as matching the way my eye was tuned at the time after my first Leica-M experience. I got wiser on the second trip and left everything behind except the GR-Digital III. Hanoi later that year saw me using only the D700 and 85/1.4 G.

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A Vietnamese stereotype. Hanoi. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

If you are going to try this exercise, I’d recommend going for a wide normal rather than an ultra wide or a tele; for the simple reason that these are the most flexible focal lengths to use. 35-50mm can appear wide or moderately telephoto depending on how you choose to use the foreground elements in your scene. And at some point, chances are you’ll probably want to take a photo of yourself or your traveling companion (or both of you, or your family…you get the point) – and it’s generally much easier with something wide or normal than say a 300mm.

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Prague castle and stars. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Some people may find a telephoto easier to use in these kinds of situations because they can snipe from a distance; I’d personally advise against it because it’s very difficult to make images with context; and that’s one of the cornerstones of travel photography. The bokeh may be great, but if the background gives you no clue as to where the subject is, then the image could well have been shot anywhere – and that somewhat defeats the point of travel photography.

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A Viennese moment. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Personally, if I had to pick, I’d go with either a 28mm, or a 35mm – depending on whether my images would likely be more people-biased (longer), or more location-biased (wider). And it’d have to be fast, too; I’d be using the lens at night, and anything slower than 2.8 wouldn’t cut it. Frankly, in some situations, even f2.8 may be a little borderline. Finally, it’d have to go on something small, light and unobtrusive; responsiveness is important because your ability to anticipate things will be a little bit diminished thanks to the foreign environment. Right now, my choice is probably between the Olympus OM-D and Panasonic 20/1.7, the Ricoh GR-Digital III/ IV, or the Leica M9-P and a 35/1.4 ASPH FLE.

Give it a try. On your next trip, just use a 35 or 50 prime for at least a day or two; if it makes you feel better, bring along your zooms too, but don’t use them until you absolutely feel that you’re missing shots. MT

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Wat Arun and Boat, Bangkok. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE


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