Photographic invisibility: a thought experiment

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I was certainly noticed here. Apparently in the middle of a high-stakes gambling game, seconds later I was shouted at by about forty people and chased away. Invisibility would have certainly made for an interesting documentary series.

Here’s an interesting concept: photographic invisibility. By this, I mean the ability to take a photograph of anything, anywhere, or anybody, without being noticed. Nothing would be off limits, nowhere would be inaccessible, and everything you see would be just a shutter-click away. Assume for a moment, technical limitations don’t really apply – we don’t have to worry about image quality or low light or too much or too little depth of field, or buffers or file handling or curating the enormous mountain of images that would be the product of such an exercise. Of course, this is impossible – or nearly impossible unless the subject is heavily distracted, or you’re a photojournalist or street photography ninja – but stay with me for a while.

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2012 Equipment picks for travel photography

This is an article that will probably go out of currency about six months after it’s published, but no matter; just because new cameras are released, it doesn’t reduce the usefulness or image-making ability of older ones. Travel is something I do for both work and pleasure; in my previous corporate life I used to travel heavily (think anywhere up to 100+ sectors per year) for work. My love for photography inevitably led me to carry a camera of some sort wherever i went – both to document my experiences as well as for use as stress release during my limited free time. Shooting is cathartic to me – I’m probably the only person I know who relaxes after a day of commercial shooting by taking pictures.

Traveling for meetings and other corporate reasons really takes most of the fun out of it; the TSA and other forms of airport security and administration do the rest. Much to my wife’s consternation, it’s taking me a little while to start enjoying it again.

The thought of going on a trip actually presents me with much anxiety: what the hell do I bring in the way of equipment? Early on in my photographic career, the choice was simple: everything that would fit into the bag, which at that point, was pretty much everything. Later, I’d take just new gear, or once again, if undecided, pretty much everything. However, my first trip with a significant other – Paris – showed me that hefting around all of that gear was both pointless when the primary purpose of your trip isn’t photography, as well as that it’s a sure way of annoying the hell out of your partner.

This considered, equipment choices changed from ‘how do I use X piece of gear?’ to ‘what is the minimum I can get away with and not feel like I’m missing anything?’ (My article on minimalism deals with this handily).

As a general rule of thumb, I don’t like to bring untried or untested gear with me unless I have absolutely no choice (my Vienna/ Prague trip at the end of 2011 was to get some images for Leica; that was the first time I was shooting the M9-P and 28/2.8 ASPH properly, and I paid for it occasionally with missed shots and questionable focus); there’s too much at stake if it breaks or doesn’t perform as expected. You’re probably not going to be able to repeat that trip to the Himalayas, so it’s probably a good idea to bring both a spare camera and a primary that you know can handle a bit of abuse.

What I do like a lot at the moment are both the raw shooting compacts – think the Ricoh GR-Digital III/ IV, Leica D-Lux 5/ Panasonic LX5; and the most compact of the system cameras. My current choice for travel is the Olympus OM-D, because of its image quality, huge responsiveness, small size – and more importantly, small system size – and ability to work well with longer lenses.

The Leica M9-P ranks pretty high up that list too – however, using anything over 50mm isn’t so easy without a magnifier, and if you’ve got one of those on, then you can kiss goodbye to your 28mm. It also isn’t so flexible when it comes to shooting food, for instance – another thing I enjoy. I do admit, it looks and feels nicer, though – but I’m shallow that way. (Why not travel in style if you can?) However, the biggest gotcha with the Leica is the liability – I don’t know how it is in other parts of the world, but to get insurance for cameras in Malaysia is near impossible, especially if you’re going to be taking them out of the country. And the premiums to fully cover an M system would probably cost a goodly portion of the trip itself.

I like to go with a two-lens kit these days – 24/28 and 85/90. This gives me two distinct perspectives, prime lens quality, fast apertures (with the low light ability and depth of field control that also implies) and (mostly) reduced size. This means the 24/1.4 AFS and 85/1.4 AFS on the D700; the Olympus 12/2 and 45/1.8 on the OM-D and Pen Mini; or some mixture of the Zeiss 28/2.8 Biogon, 50/2 Planar, Leica 28/2.8 ASPH and 50/1.4 ASPH on the M9 (anything longer being impractical). Where possible, I’ll generally also bring a spare body in the same mount, and perhaps also a highly capable compact – the Pen Mini and 20/1.7 pancake or Ricoh GR-Digital III usually fill this niche. I also like the Leica D-Lux 5, because its lens conveniently happens to go from 24 to 90mm…

The one hypothetical situation – which so far has not yet happened – where I’d make an unconventional equipment choice would be if I went skiing. The landscape opportunities are fantastic, but one generally needs more millimeters to make it work; however, there’s a lot of light, so they don’t have to be fast millimeters. I’d probably use the D800E and 28-300VR in a chest pouch, with a 45/2.8 P pancake in the front pocket for when the light gets low and I want something smaller for social evening activities.

If I’m going to an advanced country where spares are easily available, I’ll probably go with just one body; Japan would be a good example of this (though for some odd reason, I’ve always had two bodies whenever I’ve been there). This reduces weight drastically, and I know that I can still use my Nikon lenses if I have to pick up a used D700 or something to replace it. The other nice thing is worldwide support via NPS, which I’ve had to use in the past when the lens release button on my D3 fell off on the second day of my trip(!).

There are reasons for having two bodies, however – instant readiness is one of them – but it’s also important to consider how much of the trip you plan to spend shooting, and how much you plan to spend enjoying and experiencing being in a different place. It would be a shame to miss out on or have an incomplete experience because you’re too busy trying to get the shot. (I’m one of those strange people who experiences things by shooting them, so you may not necessarily want to follow exactly what I do here, either.)

So, distilling all that into a paragraph, my current camera choice would be the Olympus OM-D, 12/2 and 45/1.8 lenses. Either with a second OM-D body, or a Pen Mini as backup.

What about other equipment?

Well, batteries and chargers are a no-brainer. Figure out what you need for a full day of shooting, and bring one more so you can be charging and shooting at the same time. This number should be at least two. Ideally, you’d want your cameras to share batteries and chargers to improve backup, but this isn’t always possible. It seems that all camera makers want us to buy their horribly overpriced accessories all over again every time a new camera is released. Shame on you.

Spare cards are also a no-brainer. I generally bring three to four times what I think I’ll need; these days it’s usually 32 GB cards in the cameras, another two spares each, and some older 16GB spares.

Depending on how long you’re going to be on the road, you might want to consider bringing some sort of editing device or at least something to give you web access; I like the 11″ Apple MacBook Air because it’s both a proper computer, and light enough that you don’t notice you’ve got it. I don’t do any processing on it because of screen color accuracy issues, but I could if I had to. In fact, almost all of this blog is written from that machine. It also gives me somewhere to backup my files to at the end of the day. (Although I won’t do any photoshop work, I can do some light editing after seeing what works on a larger screen and what doesn’t.) After a two week trip, the last thing you want is for one of your cards to get corrupted and take all of your images with it. Backups are important: I’ve learned that the hard way in the past. Fitted into the USB ports are a pair of 32GB Sandisk Cruzer Fit USB drives, which are extremely small – they stick out about 5mm – but add another 64GB of solid state storage, which works as another backup. I’ve also got one of my portable drives with me, which holds a complete backup of my work at home – just in case something happens while I’m not there.

A comfortable bag is a must for moving from location to location, but when you’re there and shooting, you might want to consider a waist pouch or shooting jacket instead (depending of course on the climate). If I’m going with two bodies, I’d put a lens on each, spare cards and batteries in a cargo pants pocket, and off we go. It’s much, much more pleasant to shoot unencumbered without any bags or things that you might have to watch out for or remember to zip up and guard against thieves; you’ll be surprised how much of a difference it makes to your travel photography experience. I went with a shooting jacket last time, a couple of lenses in my pockets and one camera around my neck, and it was a hugely liberating experience.

Other things that are useful, but people seldom think of:
– Chewing gum.
– A permanent CD marker.
– Business cards, if you’re a pro photographer.
– Press passes – you’d be surprised how many times this has gotten me into places to get shots where the public wouldn’t normally be allowed.
– Duct tape, and cloth tape – it’s the magical stuff that holds the universe together. Both of them together, wrapped around that original particle, could probably have prevent the big bang from happening. Good thing they were inside the particle.
– Plastic ziploc bags, big enough to hold your cameras. This is my emergency rain cover, in case it gets really bad; however, you can take care of this to some extent by having a weather sealed camera. The lightest, smallest one in this class is the OM-D.
– A small flash, if you haven’t got one built into the camera; fill at night is useful.
– A tabletop tripod for long exposures; you can also rotate it through 90 degrees and brace it up against a window. I like the Manfrotto 345 set, which comes with some incredibly sturdy cast magnesium legs, a small ballhead, and an aluminum extension (which can be useful for small cameras, but absolutely too weak for larger ones).
– If you’re going to a hostile environment like the sea, then UV filters to fit all lenses.
– Spare lens caps and back caps**.
– Lens hoods. They’re good bumpers against impact protection.
– A small multitool. You might have to check this one in. Those little screwdrivers are extremely handy; actually, make sure you check your mount screws for tightness before leaving home – they have a curious proclivity to work themselves loose over time.
– Copies of your critical travel documents on a USB memory stick or memory card.
– Memory card reader; the compact direct-plug-in USB types are the most handy.
– A local sim card and cheap phone to put it in might be useful for extended trips.

**I usually tape two together, back-to-back, to make lens changing easier. Take the lens off the camera, put it onto your double-ended special, then take the other lens off and put it onto the camera. No fumbling with caps or leaving things unnecessarily uncovered. The alternative – aside from having two bodies – is to use a waist pouch or drop-in and forgo the caps entirely. Just make sure there isn’t anything else inside the pouch that could damage your lenses.

One last thing: don’t forget to have fun. It’s infinitely better to go with less gear and get creative to make do with what you did bring, rather than carry 30kg with you because you’re worried about the security of your hotel room and can’t bring yourself to leave anything behind, but at the same time don’t really want to walk around all day with it either. MT

Update, August 2012: I want to add the Sony RX100 to the list of recommended cameras. If you’re traveling in a group or with a partner, or doing any sort of travel at all where photography is not your primary objective, then consider taking along the RX100 instead of something larger. It’s barely noticeable until you need to get the shot, then it does it with a minimum of fuss and hides until it’s called upon again. It’s the very definition of the concept of photographic sufficiency.


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Mirrorless system lens compatibility recommendations

For those of you with legacy system lenses, compact system cameras seem to make sense, yes? You can use all of your old lenses on newer bodies via adaptors and you’ll not only get to use your favorite optics, but you’ll save money to boot. And the really short back flange distances of some of the lenses mean that just about everything from an SLR or RF mount will fit with the right adaptor.

Well, not quite: firstly, all the fields of view will be different unless you’re going between APSC and APSC. Then there’s also the issue of size: why buy a compact mirrorless systems with the intention of reducing weight when you then go stick an enormous lens on the front?

Bottom line: there are many disadvantages to using legacy glass on mirrorless systems; more so than advantages. I knew that going in, and only use my micro four thirds system with dedicated lenses; but I have got a whole drawer full of adaptors, mostly purchased out of sheer curiosity.

If you are hell bent on making unholy pairings, then read on.

Quick aside: ‘Good’ means lenses work well, and deliver excellent or outstanding optical results; better than the system’s native lenses. ‘OK’ means that they work about as well. ‘Bad’ means that you shouldn’t bother; most of the time this is due to non-telecentric wide angles not playing nice at the edges due to very short back flange distances and a lack of offset micro lenses on the sensor to counter sharp angles of incidence between image rays and sensor. This manifests as purple fringing, chromatic aberration, vignetting, and corner softness. It could also mean the lens just doesn’t have enough resolution to deal with a very high density sensor – for instance the 24MP Sony NEX-7. There are exceptions to this rule, and where I’ve found them, I’ve noted them. The Ricoh GXR M-module is an exception because it does have offset micro lenses and was specifically designed for RF glass.

Sony NEX
Good: Legacy Sony/ Minolta telephotos and normals; new Sony midrange and high end zooms; Leica M telephotos
OK: New Sony wides; Leica M normals
Bad: Older wides; Leica M wides; C-mount/ CCTV lenses (won’t even cover the image circle!)

Micro Four Thirds
Good: SLR high end telephotos, SLR normals, RF telephotos. Exception: Zeiss ZF/ZF.2 glass, Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE.
OK: SLR midrange telephotos; some of the slower RF normals
Bad: Leica M wides (pay attention to your adaptor: cheaper ones probably won’t be planar, and land up causing obvious astigmatism. They may not even focus to infinity, or minimum distance!). The Leica Noctilux 0.95 does not do well on micro four thirds; it displays a lot of CA and blooming. I suspect that it is only optimized with the focal plane precisely at 28mm from the flange. Most C-mount/ CCTV lenses – these lack the resolving power and flatness of field.

Nikon 1
Good: Any of the new Nikon lenses, say post-2009; almost all of these are telecentric and of sufficiently high resolving power. Any of the SLR high end telephotos, RF telephotos
OK: RF normals, all other cheap telephotos; older Nikon MF glass; RF normals
Bad: Cheap C-mount/ CCTV lenses – these lack resolving power; RF wides

Ricoh GXR
Good: Any Leica M