In thirty years of shooting stock photography I’ve learned that your subject matter should have some influence on your choice of cameras and lenses. Sports will require fast lenses (those with large maximum apertures). Cityscapes will require wide angle lenses, preferably ones that are well-corrected for distortion. Wildlife will call for long telephotos. In most cases, shooting with larger sensors, if not full-frame sensors, is better because of the gain in image quality needed for stock. Even if all you want to do is make very large prints of your photos, a larger camera sensor makes the most sense.
Travel photography presents it’s own challenges. How you will move around with your camera bag is an important consideration in and of itself. Numerous trips to Europe with photo gear has taught me that heavy equipment or a large bag will just weigh you down, slow your pace, kill your energy level, make you worry about your stuff instead of enjoying the experience of being in a foreign land, and a host of other effects. If you’re going to travel and you want to come home with great images, you’ll need to pare it down to the smallest, lightest system possible, while still giving yourself adequate ways to shoot your subject matter successfully and bring home high quality images.
Taormina Sicily Panorama. This panoramic shot was made with the Leica X1 and stitched together from three frames. It’s been printed to 6 feet wide and looks fantastic.
Toward that end, I’ve put together a system designed specifically for traveling. This system allows me to carry multiple cameras easily because they’re small. I rarely have to change lenses, which means the sensors in my cameras will rarely be exposed to dust. Carrying more than one camera gives me back-up in case one is lost, stolen or breaks. There’s great wisdom in traveling with 2-3 small cameras instead of one huge full-featured SLR.
Think of it this way: Just as an experienced carpenter has many hammers, a successful photographer will have more than one camera; perhaps several cameras with him or her. Each one can be mounted with a dedicated lens that rarely needs to come off. That way, you are always ready to grab a shot, and you won’t find yourself in a rush to change lenses, juggling gear in the process and risking missing the shot and damaging your gear at the same time. So without further adieu, here’s my current travel system, laid out next to my other 35mm system for comparison.
Standard Nikon system on the left; Leica and Sony combo system on the right.
On the left, a Nikon D800E; SB900 flash; 70-200VR f2.8; 14-24 f2.8; 85mm f1.8; 55mm Micro-Nikkor; and the Tenba shoulder bag that it all lives in. The D800E is a full-frame sensored body, meaning the imaging sensor in the camera is nearly identical in size to a 35mm film frame. (24x36mm). All of those lenses are designed for that size sensor. On the right, my travel system: First body is a Leica M Typ 240. (That’s not a typographic error. The correct name is Typ 240. It too has a full-frame sensor.) That body carries a 50mm f1.4 lens. Camera #2, in the upper right corner of the arrangement, is a Leica X1 pocket camera, with a fixed, permanent 24mm lens. The X1 also has an APS-C sensor, which is 1/3 smaller than a full-frame sensor. Though the lens has a focal length of 24mm, the smaller sensor gives that lens an angle of coverage more like a 36mm lens would have on a full-frame 35mm camera. Leica lenses are world-reknowned and it’s been argued that no pocket camera beats the image quality that this pocket Leica delivers.
Camera #3 is a 16-megapixel Sony NEX-5N, which has the smaller APS-C sensor. On that camera sits a Voigtländer 15mm f4.5 ultra-wide lens. Since the Sony is a crop-sensor body, that lens becomes the equivalent of a 21mm lens, roughly. It’s a fantastic combination and weighs maybe 8-10 oz. Image quality from this particular model from Sony is superb. (The later Sony NEX models crammed too many pixels into the same sensor, and image quality suffered.) And sitting just to the left of the Sony…that little gray square thing…that is a flash for the Sony!
The last item in this system is a Minolta M-Rokkor 90mm f4 lens, sitting in between the Leica bodies. Originally made for the Minolta CLe (a Leica clone, 35mm film camera), this tiny telephoto is fantastic for travel shooting, since it too weighs next to nothing but produces wonderful images. There are excellent alternatives to these bodies and lenses. Be careful in choosing, though. Small and lightweight often means junk. The Sony “kit lens” that shipped with the NEX-5N is great for snapshots, but that’s about it. From a professional standpoint, it almost isn’t usable. I rarely use it, although files from it, when printed on canvas, actually can look very, very good. Canvas hides flaws, so if printing is the final destination of your photos, such lenses can be used.
Here’s an example. I gave this file a considerable boost in post-processing to accentuate the burnished metal roofs and morning light glow. One excellent alternative to the Sony is the Canon EOS-M, a very tiny camera with interchangeable lenses. It too delivers wonderful image quality, although the low-light capability does not quite match that of the Leica X1, or it’s successor, the X2. Others, like the Fuji X100S, Ricoh GR, etc., are also known to be very high performers.
There are others beyond these as well, but if you want to have at least one body that will allow for interchangeable lenses, start with optics. Put great optics on a decent sensor and you’ll give that sensor something great to record. But…put lousy optics on a great sensor, and that great sensor will give you a very detailed recording of a lousy image created by those optics.
I fully understand that there’s never enough money to buy all the gear one wants. But some of the items I’ve identified here are actually quite affordable, with bodies selling for less than $500. Lenses as well can be had for that amount, if you’re willing to shop a bit. Think small, light and high quality and you’ll be surprised what you can shoot with in your travels. Camera gear for shooting stock is discussed at length in my book, “See It, Shoot It, Sell It!“, and many, many other images that were shot with traditional gear are included in the book as well. The book can be purchased here.