Each year when we travel, I find myself torn between two extremes in terms of the photo gear I take.  For trips where I really want the very best, it means bringing a lot of kit and is usually only practical if we have a good way to store or transport it.  Such was the case when we were in Africa and could keep all the gear on our truck.  This included two DSLR bodies, high end point and shoot backup, at least 4 lenses (including a large 100-400mm zoom), camera mounts, flash gear, batteries, chargers, computer, storage devices, and various other sundry items.  This stuff is bulky, heavy, and fragile and is a pain to transport.  As airlines have become much stricter about carry-on sizes and weights, it makes it especially difficult to transport unless you are willing to check some of the gear and/or have travel partners than can allocate some of their carry-on allowance to you.

The other extreme is travelling super light.  For me, this has been a Canon Powershot G series high end point and shoot camera (with RAW image capability), extra battery, charger, media cards and usually an external flash, and batteries and maybe a small camera mount like a Gorillapod.  The benefit of this kit is of course that it is small and light.  Also, there is no excuse not to have the camera with you at all times, which is pretty significant as you can’t take a picture of something if you don’t have a camera!

There are some significant downsides to this setup though, some of which may not be immediately obvious.   Of course, you give up some of the features and flexibility of a DSLR when shooting with a high end point and shoot, especially super wide angle and high end telephoto images.  But these cameras give a pretty good zoom range.

More problematic is low light shooting.  The built in lenses are usually a few stops darker than my best DSLR lenses, but more importantly, because the DSLRs have larger sensors, they are much more usable at higher ISO settings, even using the same image processing technology (Canon’s system is called DIGIC).  On my Powershot G9, I found that anything over ISO 200 was basically worthless, whereas my DSLRs are usable up to at least ISO 1600.  The best of my DSLRs performs better at ISO 6400 than the G9 at ISO 200.  The latest current G model, the G12, is a bit better, but indications are that I’d be lucky to get something I would be happy with above ISO 400.

The problem is the image sensor size, which is tiny in a point and shoot in comparison to a DSLR.  This also creates another problem/potential benefit at the same time.   Smaller image sensors cause greater depth of field (at the same f/stop setting).  So for instance, a point and shoot camera at f/4 will have much more in focus than a DSLR at the same setting.  For some situations, this is a bonus – e.g. for macro photography a good point and shoot camera used right can outperform a DSLR (without specialized macro lenses).  Also, for most beginning photographers having more of the shot in focus is probably a benefit, especially if you aren’t great at focus control.

However, advanced photographers want to be able to have full range of control over depth of field, including the ability to isolate a subject from its background.  In portraiture this is especially important and virtually impossible to do in many situations with a point and shoot camera, no matter how sophisticated.

So, what to do?  For this trip, I bought an Olympus PEN EP-L2 camera, which uses the micro four thirds system.  In English, this means a few things:

  1. It uses interchangeable lenses, like a DSLR.
  2. It is very compact, just a bit bigger than the high end Canon Powershot G series point and shoot.
  3. The micro four thirds system is an open standard, so lenses are interchangeable between supporting manufacturers.  Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, and Samsung all make cameras and lenses, and there are some third party manufacturers talking about offering their lenses also.
  4. These are mirrorless cameras, which means that they do away with the size (and expense, and noise) of a DSLR’s mirror, but in turn don’t have a through-the-lens optical viewfinder.  Instead, most simply use the rear LCD screen of the camera.  This can be a problem viewing in bright light, and also it changes the whole approach of taking photos – shooting at arm’s length vs. having your eye in the viewfinder.  Olympus offer an excellent (but expensive) VF-2 electronic viewfinder, which allows the flexibility of choosing to use the LCD screen or an eyelevel viewfinder.  It is also hinged, so it is possible to shoot comfortably at low angles, or even upside down above one’s head.  Lastly, it uses less battery power than the LCD, so you can get more shots from a single battery charge.

With a lens adapter, the Olympus PEN cameras also allow the use of other lenses in manual or aperture priority modes, using manual focus.  Since I have a bunch of Olympus OM Zuiko lenses from my old 35mm SLR cameras, this was a no brainer for me.  Because the image sensor is a bit smaller than the APS-C sized sensors in mid range DSLRs (which have a 1.6x lens factor) and are about 1/2 the size of a full frame sensor, they have a 2x lens factor.  This means my OM 50mm f/1.8 lens acts like a 100mm f1.8 lens on the PEN camera – great!  My 28mm becomes a 56mm and so on. And it only cost me a $29.95 adapter to be able to re-use these old, but very good lenses.

The camera has a very extensive set of features, including shooting very good quality HD movies (I did a movie project shortly after getting the camera, which pretty much paid for it in one go.)

So, in the bag (my smallest camera backpack) is the following:

  • Olympus PEN EP-L2 camera with the standard kit zoom lens.
  • Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder
  • Battery charger and spare battery
  • Fotodiox OM to micro four thirds lens adapter
  • Olympus OM 50mm lens
  • Olympus OM 28mm lens
  • Spare media cards
  • Misc. cables, lens cleaning kit, etc.
  • Nissin Di866 Canon model flash and a few flash accessories.

This last item is also pretty interesting.  I bought it as another flash in my Canon lighting kit.  It has pretty much all of the features of Canon’s 580EXII Speedlite at half the price, but has some extra features too, including a built-in optical slave that can be set for analog or digital mode.  This is important, because today’s sophisticated flash systems (inc. those built into point and shoot cameras) actually send out TWO flashes when you fire – the first is a pre-flash which the camera uses to measure how much light it should put out for the “real” flash it uses when actually recording your image.  These two flashes usually happen so close together that you perceive them as a single flash. Unfortunately, most optical slaves get triggered by the pre-flash and thus do not contribute any light at all to you actual image.  This is where the digital slave comes in – it ignores the pre flash and fires with the main flash.

So what’s cool about this for me is that the Olympus PEN EP-L2 has a built in mini flash (this is one key difference from the EP-2 model).  The mini flash isn’t really useful to me for illuminating any images I ‘d want to take, BUT it does allow me to trigger the optical slave in my much more powerful, and off-camera Nissin Di866.  The flash operates manually, but it gives me lots of freedom in where I place the flash, how much power it delivers, etc.

Hoping to get some good shots with this gear, but in about 1/3 the space of my big Canon kit.

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