Gear

Traveling? Ditch Your DSLR for Mirrorless Cameras

For more than 20 years, I was a staff photojournalist for a variety of newspapers in the United States. During that time, we were given initial gear budgets, and could pretty much choose the cameras we wanted to carry.

We generally opted to carry the most raw capability possible—with backup camera options—because our overriding fear was that we did not want to miss anything. As a result, I tended to look like what can only be described as light infantry when I walked around.

Consider: two full-sized film (and later, digital) bodies, a fast wide zoom, a fast tele zoom, a speed (and/or macro) lens in the 50mm range, and maybe some long fast glass if you were covering sports. So add a 400/2.8 (or, lightest case, a 300/2.8) into that above mix.

And that normal daily pack (when not shooting sports, so no long glass) would for me also include a speedlight-based lighting gear setup. So maybe not even “light infantry,” but rather, just “infantry.” Oof.

My Prime Directive being “I Don’t Want to Miss Anything,” I naturally carried much of that gear along on family vacations. Maybe leave one of the bodies at home. Still, a lot. As a result, I was more light infantry support than I was an actual participant in my own family vacations.

I say all of this mostly to acknowledge that, no matter how bad your vacation gear hog habits are, mine were at one point most likely as bad or worse.

In 2012, mostly on a whim I picked up an original model Fuji x100. I bought it mostly because it looked and felt like one of my old Leica M film cameras from my newspaper days. (Did I mention we could shoot with whatever we wanted?)

The camera was imperfect; basically serving more as an unpolished beta model. But its shortcomings were also balanced out by some significant strengths. It was lightweight, quiet and spat out beautiful files—especially in terms of color quality. It was also great in low light, which was an Achilles heel of every other compact digital I had tried.

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So I bit the psychological bullet, limited myself to the 35 f/2 equivalent locked-in focal length and took just the x100 on a family trip to the UK. Within a couple of days I began to suspect that I would never again take a DSLR on vacation.

Compared to a DLSR rig, the camera feels like it weighs nothing at all. As a result, I felt for the first time that I was on vacation, too. If major world news broke out in London while we were there, was I totally equipped to cover it? Probably not. But the files from the x100 were giving me everything I really needed while on a family trip.

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Here’s a great example. A couple of weeks before we left for the UK, I had broken my little toe by stubbing it on a (in retrospect, ironically perfect) brick of a Profoto generator. But we were planning to climb Red Screes in the Lake District, a decent if rocky scamper that covers about 2500 feet of vertical.

Basically for me it comes down to this. Broken toe, DLSR pack, climb Red Screes. Pick any two.

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Seriously, it was a stretch (and a literal pain) to get up the mountain with the broken toe. And there is absolutely no way I would have brought a heavier camera pack. But the x100 was the thing that made having it all possible.

And carrying the x100 allowed me to come back with shots that would hold up at any size you could care to print. That day sticks in my mind as the first inflection point in my psychological shift to mirrorless. Especially shooting in dead-quiet mode off of the back of the camera’s screen at dinner afterward:

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Do you lose capability as compared to a closet full of DSLR gear? Yes. But what a lot of people don’t consider is how much you gain, both in terms of mirrorless’ different capabilities and the obvious fact that you will simply have the camera with you more often because of its size and weight.

Over the UK trip I became very interested in mirrorless for travel. But I wasn’t quite married to the idea just yet. Then in 2013 the x100s came out. If the x100 was a beta camera, maybe 60% of what it needed to be, the x100s clocked in somewhere in the high 90s. Major improvements all around, and my desert-island camera to this day.

This was the first time I ever considered completely ditching my DSLRs for mirrorless.

So in April 2013, that’s exactly what I did. For a week, at least. I led a photo trip to Cuba for Santa Fe workshops and took only an x100s. Most of the other people on the trip took full DSLR bags, so the contrast in style and efficiency was pretty stark.

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I came away with good stuff—including one of my favorite photos in recent memory, shot on a rainy night in Havana. But with my companions all being photographers and being in such a wonderful city, we all came away with good stuff.

The difference, I think, was in the way that my choice of gear affected my overall experience. It was often hot and sticky in Havana, and not having the light infantry pack was a godsend. Even if it only meant I could carry around that much more cold water.

The main takeaway: even though on a photo-themed trip to a bucket-list destination, I never once regretted leaving the DSLRs at home. Not for a second. And I think I minted a few converts amongst my heavy-gear colleagues.

Fast forward to 2014, when I took a year-long assignment to produce The Traveling Photographer for Lynda.com. Essentially, we would travel to a handful of the world’s most camera-ready cities, serving as a proxy for other photographers.

We felt it was a bigger risk not to take the full gear pack, but also a great opportunity to more deeply test the developing theory that mirrorless is the optimal format for travel.

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After a year and a crap-ton of frequent flyer miles, I can solidly report that mirrorless (in my case, Fuji) and travel are a match made in heaven. Not only did I never once miss my DSLRs, I was frequently struck by the fact that my Fujis were much better suited for travel than the Nikons were.

In fact, I actually had access to Nikons the whole trip, as we were filming our video with D600s. Never used them once. The videographer, Andrew Tomasino, actually carried a Fuji X Pro-1 with him, essentially double packing just for his downtime, and used that camera exclusively for his stills.

So, long story short, we carried both systems with us for a year and still chose the mirrorless cameras 100% of the time over the entire year for our personal still photos. If that is not an ringing endorsement to leave your DSLR at home, I do not know what is.

Big thanks to guest writer David Hobby for the article – you can follow him on Twitter and Google+