• How I chose my travel photography gear

A few of you have asked me what photography gear I use. It is a question I wasn’t particularly keen on answering, because most of the time I’ve been using an almost embarrassingly short list of equipment.

Despite that, I’m going to split my answer in two posts. In this first one I’m going to tell you how I chose one camera and lens system for my travel photography. In the second, I’ll talk about the other pieces of equipment I’ve been using so far and the ones I’m planning to add for my next trips.

The size/weight vs image quality dilemma

This used to be a huge dilemma for people like me. I’ve always been extremely concerned about weight and bulk when I travel. I am certain that carrying 6-8 kg of photography gear on my back every day would turn me into a rather miserable and grumpy traveller.

Therefore, I’ve always carried very little gear with me; far too little, as I’ve realized lately.

Well, the great news is that now you can buy fairly light and compact photography systems without compromising on image quality (IQ). Unless you are into very specific types of photography, like wildlife photography, you don’t need to buy exceedingly large and heavy lenses anymore.

In the last three years or so, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have made great strides. One of the main advantages of mirrorless cameras versus traditional DSLRs is the smaller size of bodies and lenses. There are exceptions, and there seems to be a trend towards larger size in mirrorless too, but, generally speaking, mirrorless means lighter and smaller.

Three years ago we didn’t have the embarrassment of riches we have today in the mirrorless arena. The more mature mirrorless systems were those from Panasonic and Olympus, but they both used a sensor size and aspect ratio I’m not too keen on (micro four thirds).

I much prefer the traditional 3:2 aspect ratio, and had always used DSLR cameras with crop sensors. But I was curious and had always wanted to try a full-frame camera. I was not looking for better IQ since, even back then, many APS-C sized sensors gave similar results to those from their full-frame counterparts. What I was looking for was greater depth of field control in order to better isolate my subjects. This is an aspect in which full-frame cameras are superior to crop sensor ones.

At that time there were no full-frame mirrorless interchangeable cameras (Sony’s a7 was announced in late 2013), so I naturally turned to the full-frame DSLR options available.

Statue of warrior on horse, Lijiang

Canon 6D and 24-105 f/4 zoom lens.

My first full-frame camera: the Canon 6D

As it happens, both Nikon and Canon had released two very compelling full-frame cameras with an even more compelling price tag, at least compared to what these cameras used to cost until then.

The first of these two, the Nikon D600, was plagued with all sorts of QC issues, so that left the Canon 6D as the only viable option for me. When I held one in my hands at a shop, I was instantly sold. Not only the body felt robust and had well-designed physical controls, it also didn’t feel much heavier or bulkier than that of the Pentax K-5 I’d been shooting before.

That much was true, but I was forgetting the bigger weight and footprint of most full-frame lenses. It’s not that I didn’t know about it before buying the 6D, it’s just that I hadn’t experienced it first-hand during one of my trips.

Don’t get me wrong. If you don’t mind the weight and bulk, the 6D is still today a terrific travel camera. I won’t go into its specs and features because this is an almost 4 year old model and there are many reviews online.

And yet, despite its many great features I’ve only taken the 6D with me in one trip to China two years ago. Why? You guessed right, its weight and bulk.

In that trip I only took with me one lens, the all-purpose 24-105mm f/4 zoom lens. Coupled with the 6D it is a reasonably compact and light kit, as far as full-frame kits go.

I was quite pleased with the results, even if I think I didn’t get a great copy of the 24-105, but that’s another matter. But I also knew that if I wanted faster or longer lenses, the weight and footprint of my photography gear would go up significantly, and I wasn’t ready to go down that road.

See the Canon 6D in action: all of the photos in my posts about Lijiang  and the Terracotta Army were taken with the 6D.

Enter the Fujis: the Fujifilm X100

Once I got back home I started to consider if I could make the 6D my main travel camera and, try as I might, most of the time the answer was ‘no’. For starters, I could compare my shooting experience with the 6D in China with that of using the much smaller Fujifilm X100 in the same trip (all photos in my posts about the Muslim Street food market and the Great Mosque of Xi’an were taken with the X100).

Already back then, I was totally in love with the X100. The cool retro design, the easy-to-use controls, the amazing optical-electronic hybrid viewfinder and the gorgeous Fuji colours and rendition, very clean even at high ISO settings, make the X100 an excellent camera for enthusiast and professional photographers alike.

However, the X100 was the first model of the X-series released by Fuji, and it wasn’t without its quirks and annoyances. The main one for me was it could be somewhat slow to focus and sluggish in use. Luckily, Fuji has released quite a few firmware updates to address (and largely mitigate) most of those problems. Also, bear in mind that there have been two further iterations of this camera (X100S and X100T) which are, according to most reviews, much improved in most areas.

The X100 is the kind of camera that puts a smile in your face when you use it. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. It’s also quite light and compact (although not anywhere near pocketable) for an APS-C sized sensor camera, making it great for street photography, where you want to be as mobile and inconspicuous as possible.

Its main limitation as a travel camera, and it’s a serious one, is that it’s a fixed-lens camera. The 23mm (35mm equivalent) lens is fantastic, though. It’s fast (f/2) and very sharp even wide open, and thanks to the large aperture of the lens you can get quite creative with shallow depth of field in your images.

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Rome

An example of the kind of shallow depth of field the X100 can provide.

However, even the most talented photographers would miss quite a few photo opportunities in a long trip if they had to use just one focal length. However, for a short urban escape, or as a secondary camera for when you don’t want to lug around the bigger and heavier equipment, it’s just as close to perfect as they come.

See the Fuji X100 in action: in addition to the two posts mentioned above, all of the photos in my posts about Rome (one, two) were made with the X100.

The Fujifilm X-E1

The X100 and the 6D are too different to make a straight comparison of shooting experiences. However, at that time I was also able to compare the 6D’s travel performance with that of the Fujifilm X-E1. This was also one of the earliest models in the X-system and, more importantly, one of the first two interchangeable lens cameras released by Fuji in this range (along with the Xpro-1).

I bought the X-E1 back in 2013, and I have to admit it was kind of a stopgap solution while I decided if a full-frame system was right for me. As you know if you have got this far in the article, I already owned the X100 and the 6D, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to bring the latter to my forthcoming trip to India and Nepal.

My experience with the X100 had naturally inclined me towards the new interchangeable lens Fuji cameras, but I wasn’t ready to commit to the X system just yet by buying the latest model back then, the X-E2. Therefore, and despite knowing that the X-E1 shared some of the most annoying quirks with the X100 (namely, their sluggishness), I decided to buy it instead of the much more responsive X-E2 in order to save some money.

I also thought the X-E1 would help me to decide if the X system was right for me. If I could be as pleased with the X-E1 as I was with the X100, quirks and all, I was almost guaranteed to be satisfied with the newer models in the system.

Fujifilm X-E1 with 18-55mm f/2.8-4 lens mounted

Fujifilm X-E1 and XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens.

I bought the X-E1 with what was back then the kit zoom lens for the system, the 18-55mm f/2.8-4. Calling it ‘kit lens’ is quite misleading, since I have found it to be an outstanding lens. It is one half to one stop faster (depending on which end of its focal length range you look at) than your usual kit zoom lenses, and very sharp across most of the range. Coupled with the X-E1 this lens provides gorgeous IQ, and I was definitely pleased with the images I got with this kit in my trip to India and Nepal.

See the X-E1 in action: all photos in this post and this one were taken with the X-E1 / 18-55mm combo.

My first multi-month trip: decisions, decisions

It came the time to plan for my 4.5 months trip to SE Asia. This was a much harder decision because I was going to be carrying my photography gear for longer than ever before.

At first, I could see no clear winner between the full-frame 6D and the crop sensor X-E1 (or some of the later Fuji models like the X-E2 or the X-T1, if I chose to go that way).

On the one hand, I much preferred the colours, rendition, size and weight of the XE-1, but I absolutely loved the greater depth-of-field control provided by the 6D and its low-light performance, both in terms of autofocus and clean files at high ISO (although the Fujis are definitely no slouch in the second department). The 6D also had far better video-shooting capabilities than the X-E1, although I wasn’t sure how much I’d be using video anyway.

Ultimately, these were two very different cameras in many ways, so I knew that, by choosing one or the other, I’d have to make some compromises.

I gave this decision much thought. I read every lens review I could find, made an extensive list comparing features, weights and prices for each system’s lenses, and agonized over it all for several weeks.

I even briefly considered looking again into micro four thirds cameras, but that would have been madness. I had to choose between the 6D and the X-E1 and in the end, as much as I tried to reason myself into bringing the full-frame camera for what could well be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, the X-E1 prevailed.

For someone like me, so concerned with high IQ and portability, it was almost a no-brainer. I realized that, no matter which lens combination or focal length range I decided to travel with, the Canon kit was going to be 30-40% heavier, not to mention bulkier (see this for a comparison between the 6D and the soon-to-be-released Fuji X-T2 with similar zoom lenses), not to mention more expensive. In addition, I still wasn’t ready to commit to either system, so I didn’t want to invest in expensive or specialty lenses like fast primes.

Given that I definitely wanted to cover a wider focal length range, particularly at the mid-long telephoto end, the choice almost made itself.

By adding the 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 zoom lens to my equipment, I’d cover a full-frame equivalent range of 27-300mm, in a cheaper and much lighter and compact kit than the Canon alternatives would allow. And I knew already that I wouldn’t be losing much in terms of IQ, since the 55-200mm zoom, despite its modest aperture range, came heavily recommended as a surprisingly sharp, contrasty lens, something I can confirm.

Fujifilm X-E1, 18-55mm and 55-200mm zoom lenses

The 55-200mm zoom lens is not exactly small or light… until you compare it with similar full-frame lenses.

My final choice

After that long trip with the X-E1, and seeing the results I got from it, I was pretty much persuaded to commit to the X system. With the exceptions noted above (and the posts about Iceland and Penang) pretty much all of the photos in my website have been made with the X-E1. To be quite honest, there’s not much I miss in terms of performance or IQ. Especially, considering I haven’t hardly used yet any of the highly-praised Fuji prime lenses, nor the heavier, more expensive, but faster 16-55mm and 50-140mm f/2.8 zoom lenses.

For now, I have added to my set-up the 16mm f/1.4 lens. In my preliminary tests it’s looking like a cracking piece of equipment that will cover my macro, wide-angle and low-light needs (yes, it’s that versatile!).

Fujifilm XF 16mm 1.4 lens and X-E1 camera

My latest addition, the 16mm f/1.4 lens. So far it’s looking pretty impressive.

Fujifilm XF 16mm f/1.4 lens

And it’s a rather good-looking piece of equipment too!

The last thing that kept me from committing to the X system was that until this year all cameras were using the same (or very similar) 16 Mpx sensor. That megapixel count is more than enough for web display, but it can be a little short for print and stock photography, especially for images that you may have cropped a little.

That last bit of doubt has now been dissipated with the release of the X-Pro2 and, next month, the X-T2 models, both sporting a new 24 Mpx sensor with great IQ according to all reviews so far. Once the X-T2 reviews are in, I will be faced with a new decision, since these two are rather different cameras in some respects. But one of those two is definitely going to become my main travel camera.

This post is already longer than I intended, and I do hope I have not lost most of you along the way, so I won’t go into more details. I just wanted to give you an overview of how I ended up choosing a system for my travel photography, hoping that you will find useful some of the considerations and choices I made.

If you are faced with a similar decision, make sure you know your shooting preferences and general priorities, and pick the system that seems to better fit all of those. As long as your favored option doesn’t stand in the way of your creativity (and most of the currently available options won’t), you’ll be alright.

As mentioned, I will write a second post about the other photography gear I use. In the meantime, do not hesitate to ask any questions you may have, or leave a comment explaining how you made/are making your decision.

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