On Traveling Without The Big DSLR Camera

I own a Nikon D200 with some extra stuff, including a 28-300 telephoto lens that weighs a ton. I have a Panasonic Lumix (that’s what I used to shoot this picture of dusk in the Serengeti), and an iPhone. I have a video camera, too (the only thing on my list of gear that I did not pay for – I got the video camera in a promotional scheme two years ago). I’ve traveled with all of this stuff and used it all, though I’ll confess that I never did fall in love with the video camera.

I have some formal training in photography, some hardcore classroom time combined with some unofficial apprenticeship with an architectural photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am no stranger to the darkroom (oh, I just gave away my age). I used to shoot, develop and print my own work, though I don’t miss the darkroom. Digital photography has made me love the art even more, though I decried the clumsiness of my first 3-megapixel camera – the metering was bad, the battery life atrocious and the optics, second rate. Digital gear has eaten film now; the quality is just as good and the optics in my phone are 97 times better than that of my first digital camera.

And while I’m not sorry I hauled my full kit to Antarctica and the Serengeti, I am dead tired of carrying all that weight around. A day behind that heavy SLR with the telephoto, and my arm aches. I hate the hassle of carrying around a pack full of lenses, batteries, maybe a flash, a tripod, and whatever extras I’ve packed in preparation. Sometimes, a full pack of photo gear is what keeps me from traveling carryon only. And there’s the added concern about the value of all that gear – a need to keep it safe and under my watch.

I’ve been shooting with my iPhone 4s for about six months now, and with a Panasonic Lumix for maybe two years. When I headed overseas last month, I decided to make a leap of faith and leave behind the big guns and travel with gear that I could fit in my pockets or the little Swiss Army shoulder bag I like to carry when I travel.

%Gallery-160397%Did I miss having my DSLR? Not at all. I felt surprisingly light and taking pictures was easy – easier than on any trip I’ve ever taken. I split my use about 50/50 between my new Lumix and my iPhone, and the work I got was as good as on any trip that I took with my DSLR. Here are some of the reasons I loved shooting light:

  • Low light: I don’t own the lenses for my DSLR to shoot in low light without a tripod. Night shots – I could never get them right before. My phone and my pocket camera handle low light much better than my SLR.
  • Point-and-shoot: Good photography is about the eye, not about the gear, and my point-and-shoot lets me do just that, fast. Read a little Cartier-Bresson on the decisive moment, and you’ll see what I mean.
  • Super smart settings: Yes, you can tweak the settings like crazy, but you can also shoot in auto. Go ahead, call me lazy – whatever. I’m using the brain inside the camera to enable my eye. I like being able to do that.
  • Display over viewfinder: With my SLR, I was always stopping, steadying, framing – with a camera stuck to my face. It interrupts the conversation. Shooting from my solar plexus allows me to watch and listen and shoot at the same time.
  • Ease of access and use: My camera was always right there, not zipped away so it was padded and protected, so I simply shot more pictures. It fits in my back pocket; it’s about the same size as my wallet, so it’s easy to take anywhere.
  • Serious zoom: The 20x optical zoom on my Lumix is rated as equivalent to a 35-500 lens. That’s some range for optics that fit in a camera that’s the size of my wallet and weighs about the same.

The downside?

  • Bright light: It’s hard to see the viewfinder in brightly lit settings. At a few locations, I wished for a viewfinder and this camera does not have one.
  • The menus are insane: Sure, I’ll figure them out. But I know all the controls and what they do on my DSLR and I can tweak them fast. The navigation system viewfinder-based pocket cameras are basically a computer and you navigate through it as such. This is a learning curve issue that I’m sure I’ll master.

Lots of companies are making higher-end pocket cameras – my favorite is Lumix by Panasonic, but Olympus makes them, and Nikon and Canon too, as well as a number of other electronics brands. We’ve upgraded the Lumix three times at our house – not because it was broken, but because we wanted the improvements. I can’t speak to the other brands, I simply don’t know them, but I can say that yes, it is possible to get thoroughly satisfying shots with only a pocket camera. I loved traveling that much lighter, and what did I sacrifice? Not much. Not much at all.