Travel Lighter To Shoot Smarter

For the entire history of photography, photographers have strived to make the process of capturing an image more portable and more instantaneous in order to help them take masterful photos, wherever they may go. The camera obscura (literally, “dark room”), the precursor to what we know as a camera, was actually a room with a pinhole in it. That’s as immobile as you can possibly get.

It was also the starting point for the effort to make the camera smaller and lighter, and make it easier to share photographs with clients, friends or family. First came a portable camera obscura in the form of a tent in the 1600s. Next, Thomas Wedgwood used a newly developed technique to make glass-plate images. Those were more portable, but faded quickly.

When Joseph Niépce took the first “permanent” photo, the equipment had shrunk to the size of a box. Large-format cameras gave way to medium format, to 35mm and to digital. Meanwhile, the method of giving people images changed, too. Glass plates were replaced with paper, and that was replaced with zeros and ones.

THE BENEFITS OF SMALLER

For years, I’ve tried to refine the digital workflow even further, to try to get the most power out of the least gear possible. Years ago, when I started being an adventure sports and lifestyle blogger, a normal rig would have included 10 pounds or more of pro bodies and lenses; now it’s teeny mirrorless cameras capturing photos of better quality than those early DSLRs.

When the original Sony Alpha series of full-frame cameras was released, I picked them up, and I’ve been amazed by their capabilities, and they have changed how I shoot when traveling, as well as how I’m treated by other photographers and by subjects.

In the press pits at races, I’m often looked down upon with the “my lens is bigger than your lens” attitude so prevalent in the press corp. Having a mirrorless camera makes you look like a “newb,” for sure, even when you’re media-badged and it’s a camera with a 36-megapixel sensor and an expensive, excellent Zeiss lens on the front.

I found, though, that the small size of the cameras helps more than it hurts. On a recent assignment to cover mountain biking in Colorado at the Trestle Bike Park, I took shot after shot with my diminutive camera—the mountain bikers riding through a rock garden barely noticed me. Maybe they guessed I was a tourist? The result was that I was able to get intimate, in-the-moment shots without sticking a long camera lens in their faces and making them self-conscious.

Another professional photographer friend taught me early on to look for where all the photographers are and then go somewhere else. I can’t tell you how many shots I’ve seen from bike races that look the same because the pros are huddled together at the end of the course, waiting to get the de rigueur hands-raised, winning shot.

Meanwhile, there’s a great angle farther down the course or nestled in the crook of a tree, while mountain bikers fly past. When I would take up a spot from a good vantage on the trail, they would often tense up when they saw me with a long lens, putting on fake smiles across their grimacing faces. They don’t do that with more compact gear.

While adopting a mirrorless workflow has changed how I shoot images, it has helped my travel even more. I can ride with a small camera in my pack without breaking my back on a climb, and I can stuff all of my camera gear under the seat ahead of me on a plane.

 

BEING MORE EFFICIENT

The game changer, reducing my gear needs even more, has been the iPad Air 2, which, combined with Sony’s PlayMemories app to transfer files over a WiFi hotspot, has revolutionized my image-sharing workflow.

For on-location work, I used to travel with a laptop, but now I’m using the iPad for on-location edits. My editing app of choice is Google’s Snapseed, which features selective healing tools.

I’m no longer traveling with a laptop and all the accessories, just the camera, SD cards, iPad, cords and charger. At the shoot, on a plane or back at the hotel, I’ll pick a few shots, do some simple edits, “heal” away a branch or whatever flaw I see, and upload.

Back in the studio, of course, I’ll edit with desktop tools, but I’m now able to keep a steady stream of photos going on various social networks in high-res from a full-frame camera during a shoot.

Once the files are on my iPad, I’ve set up Google to automatically upload them to the cloud, and the magic continues with GIFs being created from a series of shots automatically by Google. Often, my workflow consists of shooting a series of stills, transferring them to the iPad and then launching the Google app to find a suitable animated GIF waiting for me. I really like it when technology automatically helps me get the job done and I can share files to Instagram or Vine with ease, where short animated clips are popular.

 

MORE POWER TO YOU

With iOS, one can import RAW from a camera and use the embedded JPEG files for social media. Previous iterations of the iPad would choke on the large files from the Sony, but the A8X chip with a 64-bit architecture handles them with ease.

I expect the just announced iPad Pro to convince even more photographers to leave their laptops in the studio thanks to an even faster A9X. This is Apple’s third-generation chip with 64-bit desktop-class architecture, promising to deliver 1.8 times the CPU performance and double the graphics performance of the iPad Air 2. Add the precision of a stylus that touches a single pixel, and suddenly the drawing tablet disappears from my workflow.

What I’ve learned in my travels to media events is that the amount of fun had on a shoot is inversely proportional to the weight of camera gear transported by the photographer.

After spending a few hours shooting that Colorado rock garden, I decided to ride it myself before descending back down to the lodge. I wouldn’t have felt confidant to clear the transition between boulders with a bigger camera and lens bouncing around on my back, and I wouldn’t have tried it at all if I had had a laptop with me.

 

TO GET LIGHTER

Photographers looking to improve their workflow by ditching the gear should evaluate all the aspects of their workflow. Mirrorless bodies can replace heavier DSLR bodies (and compacts can sometimes replace mirrorless, as we cover in “Shooting Campaigns From The Saddle Of A Bike” by colleague Jeremy Dunn). Tablets replace laptops. Wireless replaces cables.

Today’s mobile photographers need to evaluate their tools and decide if they really need what they think they need. Do you really need to pack a zoom lens when a small prime will do? Do you need to bring a card reader when all you need on the road is WiFi transfer? Do you need a bulky camera bag when a svelte backpack might do the trick?

One trick I do comes from the Steve Martin movie L.A. Story. The main character’s girlfriend is a stylist who advises, “One of the first things I always teach my clients is about the point system. You should never have more than seven things on. You know, like your earrings count for two points, those daisies count for three points. But the best thing to do is, right before you go out, look in the mirror and turn around real fast, and the first thing that catches your eye, get rid of it.”

To improve your workflow by lightening your load, put everything out and examine if you need it when you travel. Find the first thing that catches your eye, and see if you can get rid of it.

Photographic workflow has come a long way since the days of glass plates and big rooms with pinholes in them. A streamlined, lightweight photographic kit not only reduces your clutter, but opens up new possibilities for capturing images without the awkwardness that a massive camera kit can cause.

To find out more about creating memorable travel photography, no matter your subject, our guide to the Fine Art of Travel Photography will help you create memorable images, with tips on capturing different subjects, using tripods and flashes, shooting at night, creating environmental portraits and more.

DL Byron is the publisher of Bike Hugger, BikeHugger.com. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @bikehugger

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