Travel photography is an important topic for photo agencies. In a nutshell, this type of photography involves the production of images – landscapes, cities, landmarks and points of interests – on location at various travel destinations. These images should awaken in the viewer the desire to travel, what’s also commonly known today as wanderlust. In this realm of photography lies the main focus of my craft as a photographer.
In order to do travel photography effectively, some preparations must be taken in advance to achieve the best end result. This includes researching the locations that you plan to visit, but you should also inform yourself about the lighting conditions at the location in advance. Here’s a little tip on how to do this: larger cities often have public webcams which you can access on the internet. If you only intend to photograph a few landmarks or places in a city, then it’s worth it to check the webcams to see if you have an unobstructed view or if there’s remodelling work going on. There are few things more aggravating for a travel photographer than to arrive at a site, only to find that the landmark you wanted to shoot is surrounded by a construction site fence or otherwise hidden from view. It’s also a good idea to take a look at the event calendar for the city. And last but not least, put yourself in touch with the editors at your photo agency to discuss the production. At Westend61 they are immensely helpful in this respect.
The trekking plan
Once you’ve put together a list of the locations you want to see, it’s often helpful to create a ‘trekking plan’ to get the most out of the trip. Remember, you only have a limited amount of time. I personally use Google Maps and mark the places I want to shoot at with pins. As my next step, I determine the best timing sequence for my shooting itinerary. Lighting conditions and questions, such as “where do I want to be at the blue hour?” are planned into my schedule. There are really good apps for this, for example, http://photoephemeris.com/ , http://www.ozpda.com/applications.php or http://www.sunsurveyor.com/ , which really make a travel photographer’s work easier.
Here’s a sample ‘trekking plan’ for a production which I did for Westend61. My destination was Berlin.
I was able to complete the production within a day, including travel to and from the location, and I was on foot for about nine hours. I brought my tried and true DSLR with me, plus a selection of lenses, accessories and a tripod. Altogether my equipment weighed 8-9 kilos.
Believe me when I say that after the day was over, I was sitting on the train returning to Hamburg, completely worn out with an aching back. During the ride, I began to think about whether there was an alternative way to equip myself for such productions, one that would be lighter without compromising on quality.
Micro Four Thirds
While talking with the head of Westend61, Gerard Staufer, he began to tell me about Micro Four Thirds cameras (MFT or M 4/3), a system which features cameras and objectives that are much smaller and lighter than conventional DSLR systems. Although at first I was a bit sceptical – I had been, after all, for more than a decade very satisfied with my DSLR setups – I began to learn more about the MFT system and read many reviews and in blogs about it.
I was finally won over and decided to get the Olympus system (there are also similar mirrorless systems available from Sony, Fuji, Panasonic and other manufacturers). I replicated my whole DSLR system with the Olympus OMD EM-1 and the accompanying lenses. The biggest difference which was immediately noticeable was the smaller size and lighter weight:
The absence of the mirror allows for a very compact and lightweight construction. Because the sensor is smaller, the lenses are also smaller and lighter than those of a DSLR camera.
When the next photo trip came up, I naturally took the MFT system along to test it out. This time the destination was Munich.
Here you see some images of my last Munich journey. The skyline with the Church of Our Lady and two important landmarks: the Victory Gate and the city hall.
The technical quality of the photographs is exactly as good as those from my DSLR – I can’t detect a difference. The MFT systems have been on the market for several years now, and the technical improvements are remarkable. Colour accuracy, noise behaviour and image sharpness are very good, chromatic aberration and other image flaws rarely occur. With the EVF (electronic viewfinder) I can blend in real-time information (histogram, horizon, grid display, peaking, focal plane, etc.) when I want to generate a WYSIWYG image (“What You See Is What You Get”). This is not possible with a traditional DSLR optical viewer, and access to these settings on the fly makes shooting the photographs much easier. In addition, with the EVF you can still see your subjects even in bad lighting conditions, which isn’t possible with an optical viewer.
Revolutionary image stabilization
Another feature of many MFT cameras is the built-in IBIS system (in-body image stabilization). This stabilization mechanism is a technological revolution, allowing the photographer to take handheld shots, which with a DSLR (without image stabilization lenses) wouldn’t be possible without a tripod. This stabilization, together with the previously mentioned ability to also photograph with the EVF in bad lighting conditions, makes it possible to shoot photos such as these …
… WITHOUT a tripod! My own limit is ¼ second with a normal lens and ½ second shooting hand-held with a wide-angle lens, and I manage 1 second if I can use something to brace myself and steady the camera.
There’s another aspect of MFT cameras that sometimes comes in handy: Because they are so small they aren’t as noticeable as a larger DLSR. This can be an advantage when shooting at places where there are a lot of people out and about, because you won’t have so many faces staring directly into the camera. Plus, their compactness tends to draw less attention to the value of the equipment.
Other technical gadgets, which you need to purchase separately for a DSLR camera (for example, to set up a WiFi connection to a smart phone or tablet) come as standard equipment with a MTF camera.
But all that glitters is not gold. The autofocus speed of the DSLRs is much higher, making the use of MFT cameras difficult when photographing fast moving subjects. Besides that, the system also uses up quite a lot of energy, so it’s necessary to carry one or more batteries with you.
And even the MFT chip can’t (yet) transcend the laws of physics: it’s still not possible to achieve the shallow depth of field which you expect from a DSLR system (especially in full-frame). So that’s an important reason for portrait photographers to continue using DSLR.
The Bottom Line
A year after entering the world of Micro Four Thirds photography, I can say that I haven’t regretted it, quite the contrary: it has literally eased the burden of my photography. No more backaches after a long photo tour and on location I’m able to be more flexible. It’s also had a positive effect on my creativity, because when your body is tired, your mind is not going to be overflowing with creative ideas.
Will I completely give up DSLR equipment in the future? No. For studio work and certain other types of photography (portrait, sport, concept) shooting with DSLR still has a few advantages over MFT. With that being said, for travel photography my camera of choice will always be the MFT, because the lighter the baggage, the better the trip.