Tonight we’re packing for a week-long charter in the Spanish Virgin Islands. Unlike weekend trips aboard Gimme Shelter where I can bring along most anything I want, space is limited.
Packing clothes is the easy part. I’m throwing in four shirts, two pairs of shorts and two swim suits. Done. However, I’ve been perplexing for more than a week as to which lenses are going into my camera bag.
Once upon a time I used to travel with just a small point and shoot camera in a dive case. Life was simple, and the photos weren’t that bad.
But through the years I suffered from gear acquisition syndrome, or GAS, as it’s known by most photographers. I kept changing camera bodies and accumulated more and more lenses until traveling with a camera ended up extremely complicated. When you have limited space, how do you decide what to bring along?
The 50mm f1.4 is my favorite lens. It’s razor sharp, it creates a nice shallow depth of field, and it’s my number one choice for video and portraits. It’s also said that a 50mm best replicates a normal human field of view.
While not my favorite, the 28mm f2 is my most used lens. Sharp as a tack and great in low light, I usually find myself needing the 28mm for landscapes, sunsets, architecture, group photos, photos of people around tables in classrooms or restaurants, and any wide angle video shot.
However, when you’re on a sail boat, you can’t back up from your subject or you’re in the water. The 28mm is just wide enough to grab the cockpit, but if I want to capture a shot with the entire mast and sails, I’ve got to swap to the ultra-wide 15mm f4.5. The 15mm is also a must for interior shots on the sailboat.
But lately all my best shots seem to be with an old 90mm f2.8. The 90mm has been giving me some really nice portraits as well as some nice landscape shots when I need to cut out the foreground.
But the 90mm just doesn’t quite get me close enough for birding or wildlife. While it tends to suffer from a bit of chromatic aberration and weighs more than all the previous lenses combined, my 135mm f2.8 can catch a nice bird shot if the bird is within throwing distance.
Of course, my new favorite lens has been the 280mm f2.8, which came with its own suitcase and weighs about ten pounds. If I’m in the very back of the boat, I can capture just a person’s face up on the bow. That might make it too long for shooting on the boat, but it’s great for shooting wildlife or people on other boats. The downside is that if I were to take it along, it would count as my carry-on luggage, and I’d have to check my real bag.
But sometimes the 280mm isn’t long enough, so I’ve got the 400mm f6.8. I carried this lens in Belize to capture exotic birds, monkeys and kinkajous. I caught a few birds, but it turns out the monkeys and kinkajous only came out in the dark, so it was a bit useless in the middle of the night.
So that’s seven prime lenses that I REALLY need to bring along.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying, hey dummy, just get a zoom lens and be done with it.
Well, I have nothing against zoom lenses. In fact, I’m definitely bringing a 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 zoom with the Sony NEX-6 since that’s the lens that fits in the dive case. It’s not as sharp as the primes, and it has some barrel distortion at the wide end of things, but if I want underwater shots, it has to be in the bag.
I’ve also tried a 70-200 f4.5 to replace my 90mm and 135mm primes. Yes, it was more versatile when it came to framing shots, but again, it just doesn’t seem as sharp as my primes. I also lose a stop of light, so I can’t shoot with it as early in the morning or as late into the evening as I can with the f2.8 lenses.
I definitely cannot pack NINE lenses, one of which has its own suitcase, for this trip. Even if I could pack all nine, there’s no way I would use all of them in a week. Yes, each lens has a purpose and is a tool for a certain type of shot, but unless I’m hired for that specific job, those lenses are nothing but a security blanket.
As photographers, our choice of lens is our choice of how we see the world.
Do you want the big picture? Shoot your trip with a wide.
Want to live in the moment with a first person view? Slap on a 50mm.
Want to focus on the details of a place or event? Pack nothing but a telephoto.
Discover what you want to say through your photographs and choose the focal length that best conveys that message.
So here’s my challenge. Next time you go out shooting, simplify everything. Decide how you want to see the world, take just one lens, and discover what kind of story you can tell.
Of course, I’ll still be taking at least three lenses to the SVIs. I mean, come on, I’ve got to get some dolphin pictures!