The Perfect Travel Camera

Let’s get this out of the way: There is no one, perfect travel camera. There’s only the best camera that works for you. Or in this case, the one that works best for me. First, some history.

I’ve shot with SLRs and DSLRs for about 40 years. In 2010 I traveled to the UK with a bag of Nikon bodies and lenses. I was shooting for a client, but I also carried that gear as I walked around London on my own. The images were good; the experience was miserable.

Three years later I was packing for a trip to Paris and looked at my big bag of gear. I remembered lugging it around for two weeks. Instead, I packed my Ricoh GR and two spare batteries.

The Ricoh GR, if you’re not familiar with it, is a wonder camera. For some people. It has an APS-C sensor (the same size you’ll find in many DSLRs), and a range of features that allow users to focus on making great images. The lens is a fixed 28 mm f2.8 (35mm equivalent) that encourages getting closer to subjects. It also fits in a pocket. And that’s all I carried for a week and a half in Paris. You can see a few of the results below.

Since then, I’ve flirted with other cameras. My Fuji X100T often travels with me (and is a much better camera in marginal light), but I keep gravitating back to the Ricoh GR that’s been in my collection for five years. Here’s why:

  • It’s small and lightweight. The advantages of this are obvious.
  • That lens. It’s better than a camera at this price point has any right to be–sharp, with little fall off or softening at the edges.
  • Snap focus. If you’re familiar with zone focusing, this is essentially the same thing. When walking around I leave the focus point set at 1.5 meters (and aperture at f5.6); when I’m ready to snap a street pic the camera is already focused. There’s no lag. If I need to change the focus point I can simply press the AFL button on the back and it autofocuses.
  • Superb JPEGs. The internal processor is excellent, and I don’t have to deal with large RAW files. The resolution is high enough to print high quality 11″x14″s.
  • Custom settings. I have three custom settings that are changed on the top dial: Street color, street black and white, and square format black and white. I can switch between them quickly and without a lot of thought.
  • It’s unobtrusive. People around me often don’t notice it, and don’t have the same reaction to it that they would have to a larger, more “serious” camera.
  • It’s relatively inexpensive. I carry mine on my bike, and in situations where it might get beaten up. But it’s not so expensive that I worry about it. That way I can stick to the first maxim of cameras: The best camera is the one you have with you.

The GR has always been a cult camera, so much so that Ricoh periodically sighs (as much as a corporation can) and admits that there are enough photographers in love with the GR that it deserves an upgrade. The latest version is similar to mine, other than the addition of WiFi connectivity. But, there’s a Ricoh GRIII due early 2019 that’s going to be smaller and have a higher resolution sensor. The perfect camera, for me, might become more perfect.

Somme 1916

During our recent trip to France our son, Eli, and I were discussing our shared interest in visiting WWI monuments. That led, in turn, to a day trip to the area north of Amiens, where the Battle of the Somme took place. I asked my friend Murray, who recently wrote about notable books about the Great War, for advice on things to see. These are my impressions, shared with him, and with you.

Murray,

I can’t get that Fussell quote you shared out of my mind:

“The idea of mass graves seems to pertain especially to the twentieth century. There are 2500 British war cemeteries in France and Belgium. The sophisticated observer of the rows of headstones will do well to suspect that very often the bodies below are buried in mass graves with the headstones disposed in rows to convey the illusion that each soldier has his individual space.”

The conflict along the Somme River in 1916 appears, to this lay historian, a savage lesson in what happens when tactics fail to keep pace with exponential growth of the killing power of armaments. Eli and I walked through the trenches at the Newfoundland Memorial in Beaumont-Hamel; at some distance we could make out the high point where German machine guns were sited. The Danger Tree–and there’s an understated name–sat in the middle of no man’s land, marking one of the deadliest places on the battlefield. 

July 1, 1916 at 8:45 a.m. the Newfoundland Regiment’s 22 officers and 758 soldiers climbed out of their rear position trenches and moved (ran, walked, marched?) toward the German machine guns that looked down on them. Within half an hour only 110 of them, none of them officers, were left alive. Only 68 made roll call the following day.

Preserved trenches at Beaumont-Hamel

The Newfoundland government and the families of those who died were deeply shaken. But the overall death toll of the Battle of the Somme, 1.2 million combatants by some accounts, challenges me to put those 670 lives in proper context.

Two years ago I stood on Omaha Beach, Pont du Hoc and the cemetery at Colleville sur Mer and felt their historical weight. There’s a belief that good and evil clashed on those Normandy beaches in 1941; the neat headstones at the American cemetery tell a powerful story of noble sacrifice that changed the arc of history for the better. I expected to see something in Somme that would trigger the same sentiments.

No, the Great War was the outcome of regional squabbles and awkward alliances, and those who fought for the Commonwealth–roused by Kitchener’s appeals–were young, inexperienced and motivated by love for King and country. Their officers were arrogant and dismissive of their foe. Yet despite soldiers’ cynicism about their leaders and fate they dutifully swarmed out of their trenches to be cut down, day after day.

Farmland near the Somme River

They mostly died in fields that had been farmland until shells began falling. I stood in some of those fields on a wet, cold December Tuesday and tried to imagine how a 16 year old, brought to that place by his patriotic fervor, would have felt as he crawled out of a muddy trench and began moving toward the German lines, knowing the odds of making it through weren’t on his side. Then I walked through several of those 2,500 cemeteries Fussell wrote of, with their perfectly straight ranks of headstones masking the necessity of mass graves for those million-plus souls who died, and felt the weight of their sacrifice for a cause that was at once unnecessary and hugely consequential to the future of Europe. 

French cemetery for UK combatants, near Amiens

Murray, a side note: Eli and I made a point of visiting the field where Manfred von Richthofen crash landed his triplane after being–pick your side of the argument–shot down by Roy Brown or hit by Australian anti aircraft fire. It’s adjacent to the brickworks in Saint Colette which stood at the time of his death. There’s a metaphor in this, somewhere–arguably the most legendary combatant from among the 70 million who fought, meeting his end in a wholly unremarkable field, in a vague, contested way, witnessed only by a few. 

Saint Colette brickworks

One more thought about the Somme: It may be a trick of memory, but we’ve talked at length about Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and how the Great War blotted out most of a generation of great writers and poets. There isn’t a museum or monument to their memory, at least to my knowledge, but there should be.

Update (12/20/19): Here is a gallery of photographs from our day at Somme.

Food Matters: Paris 2018

Following a recent trip to Paris, I have some new-to-us recommendations to add to my previous list:

  • Inexpensive and great seems like an oxymoron when it comes to Paris, but Raviolis Nord Est is on point. This hole in the wall near Les Halles offers salads and Chinese dumplings. Beth and I ate a filling, satisfying lunch for about 20 Euros. I recommend the octopus salad and pork and shrimp dumplings, fried. (1st arrondissement)
  • There’s a lot of buzz around Pink Mamma in Pigalle. They don’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait. After two hours cooling our heels with wonderful cocktails in their speakeasy (go down the stairs, then through the meat locker and a door marked “no entry”), we were led past an American woman throwing a tantrum (“I simply must eat here before leaving Paris!”) to our date with some burrata and a kilogram tomahawk ribeye. The food: excellent. The service: Warm and casual. The vibe: Way more hip than us. It made for a fun night. I’d go back. (9th arrondissement)
  • Get in line at Breihz Café. Be patient. Then enjoy savory and sweet Breton crepes. Have a mug of cider from a long list of good options. You won’t be disappointed. (3rd arrondissement, though there are also outposts in Odeon, Japan and Brittany)
  • We have it on good authority that Le Village is one of the last of the true Montmartre bars. I can’t tell you about the food, though the menu looked enticing. Instead, we had a beer (me, a Chouffe) and a cocktail (Beth, a mojito, which is in fashion) and spent a couple hours talking with a French filmmaker we met there. It’s an unpretentious place filled with locals. (18th arrondissment)
  • We liked Pizza Caratello so much we went twice. Don’t be fooled by the name–they offer much more than pizza. The first visit we started with a large serving of Burrata, then I had ravioli with figs and foie gras. The second visit I went for pizza (and more burrata to start); a Napolitana with fat anchovies and capers. Reservations aren’t necessary, though you might have a brief wait. Be patient, the food and hospitality are worth it. (18th arrondissement)
  • Huiteries Regis has been on my list for years, and I finally was able to have lunch there. Unless you love oysters, skip ahead. There’s not much else on offer. I had the menu #2: Six each of two varieties of plump oysters that taste like the sea, a glass of Sancerre and a coffee. If you do love oysters, it’s completely worth trekking to Saint Germain and waiting outside for one of the few tables. (6th arrondissement)
  • Hardware Société gives Hollybelly a run for my favorite brunch spot in Paris. It’s the Parisian outpost of a popular Melbourne restaurant. Long lines are the norm, though we lucked into getting a table right away. The coffee is sublime, and the mushrooms and poached eggs are perfect brunch fare. (18th arrondissement)
  • Overlook the sketchy neighborhood around Gare du Nord, and make a reservation at Chez Michel. It offers old school French cuisine and a deep wine list. I had fish soup with chorizo, croutons and parmesian; duck with mushrooms; and Paris Brest for desert. It’s my new standard for traditional French bistros. (10th arrondissment)

Reservations are still the norm, but English speaking diners will be glad to know many restaurants now offer online reservations. 

Tips: Better travel photos

No names, but I once sat through a slideshow of someone’s travels that included 300 images. About 50 in, I realized they had dumped their memory card and included every, single shot including those that were out of focus or blurred. It made for a long evening. 

When we remember our travels, we focus more on that experience than how we represent it to others. So we can gloss over too many pictures that show little or have technical problems. What’s in our minds overrides what’s on a screen.

A gilet jaune protestor at Place de Republique, during the winter 2018 protests in Paris.

So how do you level up your travel photography game? Here’s how:

  1. Start with the audience’s point of view. Remember, they may not have been there. Your photos are telling a story about the place and your experience. Let that guide you when you’re shooting and selecting photos.
  2. When shooting, find an interesting point of view. This usually means getting closer to your subject than you think you should. If you’re shooting with a camera with zoom lens, don’t use the reach of your telephoto as a crutch. Get close, then get even closer. Shoot the entire scene that’s in front of you to provide context, then focus on details that help tell a richer story.
  3. Edit. Ruthlessly. For me, this is a multistep process. First, I weed out shots with technical problems. Second, I quickly pick the frames that are worth considering. Third, I take a harder look at the first frames I’ve selected, and weed those down into a smaller set. Finally, I do some minor editing (color correction, cropping, etc.) and then take a last look at the set. Anything that doesn’t seem necessary goes into the reject pile. By the time I’m finished, fewer than 5% of the shots I took remain to be shown or published online. Often, the number is far smaller.
  4. Organize your shots. I like to present photos by theme, so they make sense to people who see them. 

What about gear? I’ll touch on that later, but for now think about process. How you work matters more than the tools you use.