Perspectives

“Paris is a museum,” said the Paris-based filmmaker I’d been chatting with over beers.

Look beyond the monuments, museums, tourist traps, and other obvious must-sees and there’s vibrant everyday life. It may be a museum, but the people behind the scenes are fascinating to watch. It’s all about choosing your perspective.

Le Petit Parisien

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 18.3 mm f2.8 (28 mm 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.

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.