Want to pack and travel light? I’ve just returned from a 2.5 week vacation (ie, non-photography) trip to Turkey and thought I’d review the gear I took. The photo above shows my Billingham Hadley Pro bag and all that I managed to squeeze into it as my airplane carry-on bag. Not shown are my lightweight Gitzo Traveler tripod and tiny Giottos Mini Ball Head, which fit easily in an international-size carry-on suitcase. Here’s an item-by-item review of what I took, why, and how it all worked out.
Billingham Hadley Pro Bag. This bag is expensive ($300), but I love it. It’s smaller than a messenger-style bag, lightweight and waterproof. It’s almost perfect for a mirrorless camera with a few lenses. I wear the strap across my chest, so I can carry it comfortably all day. It has a removable padded insert with three adjustable sections.To open the bag, you unhook those two leather straps from the brass studs, which is easy and quick. You don’t need to undo the buckles. And you can leave the flap folded open while you’re changing lenses, etc. It’s a tight fight, but the bag really holds all this stuff. Once I got to Turkey, I left the laptop, iPad and headphones in my hotel rooms, which gave me room for a bottle of water, sunscreen and more.
Sony NEX-6. I recently compared the NEX-6 and -7 and although I’ve owned an NEX-7 for about a year, I decided to buy a -6 for this trip. Three primary reasons: First, who really needs a 24MP sensor for a trip like this? I figured the 16MP sensor of the NEX-6 would be more than adequate. Second, I prefer the controls on the NEX-6: at least as easy to use as the -7, and much less likely to inadvertently change settings. The two knobs atop the NEX-7 are just too easy to move without realizing it. Still, I found I was accidentally changing the ISO, but almost always spotted the change in the viewfinder within one or two shots. And third, the NEX-6 has a newer autofocus system that includes 99 phase-detection sensors. This means faster autofocusing with many lenses. But not with all of them, as I’ll explain shortly.
As far as configuration, I shot about 90% in aperture-priority mode, 5% in manual, and 5% in Sony’s Intelligent Auto mode. The latter worked well when things were changing less predictably and more quickly than I could adjust the camera. I switched to manual to shoot a few panoramas in order to maintain a consistent exposure. And I also used the NEX-6’s in-camera panorama mode for a few quick, handheld panos when I couldn’t use (or didn’t have) the tripod.
But not all was perfect. After about a week, the rear LCD started to go flaky on me. It would just shut off, particularly when the camera had been on for a few minutes and when I tipped it from pointing down to horizontal. Sometimes it came back to life when I tipped it down and slowly tipped it up again, but over time that trick stopped working. A few times the camera wouldn’t shut off when I turned the power switch. Luckily, I’d bought the NEX-6 a week before the trip from B&H Photo. I emailed them from Turkey and explained the failures. They wrote back quickly: No problem. I could send it back for a replacement (or refund) once I got home. They emailed me a postage-paid UPS label, and just after I took the above photo, I packed the camera up and sent it off to them for exchange. Let’s hope the replacement doesn’t develop the same problem.
Other than this LCD problem (which I hope is unique to my copy) and slow autofocus with the 18-200mm zoom (see below), I was quite happy with the camera for this trip. [All images below were taken using the Sony NEX-6.]
18-200mm f/3.5-6.3. Just a few days before the trip, I decided to take a zoom that would go longer than the 18-55mm kit lens I bought bought with the NEX-7. I’d previously reviewed a number of E-mount lenses, and decided to go with this one. If you’re buying one, be careful. There are actually three different Sony 18-200mm E-mount zooms. One is aimed at video. Instead of a physical ring, it’s zoom-by-wire. Sort of like how you zoom with a point-and-shoot camera. It’s smooth for video, but way too slow for still-photo work. Another model is the older 18-200mm lens. It has a regular ring for zooming, but it’s a bit large and heavy. The one I purchased is the SEL18200LE. The “LE” designation is the key. This lens is somewhat smaller and lighter and designed for general-purpose and travel photography. It’s not quite as sharp as the larger/heavier one, but overall this lens was “good enough”. I’m happy with the sharpness and contrast, but f/6.3 at 200mm is awfully slow. (I’m spoiled by the gorgeous f/2.8 zooms from Nikon!) The NEX cameras are not great low-light performers, so I knew I’d only be using this lens outdoors and in daylight.
But there was one other disappointment you should be aware of. I made the decision to purchase this lens just a few days before I left for Turkey. When I checked it out on the NEX-6, the autofocus seemed much slower than the one I’d previously had for my reviews. Strange and disconcerting. It took a while, but I finally tracked down the problem. It turns out this (and most other E-mount lenses) needed a firmware upgrade in order to work with the phase-detection autofocus sensors in the NEX-6. Without the new firmware, the lenses only use the slower contrast-detection autofocus function as found on the NEX-7. I was able to upgrade all my other lenses myself, but not the SEL18200LE. This one has to be sent back to Sony for a (free) firmware upgrade. That’s right — even if you buy a new lens today, you have to immediately send it back to Sony in order to get fast autofocus. And believe me, you want the fast autofocus. But for me? There was no way to get the lens back in time for the trip. So I took it as-is, and I really did notice the difference. This lens was on the camera more than half the time, and I frequently found myself waiting as the contrast-detection system hunted for focus. Yes, I did lose a few shots. Like the camera that’s going back to B&H, this lens is now on its way to Sony. While the upgrade is free, I had to pay the postage and insurance to send it to them.
Zeiss 24mm f/1.8. There’s not much to say about this lens. It’s gorgeous. And expensive ($1,100). Fast, sharp and contrasty. The only weakness is that is has no image stabilization, but I never missed that. Every time I went inside a building, I pulled off the 18-200mm superzoom and popped this baby on. I almost always shot between f/1.8 and f/2.8 with great results. I know people who have decided to buy an NEX camera just so they could use this lens.
10-18mm f/4. When this lens was released late last year, I think it surprised almost everyone. Equivalent to 15-27mm on a full-frame body and in a relatively tiny package, it comes remarkably close to the famous Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. It has become a favorite of mine, right behind the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 and it turned out to be excellent for all the historic sites and ruins in Turkey as well as for architectural shots.
50mm f/1.8. I’ve had this lens for about a year. I don’t use it much, and I didn’t use it much in Turkey. But it came in handy in two low-light/night situations: interiors when the Zeiss 24mm was too wide, and when shooting some multi-exposure nighttime panoramas. It’s the one lens I could have left at home and still survived.
49mm & 62mm Circular Polarizers. I only used the 62mm on the 18-200m and the 10-28mm. One thing to be aware of: When adjusting the polarizer to darken the sky, for example, the electronic viewfinder (EVF) keeps correcting the exposure, making it difficult to judge the filter’s effect. I found a workaround, however. I hit the autoexposure-lock (AEL) button, rotated the polarizer as desired, then hit the AEL button again to release the lock.
Opteka IR Remote. Neither the NEX-6 nor -7 have a wired shutter-release option, so I used this third-party remote when shooting long exposures from the tripod. The NEX-6 does have a three-exposure bracketing mode, which I used for HDR shots, but unfortunately the bracketing and remote modes are mutually exclusive. That means I had to shoot my long-exposure HDR images in manual mode: changing the shutter speed by hand and using the IR remote instead of the built-in bracketing. This is something I hope Sony improves with a future firmware upgrade, but I’m not holding my breath.
(3) Spare Batteries. Battery life on the NEX-6 is awful. Even with the auto-review feature turned off and every other power-saving mode set at the most conservative values, I went through more than two fully charged batteries nearly every day. I wouldn’t go on a trip like this with any less than three batteries, and when I couldn’t always charge them all at night, I was glad to have the fourth one.
Lens Pen, Cloth, Cleaning Fluid and Blower. Just one comment on the dust blower. Rather than travel with a bulky Giottos Rocket blower, I carry a smaller infant ear syringe. Works great. Less filling.
Black Rapid Wrist Strap. With the camera-bag strap already over my shoulder and across my chest, I don’t like to have yet another strap around my neck. Given that the NEX-6 is relatively light, I thought I’d try using a wrist strap. This one worked well. At first I was put off by the bold branding on the wide strap, but I soon understood the benefits of that width, so I forgave them the advertising. It’s a lot more comfortable than a lanyard. But with the large 18-200mm zoom attached to the camera, it does get heavy after a few hours. In the end, I’m not sure it’s really any more comfortable than a neck strap, but I’d probably use the wrist strap again.
4-port USB AC Charger. I like this little power supply for traveling. It’s compact and it supplies 0.5A to all four connectors, so it can deliver maximum charging power to four USB devices at once.
iPad 2 w/USB Cable. We had pretty good free WiFi aboard the Turkish Airlines 777 from LAX to and from Istanbul and free WiFi in almost every hotel. I was really glad to have the iPad, although I do plan to upgrade to the next-version iPad Mini when one is available in order to travel even lighter.
13″ Mac Air and Power Supply. I was on the fence about taking a full laptop, but in the end I’m glad I did. The clincher for me was that it actually fit into the Billingham Hadley Pro bag. Tight, but it works. This allowed me to use my familiar tools, Photoshop and Lightroom, instead of depending upon the iPad for processing. I only processed a few dozen (out of 4,200) images while traveling, but it did the job.
Canon S95. This was my backup camera, and my wife used it throughout the trip. It’s two generations old, but still makes great photographs.
SD Card Wallet. I took five 32GB cards and used three of them. I shot RAW+JPEG, thinking I might want to read the JPEGs directly on the iPad, but never did so. Given that I had the laptop, I could have just shot in RAW mode. I used Bluetooth to transfer processed images from my laptop to the iPad.
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7B Noise-Canceling Headphones w/Airplane Adaptor. Sometimes it seems like everyone else has Bose headsets on airplanes, but I refuse to pay the inflated prices for their overrated stuff. I’ve had this headset for years and love it.
Passport, Notebook& Pen. The Billingham bag has a flat full-width zippered pocket on the back. Great for keeping a passport, airline tickets, etc.
Prescription Sunglasses. Just an aside: For those of you who wear glasses, don’t make the mistake I did a few years ago. Don’t get polarized sunglasses. You’ll go nuts with the polarization of LCD displays and EVFs. And if you’re using a DSLR, where you’re actually looking through the lens, you won’t be able to see what you’re shooting when using a polarizing filter.
Summary. So what would I do differently? I’m still not convinced the 18-200mm superzoom was the best option. As I mentioned, it’s large and heavy, at least as compared to the diminutive NEX-6 body. And since I could only use it outdoors and in the daylight, I’ll consider other options next time. Specifically, I might take a superzoom point-and-shoot instead. Something like a Panasonic ZS30 or a Canon SX500, each of which weigh less than the Sony 18-200mm zoom lens alone. This would also eliminate most of my lens changes, which I found myself doing all day long. And I might even leave the 50mm f/1.8 at home.