Last summer (2019) my family made our first trip overseas to Europe. We spent eight days in Avila, Spain taking part in the first Avila International Music Festival, then we ventured over to the south of France for another eight days in Provence, and we finished our trip with three days in Paris. Landscape photography was not my main objective on this trip-I did not intentionally wake up early for sunrise a single time. What was important to me, however, was having the ability capture beautiful, excellent quality, memorable photos of my family visiting these historic places and landmarks without having to lug around a tremendous amount of gear.
My Sony APS-C mirrorless kit proved to be fantastic. With the collapsible 16-50 mm kit lens mounted on the a6500*, I had a lightweight and unobtrusive package that I could sling over my shoulder and carry all day. I saw a lot of other tourists carrying full-frame DSLRs, and even a few with large zooms (you know, the big white ones with the red stripe), and every time I was thankful that I was not carrying one of those.
For this trip, I limited myself to taking only what would fit in my regular camera bag which mainly meant that I could only pack three or four lenses. (I took four, but only used three of them.) In addition, I had two camera bodies because I wanted to have my regular Sony a6500 and my infrared-converted a6000. The infrared camera also necessitated bringing lens filters that otherwise could have been left at home. I brought my regular tripod with me-it stayed in my suitcase for most of the trip although I did use it a couple of times.
Here’s a list of what I took and how it proved most useful:
Sony a6500 APS-C Mirrorless Camera (or any a6000 series): APS-C mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than their full-frame or DSLR counterparts and provide exceptional image quality. Apart from the small size, the features I found most useful were:
- In-body image stabilization (IBIS) for handheld shooting in low light;
- Silent shutter which allowed me to take hundreds of bracketed shots inside the cathedrals without being obnoxious;
- ISO invariance which allowed me to shoot handheld at low ISO (refer to my other post for more info); and
- Articulating screen so that I could hold the camera up high over my head to get above the crowds or minimize architectural distortion.
Sony 16-50 mm Kit Lens: This lens is definitely underrated. When powered off, it is very small and makes for a compact package mounted on the a6500. I have absolutely no complaints about image quality or sharpness, particularly in the context of a lightweight lens for walking around all day.
Samyang 12 mm f/2 Manual Wide-Angle Lens: After this trip, I consider this to be an absolutely essential lens for travel. I don’t use the wide angle all that much for my regular landscape photography (typically 16 mm is wide enough), but it is my standard lens for astrophotography. I found it to be fantastic for indoor shooting in the buildings we visited. These were typically very dark inside, so having a wide aperture was helpful. Manual focus was also useful. I usually set the aperture and pre-focus on the lens, and with the camera in manual mode, set the ISO to 400 and shutter speed to 1/40 second. Then I could walk around the building focusing on composition without worrying about exposure settings (see comments above regarding ISO invariance and IBIS).
Sony 18-105 mm f/4 Zoom Lens: I used this lens almost exclusively on the infrared camera. For most tourist situations, I felt like it was too big and heavy to carry comfortably, and I didn’t typically find that I needed longer reach than the 50 mm of the kit lens. The exception was for recording my daughters’ violin performances at the music festival where the relatively fast f/4 aperture and longer zoom were essential.
Sony Zeiss 24 mm f/1.8: This one stayed in the hotel room safe for the entire trip-it should have stayed at home. While this is my favorite lens to use indoors at home, I just didn’t find much use for it on the trip.
Google Pixel 3a Smartphone: Probably any smartphone camera released in the last couple of years would suffice for quick snapshots in good light while traveling, but I found the Night Sight feature of the Pixel to be incredibly useful, and not just for night shots. I used it whenever I wanted to get good image quality in “lower” light settings, such as inside cathedrals or twilight outdoors. I even used the Pixel instead of the Sony a lot of times when indoors because I knew Night Sight would give me a better quality image that would not require as much post-processing work. Night Sight combines multiple exposures (and does a lot of other processing) to produce an image with very little noise and good detail, and it can produce images as DNG raw files for additional post-processing. The Pixel was also fantastic for the times I didn’t want to carry the larger camera but still wanted to take good photos, like when walking to dinner. This is the first phone camera I’ve had that can produce images good enough to replace my actual camera in a lot of situations.
Tenba Messenger DNA 11 Bag: This bag is the perfect size for my uses. I was able to fit all of the above gear (except the tripod) in the bag along with a water bottle, but it was small enough to put inside my suitcase on the days we were changing destinations. I’ve also been using it for more than three years and it still looks like new.
While I am currently devoted to Sony cameras and would not hesitate to recommend them, the larger point I want to make is that a compact mirrorless camera is a fantastic travel photography tool. With larger APS-C and full frame sensors, these cameras provide exceptional image quality, but they are much smaller than equivalent DSLRs.
*The Sony a6500 was released in the fall of 2016; I bought mine pre-owned in May 2018. In 2019, Sony released the a6100/a6400/a6600 as the successors to the earlier a6x00 models. To my knowledge, everything in this post applies equally if not moreso to these newer cameras. Note that only the a6500 and a6600 have IBIS, and not all of the models have an articulating screen or silent shutter. But in terms of image quality, they are all excellent.