Photography, or rather landscape photography, strums my heartstrings like none other. A trip undertaken to indulge in one’s passion in life is often a reason for one’s soul to smile. And then why do I find myself cringing at the idea of such adventures?
The answer is relatively simple – I’m not too fond of the gear. To be more specific, I hate the weight of the gear. Is it such an unreasonable reaction? Or is it?
Perhaps, I have become accustomed to the idea of my devices — iPhone, iPad, and MacBooks — becoming more powerful and adding features. And at the same time, finding ways to trim their weight.
The sight of a backpack filled with gear – camera bodies, lenses, and other paraphilia fills me with dread. My two camera bodies — my original Leica SL and Leica SL-2s, along with three lenses — the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH (2.5 lbs), the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 Lens (4 lbs) and the Leica APO-Summicron-SL 50mm f/2 ASPH (1.67 lbs), some filters, four extra batteries, and a charger, plus a few other do-hickeys, add up to just over 20 pounds on my back. And this doesn’t include the weight of the laptop and the bag itself. A landscape photo adventure means carrying at least 30 pounds on your back. And I am not one of those who camp in the wild. Otherwise, the total weight on my would easily be over sixty pounds.
We all thought that mirrorless cameras would rescue us from the curse of the weight of big DSLRs and those big heavy lenses. Sadly, there is no getting around the laws of physics and how you translate light into art. The mirrorless lenses are getting heavier — especially when you want higher quality in your images.
I could downsize to smaller sensors – APS-C or Micro 4/3rd, but I am now spoiled: I love the Leica cameras and their glass. Everything else doesn’t stack up in terms of what I expect from my images. I wish Leica were continuing to invest in the APS-C system. The Leica TL-2 is one of the most underrated cameras ever sold by Leica. But that boat has sailed — Leica TL and CL lines are dead men walking.
On one such trip, the bag’s weight plus the tripod — that baby is big and heavy — tweaked my hip and back. I am still struggling with that injury. Knowing that Leica gear is heavy — that optical quality needs a lot of glass. So, I tried different gear — I used the Sigma APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 Lens (1.85 lbs) and Lumix S PRO 70-200mm f/4 OIS from Panasonic (2.2 lbs). I left the Summicron at home. That shaved off nearly six pounds from the lens kit alone. Better, but not enough. And the optical quality did suffer. No matter what the experts on YouTube tell you — the big size of L-mount Leica lenses is definitely worth the hefty sticker price. The other lenses are excellent — Leica lenses are exquisite.
Anyway, this left me asking myself: what can I do to make the kit less than 10 pounds (minus the weight of the laptop.) I could start by getting rid of the backpack itself. Most camera backpacks weigh between 2.5-to-5 pounds when empty.
Instead, I decided to use my Featherlight messenger bag from SDR Traveler with a Billingham camera insert. The total weight was less than two points. I decided to leave the massive SL glass. Instead, I decided to go manual with the M lenses — four of them: two Summicrons – 35 and 50 mm, an f2.8/90 mm Elmarit, and an f3.5/135 Telmar lens. The lenses together came in around 3 pounds. I carried a Leica M11 and an SL2-S (with an M-lens adapter). The total weight was about 4 pounds. Batteries, chargers, small filters, and other accessories added up to another 2 pounds. The whole package was roughly 12 pounds.
I can fit it all in my messenger or a Peak Design 10L sling and still have room for an iPad Pro and a notebook with pen, a few masks, sanitizer, and a pair of Master & Dynamic in-ear monitors. Now, this is an easy-to-carry kit — as long as there is no tripod. (I usually put my Really Right Stuff tripod in my check-in luggage and have to sling it across my body when on location.)
I tried this setup in the field a few times. I would go to the Marin Headlands, Presidio, and Ocean Beach with this set up and walk around for about an hour or two, often pausing to take photos. Sometimes I would even do long exposure seascapes, and I never found myself tiring or weighed down by the gear. It helped that I paused often enough, allowing me to catch my breath.
Interestingly, the side effect of carrying manual prime lenses was that my photography improved. I started to learn more about the lenses and the look they offered.
My composition, too, improved — I found myself getting lower to the ground and seeking unusual angles to compose minimal landscapes. What’s more, the manual lenses are perfect. They have an exceptional optical quality that allows me to shoot wide open, focus on infinity and add a special glow to the images. I have tweaked my workflow — I take the same photo in three apertures – f2, f4, and f8. I then blend them in Adobe Photoshop and sparingly use sharpness to add contrast to the image.
The biggest lesson I learned: about 75 percent of my images are captured using the 50mm Summicron. It is my favorite lens, and it is what I have used to make my favorite photos for years. I have no idea why I diverge from this focal length on long trips. Twenty percent of my photos were captured with the 90mm lens, while the remaining images utilized the wide and the telephoto lenses. In short, I could easily have two lenses and wouldn’t miss anything.
So for my next trip, I decided to take just the Leica m11 body with four lenses, one extra battery, and the Visoflex viewfinder. The M11, like most modern Leica cameras, has a USB-C port. So that allows you to charge the batteries without much fuss. I don’t need another battery. Instead, I use my phone battery pack to top it up to 25 percent capacity in less than 30 minutes. I even left the SL2-S at home. Instead, I packed the now aging TL2 body as a backup.
The camera kit choice was a huge gamble, considering my photography destination. Landscape photography is at its best in inclement weather, and the Leica M11 has no protection against harsh weather conditions, nor do the manual M lenses. In comparison, SL lenses can survive everything from sub-Saharan to Antarctic conditions. My SL has been through hell and has been a true champ. But I was willing to risk it all. I was hoping the lack of the weight of the kit would courage me to see landscapes differently and, perhaps, more creatively.
How did it go? Stay tuned!
July 15, 2022, San Francisco