One Camera, One Lens – The Evolution

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Canon 5D and 24-105L

Around three years ago I lugged with me the following whenever I went on a day trip or vacation with the family:

– Canon 5D Mk2
– Canon 24-105L
– Zeiss 35mm
– Zeiss 50mm
– Zeiss 21mm
– Canon 430EX
– Filters
– Ipad

I had on hand – other than for wildlife photography – a lens for most occasions: landscape, portrait (the 24-105 was pretty good for this), walk around, architectural. All were catered for with some of the best glass that money can buy along with a fantastic body incorporating the a full frame sensor in the shape of the 5D Mk2.

What was not to like? Well, as I have mentioned in previous a blog, the biggest downside was the weight and bulk.

We would regularly take two trips to Canada and the States each year and from where we live this would invariably involve two or three flights. This big bag of camera gear had to be lugged on and off various aircraft with three tired children to manage and cajole with their assorted paraphernalia.

And then it got to the point where I didn’t want to carry this bag with me at all and so the decision was made was to downsize but get the best “small” camera I could that would rival the 5D’s full frame sensor and the quality of the Zeiss optics.

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The M9 followed the 5D Mk2

The way to go? Leica (of course!). So I assembled a system around the Leica M9 with a 50mm Summicron, 35mm Summarit and 24mm Elmar. This little lot in small Billingham bag came to around half of the weight of the Canon/Zeiss kit in a much smaller bag. Oh and probably cost around twice as much! initial review of this camera is here: http://wp.me/p1hetB-as

I used the M9 for around 6 months. From an image quality perspective I will still say that in the right conditions it gave me the best “look” I have ever had from my photographs. Sharpness, contrast and colour were all superb. The Leica glass really lived up to it’s legendary reputation.

The M9 with it’s quirks – average sensor, poor screen, poor high ISO to name a few – was fun to use and really reconnected me with photography. It slowed me down and made me think a little more about shots.

But then the frustrations started. Whilst the size of the camera and the associated lenses meant I could take it anywhere I realised that I was missing more shots than I was getting. As I said above the majority of my photography takes place whilst vacationing with the family. It is one thing taking your time for a landscape shot but quite another taking pictures of the children playing, running or even moving.

Also, If the light wasn’t right getting focus was a pain using the rangefinder.

Also, when changing lenses the M9 seemed to attract more dust and dirt on the sensor than any other camera I had owned (it doesn’t have any form of dust reduction system) and post processing to remove the spots and splotches was becoming a chore.

So, despite the superb image quality and lightweight yet another system’s flaws start to outweigh the benefits……

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Fuji X-E1 and 18-55 Lens

And so the M9 went and the 5D Mk3 was ushered in with history quickly repeating itself over size and weight. Eventually it was replaced by the Fujifilm X-E1 and 18-55 lens a review of which can be read here: http://wp.me/p1hetB-eY

The system fit the bill in terms of size and weight and now, owning one camera with one lens (albeit a zoom lens which offers a degree of flexibility) I am liberated.

Everything is simplified. No longer is there a requirement to consider which lens for which shot. With the Fuji 18-55 ( 27-82mm 35mm equivalent) lens, I have found is good enough for 99% of the situations I find myself in and the images I want to capture. From landscapes to portraits to cityscapes I have never felt short changed.

Admittedly it is not appropriate for sports or wildlife but for most other situations it is fantastic.

No more worry about dust or dirt on the sensor. Not happy with the field of view? Be more creative and find an interesting new one.

The other issue I had with all the lenses I used to own is that I was always looking for the next one to buy. One that could fit into a small segment of photography be it macro, portrait, wildlife, super wide angle etc. GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is a very expensive condition that always makes you feel as though you need that next fix, err lens.

Now I am happy with the one lens – if it doesn’t do exactly what I want I consider a way round it. I have enjoyed photography more than ever and for me, the sheer enjoy,eat of capturing an image you are later proud of, is what it is all about.

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Conquering Taft Point – Well Sort Of…….

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Taft Point – The View

After an hour and a half of pushing, pulling, straining and heaving I felt as though I had done an extensive work out at the gym. My arms and shoulders ached from the exertion and I greedily drew in deep lung fulls of the thin mountain air. According to the sign to my right we had come half way along the trail in twice as long as the guidebook suggested. After a few mouthfuls of water I pushed on.

What now seems in hindsight a slightly foolish idea, I had taken it upon myself to push my 10 year old son in his wheelchair along a trail situated at the side of Glacier Point Road to Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, California. My boy has Cerebral Palsy which affects the movement in his arms and legs and consequently his only form of mobility is his wheelchair.

The guide book I had read back at the hotel that morning over breakfast suggested that it was an “easy” hike. Easy on two feet maybe but taking myself and the four wheels of a wheelchair was an entirely different story. I soon discovered that the trail was more challenging than I had thought.

This is where most guidebooks fall down in my opinion. They seem to be written from the perspective of the single traveller or a small group. There is little account taken for those whose mobility maybe limited or the brave family dragging their gaggle of children through the backwoods of America.

Admittedly we weren’t in the back woods – there are too many cafes, souvenir shops and visitors centres to give you the feeling you really were in the middle of nowhere.  But it strikes me that this kind of information would more than useful – if only so that you know it is possible to traverse a trail with a pushchair for example. It certainly would have been useful for us in any case.

My wife and two other children aged 11 and 3 pushed on acting as reconnaissance to any new and interesting barriers that we may come across. They would shout back about what to watch for and then stand there at what seemed some impassable point on the path.

“You’ll never get through this part” they would say.

“Just watch me” I would retort.

“Are you sure, Dad” my son would ask quietly. “No,” I would admit next to his ear so the other’s couldn’t hear. “But let’s give it a try, shall we?” He would smile, the cue that he was happy to let his crazy father bounce him over and through the next obstacle.

There was a good deal of flat ground that meandered through stunning trees and calm wild flower filled meadows, however, the large rocks and boulders that occasionally filled the path forced us to take stock and work out a route over and  around these obstacles and this slowed us considerably. Once the chosen route was decided we bumped and wobbled our way through, on occasion scraping away at the metal of the wheels of the wheelchair.

One particularly awkward challenge was stream with it’s steep embankments to traverse. The wheelchair tipped this way and that at precarious angles. The cool waters of the stream eased my and weary feet as we paddled through. My son to his eternal credit gave only words of encouragement as he tenaciously gripped the arms of his wheelchair.

Occasionally, fellow hikers would stroll past do a “double take” and offer help out what most have looked like a slightly deranged father and family needlessly putting themselves through hell. Especially as some of them will have been aware that Glacier Point, with it flat easily accessible tarmacked paths, café selling food and cool drinks and safely walled look out points, was only two or three miles up the road. I guess it pays to read the guidebook a little more carefully in future and plan these things with a little more thoroughness.

We were reliably informed that the effort was going to be worth it and were complimented more than once for our tenacity. I have always had the philosophy that I will not let the wheels of my son’s wheelchair stand in our way on vacation. I have always found that the extra effort always pays off.

After the arduous and strangely fulfilling upper and lower body work out of the trail we eventually arrived at the top of a hill, the midday sun beating down on us. We looked down to where the path opened out to a huge flat area and then elevated towards the “point” where a lone piece of railing was the only structure that stood between you and a 3,000 feet drop.

With a tinge of disappointment, I looked at the steepness of the path and the way it twisted and turned horribly and realised that I had come as far as I could do. I was confident of getting him and his wheels down to “the Point”, however, in the thin air at the 7,800 feet elevation and the heat of the sun I was less than confident of getting in back to where we now stood, never mind the car.

At that point, a quick decision was made and I reversed him under the shade of a tree for shelter and, after enjoying a hard earned bottle of water, I descended the trail, camera in hand to go and see what all the fuss was about. My wife agreed that we would take it in turns to go and investigate the famed vista and waited with the children whilst I disappeared.

The view from the point is nothing short of spectacular. It reminded me of the feeling I had the first time that I went to the Grand Canyon and looked out at that enormous chasm in the earth. Nothing prepared me (or could have done for that matter) for the sheer scale and majesty of that sight. The sheer size and vastness of the canyon as the red and orange stone drops away from you is awe inspiring.

But in some ways it is also a little surreal because it feels almost unreal when considering the statistics of the canyon. The Colorado River looks like a small stream but it is a mile down in the canyon and has an average width or around 300 feet.  The length of the canyon is around 280 miles which is 80 miles further than where I live in the North of England to London. That’s a 4 hour drive or 2 hour train journey away. It is around 18 miles wide rim to rim – Yosemite Valley itself by comparison seems small at only 8 miles long. To me these distances are difficult to assimilate whilst you stand and take in the majesty of this natural wonder.

On the other hand Yosemite Valley and Taft Point is not on such a huge scale. The reality of the fact that you are standing, precariously in some ways on a 3,000 ft high block of granite seem to hit home that much harder. I have to confess that I have never been afraid of heights and yet when I peered over the edge and saw that there was nothing between me and a long, long fall during which time I would have plenty of opportunity to empty my lungs of scream after scream before my body splattered into the rock. With the Grand Canyon I felt there was a crumb of comfort in that if you fell there would a ledge or two that would break your fall and possibly save you from certain death. With Taft Point you know that there would be no second chances.

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Stunning Yosemite

And so it was that I found myself gripping onto the rail near the edge slightly harder than I would normally and marvelling at the incredible scale of the valley and breath-taking vista. The number of superlatives to describe this place quickly ran dry. I turned to see in the distance my family, tiny dots on the mountain side where they awaited my return. I stuck a hand up to wave and watched them wave back. It was sad that I hadn’t been able to take my son all the way down to the edge, especially after coming so far. I was also aware though that if my boy had been able to make it, so would my 3 year old and I know that I would have had to have maintained a vice like grip on her as she would surely have been too tempted to peer over the edge.

Looking over the valley, I imagined John Muir, back pack filled with bread, tea and a blanket as his only provisions, standing at this point and resolving to protect this area for all time. He spent a great deal of his life investigating the valley and it’s surroundings recording and publishing his findings in the hope that he could inspire people to see this natural wonder and nature itself in a new light and not just as an opportunity for profit and gain. He battled to have the park protected as he watched the lumber companies and farmers slowly erode the lowlands surrounding the valley destroying the meadows with their abundance of wild flowers.

He managed to convince no less than an American President – Theodore Roosevelt – to segregate the valley and surrounding area and make it one of America’s first national parks thereby inspiring a change in attitude and philosophy that generated the National Park system that is in existence today.

At this height you look down on the granite monolith that is El Capitan. Down to the valley to the Merced river below. The railing at the end just doesn’t seem substantial enough and one could imagine a gust of wind could lift you from the lofty perch and deposit you over the edge in an instant.

I quickly absorbed and photographed as much as I could and then followed the path back to where the family had been patiently waiting. Whilst my wife and elder daughter made their way down toward the Point to experience the natural wonder for themselves, I gave my son a full debrief in as much detail as possible and showed him the photographs. Today this was the best that I could do.

Tomorrow, would bring new challenges. Everest anyone?