Well, is this a first-world problem or what! Not only are we talking about going on vacation, but also about the “problem” of choosing between multiple cameras for said vacation. To be fair, I’m sure it’s a decision which many 35mmc readers have faced (this is a site about cameras and photography, after all). But still, a little perspective never hurt anyone!
Until about ten years ago, I only had one digital camera at a time, so I never even faced this dilemma. Then my dad gave me his Minolta SLR; now I had two cameras – film and digital. In the last four years, I’ve acquired a few more. And that means I have to make choices, which is especially tricky when it comes to holidays.
In this post I’m not going to try and come up with any universal answer (the universal answer, as we all know, is 42). Rather, I want to talk about what I took for a recent trip to Mumbai and Goa, how I weighed my camera options in light of my own priorities, and how I feel about my choices in hindsight. I’m also curious to know how you weigh your options, and if your approach is similar or different to mine.
What’s so special about holidays?
Holidays are interesting in that there are good reasons both for taking lots of gear, and for taking very little. For most of us, holidays only come once in a while, and often present a wide range of possibilities. As such, there’s a temptation to pack everything: DSLR for versatility, film cameras because we love film, Velvia for sunsets, Delta 3200 for nightclubs, wide-angle lenses for scenery, telephoto for wildlife, and so on.
But unless you have your own caravan (or at least a car), the take-it-all approach is not really feasible. Besides, holiday photo-ops feel unique, but the truth is that good photo-ops in our own towns and neighbourhoods are often just as unique and unrepeatable. Elliott Erwitt’s iconic photo of a bulldog on a porch was made just around the corner from his studio in Manhattan. He didn’t even have his camera; he borrowed his friend Hiroji Kubota’s Leica and quickly shot over half a roll of Tri-X.
What if I could somehow carry a vast amount of gear to cover every shooting possibility? In reality it would probably just get in the way. Carrying and using a lot of gear is both a physical and a mental challenge – the paradox of choice.
Marc Riboud had just one camera, one lens and a single roll of film when he made his unforgettable photograph of a painter on the Eiffel Tower. This is how he tells the story:
In 1953, I leave Lyon for Paris. These are my first steps in the capital, and in photography. With my Leica and only one film, I’m strolling near the Eiffel Tower, which is being repainted. I suddenly notice these paintbrush-bearing acrobats, and wishing to see them more closely … I [walk] up the tower… Hanging onto the little spiral suitcase with only my 50mm lens, I can’t take close-ups or wide-angle shots, so I have only one choice left: that of the right moment. These constraints, these limited means, were my good luck… That painter was joyful, singing as he worked. I think photographers should behave like him – he was free and carried little equipment.”
I haven’t quite reached Riboud’s level of simplicity, but when I go on holiday, I’ve found that my personal limit is two cameras and a phone. Feeling free, carrying little equipment.
So what kind of cameras? For me, it depends on the kind of holiday, what I expect to see and do, and how I’m feeling in the moment. Sometimes I’ll just take one or two film cameras; sometimes one film and one digital.
And which cameras specifically? With digital, the choice is easier since I only have two:
- DSLR: Nikon D5200
- Small underwater camera: Nikon Coolpix AW120.
Goa is on India’s western coast, and we had booked a villa by the beach, so I thought the underwater camera – recently acquired from eBay for just £39 – would be more fun than the DSLR.
As for film, I have nine(!) cameras, all functional. In my head, I divide them into three categories:
- Workhorse cameras: Minolta X-370s (35mm SLR), Leica M3 (35mm rangefinder) and Minolta Autocord (medium-format TLR).
- Indulgence cameras: Cameras which I don’t use regularly, but which I keep around because they are fun, unique or have sentimental value (I have three of these).
- Superfluous cameras: Cameras which I intend to donate or sell (I have three of these too).
I also have half a dozen homemade pinhole cameras, but I have never taken one of these on holiday (come to think of it, maybe I should!)
Of the workhorse cameras, I love the Autocord, but I find it heavier and slower to use than a 35mm camera, and as such, less well-suited for taking on holiday. It’s also a fixed-lens camera, whereas I have multiple lenses for both the Leica (28–50–135) and the Minolta (20–28–50).
Of the latter two, I chose the Minolta for a technical (and somewhat boring) reason. On my trip I planned to try out a black-and-white reversal (slide) film. The Leica M3, as you may know, does not have a light-meter. Normally I just guess the exposure, or sometimes use a phone app. These slapdash methods work well enough with negative film, but slide film is less forgiving. The Minolta on the other hand has a very reliable built-in meter, and after more than a decade of regular use, I have a good understanding of when to trust it (most of the time), and when I need to compensate.
Hindsight: the bad news
So how did it go? I’ll give you the bad news first.
Compared to most other film photographers I’ve spoken to, I shoot quite slowly. On a ten-day trip, I finished three rolls of film – and I ruined one of those through a stupid processing error.
I’ve seen social-media posts by people saying they poured fixer before developer by mistake, and while I was obviously sympathetic, deep down I always thought, “This would never happen to me.” I’m quite organised you see, and I label and store my chemicals nicely. But of course, this only works if you label them correctly in the first place. Turns out I had mislabelled my fixer as “ID-11 stock”, so my first roll of film (Ilford HP5) came out completely blank.
I didn’t even realise until I was done processing. The moment when you open the developing tank and get your first glimpse of the freshly-developed film is always special. In this case, the film had nothing on it at all. It took a few moments to sink in – a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach as I realised what had happened, and what I had lost: photos from my 34-hour cross-country train journey with friends, walks by the beach in Mumbai, churches and bars in Old Goa. Truth be told, I am still not fully over it.
Digital has its risks too; for example, memory cards can fail or get misplaced. But film – even though I’ve shot hundreds of rolls – always feels like more of a gamble. If the camera is malfunctioning, or a photo is improperly focused or exposed, you often don’t find out until it’s too late. And even if film is exposed properly, it can be subsequently ruined by extreme temperatures, airport X-rays, or – as in my case – by development errors. For holidays, if you choose the “safer” option of digital, I don’t blame you. But I like film – and film cameras – too much, so I will persevere. I just need to be more careful when labelling my chemicals.
Did I regret not bringing my DSLR? Just once, when my friend and I went to a flamingo sanctuary in Mumbai. This was an impromptu trip; had I known, I might have got my DSLR and tele lens just for this. In the event, I did the best I could with my Nikon Coolpix underwater camera, with its tiny sensor and 24-120 mm (full-frame equivalent) lens.
The first one is a wide shot, but the detail is not as good as what I’d get with a DSLR. Still, you get a sense of the sheer mind-boggling number of flamingoes. This year, around 54,000 flamingoes came to the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary – a river of pink amidst the blue seawater.
The real limitation was at the tele end. For my DSLR, I have a zoom lens which tops out at 300mm (full-frame equivalent); it would have been perfect for capturing these magnificent birds in flight.
Hindsight: the good news
Otherwise, I was happy with my equipment choices. Let’s talk about the three cameras in turn.
My phone, a Google Pixel 2, is quite old, but I really like its camera (I’m sure the newer models have even better cameras, but I am slow to upgrade). Since I got the Pixel, sometimes I’ll just rely on my phone camera, leaving my DSLR at home which frees me to take film cameras instead.
For certain things, the DSLR is obviously superior: wildlife, portraits and low-light photography, to name a few. Well… I say low-light, but in Night Mode, and if there are no fast-moving objects, the Pixel 2 is surprisingly good. Here’s a Night Mode photo of Mumbai, taken from a monorail station.
I edited the photo a bit; you can see a comparison below. The original photo had some distortion – see how the buildings at either end are splayed outwards – as well as a bluish cast. I fixed these in GIMP, which is free and open-source. Editing took about five minutes (I assume most readers know more about digital editing than I do, but if you want more details, feel free to ask in comments).
In general, the brighter the light, the less editing is required. 15 years ago, I would not have believed that you can get this sort of quality from a phone.
My phone even doubles up as a stereoscopic (3D) camera. I wrote another article which goes into more detail about my recent interest in stereoscopic photography, but in short, stereo photos are created by taking two photos from slightly different angles, and presenting a different channel to each eye.
Here’s an anaglyph version of the same image; this one looks 3D when viewed through red-blue glasses.
“Real photographers” may scoff, but I like my phone camera. For wide-angle shots, the Pixel 2 – outdated as it is – might actually outperform the Nikon Coolpix AW120. But the Coolpix can do one thing which my phone can’t: go in the water. The camera is not just “splashproof”, but waterproof down to 18m. I didn’t do any diving or snorkeling on this trip, but I did use it to take photos in the sea.
Okay, the last photo is technically not in the sea. But even on the beach, using a normal camera can be stressful – protecting it from sand, making sure your hands are dry, and so forth. It was nice being able to use the Coolpix without fear. Wet hands? No problem. Sand on the lens? Just wash it off.
35mm film camera
Earlier in this article I talked about the roll which I ruined through a processing error. That was Ilford HP5, which I thought I can develop in my sleep. The other two rolls were Argenti Scale-X, which I processed as B&W slides using the Adox Scala B&W Reversal Kit. This is far trickier than processing B&W negatives, but ironically, these turned out completely fine.
I have three lenses for my Minolta SLR:
The 50/1.7 is the one I use most (my grandfather got it from Japan in the early 1980s). It’s a great lens – small and versatile, with a sharp but gentle rendering.
Our Goa holiday group was quite big – a dozen adults (my friends from college and some of their partners) plus four babies. I love taking pictures of babies and children. They are fun to interact with, and not too camera-conscious. I used the 28mm lens more than I usually do – getting up close and into the thick of the action.
The 20mm is an impact lens. I use it sparingly, but especially up close, ultra-wides have a certain look which you simply can’t get with longer lenses. They take a bit of getting used to, but they’re super fun to use.
So that was my last holiday! The next one I’m sure will be different, and I will have to go through the decision process all over again. I’m tempted to try something new, like taking my Minolta Autocord TLR (which I generally use in my own city) or a homemade pinhole camera. If you have more than one camera, how do you decide? Do you take just 1–2 cameras like me, or do you pack more? Have you ever regretted bringing too little or too much?
Thanks for reading. For more of my work – including but not limited to holiday photos – please feel free to check out my Instagram.