Lighten Up

Clean and simple, with one of my favorite lenses, the 80mm f/2.8 Nikkor, on the F4. Sometimes all you need is a colorful wall or background to simulate a studio environment.
Photos © 2001, Jack Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved

This column was going to be about something else. The idea was originally to talk about day trips in Europe, but as I started choosing photos to illustrate the subject and taking notes on the equipment I'd used, it occurred to me how few lenses I really shoot with these days--and for that matter, how few camera bodies I carry compared to the way things used to be.

Years ago I'd pack four camera bodies--one each devoted to a film type: slow color; faster color; black and white; infrared or super-fast, high-grain color. Lenses? Everything from the 16mm to the 500mm mirror. And that's just the Nikon 35mm gear. I'd often pack another bag with my Mamiya RZ and sneak in the Hasselblad XPan panorama camera, a Polaroid, and a point-and-shoot. Whew!

What do you prefer, front view or back? I took 'em both, and in black and white because it seemed to best capture the feeling of what was a gray day in London. (F4, 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor zoom.)

But a funny thing happened on my way to 40-something years old. With each trip, the gear got lighter. Maybe as I got more experienced I got more confident in my choices and the fact that I could get the pictures with fewer lenses; or I got smarter and knew what worked for me; or, more likely, I just got older and didn't want to carry those heavy bags anymore.

A Day's Kit
Today my walking around kit is, at maximum load, two bodies and four lenses. And often I'll set out with one body in hand and two lenses in a fanny pack for a day's wandering around the city I'm visiting. With two lenses, maybe three, I've got it covered. My choice for that glass is, first, my favorite lens, a 50mm f/1.4--it's sharp, fast and I like how it sees the scene. Next, 35-70mm and 80-200mm zooms. To vary things, I might carry the 50 with a 20mm or 28mm wide angle and an 80mm medium tele. Everything else--from the 16mm to the 500 mirror--is in the category of specialty lens. If I'm out for the day with one body and a 50mm lens and see something that deserves long glass, well, I'm usually in a city for several days and I'll go back with the 80-200mm tomorrow.

Back view.

Film Swapping
It was a change in my thinking about film that was the first step on the road to a lighter load. Rather than assign each film type to its own camera body--something I did so I could switch from color to black and white to infrared without worrying about not finishing the roll--today I dump all the film, without its box and cassette, into a Zip-Lok bag. I'll load it into the camera as I need it and usually shoot it all. And if I feel the need to switch film before the roll is completely shot, well, I'll just rewind it and be satisfied with the six, eight, or 14 photos I've got on that roll.

No need to shoot the landmark straight on. Everyone knows what the Eiffel Tower looks like, so place a person in the scene for interest. I shot this on infrared film and overexposed to blow out the highlights. (F4 and a 28mm Nikkor lens.)

How much film, all told? I shoot a lot more than most people. For an average overseas trip I'll shoot 30-50 rolls a day. I've shot as many as 100, as few as 10, but if you're a serious photographer, I'd say 20 rolls a day would be my minimum recommendation. These days I'm shooting Kodak 100 VS--very saturated indeed, and I like how it treats skin tones--and Fuji Velvia--even more saturated than the Kodak film, it provides eye-popping color. I also carry Kodak Infrared 200, Provia 400, and Ektachrome 200--which I've been known to push to as much as 3200 in my reach for the look of grain.

And while I always take a tripod along when I travel--a carbon-fiber Gitzo, lightweight and not inexpensive--I don't take it with me for every day's excursion. I try to plan for the dusk and evening or interior photos that'll require it. Add a handful of filters--a few warming and a polarizer--and that's it.

The results of my paring down the traveling kit are the opposite of what you might expect. Rather than limiting me, I think the lighter kit has made my images more powerful. There's a lot to be said for discipline, and fewer choices mean I'm able to concentrate on the art and science at hand rather than on choosing among the formats, film, and lenses I've brought along. With too many choices, I suspect I tended to over-think some situations and lose the subject in the process.

Now, I have friends who tell me they go out with a simple rangefinder camera--a Leica or a Hasselblad XPan, for instance--for an afternoon's shooting. I don't know if I'm ready for that on an overseas trip, but I get the idea.