A mirrorless experiment: Japan in 3 weeks, 3 cameras, 5 lenses, 2 kids, 1 wife, 1 piece of hand luggage only

Sumo wrestlers in training

Sumo training stable, Tokyo. Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm lens at 55mm, 1/125s, f/4, ISO 6400

Can you have a family holiday and still enjoy getting quality photos? This is the tale of my quest to find the perfect camera to mix family with photography - and still enjoy the lot.

I’ve been on this quest for a while. I’ve tried holidays with huge medium format camera kit, and I’ve tried just an iPhone. But do we still have to choose between quality and convenience? Or has technology come to the rescue? Can the latest, small, fast, high-quality mirrorless cameras get portfolio-grade images without the pantomime of lugging masses of gear? I decided to find the answer. As usual, it would be too late before I'd realise that I was asking the wrong question.

Fuji's advertising Evolution of Cameras

Part of Fuji's marketing campaign for their small X-series cameras

I was seduced by Fuji’s marketing image. I wanted to be the chap on the right with the spring in his step. We had three weeks’ holiday booked in Japan for the whole family, including daughters aged 9 and 10. I convinced myself that the key would be to travel light. Hand-luggage only for us, so we could change plans at a moment’s notice and zip through airports, cities and train stations without a care in the world.

It was time to go mirrorless.

Rivalling bigger digital SLR cameras for quality while packing into less than half the space, mirrorless cameras have been nibbling into DSLR sales for 5 years. Until recently, they couldn’t match DSLR focus speed, but the latest models are now breaking down even that last bastion of DSLR dominance.

To choose mirrorless cameras, plan backwards

Rather than starting with the camera you want and then getting lenses for it, with mirrorless you can go the other way around. Mirrorless bodies are so small and depreciate so quickly that you can get old camera bodies extremely cheaply and treat them as rear-end lens caps, and just forget about changing lenses.

So find your lust-after lens - be it Micro Four-Thirds, Sony, Fuji, or even a mix, and pop a cheap old body on it. And cheap bodies have been aplenty recently. I’ve seen Fuji X-E1’s free with the awesome Fuji 18-55 f/2.8-4 lens (I bought one straight away), Sony alpha 5000 for $1 with a trade-in DSLR, and Olympus E-PM2 (with the same sensor as the fabulous OMD E-M5) for AU$600 with two kit zooms (I got one of these too). These are cameras with good sensors giving detailed pictures. The camera bodies aren’t up there with the latest models, but their images are.

So what were my must-have lenses?

I shoot with zoom lenses for work, but with fixed or ‘prime’ lenses for pleasure - I enjoy being limited by their fixed view of the world. I wanted a great 21mm for landscapes, and that alone pushed me towards the Fuji X system cameras with its superb and lightweight 14mm f/2.8 (21mm equivalent).

Path through a bamboo grove, Kyoto, Japan

Path through a bamboo grove after sunset, Kyoto, Japan. Fuji X-E1, 14mm, 30 sec, f/10, ISO 400

The 35mm (50mm equivalent) for the Fuji is also extremely sharp and lightweight, but sluggish and noisy to focus, so I stuck with the 18-55 f/2.8-4 kit zoom that’s as sharp as a professional lens. I also added an old Nikon 28mm f/2 lens on a tilt adaptor for fun and low-light work. Longer telephoto lenses for Fuji are still big and heavy and a pain to lug around. So I’d need a smaller system than the Fuji to get a convenient 200mm. For this, I turned to micro four-thirds.

Micro four-thirds now offers a choice of good long lenses following the release of Olympus’ professional zooms. But at the time I was looking, there were few options. The kit lenses with the Olympus are compact and lightweight, but optically they’re rather “ordinary” as Australians say - meaning not great. I tried the Panasonic 40-100 f/2.8 (80-200 f/2.8 equivalent) and instantly fell in love with its quality, speed and size. But without a body that could focus it quickly enough to track action, I chose to compromise, stick with lightweight, and use the “ordinary” Olympus 40-150mm f/3.5 - 5.6. I'd just have to keep it away from the extremes of aperture to avoid the poorest quality.

Sunset reflections in a river

River reflections at sunset. Olympus E-PM2, 40-150 lens at 115mm, 1/250s, f/11, ISO 400

I added an iPhone 6 plus to the mix, ready to do double-duty as a photo editor using Lightroom mobile. With a huge depth of field from its 30mm-equivalent lens, unparalleled discretion (to the point of being invisible), quick-shooting and reasonable picture quality, it brought opportunities to get a different type of photo. Not quite a Fuji X100T, but in good light, it filled a chunk of that role.

Person sleeping in a museum

Sleeping in the museum. Osaka, Japan. iPhone 6 plus, 1/4 sec, f/2.2, ISO 100

With these small, lightweight cameras, I could get away with a small, lightweight tripod - lighter than I'd need for a DSLR. I used the Slick Sprint Pro II. The two camera bodies, five lenses and tripod easily fit inside a carry-on backpack, with space for a laptop, chargers, accessories... and all the clothes and stuff I'd need for a 3 week overseas holiday, including cool and warm weather gear. I had lots of room, over a kilo to spare, and no checked luggage. We were ready to go.

Two adults, two children packed to travel

Packed to travel, carry-on only. My pack (left) was an Osprey Porter (2014 model). Sue's (right) an Osprey Farpoint. We preferred the Farpoint.

Smaller cameras didn’t mean smaller impact

So did it work? My wife considers me a hopeless optimist. I started with a utopian vision of a family holiday with parents and children skipping gaily through the country, while I captured masterpieces everywhere with my new tiny unobtrusive cameras. It didn’t work quite like that.

Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto. Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm at 45mm, 1/3 sec (panned vertically), f/13, ISO 200

The problem wasn’t a technical one. Everything was easy to carry and the cameras all performed swiftly and fluidly enough. Yes, the focus could be faster on the Fuji, and yes, I did sometimes want an extra dial on the Olympus. But really, these weren’t deal-breakers. The sharpness and quality of the pictures more than met my needs for prints up to 20”. The Fuji in particular gave extremely sharp pictures. Tick - no major technical problems.

But I discovered that a camera of any size takes up the same amount of space in my brain. I’d got it all wrong. I was limited by the brain space to see things, not the luggage space to carry things.

While my head was on “family” mode, I couldn’t see pictures. The only pictures I could see were photojournalist shots of the family - those silly, quirky, unrepeatable moments of family legend that grow in value through the years.

Skyping home. Fuji X-E1, 18-55mm at 55mm, 1/40s, f/4, ISO 1600

These are shots that I treasure, and they earn me valuable matrimony points.

But the shots that feed the soul - those considered moments when you see form and light come together, those moments that hint at the joy and agony of the human condition, the shots that share your vision and emotion. I couldn’t see them. Zip, nada, nothing. I don’t want to make it sound like I get shots like that on a regular basis. But I know what it feels like to be “in the zone” looking for them. And a family holiday is about as far from that zone as I get.

In short, I needed head space to “see” photos, and that only came when I wasn’t busy having a family holiday.

So I negotiated some times to wander alone with the cameras. And that was when I started to see photos. And the cameras were a joy to use, and their quality was just fine. So it’s another big tick? Well, no.

First autumn leaves. iPhone 6 plus, 1/30s, f/2.2, ISO 64

A thought struck me while I was wandering. Because I had time and freedom and I was out just to take pictures, frankly it wouldn’t have mattered if I were lugging an enormous medium format camera with five lenses. Some local tourists were. The smallness and lightness of the mirrorless cameras wasn’t really much of an advantage at the times when I could really use them creatively. It just helped to keep the luggage allowance under control.

In an instant, the whole seductive premise of Fuji’s marketing campaign evaporated for me. Yes, the cameras are fabulous. They’re convenient. You can hike further with them, pack them more easily, they look less intimidating and you look less nerdy. They are much easier to carry, give great quality pictures, and they’re just perfect for a holiday. I strongly recommend mirrorless cameras for travel. But I was hoping for more… I was hoping the cameras would help to open up new opportunities for photos. Instead, they just made it easier for me to let my 'Mr Photo' side intrude where it didn't belong - into family time.


The verdict:

Can you have a family holiday with hand-luggage only and still bring a bunch of cameras, lenses and tripod? BIG tick. I don’t want to fly any other way. Ever.

Are mirrorless cameras an alternative to DSLRs? Conditional tick. The picture quality was fine; the Fuji was above what I hoped for, while the Olympus fell a little short (my fault - the lens I chose just wasn't up to it). Usability was adequate, but I didn’t find them fluid enough compared to the DSLRs that I’m used to. It was me and the camera having a chat, rather than me and the scene. I can use DSLRs of any brand without thinking.

Are mirrorless cameras the perfect blend of DSLR quality and iPhone fun and convenience? Complete failure for me. Worst holiday, worst photos. The gear is clearly up to it - it’s my brain that isn’t. I just can’t be a good Dad and a good contemplative photographer at the same moment. They both take too much of my limited brainpower.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that mirrorless cameras aren’t good. Quite the opposite - I’ve become a fan. The Fuji X-E1 is a keeper for me. But I’ve recalibrated my expectation of what mirrorless cameras can offer me. Compared to DSLRs, the only extra things they offer are luggage space, discretion, and freedom from needing a physio after a day’s shooting. These alone are worthwhile. But mirrorless cameras don’t help me blend photography with my life.

Tokyo skyscrapers in typhoon Phanfone

Tokyo in typhoon Phanfone. Fuji X-E1, 18-55 at 20mm, 1/60s, f/5, ISO 640

The lesson

I’ve learned more as a photographer through this total failure than I have with any other trip or job.

I’ve learned that I can’t mix-up quality contemplative photography with my role as Dad. When I tried, I failed at both and enjoyed neither. With the size, quality and speed of these new cameras, I wilfully mislead myself into thinking that I could do it. I bought Fuji’s marketing message.

But I learned that the problem for me has never really been the camera. It’s not the size and weight of the gear, not the pantomime of changing lenses, and it’s not the accessories, bags and tripods either. They’re not the problem, they’re just the most visible symptoms. The problem is space in my head, not space in my luggage or my hands.

Dorothea Lange said “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera”. To me, this is the ultimate expression of what photography is about. But now it means a bit more to me: there should be times without the camera. The biggest payoff in this art lies in the seeing, not the recording.

My version of Fuji's evolution

So what’s the next holiday? I’m going back to my old system: compartmentalisation. Most of the time I’m Dad, and I stick with the iPhone camera. But I’ll negotiate in advance some quarantined ‘alone’ times to be Mr Photo. Uninterrupted quality time with the camera when I can sit out fishing for photos, or wander hunting for them. Time when my head is free to look and see. And I now know that doesn’t matter what camera I use for that, as long as I enjoy using it, can lug it and it doesn’t get in my way.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial at dusk

Hiroshima Peace Memorial at dusk. Olympus E-PM2, 40-150 lens at 140mm, 2s, f/9, ISO 200

I’ve also learned something for my professional shooting. I’ve realised that I can only shoot well on a job because I’ve got 100% exclusive head-space for that job. All of the briefing with the client, the planning with the assistant. All that stuff frees my head to focus just on getting photos during the shoot. When I got back from the holiday, I loved my first shoot. That 100% focus on shooting felt like an indulgent luxury. To the client, it looks like the whole shoot is a breeze, but that’s only because they don’t get to peek into the planning.

The only jobs that I plan to have for life are “Dad” and “Husband”. They’re the jobs that I want to do better than any other. So I’ll stop looking for a camera that I can use for pleasure while being a Dad. It will never exist, no matter what technology brings. I’ll focus on the benefit of noticing the beauty even when I don’t have a camera to record it. It lets me sigh, lift my spirits a little, and move on.


Person taking photos at Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

An unexpected bonus of the Olympus E-PM2: my children got into taking photos.
Creativity became easy and fun with tap-to-focus, and with exposure compensation set to the rear dial.
iPhone 6 plus, 1/120s, f/2.2, ISO 32