What is ultralight photography?

Although I think it would be fun to take photos from an ultralight aircraft, it sounds extremely dangerous and distracting. So, if you got here looking for how to fly a light aircraft while taking pictures, that’s not what this post is about. Although, I suppose you could look into wearing an action camera but check if it’s alright with the FAA or your version of the FAA first.

Ultralight hiking is the mindset/practice of carrying the lightest tool capable of doing the job. For example, instead of carrying a 10 lb tent, carry a a small 960g tent like the Skyscape Scout or an even lighter tarp. Skip bringing the coffee pot, instead carry instant coffee packets. Instead of hiking boots, wear light weight trail-running shoes. Eventually it starts shaving off significant weight. For some, the idea is to hike into camp and not have their feet hurt. For others it’s about being as efficient as possible, and still others, it’s about being a minimalist.

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Not clown shoes, 286g trail runners

Ask someone who has done a cross country trip on a touring motorcycle how their trip went and compare their answer with someone who did it on a street bike with no rear suspension. One of them will talk about how they felt close to nature, how they could smell the flowers and meadows as they drove along, how they could almost touch the trees. The other will talk about how sore their entire body was and how miserable of an experience it was. One brought the right lightweight tool capable of doing the job and one didn’t.

The most ultralight camera is your mind, but it’s hard to share those images. The second lightest is probably a phone. For many subjects, phones work wonderfully. Cellphone cameras are now hitting the 12-18 megapixel range and are capable of printing magazine sized prints with no issues.

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Sunset taken with cellphone

If you want to take pictures of birds in flight or take fish-eye shots, most phones can’t do it. A single-lens reflex (SLR) camera used to be about the only choice. SLR cameras were fairly bulky to accommodate film and also had a mirror in the body to reflect the image into the viewfinder. Digital SLR (DSLR) cameras got rid of the film, but the mirror stayed.

Other choices were to use a smaller rangefinder or compact digital camera if you wanted a lightweight camera. For years Leica dominated the rangefinder market. But since the rangefinder was offset from the lens, it was sometimes difficult to determine exactly what the photo would look like. With a compact digital camera you had one fixed lens, much like a cell phone.

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Nikon N90 film camera showing off it’s mirror

In 2009-2010 mirrorless digital cameras started appearing. By using the digital sensor instead of bouncing the light off the mirror and onto an optical screen, they could display the sensor’s information on an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or a back display. Manufacturers took advantage of this new path. Soon thinner, smaller and lighter cameras made their way to the market. Most used smaller sensors to save space and money.

By 2012 most major camera makers had entered the mirrorless market. With the mirror no longer taking space in the camera, the sensor could be moved forward in the body. Soon adapters started coming out for almost every lens ever made allowing them to be used with the mirrorless bodies. Of course, depending on the adapter and lens type some lenses might lose auto-focus, aperture control or even metering. But, if you have a huge library of Carl Zeiss manual focus lenses from your grandma, you might be able to use them with an adapter for your mirrorless camera. This makes the mirrorless system very attractive for some users.

One potential downside of the cropped sensors is an 11mm lens might give an equivalent view of 18mm. Some users will probably have to find a full frame mirrorless camera if they want round fish-eye shots. But, it can also work to your favor. A 200mm lens on some systems becomes equivalent to a 320mm lens (It will vary depending on sensor size) allowing the lens further reach or requiring less cropping for the camera subject.

Since mirrorless cameras are generally smaller and lighter, most of the dedicated system lenses for each system are small and light. I can fit my Canon M5, Canon EF-M 15-45 f 3.5-6.3 IS STM lens, Canon EF-M 22mm f2 lens, backup memory card and backup battery into any amusement parks ride’s storage bin with my Think Tank Mirrorless Mover 10 bag, something I couldn’t do with my DSLR. I can carry it all day with no back strain because it all weighs less than 2.5lbs. I’m pretty sure there is room to add an Canon EF-M 11-22 f4-5.6 STM or an Canon EF-M 28mm f3.5 IS STM macro lens into the bag as well.

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My larger travel bag (Lowepro Event Messenger 150) has room to fit my small bag, a laptop, a Joby GP2-E1EN tripod, a Canon EF to EF-M adapter and a longer EF telephoto zoom lens. The larger bag is still small enough to count as a personal item on flights. Before, I had to choose between bringing my camera gear or my clothing as carry-on. Now, I know my gear bag and clothing bag aren’t being thrown around, getting lost or sent to the wrong location. I don’t worry near as much about my small bag being a beacon for thieves.

To me ultralight photography isn’t about minimalism. Although parts of my brain do appreciate it. For me, it’s about the weight and size. Previously, I would have decided to leave my heavy camera bag in the hotel when I went out to dinner and I wouldn’t have brought my old bag into Disneyland because I wanted to go on rides with my family. Now I can get the photo of my family riding a roller-coaster, or a street performer or a restaurant’s hanging lanterns I would have missed in the past.  The technology has gotten to the point where lightweight mirrorless cameras are capable of doing the same job as larger and heavier DSLRs.

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Also, you can always ask the person who brought the 10 lb tripod if you can use it for a brief moment after they get their shot, they will be tired and need a rest anyways.

Canon EFM 15-45 f3.5-6.3 review

When Gene Siskel reviewed Attack of the Clones he gave it a 2/4 and mocked the romantic dialog, “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.”

When he was asked what the greatest film of all time was, he answered, “Citizen Kane…That’s the official answer.”

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Canon EF-M 15-45 f3.5-6.3

Unfortunately, the Canon EF-M 15-45 f3.5-6.3 is not the Citizen Kane of lenses, The Canon EF-M 15-45 f3.5-6.3 is a lot more like Attack of the Clones. I’m not going to search for the Blu-ray copy I received as a gift, but if it’s on TV, I might sit down and watch it. Sure, the dialog and acting can be stiff. Some of the scenes look like a cheap sets with expensive CGI backgrounds. But on the other hand, you have Yoda’s fight scene with Count Dooku. Overall, it makes for a very average film.

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Telephone Utility pole shot with Canon EF-M 15-45

It’s not a terribly fast lens at f3.5, of course it’s even worse zoomed at f6.3. The image stabilization helps a bit, but unless it’s a sunny day you will be shooting pretty close to open or at a high ISO leading to distortion/pincushioning, vigneting or lots of noise. Most of these can be fixed in Lightroom or Photoshop, but getting a blurred image because your subject moves while you are shooting at 1/15 of a second due a lack of light makes it stay in the bag more than it should. Sharpness also doesn’t seem to be it’s strong point as you might be able to see in the next image or by looking at the utility pole above.

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Canon EF-M 15-45

Even stopped it down, at the zoom end it’s still softer than I would like. However, my macro shots with it seem to usually turn out, it might still be soft, it’s just taking up the whole sensor so it’s not as noticeable.

Below are two comparison shots, the first with the Canon EF-M 15-45 f3.5-6.3, the second with the Canon EF-M 22mm f2 (review link). These are direct from camera with only cropping and lens adjustment done in Lightroom. The 15-45 was set to 21mm. If you look closely at the nearer middle support, you can see the bullet holes from when the bridge was strafed in WWII.

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15-45mm

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22mm

If you compare the railings near the top you can see a bit of softness and lack of detail in the 15-45mm vs. the 22mm. At this end of the zoom, it compares very well to the 22mm.

I had anticipated using the lens for video work with it’s built in IS and nearly silent stepper motor, but I’d have to use a selfie stick (adding more weight) to get the lens back far enough so I wasn’t just a massive head filling the frame. Walking around in the woods with a selfie stick seems like a good way to smack my camera into a tree.

One nice feature is the lens can retract bringing the front element to a fairly compact 4 cm/1.75 inches. It has a plastic body and a plastic mount,  weighing in at 130 grams. Mounted to the camera it doesn’t fit into my coat pocket nearly as nicely as the Canon EF-M 22mm f2. So it stays in the bag or in another pocket unmounted a majority of the time.

One other important factor to consider is the lens is really a 24-72mm lens due to the 1.6x effect from the camera’s APS-C sensor; which is actually a really useful range for traveling if you can only take one lens. But it doesn’t hit the sweet spot for portraits or really go wide enough for small crowded rooms. I would venture to guess it was a lens designed by marketing so it wouldn’t sabotage the Canon EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 and also be a more  affordable kit lens then the Canon EF-M 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.

If you have infinite money, I’d suggest you buy a Sony a7R II and a lot of Zeiss prime lenses and carefully select which ones you need for each trip. Also, please buy me one for recommending it to you.

If you don’t have ten thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket, you could buy a Canon M5 with the 15-45 kit. Perhaps, later on get a Canon EF-M 11-22mm f/4-5.6 and/or Canon EF-M 22mm f2. The 15-45 is the affordable jumping in kit lens, it covers a nice range, it has some softness issues but it’s small and light and it has good color and little lens ghosting. I wouldn’t plan on making posters with the any of the zoomed images, but for viewing on a 1980×1024 computer or tv screen, it will make a nice image.

Now that I think about it, maybe the Canon EF-M 15-45 f3.5-6.3 it isn’t Attack of the Clones – Maybe it’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Siskel gave that film 3 stars. Nah, overall, it’s a very average lens, but zoomed…here everything is soft and smooth.